High up on West Virginia's tallest mountains, in the Monongahela National Forest, another world awaits the outdoors adventurer. In summer, hiking, fishing and gathering wild huckleberries are popular pasttimes in this land that seems like a transplanted piece of northern Canada. Temperatures seldom climb above the 70s, even in August, and subfreezing temperatures have been recorded every month of the year. Snow falls as late as June, as early as September.
In winter, the highest peaks in Monongahela are locked in with snow; 10 feet per year is average. Drifts that can bury a person are commonplace. Bitter winds assault the mountain ridges and wind-chill factors often plumment to 30 and 40 below zero. "Without" conditions can occur at any time and once the snow covers these peaks, it is there until spring.
"It's during the height of this bleak winter period that Bob Beaham and his cohorts take to this wild and remote country, in quest of the one game species that thrives in the frigid environment: the snowshoe hare. When the first white blanket of precipitation settles over the terrain, the hare begins turning color from brown to pure white, so it will blend in with its background for the winter and be camouflaged from owls and hawks.
Most people in the Mountain State don't even know these snowshoes exist, but a few hundred avid fans pursue them regularly during the long open season that runs from early November through February. Bob Beahm, principal of Elkins Elementary School, is among the most devoted of West Virginia's snowshoe fans, having hunted them for 14 seasons.
Every Saturday throughout the legal hunting period, Beahm will be out with his beagles -- Jet, Sam and Seven -- plus a group of fellow snowshoe fans. Never mind whether it's zero degrees and there's 20 inches of snow on the mountain. They'll be there.
Recently, Beahm, accompanied by three generations of Gaspars -- Andy, Joe and Joe Jr. -- plus John Gainer, took a Friday off work to get in an extra day on the hares before the season slipped away from them. I joined the group for those two days of hunting, not quite sure what to expect. But the events that transpired proved to be one of the most fascinating expeditions taken in many years of woods tromping.
In Virginia, it seemed like spring was ready to spring. Temperatures were in the 60s all that week. Some flowers seemed ready to bloom; bass and bluegill were already moving into the shallows.
At 4,500 feet in West Virginia, we entered another world. A heavy covering of snow lay on the land, 40-mile-per-hour winds whipped across the ridges and a chilling mixture of sleet and snow pleted us. The mountain was swathed in fog.
Snowshoe sign was abundant, however, and soon Beahm's skilled beagles were on the trail of a hare. We spread out in the dense red-spruce forest, waiting without motion, watching for the cautious hare to circle. A muffled shot echoed through the woods, followed by, "I got him!" from Joe Jr. Less than an hour later, he took a second hare to reach his limit for the day.
Onward we trudged, through the sodden, thick cover, and soon my turn came. Bob and I spotted a snowy white hare sneaking silently through the woods beneath the green spruce boughs. He looked many times larger than his four pounds as he hopped this way, paused, looked and listened, then bounded several more quick steps. I took aim nervously, fired and was soon admiring my first snowshoe hare.
Hunting proved exceptionally fruitful that day -- as good as the weather was bad. The snow turned to cold rain at midday, then back to snow again as we quit late in the afternoon. Covered with grime from fighting the dense cover and soaked to the bones, we looked like a pack of wet rats. But we had accounted for seven hares, equaling the greatest number Bob has ever taken in more than a decade of hunting them in West Virginia.
The followiing day, five inches of fresh snow covered the woods. The spruce forest, laced in white, was exquisite, and the snow was soft, making excellent scenting conditions for the hounds. Before that day ended, we again bagged an exceptional seven hares for our party of six hunters, joined that day by Jeff Trulik.
Two hares are an average bag for a long day of hunting for the entire party, Beahm said later, so perhaps this introduction to snowshoe hunting was too rosy to be typical. But regardless of the number bagged, the rare beauty of hunting in these snow-covered forests for such an intriguing quarry as the hare is not soon forgotten.