Almost Heaven: In the Land of Canaan

West Virginia is full of surprises. Take the Canaan Valley for instance. In a land of densely forested mountains, who would expect a bowl-shaped valley that, at 3200’ in elevation, is the highest large valley east of the Rockies? And who would expect that valley to hold such rich and extensive wetlands, with a climate and flora more typical of Maine and Canada?

The Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is situated here, and one sunny morning my friends and I dropped in for a short visit.

With only a little time, and 16,550 acres to explore, where do we start? “The Freeland Boardwalk,” came the answer. A nice short walk at the wild edge of forest, grassland, and wetlands.

Here’s a surprise, and some advice: don’t be a tourist. The locals pronounce it “Kuh-NANE.” Not the way I learned in Sunday School!

Unlike deeply forested Spruce Knob and Cathedral State Park, there were few trees in this area of Canaan Valley NWR. This open habitat may not have been to my friends’ taste, but I enjoyed the change of scenery. Plus, there were lots of flowers to photograph. Asters and goldenrods were everywhere.

A lot of water ran beneath all the grasses, shrubs and wildflowers, though it was often hard to see. We soon came upon this strange sight. Surprise! What’s going on here?

Looking closer, we saw bubbles. Perhaps Madam Witch has something boiling in her cauldron? Nope – it’s a limestone spring. Layers of limestone slope from the mountains to the valley. Pressure in the underlying aquifer forces water up through cracks in the limestone, to escape in silty bubbles.

Asters. My go-to book for flower identification, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, has eight pages devoted to goldenrods and ten to asters. Which aster is this?

I have no idea. But they sure are pretty!

Before this visit, I could have named a half dozen types of wetlands, and thought the list complete. Surprise! Canaan Valley has an astounding 23 types! This was once a beaver pond. The residents moved out some time ago, and the pond filled in, leaving a patchwork of pools, shrub thickets, and wet meadows. Wetlands are one of the most ecologically diverse – and important – habitats on Earth. I was glad to see this one, like most of the wetlands in the Valley, protected by the National Wildlife Refuge.

Goldenrod. Just goldenrod. That’s all you’re going to get from me.

Some of the Refuge was once pastureland. It’s been more than twenty years since it was grazed. Left untouched, this would now be woodlands; as Don says, “Everything wants to be a forest.”

The old fields are maintained as meadows by occasional mowing, for the benefit of songbirds and other critters that use grassland habitat.

Here and there, marvelously twisted old snags poked above the wildflowers and grasses. We saw a kingbird perched on one, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. Alas, he was too fast for my camera. Old dead trees make wonderful hotels, with cozy cavities for nesting and an all-you-can-eat buffet of bugs and grubs open round the clock.

Nearby I spied a bumblebee at work on an aster, yellow pollen sac full and bulging at his hind end. Land of milk and honey, indeed.

Further along, a reforestation effort was underway. Thousands of balsam fir, red spruce and eastern hemlock trees have been planted.

A fence surrounded the young trees to protect them from hungry deer. These balsam firs stood tall and proud.






Surprise! That huge green mound was a hummock of sphagnum and haircap moss. I’m accustomed to sphagnum; we see it all the time in New Jersey. But never in such a tall mound.

A meadow medley of wildflowers and worn old wood.

In the other direction, across the road, the asters and goldenrods watched over the crisply mowed pasture and tidy red barn of a local farm.

Lift up thine eyes to the hills… Where the sun shines brightly on Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Remember these beautiful blue skies and puffy white clouds! For another West Virginia surprise lurks around the bend, as the lovely sunny morning we enjoyed in the land of Canaan would soon turn to something altogether more foreboding…