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Maryland’s Big Savage Mountain

Heavy forests and the roar of whitewater wait in this section of the Appalachian Mountains.

Little-Known Fact: Savage River State Forest was the site of the 1989 World Whitewater Championships.

Scrambling south along the 17-mile spine of Big Savage Mountain, I wade through streams of withered leaves that flood the trail. The rattling fall canopy of airborne leaves blocks the sun’s warmth and traps the moist, earthy smell of the forest below it.

About seven miles along the ridge, I venture off the trail for a vista of Elbow Mountain and Blue Hick Hollow. Behind Meadow Mountain, the sun releases parachutes of red that slowly turn to black. I make camp nearby and dream of red and gold drifting leaves.

In the morning, a ghostly light fills the air. Unzipping the tent door I face a stark and silent whiteness. Three inches of snow lies where only dry leaves lay yesterday.

A set of neatly formed footprints crosses to a snow-laden fir. There a silver fox sits motionlessly beneath the branches. I quickly fumble for my camera, but when I finally turn back, the creature has disappeared. I would have done better to simply watch. A cloudless, robins-egg blue sky silhouettes a red-tailed hawk circling above me, its cry emphasizing the silence and the isolation.

With the wind at my back and a trackless white path ahead, the fiendish tale behind the mountain’s name fixes my imagination. An English survey team in the mid-1700s lost its way in these isolated hills of the Allegheny Plateau. In desperation and delirium from lack of food, the group made a grisly decision: to eat the weakest members of the party. Rescued before carrying out its act, the thankful group named the mountain after its first intended victim, John Savage.

Big Savage Mountain is a part of the Appalachian Mountain Range that is frequently overlooked. It’s almost hidden in the north-west Maryland panhandle, but is not hard to reach for those who know of it. And it offers a quick retreat for victims of the urban shuffle. Perhaps the visions of hardship that the name suggests keep people away — and its rugged terrain well-deserves the name — but all the better for those seeking solitary refuge.

Occasional panoramic views of the Savage River Watershed to the west and Dans Mountain to the east open up the Big Savage Trail, but most of it meanders through heavy forest. The trail is quite rocky, but some sections cross an old logging road that eases the terrain a little.

As I near the northern end of the Big Savage, I hear the whoops and shrieks of kayakers twisting through slalom gates and punching holes in the rapids. One of the steepest rivers in the world, the flood-controlled Savage River drops 85 feet per mile. When the dam lets loose, water gushes at 1,000 cubic feet per second. The Savage River recently dared the world’s best paddlers to survive its demolition-derby whitewater during the World Slalom Canoe and Kayak Championships.

With calf muscles aching, I sit on the bank and let the roar of whitewater envelop me. I’ll have to come back another day to try the wilder, watery side of Big Savage.

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