In another blog post I explore the role of nature in personal identity, specifically in the context of modern life. In my experience I have found it striking that a physical experience in nature, for example, through a backpacking trip, is actually a profoundly emotional experience with transformative potential. Whether you define personal identity as bound with nature or whether it excludes nature, it is clear that being outdoors and spending time in nature is restorative and brings intangible enrichment.
The term ‘biophilia’, was used by E.O Wilson to describe people’s preference for natural settings. It’s a characteristic, he said, that results from our inherent inclination to connect to natural ecosystems the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did (Wilson 1984). This and other theories about the symbiosis of humans and nature certainly validate the way my heart leaps when I get to visit Otter Creek. This mountainous stream valley in the forested heart of Appalachia holds a vaunted spot in my own heart. Removed from the urban grind, its streams and woods seem to play a symphony that buoys my urban-weary spirits. When I spend time here I feel re-tuned to my essential self.
I couldn’t describe an outdoors experience in Otter Creek in purely physical terms, it would not do it justice. In this blog I hope to lure the reader into an emotional experience of Otter Creek. I hope it shows that a connection to nature can actually be a connection to self.
Tucked into the folded wooded hills and winding roads in north-central West Virginia, the allure of Otter Creek begins with how secret it feels. This narrow stream valley is like a forgotten fold in a maze of Appalachian topography. Its existence even today seems to be known only to the local residents along these West Virginia back roads, and to tenacious outdoor recreationists who seek to get further away than everyone else.
The way in is along remnants of old logging roads and narrow-gauge rail tracks along which timber was hauled out for gold in the 1800s. These Appalachian forests provided the foundations of the United States’ industrial power in the 19th century. West Virginia’s hardwood trees were in demand and its mountains were stripped bare of them. Today, standing in the midst of dense, green forests a century later, you are reminded of nature’s regeneration and tenacity. So perhaps the first impression of Otter Creek is the unknowable endurance and power of nature. Long after we wreak havoc on it, nature will persist to regenerate a new equilibrium.
To reach the stream valley you first hike up a narrow trail curving up wooded hills, and then descend the other side around several bends.
Waterfalls and Pools
The sound of rushing water fills your ears as you descend down to the creek crossing of Otter Creek. The creek itself is a succession of water falls, pools, and gently flowing riffles.
In places, ankle-high water flows over flat, smooth benches. In other sections of the creek, harder rock ledges are formed into wide, semi-circular, stepped lips by millions of years of erosive water.
The bottom of the creek is filled in with a jumble of smooth rocks which have eroded down from the surrounding ancient Appalachian hills (which once stood taller than the Rockies but eroded down over millenia). At the base of waterfalls where the energy of falling water shifts and slides rocks, I’ve banged up my shins and toes trying to find foothold where there are uneven piles and treacherous holes.
Play of Light
A most remarkable feature of this place is the light. Sunlight can barely stream through the dense foliage of the forest. The daylight hours can seem shorter because the steep hillsides block the sun at low angles. Parts of the stream valley are densely covered in shadows, while others see sun for a few hours of the day. The creek is fenced in by dense mysterious woods all day long so the light abruptly falls from bright in the middle to dark at the creek’s edge.
Flora and Fauna
Alongside the creek the trail is often overgrown with thick rhododendron shrubbery, and winds up being a series of verdant tunnels and corridors. The shrubs are thick, the broken nubs are sharp and you can be raked and torn if you try to cut back into the dark curtain. Only goshawks and otters will know them.
In places the trestles of old railroad are visible as they slowly sink back into the mud floor. Wildflowers peek through fallen tree limbs. The forest floor after periodic summer storm events, is thick with pods of mushrooms growing under layers of fallen leaves and tree detritus. Click on any of the images below to launch a full-size gallery of mycological magic:
The woods are alive with creatures which have recolonized the grown back woods. We typically camp and have the richest experience of the forest at night. Tall trees creak and moan. Red squirrels scuffle and owls cackle in a macabre fashion.
