We wanted to catch traditional syrup cooking in progress — to smell the wood smoke, feel the heat from glowing coals and inhale the aroma of boiling sap.
By Daniel White
We were on the Ingalls Overlook Trail somewhere at the edge of the rocks when the darkness began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I think the trail goes between these pines; maybe you should wait there….”
Suddenly a great thrashing erupted below my boots, and a shadow the size of a grizzly bear loomed up and bounded downslope like a boulder broken loose. A voice was screaming — I thought I heard my name — and despite my open mouth, I decided the scream wasn’t mine.
Quiet descended again, as the huge bats which had seemingly swarmed from my chest cavity swooped back down to roost.
Then I heard the plaintive voice of my attorney: “Did you fall? Are you okay?”
Saturday Night’s Alright for Hiking?
Look at a map of the Ingalls Trail at The Nature Conservancy’s Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, and you might think of a needle. The trailhead is the needle’s point, stuck into the Dan Ingalls Overlook on Highway 39 in Bath County. Thread your way north along the mountain’s spine for just over a mile and you reach the shank.
It was while tracing the needle’s shank, which loops up and over several scenic rock formations, that we encountered “The Bear.” I confess to being a bit under the influence — of re-reading Hunter S. Thompson’s deranged comic masterpiece — so it’s possible we disturbed some less savage creature. The fact that no grizzlies actually inhabit the East makes it rather likely.
And then there was the full moon. Under wide purple skies and that rising moon, I had set off from the overlook with Robin, my hiking partner and “real lawyer” — as my mother says, with undisguised skepticism.
The ridge trail was a well-lit avenue. Up on the rocks, though, the moon still hovered so low that our trail dwindled to tracks visible only here and there. Under that tricky light, even a bunny, even a chipmunk, could cast an ominous shadow.
“As your attorney, I advise you to stick with ‘bear,’” Robin said. Wait, did I HEAR that? Or just think it?
Sugar Houses and a Run-In with the Sheriff
The next morning, a winter storm heading our way threatened to cut short the last day (our first) of the region’s most popular nature-tourism event, the Highland Maple Festival.
In Monterey, after perusing handcrafts and sampling maple-flavored goodies, we found our most-anticipated vendor. But we were greeted by a dark window posted with a tragic announcement: “Out of Maple Donuts.”
Back in the truck pointed west, we consoled ourselves with nibbles of maple fudge. Snow was pelting the windshield by the time we turned onto a dirt lane leading to Laurel Fork Sapsuckers. We parked among maple trees bleeding sap into silver pails and set off down a steep trail to the sugar camp.
We had chosen our two Sugar Tour destinations based on a tip from a syrup dealer in Monterey. We wanted to catch traditional syrup cooking in progress — to smell the wood smoke, feel the heat from glowing coals and inhale the aroma of boiling sap. Laurel Fork did not disappoint.
Proprietor Ronnie Moyers invited us to warm up by the fire. Ronnie then explained the syrup-making process, from collecting sap to hours spent boiling and stirring “the water” in antique iron pans nearly the size of johnboats. We learned that it takes more than 40 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup.
Little did we know, we were about to learn a great deal more from our run-in with the sheriff.
Snow was sticking to the golden grass of Fair Lawn Farm as we pulled up outside a cabin leaking smoke. Undeterred by the Highland County Sheriff’s Department vehicle also parked outside, we opened a door and entered the reputed Sugar House.
Dressed in brown overalls, Sheriff Tim Duff stood tending his own pan of simmering sap.
Tim explained how disastrous it would be to burn a batch. Not only would you ruin a pan that’s cooked syrup for well over a century, but a uniquely vile stench would pervade the whole valley, alerting the neighbors to your failure.
And then came the penultimate moment: The sheriff and Terry, his wife, served up shots.
Nothing against the more mechanized producers, Tim said as we downed our samples — they make good syrup, but machines simply can’t match traditional cooking when it comes to the complexity of flavors.
The proof is in the puddle on my ecstatic taste buds, which are singing like a gospel choir. Pancakes? Who needs pancakes? I could chug this stuff from a pint glass.
“I advise you to stock up on syrup for the road,” my attorney said. “And you’re inviting me over for pancakes.”
Catching Up with the Guru: Nature Tourism and Conservation
Monday, a bizarre white St. Patrick’s Day, dawned with fear and loathing: It was the day we had to tear ourselves from this Christmas-card scenery and leave Warm Springs.
We’d be back, though, and not just to chew the scenery. When I caught up later with Marek Smith, director of the Conservancy’s Allegheny Highlands Program, he outlined a convincing case for participating in tourism that benefits nature and communities.
Marek advises the Virginia’s Western Highlands Travel Council, particularly on promoting trails. “Our four-county region has over 350 miles of trails — mostly national forest, some at Douthat State Park, and several miles on our preserve,” Marek said.
“Recreation is a way to expose people to our mission, but also it’s a way for communities to think about their natural areas as economic assets,” Marek continued. “Events like the maple festival provide economic means for people to keep their land as large working farms and woodlands, and that in turn helps the greater good of maintaining natural areas across the region.”
Having lived to laugh about night hiking and The Bear, I asked Marek about other ways to get the adrenaline surging through my veins.
“Just over the last three to five years, we’re seeing more biking events pop up,” he said. “Douthat has become an Eastern mecca for mountain bikers, and then there are endurance events like the Mountain Mama and Gran Fondo, which crosses over Warm Springs Mountain.”
My attorney dumped our last morsels of maple fudge into my palm. “I advise you to find a fast bike and start training,” she said.
Resources to Plan Your Own Allegheny Highlands Journey
- Visit The Nature Conservancy’s Warm Springs Mountain Preserve
- Explore Bath and Highland Counties
- Virginia’s Western Highlands Travel Council
About the Author
Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Daniel White is a Conservancy senior writer and editor of Passport to Nature.