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THE NOBLE SAVAGE Into the Woods Out of This World


Up near the headwaters of the Savage River, deep in a gorge so steep that some trees could never be reached and cut by loggers, you can travel back in time.

The destination: one of the last pockets of remote, untouched woodlands in Maryland. About 1,000 acres of "old growth" forest still exist in the state. Most of what's left is here, in the Savage River drainage basin in Garrett County.

You can't get there by car. On this day, reaching one particular old-growth stand required a two-hour walk from the nearest dirt road. On the way, the rhododendron and other undergrowth can be so thick that you have to crawl to get through.

Now, as it was when the first white man's surveying party came to the region in 1736, sugar maples, hemlocks, red oaks, cucumber magnolias and white ashes grow to 4 feet in diameter and 125 feet high. The biggest trees, some perhaps 300 or more years old, have no limbs for the first 75 feet or so as they reach for the sunlight in the dense forest.

These trees must be the stuff of shipbuilders' dreams.

Sometimes, if you sit among the trees, all the sounds come from within the woods. With the surrounding high ridges blocking intruding noises, the rush of the river dominates. Listen. No chain saws, no traffic on the interstate, no jets overhead.

Downriver from this peaceful place, the national trials for the U.S. Olympic kayak and canoe team conclude today. White-water athletes have been competing here for a week for the right to travel to Barcelona, Spain, for this year's Summer Games.

In spring in the old forest, when the last bits of snow still are melting, water is percolating down the sides of the gorge, right under your feet. It is strained and cleansed as it plunges through roots and rocks until it reaches the river, where trout slip through dark green pools.

Ruffed grouse perch on fallen logs, beating their wings 20 times a second to produce a string of low "thump" sounds. The males are staking out their territories. It's a sound that strikes the same psychological chord as heavy surf or bugs on a summer night.

In some spots, the trees rise like pillars of a great cathedral, and the cool, open areas underneath them make what biologists call deer yards. In centuries past, before the big predators were hunted out of existence, these were the haunts of the mountain lion and the wolf.

Even if animals don't appear, signs of them are everywhere: A tuft of black bear fur clings to a striped maple sapling. Turkeys scratch the forest floor looking for acorns to eat. Tracks of various squirrels and other small mammals are everywhere in the snow and mud.

"This is the Savage," says Dan Boone, as he gazes upon a 100-foot-wide section of the river that cuts through the ancient forest. "You just went back in time 300 years."

The lanky naturalist has been coming to these parts for 20 years. He first came seeking rare birds and plants, like the northern goshawk and Frasier sedge.

Now he comes seeking his sanity, too. Mr. Boone, 35, works as an ecologist for the Wilderness Society in Washington, a city that the antithesis of these woods.

To most Marylanders, the Chesapeake Bay is the star of the state's natural wonders, the hit record that gets all the air play.

Just three hours west of Baltimore, though, is the flip side.

The Savage runs about 20 miles from headwaters to mouth, from north of Finzel south to Luke. No wide, surging waterway like the Potomac or Susquehanna, it is grand nonetheless -- for the trout it holds, the woods around it and the peace of mind it can promote.

All around the river is the 53,000-acre Savage River State Forest, which rises to nearly 3,000 feet above sea level on the crests of steep mountain slopes. Parts of the watershed drain to the west, into the Youghiogheny River and eventually to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. The rest drains into the Potomac, then east to the bay and the Atlantic.

Local historians say the river got its name from John Savage, a member of the earliest surveying party. His companions, seeing that they were about to run out of food, had decided to kill and eat one of their own. Poor Mr. Savage was picked as the most worthless among them, because his eyesight was failing. Food arrived before the deed was done, the story goes, so the river was named in honor of the man who would be dinner.

The untouched corners of the Savage watershed are but one small part. Most of the watershed is heavily wooded, but nearly all of it has been cut at least once.

The Savage is many things to many people.

To Mr. Boone and other lovers of unspoiled nature, it is a place to be cherished for the biological diversity it holds -- and sometimes simply left alone.

There's a bumper sticker that reads something like: "There's no life west of Chesapeake Bay." Mr. Boone would like to print one that reads: "Garrett County -- It's all down hill from here."

To the fishermen, the river and its tributaries -- Blue Lick, Bear Pen Run, Elk Lick Run and others -- provide the finest trout habitat in the state. It is home to the "brookie," or brook trout, Maryland's only native trout species. Rainbow and brown trout are there, too, because of state-sponsored release programs.

"I fish almost every day now," says Joey Dailey,12, as he cast about for trout in the Savage one mild spring day with his friend Josh Bradley, a fellow student at Bishop Walsh Catholic School in Cumberland. The self-proclaimed former couch potato says the Savage and similarly wild rivers have been his salvation.

"It provides adventure," Joey says. "I'd rather be doing this than going to the mall."

To the paddlers, the river below the dam, at the southern end of the state forest, is one of the best settings in the world for their sport. The white water they need is not natural but is created by the Army Corps of Engineers regulating the flow through the Savage River Dam. Normally, the flow is 30 to 150 cubic feet per second. For the Olympic trial races, it is increased to about 1,000 cubic feet per second.

To the timber men, the mature trees along the Savage are as good as gold. Logging's heyday was in the late 1800s and the early part of this century, but cutting has continued at a rate of up to 1,000 or more acres per year.

Cross-country skiers come here, too, as do mountain bikers, hunters and others.

The many visions of the Savage and the forest that surround it have spawned a debate that has been simmering for years. How should all the uses be balanced? Which tracts should be set aside as areas where logging will be prohibited? To what extent should the forest be "managed," a term conservationists say is too often a euphemism for wholesale logging, including clear-cutting of large areas?

Along the ridges and through the hollows, the signs of conflict are plainly visible. Huge tracts along roadsides and mountainsides have been clear-cut of trees. Up on High Rock, an outcropping that provides breathtaking views of the Allegany Plateau, you can hear the strip miners scraping the earth on nearby private land.

Gypsy-moth caterpillars, voracious pests introduced from Europe last century, are chewing away at the oaks and other hardwoods, killing some of them. Exotic plants, ones not native to the area but brought in as ornamentals or otherwise introduced, are competing with native plants.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is writing a 10-year plan that will govern the many uses of the largest state-owned forest. Few people seem happy with the plan as now written.

Conservationists say there's still not enough emphasis on preservation and that the managers still haven't recognized recreation, not logging, as the big-money use. Loggers say the value of the timber will be wasted -- and the local economy will suffer -- if they are restricted too much.

Even some DNR officials say the forest is "overstocked" with trees.

In some ways, Mr. Boone and other conservationists say, the state fails to see that lots of people crave the wilderness experience in Maryland -- not just in Yellowstone or the Smoky Mountains.

Maybe that would explain the odd signs all along the Big Savage Mountain Hiking Trail that read: "Caution. Dead and Fallen Trees Ahead."

As the policy-makers wrestle with the questions, the cycles of life and death continue, as they have for thousands of years, in the pockets of old-growth forest along the Savage.

That's the essence of the old growth. It's dynamic. Tiny saplings sprout on the rotting hulk of a fallen, moss-covered hemlock. The winter wren blurts out its bubbly song as the snow melts and spring takes hold. Ferns and wildflowers emerge from the rich soil made of eons of decaying organic matter.

It's strange seeing -- and hearing -- a place like this. It's as if you had stepped through a time machine.

"Spiritual, isn't it?" Mr. Boone remarks on a hike through the ancient woods.

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