Lollygagging in Waterslides
Otter Creek is a wild and remote place. But it is not so harsh that you feel small and threatened by nature’s power. It is a wonderful place to play. Hiking deeper into the stream valley, I look for water slides, spots to splash and lollygag in, and different pools and sections of the creek to explore. I look for the perfectly smooth and sunny rock to lie back on comfortably and be lulled into sleep as the sun’s rays warm my skin. The occasional bird call piercing the sound of water rushing over and around rocks is a hypnotizing way to drift off into deep slumber.
The Music of Flowing Water
The sound of rushing water never fully fades while you’re still in the valley floor. It’s like a shamanic chant that rings in your ears, tuning the vibrations and pulses of your body into resonance.
The staccato interruptions and stresses of life in the outside world are drowned out by the soothing sound of flowing water. The senses are calmed and your core reptilian brain relaxes deeply.
When I backpack into and camp at Otter Creek, no matter the physical challenges, I feel myself succumbing to the rhythms and mysteries of nature. With each step I take, I give myself space to open another side of me, a side which feels ancient, rooted to the planet, and right. It’s a kind of spiritual restoration.
Although the words might suggest a remote Appalachian cult’s rituals involving baptizing, brim fire sermons, and revivalist singing on a creek bank, I assure you none of these are required in the kind of nature healing I experience when I immerse myself in Otter Creek for a few hours.
When I have been cradled in the creek, my anxieties seem to slip away from me and flow downstream. The music of the water chortling over rocks, the play of light, the wind through the woods, the night mysteries of the forest, and the feel of ancient natural rhythms transforms me imperceptibly, but surely. The creek seems to slough off a layer of my hardened, electronic-speed ego, both constricted by stress, and whirling around with distractions. I emerge from this trip calmer, more centered, and more sensitized to myself, with greater potential to be more sensitive to others. In heart, mind and body, I feel re-connected to my animal and spiritual self.
The energy of this verdant mountain and valley seems to unleash the wisdom of my own unconscious mind to heal itself. Being in nature, I feel returned to my own nature.
To the Reader
I hope you have shared a little of the emotional experience of a weekend camping in a remote, forested stream valley, playing in waterfalls, and napping on creek rocks. Do you have a favorite remote place away from crowds, where you can go to immerse yourself in nature and reconnect to your own vital, physical, animal and spiritual self? Do you find you come back to yourself by spending time in nature? How do you feel about personal identity, is it bound to nature or separate from it?
Purely practical considerations: How to Get to Otter Creek
A backpacking trip is the best way to experience the magic of this place, although you could do much in a day hike as well. You can stay in economical motels, lodges or camping in the town of Petersburg, West Virginia about a 50-minute drive. Lodges and campsites around Seneca Rocks are only about 22 miles away.
Get to Petersburg from points east by taking West Virginia’s exceptional super highway, Corridor H, which offers spectacular vistas of layers of wooded blue hills rolling away into the distance. From Petersburg, proceed south on Route 32 till Seneca Rocks. At the junction, turn right onto Route 33 West. Proceed 22.6 miles and turn right, onto County Road 12, which will take you to one of several trailheads.
Purely practical considerations: Camping Notes
During the heat and humidity of a typical Washington DC summer (usually in the 90 degree Fahrenheit range in August), temperatures are about 20 degrees cooler in Otter Creek. On a recent summer trip, a cold front was passing through the mountains of West Virginia so when we set up tents and crawled into sleeping bags, we had experienced a drop of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit from afternoon temperatures in Washington D.C. At 2,900 feet, not even reaching the altitude of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the area is cooler because of the envelope of rhododendron undergrowth and shady trees.
I love entering the trail at night into the pitch black woods. If you’re lucky, the stars twinkle bright in the black dome sky above. In the cool morning which follows, the grass is wet with dew. An August morning can feel like a crisp October morning here. It’s good to boil up a hot mug of coffee and sip it in a camp chair, staring at the woods where the light grows brighter every minute until the first rays of sunlight break through.
There are plenty of group camping spots tucked into the woods alongside Otter Creek Trail.