By ANDREA LANNOM ∙ email@example.com
Deep down a narrow road, winding through mountains and the small historic Hampshire County town of North River Mills, there's an entrance to a place almost alien to West Virginia's surrounding environment.
"Welcome to the middle of nowhere," said local docent Terry Bailes as she got out of her car at the base of the mountain.
Terry and her husband, Steve Bailes, regularly guide groups up the trails of Ice Mountain, seeing about 400 visitors a year.
The trail crosses three private properties, and visitors are discouraged from trying to hike the mountain without a guide.
"I bet as many people go up without a tour guide as they do — or at least a lot do," Steve Bailes said. "The idea is that you don't want people coming and going whenever they want to across their properties. … Probably, the biggest reason for the tour guide is protection. And down around the ice vents, there are unusual plants. I can't tell you how many times we've had people, who we tell to stay on the trail, walking around on the plants asking, ‘Where are the unusual plants?'"
What kinds of strange plants? Well, some of the plants at the base of the 60 ice vents are more commonly found in more northern climates such as Nova Scotia or Alaska, Steve Bailes said.
"There's dwarf dogwood, bristly rose, twinflowers — I love this flower," said Steve Bailes, pointing out the unusual plants by the vents. "We usually have people here saying, ‘We were in Alaska and we saw those things or in the Arctic Circle. Why is it here?'"
According to The Nature Conservancy, which bought Ice Mountain in the mid 1990s, the mountain was named for the cool air that flows out the vents and the ice that forms at the base.
"In cooler months, dense, cold air sinks deep into the talus (the rocks at the bottom of the mountain), and ice masses form inside. As the weather warms up, the cooler air flows out the vents among the rocks at the bottom of the slope," the Nature Conservancy's website says.
Terry Bailes has her own theory.
"Hey, I'm still holding onto the theory that the Pittsburgh Penguins, when they smooth the ice out, the shavings have to go somewhere," she joked.
Through much of the year, ice sticks to the vents, which are nondescript-looking holes at the base of the mountain.
"It's not as cold as it used to be," said Steve Bailes. "Back a while ago, as I understand, it had ice year-round. The old lady that had the house before we did talked about having ice in July. I can remember it consistently through June but now, it ends around May."
During a recent hike, the vents were blowing a cool 29.8 degrees, which is a little colder than it usually is for that time of year, dissipating into soft mist that chills the legs and feet.
After visiting the vents, people then are guided to Raven Rock, atop North Mountain, where they can see the rolling mountains, patches of farmland and houses dotting the landscape.
"I use the term moderately difficult," Steve Bailes said, describing the trail. "In one group, I've had one person who said it was a piece of cake and another person huffing and puffing, asking ‘Why don't you warn people?' I don't know how it's so subjective."
Hikers aren't the only curious visitors to the site. Geologists, entomologists, snail specialists and researchers studying the unusual plants also love to visit the site.
"We had some people who wondered what types of bugs were attracted to this ecosystem," recalled Terry Bailes. They were planning to camp in a tent. Well, it was a horrible storm and we offered for them to come in but they said, ‘No. we have to be close to the traps.' The traps looked like TV dishes and underneath it is a container with alcohol to pickle the bugs. Well, they caught some but before the entomologists could get to them, a raccoon found them first."
The Nature Conservancy is working to preserve the environment. In one of its projects, the conservancy works with volunteers to control invasive plants such as tree-of-heaven, garlic mustard and Japanese stillgrass.
The Nature Conservancy also works with the U.S. Forest Service and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to prevent an infestation of insects from destroying the hemlocks that shade the ice vents.
Whether it's the stories of the hikes or their own personal experiences, the Baileses said they have a connection to the mountain.
Steve Bailes grew up in Arlington, Va., visiting North River Mills on vacation. In the 1970s, his family moved to the area for good. His wife grew up in Morgantown, saying she "married here." She first went to Ice Mountain in 1975 to visit Steve's parents.
"Our daughters got engaged on Ice Mountain," she said. "A bunch of people have been proposed to on Raven Rock. We even renewed our vows on Raven Rock. Our cousin officiated for us. My folks came. They were 80-90 years old at the time and hiked up the mountain to watch us renew our vows."
To schedule a trip, visit stevebailes.org/icemountain/request.php.