The rest of the story...

Here's where I tell you all the stuff that wouldn't fit in a 2-minute TV story.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sled Dogs in Virginia

One of the Huskies that pulled us on the New River Trail.
The first time you see it, you're torn between thinking it's beautiful and thinking it's funny.  Sled dogs pulling a person -- on a scooter.

The dogs are beautiful and athletic.  They lean into the harness as if it was the only thing that mattered.  Their blue eyes and contrasting white and silver fur shimmering in the sun.

Jenny, Tina, Sam and Wayne show me the "real" sleds.
And then there's the person in the back, looking like, well, not what you'd expect those gorgeous huskies to be pulling -- a two wheeled contraption without pedals that looks like it could come from Toys R Us.

On the other hand the people are having a blast, and so are their dogs.  

As a dog lover, I appreciate the people in this story.  Jenny and Sam Akers, Tina Gibson and Wayne Grim.  To a certain extent they backed into their new pastime.  Forgive the pun, but when you look at the back story it's kinda like the tail is wagging the dog.

I've got to believe most sled dog enthusiasts get into the sport saying something like, "Hey that looks like a fun winter sport, I think I'll get some dogs and give it a try."

Fair enough?

These people kinda went, "Hmmm now that I have these huskies, what am I supposed to do to keep them from chewing up the couch?"

Wayne let me try his rig.
You'll understand if hitching them to a sled wasn't the first thing that came to mind.  After all Virginia is not exactly the land of the mushers. 

Their interest originates with Siberian Husky Assist, which helps Huskies find "forever homes" in the area between Roanoke and Knoxville, TN.    Even Jenny Akers, who may be the biggest Husky lover in the group, told me during our interview, "Huskies aren't for everyone.  Open the door and they'll take off -- might never come back.  If a thief breaks into the house the Husky will help them pack."  In other words, the breed is not for everyone.

The Siberian Husky Assist website asks that you watch this video: 

Google the word Husky and you'll get ample warning that you may be biting off more than you can chew.  (Pun #2 -- sorry.)  They shed.  They have wolf-like tendencies.  They are big dogs, which often don't do well in small houses.  You get the point(s).

But these folks have figured it out.  They've adopted one dog and then another and another.  They meet at the nearly perfect New River Trail and they let their happy dogs burn off all that energy.  And the people thrive too.

They slow it down in the summer when the dogs can over heat.  In the winter they let the dogs pull the scooters and the sleds on wheels.  When it actually snows, it's like heaven for the dogs and their mushers.
Tina and one of her dogs.

Group shot.  Thanks for an interesting story.

I encourage you to take a look at the Siberian Husky Assist website.
Jenny Akers can be reached via e-mail at  Marcia Horne, president of the rescue is at

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Black Pot Chicken

Black Pot Chicken

Like many people I had waited in line at the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival for a taste of Black Pot Chicken.  And like many, I finally tired of waiting and walked away.  This year I decided to get to the bottom of it.  Or at least try.

As I interviewed people for this story as they stood in line, it was a common refrain.  Like a marathon, a mountain climb or Black Friday at the electronics store,  people were determined to get there.

Success in this line means literally tasting victory.

In the television story you can see the sizzle of the chicken cooked in peanut oil, and almost smell the aroma coming from the golden brown legs, thighs and breasts, as the Patrick County Ruritans go through their familiar paces.

To re-cap:  The Patrick County crew was at a national conference in Philadelphia in 1976, when some kindly and elderly fellow Ruritans gave them a copy of their own secret recipe.  Only one man, Phil Plaster, was given the secret, and to this day, only Phil has it.  It’s in his head and his safe deposit box.  His wife and his will have instructions about who gets it next.

The local guys came home and tried it at a July 4th celebration and knew they had a winner.  They signed up for a spot at the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival and they’ve been there ever since.  And so have the lines of people.

