Saturday, January 01, 2011
10 most memorable stories
A look back at some of our favorite stories of the past decade
THE ORIGINAL STORIES IN THEIR ENTIRETY
Islands of Smith Mountain Lake
Part I of II
Story by Jerry Hale
Some have names, others don’t. Some have inviting beach approaches, others just rocky or eroding shores with undermined trees. One is even sprouting a dramatic lake estate – with more than a little encouragement from a determined owner.
Some even have a history. Take Bride’s Island at R4, the first of four islands that slip by on your left as you motor down the Roanoke River and turn north into the mouth of Craddock Creek. (The others, in order, are Middle, Beach and Bellavista. And don’t even think about cutting between them unless the water’s high, you’re jet boating and you have the dangerous habit of ignoring the Lake’s meaningfully-placed shoal markers).
Bride’s Island was so dubbed due to the wedding of Carol Paulette (now Carol Leggett, Director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce) who became Mrs. Bobbie Middleton there in September 1984, back when the island was considerably larger than it is today. Family and friends boated over thinking it was just another of the island beach parties in vogue with local lake lovers at the time.
“That was the first and only time my Grandma, Bessie Pearl Jones, who owned the farm across from Mariners Landing, was on the Lake,” Carol recalled.
As a group, the islands of SML provide varied and interesting cruise destinations. And there are enough to encourage charting several relaxing afternoon or evening outings. Here’s a “virtual tour” to assist with your planning.
Boaters heading toward SML Dam spot Birds Island to the Southeast of Vista Pointe about the same time the Bride’s Island quartet looms to port. Just past marker R1, leave Dam Island and then Bar Island to starboard and notice Rock Island in the distance to port. The Virginia Dare rounds this corner twice daily in-season to creep her sightseeing passengers in for a look at the Lake’s concrete cork. On the return back up the Roanoke’s eastern shore, she rounds Brides to starboard before reaching Johnston Island (adjacent to R8), which is connected to Saunders Estates by Winfred Island Road. Further up-river, there’s a no-name island near R10 that fronts Point-A-Vista and the tip of Lake Estates.
Carter Island at R12, right where the State Park begins, is arguably the Lake’s most private address, with one family’s estate perched on some dozen-plus water-encircled acres. Oh, to have had the vision (and the resources) to buy it, solve the myriad access and services issues, and sculpt an isolated retreat for family and friends! It took, among other creative solutions, a custom-built barge capable of transporting cement trucks to the island for pouring foundations. The guest house was featured on the SML Charity Home Tour in 2003.
Poke in the long cove behind Carter Island and catch what maybe SML’s smallest island along the right shore just before you reach the State Park cabins. It’s well protected from main channel wakes in this secluded, seldom-ventured setting, so perhaps it will survive a few more seasons before it succumbs.
Rounding the point at the State Park Visitor’s Center and entering the “S Curve,” you spot the shell of Turtle Island, connected to the mainland by an arched pedestrian bridge “tail.” The turtle’s head is the large rock breaking the water near new marker R-18, visible at anything but overflowing pond.
Up beyond the Hales Ford Bridge — way up where the Roanoke has yet to widen — you’ll discover a couple of cute islands by hanging a right at R52 into Beaverdam Creek. Idling around these nameless backwater protrusions, one adjacent to BE7 and the other just beyond BE9, feels a bit like gunk-holing in the Everglades but without the gators! Located about 30-40 minutes above Bridgewater Plaza at cruise speed, this quaint island pair makes a nifty turn-around point for exploring the upper reaches of the main channel.
Cruising back down the Roanoke’s western shore, watch for the popular picnic island at the entrance to Betty’s Creek (a bit below R27). Stay right as you come out of the “S” curve and mark a stepping-stone trio of private “islandettes” just before Strawberry Banks. Homeowners on the back cove of Boardwalk enjoy these cuties in their lake vista.
Shortly before reaching R11, you’ll pass Goat Island off the Sailing Association marina. It’s well disguised as a point unless you duck into its upriver cove to spot the minute strip of water that washes over its connection to the mainland.
Next comes Rabbit Island just off the entrance to Bernard’s Landing. Look for two nicely-shaped pines that were left when the island was cleared several years ago. Rabbit Island offers a gentle beach on the Bernard’s side that invites a stop to toss the Frisbee and exercise the dog.
That’s all the islands on the Roanoke. Watch for “Islands of SML, Part II: The Blackwater Channel” in the next issue.
What About Bob? Now
Story by Auburn Cecil
Smith Mountain Lake has been known for many things over the years. While most people mention the beautiful blue water, the mountain, the striper fishing and friendly people, SML has gotten some national attention for its role as Lake Winnipesaukee in the Touchstone Motion Picture “What About Bob?”
