In 1987, Ralph Robertson was featured in Outdoor Life Magazine for float fishing the New River. Now he is instrumental in efforts like ReNew the New and River Cleanup and often volunteers his time to teach interested folks how to kayak and stand-up paddleboard. But, fishing? It just isn’t his thing anymore.
“I can’t get back into it,” Robertson laughs. “Even when I’m out catching fish I can’t figure out what I saw in it all the years I liked it. But I guess a person changes.”
Robertson was born in Narrows in 1951. After high school graduation he enlisted in the military. Five months later, he landed in Vietnam for what turned out to be a 26-month stay.
When he was young, all Robertson wanted to do was get out of small-town Narrows. “There was nothing to do,” he reflects. After Vietnam, he returned to the states and battled a noxious relationship with alcohol for nearly 10 years. He settled into a job at Celanese Corporation in 1972 and retired six years ago after 41 years of employment.
“Whenever I felt I had to have a drink or a cigarette, I’d run up the mountain,” Robertson remembers. To fortify sobriety, he dove into the outdoor recreation. He started mountain biking, trail running, paddling and rock climbing. “Then I realized I lived in paradise my whole life and didn’t know it!”
Life in the outdoors became Robertson’s new relationship. Now he is somewhat of a mountain man hero, known for his profound knowledge of the local landscape and his passion for its care and upkeep, something he started entirely on his own in the early ‘80s.
“When I first started clearing the trails around Mill Creek, the forest service actually threatened arrest,” Robertson chuckles. But he cunningly affirms that he never built new trails, he merely kept the brush cleared away from existing log roads so bikers, hikers and runners alike could gain access. All he used was a saw.
More than 20 years after Robertson began forest vigilantism, Giles County started to take interest in outdoor recreation as well. Official permission from the forest service followed shortly thereafter, and the creation of the first sanctioned map of Robertson’s Mill Creek trail system was released.
“An individual cannot get anything done. You have to be part of group. If it’s part of local government it’s even better,” Robertson states.
The tourism committee in Giles County began meeting informally in the early 2000s and immediately understood the gift they had in Robertson. “I contribute what I can, river knowledge and stuff like that,” he humbly remarks. “Anything they need me to do, I’m glad to do it. That’s more or less my passion.”
“He’s not only a wonderful stakeholder, but he’s a user of outdoor recreation and community assets. If something is on his mind, it probably means we should also be paying attention,” Cora Gnegy, Giles County’s tourism marketing director, offers.
Susan Kidd, director of strategic development in Narrows adds: “Local folks can identify with him and what he is saying. Sometimes there is suspicion when ‘outsiders’ try to tell locals how to care of their own home area. People respect his opinion.”
Robertson has paddled the famed Gauley River and through the turbulent New River Gorge. He’s paddled all of the New River and most of its tributaries, from near Boone, NC, to the Gauley Bridge. He’s walked 800+ miles of the Appalachian Trail, all of Virginia and Maryland, much of Pennsylvania and sections in North Carolina and Tennessee. He met his wife mountain biking at Pandapas Pond and recalls how he wrecked in the creek “right in front of her!” on the day they met.
He currently manages a 7.2-mile section the Mary Ingles Trail from Glen Lyn Park to the West Virginia border. He belongs to the Outdoor Club at Virginia Tech and leads curiosity seekers on spelunking missions into the old 1930s commercial cave in Narrows, rigging up a 40-foot ladder system and putting folks on belay.
He has recently been asked to share his knowledge for “Watershed Stories,” a digital storytelling project that will capture the stories of local individuals who have or have had a relationship to the New River. The effort is a partnership between the New River Valley Regional Commission, the New River Watershed Roundtable, Virginia Tech’s Oral Historian and the Virginia Tech Philosophy Department.
Robertson is paramount in community meetings, revitalization projects and business plan development. He’s pitched the construction of a white water play wave through Narrows Falls for nearly 20 years and has even inquired about getting the area designated as state park. He dreams big and adventures bigger, aptly echoing Giles County’s tagline as Virginia’s Mountain Playground.
But for now, it’s back to Mill Creek Nature Park where he works a few hours here and there blazing a new trail to Sentinel Point. It will be close to 5 miles long with 1600 vertical feet and views of Pipestem Knob in West Virginia. The excitement in his voice for what this trail will mean for mountain bikers and trail runners is palpable.
“I don’t know when it’ll get finished. I’ll probably be so old I’ll need an e-bike to get there,” Robertson laughs.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley | Photos by Nathan Cooke
Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer who took full advantage of Ralph’s expertise to plot out her next mountain biking adventure.