Wild, Wet and Untamed

Giles County, on the western edge of the state, is an outdoor sanctuary featuring the New River, the Jefferson National Forest and a few stunning natural landmarks, including the palisades at Eggleston. 

It’s not often that one gets to cruise down a great river with a bona fide outdoorsman, but the New River is one of America’s most dynamic waterways, and fishing guide Shawn Hash knows it as well as anybody—especially the 37 miles that course through Giles County, on the western edge of the state. During a late-spring, two-hour fishing jaunt, Hash points out stretches of Class I and II white water on the New River that have their own names—Surfin’ Wave, Typewriter and Hungry Jack—and their own reputations. “Oh, Hungry Jack!” Hash yells as we dip nose first in our raft into the rapids of the same name. “When that water’s high, Hungry Jack will eat you up!” During the trip, Hash lands a 30-inch muskie and a half-dozen smallmouth bass, then later claims it was a slow day. “Here,” he boasts, “we don’t have a day in the year when you don’t catch fish.”

At 41, Hash is an all-out river rat—a wild-haired and fun-loving man who runs Tangent Outfitters. You’ll seldom find him without a cell phone in one hand and a fishing pole in the other. He’s been running all parts of the New River for nearly 25 years and guiding folks down the river since 1992. He grew up in nearby Dublin, and now his homeport is Giles, a thickly forested county lying on the sunset side of Virginia Tech, abutting the West Virginia border along the Appalachian Trail.

It’s easy to sum up the treasures of Giles County: Think of hiking trails, waterfalls, covered bridges and the New River—believed to be one of the world’s oldest—all of which grow more appealing as the temperature climbs.

      The Jefferson National Forest flanks the outer edges of this 357-square-mile county, which was created in 1806 and named for William Branch Giles, a U.S. senator from Virginia at that time and later a Virginia governor. Arguably the best waterfall in Virginia can be found in Giles County, near Pembroke in the Jefferson National Forest. Called The Cascades, it’s a 66-foot-high cataract that creates a dazzling splash as it lands against a sloping rock wall. Today, it’s a ritual for Virginia Tech students to hike to the Cascades along a two-mile path. For many people, Giles is the untamed backyard of Blacksburg, an outdoor sanctuary with spellbinding scenery, whether one is standing quietly at overlooks in the Jefferson National Forest—named Wind Rock, War Spur and Angels Rest, all reached by hiking trails—or taking wide-eyed trips on the river.

     “I call it the motherland,” Hash says. “It’s just small-town America, but with an outdoor inventory that rivals anywhere else in the United States.”

     Hash’s afternoon excursion ends at Eggleston, an isolated village near two of the best-known natural landmarks in the state. Until the 1930s, Eggleston was the site of a spring-water resort. Even earlier, in the early 1800s, the place was called “Gunpowder Springs,” reportedly because the area’s spring water tasted, or smelled, like gunpowder. Nowadays, it attracts visitors who want to see the palisades of Eggleston—a series of ancient spires of dolomite that stand like statues along the river and are called names like Caesar’s Arch and Eye of the Needle. The best way to see these giant rock cliffs, not to mention many other spots in the county, is from the river; not far below the Va. 730 bridge, they pop dramatically into view. “At sunset,” Hash says, “the orange reflection from the river to the cliffs is magnificent.”

     The Palisades is also the name of Shaena Muldoon’s restaurant on Eg­gleston’s Village Street. There, head chef James Moore cooks up pork chops stuffed with rosemary and apples, as well as gourmet pizza and spicy shrimp. Muldoon, an affable woman who grew up in Eggleston, opened the business in March 2009 after her brother, Patrick, bought the building, once the home of an old-time general store. Before that, she’d traveled the world as a special events coordinator for various organizations, including the World’s Fair. Now, after a 27-year absence, she is excited to reconnect with her roots. “I always thought this was one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” says Muldoon, 45. “And I still believe it. The mountains, the rivers, the creeks—no matter where you drive, it’s just breathtaking.”

      Paul Moody would agree. He’s a 55-year-old river guide and entrepreneur who owns a home and garden center in nearby Pembroke, along with a rustic, capacious cabin that he rents out to visitors (through his firm New River’s Edge). Just beyond the Pembroke boat ramp, Moody’s A-frame cabin pokes out of the tree line, offering rustic quaintness for upwards of 10 people. The rattle and hum of passing cargo trains can be heard nearby. Moody notes that the largest communities in Giles are stretched along the parallel paths of U.S. 460 and the New River, which Moody calls the county’s silent common denominator. “Whenever the ferries came in,” Moody says, “towns or trading posts cropped up.”

