I’m not exactly sure where I am. I wouldn’t say I’m lost just yet, but I’m a little unsure of my current location. I think I took a wrong turn on an old logging road somewhere between Summit Lake and the Cranberry River. Wrong turns are easy to do here.
The Cranberry Wilderness and Backcountry areas comprise over 60,000 acres across some of the most remote land in West Virginia. The terrain is rugged, the brush can be thick, and the trails are often overgrown and covered with massive deadfall. There is no cell phone service, and route finding is difficult.
I could easily retrace my steps, but it goes against my religion somehow. Much like in life, I have an idea where I want to go and stubbornly think I can get there if I persist long enough. I’m pretty sure if I continue north and go down in elevation, I will eventually find the familiar waters of the Cranberry River. The number of cliffs, boulder fields, rhododendron thickets, and greenbrier thorns I will encounter along the way, however, remains to be seen. Being a little lost off-trail here can conjure mixed emotions. I feel a combination of adrenaline and apprehension due to my uncertain location, a pang of excitement for exploring a new area, and the familiar feeling of peace that comes with complete solitude.
My feet are getting tired and my back is starting to hurt, but given the position of the sun through the trees, I think I need to better understand my location before I stop for a snack. I can spend the night if absolutely necessary, but a bivvy is certainly not my preferred plan for tonight. After several hours of bushwhacking, my photography gear is getting heavy. I learned long ago that when I go places without my camera, I might regret it. Oftentimes I won’t take a single photograph during my wanderings, but I always like to know that I can explore with the lens if I should so choose. The camera, much like this place, has become an integral part of my healing.
Three years ago, amid the COVID-19 crisis, I moved from the bustle of Clarksburg to a little cabin on the top of Cranberry Ridge in search of safety and solitude. While I found both of those, I also discovered a sense of place filled with wonder.
High up on the ridge, Lucy and her fawns, Dewy and Lewy, wait for me to pull into the driveway like clockwork. On rough and rainy days, I consider going straight into the cabin, but they tilt their heads with longing, knowing full well I will capitulate and serve them the corn feast on which they have been patiently waiting. The hummingbirds are buzzing about and the woodpeckers are squawking in anticipation of their meals as well. It’s been a while since Teddy, the timid young black bear, has visited my homestead. I hope he shows up soon; I miss seeing him.
Admittedly, these wild creatures have become my friends. They are easier for me to understand than most people. I find them predictable and comfortable. Their reactions are usually a direct result of my actions. If Teddy bolts for the woods, it is almost certainly because I made an abrupt movement, not because of some complex emotion or hidden defense mechanism. Most wild animals are programmed to fear humans, but it is possible for them to accept me into their environment. It feels like they can sense a purity of purpose and quietness of spirit.
The few people I do see here, though, are typically kind and happy. I have chats with the occasional hiker, bear hunter, or family camping along the river, but most often I converse with fisherfolk during trout season. The fishing here is tight and somewhat difficult, but the Cranberry and the Williams rivers are some of the best trout waters in North America. When I ask about their luck, I’m often greeted with responses such as, “No, but it’s just nice to be back here on the river.” Indeed, it is. I’ve found that these woods and waters have a way of uniting people of disparate backgrounds and beliefs. Most people come here looking to connect with nature, away from the stress of busy lives. They seek simplicity, adventure, and rejuvenation. I am blessed to live in this reality every day.
When I first moved here, I went online in search of guidebooks, maps, and other literature to support my early exploration efforts. I was surprised to find that very little has been documented about the Cranberry area. Aside from sections in hiking guides, historical literature focused on the logging industry, and pamphlets produced by the US Forest Service, there seemed to be few resources compared to other places I have explored. Perhaps most surprising to me was that I found very few photographs of this area, which I find so beautiful. As I explored the area more, I began to understand its unique challenges: limited access, a lack of amenities, and difficult light for photography. The wildlife is spread out and hard to locate. I found that these difficulties are what make the Cranberry so unique and under-documented. I began to understand that to get to know this place, I was going to have to truly explore it myself.
I think I’m a little less lost now. I have worked my way down to a large stream. I don’t see a trail just yet, but I have a strong feeling this is Dogway Fork, which flows north, to greet the Cranberry River. I feel comfortable enough with my location to take a rest and have my dinner. I spot a lovely flat rock in the stream upon which to dine; I keep my boots dry by hanging them from my neck while I wade through the cold water. The pungent smell of my boots aside, this place is paradise. The stream is cold and clear, and I see crawdads scurry away as I make shuffling steps through the thigh-deep stream. I tread carefully as falling in with my camera gear would be less than ideal. Once I reach the rock, a strange mixture of warmth and coolness greets my bare feet. I lean back on my pack and enjoy my Slim Jim and pepper cheese. I am drawn in by the sounds of the stream and forest. The breeze buzzes gently through the leaves while birds scatter debris in search of a meal. The lush greens of the forest seem to hypnotize me. I suddenly feel perfectly at ease.