The 1991, film featured Smith Mountain Lake as a small vacation town in New Hampshire and starred Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss. If you somehow missed this outrageously funny comedy, it’s a true Bill Murray classic. He plays Bob Wiley, a troubled but loveable therapy patient with a multi-phobic personality who is self described as “having problems.” After meeting with Dr. Leo Marvin, played by Dreyfuss, Bob feels like he has made real progress. However, when Dr. Marvin leaves for a quiet family vacation, Bob freaks out and follows him (to his lake retreat). Bob becomes an instant hit with the family, all the while driving the shrink crazy.
The movie features beautiful scenes of the lake, shots of what used to be Downtown Moneta, and many scenes of a beautiful lake home. Over the years, the house has become somewhat of a legend around the lake. Sight-seeing cruises with friends and family usually feature a drive-by of the property and many people wonder just how much the house has changed over the years.
“Every time we took someone out on the lake, we’d always go by the ‘What About Bob?’ house,” said Judy Flora of Concierge & Errand Services, who now assists with care of the home.
The home was built in 1986 on a gorgeous point lot. Just four years later, it was renovated for the movie, adding a screened-in porch and front porch. When the home went on the market in 2004, real estate agent Tom Fansler called one of his long-time clients who had been looking for a place with a great lake view and said, “This home has a spectacular view but it also has quite a reputation and that might be good, or it might be bad.”
The view sold the house and the proud new owner promptly went out and purchased the “What About Bob?” video. He commented, “I didn’t remember having seen the movie at all.”
While he wanted to surprise his family with the home, the movie gave him a way to test how much they would like their lake setting. His wife’s reaction wasn’t quite what he was looking for – she fell asleep. However, his kids intently watched the movie and when he surprised them for Christmas with a trip to their new home, his 12-year-old was the first to mention that it looked a lot like the “What About Bob?” house.
He denied it until she played the movie and announced, “Dad, this is the house.” For the rest of the weekend the kids watched the movie repetitively and re-enacted scenes throughout the house.
The family has graciously allowed us to show just how much has changed…and stayed the same in this legendary home. From the original wallpaper in the bedroom to the bell that Bob obnoxiously rang on the back porch, much of the house has remained the same. In fact, things are so similar that it is hard to open a door without expecting to see Bob on the other side.
The new owners have decided that the classic, country style that the house features in the movie is perfect, so they aren’t changing much. Of course, they say that the true draw of the home has nothing to do with the movie.
“It’s a really special place. We have such a sense of peace being here and seeing the lake on three sides. We plan on keeping it in the family for many years.”
What’s up there? A trek to the top of Smith Mountain
Story by Jerry Hale
One of Smith Mountain Lake’s best-kept secrets is hiding beneath tree cover.
It’s the high trail along the ridge of scenic Smith Mountain—up where eyes always seem to travel but people seldom do.
To get there, you’ll need a dry day and a capable vehicle. Leave the shiny sedan at home and take a 4-wheel-drive truck or SUV that shrugs off ruts, rocks, roots and a bit of a climb. Hiking boots are a good idea for tramping around at the summit, plus some bottled water and a cell phone in case of emergency. A pair of binoculars is great for scanning the view from the top or identifying birds. In summer, a snake kit is probably a good idea.
Once you’re suitably equipped, head toward the Dairy Queen in Penhook. Turn north off of Rt. 40 onto Old Mountain Rd (Rt. 645) as if you were going toward The Water’s Edge. Take a right at the “T” onto Smith Mountain Rd. (626) for 1.1 miles, then left on Jasmine, Rt. 778.
At this point you’re about 5.5 miles from the summit. Watch for a gated dirt road (gate’s usually but not always open, so have a Plan B for your outing) on the left that begins the ascent. We almost passed it by, but were lucky to meet Gary Cowan, Jo Smith and Stacey Hall offloading their horses for a trail ride. They directed us up through the gate, where a posting on the right indicated we were entering a VDGIF Wildlife Management area and that camping is allowed—just leave things as you find them. Groups of more than 12 require prior approval.
Ours was a day trip, just to see for ourselves—and for Laker readers—what’s up there … and what is not. We encountered no spectacular log homes or mountain retreats. No fast food. No Stuckey’s (if you remember Stuckey’s, your visit will probably be a retirement outing). Just a long gravel road, dust and native Virginia pines by the thousands. No one has cleaned up fallen trees and limbs on the mountainside, so there is plenty of fuel littering the forest floor — cause for caution with open campfires.
Other than a couple of tight switchbacks, there aren’t many reference points along the ascent road, and it’s hard to tell from which direction you’re approaching the top…except that the mountain gives way to a green valley on the right and, as you near the ridge, you begin glimpsing the lake to the left through the trees. Then the road levels out and heads straight toward the first microwave tower, where we stopped to nuke our burrito snacks.
The sign on the fence surrounding the installation says this is an FCC Emergency Communications relay tower. It’s the one visible from the Lake on the southern end of the mountain. We checked the altitude with a pocket GPS: approx. 1,967 feet at the base of the tower. There’s a pole-mounted electric meter just outside the fence – no freebies on kilowatts, even up here!
