Five Days on the Mon

All Play and No Work in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest

Copyright Bill Burnham

Mark Burnett can have his "Survivor." I invented, played and won a twisted little reality show called "Five Days on the Mon." Outside of an excuse for all play-no work, the idea of invading Monongahela National Forest in West "By-God" Virginia seemed like the perfect antidote for hours wasted guessing which poor Survivor sap would stab their tribe-mate in the back just for the privilege of spending another week starving on a tropical paradise island.
Throughout my travails, the Mon more than lived up to its billing as the East Coast's premiere outdoor playground. Whatever your passion, be it hiking, rock climbing, paddling (flat and whitewater), caving or mountain biking, some of the best spots in the East -- heck, in the entire U.S. of A. -- are found on or near this national forest.
And with that, I'm happy to report not only did I survive the Mon... but it survived me.

DAY 1&2: Hiking Allegheny Trail from Gaudineer Scenic Area to High Falls on the Cheat River with a return via the West Fork Trail. 35 miles.

Waking up to a minor snow squall is not my idea of a good way to start to a hike. I pushed back the flap on our three-season (now four-season!) tent and met the chill breeze with a grimace. High above, wind rocked 300-year-old red spruce trees and with each gust, unleashing a brief curtain of snow. I felt like slapping myself. This was April, not January, and one day prior, I wore shorts, not hat and gloves.
"Soft climates breed soft men," my papa once said. He would be at home in West Virginia, where the highest points, including 4,200 feet up on Gaudineer Knob, look and act a whole lot like a slice of the northeast. In a northern hardwood forest can be found snowshoe hares and northern flying squirrels. Balsam fir inhabits wet, glady areas and second and third-growth red spruce crown areas around 4,000 feet. That morning, waiting for coffee to boil, I watched a northern waterthrush search for food.
Numerous uncleared blowdowns on the Allegheny Trail north of Gaudineer is proof of how few people walk it. I put some distance between myself and my two companions, Mary and Karen, stopping wherever a view opened eastward. In this direction, the landscape extends as neat ridges to the horizon. A swirling mass of gray clouds obscured what I imagined to be Spruce Knob, West Virginia's highest mountain (4,863 feet).
The beauty of horseshoe-shaped High Falls (which, at 15 feet, is not "high" at all), had me cursing our decision to drop packs two miles back. Instead, we hiked off Shavers Mountain to the West Fork Trail, a rail-to-trail through the valley of the West Fork of the Greenbrier River. Small pockets of wetland held colonies of skunk cabbage, an early bloomer and aptly-named wildflower. Bushy ferns grew thick from ruts along the pathway, which also held pools of scummy water. I watched in disbelief when, at one point, Karen bent over and plunged her hands in. She walked toward me and, instinctively, I cupped my hands in time to catch a gooey, slimy, frigid, bright green mass of salamander eggs. It was so cold, I held them only long enough to elevate my idea of getting close to nature to a new level.

DAY 3: Rafting Lower Gauley River from Masons Branch to Sugar Creek. Water volume, 4,800 cfs. Class III to Class V + rapids

A dense fog draped across the Lower Gauley gorge, obscuring tall cliff stream banks that exposed a 10-million-year timeline of rock strata. Geology lesson aside, it was all I could do to focus on a dull roar up ahead. What you can't see can still scare you and, at a time like this, I was looking to an expert for comforting words.
"Truth is," said Paul Gray, a veteran guide with ACE Adventure Center who, to my reckoning, seemed a little too smug perched there on the back of our raft, "I close my eyes going through these."
He barked a "paddle forward" and we obeyed. Engorged by spring flood runoff, Koontz Flume's hydraulics were big enough to swallow a tractor trailer cab. Even with legs firmly wedged beneath me, I reached a critical point where falling out was as good a bet as staying in. Flailing at oncoming waves, rhythm shot to hell, the boat pitching and heaving, I could care less if Paul had his eyes open or not.
Map-savvy readers will quibble about the Lower Gauley not being in the Monongahela National Forest. That its headwaters flow from mountainous Cranberry Wilderness, which is in the forest, is good enough for me. Whitewater cowboys first ran the Gauley below Summersville Dam in the 1960s and, by 1988, it was so popular the government declared 25 miles of the stream a National Recreation Area. Its reputation as one of the top whitewater rivers in the world is re-affirmed every fall when scheduled releases from the dam pump the Upper Gauley to steroid-level strength.
In spring, however, it's all Mother Nature and this year, she didn't disappoint. A week of persistent rain produced so much water the day of our departure that Paul was forced to call an audible: Instead of doing a Double Lower on the New River (twice-in-one day run down the Lower New River's class III-V rapids), we hopped on ACE's diesel-spewing school bus and headed for the Lower Gauley.
Who am I to complain, I said, explaining to Mary the last minute switch. It's only, like, a dream come true.

