I first wrote about Virginia’s elk restoration project for Virginia Sportsman Magazine back in 2012, shortly after the first modest group of elk was transported from Kentucky to southwest Virginia. The plan was the result of immense effort by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), legislators at the state and local levels, wildlife biologists and private landowners to bring back the state’s once-native elk. And the work never stops.
I was privileged to have been present for the second elk release in 2013 (there was a third in 2014), and have been back a couple times, always graciously hosted by Leon Boyd, one of the key drivers of the project. Boyd, who grew up exploring the same mountainous terrain of Buchanan county nearly 200 elk now call home, watches over these animals and this land with a level of care that goes far beyond stewardship. When he talks about this project, the animals, the land and all the people it takes to initiate and sustain a project of this scale, you get the sense he’s talking about family.
Five years ago when I watched those elk awkwardly stumble down a trailer ramp and set foot on Virginia soil for the first time in their lives, I knew I would always have a special attachment to them. So when I learned that Leon was organizing a work weekend where volunteers would spend a day helping out, I wanted to make the trip. The weekend would involve lots of hard work. But there would also be some social time with like-minded conservationists, some wildlife viewing and even an opportunity to scour the woods and fields in search of a rare Virginia elk antler shed before heading home. So I asked a couple of close friends if they might be interested in joining me.
I have hiked more miles with Chris Gibson looking for antlers than I can count. Like me, Chris is obsessed with antlers. To Chris, they are more than beautiful, fascinating biomechanical artifacts. They are almost sacred. Their pursuit is the one thing that gets us both moving with enthusiasm after a too-sedentary winter.
My friend Shawn Story is an all-around outdoorsman who loves to hunt more than anyone I know. He has taught me much about hunting and we always enjoy time spent outdoors together. He has spent a lot of time out west and loves the wildlife of Montana and Wyoming, including the magnificent elk. As I write this it occurs to me that Shawn is the type of man that would thrive just as well 150 years ago, in a Virginia flush with native elk, as now.
All three of us are proud and enthusiastic Virginia natives, too, so when I asked them if they wanted to be a part of this, they both responded without hesitation, “I’m in!”
Tourism has always been a major goal of the elk restoration project in Virginia. I interviewed Allen Boynton for my 2012 article, at the time a VDGIF biologist heavily involved in the project. His biggest long-term concern at that time, he told me, was providing the public with opportunities to enjoy the elk herd. Buchanan County is rugged and remote, and access can be difficult.
But great strides have already been made here. When Chris, Shawn and I arrived we stayed in a wonderful little cabin at Southern Gap Outdoor Adventures. The campground and cabin area at Southern Gap overlook a food plot where the elk routinely feed, so visitors have the opportunity to view the elk there.
Nearby Breaks Interstate Park has elk tours throughout the year, and works with Southern Gap to shuttle guests to the primary viewing plateau in the heart of the elk habitat. There are plans for a visitor’s center with wildlife exhibits and other exciting recreational and educational opportunities as well.
But there is no better advertisement for the draw of these elk to visitors than the words and reactions of the visitors themselves. The first night we arrived, there was enough daylight left for Leon to lead a caravan to the habitat in hopes of seeing some elk. Chris, Shawn and I (along with Shawn’s German Wirehaired Pointer and my Wirehaired Dachshund who came along for the weekend) all piled into Shawn’s truck and followed the group up and up and up the winding gravel road. Just as we reached the clearing at the top, Shawn and Chris saw for the first time, Virginia elk.
They were utterly speechless.
Then a moment later they couldn’t stop talking and fumbling with camera phones, heads out the window to eliminate any barrier between their eyes and those animals. “There’s another one!” “Oh my God.” “I can’t believe we’re seeing this,” they exclaimed, along with a handful of other excited remarks not suitable to share here.
The elk were healthy and content, and not particularly wary of us. Many of the individuals appeared disheveled, just the result of being caught between winter and summer coats. But they were beautiful to us. Seeing these elk roaming free in our home state filled us all with joy, and we drove around with excited smiles, wide eyes and full hearts until the sun set and we could see no more.
