Wilderness is hard to come by in central Ohio, and a healthy dose of make-believe is necessary to imagine you are on some remote stretch of river away from roads and farmland. That is why, when the craving for wilderness is too strong, I head for West Virginia. Plenty of backwoods experiences can be discovered in the Mountaineer State and chasing blue lines through forests can satiate the backcountry desire. Yet, there is a place that I have been drawn into and deceived, more than once, by betraying descriptions of wild and natural, a place that saddened me by its current reality and misspent potential.
The Cranberry River and Cranberry Wilderness, like much of West Virginia, has an entangled history of mining, deforestation, conservation, and endless battles over land-use. Over a century ago, the area was logged and entirely clear-cut which plagued the region with sweeping fires and disastrous floods. Once logging and mining companies extracted what they could, they packed up operations and left only abandoned mines, railway grades, and empty camps to inhabit the landscape. In the 20th century, conservation efforts were made to mend the past, but to add insult to injury acid rainfall in the 1960’s devastated the river which extinguished all trout from it.
Before the end of the 20th century, the Cranberry Wilderness was created to protect over 47,000 acres making it the second largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River. Also, to combat the effects of acid rain and snow, two limestone treatment stations were built with the intent of supporting native and sustaining brook trout populations. Along with other tactics, these efforts helped to stabilize the pH levels of the river and liming operations are still ongoing today. Efforts to revive a river and its native fish back to their wild state seemed to be headed in the right direction.
My first trip out to the Cranberry River was in the spring after moving to Ohio from the Pacific Northwest. It rang out as a place that could offer wild experiences similar to those I grew accustomed to while exploring the Cascades. Arriving in the campground at night, I was surprised that it was virtually full since the weekend weather was forecasted to be damp and cold. Luckily, I managed to find an empty site for the night and made a plan for the morning to hike the gated road a few miles, set up a backcountry camp, and then fish the river.
When dawn broke, the campground was a flurry of activity which made me double check my phone’s calendar to see if it was a holiday weekend, which it was not. Soon, I was packed up and heading out on foot past the gate, but within minutes was being passed by bicycles. Many of those bikes had crates or trailers full of rods, tackle, beer boxes, tents, and coolers. Angler after angler convoyed past me while I began to feel that my wilderness experience was not going to happen. I just could not figure out what was going on.
In terms of finding solitude and wilderness, that weekend was an absolute bust. My little wilderness campsite was laughable in comparison to the campsite operations going on up and down the river. The Cranberry was a bonanza as anglers peddled and jockeyed for honey holes to harvest trout. As I found out, the river was stocked heavily from January to May (and once more in late fall), and the West Virginia DNR website contained a stocking report that anglers watched as attentively as lottery numbers being drawn. Oblivious to this, it was not my lucky weekend. In fact, as I discovered on return trips there was something wrong with the Cranberry, its native trout, and the wild experience I sought.
After repeated trips to the Cranberry several things became clear. Much of the gated road that leads to over 25 miles of fishable river is technically not in the wilderness zone but glances the border and thus bikes are permissible. This road is also used by stocking trucks which guarantees the river will be crammed with oversized hatchery rainbow trout, save for a couple miles of the fly fishing only section on one of its tributaries.
Sadly, the road that enables tankers to unload their cargo is a blessing and a curse since it also allows access for limestone treatment options, without which the river could succumb to the effects of acid precipitation. However, as for the original intent of operating and funding limestone treatments (for well over two decades) in order to re-establish native brook trout populations, it seems to be lost under those hefty loads of stocked rainbow trout.
The river and its native trout populations are held hostage by the stocking program, and it is unlikely to change given the fact that the West Virginia DNR is on overdrive with stocking about one million trout in more than 200 streams and lakes every year. So, the wild and native brook trout that manage to eke out an existence on the Cranberry are left to contend with these deposited butterball trout, and the brook trout are usually the ones that are edged out.
Relenting and giving the Cranberry time and space to sustain its native trout populations would be met with severe backlash from an angling community grown accustomed to unreasonable expectations of nature and her rivers. Being a freestone and low nutrient stream, the carrying capacity of the Cranberry would never fill angler’s appetites to harvest trophy trout by the cooler-load if the river was not stocked.
Give the river time to rebound once more from mismanagement of its resources and, done correctly, reasonable creel limits and seasons can be placed on stretches of its waters. Yet, those creel limits will just be nowhere near the level it is at now, and that means overcoming the current angler mindset of the river and how much she can actually provide.
In the end, most of my Cranberry excursions are in the fall now, before the stockings pick back up. After months of getting hammered and harvested by innumerable anglers, the river is almost barren. It flows at a trickle which prevents the West Virginia DNR from stocking the river with hatchery rainbow trout. A few other anglers might be seen sitting atop well-worn boulders casting lines into clear yet empty pools, they are in the right spot but will just have to wait a few more weeks for the stocking trucks to roll up.
Further upriver, roaming alone beneath a canopy of fall colors, questions repeat in my head: Why was this natural resource rejuvenated? Why is funding still in place to ensure its health? And, with so many accessible waters throughout the state to harvest quantities of stocked trout is it really necessary to do the same here? Again, I am left to imagine my wilderness experience and what is missing. Put bluntly, what is lost is the rare experience of fishing for native trout in a wild river that has an inspiring history. Instead, it is replaced by another state-supplied carnival game to cast your line into.