Photo compliments of Wikipedia
My Dad was a union coal miner and, along with every other United Mine Workers of America member in West Virginia, received two weeks of summer vacation each year. During that time, the coal mines in southwestern West Virginia closed for the time period outlined in the bargaining agreement, and many of the miners and their families to head off for their annual vacations.
A favorite location of mine was a campground along the banks of the Cranberry River, not far from Richwood. Located in Pocahontas County and part of the Monongahela National Forest, Cranberry River is a tributary of the Gauley River and is known for excellent trout fishing and the botanically unique area known as Cranberry Glades. I really never cared much for fishing, but I loved the area’s unspoiled natural beauty and the chance to be someplace different, if only for a few days.
To protect the river and surrounding areas, the National Forest Service gated several miles of a gravel road that lead from the Glades to Richwood. A campground at the down-stream gate provided camp sites with few amenities; rings for campfires and cooking, composting restrooms, and two hand pumps provided drinking water for the entire campground. Even with these rustic conditions, this campground was the first choice for nearly everyone and, knowing that sites would fill up fast, my family would leave for Cranberry as soon as Dad got home from working his last shift, making our best possible time to the campground.
After camp was set up and chores were done, I was free to roam about the area as much as I wanted. While most of my family would go off for a day of fishing, I would jump on my bike and spend hours riding along the gravel road upstream to the Glades.
Officially known as the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, the Glades are a cluster of peat bogs found at the head waters of Cranberry River which serve as the southern-most home to several plants typically found in the cranberry bogs of Canada. Arriving by bike, I would hike along a series of trails and boardwalks, exploring the Glades and marvel at strange plants like the purple pitcher plants and sundews that fed on insects. Lots of plants grew there that I would never see at my Logan County home, like wild cranberry bushes and skunk cabbages. The Glades are higher in elevation and a little cooler that most of the surrounding area, so I would enjoy the welcomed relief from summer’s heat after several miles of riding my bike – uphill!
My bike ride back to camp was made easier by the nearly continuous downhill grade. The forest was well known as a game refuge, so I was always on the lookout for deer or fox or, if I was really lucky, a glimpse of a black bear. I’d arrive back to our campsite with exciting tales of my day’s explorations. Mom would listen patiently while preparing dinner. If it had been a successful day for fishing, we’d have fresh trout for dinner. Otherwise, hamburgers and hot dogs and roasted marsh mellows cooked over an open fire would round out my day. I would set up late at night to watch the fire burn down, chase fire flies, or simply stare at the night sky.
The water of Cranberry River was very cold, which made for great trout fishing, but made swimming more than a bit of a challenge. There were several shallow swimming holes in the river, though, and on really hot days I would pull on my swimming trunks or cut-off jeans for quick, cooling dip. Mostly, though, my brothers, sister, and I would stand on large, flat rocks near the river and complain about how cold the water was – until our parents would threaten to take us back to camp. Then we’d make the plunge. The water was so cold it felt like tiny needles all over my body, but after several minutes of yelling, splashing, and water fights the icy water didn’t feel so cold. Finally, tired and freezing cold, I’d wrap up in a towel and shiver my way back to the camp for a quick change into warm, dry clothes.
After a few days, I would know many of the other kids in the campground, so evenings were sometimes spent playing horseshoes, touch football, baseball, or hide and seek. Finally, I return home with my family, sunburnt and filled with enough memories to last me until the next year and another coal miners’ vacation.