We were cloud-high above a wild mountain river, on a castle of rock looking for the spot where one of Wild Bill Cody's relatives once held off an attack by 18 Indians, single-handed.
That is the legend of Caudy's Castle. Since West Virginia stories have a reputation for swelling a bit with each mountain ridge they cross, it is not held everywhere as Bible true. But after a day of canoeing the whitewater and wooded canyons of the Cacapon River, flushing red-tailed Hawks and thirsty deer along the way, the story seemed absolutely reasonable to us.
"It was 12 Indians, not 18. Otherwise the story is true," deadpanned Ben Elliott, who overcame his fear of heights to climb this pinnacle and look down on the beauty we had been looking up at all day.
The Cacapon is a rough jewel of a river about 100 miles from the Washington Beltway. For all but a few hundred yards of its 78-mile run from mountains to the Potomac, the river is beautiful enough to qualify for federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River.
That title has not been bestowed upon the Cacapon, however, and if the folks who live beside it have their way, it never will be.
"The only effect of designation," said a local resident at a recent hearing on the river's future, "would be that more publicity would bring in more public and more pollution--and still nobody to pick up the trash."
In the spring, when mountain rivers roar with melted snow, the Cacapon attracts canoeists the way a beach attracts sunburns. It is gorgeous to see, challenging to ride and conveniently provided with marked put-in points and parking areas.
"I've been here days in the spring when there were 200 canoes on this river," said Dave Hubbard, a guide with Rough Run Outfitters, a West Virginia company that rents canoes for use on the Cacapon.
Landowners and local residents who argued against the federal designation, complained at hearings held by the National Park Service that there already are too many people using "their" river. Including it on an all-star list of wild rivers, they said, would only make things worse. They told the Park Service "feds," and not always politely, to get their long arms out of local business.
"We can take care of our river without your help. We've done it in the past and we can continue to do it," said Wilton Orndorff, the mayor of Wardensville who called the Park Service officials "pencil-pushing bureaucrats."
The people who have supported including the Cacapon in the federal Wild and Scenic River system, many of them canoeists, say the river is threatened more by development along its banks and a lack of local regulations to control it, than anything else. They concede that some of the weekend river riders leave a mess behind. But they refuse to take all the blame that the local folks are ready to give them.
"There are stoves and kitchen sinks in the river and you know canoeists didn't bring them in," said Pat Munoz, an official with the American Rivers Conservation Council, a Washington-based conservation group dedicated to saving and savoring rivers.
Munoz had been trying to organize a canoe trip down the Cacapon for Park Service officials, conservationists and local residents for more than a year. By the time the river level and conflicting schedules cooperated last week, it was too late to affect the fate of the Cacapon.
Just a few hours after we climbed off the river, Park Service officials hosted a community meeting to release a draft of their report which recommended that the river, although eligible, not be designated for inclusion in the wild and scenic category.
"The lack of public, local and state government support for designation and the nearly total private ownership of the river corridor appear to preclude it," reads that report.
Local officials listened to the conclusions with obvious pleasure. Most had long since agreed that the Cacapon had problems that needed solving. But no one was willing to concede that the federal government had any answers.
"West Virginians just seem to have a built-in antagonism to any outside interference," said Ben Schley, a 66-year-old West Virginia native who left home to spend 30 years working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Schley moved back to his mountain state a few years ago. He navigates the Cacapon in his 33-year-old aluminum canoe, using a 15-foot long pole instead of a paddle, the way he learned as a boy.
"I would like to see the Cacapon in the wild and scenic system," said Schley, taking time out from his canoeing to catch and release three bass. "But I'm afraid there's no chance of that."
Later that day, after the community meeting, while local officials congratulated themselves for stopping the Park Service at the pass, Jan Neely, an official with the Potomac Valley Audubon Society said, "Now the question is: will anybody do anything? You people in Washington will have the problem. You drink the water. I've got a 300-foot deep well."