The guys I interviewed -- cook Will Walker, chicken batterer Ronnie Mabe, and secret holder Phil Plaster seem to love all this.  They grin when they talk about everyone leaving the room while Phil adds the secret ingredients.  They cut-up about Ronnie Mabe outliving Phil just so he can be next to know.  Will Walker, who is physically closer to the line of people by virtue of being the cook, has had ample opportunity to practice his answer to the inevitable question, “What makes this so good?” 

“I just do the cooking,” he dead pans.

Once again the great part about this job, and this segment, is that the people are so real.  These guys just enjoy what they do.  Go to a festival and sell secret chicken to appreciative festival goers.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Of Giant Holes and Iron Mines

This is a picture of overturned ore cars on the narrow gauge railway that carried iron ore from the area around the back of Mill Mountain to the valley below. The photo belongs to Roanoker Ralph Campbell.

I’m not sure if this is a story about history or recreation.

Or wonder.

I know that my interest originated while hiking, running and dog walking on the Chestnut Ridge Loop trail near Mill Mountain. (The five-plus mile trail generally loops around the Roanoke Mountain Campground.)

I spend a fair amount of time up there but it took a while to realize that something wasn’t right. The land just didn’t lie naturally. There were humps where there was no reason for humps. Ravines you would expect to have been created by creeks did not have water in the bottom.

Something else must have created the topography.

During a dog walk one Sunday morning; friend Dennis Campbell told me iron mines were the cause. He spoke of a narrow gauge railroad that once hauled the ore to the valley floor where it was scrubbed before it could be smelted. His father, who grew up roughly behind the Outback Steakhouse, had told him about being warned “not to play over there,” as a child. He had related those stories to Dennis.

After twenty-three years in the Roanoke Valley, this was a history lesson I hadn’t heard. I had to find out for myself.

Not so fast.

I figured I’d call some local historians, dig up some pictures at the History Museum of Western Virginia, go hike my beloved trail and be on my way to the next story.


No one was able to find any pictures of the mining activity. Few had any knowledge of the mines at all. All traces of the narrow gauge railway were gone. Finally the great Roanoke historian George Kegley unearthed some valuable information, and shared what he had found on camera.

He told me that a man, who has largely been forgotten by Roanoke historians, though he is clearly one of the area’s founding fathers, owned the mines. Ferdinand Rorer is well covered in the TV report, though I did not have the space to include an interesting passage from the society page and read aloud to me by Kegley:

“...with his invited guests, ore cars of the narrow gauge railroad were mounted and with the whistle of the little saddle backed steam engine sounding at numerous street crossings the little engine went south and east crowing the river on the narrow gauge bridge up past colonial heights (colonial Avenue) on to the Rorer Mines. Upon return all were treated to an elegant supper at Rorer Park Hotel.“

To my surprise, Kegley was energized by the re-emergence of Rorer. He tells me he plans to do further research on him.

As to the question of whether it’s about history or recreation – decide for yourself. Go walk the trail, starting from the overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway spur about a quarter mile past the entrance to the Roanoke Mountain Campground. As you walk in a counter clockwise direction, it’s about 3 miles to the area where the ground starts to look a little unusual. Use the pictures with this blog so you can recognize the topography.

In the meantime, if anyone has old photos of the mining activity, the railroad or anything else associated with this story, please e-mail me at If there’s enough there, I’ll do a follow up.

See you on the trail.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Sarver Cabin

It's not everyday that you are struck with wonder about how the impossible actually happened. And yet in my report on the Sarver Cabin... That's exactly what happened.

The Back Story

My good friend and long-time running buddy Mark Young had been telling me for years about an abandoned cabin he stayed near while doing a week-long hike on the Appalachian Trail. It was eerie, he said. Possibly haunted. More intriguing was how anyone could have lived in such a remote location, in inhospitable conditions in the 1800's.

That story stuck with me. I had wanted to do a segment on it, but even today the only way to get there is on foot, and it's a long, difficult hike. Not the kind where we can carry all the camera gear that's typically required. (I guess we aren't as tough as the Sarvers were.)

