The bears have names. For a city person, seeing even one black bear in the wild is a rare and startling experience. To see several at the same time from the deck of a bed and breakfast, and to hear one’s hosts affectionately call out to them by such names as Bruno, Cocopuff, and Uglybear, is to pass from the startling to the exotic. And yet, at the Wildernest Inn in Rough Run, W.Va., such experiences are commonplace, especially in the fall, as the bears fatten themselves in preparation for winter.
The hosts and owners of the Wildernest, Stewart and Kathy Hornby, natives of, respectively, South Africa and Zimbabwe, have always loved animals, and thought they would never find a similar combination of wildness and natural beauty when they left Africa in 1995. After a period in Puerto Rico, Stewart ad Kathy settled in West Virginia nine years ago, and purchased Wildernest—situated atop a steep and heavily wooded mountain in one of the most scenic areas in the state. They quickly found, to their delight, that they would be sharing their mountain habitat with deer, foxes, raccoons, many species of birds, and a healthy population of black bears. Now U.S. citizens, they have fallen in love with their mountaintop home, and visitors quickly come to understand why.
The strictest rule for guests at the Inn is neither to feed nor approach the bears. And perhaps, out of appreciation for the respectful distance that all guests keep from the shy, cautious, and inoffensive creatures, the bears keep coming back, year after year. One should be careful not to romanticize what goes on in the brain of what is, after all, a large wild animal; yet, there seems to be a mutual curiosity between bears and people that is heartening to witness. That relationship is, of course, much more fleeting when the mature male bears leave the mountain in early spring to find a mate, but here, for now, they seem to know that they’re safe, and who their protectors are. Stewart and Kathy have made their mountain home an animal sanctuary, which seems most agreeable to the bears. During a very recent visit to Wildernest, my wife and I were among several guests treated to a prolonged sighting of a mother bear and her two cubs. The cubs shimmied up two different trees at the appearance of Bruno, the dominant bear on the mountain, and Kathy and Stewart’s oldest friend among the bears. Not to worry, the little ones soon came down and rejoined their mother. Bruno is now ten years old, and many of the bears one sees around the inn are his children and grandchildren. He is also the tallest, and when well-fed and healthy, the largest bear on the mountain—at just shy of four hundred pounds. When we saw him recently, however, he was thinner, and his coat was a little patchy, as if he had been through some rough times. But his affection for Kathy is undeniable, and on both evenings of our visit, he climbed onto the Hornby’s private deck and sprawled in front of their sliding door, clearly seeking her company.
We discovered the inn ourselves a few months before it changed hands from the original owners to Stewart and Kathy, and have returned many times since—in every season—often bringing friends and family with us to share the experience. One year, in December, we were the only guests, and were treated more like visiting friends, as our hosts regaled us with a harrowing story of how they weathered a powerful hurricane during one long and terrible night in Puerto Rico.
Although one tends to dwell on the bears, they are merely one aspect of an area ripe with astonishing natural gifts—a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in Bethesda, Md. Less than thirty minutes from Wildernest is the rugged, spectacular Smoke Hole Canyon and Big Bend Recreation area, surely one of the most awesomely beautiful canyons in this part of the world—continuing through the south fork of the Potomac River. Seneca Rocks, Smoke Hole Caverns, Dolly Sods Wilderness, and Spruce Knob, the tallest peak in West Virginia, are just a few of the hotspots for hikers and skiers—none more than forty-five minutes from the inn. Traffic-weary visitors from the D.C. area are always pleasantly surprised by the lightly traveled country roads of Upper Tract and Rough Run, and by the modest footprints West Virginians have made in these largely unspoiled mountains and valleys. In much of this area, farming and ranching are still the mainstays of the local economy, and some of the homesteads date back to the 1700s.
There is a pleasant one-hour trail around the lake below the Inn, and of course, numerous trails at Dolly Sods, Big Bend, North Fork Mountain, and Spruce Knob— to name a few. When visitors have had their fill of hiking or sightseeing, it is always pleasant to return for a shower and a rest in the attractive and comfortable rooms, and then have a beer or a glass of wine while sitting on the spacious deck (awaiting Kathy’s always-excellent dinners, which begin at seven sharp with a first-rate salad). During dinner, one might see a hummingbird at a feeder just outside the window, or a bear, richly furred with a coat of the blackest black you’ve ever seen, walking across the deck or gazing curiously through the sliding door. At first a novelty, and cause for leaving one’s chair to take a look, it soon becomes a fact of life here, and seems not only possible, but normal and natural. If she has the time, Kathy might come out of the kitchen for a chat, and if a plate isn’t cleaned, Stewart can be counted on to good-naturedly chafe the guest for lack of appetite. At night, the darkness is the real thing. Untainted by light pollution, the profound quiet promises a truly restful sleep. Pleasure is the watchword here, and at no bedand- breakfast in my experience is it more consistently achieved than at the Wildernest Inn.
For more information visit: wildernestinn.com, or call: 304.257.9076 or 888.621.2948. More pictures can also be found on their Facebook site.