[Bristol-Birds] Peace like a river in the North Fork river valley.

  • From: "Wallace Coffey" <jwcoffey@xxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Bristol-birds" <bristol-birds@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 19 Feb 2012 01:40:16 -0500

Sometimes we need to hold a grudge for life.  I think I will hold my disdain 
Ron Harrington.  He never made me do what he did.  Friday, I learned why.

 On a sunny morning, inhaling the fresh and cool mountain air along the North 
 Holston River, it was a perfect occasion to stroll the soft grass carpet at
 Baehr Memorial Chapel.   A quaint log house of worship built in God's land of 
 beauty, at the foot of Clinch Mountain.  It was raised in 1935 as Roger Tory 
 Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds was first reaching the hands of 
 The years of a depression continued with unemployment still running at 20 
 Gasoline pumped for 10 cents a gallon. 

 The little church has been well preserved and maintained for decades. It will 
 see a sunrise in its centennial year.  Whatever congregation that once 
 there has probably moved to a traditional service with cushioned pews.
 Up the river live Baptists and Amish.  Down river is Mendota with Presbyterians
 and hawk watchers.

 It is still a chapel for weddings, sometimes a church service and a schedule 
full of
 all special occasions.

 Ron and I have, several times, made a mini breeding bird drive in late spring 
 early summer, leisurely listening and looking for birds to tic on a field card 
 nicely filled with familiar ridge and valley species.  One such sojourn in the 
 Fork valley provided maybe eight Black-billed Cuckoos.  Somehow he never had
 the same intensity I fostered with my sharp pencil, focused binoculars and 
 eyes and ears.  He always seemed to be drifting into grain fields or peeking
 behind barns at tall stands of pines.  He loves well placed and orderly 
 stacked neatly near grand porches of early last-century farm houses adorned 
 with ornate railings.

 I love birds. 

Despite this beautiful day
of birding along the North
Fork Holston, my heart 
was warm with a 60 degree
day and memories of my
family.  We are a rare tribe
of "Virginia" Coffeys who
descend from a Scottish
immigrant who settled on
Peddler's Creek near 
what we know today as
Peaks of Otter on the 
Blue Ridge Parkway. It is
called "Coffeytown."

 My great grandfather Edward and his brothers helped with their father to
 build our beautiful chapel which is called Macedonia Church.  It was built in 
 1800's long before the brothers went off to fight the Civil War. 

 Another of our ancient grandfathers, Ambrose Rucker, was at St. John's Church
 in Richmond, March 23, 1775, when Patrick Henry cried "I know not what course 
 others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"  Ambrose
 mounted his horse, jumped the church wall, and dashed to Amherst County
 and Coffeytown to spread the word. We became a nation under God.

 And Ambrose Rucker sleeps in peace in a tiny family cemetery located in a small
 apple orchard owned by my older sister near Coffeytown and Lynchburg.

 Ron Harrington was probably sleeping in peace on his back deck under a 
 February sun when I was seeking peace like a river at tiny Baehr chapel.

 I was also seeking a pair of Bald Eagles reported by landowners and their 
 along the North Fork Holston, upstream and downstream of US 19 bridge which
 hurries traffic between Abingdon and Lebanon.  One of the adult eagles had been
 spotted flying just a half-hundred feet above Richard Kretz's car as he soared 
 the great bird, flying fast in his car towards Russell County.  He quickly 

 The search for eagles began at the almost historic Holston Community and 
 10 miles past some of the most beautiful old, simple and shaded river cabins 
 homes anywhere.  Most are covered with moss, hidden under great hemlocks, damp
 from the river air but warm from the memories of families who have jumped from 
 grapevines into the river and played in swimming holes as old and sacred as 
 Church.  Swimming spots where, no doubt, some of their forefathers enjoyed for
 a century.

 All along there were people working to welcome spring.  Some building new 
sheds and
 some fishing for smallmouth.  Some walking to their mailbox and one hauling 
firewood off
 the mountain behind his house, using a four-wheel all terrain vehicle.

 To the person they had all seen eagles.  "Seen 'em for years!"  Always there.  
"Just last
 summer catching a fish by that giant sycamore."  He was there yesterday.  
"Soaring over
 my house this morning."  I wasn't so lucky.

 At the end of my upstream survey, I turned around at the Toole Creek Road 
Bridge which
 is along this winding North Fork River Road.

 Just downstream, I again slowed to survey the massive wetlands with rank 
vegetation that
 dominated maybe a half-mile of sprawling river bottom.  Visions of summer 
rails, harriers
 in fall and a Short-eared Owl even now at dusk -- danced thru my notebook.