From this point, the road alternates between mild dips and climbs for 2.6 miles until it dead ends at the tower nearest the cut where the dam is located. This is a more substantial installation, a blockhouse building surrounded by barbed-top cyclone fencing. The sign here says this outpost belongs to US Cellular, confirmed by the multiple relay dishes bolted high on its uprights. The Smith Mountain Tower Cam (live images from this camera are shown periodically on Channel 10 News) is also visible about halfway up, pointing toward The View. This tower sits on land that is 1,865 feet above sea level (about 1,065 feet above full pond). It feels higher than that looking down, just as it looks a lot higher when viewed from a boat ride along the sloping shores that plunge through the Lake’s surface.
(Little known fact: The name Smith Mountain originally designated the lower peak at the northeastern side of the dam. Once the lake was flooded, however, casual usage attached the term to the more formidable ridge along the lakeshore.)
Standing near the base of the tower, we find what we were hoping for: a wide break in the trees that reveals Saunder’s Marina to the right, Vista Pointe to the left, and Bernard’s Landing between them, slightly farther out. Beyond those landmarks, the Blackwater River snakes westward, with Christmas Tree Island looking considerably smaller than it does from the water. And the Roanoke channel meanders toward Bridgewater Plaza which, despite our vantage point, is hidden by distance and shoreline trees. A lone hawk circled lazily against a cloudless sky. Click, click, click! Lake photographer James Roney captured the image again and again, standing atop our Ford Explorer and thrusting his tripod-mounted camera yet another eight feet or so skyward in search of the best angle possible.
The return trip backtracks along the same one-lane service road, but the views seem fresh due to the reverse perspective. Once we begin the descent from the first tower, we use low-low gear on the steepest portions to keep the truck sufficiently slowed without standing on the brakes. Beware of lose gravel at the switchback turns.
All in all, the round-trip from the DQ can be done in less than three hours. Allow 4 to 5 hours if you plan a leisurely picnic and some hiking. It’s a great activity for when you have visitors…and still leaves time the same day for fun on the Lake. Water skiing, anyone?
Growing up Laker
Story by Ferne Hale
When kids vacation at Smith Mountain Lake, what’s the one part they really hate? Packing up to go home! Some youngsters never have to. They live here.
Talking with Lakers, ages 8 to 25, let us in on what it’s like to grow up with the Lake in your backyard.
Seventeen-year old Scott Rowe, a lifetime Laker, remembers swimming with his brother at an early age, back when their dock was the only one in a cove that now has 14. One of Scott’s favorite activities was (and still is) camping with friends on the islands, most often Lucky Island near Gills Creek.
“We’d go by boat or jet ski,” he said. “You could pass a course and operate a jet ski years before you could drive a car. One summer I pumped gas at Banana Joe’s on the Blackwater, and I got there by water. Awesome.”
Scott had friends from school but had more in common with Lake friends as they got older. Despite living in a rural area, riding the jet ski gave him mobility.
“You can get to a friend’s house in five minutes by water,” Scott said, smiling.
Spencer Rowe, Scott’s brother, pumped gas at Foxport Marina and later worked at Crazy Horse renting boats. The Lake was a defining factor in Spencer’s athletic interests. Before leaving for college, he was often seen on the Blackwater and at wakeboard tournaments performing gravity-defying stunts.
“Summer was always great because of the Lake,” Scott said. “It’s easy to forget how special it is until friends from elsewhere visit and rave about it.”
Another Blackwater brood – Missy, 15, Carrie, 14, Jessica, 11, and Johnny, 8 – love swimming, tubing, wakeboarding, and mostly just being here with family.
“Summer is like going on a long vacation, but you’re already there!”
The kids camp on the islands, swim far out in their cove, sleep on the boat, and like other Laker kids, love jumping off “the cliffs.” They relish visits by relatives and old friends but enjoy the slow pace of Franklin County. Their friends come from church, school, or are children of their parents’ friends.
These youngsters regard the Lake as a nice fringe benefit of rural life that includes learning to drive on little back roads with minimal traffic. Downsides? “Not having a flat place to ride a bike,” Johnny said. “And having to truck all the way to Roanoke when you really need something,” groaned the girls. They love the new Applebee’s and movie theater in Rocky Mount, yet one of them predicted, “The area will stay beautiful. It’ll never be suburbia here!”
Ryan Waters, 25, was two years old when his parents moved here. He would sit on his waterskiing dad’s shoulders at age 3, was kneeboarding at age 5, waterskiing at 7, and wakeboarding at 12. He especially liked having his cousins - instant friends - just 10 minutes away. In the summer, he would take the boat to work at the marina where his cousins also worked. Later, while in college, he noticed another big plus: “All the friends from campus want to visit you at the Lake.”
He cited the negatives: “That really long school bus ride, nothing to do in the winter, and only Sun Trust, DeLong’s, and one other little place for businesses.”