Technology Helps Out

A few months ago I purchased a Canon EOS 7D SLR camera. It's primarily a still camera used to take photographs. But after reading that some ad agencies were using its video function to shoot full-fledged commercials, and that the video quality was broadcast quality, I saw my chance to report on the cabin.

So Mark and I found a way to access the trail from the Craig County side and up we went. The hike is about 6-8 miles round trip, and the first hour is all uphill.

The turn for the Cabin is well marked as it is near an Appalachian Trail shelter built by the Roanoke Valley club within the past 10 years.

Even though we were expecting it, I had one of those moments of fulfilled anticipation as we turned the last corner and there were the remains Mark had remembered from 10 years ago.

Just as he had, I wondered how anybody could do it. Live up there on that mountain, in the cold winter months, with primitive heating and what I figured was poor land that must have been impossible to till. Why, I thought, would anyone do this?

I started calling historians. Nobody knew anything. I was about to give up and file a report on the "Mystery of Sarver Hollow."

The Answers

Then I called the Craig County Library, who told me to contact the historical society, which as it turned out, knew where I could actually talk to the great great grandsons of Henry Sarver, the man who built the cabin.

Russell and Sidney Sarver had his Civil war records. They had the death certificate of cabin co-builder and brother-in-law, James Elmore, who died in Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. There were pictures of ancestors, even Sarah Sarver, Henry's wife. They are both buried on the property. There was all kinds of information -- information that answered those questions of how and why.

They were homesteaders. Improve the land for a decade and it's yours. There are springs nearby -- one of the few sources of water on the mountain.

And they cleared the land and farmed it. In 1870 it wasn't the woodsy mountaintop we see now. The brothers described it as "hilly farmland."

The cabin is pretty much gone. Trees have fallen on it, and the chimneys are about all that's recognizable. An out building is still building-shaped, but the roof has caved in. The place has suffered much just in the ten years since Mark had stayed there.

Russell and Sidney say they've been back a few times, but at 61 & 59 respectively, they say the hike is pretty hard on them.

I asked Russell if he would like to see it built back.

"If you go up there, you can almost feel the presence of ‘em," he said. "Especially those of us who are old enough to remember seeing my grandparents there. It’s actually something I think about a lot ... Yes sir I’d love to. But I don’t guess we ever will."

At least now we know a little more. We've reconstructed the story, but there's plenty of room left for wonder.

I would like to thank and commend the folks at the Craig County Historical Society, and especially Jane Johnson and Jay Polen, for their help in researching this story. These folks don't want history to slip away from us, so they research and publish books every year. Because of Jane Johnson, I went from not being able to know anything about this cabin -- to the detailed descriptions of the lives of generations of Sarvers. Jay Polen actually took the time to come to the Sinking Creek store and interview with us. Again -- Thanks.

If you go

Follow Route 42 from the town of Newport. You'll see where the Appalachian Trail crosses the highway a few miles outside town near the community of Huffman. Hike from there. You can get about 3/4 of a mile closer by taking your next right and bearing right at the fork in the road. There is a small parking place next to the trail. Head uphill. Have fun.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Open Studios Botetourt

Drive the back roads surrounding Roanoke and you see a lot of lovely countryside. Forgive the cliche, but especially this time of year it's as pretty as a picture.

What you likely have not seen are the actual pictures.

Ok -- technically, I believe a "picture" is a photograph, and I'm talking about paintings, and woodworking and pottery. And as it turns out, there are a number of highly talented artists who create this work in Botetourt County.

Open Studios Botetourt
, subtitled, Art in the Country is an opportunity for people to visit these artists where they work -- and often live -- in order to better understand the art and the artist. I should throw in that the art is for sale.

For my story on Fox 21/27 we had time to interview two of the artists: Ed Bordett, and Dreama Kattenbraker. We visited Dreama's home, where her garage has become a cozy studio. Ed is located in an old car dealership in Fincastle, where he paints and creates hand-crafted prints amidst a collection of cool antiques, and his own gallery.