 Here you will bird at 1200 feet at one of the lowest elevations in Washington 
County.  The
 slow-flowing North Fork drifts lazily to western Kingsport in Hawkins County.

 I know it more intimately than most long rivers of the region.  Brent Seagle 
and I once put
 my two-man kayak in the river at Saltville in Smyth County and birded, camped, 
walked and
 floated nearly 50 river miles to Mendota in late summer when there were more 
rocks in the
 river than water.  That was in my youth when we dared to run the whitewater of 
every area
 river and enter any race where another human had a boat and paddle.  We even 
lost a 
 canoe in the open class on the North Fork of the South Fork of the Potomac 
River at 
 Petersburg, WVA when we raced against the first ever US Olympic Whitewater 
Team in
 a river that featured golden trout as big as baseball bat.  Many of the 
Olympians were big
 and strong and I will never forget a girl racing next to us from State College 
 who had more muscles in her shoulders than I had in my body.

 It was almost death defying to be swept over in the upper Potomac whitewater 
but better
 than having your life altered forever swimming in the mercury-polluted waters 
and sediment
 of the North Fork Holston.  EPA closed it in 1970 and ran the companies that 
were doing it
 both out of business and almost out of the country.  It has never recovered.  
It is still one of
 the world's most mercury-contaminated waterways.  The government has spent 
 cleaning it up and, I suppose, has made some progress.

 That doesn't tarnish the glorious beauty of the North Fork Holston river 
valley.  It is even
 spectacular.  I know of no other river valley in the region that rivals it for 
sheer scenery
 and pastoral landscape.  The beautiful big farms and sprawling fields running 
from the road
 to almost as far as you can focus down to the river are as friendly and as 
fascinating as
 the people who own and live on the land.  They were all excited to share the 
eagles and
 stop for long chats on a great morning.

 Mile after mile for nearly 50 of them, I pondered how under-birded this 
spectacular and
 special riparian region has been for a hundred years.  I have been in and out 
of it birding
 for 60 years but have little to show for the seldom and shallow searching.

 I reflected on one of my often-thought themes that there has been few serious 
birders in 
 this region of Virginia for many years.  

 As I turned to leave the grounds of the precious little chapel on the main 
road, it dawned
 on me what I had been missing.  Maybe Ron Harrington has missed it also.  I 
have traveled
 this backwoods byway for decades.  Never in winter.  Now you can see 
everything so much 
 more clearly and completely.  There are few vines, few weeds and less leafed 
trees to block 
 your view.  Whether you peer from the right-of-way or a high-hill vista, it is 
very enjoyable.

 Ron might argue it is more beautiful in spring and summer or as he is crossing 
the valley
 from Walker Mountain to Clinch Mountain headed to count hawks.  No doubt.  But 
you can't
 take it all in at ground level nearly as saturated as on a beautiful winter 

 There are some doozies along the way.  Don't doubt that for a minutes. Don't 
miss the roadside
 sign and construction for what is calls the North Fork Holston River 
Hydroelectric Project ---
 whatever that is today.  It's been in the news for years and years.

At least don't let yourself drive thru Mendota
or along Barnrock Road and miss the amazing
barn built around an enormous rock.  It's one
of the wonders of the world when it comes to
architecture.  Right there with the Golden Gate
Bridge and the Eiffel Tower !

If you think you might miss it you have gone
to far, if you are not paying attention when you
come to Pine Grove.

We left the river valley just beyond it all as
we turned across Nordyke Bridge over the 
river and headed up one of Southwest Virginia's
best little warbler watching surprises along that
tumbling creek before you hit the divide down to Benhams and Bristol.  Don't 
ask Ron about birding there.  He will still be back in the valley looking at an 
old tractor or a 1940's truck.  "Uh, warblers ?  Uh, uh yes. Warblers.  There 
are several kinds around."

Oh, he can probably guide you right up Trout Road thru the gorgeous hemlocks 
aside a tumbling trout
stream which is not Tumbling Creek.  That's on the other side of the ridge, a 
few miles up.

I love places like Caney Valley.  The farm with the buffaloes, Shutters Cove 
and Toole Creek.  The lovely
home called Willowbrook.

But I love peace like a river.

I've got peace like a river,
I've got peace like a river,
I've got peace like a river in my soul,

Wallace Coffey
Bristol, TN


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  • » [Bristol-Birds] Peace like a river in the North Fork river valley. - Wallace Coffey