RICHWOOD — Terry Hackney fell in love with the high country around the Monongahela National Forest’s Cranberry Glades back in 1973 at age 9, when he first visited the area with his Jackson County 4-H club.
Since then, he’s made numerous trips back to the area to backpack, mountain bike, introduce friends and relatives to its treasures, serve as guide and narrator for tour buses, or simply spend time surrounded by some of the state’s most rugged, pristine scenery.
“Now it’s my office,” he said with a smile, as he grabbed a battery-powered screwdriver and prepared to mount a new interpretive sign on a post at a viewing platform along the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area’s boardwalk.
Hackney’s Lens Creek Studios in Fort Ashby was the successful bidder in a contract to design, build and install 76 interpretive markers and five informational kiosks along the Highland Scenic Highway and side roads leading to nearby points of interest. The highway stretches 43 miles between Richwood and U.S. 219 near Slatyfork, passing through an unbroken expanse of upland forest devoid of roadside billboards, utility poles or traces of human habitation. Hackney and his colleagues also produced “43 Miles of Discovery” an audio disc designed to be played at 18 points of interest along the highway, In it, people who lived and worked along the route of the highway explain the history, biology and geology of the area.
“We started working on the project in 2013, and finished the sign designing and audio tour in March of 2014,” Hackney said. “We talked to Forest Service ecologists, fisheries biologists, wildlife biologists, foresters and soil scientists, and the state geologist, among other people. Our goal was to tell a compelling story and tell it right, using very few words.”
After all text material was reviewed by appropriate U.S. Forest Service personnel, “We’d cut it in half, send it back and edit it again,” Hackney said.
AmeriCorps member Molly Swailes of the Appalachian Forest Heritage Initiative produced the artwork appearing on the signs, while historian, author and former Monongahela National Forest archaeologist Hunter Lesser and Hackney’s wife, Jodi Burnsworth, produced copy for the signs’ text and captions. Photos came from a variety of sources, including Hackney, “West Virginia Waterfalls” photographer Ed Rheiben and retired state Department of Commerce photographer Steve Shaluta.
No text or photos from existing signs were used on the new signage. Several new signs will be placed at previously uninterpreted sites, such as the North Bend Picnic Area on the North Fork of Cherry River, the Red Lick Overlook, and at the two lower falls at the Falls of Hills Creek Scenic Area.
“It’s hard to keep the biologists and the other scientists happy when you are telling a story that has a technical nature and you have a limited amount of caption space,” Hackney said. “But it’s the visitors on the highway we’re trying to reach. We’re trying to get them to appreciate and enjoy the things they are seeing. I’m hoping the experience will allow them to take home some pride and ownership in what they’ve seen.”
Before Hackney formed Lens Creek Studios three years ago, he worked as a maintenance supervisor at the Division of Culture and History, and as the site supervisor at Camp Washington Carver, where, during the winters, he worked on maps and exhibits for use in West Virginia state parks, including interpretive signs at the Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville and the coal display at Chief Logan State Park. Later, he was manager of the Beverly Heritage Center, where he built a Civil War exhibit.
Hackney’s interpretive signs for the Highland Scenic Highway cover such topics as the frost-pocket effect that allows Cranberry Glades to support its population of northern plant species — some found here at their southernmost range — as well as the hemlock woolly adelgid’s devastating effect on eastern hemlock trees. The history of the Mill Point Prison, a detention facility for conscientious objectors, moonshiners and other nonviolent offenders now reclaimed by the forest a few hundred yards off the highway, also is covered by the signs, as are tunnel-digging habits of blue salamanders, one of many unique animal species found in the Cranberry high country.
“A lot of people think the Highland Scenic Highway is just that part of the road that goes from the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center on Route 150 to U.S. 219,” Hackney said. That stretch of highway is known for its sweeping views of the Greenbrier Valley and the Allegheny Mountain ridges to the east, while passing through a nearly unbroken red spruce forest and reaching elevations of more than 4,500 feet. That stretch of road, which is not plowed in the winter, becomes the Monongahela National Forest’s only official snowmobile trail when impassible to traffic.
“But the scenic highway also includes Route 39 from Richwood to its junction with Route 150,” he said, and includes such points of interest as the Falls of Hills Creek, Summit Lake and the North Fork of Cherry River.
Hackney hopes to have all of the interpretive signs installed before the first major snowfall of the year, which would close the Slatyfork-Cranberry Mountain Nature Center stretch of the highway. The new kiosks should go up next spring.
Hackney designed and built a sturdy wooden handcart to help him carry signs and tools to off-road installation points.
“Next time, I’ll use an aluminum frame and bicycle tires,” he said, as he wheeled the device along the Cranberry Glades boardwalk to his next sign site.
The process of researching, designing and installing the signs along the Highland Scenic Highway has been an enjoyable one, said Hackney.
“I came to this place as a kid and now I’m a part it,” he said. “I get to breathe in fresh air and look at everything there is to see. For me, doing this work is a privilege.”
“The new signs and the audio tour provide a great opportunity for the public to take self-guided tours of the Highland Scenic Highway and learn about the area and its past,” said Matt Edwards of U.S. Forest Service’s Marlinton Ranger District.
Funding for the project came through a federal grant secured with assistance from the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area.
The audio tour discs that complement the new signage are available on a donation basis at the Forest Service’s Marlinton and Gauley Ranger District offices in Marlinton and Richwood, the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center, the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Richwood Convention and Visitors Bureau.