DAY 4: Caving the Sinks of Gandy. Three-quarter miles long, suitable for novices. Privately owned, permission required.

While we waited for dripping water and calcium carbide to mix a combustible gas in the headlamps, I surveyed our four-member caving party. Each wore an old mechanics jumpsuit, some with sleeves ripped off muscle-tee style. Mary's had a white name tag that read "Hank." Some jokester had scribbled out mine and written "Bubba." Fashion plates, we were not.
Matt Tate, our guide for this trip through Sinks, held up a lighter and "Pop!" a small flame flickered off my forehead. "Kind of like lighting a fart," I joked. I watched Mary fiddle with her lamp and a thought hit me. "Your diamond ring! Shouldn't you take it off?" She gave me a "Thanks for telling me now" look and twisted it around.
Caving, to me, has always been an excuse to get dirty as all get-out and not feel guilty about it. The Sinks of Gandy, south of Whitmer, was my first-ever caving experience and we returned here for the "Five Days on the Mon" extravaganza because -- well, honestly, I was running out of time and knew it would be a cinch. Understanding that we are complete and utter novices who couldn't find our way out of a Super Wal-Mart, much less a cave, we enlisted troglophile and friend Matt as guide.
For variety, we decided to walk through Sinks backwards -- not literally, but starting where most people exit. Gandy Creek flows from the cave waist-high in springtime and so right off, we were getting soaked. Hoots and hollers rose up when water hit those sensitive spots.
"Significant shrinkage," I screamed. Mary giggled -- then gasped. "Ha-ha," I proclaimed with perhaps too much zeal.
We crawled through a tight spot and scooted down a slight grade into a cavernous room with excellent examples of flowstone formations -- rock frozen in ripple form. Successive walking passages linked ever smaller rooms until we reached the "total darkness zone" (cue Twilight Zone theme...) Here we sat and, paying heed to Matt's admonishment "not to move a single inch," extinguished our lights. It's said whatever you look at just before total darkness remains imprinted on your retina and, no matter what you think you see, it is that image over and over.
Matt passed around small round objects, one for each of us.
"Put it up to your mouth," he said.
I smelled it before tasting -- a Wintergreen Lifesaver. One at a time, we bit down and small sparks flew out of our mouths. I hope, amid those flashes of light, no one saw me gold-digging for a cave booger. That would be a horrible image to have stained on the retina.

DAY 5: Rock Climbing, Lower Slabs, Seneca Rocks. Discrepancy (5.8) and Warlock (5.9).

I won't pretend to be so well versed in the nuances of climbing that I can distinguish a 5.10a/​b from a 5.11 (or even a 5.8 for that matter). But I do know a thing or two about trust and I'm always amazed at how much of it I require, along with a huge gulp of air to quell a stomach full of butterflies, when I'm plastered against a rock some 50 feet above the ground and Mary is belaying.
We had set up on the Lower Slabs of Seneca Rocks, a good half-day option when crowds get too much or if you're a top-roper. Our anchor was positioned for two climbs, Warlock (5.9) and Discrepancy, a 5.8 that follows a long crack riven in skin-your-knees rough Tuscarora sandstone. I made it past the toughest move on Discrepancy, about 15 feet up, and took a breather. My left leg did its usual spastic wobbly-type jig, and, if my arms looked even half as pumped as they felt, they were dead-ringers for Popeye (minus the tattoos). I breathed deeply, flexed my swollen fingers and moved up.
The reward at the top was a stunning panorama of the North Fork Valley's farms, fields and cows (at least, I thought those tiny specks were cows). I tried like Hell to find where my tent was in the Seneca Shadows campground across the highway, but all the blue dots looked the same.
"Hello? You done yet?" Mary yelled.
"Uh-huh. You got me?" I yelled back.
"You're voice is shaking," she teased.
"It was a hard climb."
"Don't worry, Bill. I have you."
This is the critical moment for me. In the course of our eight year marriage, I've climbed a dozen or so times, all top rope. More often than not, it's been Mary belaying me as I scrape and claw upward in my own indescribable style. And always, without fail, I get scared as crap when it comes time for her to lower me. Before I can fully commit to sitting back and enjoying the ride, I run through a mental checklist of anything I may have said or done that pissed her off. Not that she would ever be so reckless as to play me like that, but then again... .

According to one source, Monongahela is a corruption of the Indian word Menaungehilla, or "high banks, breaking off and falling down at places." I can relate to the breaking off and falling down, there being plenty of both as Mary and I tripped through the woods in search of adventure. I came away from the Mon convinced only that I must go back, having merely skimmed the surface of what there is to do in that wild and wonderful playground. Until then, my vote is cast and this tribe of one has spoken: The Mon rocks.

Photo from Ace Adventure Center

Photo from Ace Adventure Center