SML played a defining role in Ryan’s occupations. He ran a parasail business at the Lake for four years, got his Captain’s license at age 18, bought the business and made enough money to pay for college. One of his parasailing customers introduced him to his first post-college employer. Eventually, he left that Dallas sales job to work on a yacht off the Maine coast. Later, he ran a parasailing business in St. Thomas.
Returning to the Lake after seven years, Ryan was shocked at the change — but happy to see it. “You don’t have to drive for an hour to see a movie anymore.”
He felt it was important to live away from the SML area during college and his first years of full-time work. Having seen the “outside world,” he wants to call SML home. He recently passed the Virginia real estate exam, got his agent’s license, and works for Realty Services, Inc.
Ryan’s 23-year-old sister, Lindsey, was two months old when the family moved here. Their Lake home had a relaxing atmosphere. Activities centered around the boat, tennis, beach volleyball, and swimming. She also recalled lots of friends and family visiting.
“Sometimes we’d sleep on lawn chairs on the dock,” she said. “Camping on the islands with friends and cousins was a blast.”
“I definitely didn’t like the hour-and-a-half bus ride to school, and the mall was an hour away with mom driving,” she lamented.
Lindsey worked last summer at a Westlake law firm and has decided she‘d like to settle here after law school.
“With so many people coming here, I’d like to do real estate law,” she said. “I went to college in North Carolina and now attend law school in Ohio. I wanted to get away and see how I’d like it.”
She found out: “Nothing compares to the Lake. It’s so beautiful, and growing up, I didn’t even realize it.”
Story by Jerry Hale
The Cooper family raises cows, horses and slalom champions at SML
Smith Mountain Lake boaters who cruise well up Gills Creek can’t help but notice the impeccably-placed series of green and orange buoys pointing straight toward the big red barn at the foot of the starboard-side cove just past marker G10.
And if you idle by at zero-wake speed on a calm weekday evening from mid-April to late October, you just may witness some serious Cooper family water ski training in progress: Dad Ashley steering a jet-black MasterCraft ProStar tournament towboat on perfectly-controlled 35 mph trips through pairs of guide buoys anchored just inches wider than the boat’s waterline beam; one of four teeth-gritting daughters whipping through the slalom course at the end of a ski line that’s been shortened to 50 feet or less to make the widespread course buoys more difficult to get around; Mom Lori in the observer’s seat watching for mistakes that, in tournament competition, can mean the difference between a coveted medal and bitter disappointment.
It’s all in a day’s work — or should we say training — for the Coopers, who have made pursuit of excellence in the demanding sport of slalom skiing a family undertaking.
“Actually,” said Ashley, “we ask each child at the start of every season whether she wants to train for competition.” It’s a bit of a formality, since the girls all seem to have inherited the passion for skiing that Ashley and Lori shared as SML teens. Added Lori, “It’s the girls who are pushing the sport on us, not the other way around.”
The Cooper girls have Slalom Fever all right, and it shows in their rankings. Together, Suzanne (now 17), Michaela (16), Randolph (13) and Caroline (11) share more than 40 tournament wins, plus a family-room trophy case filled with silver and gold medals too numerous to count. In 2005, Caroline and Suzanne both placed second in state tournaments; Michaela was first in both state and regional competition and second at nationals; Randolph won all three for her age group. Water Ski magazine has noticed and ran a nine-page spread on the Coopers in the March 2006 issue. Auburn University has also noticed and will welcome Suzanne to one of the nation’s top collegiate water ski teams this fall.
Those kind of results require thousands and thousands of training passes for any one skier, not to mention the oceans of gas necessary to keep a thirsty V-8 churning 4,000 rpm-plus for one 35 mph slalom-run after another.
And with the Coopers, there’s a boatload of skiers who all want their turns. Ashley installed an Insta-Slalom portable course in the cove out front of their stately white farmhouse in 1997 to preclude the time-gobbling, gas-guzzling 30-minutes-each-way run to the SML Ski Club’s course (which was then tucked away in what is now Park Place cove, just below the S-Curve). He’s hoping the new neighbors building at Plantation Point will be tolerant and let the Coopers’ course remain in place. “We’d like to peacefully co-exist,” Ashley said. “We can only hope they’ll enjoy watching us train.”
Is blowing away their age groups at weekend ski competitions around the country all that these girls care about?
“We manage to keep it in perspective,” said Ashley. “Everyone has farm chores (they raise 200 head of cattle and 10 horses and mules). The girls all play school soccer — the three oldest on teams at Christian Heritage Academy in Rocky Mount, which Lori considers a “perfect place” for all the Cooper kids. And there’s a report card rule: “One C and you’re off the family tournament travel team!” said Caroline, who clearly intends to have only top grades in her future.
And what about young George, just 6 and already wearing a pro-quality slalom ski? Is there a serious contender for the boys’ circuit in the Cooper brood?
“We’ll know soon enough,” winks Ashley hopefully as George signals for the boat to pull him up for a run.