As the moments pass, I notice tears welling up in my eyes. I’m not sure of their origin, but I believe them to be a simultaneous mixture of pure joy and desolate sadness. I’ve been dealing with a lot lately, including the overwhelming death of my father and the loss of some of my mobility due to an unfortunate head-on meeting with a logging truck. This forest has a way of making me feel small and reminding me of my mortality. I allow it to hold me in ways I have forgotten how to be held by people. Here in the forest, I don’t fight the tears or the laughter; I just let them happen. There is no judgment here.
In the midst of this moment, I suddenly notice a unique pattern in the flow of the stream around the rocks. I examine it more closely; it appears as if a beautiful woman wandered into the stream and then laid down in perfect, peaceful resignation. She means something special to me; I take a moment to reflect upon her acceptance and grace. I decide to take out my camera and compose an image, trying to be part of the scene rather than just capture it.
This is how my photography has evolved throughout the deep woods and clear waters of the Cranberry River. It has become about me exploring my inner landscape and this beautiful place more than just capturing the perfect image. It’s about finding the simple beauty that I would have once walked right past. It’s about waiting patiently for days along a stream bank to catch a glimpse of a river otter or an American mink. It’s about seeing a pattern in the water and feeling it touch my soul. It is about me learning to share my feelings more honestly, both with myself and the world. It’s about being in the moment rather than chasing it.
I first started taking photographs a decade ago. Following a bit of a mid-life crisis, I was feeling depleted and empty. I decided to search for something to fill the void, something that would provide me purpose and peace. I probably considered a Corvette, but it seemed too costly. When I thought back on what I wanted to do as a child, I remembered wanting to be a National Geographic photographer. I bought a used camera on eBay and started watching YouTube videos about photography. I fell in love with the process and started chasing light (which is often fleeting in the rain-soaked and tree-covered hollers of West Virginia).
I have always enjoyed the wild, so it was natural for me to fall into nature photography. As a child, my safe place was in the woods. There was no anger, judgment, or criticism there, just adventure. I never felt “less than” among the trees; we were just there together, sharing that sacred space. As I grew, I started hiking, backpacking, caving, and exploring West Virginia’s ancient, rugged landscapes. I found that it gave me a sense of identity and provided places where I could relate to people and myself more than in the bars or malls. I got to know the forest and rivers, but somehow, I never explored the Cranberry River until moving here.
Now, I find myself at the river or in the woods almost every day. Sometimes it’s for an hour after work, other times I’m gone for days in the depth of the wilderness. There is such an unspoiled, understated beauty here. In one of my many tattered hiking journals, I wrote the words “Simple steps with God.” Those four words summarize my countless hikes here, including everything from the quiet, repetitive movements of my feet through the moss-covered roots of the pines to the quick jumps from rocks into the cooling waters of the river. No matter what I’m doing, the beauty is always there. What I have discovered is that I just have to get out of my own way to fully experience it.
When my soul is quiet and honest, I can see the simple patterns in the apparent chaos. I can find clarity in the frigid air or splendor in the paths of bugs above the river. I just have to see it and feel it, to let the pain and self-judgment go. When I become part of my surroundings and begin to truly experience the wild is when I notice the millipede on the bark or the turkey claw on the downed tree. This is when I see her beauty. For me, photography is a way of kneeling and kissing the ground, of celebrating beauty, and of helping others to experience it, too.
My hope is that my photographs will help people cherish this place in the way that I do. That they, and their children, and their children’s children, can find hope and healing along the banks of this pristine river and in the depths of this magical forest. That they can see the beauty in this place that I now can see more fully in myself and everything around me.
As I cross the remainder of the stream after my dinner, I see a lovely doe sipping from its banks. She pauses when she spots me before snorting and running off. Part of me still wishes I had gotten to photograph her, but I am learning to let that go and be glad that I was privileged enough to share this moment with her. On the other side, I discover an overgrown logging road that leads me down to the familiar scene of the Cranberry River. I will enjoy her waters, carefully cross them, and then head back up Fishermans Trail, arriving at the truck shortly after dark. Lucy will be waiting, like always, for her late dinner. What a privilege it is to be a little lost in this sacred place; what a joy it is to have found myself again.
Kevin Frick is an expressive arts photographer who promotes conservation, exploration, and mental-health awareness. He also takes pride in his roles as a teacher, therapist, and father.