Art is like wine. You know what you like -- though I'm no expert, I can say that there is quality there. I liked a lot of what I saw. These are not amateurs or hobbyists. They take their art and their space personally. So it's a big deal that you are invited into that space.

Both Ed and Dreama felt that if people got to know the artists, learned their motivation and had a glimpse of their psyches, they might see beyond the images on the canvas.

It's no secret that arts sales have been lagging in current economy. Credit this group who decided to do something about it. they created this tour. Botetourt County Tourism is helping them, along with the Bank of Fincastle. They have a marketing plan, a brochure with a map and Ed is printing lots of signs in his shop. They even have a Facebook page.
I have spent quite a lot to time with a third artist in this group. Mark Young is a long-time running buddy. We've logged hundreds of miles training for marathons, and I've had the privilege of spending time in his studio, and adjacent home, in which much of his work is displayed. When I see one of his oils, I see Mark.

I encourage you to take advantage of where we live. Enjoy the countryside. Take a drive, see the scenery and see the art.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Miss America IX

Going fast on any boat is a thrill. But going fast in the Miss America IX is more thrilling.

Not only is the wind in your face, and the exhaust from those big Chevy engines, not to mention the unmuffled noise but there is all that wood reaching out in front of you.

And all the history behind you.

Charles Mistele recognized all of that when he saw just the shell of this boat in a warehouse in the midwest. Only in his 20’s at the time, he knew this boat was special, and felt called to be the one who resurrected her.

As we told you in the television story, he had told the owner that he wanted to buy it if it ever became available. When the phone rang two years later, the owner confided that another man was also interested, but Charles was first in line, if he could decide that same day. He and his wife drove several hours to see it.

“When we looked at the boat in the warehouse it was in terrible shape. The motors were missing, the wood needed repair, it was a mess,” he said. His wife went to sit in the car, while Charles poured over it and talked to the owner.

Halfway home, his wife said, “I’m sure glad you didn’t buy that boat.” Charles looked at her with a raised eyebrow and an tilt of the head that said, “Well actually, I did.”

There was an incredulous discussion that followed, where his wife noted that they did not yet have other essential things in their young lives, such as furniture.

The argument passed. But the boat survived.

Together they lovingly restored the Miss America IX. And it became the fast and furious attraction at boats shows when there was time to show it.

Then, two years ago, Diane became ill. “I almost lost her,” Charles told me as we sat by the dock.

He picks up the story from there. “She’s okay but in that process of healing she said, you know we’ve had this old boat all these years. We have to make an effort of taking this boat around and showing it at events where we’ve never been before. And I said, ‘Yeah some day we have to do that,’ and she took her glasses off and there was a tear in her eye and she said Chuck, someday was two years ago. We’ve got to get going. I don’t want you to be 75 … and look back and say I wish I had, I should have, I could have… Why didn’t I? I blew it.”

So now at their own expense, Charles and Diane travel the country, taking in the sites and sharing the Miss America with the nation – at their own expense.

If you get a chance, you should go see it. Like I said, this boat has some history.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Punkin' Chunker

Every television station in America will air a story on something unusual to do with pumpkins this fall. There are the stories about underwater pumpkin carving, pumpkins so large they must be lifted with a crane, and the fine art of carving intricate faces and designs that go well past the toothy grin of the jack-o-lantern on your front porch.

Into that mix then comes the genre of stories involving clever ways to hurl pumpkins across the field -- or in some cases, many fields. Delaware even hosts the national competition for pumpkin hurlers.

There are trebuchets, slingshots, and in the case of my own story, canons.

This is all great fun. Really. You might say it’s wasteful to splatter pumpkins across some random hillside, yet people line up by the hundreds to either see or do it. I’m betting you couldn’t take your eyes off the video of the Umberger brothers and young Makaela shooting these perfect pumpkins into next week.

We can wonder why it’s so much fun, perhaps even debate it. But for Bobby Williams, the third generation of his family to operate Williams Orchard it’s simple: money.