Hot air balloon ride over the lake
Story by Jerry and Ferne Hale
Up, Up and Away
Hot air balloon ride over SML awe-inspiring
The telltale “Whooosshhh!” from the sky creates a scramble on the ground: people spilling out onto their decks and stopping their cars to crane skyward for a glimpse of a brightly-colored balloon drifting effortlessly overhead. “Who’s up in that thing?” they wonder. Secretly, they think, “Someday….”
Well, now your dream of a balloon adventure can come true right here at Smith Mountain Lake, just as it did for us one evening when the Endeavor Balloon Company drove over from Daleville to let us experience ballooning at SML first-hand.
Captain Colin Graham has been piloting hot air balloons for more than 10 years and doing it commercially for the past five. With more than 600 hours of flight time, he’s been aloft above 20 states and one Canadian province.
Balloon pilots must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration before they can carry passengers. Colin trained in Virginia and New Mexico. He’s required to get re-certified every two years to demonstrate balloon handling proficiency and safety procedures.
And proficiency reigns at Endeavor Balloons. Friendly but business-like, the captain and his three ground crew members meshed like components of a fine watch.
“The captain explains everything,” said Winding Waters’ Joanne Steckline, who recently took an Endeavor balloon ride with husband Frank as a gift from their grown children. “I don’t like heights at all, but this wasn’t one bit scary. And the views, looking down on Park Place and the dam, were just spectacular!”
A trip’s departure point is determined in part by wind direction and speed. The Stecklines’ voyage departed from their front yard; ours lifted off from a grassy point midway up the Blackwater. Endeavor operates daily and usually flies early morning or late afternoon when the breezes are light. About 70 percent of flights occur on their originally scheduled day and time; the rest have to be rescheduled for more balloon-friendly weather.
Trips above SML are available in fall, winter and spring. Mid-summer days lack favorable breezes and are too hazy for brilliant sightseeing.
While the pilot has little control over float direction, Colin showed us the precision with which he can manage altitude by skimming along the surface of a nearby cove. A quarter of an inch of water moistened the wicker basket’s floor as we made a wake in the glassy water. We waved assuredly to well-wishers who streamed onto decks and docks to greet us. Then, as the balloon climbed to clear the shoreline trees, we spotted Anne Carpenter, a Boxwood Green neighbor, out tending her flowers. “It’s Jerry and Ferne,” we hollered. “We’ll throw you a line, and you can climb up.”
“Oh, sure,” she replied, as we floated effortlessly over her roof.
The balloon’s basket carries up to five passengers, who pay $250 each for a trip in the SML area ($275 each if only two ride). Not cheap, but it’s one of those life experiences that shouldn’t be missed.
“Nearly all of our passengers are first-timers,” Colin said, “most often at the urging of a friend or family member who has experienced the rush of balloon flight.”
Colin said he believes in using the newest and best equipment. His rig is a 2005 model, costing about $51,000. The balloon itself holds 120,000 cubic feet of hot air.
The basket carries four waist-high cylinders of propane to feed two 18,000,000 (yes, that’s million) BTU burners.
“Theoretically, one 10-second burn produces enough heat to warm a typical house for an entire winter,” Colin said. (Advice to baldies: wear a hat, since a few BTU’s of each blast reflect downward onto basket occupants’ heads.)
While a flight lasts about an hour, passengers are awed by all aspects of the nearly 3-hour experience, which begins by watching the crew launch a helium-filled “pi-ball” to observe wind conditions. Soon the basket gets removed from its hydraulic travel platform behind the brightly-painted Endeavor Balloons van, which then eases forward to spill out a 65-foot run of Rip-Stop Nylon balloon fabric. Next, a gas-powered fan blows in enough air to begin inflating the reclining balloon fabric and create enough shape for careful blasts from the burner to pump in hot, light air. The balloon climbs, its rise-to-vertical kept gradual by a crew member tugging on the “crown line.”
Soon, the beautifully colored, completely filled balloon is directly overhead, and passengers are beckoned to scramble into the basket, per pre-flight briefing instructions. Adrenalin is in bountiful supply as the basket lightens, still in the controlling grasp of the ground crew.
“OK, we’re good to go,” Colin proclaims.
At 10 feet off the ground, passenger height anxiety melts away into the silky-smooth calmness and quiet of balloon flight. You’re simply too awe-inspired to waste time worrying!
Even Jerry, who gets woozy on the dock when the water’s low, truly enjoyed the ride — though he kept a firm grasp on one of the basket’s sturdy uprights most of the time.
Drive around the lake
Story by Jerry Hale
Driving around SML’s Dam end
If you’re like most Lakers, residents and visitors alike, you’ve heard that a car trip completely around Smith Mountain Lake is either:
B. Dangerous and foreboding (think “Deliverance”)
C. A day’s journey
D. Not at all worth doing
On a sunny spring morning, Laker publisher Micah Gaudio and I set out to drive “around” the Lake. Could it be done? Would it be worth doing? Would we ever return from such a reckless adventure?
