Highland Profiles is a series highlighting West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s taken some time for me to get to know Charlie Waters, in part because she’s a profoundly humble person. When I first moved here, I mostly knew of her as the person who taught my friends how to ski or who inspired them to move to West Virginia. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Charlie while biking in Davis, skiing at White Grass, and jogging through Canaan Valley. And each time we chat, I discover something new.
She’s an accomplished athlete in nearly every outdoor pursuit, and she hasn’t slowed down one bit since moving to West Virginia in 1981. She’s a wonderful artist who is endlessly inspired by the patterns she observes outdoors, from tree bark to snow resting on leaves. And she’s a dedicated teacher and mentor, who has helped countless people explore West Virginia’s expansive hills and hollows.
While chatting for this article, I learned yet another thing about Charlie. She is deeply thoughtful about her place in the community and the changes that are happening as we invest more heavily in West Virginia’s outdoor recreation economy. Our conversation about her adventures in the Mountain State, lifelong investment in experiential learning, and hopes for the future is a gentle reminder to bring kindness, humility, and an open mind wherever you roam.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your coming to West Virginia story?
I grew up on a farm in rural Illinois, outside of Chicago. I went to college at the University of Illinois, which had an artist-in-residence program. One artist owned a farm with friends in Terra Alta in Preston County. Another artist took us on a trip down the San Juan River and backpacking in the Grand Canyon. That was my first introduction to adventuring and whitewater. After a few years of coming out to Terra Alta during school breaks, I decided to move to West Virginia. I wanted to be a river guide, practice experiential learning, and do small-scale farming—all of which seemed more exciting than failing school.
How did you end up in Tucker County?
I was a river guide for Appalachian Wildwaters for about 12 years; eight of those were full-time. I guided on the Cheat, Tygart, New, and Gauley rivers. I met Tom Preston through guiding, and his wife Janet told me about White Grass Ski Touring Center. It was White Grass’s second year and they were looking for another cook, so I applied for and got the job. I would spend the weekends in Canaan Valley, and then drive back to the farm in Preston County, which I still own with my college friends. There was a small community of people in Davis and Canaan, so I decided to move there in 1981. We worked on the rivers in the summer and at the ski areas in the winter. I also got a part-time job at East-West Printing. We were all figuring out how to make a living. We had this running joke that the only reason we lived here was that we didn’t have enough money to leave—which was pretty true. There really wasn’t any place to go out, so we went biking, skiing, boating, and had potlucks. Every once in a while, we would splurge and go out to Sirianni’s Café.
What’s your most memorable paddling experience?
I was a halfway decent paddler, but I would freak myself out. One of the worst things I did was paddle a ducky down the Upper Gauley. I swam most of the major rapids. Then I open-boated it and swam a good number of the rapids again. When you paddle above class III whitewater, you have to totally believe in yourself. I realized that I just wasn’t cocky or confident enough. It wasn’t scary necessarily, but it was stupid. Once I figured that out, I had a lot more fun paddling the New, Cheat, and Lower Gauley rivers.
How did you get into mountain biking?
I came to West Virginia with a road bike. Alice Fleischman and I went out on a mountain bike ride once, and I just remember her flying downhill so fast. I thought, I gotta learn how to do that. Eventually I got a mountain bike and I’ve been mountain biking ever since. The coolest thing that I’ve done recently was a three-day, 240-mile gravel biking trip from Canaan Valley to Fayetteville. I started on a rainy, 40-degree day. I got about a half mile from my house and put a garbage bag on in an attempt to keep my clothes dry. I kept biking even though the weather didn’t get much better until the next afternoon. I was kind of anxious the whole time because I was traveling by myself, but I kept meeting people along the way who were really nice. The second day I ended up biking 80 or 90 miles because I didn’t want to climb three big hills on the last day. I pedaled all the way through the Williams River and into the Cranberry. I ended the second day with a long descent into the Cranberry in complete darkness—it was thrilling.
Where did you learn how to ski?
I first cross-country skied when I was 10 or 11 years old. My older brother and sister-in-law took my sister and me to this really cool place called Black Hawk Ridge in Wisconsin. It was a cross-country ski trail system with rustic cabins and a lodge. We spent the weekend there, skiing on wooden skis. I went home and immediately bought a pair of cross-country skis so I could go ski around the golf courses in Illinois. But I really learned to ski at White Grass, backcountry style, with all the best skiers we’ve collected here through the years. Terry Peterson taught me how to telemark ski. We learned through a lot of experimentation and failure, but we had a great time and were always pushing ourselves to get better. One of my skiing highlights was racing the American Birkebeiner, a 50K classical or freestyle ski race in northern Wisconsin. In the end, I enjoyed training at White Grass and Timberline more than the racing.