His grandfather started the 700 acre operation in the 1920’s. “Back then we could operate by growing things and selling them to local people,” he told me as we stood in front of the store that still sells apples, locally produced preserves, and yes, pumpkins. “Back in the 50’s and 60’s people had root cellars and they would back in here and buy a pick-up truck load of apples and store them all winter.”

Gradually, supermarkets, better transportation and technology combined with foreign competition made the apple business less profitable. So Bobby started planting pumpkins about 30 years ago.

The pumpkins, led to hayrides, pick-your-own patches, a corn maze, wholesale vending and the Punkin Chunker. Though the store is full of apples, Williams says pumpkins do more business. “It’s about 60-40 pumpkins,” he said.

Williams isn’t alone. Farmers across Virginia are turning to “agri-tourism” or as Williams calls it, “agri-tainment.”

That’s why he conned his son-in-law, Patrick Umberger into designing and building the Punkin’ Chunker.

It’s five dollars a pop, to shoot the Chunker, using a Wile E. Coyote-looking plunger device, but that’s not really where the money is.

“Oh, we make some money from people coming to shoot it,” says Williams, but really, it’s just an attraction.”

That it is. You can buy a pumpkin at Wal-Mart. But if you want to see a pumpkin launched out of sight from a 40 foot canon, you’ll need to drive a bit.

Williams is betting you will.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Cycling Smiths

Troy and Tyler put on their gear before riding.

To view the story that aired on Fox, click here.

Anyone who knows me well, also knows that former Roanoke Police Sergeant Stan Smith and I go way back. We started running together in the mid-90's from the Roanoke YMCA.

Stan and I would run no matter the weather, 12 months of the year. There were the hottest, most humid days in the summer when, post run, with shoes literally squishing from sweat, we would compare our clothing to see who might still have a quarter-sized area where the sweat hadn't penetrated. If there was a single dry spot on your body then you were the loser as the other had pushed himself just a little harder.

There were many, many cold, windy, snowy and icy nights when we were the only ones running through Smith and Wasena Parks. Neither one of us wanted to be the one who backed out. So we ran. We took a lot of pride in being the hardiest souls on the road.

During those runs, Stan would talk about his son Troy, whom I later met and admired as a first class cyclist. As Troy grew into a competitive rider, I would receive updates on which events he was racing and how often he had won.

Later, a proud new grampa, Stan would talk of Troy's son, Tyler. The first steps, the first word -- all the typical grandpa stuff. A few years later he would tell stories of Sunday afternoons with Tyler in at Green Hill park, helping him to ride his little bicycle.

Eventually the police chief shifted Stan's schedule and we were no longer able to run as much. Then Stan discovered cycling, and his running days were behind him. Stan had become a cyclist.

I would occasionally ride with Stan, but there was no regular mechanism to keep us on a schedule. So we stayed in touch, but drifted apart somewhat.

Fast forward to this year. I'm participating in the Wilderness Ride in the New River Valley with my wife Mary and some friends, when Stan and a large group come rolling up at one of the rest stops, In Stan's group is grandson Tyler. Tyler was ten or eleven at the time and much smaller than the adults in the group, but he had a nice bike and full cycling kit (outfit). I asked Stan if Tyler could do the entire ride of 75 miles and he just laughed. "This is a walk in the park for Tyler," he said. He then told me about all the races Tyler was entering and winning -- often against boys three and four years older.

I made a mental note, "that's a good story."

So that's the story we did. Three generations of cycling Smiths. Stan the now-retired police officer, Troy who is still the MAN in Roanoke cycling circles, and a former member of the Virginia Tech squad, and now young Tyler who seems unfazed by weeks of cycling that include up to 300 miles. They often ride together.

During one of the interviews for the story Stan mentioned people he knows who see their grand kids, once or twice a year. He wonders how they can see so little of their grandchildren.

