I grew up facing the mouth of the St. Mary’s River gorge in western Virginia (PDF). Every day for the first 18 odd years of my life, it was there every time I stepped into the yard from our house in the Shenandoah Valley. It was right in front of me all the time—even before I even knew it existed. Even now it is right in front of me, though I live approximately 500 miles south-southwest from it. I have well used topographic map issued by the U.S. Forest Service tacked to my wall right above my head as I write this.
What can this map tell me that memory cannot? Not much, but the details it holds evoke many of those memories. First, from the map key, in declining order of importance: Virginia narrows to the George Washington National Forest, which embraces Staunton, the nearest town of any size to my home (and in fact the place where I was born). You can also read on the map that the St. Mary’s Wilderness Area lies in the Pedlar Ranger District of the George Washington National Forest. Pedlar River eventually receives the drainage from the Montebello area, where my maternal grandmother was born and lived the first part of her life until she and her husband moved to the valley near Greenville, Virginia in 1931 (I guess they were driven downhill by the depression and the promise of better farmland). And the copyright is 1990, the last full year I spent in the Valley, whether it was at home in Raphine or at school in Lexington.
The details of the forest? Encompassing over 10,000 square acres, the St. Mary’s Wilderness Area is the largest of its type in Virginia, despite some interesting proposals that are all but ignored in Washington. While this is but a paltry number compared to the size of protected wilderness in the western United States, it is well above average for those found within the Appalachians. It lies completely within the confines of the George Washington National Forest, mostly on the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains almost exactly midway between Staunton and Lexington, Virginia. The nearest towns that have post offices are Vesuvius to the southwest and Lofton to northeast.
The wilderness's southwest border is formed by Groah’s Ridge from the edge of the national forest, about three quarters of a mile from the confluence of the St. Mary’s River and Spy Run, across the top of the ridge to where it drops on the eastern face to the border of Augusta and Nelson Counties, near Haine’s Chapel and the junction of Va. Rt. 56 and the Blue Ridge Parkway (at the Tye River Gap).
Along most of the southeast side of the wilderness area, however, the Blue Ridge Parkway forms its border, save for a sliver at its southern tip; the presence of a few unimproved roads around Haine’s Chapel precludes the wilderness area from meeting the parkway at this corner. The border only leaves the parkway again near its eastern tip at bald mountain, where the parkway bends to the southeast and an unimproved road forms the boundary.
The road that leaves the parkway at the Bald Mountain overlook completes the southeast border, and rounding the east tip of the area, runs roughly northwest along the area’s border to Green Pond, dipping slightly south under the peak of Flint Mountain. Green Pond, lying just outside St. Mary’s to the Northeast from its broadest part (southwest to northeast) is the junction of the road running from Bald Mountain and the Kennedy Ridge Primitive Road and the Big Levels Primitive Road, both of which run around the top ridge of Donald Fauber Mountain.
Green Pond is something of a misnomer. It's really more of a bog than a pond, though during the wet season I have witnessed some standing water in it. During the drier times of the year (through most of the summer), it can hardly be found at all. Many hikers, fishermen, and other outdoorsmen of all stripe have been heard to utter "where the hell is green pond". (Thanks to Christopher Camuto for first putting those particular words on paper.)
The Big Levels primitive road forms the rest of the area’s northern border until it runs out national forest near Cold Springs Branch. The northwest boundary of the area is dictated by again by the national forest, though this runs mostly along the Coal Road (42). The main entrance and parking access is gained from a spur of the Coal Road.
In addition to the river that gives the wilderness and gorge its name, various other streams and rivers are present. They are (from mouth to head):
- St. Mary’s enters the South River.
- Spy Run (with a north and south fork) enters St. Mary’s from the south.
- Sugartree Branch is the fist major tributary stream once inside the wilderness area. It enters from the right (south) when facing upstream.
- Mine Bank Creek also enters from the south past the two sets of manganese mines that were active until the early 1900s.
- Shortly upstream from Mine Bank Creek, Bear Branch enters the main flow, also from the south bank.
- Then Hogback Creek, the sole stream entering from the Cellar Mountain (northern) side enters the stream.
- Finally, Chimney Branch enters, the last named tributary before the river splits into intermittent channels and finds its head directly beneath the Peak of Flint Mountain
So what's the point of all this? Some of my best memories are connected with this place--many of them rather intrinsic to who I am, who I was, and who I am still becoming. Going there with my father and skipping church (not realizing that it would replace that particular building) camping, drinking (even then hiking way the hell up), later packing out bags of other people’s trash, and digging up fire rings. So many that no typeface can really contain them. So you get to read about them.
Call this my first in a series of St. Mary's river posts. I hope to explore some of these memories, write about some environmental issues related to it, talk fishing, and even perhaps share a bit o'poetry (feel free to skip that part if you want [Ed note: Like anyone has made it this far anyway]).