2017-02-22 / Crossroads Weekend

Taking the Chief's Challenge

State park hiking program back for another year
Kate Shunney

I’m prepared this time. The boots and trail maps are already in the car, and the water bottle is full.

For the second year in a row, I’ve signed up for a yearlong hiking challenge in West Virginia State Parks. Chief of Parks Sam England issued a challenge in 2016 to hike 100 miles in our state parks. It was called the Chief’s Challenge, and I took it. (You can take it, too!)

When I signed up, I thought it would get our family outdoors and keep active. And it caught me at a moment when I was up for a challenge.

By the time 2016 came to a close, my boots had carried me 107 miles along the trails, paths, ridges, mountaintops and roads of our state’s public parks.

Some of those miles – maybe 15 of them -- I hiked with my sons, husband, nieces, brother, father, sisters in law, friends and park naturalists.

But most of them I spent trudging along by myself in a wide expanse of quiet. The swish of my boots through leaves and my heavy breathing kept me company as I lumbered up hills and trails. On windy days, the rush of air through the forest sounded like a wave approaching. Trees squeaked against each other.  Limbs cracked and thumped to the forest floor.

My mind wandered, as I picked my way between rocks and around mountain laurel, to thought of dozens of friends and family – some of them long gone.

I thought of friends who would know what kind of mushroom was growing out of a dead oak stump, or what critter had chewed a tree to bits. I thought of my grandparents, who had loved Cacapon State Park long before I was born. A dear friend, who had hiked with me in many states for 25 years, also tagged along in spirit. When my sons weren’t on the trail ahead of me, throwing pinecones and acorns at each other, they were in my thoughts.

That’s the thing about hiking – it gives you time to think. And to look.

I would have reached my 100 mile goal a lot quicker if I hadn’t stopped to take so many pictures. But forests and mountains are full of wonders. It doesn’t do to just walk past nature’s great gifts. So I broke my stride hundreds of times to inspect holes in tree trunks, tiny mahogany acorns, fresh green moss. Even though I hiked several trails over and over again, they looked different in morning and afternoon light, and as the seasons changed.

That’s the thing about hiking – there’s always something new to see.

My boots carried me to a few state parks in pursuit of my 100 miles -- Canaan Valley in Tucker County, Lost River in Hardy County, Coopers Rock in Preston County and Stonewall Jackson in Lewis County. Berkeley Springs State Park accounted for a mile and a half of my journey. That took several laps. But more than 80 of my miles were hiked in Cacapon State Park, our own 6,000-acre gem. It’s pretty much my park, I decided.

All of the marked trails in Cacapon have been pounded by my boots -- the Ridge, Laurel, Cabin Loop, Central, Tower, Piney Ridge and the mighty Ziler trails. I have my favorites, depending on the weather and time of day. All are well-marked, thanks to the Chain Gang that volunteers each spring to touch up the paint spots and clear dead trees from the paths.

One of Cacapon State Park's cabins, below the Central Trail.One of Cacapon State Park's cabins, below the Central Trail.Some trails are nice and flat, but most have a good bit of up and down to them, making each hike its own fitness package. On lazy days, I avoided the ups. But they have their rewards – views of the valleys on either side, different plants than on the valley floor, better breezes.

  Of all the delights in Cacapon, some of my favorites    are, ironically, manmade. They appeared in unlikely places, a mile or two into a trail when I thought I had really left the modern world behind. Up I’d come over a rise, grabbing onto a tree trunk for support, and see ahead a set of stone steps built into the hill.

Those CCC boys of the 1930s. Not only did they hew logs to make the fine cabins halfway up Cacapon Mountain and build a massive stone dam for the lake, those fellows also made it easier to navigate the Central Trail where it got rocky and twisty. All over the park, deep in the woods, are those little gifts – a small stone dam across Indian Run, stepping stones to reach an upper trail, a footbridge foundation tucked beside a stream.

Their handiwork and talent built Cacapon State Park, and many of West Virginia’s other treasured public spaces. Their work still stands, 80 years later. It is a reminder of our country’s decision to invest in our parks and public spaces at a time when money could have been spent elsewhere. What the CCC boys built with their hands serves us still. The parks they built preserve swaths of natural beauty that anyone can enjoy for free. The value of that preservation and their labor grows with each passing year. Because of it, my children can play in the parks their great-grandparents treasured.

My “victory hike” across the 100-mile mark in mid-December took me up the northern section of the Ziler Loop to reach the top of Cacapon Mountain. Down the southern section of the Ziler Loop, my energy flagged and I plopped down in the leaves for a rest. I could finish another day, I thought. It was cold and windy and my legs were tired.  But my oldest son had made me a sign that said “100 miles.”  I wanted to take a picture of myself with that sign, somewhere along the trail.

Take that, Chief of Parks -- I met your Challenge!Take that, Chief of Parks -- I met your Challenge!I thought of all the people I know and love who had fallen ill or been injured in 2016, the people who had struggled to get back to health, or had lost that struggle. They would have liked to be well enough to take a walk in the woods, I thought. So I got up and kept going.

That’s the thing about going for a hike. It makes you want to keep going. I did, and this year I will.




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living out here year round i

living out here year round i can attest to the beauty and experience that lies in our neck of the woods. so the challenge is really a blessing as well as healthy exercise