My legs tightly straddle a downed hemlock as I inch my way up the trunk. This precarious route has proven to be the only path forward as I push through a swath of forest knocked down the year before by Superstorm Sandy. To my left, a long, cascading waterfall is flush with water from days of relentless rain. Above me, just out of view, a large waterfall flows over a diagonal rockface, plunges off the edge of a cliff, and fans out in a white spray before crashing onto broken rocks at its base. I’m exploring the start of Coal Run, a steep tributary in the Otter Creek Wilderness. This spectacular feature marks the start of one of the highest and longest waterfall series I’ve seen in West Virginia, and it isn’t noted on any maps.
My friend Kevin Williams is behind me, sweaty and grinning in a way that suggests he might be a little annoyed. We’ve been off trail, climbing up and along an impossibly steep creek bed in the rugged wilderness for nearly four hours. Despite the effort, we’ve only covered about a mile of moss-covered slides and small waterfalls. Early on in our trek, we encountered a debris jam blocking our way and had to traverse high above the creek through impenetrable rhododendron thickets, colloquially known as ‘hells’.
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