Land of spruce and mortar shells Wilderness: Dolly Sods in West Virginia is a harsh, windy area that boasts rare plants -- and unexploded munitions.


LANEVILLE, W.Va. -- Dolly Sods is the land of the one-sided spruce. The wind blows so hard from the northwest that trees grow branches only on the southeast side.

As in the arctic tundra, shrubs become low, thick and tough from the harsh weather. You can crawl over the top of some.

Few other wildernesses 4,000-feet high have beaver ponds, wild cranberries in bogs and humans examining in solitude the edelweiss-like stonecrop and other rare plants.

But in this remote corner, workers find and destroy live mortar shells left over from World War II, when the area was used as an artillery range. Hundreds of rounds were test-fired in places where it then seemed unimaginable that people might one day visit for fun.

Only four hours from Baltimore, Dolly Sods is a far different place in the universe. A perfect place to find solitude.

Or to vanish, if you were Johann Dahle in 1781. He was a Hessian soldier who served with the British army against the Colonists until he deserted.

Dahle disappeared into the forests of the Allegheny Plateau and settled on the west side of North Fork Mountain near here. The German's neighbors began to call him John Dolly. Dolly lived in the area until his death in 1847. His descendants grazed cattle and sheep in patches of high grassland called "sods."

Jean Worthley, 73, of Finksburg, filmed some of her Baltimore TV program "Hodge Podge Lodge" in Dolly Sods a quarter-century ago. Since 1966, she has studied the three-toothed cinquefoil and other plants -- until recent years with Elmer, her late husband.

"It means so much," she says. "Our Worthley botany class still goes there every October for one weekend. We love the flag trees -- the trees with branches waving on one side only. And it's so nice Dolly Sods is flat."

She was referring to another remarkable feature of the summit of this mountain hideaway. After deep valleys, steep hills and stiff hiking, the explorer comes upon hundreds of acres of relatively level plateau way up high.

An orientation lesson: Dolly Sods is nearly 18,000 acres of contiguous parts of woodland and meadows. It is within the Monongahela National Forest in Tucker and Randolph counties of West Virginia, 47 miles southeast of Oakland.

Protected by Congress since 1975, the main attraction is Dolly Sods Wilderness -- 10,215 acres, much of it plateau. It is a layer of soil over a clay bowl that holds huge amounts of water. Stunted trees, grasses and other vegetation grew thickly in the moist soil, creating bogs, while fires and lumbering in the last century created meadows.

Camping is allowed but visitors must leave no trace. Forbidden are the use of off-road motorized vehicles, cutting of live vegetation and camping near roads. Hunting and fishing under state law are permitted. The wilderness had an estimated 500 visitors in 1965; 7,499 registered last year.

The other two sections, also wooded with some open spaces, are Dolly Sods North (6,100 acres) and Dolly Sods Scenic Area (1,500 acres).

Two gravel forest roads, 19 and 75, penetrate the wilderness. While the plateau makes studying wildlife easier on the legs, the trails are easy to lose. They have names like Fisher Spring, Dunkenbarger, Rohrbaugh Plains, Red Creek and Little and Big Stonecoal.

Trails are unblazed. Signs exist only at trail heads, streams have no bridges, prominent landmarks are rare. Natural features may begin to meld into one another, especially in the frequent fogs. Many hikers have become disoriented and temporarily lost.

Black bears, foxes, groundhogs, deer, rabbits and timber rattlesnakes share the premises with blueberries, huckleberries, ramps, teaberries, cranberries, spruces and pines. On the slopes are yellow birch, sugar maple, black cherry, hickory and other hardwoods.

Adventurous hikers should bring maps and compasses as well as clothing and stamina for extreme weather. A month ago, two brothers backpacked into Sods. One became exhausted in heavy snow. He could move no more. His brother walked miles for help. Rescue workers in nearby Canaan Valley received permission to use a snowmobile with which they successfully rescued him.

Temperatures at Dolly Sods are often 10 degrees lower than in the hollows. The wind almost always blows, from a soft breeze to a howling gale.

"You never know what the weather's going to be," Worthley says. "I was picking cranberries up there once when the weather changed. I was on the verge of hypothermia before I got down."

Here is what happens on the Allegheny Front in winter: Humid and warmer air from the Potomac Valley and the South meets colder Canadian air blowing off the Great Lakes and Canada. It churns and produces severe weather that can rival Mount Washington's in New Hampshire.

Wind recorders in the wilderness have been blown away. Gusts can exceed 100 miles an hour. The Canaan Valley has recorded temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. The front's explosive collision of air masses dumps tons of snow on Dolly Sods.

The other day, as Baltimore continued its virtually snowless winter, it began to snow along Forest Road 19. During two hours' hiking uphill, a walker found snow depths ranging from 6 to 18 inches -- plus drifts. Wind rumbled through the spruces. White-tailed deer three times crossed the path. The snow blew vertically, horizontally and diagonally. No person was seen the whole morning.

"You're in wilderness there" whether on the forest road, the bogs, the rocky plains, the heath barrens or 25 miles of trails, says Linda M. White. "Wilderness is a state of mind."

But she says the wild is also something specifically intended by Congress. The 37-year-old forester and wilderness manager of Dolly Sods for the U.S. Forest Service has a slogan: "Leave no trace."

Her other advice: Prepare trips carefully, use fire wisely, walk on rocks when possible, don't feed the wildlife, pack out what you pack in and leave what you find.

The advice is ironic a half-century after the Army shot scores of 60 mm, 81 mm and other mortar rounds at Cabin Mountain and Blackbird Knob. Scores of live rounds still litter the place just below or at the surface.

On Dec. 3, 1951, Wally Dean, 17, was in Sods. A companion picked up a mortar round. It fell to the ground. "The next thing I knew I was wrapped around a tree." Dean suffered nine shrapnel wounds in both legs. He still has metal wires and plates inside.

Last summer, Dean, an environmental projects engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, directed a cleanup of some of the rounds.

Workers made 32,594 excavations along the trails. They found railroad spikes, tools and horseshoes. They also discovered and detonated 14 live mortar shells, most along the Fisher Spring Trail. Two others were inert. Off-trail searches are impossible.

Signs warn hikers to get help from the Forest Service or police if they find a shell: "Do not touch it!"

It was a different time when the Dolly Sods was used as an artillery range, White says.

"No one hiked up there then. They would have been considered nuts. People were coming out of the Depression. They had no leisure time. They had to work and feed their families.

"They didn't value wilderness. It wasn't fun and they were afraid of it," White says. "They wanted to conquer it. Wilderness philosophy came later."

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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