Elkhorn Creek has quickly become one of our favorite streams in the state due to the truth behind, and despite of, its double-edge. The truth rests in the fact that the creek is filled with wild brown and rainbow trout, which gives a thrill to any angler new or old. The other, perhaps sharper edge, is that the creek is profoundly unclean.
Driving to Welch, WV may be a very disappointing sight— it is littered by evidence of poverty. McDowell County is the most impoverished county in the state, with a rate of 36.3%. This poverty reveals itself by abandoned or neglected buildings, trash in every frame of view, and broken-down cars. Truthfully, this does lead to somewhat of a depressing shadow over the place, which can easily manifest itself on the people there in multiple forms. Thankfully, it does not take them over; many people are able to find joy in their circumstances, and those who can live happy lives. This should inspire, at the least, us to do the same.
Like the people, the trout in Elkhorn Creek, flowing through the heart of McDowell County, provide a glimpse of hope. The stream is small and cold with pockets of water found in the usual circumstances: turns, bridges, and along walls. In each of these places, you’re likely to find plenty of fish, anywhere from a 6” rainbow to a 20” plus brown. They are able to thrive here, reproducing to create a rare, self-sustainable WV wild trout stream. Still, at first look, you may not believe the conditions will support trout.
Poverty often spills into the stream in a few forms. You can hardly step in the water without walking on plastic bags, broken furniture, pill bottles, etc. The normal snags entail more than logs and rocks, but often include things such as bed sheets or clothing. The banks are covered in trash, such as bottles and Styrofoam. You may see pipes protruding from the banks in every direction, dumping waste, chemicals, detergents, and even sewage into the stream. This demands caution when in the water, from essentially mandatory waders to extra hygiene following your trip.
Recently, we had a chance to make an impact on this. Along with many other organizations, such as Trout Unlimited and WVDNR, we made the trip to Welch for an annual clean up. Among dozens of volunteers, we filled up trash bags with literal tons of trash from in and around the stream. Though the water was high, we managed to clean up a few large stretches of water. It was incredible to see the difference afterward. Admittedly, trash was left. Some was unsafe to reach, some went unseen, and some areas were too polluted to effectively clean in the time allotted.
Following lunch, we broke put our fly rods. Soon, we were all able to land fish despite less than ideal water conditions. Some of these fish were small, yet we were able to land 2 browns over 18” in the short time that we had our lines in the water. While admiring the brown that lay in my net, I looked up to realize the trash around me in a stretch we never touched. It was almost heart breaking. Had we done anything at all? Did we waste our time at a lost cause? Thoughts like these penetrated my mind, and seemingly with some warrant.
Despite what was left, it was the small portion that we removed that mattered. There is a reason it is a movement, and there is a reason that people are dedicated to it. They believe it can happen. They see the potential of an already great stream, and they are ready to invest so it can become better. And for this reason, change can be seen in the area—the movement has grown, and will continue to. Someday, maybe, articles like this will no longer need to be written. For now, if you’re a fisherman, take a trip, catch some fish, and carry out some trash; it is certainly worth it.
Cole with a meaty brown trout
It’s no doubt that the stream can illustrate us as souls. We are dirty as this world keeps pouring trash, filth, and sin onto us until we are so far gone that we can no longer step without it. The stream we see in Elkhorn was created by our God as a way to glorify himself, as we are. Yet, we have let sin pervert our own lives to a point that leads not only to our destruction, but the damage of creation that glorifies him.
The creek still supports life in abundance, but it is stained by the appearance of litter and sewage. We can continue to clean it up, as we should, in order to invest in the stream and bring it along toward recovery. As we pick up trash, as we try to find a solution to the sewage and pollution, we eventually realize the sheer amount of damage that has been done. If you visit, and even clean, as we did you will see that alone the damage cannot be controlled.
Though much of it can be theoretically cleaned, we will inevitably miss some trash as a result of one thing or another. And even if we were to erase it all in a trip that solution would not endure as the poverty would result in the same problem soon afterward. The solution must be a total one, cleaning up the stream and stopping the source of damage at once. Apart from an act of God, this will likely not happen instantaneously. However, this does allow for hope. If we can change the people and do our part, the stream may have a brighter future.
Thankfully, God’s grace cleans us and restores us instantly and permanently. He is able to do what we are not, he takes the sin and trash from our lives and rids us of it. He does it without missing a speck, making us totally clean once again. At our source, he changes us to look to him and flee the sin and trash of the world so that we can more greatly glorify him and point others to him. Elkhorn Creek does the same. Creation is beautiful, and often we feel close to God in it. Let it be clean like us, and let it too give glory to the creator.
As far as investing in the stream goes, it’s what we do to point others to him! As we helped clean up the stream, it reminded us of helping others along their way to finding faith. Sometimes, it takes a lot of work to push another through. Sometimes, they don’t want help, a trait often seen around Elkhorn Creek. But in the end, we are called to do our best, make an impact, plant a seed, and let Jesus do what he did to us: make us more like him, make us new again. This is the hope we have as we await a cleaner stream, but an even greater hope we have as we spread the Gospel. Jesus, take away our sin and let us no longer step only in water, but in you.