By DAVID SIBRAY ∙ For The State Journal
The Ohio River in West Virginia is enjoying a resurgence in popularity as a destination for outdoor recreation, but perhaps no resource on the river is enjoying more interest than Middle Island.
Middle Island has become the most popular destination in the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, according to Sara Siekierski, deputy manager for the refuge.
Although the numbers have not been tabulated, she said, a visitor on any given afternoon is likely to meet hikers, bikers, hunters, anglers and photographers.
"Though we're unable to provide any valid visitation numbers, I would say Middle Island is easily one of the most visited resources in the refuge in West Virginia," Sierkierski said.
Of the 25 islands the refuge protects, 22 are located in West Virginia, but Middle Island is the only uninhabited isle accessible by bridge, and that lends itself to visitation.
"The advantage of Middle Island is that you can access it — even in the cold winter months," Sierkierski said.
Located off W.Va. Route 2 at Saint Marys in Pleasants County, the 240-acre island and its very access afford nearly everything a visitor might wish — culture, natural history, an automobile tour and winding woodland trails.
The island was certainly known to prehistoric inhabitants of the Ohio Valley, though it first passes into popular history in 1770, when George Washington came ashore near its toe, at present-day Saint Marys. The town was established in 1849 by Alexander Creel, who claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary while passing the site aboard a southbound steamer.
George Street leads from Route 2 to the bridge to the island, a rustic truss that spans The Thoroughfare, as the channel between the island and the town is locally known. The bridge, according the Sierkierski, is all that is left of the original Hi Carpenter Bridge, which spanned the river and was built in 1928 but which closed in the late 1960s following the collapse of the similarly built Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant.
Once on the island, visitors are welcomed to park at a trailhead or follow a gravel road along the river toward the head of the island. Trails lead off into wetlands and young woodlands, parts of which had long been farmed.
Sierkierski stresses the value of forestation on the island. From head to toe, the island's woodlands are advancing in stages toward maturity. Large areas at the head of the island had long been in forest.
"The reforestation is also helping repair habitat for migratory birds, songbirds, birds traveling between their wintering grounds and their summering grounds in northern Ohio, Canada and even Alaska," she said.
Alongside songbirds and waterfowl, visitors are also likely to encounter fox, deer and even the occasional coyote. Shallow-water mussels and fish are also likely to be found near the banks when waters are clear.
Sierkierski said she thinks that the establishment of the refuge in 1990 and the enforcement of the Clean Water Act have gone a long way to improving the river and bolstering its allure as a recreational resource.
Visitors to Middle Island should expect to find more opportunity for on-island parking in future and witness the removal of some former industrial remnants, though the island will likely continue as a virtual wilderness, accessible yet undeveloped.
As with most other islands and mainland areas in the refuge, camping is prohibited and refuge properties close between dusk and dawn hours.