We indexed the car’s trip meter at the now-defunct Dick’s Market at the intersection of Brooks Mill and Burnt Chimney roads. Right now, take a guess at what the “full circle” mileage will be and write it down for reference later.
My guess is: __________ miles.
If you’re like us, you guessed too high. More on that later. Here’s a bit of what we saw along the way.
Just before the first mile of Rt. 834, we noted a nice vista on the left. Next we crossed a bridge over the Blackwater under which early Lakers claim they once water skied. Today, this up-river spot is silted-in and debris strewn — not pretty or navigable. But patience pays: another nice Lake vista did appear at mile 6.2.
As we drove, we considered the tools at our disposal. Our basic plan was to put the snazzy dashboard navigation system to the test. In my lap was the backup: a worn Lake chart with the homes of the 2002 SML Charity Home Tour clearly marked, retrieved that morning from a boat glove compartment where it had acquired a bit of mildew to prove its vintage.
That map became useless near Union Hall where Rt. 40 angles away from the Lake enough to drift off the edge of the paper. But it had shown a number of turnoffs that those unfamiliar with the Blackwater River’s southern shore might take to explore lakefront residential areas. Examples: Rt. 662 (Old Salem School Road) leads out to the point at the former Banana Joe’s; following Rt. 945 (Kemp Ford Road) at the Whistle Stop to Rt. 938 (Standiford Road) will take you to the new development at the Cliffs; Rt. 945 also leads to Rt. 663 (Dillard Hill Rd.) and access to Contentment Island and Pelican Point; Rt. 645 (Old Mountain Road) at Penhook heads toward The Water’s Edge subdivision as well as Vista Point. The Laker Visitor Information map shows these and other capillary roads quite clearly.
Our timeframe, however, didn’t allow for side trips; we were charting the “direct” route. It had been 7.0 miles down Rt. 834 and another 6.8 along Rt. 40 to the Penhook Minute Market where we stopped for local knowledge (and a breakfast biscuit!). We asked customer Al Carter, who has lived in the area 50 years, the best route around the dam. He shrugged and said: “Never have taken the mountain road. No reason to.”
Landon Holland, an 80-year resident having breakfast in the adjoining Dairy Queen, was a bit more instructive: “Eight more miles to Blair’s Texaco; turn left and just stay on the main road.”
Back on the road, we crossed the Franklin County/Pittsylvania County border a half mile east of Penhook. Another 1.5 miles turned up the sign for the SML Dam Visitor’s Center at Rt. 751. Blair’s was a few miles farther on the right, shortly after the Pigg River bridge and smack at the junction with Rt. 608 (Climax Road). A blue pole sign out front reads, “Pure Oil;” looking for a Texaco, we passed the turnoff, then backtracked and re-set the trip odometer. Locals apparently know Blair’s sells Texaco gas.
Climax Road quickly becomes Toshes Road and the first good view of the back side of Smith Mountain is on the left about two miles in. At mile 2.5, Toshes Road branches left but Rt. 608 continues as Ridgeway. At mile 4.5, notice Burning Bush Holiness Church nestled on the left – no doubt one of the area’s smaller parish buildings.
Mile 5.6 features a bridge over Leesville spillway where a sign introduces Bedford County. The road changes to Toler’s Ferry (yes, thankfully, the navigation system was noticing the name changes!) and gets more serpentine. Still, all of this is smooth-though-unlined blacktop roadway and quite manageable if you take it easy.
The spring redbuds along the roadsides were glorious. Even so, we were thinking how sensational it would be during fall foliage. Sadly, lots of timber is being cut – but that does open up views of the Mountain’s backside.
At mile 9.5, a causeway provided a better view of Leesville Lake: a lone pontoon boat at a floating dock was the only sign of lakefront life. Between 10.2 and 10.7, several “end” views of the Mountain materialized on the left. Then, at mile 12.4, we began getting the Bedford County view of the Dam area.
Cedar Key Wild Life Refuge is a possible stop at mile 13.8. Slow down to gawk at the restored Dora Mansion at mile 14.9. At Trading Post Road, you pick up marked center line and, a couple miles on, meet Rt. 626 (Smith Mountain Lake Parkway). A left here would provide a side trip past the State Park entrance and on to the beautiful lake and mountain views from Parkway Marina’s grassy point.
But our “direct” route called for a right to White House Corner, then a left on Whitehouse Road, which is still Rt. 608. Just over 3 more miles along, we slowed for a couple of breathtaking vistas to the left. We turned left onto Radford Church Road and, near mile 24, spotted construction at Sunset Cay, a new residential and commercial community. Once onto Hendrick’s Store Road, we passed the sites of the future Sweetwater Amphitheatre and Moneta Arts, Education and Community Center.