How has your experience of outdoor adventure changed over time?
I would like to say that I’ve mellowed out a little bit, but I don’t think that I have. I biked Splashdam (an impossibly rocky trail in Davis – editor) last night and it was just so fun and exhilarating. I actually feel like I do more now than I used to do. Maybe I’m a little more committed to playing outside now because I feel like if I want to keep being able to do it, then I gotta keep doing it. I never really cared about speed or high-performance; I was always more into spending a boatload of time outside. I still want to go for a three- or four-hour bike ride or ski rather than a shorter outing.
What was your path into outdoor education?
After moving to West Virginia, I went back to school at Davis & Elkins College and got my undergraduate degree in recreation education. I taught a backpacking class, a whitewater paddling class, and a cross-country ski class for D&E’s recreation department. That led me to get a job at the Mountain Institute (now known as Experience Learning) on Spruce Knob as a field instructor during the summer. In the winter, I taught cross-country skiing at White Grass and downhill skiing and snowboarding at Timberline. Eventually those experiences morphed into running an outdoor education program with some friends called Adventure Skool.
How was working at the Mountain Institute?
It was probably the most intense and influential job I ever had. The Mountain Institute was an international non-profit organization with an outdoor education program near Spruce Knob. It was hardcore. We would camp in rain or snow, and sometimes both, for five days at a time. Our rain gear wasn’t very good and it was often really cold. People can handle a lot more adversity than they think they can, but only if they don’t have the option to bail out. This was true for the instructors as much as it was for the kids! We’d always debrief at the end of each trip, and it was so interesting to learn that the kids who had the most profoundly miserable experiences were often the ones who said it was the best experience they’d ever had.
Why did you start Adventure Skool?
The Mountain Institute worked with private school kids from Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. I thought it was a shame that the West Virginia outdoors were being used for other kids, but not our own. So, I started Adventure Skool with Carrie Hawkins and Dave Clark. Then Stacy Kay and Sue Haywood helped out. We ran five-day sessions for kids ages six to 12. We paddled the Cheat, climbed at Seneca Rocks, mountain biked, and taught them camping and navigating skills. We ran Adventure Skool for seven years, which brought a lot of people together who wanted local kids to have access to outdoor adventures.
How did you expand the reach of Adventure Skool?
A few friends and I took adventure and outdoor learning into the public school system as part of an AmeriCorps program sponsored by the Canaan Valley Institute. I worked with Shannon Anderson and Vicki Fenwick-Judy to develop a program called Fifth Grade Connections, where we led outdoor trips for fifth graders in Tucker County. We organized activities around natural history, local culture, geology, stream studies, and art.
What impact has experiential learning had on you?
A thread that has gone through everything I’ve done from my adventuring to teaching is a real belief in experiential learning. I first heard about experiential learning in an education class at the University of Illinois and thinking, “That makes so much sense. I’m going to move to West Virginia and do my experiential learning as a river guide and back-to-the-lander.” It didn’t look or feel like success for a long time. I didn’t make much money or have a real job by most people’s definition, even though the work I did wasn’t easy. But it was an exciting way to educate myself, and it’s something that I’ve kept as part of my teaching practice.
Are you still a student of experiential learning?
I think so, particularly with my long bike and ski trips. I bike to places that are somewhat unknown, where I don’t know what I’m going to encounter. I don’t always like taking risks, but it’s a cool challenge that keeps a person young and interested in life and not complacent.
What’s kept you here for so long?
I left twice to go to Alaska, which made me realize how accessible West Virginia is for such a wide variety of activities. You don’t have to drive five hours to go skiing or boating. Until a few years ago, West Virginia was relatively undiscovered, which I loved. I am definitely struggling with the change that’s happening here. It’s becoming more populated and more people want to use outdoor spaces now. It makes sense that new rules need to be imposed to mitigate the impacts, but it’s also sad to let go of a time when I could ski and bike anywhere with my dogs. Not everything about West Virginia has changed, but I worry about losing that feeling of remoteness. That’s why I’ve gotten into gravel biking—I can go to more remote places.
Any advice for people who want to move to West Virginia?
A lot of people are attracted to this place because of the beauty, openness, freedom, and community. And I think people move here because they want to be part of this community. But it’s important to take the time to learn how this place works instead of trying to turn it into wherever you came from. This is a lesson I had to learn, and still have to learn on a regular basis, as I am also an outsider in many peoples’ eyes, especially working in our public school system. People have loved this place for a lot of years, and not always in the same way. We’re at a critical point now where we need to figure out how to keep this place special.