Others might wonder how Stan, Troy and Tyler crank out 30 mile rides as easily as most people walk their dogs.

When conceptualizing this story I really couldn't decide where to put the focus. On Tyler's success at such a young age? On a close knit family that rides together? Of three generations who just love bicycles. Maybe a focus on the DNA that enables them to do what most people cant?

In the end, it was a little of all four. I'm not sure what your take-away will be except that it's pretty cool and that as they say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fishing the New River with Mike Smith

Anyone who knows my interests knows that if it were up to me, John Carlin's Virginia would actually be John Carlin Goes Fishing In Virginia.

But, that is not what the folks at Fox had in mind when we started this segment just about a year ago. "But you can do a few fishing stories," they said.

The story I've never done is muskie fishing. Muskies, for those who don't know are kind of like freshwater barracuda. They are long and slender with a mouth full of teeth. Muskies grow to be huge. Virginia anglers consistently catch monsters over 40" long.

The problem from a TV perspective is that they are really hard to catch. You can't do a story on muskie fishing, unless someone actually catches a muskie.

So I've been asking around to find the best muskie fisherman I could. A man who ran a campground along the New River suggested I call Mike Smith at Greasy Creek Outfitters. Mike, he said, "caught a lot of muskies."

So I called Mike and asked him if he thought he could catch a muskie in the four hours or so we could devote to the story.

When he stopped laughing, he said, "No."

"It takes 10,000 casts to catch a muskie," he said. "We might catch one, but let's shoot for a big smallmouth bass and see if we don't luck into a muskie along the way."

Turns out that Mike himself is quite a story. He holds a Ph.D. and teaches English at Bluefield State in West Virginia, where he is both a professor and a dean.

He teaches when school is in session and fishes the rest of the time, guiding other fisherman looking for his expertise on his home water – the New River. He guides for Greasy Creek Outfitters and increasingly for New River Fly Fishing, which offers fly fishing only opportunities.

“I got into fly fishing 10-12 years ago and now that’s my specialty,” he told me. “I would like to fly fish exclusively.” He still takes many clients, however who prefer more conventional spin fishing.

You’d think his time would be completely used up with the two pursuits, but he’s found a way to design flies for the Flyman Fishing Company, many of which were just released this week. He’s also written several books on fishing in Virginia. (Hey – he’s got the job I want!)

(Click here for a list of books Mike has written.)

So we decided we would drift the four miles of river upstream from Austinville, throw some flies, talk about English, fly design, muskies and whatever else came up.

In the TV story you will see me casting a massive 10” muskie fly. Try that for about an hour and you’ll understand what tired means. As the day wore on and the muskies continued not to bite and my arm began to feel like it might fall off, I asked him if we weren’t at least close to the magic 10,000th cast.

“I’ve been counting,” he said. “You’re right about at 300.”

It looks like the only thing harder than catching a muskie may be doing a TV story on it.

I’m sure I’ll keep trying.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The 29er craze is real.

I've been around mountain bikes long enough to be dangerous. My wife and I bought a pair of his and hers entry level bikes in the late 80's or early 90's.

Back then it was a revelation. You could actually ride a bicycle in the woods!

Eventually there were better and better bikes in the garage, and racing came into the picture. I did ok in the lower classes, winning some gear and a Commonwealth Games medal. I also crashed in 1993 during a race at Snowshoe, breaking both of my elbows in the process.

That's pretty much my mountain bike resume. I still ride some, but most of my energy in the past 10 years has been devoted to running and riding on the road.

So it was a bit of a shock when I walked into Just the Right Gear to interview owner, proprietor and local endurance legend Steve Hetherington for this story.

The bikes are lighter, faster, feature better suspension and braking systems and have an upgraded feel over the bikes I left behind when I departed the sport for skinny tires and Nikes. I felt like a 30 year old at the prom.

The newest innovation is the 29-inch wheel set. Gradually the trend is rolling over the long established 26-inchers.

