When Melvin Hartley of Fayetteville decided to take part in the New River Gorge 100 Mile Challenge, he didn’t let any grass grow under his feet.
The Challenge, sponsored by the New River Gorge National River, Active Southern West Virginia and the YMCA of Southern West Virginia, was designed to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service while promoting fitness and an appreciation of nature by encouraging participants to hike 100 miles of trails between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of this year.
Hartley completed the Challenge in 14 days.
“My goal was to finish by the end of January, but I ended up getting into kind of a flow and kept hammering out the miles,” he said. “I ended up finishing in two weeks, getting my mileage in before the big storm hit. You’d need snowshoes to get any hiking in now.”
Those taking part in the challenge must do their hiking on trails in the New River Gorge National River or the Bluestone National Scenic River, both managed by the National Park Service. Those NPS units, along with the Gauley River National Recreation Area, which currently has no designated hiking trails, protect nearly 114 squire miles of canyon lands and cliff-top plateaus, and are now being promoted as the National Parks of Southern West Virginia.
Hartley said he learned of the Challenge through friends on social media, and was directed to a link to register for the program on the New River Gorge National River’s Facebook page.
“I decided to enter because I hike the trails on a daily basis to give my dog exercise,” often covering three or four miles each day, Hartley said. Hartley’s dog, Bear, a rescued Australian cattle dog, also known as a blue-heeler, accompanied him on all his Challenge hikes.
“I thought that if I could step up the mileage a little, I could finish the challenge by the end of January,” he said, “but I never thought I would be the first one to finish.”
Hartley, 56, a retired regional planner for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Abandoned Mine Lands Program, and a retired lieutenant colonel in the West Virginia Air National Guard, can access the New River Gorge National River’s trail system from Fayetteville City Park, a short distance from his home. “I can access the trails from behind my house,” he said. “I tell people I meet who are interested in where I live that I have the biggest backyard in West Virginia.”
Before starting the Challenge, he downloaded a “MapMyHike” app to his smart phone to use GPS mapping technology to accurately measure and record his trail miles. Hartley and Bear started the Challenge on Jan. 1 with a 10-mile hike.
Trails hiked by Hartley and Bear included Long Point, Endless Wall, Fayetteville, Park Loop, Timber Ridge, Butcher Branch, Keeney Creek and Glade Creek.
“We hiked a lot of the trails several times,” Hartley said. “We did Glade Creek Trail (5.5 miles each way) at least three times and Endless Wall maybe four times. The miles added up quickly.”
Hartley said he packed along photography gear on some hikes, “when I knew the lighting is good and I would see a waterfall or a grand vista, such as can be seen from Long Point, Grandview or the Endless Wall trails.”
Since taking up photography about four years ago, “it’s become a passion,” Hartley said. “I am 100 percent self-taught. I didn’t attend any classes or workshops because I didn’t want to be influenced by someone else — I wanted to create my own path in art. To me, art is an expression of one’s own self.”
Hartley has taken oil and acrylic painting classes, which he says have helped his composition skills in photography and helped him better appreciate the nuances of light.
“Once you take an art class and hike in the woods, a tree is no longer just a tree,” he said. “You are observing how the sunlight is impacting its shadows, tones and hues.”
Hartley posts his images of West Virginia scenery on social media “in hope of increasing tourism to our great state,” he said. “I send images to Wonderful West Virginia Magazine, Spotlight West Virginia, Blue Ridge Country, Daytripper, Visit Southern West Virginia, West Virginia Wild & Wonderful and Only in West Virginia,” he said. “If my images encourage people to visit our state, it can help the tourism industry and help people keep their jobs and possibly create more.”
The National Parks of Southern West Virginia are not the only national parks with which Hartley is familiar. He and his wife, Libby, who has logged 60 New River Gorge Challenge miles so far, have visited at least 33 national parks and several national monuments.
“There is not much I will not endure to get a good photograph,” Hartley said. “I will lose sleep and endure extreme weather, hazardous terrain and wild animals.”
Hartley said he has had close encounters with bears, elk and bison while visiting national parks, and near Grand Teton National Park, was charged by a pair of moose. “I just hunkered down and the cow went to my left and the bull to my right,” he said. “I tried to photograph the bull as he passed by, but he was so fast my image was a blur.”
During his New River Gorge Challenge hike, he encountered coyotes, skunks, deer, turkey and a garter snake. He encountered a black bear on a hike along Timber Ridge Trail last year.
The Fayetteville man said he plans to accompany his wife as she completes her remaining 40 Challenge miles, and then continue logging New River Gorge trail mileage until Dec. 31.
“I’m curious to see how much mileage I can get in by the end of the year,” he said.
Hartley said he hopes the Challenge will give participants a better appreciation for the value of public lands.
“There is a movement in Congress to take federal land and give it back to local governments or authorities for development,” he said. “You can also see this movement being played out now with the militia groups in Oregon. But federal land belongs to all of us. Who wants to go photograph the Grand Tetons with condos standing in front of them, or go to Yellowstone and see Old Faithful being used as a water hazard for golfing? Hunters and anglers would lose prime habitat and access to big game and trout streams, other people could lose access to hiking, rock climbing, backcountry skiing and kayaking.
“Hopefully, my images can be used to help fight the battle.”
So far, more than 600 people have signed up to take part in the New River Gorge 100 Mile Challenge.
“The response to the program and the enthusiasm people have for it has been amazing,” said National Park Service Ranger Jodi French-Burn at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. “The people who have registered are sticking to it and getting their miles in, and new people continue to sign up. It’s not just people from the New River Gorge area who are taking up the challenge, it’s people from Morgantown and Charleston and all across the state.”
Last week, Tim Harrison became the second Challenge hiker to complete 100 miles. He was accompanied by his dog, Burdee.
To register for the New River Gorge 100-Mile Challenge and download log sheets and trail maps with hiking distances, go to www.nps.gov/neri and click the “100 Mile Challenge tab, or call 304-465-2515.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.