At mile 26, you’ll come to the light at Rt. 122. If you’re out to truly circumnavigate the Lake, take a jog to the right, then a left at the stoplight in front of the ShopRite. Follow Diamond Hill Road (655) to a left on Horseshoe Bend Road and then right on Goodview Road, eventually leading back to Hardy Road to cross the Roanoke River at Bay Roc Marina. Hardy Road meets Rt. 122 a mile south of Booker T. Washington National Monument. Going north ¾ mile, then turning right onto Lost Mountain Road at Halesford Baptist Church, followed by a left when you reach Burnt Chimney Road, would get you back to where our adventure began.
We, however, opted for the directness of familiar Rt. 122 south back toward our starting point, turning left at Westlake Corner and then right on Rt. 834 (Brooks Mill) a half mile later. In three more minutes, the intersection of 834 with Burnt Chimney Road marked the point where we’d started 2½ hours earlier.
Our “direct-route”mileage: a very manageable 58.2 in all – considerably less than we had presumed. We estimate you could make the trip in 80 minutes without stops. Add a couple hours and 30 miles for side trips and you have a pleasant half-day journey. Really curious explorers could occupy the better part of a day. Pack a picnic!
It turns out Smith Mountain Lake is as much of a delight to explore by land as by water. Drive safely and enjoy.
Story by Jerry Hale
The top must-see spots on Smith Mountain Lake
While navigating the waters of beautiful Smith Mountain Lake this summer, why not make getting a glimpse of all the lake’s major landmarks a part of one outing or another?
SML is large enough to offer lots of destinations beyond the coves close to where we live or launch. But it’s also small enough that the “far-flung stretches” are reachable – not all in one day’s trip (though it’s probably doable on a calm, low-traffic day), but certainly over the course of a summer’s excursions with friends and family.
The accompanying map will help with cruise planning, but we suggest marking your destinations on a free SML Visitor Information Map, produced by Laker Media and available at most outlets where the magazines are distributed. Remember to pay attention to shoal markers and no-wake zones, and take along a cell phone just in case.
1. Smith Mountain Dam
While you can’t see the dam’s face from the water (the best view of that is from the road approaching the dam’s Visitor Center), there’s something mysterious about approaching (but not too close!) the dam’s caution buoys from the water, shadowed by the steep banks on either side. Shorelines here are among the most undeveloped — and rugged — on the lake. Take note of cute little Rock, Bar and Dam Islands dotting the water approach.
2. Craddock Creek Lighthouse
Sitting lakeside of the home owned by Craig and Marguerite Pickering near marker C2, this lighthouse, though not an official navigational marker, has been helping attract boaters up picturesque Craddock Creek for nearly 20 years. Targeted for refurbishing by the owners in the near future, the light may once again shine as it did in the 1970s when first constructed by Harold Allen, the original owner of the property.
3. Vista Pointe
Boasting one of the best all-around views on the lake, these condos are notable for their proximity to the water (the six-story main building actually has in-water pilings as part of its foundation) and being the SML’s first high-rise (completed in 1984). The framework over the pool courtyard is no longer used for a winter enclosure, but continues to lend a futuristic look to the facility.
4. Bernard’s Landing
Sprawling around several coves near where the Roanoke and Blackwater rivers meet, the Bernard’s complex includes condos, townhouses, a marina and the lake-view Landing Restaurant — always a great lunch or dinner stop for boaters. Take note of Rabbit Island near the marina entrance and Goat Island (its connection to land is partly visible if water levels are two feet or more down from full pond) just upstream.
5. Carter Island/SML State Park/Cabins Cove
Detour into the cove that is partly obscured by Carter Island (also known as Emerald Island) and enjoy shoreline that is totally undeveloped except for the State Park rental cabins on the right-hand shore several hundred yards in. This cove feels like it ought to be loaded with anglers, but it’s rare to see fishermen — or anyone else — plying the waters here.
6. Franklin County Park Fishing Pier
Midway through the S-curve you can’t miss the large new fishing pier built with labor donated by Michael Dillon Custom Docks. It’s a high pier that you can’t dock against, but you can resolve to come by car at another time and enjoy the view from the pier’s ample benches.
7. Hales Ford Bridge
What’s there to say? Everyone knows you pass under it to access the upper Roanoke — some 14 miles of river that comprise nearly a third of the lake’s length. Stop at the Bridgewater Plaza retail complex for gas, souvenir shopping, pizza, sandwiches, fudge, ice cream or min-golf. Spending an hour strolling the boardwalks will ward off “sea legs.”
8. The Islands in Beaver Creek
Thirty minutes or so of running above Hales Ford Bridge uncovers some fun-to-view secluded shorelines and quiet coves. Go a bit beyond R50 and angle right into Beaver Dam Creek, one of the lake’s back-woodsiest destinations. Go far enough in to circle the islands and check out the huge (private) water slide.
The following Landmarks grace the Blackwater River
9. Christmas Tree Island
Long, low and lovely, this island comes into view as you round B2, 4 & 6 in quick succession. Leave it to your right and cross the river to find the entrance to Bull Run.