"It's a gimmick," one rider told me as she cruised into the parking lot at Carvin's Cove, fresh off the trail. "I don't see any need to change." Another rider agreed, saying he had just invested in a new frame and had an expensive set of 26-inch wheels. He was more than happy with his ride. In fact he was grinning.

Posts on the Internet suggest the larger wheels are heavier, that they don't handle as nimbly as the 29ers, and that suspended 29ers don't have the full range of motion or travel compared to the 26ers.

I put all of those questions to Hetherington, who put most of the objections to rest. He says after three years the trend is getting stronger. Half the bikes he sells in his shop -- and he just found out it's been named to Bicycling Magazine's Top 100 list -- are 29ers. He even sells a brand called Niner, which makes nothing else.

As you will see in the TV story on Fox 21/27 in our demonstration, it's clear that a larger wheel rolls over roots and rocks more easily than a smaller wheel. Likewise, it doesn't drop into ruts as deeply. The result is an easier and smoother ride in the woods.

It turns out that the 26 inch wheels go back to what was available when industry pioneers were converting old beach cruisers into trail bikes. They had 26-inch wheels, so that's where the industry went.

Now it is clearly headed down a new trail, one that looks like it will stick.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Shot Tower -- An American Curiosity

The Shot Tower, along the New River Trail in Wythe County captured my imagination years ago. It would have been in the late 80's or early 90's when I discovered the trail as a place to ride my mountain bike. (They had just become widely available at bike shops.)

We did family outings on the trail. First with my now college-aged boys riding on the seat on the back of my bike. Later they rode their own bikes on the hard-packed surface enjoying a ride that offered nothing in the way of hills, and plenty of excitement with trestles and old railroad tunnels to ride over and through.

And there above the trail just off Interstate 77, was (and is) the Shot Tower.

In the TV story we showed how liquid (melted) lead was dumped through a sieve creating droplets that fell 150 feet. Along the way they would harden into perfectly round musket balls, or smaller, bird shot. At the bottom, the lead's fall was cushioned by a cauldron of water. Conveniently, the bottom was at river level, and boatmen could transport the product down the New River.

Though it was only used for actual shot making for a brief portion of its 200+ year history, from approximately 1804 - 1839, it stands today as a marvel and a curiosity.

On the outside, the part that sticks up into the air is a graceful structure, and unlike anything else you've ever seen. From the entrance looking down, is a shaft that drops 75 feet through solid limestone bedrock. I asked how they made that hole back then.

"With picks and shovels," said Park Interpreter Patrick McFall.

One of the many tourists who showed up while we were shooting the story asked, how they knew that 150 feet was the proper distance.

It goes back to England and a man named William Watts, who built a tower on the side of his house and kept adding on until he got the distance right. Thomas Jackson brought that information with him to Southwestern Virginia.

Somebody in the group remarked that Watts must have had a very understanding wife, to allow him to build a tower on the side of the house and play with molten lead.

Whether its carving a 75-foot hole into the landscape, making musket balls or figuring out how to make musket balls, it's cool to have the chance to marvel at how we arrived where we are today.

If you would like to see the Shot Tower, you need to plan to be there on a major summer holiday. (Labor Day is the next one on the schedule) or contact the New River Trail State Park headquarters at Foster Falls. The Rangers that I worked with on this story said they typically try to accommodate as many requests as they can -- but it's impossible to handle everything.

You might also be interested in volunteering to lead tours through the relatively new Americore program, which provides tour guides and or interpreters at all 35 of Virginia's State Parks.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The first thing you should do is check out Kurt Steger’s pronounced “Stager”) website. If you have any doubts about his talent or the authenticity of his approach that should settle it.

It might very well be that he could mass produce pieces of art with his look and style. The fact is that he doesn’t.

He sequesters himself away on his mountaintop retreat, living in a small (I mean small trailer--maybe 300 square feet?) and living with his work.

He “watches” pieces of wood in their natural setting for years. Pulls them to the front of his work shop and “sits” with them (not literally) for sometimes months, until they tell him what it should look like as a finished product.