“I find myself having a difficult time putting the whole experience into words,” Chris shared with me later. He had never before seen elk in the wild, and always assumed he would have to go out west to do so. “I don't even fully understand all the feelings I experienced the first evening we were there, watching that herd of elk, many born right here in Virginia, grazing along the hillside as the sun set behind them.”
Shawn, too, was overwhelmed, despite having seen plenty of elk out west before. “It was awe inspiring,” he said, “To see a wild elk herd in my home state.”
We sat around the fire that night remembering and talking about having seen with our own eyes an elk herd on Virginia soil, on reclaimed strip mine land no less. The terrain has been transformed into near perfect elk habitat. But we would get up early and help improve it the next day, clearing rocks from fields so they could be mowed, thus expanding the amount of inviting pasture on which the elk can graze. It proved to be back-breaking work, but oh so rewarding.
The group of volunteers included men, women and children from all over the area, including a group from the recently started West Virginia elk restoration project which is using the materials that were used here to construct the quarantine pens. All told, volunteers logged 285 total hours of work that day, and were rewarded with a great meal afterwards, also provided by volunteers.
The next morning we returned to the habitat, with sunburned necks and aching backs, hoping to find an elk antler shed. Nathan, a new friend we met down there, showed us around the places the elk travel. Nathan spends a lot of time observing the habits of these elk. We searched together at first, then drifted apart after a while, each eyeing different terrain in hopes of glimpsing a treasured, bone-white prize. Nathan found two antlers – an old, broken base of a large antler, and an older spike shed. He graciously gave both of them to me, not wanting me to go home empty handed.
But what I wanted more than anything was for Chris and Shawn to find sheds, and after putting in some hard miles, they both did.
The antler Shawn found was still attached to an elk the night before, in fact we all have photos of it. “The tireless work and dedication put forth by everyone involved to reclaim coal mine property and turn it into wildlife habitat is truly astonishing,” Shawn said. “But to actually watch a bull for two days, then search tirelessly for a shed antler and to be gifted one off his head hours after it dropped is the cherry on top.”
“To be a proud owner of a rare find such as this and to share those moments with friends is a day I will not soon forget,” he added.
In the 2012 article I mentioned earlier, I quoted David Allen, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) president and CEO. This program in Virginia simply would not have happened without the untiring support of the RMEF.
“Hats off to the citizens of Virginia, and especially those of Buchanan County, who understand there is no higher calling in conservation than restoring a native game species to sustainable, huntable, balanced populations,” Allen said. “For everyone who doesn’t understand it today, I believe you’ll be convinced over time that this was the right decision, the right thing to do, the right way to go about it.”
And now, six years on, I can speak for a group of three friends from the opposite end of the state when I say we are convinced. And we pledge to do our part in convincing anyone else who will listen.
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Try to imagine the pinnacle of wartime bravery… now what comes to mind? Unhesitatingly rushing to the aid of a fallen comrade while under attack? Picking up a live grenade landing near your feet and returning it to sender? Perhaps the ultimate expression of combat courage is fearlessly diving on a grenade to protect the men around you.
Colonel Donald “Doc” Ballard did all those things as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam one day in May of 1968. Wounded eight times, he was awarded multiple Purple Hearts and in 1970 received from President Nixon this nation's highest and most prestigious personal military decoration, the Medal of Honor. He later left the Navy and joined the Army, then served in the North Kansas City, MO police department, then the fire department after that. And he continues serving his community today.
Ballard is one of only 75 living Medal of Honor recipients, and one of only two living Navy corpsmen sharing that distinction. So it was a very special honor that he accepted the invitation to fly from Missouri to be the keynote speaker at the 12th Annual Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing 2-Fly Tournament. Ballard is more than an inspiring, engaging and witty speaker, he is also a PHW participant and credits the organization for helping him. When the bravest of the brave benefits from the special healing methods of a program like Project Healing Waters, you know that organization is doing something right.