10. Upper Bull Run Creek
Another relatively undeveloped section of the lake, Bull Run extends up into the Penhook area. If you go far enough to spot members of the SML water ski club at practice on their slalom course, cut back to idle speed to keep from creating rollers that interrupt their runs.
11. Lucky Island
We’re not sure who named this one — or why — but it sits at the mouth of Gills Creek and offers a nice beach on the down-river side for letting the kids take a swim.
12. Upper Gills Creek
If you haven’t journeyed up this curvy tributary, you’ve missed some of the lake’s steepest shorelines. Skippers enjoy navigating through the tight curves; just keep to the right to avoid oncoming boats. There’s gas and refreshments at Foxport Marina on the way in or out.
13. The Cliffs
Enjoy the view of this spot that has long been a popular upper Blackwater destination for residents and vacationers alike. It’s private property now, and is being transformed to an environmentally conscious residential development called The Coves. Boaters still stop here to swim in water that’s 70 feet or more deep right at the shoreline.
14. The 4-H Center
The new amphitheatre is visible from the water as you approach the 4-H cove from B40. And there’s nothing to keep you from going on up the Blackwater and viewing the many new homes being built on its steep shores. The river is nice and deep all the way to the last marker, B49.
Story by Jerry Hale
Brewing up something new
Jerome Parnell will introduce a lake-inspired beer this summer
Those who enjoy a cold beer on a warm day are in for a real treat this summer when a new brew is released from taps around Smith Mountain Lake.
Dam Lager – named for the structure that created and retains SML – is the brainchild of lake resident Jerome Parnell.
"Our goal is to convert lite beer drinkers to enjoy beer that is locally brewed and hand-crafted," said Parnell, who grew up spending summers at the lake with family, and whose mother, Rory Parnell, helped open The Little Gallery at Bridgewater Plaza in 1986.
"We hope to have Dam Lager at several establishments around the lake beginning Memorial Day weekend. As production ramps up, we will be expanding distribution throughout the summer," he said.
For Parnell, an executive for International Bio Resources, a bio-pharmaceuticals firm headquartered in Louisiana, the beer business is a hobby/occupation.
"My job requires a lot of travel," he said. "I kept noticing that many places have a microbrewery and a following for its local brews. Southwest Virginia was lacking in that regard," he said.
Parnell also had a craft-brew influence in his own family. While a student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, he gave his dad, Jerry, a home-brewing kit as a Father’s Day gift.
"The first beer was a disaster," Parnell recalled, "but Dad stuck with it and often shared his home-brewed beer with family and friends on holidays and here at SML."
Three years ago, Parnell began talking to Steve Davidson, president of Roanoke Railhouse Brewery, about producing a hand-crafted beer dedicated to the lake area.
Learning that Davidson was wrestling with the question of how best to distribute his local brews, Parnell formed Lakeside Imports and Distributing, LLC. Based in Roanoke, the company is licensed to sell beer wholesale throughout Virginia. It services more than 80 taps at restaurants and pubs in and around Roanoke and Blacksburg. Lakeside is the exclusive distribution agent for brands produced by Railhouse and two other local brewing companies.
"We’ve had excellent response to locally brewed beers," Parnell said.
In fact, Railhouse, located in the Wimmer Tire building on McClanahan Street, is currently doubling its production. Lakeside has plans to add more trucks, personnel and regional coverage this year as the craft beer revolution gains further footing in Southwest Virginia.
In a contract brewing arrangement with Railhouse, Parnell has set out to create a locally brewed beer distinctive to Smith Mountain Lake. Dam Lager will be crafted by John Bryce, who’s earned German Brewmaster certification from Berlin’s renowned Versuchs-und Lehranstalt fur Brauerei (VLB). His experience includes stints at several Virginia-based breweries, including Old Dominion Brewing Company, Capitol City Brewing Company and Starr Hill Brewing Company.
In his current position, Bryce is responsible for Railhouse’s flagship brand, Track 1, a German-style dark lager, and for Blacksburger Pils, a smooth German-style pilsner Railhouse brews under contract for Blacksburg Brewing Company.
Bryce said he adheres to the German purity standard called Reinheitsgebot, which Boston Beer Company uses in brewing the Samuel Adams line of beers and ales. He described Dam Lager as "a crisp, clean, copper-colored lager with low bitterness, light caramel malt profile and light-to-medium body."
Parnell added, "And, with more flavor than you get in the common fizzy, yellow-colored light beers, [it’s] a great beer for the outdoors and the summer season.
"Dam Lager is a celebration of the lake lifestyle and, hopefully, will become recognized as part of SML culture and experience."
Strong local support could allow the brand to grow statewide, or regionally, creating potential for bottling and creating new blends, said Parnell, who makes his home at SML with his wife, Sandra, and two daughters, Maeve, 5, and Fiona, 2. He said Lakeside will also introduce merchandise this summer.
"Look for T-shirts, coasters and other items to be available around the lake," Parnell said.