“What I want to point out is that we are always in connection with nature. Man and nature are always coming up against each other. Whether we are in the woods or in NYC we are always on that edge of meeting nature,” he said.

If you look at his work in any detail, you’ll see that he focuses on that place where man and nature meet. He is obsessed with it.

Think about how his approach to what he does compares to yours. Let me tell you that in my section of Roanoke County suburbia which I affectionately call cul de sac corner, we do not sit around and look at pieces of branch or roots until they “tell us what to do.”

Nor would we take one another seriously if we did. We are too busy running to soccer games and driving mini vans. Yet, after half a day with Kurt, who has forsaken family life to live a hermit-like existence, you understand that he is legit. He needs that time to:
a. think about the work
b. complete the work.

He simply is not willing to compromise. He wants to be able to kick off his shoes (“I prefer to work barefoot.”) and work to the wee hours of the morning if the mood strikes him, or in some cases, if he is driven by the passion to see a work manifest itself.

We went there to do a story on the Burden Boat Project, which in fact we did. But I am most pleased to have had the chance to meet Kurt, to see how he thinks and to realize that he is what he says he is.
The Burden Boat Project will appear at the Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts, as part of a show entitled, The 9/11 Arts Project. Healing 10 Years Later.

From the Smith Farm website: At the core of our work is the belief that each of us harbors enormous powers of healing within. We also recognize that there are both new and time-tested techniques to enhance health and well-being- even in the midst of crisis. Our integrated approach of stress reduction and inner quiet, art-making and telling your story, supportive listening and loving community, healthy lifestyle choices and state-of-the-art medical care can birth simple yet profound changes that radically transform the experience of illness.

The show runs from August 22 -- September 30, 2011. During that time visitors will be asked to write down their burdens on a piece of rice paper. When the show closes there will be a ceremony only this time Kurt will use water instead of the traditional fire. "Fire is too closely associated with the tragedy," he said. The water will destroy the rice paper and with it, the burdens written there.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bluebirds Along the Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of Roanoke’s great treasures. If you’ve followed my reporting and maybe even some of my activities over the years, you may have noticed that it’s a resource I’ve always enjoyed.

With a natural calling to run, bicycle and more recently, drive my Mini-Cooper, I’ve spent more time on the Parkway than most. Despite the time and mileage logged, I’ve never known the story behind the bluebird boxes that dot the landscape along Roanoke’s section of the road.

Were they maintained by someone? Monitored? A Boy Scout project of some kind? A state or federal project maybe when I was young my folks saying that bluebirds were fussy. Boxes had to be a certain height, face a certain direction and that getting a pair to nest was a great accomplishment. That was all I knew about bluebirds – except that there were these boxes I had run and biked past literally hundreds of times.

It turns out they are maintained by the Roanoke Valley Bird Club, which monitors the boxes during nesting season. Only members of the club or approved volunteers may open the boxes. They count the eggs and the young and turn the numbers over to a larger organization, which presumably puts them in a database to track bluebird numbers.

The Bird Club also works to protect the nests from snakes and other predators who prey upon they eggs and the young. They allowed me to help install a snake guard during our story.

Kudos to Alyce Quinn, who along with her husband and another couple, have been chairing the committee that oversees this bluebird trail and two others in the region. Alyce has been in charge of the trail for 13 of the 30 years the trail has been in existence.

(By the way, Alyce says the birds are not particularly fussy here in Virginia, they just want a nesting site that is safe. She says they depend upon man-made boxes because cavities in trees are too scarce in our modern world.)

When you watch the story – pay attention to the part where Alyce demonstrates her ability to identify the birds in the trees by their songs. It’s clear that the members of the bird club are very good at what they do – and that birding can be a lot of fun.

Next time you’re on the Parkway slow down and take a look at the boxes. You might see a mother bird looking out at you. You’ll definitely see the results of a lot of hard work by Alyce and her team.

Other bluebird information: Virginia Bluebird Society