Words and Images from Ed Felker

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The Man Behind Virginia’s Elk

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Leon Boyd is a busy man: Vice President at Noah Horn Well Drilling, board member of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Virginia district chair and chair of the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter. So when I found myself with a free day while on vacation in southwest Virginia this past spring, I hesitated to call him.

“So, I’m kind of in the area. I know it’s a long shot, but is there any chance I could come out and see the elk?” I asked. “Oh. And I hate to be a pain in the ass, but I also have my two dogs with me, we’re on vacation.” He barely let me get through my self invitation before he interrupted with his insistence that I come see him and let him give me a tour of the elk habitat he has been so instrumental in creating.

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A total of 71 elk from neighboring Kentucky have been introduced to Buchanan County over the course of three annual releases. I met Leon in 2013 at the second of those releases, when ten animals made the trip across the border. Those elk were a special sight, but were only viewable from a distance in a quarantine pen. The area was large, but lined with prominent fencing. So this time I was looking forward to seeing these introduced elk and even some of their offspring in a truly natural setting.

That setting, thousands of acres of habitat rich in plentiful food, clean water, ample cover and endless quiet, is part private property and part county land. There are no fences, these elk are free to wander elsewhere. But they thrive here.

As I drove across the remote southwestern corner of Virginia I wondered if any other state had as much geological diversity as the Old Dominion. From the mountains to the beaches and bay, from coal country to the Great Dismal Swamp, with big cities, small towns, farms and wilderness filling out the inbetween, I can’t think of another.

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Buchanan County is a hard, steep place. It was carved from rock removed to expose coal that fueled the economy and powered the region. Every plateau containing a school, church or a cluster of homes is there only because inhabitable mountaintops were cut off, the coal removed and the slopes below filled in. And the newly reshaped landscape, with proper planning and care, is more resilient than you could possibly imagine. In fact, much of the rich habitat where Virginia’s elk thrive is reclaimed strip mined land.

Cut into a near vertical bank alongside a steep stretch of highway I found the offices of Noah Horn Well Drilling. I let the dogs out and we all stretched our legs. When I walked in I was warmly greeted by Leon. He seemed genuinely excited to show off his beloved elk project.

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He probably wouldn’t want me to call the elk restoration project his project. The amount of effort, expertise, energy, devotion and cooperation from private landowners, county and state leaders, biologists and agencies to make it happen is incalculable. But I doubt you could find a single person involved in the project who imagines it could have been done without Leon Boyd.

The original plan calls for growing the herd to a population of about 400. Beyond that number, a hunting plan would be introduced, managed and closely monitored to sustain those numbers. This may begin to happen in as little as three or four years. In the meantime, tourism is the goal, luring people to visit here to see the magnificent animals, and of course spend the night, dine and shop. A visitors center is planned with wildlife viewing and hiking trails. Hunting would see additional revenue opportunities in the form of guiding fees, taxes and tags.

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Leon’s involvement in the elk restoration earned him an appointment to the board of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, where he is currently serving his second term. “It has certainly been a learning curve for a country boy from southwest Virginia to say the least, but I’ve gained so much respect for the VDGIF and the staff,” he said. “Through the years I’ve blamed them for a lot of stuff they had no control over.”

Leon was incredibly generous with his time that day. When we rounded a bend to see a big bull elk in velvet antlers stop and pose for photos, or crest a hill and see a small herd loitering around a pristine watering hole, to see these wild elk, some born right here in Virginia, happy and healthy and close up, was an experience I will never forget.

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And I know the next day Leon made those memories happen for someone else, or talked to a bus of curious school kids, or perhaps chatted with donors or landowners or conservation police or someone at RMEF to get something done for this project, for these special animals.

“In the beginning, I was all about the elk,” Boyd said. “But as it’s progressed, really and truly, it’s more about the people.”

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If you would like to help the Virginia elk, there is an easy way to do it, Leon says. Support the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Support them. They support us. They put money back into habitat projects [The RMEF put $23,000 back into this project last year alone].” Membership, auctions, banquets and fundraisers all help.

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2016 Photos of the Year

This year I have put my favorite photos in a SmugMug album. Just click on the image below and it will send you to a slideshow. I think it looks best full screen. You can even purchase prints of any of the photos if you like.

Lots of dogs this year, more people than usual, and no fishing photos made the cut. I think that means I need to fish more in 2017. I hope you enjoy the photos, shares are greatly appreciated and don’t forget to subscribe so you can be notified when something new is posted. Have a happy holiday season and a healthy and prosperous new year!

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A Special Visitor

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I was running the dogs on our property along the Potomac River when a cluster of feathers on the ground caught my eye. I love feathers and find them all the time here. Hawk and turkey feathers are common and easy to spot because of the contrasting bands usually present. But these – a cluster of two primary flight feathers and a smaller, secondary feather – didn’t look like any I had ever seen before.

I snapped a photo and posted it to Instagram (follow me @dispatches_potomac), and didn’t give them much thought after that. I love to try to identify feathers, skulls, tracks and anything like that I come across, but didn’t think these would prove to be anything remarkable. Then I got a compelling comment on my Instagram photo.