Doc Ballard is here, by the way, because that grenade he jumped on didn’t explode right away. After waiting the typical grenade delay interval with no detonation, he rolled off it, threw it, and immediately resumed treating the Marines he was working on before the attack started. The grenade exploded in the air.
Hearing Ballard speak about his experiences I thought about those Marines whose lives were saved almost exactly fifty years ago to the day. Certainly some went on to have children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. Who knows how many lives were impacted. But there are entire families who walk and work and laugh and pray and live their lives because one humble, kind, funny man was willing to trade his life for the lives of the brothers in his care.
I meet heroes at every single Project Healing Waters event I attend. From the servicemen and women who participate in this event, to the volunteers and supporters who make it all possible, to the man who started it all, founder Ed Nicholson. Ed is a dear friend who has never fished in this great event due to his involvement in running it, but this year as responsibilities have shifted we decided to fish together as a team. It was a great honor to share this tournament with my friend, catching up while catching a few fish. We would also like to thank The Harmon Foundation for sponsoring our team. It’s been a weekend I will never forget.
It was a wonderful time for all. Much needed revenue was raised, many beautiful fish were caught and safely released, and as always old friends embraced and new friends were made, all under clear blue skies at ever beautiful Rose River Farm.
I hope you enjoy the slideshow of some of my favorite photos from this year. And if you’d like more information on how you can help Heal Those Who Serve, please visit projecthealingwaters.org.
I just finished an Audible reading of Robert Kurson’s Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon. Stories of America’s space program have piqued my curiosity for as long as I can remember. But it was Tom Hanks’ 1998 wonderful, if a little uneven, HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon that truly hooked me. Wanting more when that series ended I read Andrew Chaikin’s book, A Man on the Moon, upon which the series was largely based. I love the movies The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and the books that inspired them.
But the story of Apollo 8, the historic first mission to the moon, has been curiously undertold. And if there’s a perfect person to tell an important, undertold story, it’s Robert Kurson. Kurson’s brilliant book Shadow Divers chronicles the discovery, exploration and eventual identification of a World War II German U-Boat off the New Jersey coast that by all accounts should not have been there. It was more fascinating and harrowing than I could have ever imagined, and I simply cannot recommend that book highly enough.
Rocket Men is a big story about brave men, strong women, brilliant minds and the daring nation that pushed them all to their limits. Sending Apollo 8 to the moon required engineers, administrators, politicians, astronauts and their families, all working under unfathomable pressure, in the midst of an unprecedented national race, with unimaginable consequences.
Kurson masterfully organizes an incredibly complex web of intertwining elements. Political intrigue, new and rapidly developing technology, the nature of space and space travel, math and physics all come together, but the book is driven and held together by the personalities at the mission’s core.
Rocket Men is also beautifully written. There is a downside, though, of having listened to it as an audiobook (which is narrated by Ray Porter, who conveys just the right tone throughout). There are passages I most certainly would have marked to go back to in a hard copy, especially if I thought I was going to review it. Some gems have stuck with me, though. In one scene Kurson follows the wife of one of the astronauts juggling hope and dread at her home as the crew lost contact around the back side of the moon, awaiting the moment contact was calculated to be reestablished. She stared at the radio, “divining good or bad from the silence.” I just love that line.
The technical requirements of the mission would be astonishing even today. To pull off such a thing using technology from 50 years ago is unthinkable. The math alone is staggering, and Kurson does a great job describing in terrifying detail just how slim the margins of error are when it comes to plotting trajectories from one spinning orb to another spinning orb which is orbiting the first. Pointing a rocket into the empty void of space at tens of thousands of miles per hour, knowing that after traveling 240,000 miles the moon will be right where it needs to be, while constantly calculating the constant decreasing weight of the craft as it burns massive amounts of fuel…well if there are unsung heroes in NASA during the Apollo missions, it’s the mathematicians.
I knew going in I was most likely going to love Rocket Men. And I surely do. Kurson captures the stress of the planning, the breathtaking scope of the feat, and the colossal importance of the accomplishment. And while Apollo 8 is a story that fills me with pride as an American, Kurson wouldn’t let me forget that this is ultimately not a national story, but a human one.