At Dolly Sods, beware the plethodon nettingi

November 25, 2007|By LYN WIDMYER

This is a public service announcement for anyone going backpacking in West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. Beware of black bears, plethodon nettingi and the occasional unexploded bomb.

Dolly Sods Wilderness Area is located in Monongahela National Forest and includes more than 10,000 acres. The forest that once covered the area is now gone, logged to death in the 1800s. The high mountain area never recovered. Today the vegetation consists of stunted spruce trees, rocky plains and lots of blueberries. The unusual terrain, over 28 miles of trails and breathtaking views of distant mountains, attract thousands of visitors every year.

I like to imagine Dolly Sods got its name from a local heroine, fighting loggers intent on denuding the mountain top in accord with West Virginia's 19th century state slogan: "Open for Environmental Devastation." The truth is less romantic. Dolly is just a misspelling of Dalhlie, the name of the family who once owned the land. Sods are open grass areas or fields once grazed by cattle.


This fall, my husband and I visited Dolly Sods for the first time. We joined friends who convinced us to try backpacking. I actually have a back pack frame, purchased from that well known wilderness outfitter, Kmart, on Earth Day 1970. I never used it and now I am approaching the age when unloading my luggage at a motel is a major outdoor challenge. Still, I have always wanted to try backpacking, so this excursion with experienced hikers seemed the perfect opportunity.

Two warnings greeted us at the trail head kiosk.

The first said black bears were more aggressive than usual, attacking garbage bags, coolers and backpacks (sometimes with the hiker attached). "CAMPING IN TENTS IS NOT RECOMMENDED!" the warning screamed. Normally, the threat of being eaten alive would be enough for me to turn around and find the nearest Motel 6. But not this year. It had taken me 30 years to finally embark on a backpacking adventure and I had no intentions of quitting.

The second warning concerned unexploded bombs. Dolly Sods was a practice artillery range during World War II. When the Army left the scene, they also left lots of UXO (bomb parlance for unexploded ordnance). The first ordnance clearance was in 1950. Ten years ago, a more thorough sweep focused on all the trails and the campgrounds. Finding a live weapon now is as unlikely as seeing the elusive plethodon nettingi or Cheat Mountain Salamander.

The salamander, found only in West Virginia, was added to the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1989 in the Ugly as Sin category. Unlike the funny green gecko that sells auto insurance, the Cheat Mountain salamander is black or dark brown, looks like a 4-inch slug with short legs and only comes out at night.

After backpacking into our campsite, I was pretty tired and retired early. As I lay in my sleeping bag, enveloped in the silence of the forest, I wondered what would be worse: Coming across an unexploded bomb? Or seeing a black bear tearing through our trash?

Scary thoughts, but not my worst fear.

I can deal with bears and mortar shells, but please, I prayed, don't let me wake up in the middle of the night with a Cheat Mountain Salamander in my sleeping bag.

Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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