Emily Renaud has been interested in ornithology for some time, sparked by her studies as an undergrad earning a BS in Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Rhode Island. She suspected the feathers came from a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and followed up with some online resources and a birding pro friend before suggesting the match.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever seen peregrine feathers in person before, but the slender structure and overall dark color tipped me off,” Emily said. “These feathers are so sleek because the species requires a super slim and aerodynamic build to pursue its prey.” Peregrines dive for prey, reaching speeds in the 200 mph range, earning them the title of the fastest animal on earth.

I recently attended a talk about vultures given by Katie Fallon, chair of the board of directors of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia. I emailed photos of the feathers to Katie and she agreed about their origin. “Peregrines are on the move this time of year,” she added. “So the feathers are perhaps from someone on migration.”

Katie has kindly allowed me to share this photo of Tundra, an Arctic peregrine falcon that was injured in West Virginia during her first migration and unfortunately cannot be returned to the wild. Tundra now helps in ACCAWV’s educational efforts.

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With this exciting news, I returned to the site along the river and found several more peregrine feathers and a handful of feathers from what I believe to be a red shouldered hawk. I don’t have the ornithological forensic chops to recreate what happened along the soft banks of the Potomac that day, but an encounter between falcon and hawk occurred, and it was violent.

Peregrines are not endangered or even particularly rare, thanks to highly successful reintroduction efforts following their near decimation due to pesticide (DDT) use in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But I have never seen one, and only hear of them in this area once in a great while. This summer, though, part of the rock face of Maryland Heights at Harpers Ferry, popular with climbers, was closed to protect a nesting pair of peregrines.

Just last week I was at Harpers Ferry and photographed some rock climbers on the very face that was closed earlier in the year. This gives you an idea of the type of terrain where peregrines nest, and also that rock climbers are insane.

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There are countless varieties of animals on this vast and diverse planet, each evolved over eons to specialize in the things they need to ensure their survival. To think that our property was visited by the one animal that is, by a considerable margin, the very fastest on earth, stirs the imagination. I feel very lucky to live where I live, and to observe evidence like this of a very special visitor.

Musician Teddy Chipouras

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I don’t photograph people very often, but when local musician and friend Teddy Chipouras asked me, I was excited to photograph this extremely talented and photogenic rising star. These are a few of my favorite shots from a really fun day. Please visit Teddy’s web site here and check out his music. And if you get the chance to see him live, don’t pass it up. He’s just wonderful.

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Finally, A Fishing Trip!
(Alternate Title: Finally, a Blog Post!)

My extended break from blogging here was not intentional. My break from getting outside with a fly rod wasn’t either. Life, work and an amazing new puppy, among other things, just got in the way and before I knew it, a whole summer had gone by and I hadn’t done either. Meanwhile, my buddy Matt has been busy doing the important work of raising twin girls, working hard and recently dealing with an extended mandatory evacuation from their Georgia island home courtesy of Hurricane Matthew. So it was a good time for both of us to get away to eat and drink and laugh, to try to remember how to fly fish, and most importantly to just truly relax for a couple days.

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We began the relaxation right away, with a stop at Black Walnut Brewery, where we enjoyed a couple delicious beers while watching a big Redskins win from the dog-friendly porch. Then, because we’re smart, instead of going through and organizing our fishing gear, we decided to drink more back at the house and talk about how unorganized our fishing gear is.

Matt is holding Winslow, by the way, the aforementioned amazing puppy that I will have much more to talk about soon. A truly special dog.

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The next day, fueled by Anita’s breakfast burritos, we headed down to Rose River Farm on an absolutely beautiful morning. It of course took us far too long to get geared up, but we had all day and were in no hurry. Conditions were fantastic on the Rose River, great water level and flow, and the river was crystal clear. Stepping into moving water with a fly rod felt like reuniting with the second dear old friend in as many days.

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Matt hooked up first and outfished me the whole time. He took advantage of the gin clear water, dead drifting small, sinking flies without a strike indicator and just watching for the take and setting the hook.

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But I caught my fair share too, including this beauty that Matt captured with his iPhone if you can believe it. This is one of the coolest iPhone fish photos I’ve ever seen.

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I had to include this portrait of Buster Brown, a red heeler mix who helps out around the farm. We enjoyed hanging out for a bit with Buster and Earl, the farm manager. I’ve watched this dog grow up from a pup (he’s 3-years-old now), and he has become just the coolest little dog.

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A day of fishing is best followed by more food and drink, preferably with a fire. We stayed at one of Rose River Farm’s luxury yurts, where we grilled burgers, enjoyed various seasonal beers, went through a generous supply of firewood and listened to some great music. The fishing was even better the next day, and Matt closed out his trip with a stellar morning of fishing. He’s back home now and I’ll be back at work in the morning. But time spent with friends always produces indelible memories. Plus, in addition to reheated Anitas breakfast burritos and the technique of tumbling flies indicatorless along the riverbed, Matt introduced me to something else I will now enjoy forever: the music of Mandolin Orange. I can’t stop listening to their new album, Blindfaller. It is an astounding, near flawless collection of lyrics, strings and voices. Just beautiful from start to finish.

It has been a great few days. I hope it’s the beginning of a fall with more time spent outdoors in the company of old friends, cool dogs and Mother Nature.

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