     Pembroke was one of them, and today it’s considered the county’s headquarters for river recreation. It’s where you’ll find Moody’s New River’s Edge, Hash’s Tangent Outfitters, and the New River Canoe Livery, along with a collection of businesses (Canoe the New and New River Outdoor Company, to name two), all operated by husband-and-wife Britt and Leigh Stoudenmire. “We have folks that come in and do guided fishing trips,” Leigh Stoudenmire says. “The New River is one of the best for smallmouth bass. Right where we are, it is loaded.”

     The most well-known address in Pembroke is the Mountain Lake Resort Hotel. Located seven miles from U.S. 460, and ringed by a thick forest of hemlocks, the actual “mountain lake” is tiny and occupies a bowl inside Salt Pond Mountain at an elevation of 3,875 feet. It’s one of only two natural freshwater lakes in Virginia. (Bald Knob, the tallest point in Giles County at 4,361 feet, is near the lake and can be reached by a short hiking trail.)

     Various hotels have graced the Mountain Lake shoreline since 1857. The current stone structure—of 1936 vintage and offering modern accommodations without television—was featured in the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, a coming-of-age classic starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. A British reality show inspired by the movie, The Time of Your Life, was filmed on location at Mountain Lake as recently as June 2008 but has not been shown in the United States. The taping of the show was “insane,” says Emily Woodall, the managing director of the nonprofit Mountain Lake Conservancy. “I’d walk out of my office, and there would be half-naked British girls dancing.”

     Mountain Lake still lures visitors looking for the time of their lives, especially during the hotel’s “Dirty Dancing” weekends. Hotel general manager H.M. “Buzz” Scanland Jr. says guests also want to see the lake they saw on-screen. Unfortunately, there isn’t much lake to see. The lake is fed by several springs, and its water level rises with rainfall. But drought conditions in recent years have dramatically shrunk the body of water. The water level “has been up and down since 1999,” Scanland says. “Three years ago, it started down and has not recovered. The lake just totally went down.” Dropping to its lowest point in 100 years during October 2008, the lake was little more than a silt hole—a murky mess only about 15 feet by 15 feet, far down from its full pool of about 50 acres, Woodall says. “It looked like a huge crater.”

     About that time, guests discovered a pair of shoes caked in mud as well as coins, a class ring, a belt buckle—and human bones. All belonged to 37-year-old Samuel Ira Felder, a hotel guest who fell from a rowboat in 1921 and drowned. On September 30, 1921, hotel director T.G. Porterfield wrote a note to Felder’s brother, saying, “I regret very much to have to report that we have seen nothing whatever of the body. After the closing of the hotel, I personally made daily trips around the lake in a boat, but have seen no sign at all.”

     A few miles downstream, the courthouse town of Pearisburg can be found. Pearisburg got its name from Capt. George Pearis, a local ferryboat operator who donated 53 acres to establish Pearisburg as the seat of Giles County. Pearisburg’s first post office, called “Giles Court House,” opened in 1811. The population today remains just under 3,000. “We can’t claim to be big about many things,” says town manager Kenneth Vittum, “but we are the largest town in Giles County.” Echoing nearly everyone in Giles, he calls the river “a natural asset.” So is the Appalachian Trail, which runs past Pearisburg and brings anywhere from 800 to 1,200 thru-hikers to the town, according to Vittum.

     A downtown revitalization project has helped to restore old building façades—and pride—in Pearisburg, says Vittum. And a $1.2 million transportation enhancement grant soon will be used to replace lamps and sidewalks in a three-block corridor. On the town’s outskirts, the Inn at Riverbend offers spacious guestrooms plus an unforgettable overlook of the river, railroad and nearly every peak in Giles County. “The view pretty much sells itself,” says assistant innkeeper Eric Hanson.

Yet another river town, Narrows, is located in a thin gorge between East River Mountain and Peters Mountain, about five miles from Pearisburg. Narrows boasts a convenient trout stream called Wolf Creek, and also tumbling into town is Mill Creek, with its series of waterfalls. General contractor Allen Neely won accolades last year for his restoration of the MacArthur Inn, built in Narrows in the 1940s and named for the famous American general.

     From Narrows, the New River winds downstream several more miles before entering Bluestone Lake at the West Virginia border. It’s the last of many beautiful stretches of the waterway on the Virginia side of the line, and to guys like Hash and Moody, not a single mile should be missed. “Whenever I get to the river, it’s like an excitement building from my toes all the way up,” Moody says. “It’s just this energy that this river provides—the freshness and the solitude and the blend of nature. It must be the soul of Giles County.”

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