W.E.R. Byrne’s “Tale of the Elk”

20140113-141643.jpgThe recent chemical spill into the Elk river, which empties into the Kanawha in Charleston (W.Va.), has me thinking of the many past excellent days during childhood spent recreating in the upper Elk area. Fishing and grouse hunting principally, though a fine little ski hill also resides near its upper reaches. I also decided to return to a particular work of an old family friend, the late W.E.R. Byrne’s Tale of the Elk (Mountain State Press, 1940). A Charleston area attorney until his death in 1937, Byrne wrote the Tale of the Elk, which detailed his principal passion of fishing throughout West Virginia’s beautiful Elk drainage. Byrne writes tales of catching catfish, perch, smallmouth bass, and even pike (at one point) along the lower stretches of the river while of course going into humorous stories of trout fishing the colder upper waters with many colorful characters. The work taps into the lives of residents from the Elk’s origin in Pocahontas County and Slaty Fork down through Whitaker Falls, Bergoo, Webster Springs, Sutton, Birch River and Big Chimney. Byrne was a master story teller whose writing incorporated local characters (bankers, judges, cattlemen, business owners, etc.) into the history of the region, from coal mining to the Kanawha salt works industries. I can still hear my father expounding the wisdom of the “Camp at the End of the World,” a poem about a section of the Elk placed in Byrne’s last chapter. For Byrne, nature loomed large. This seems to run in the blood of West Virginians. “To him who in love of nature holds communion with her visible forms,” and can both speak and interpret her language – these lines are dedicated: “The Camp at the End of the World.”

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