It’s a peaceful sanctuary that provides solitude most of the time for this retired English professor, but there are also the sounds of that rewarding, silly, raucous joy, too, along this stretch of Big Wheeling Creek. The hectic hurriedness of even simplistic existence finally drains away once safe passage is secured over an ancient, one-lane bridge situated somewhere in the northwest corner of Marshall County.
This is “KBL,” or “Kicking Bear Lodge,” and there’s no Facebook Timeline or no celebratory website that promotes its existence because it’s kind of off the map for all those who retreat here when they can. And that’s on purpose, and for Dr. Thomas Wack Sr., it is his home for as long as it can be each and every year. Dr. Wack and his brother John purchased this piece of Appalachian paradise a little more than a decade ago, and this country land has remained as delightful as it was before the arrival of the natural gas and pipeline industries.
He and his brother are the patriarchs of this Wack clan and, the adults, the teenagers, and even the younger children of the family understand Tom Sr.’s stature because every single person at family picnics makes sure he’s cool and is in need of nothing. If Dr. Wack, now 91 years of age who lost his wife, Patricia, in 2004, does make a request, they sprint, not stroll, on their way to making it happen. Sure it’s the man’s brilliance, an intellect that’s expanded far beyond the textbooks to which he referred during his career in academia, that they respect, but it might be more about his welcome mat, though, but from what I experienced, each and every family member and their friends felt just lucky to have a day in this haven.
KBL is, after all, out the crick.
“Living on the creek is a pretty wonderful thing, I think,” Dr. Wack insisted. “What I like most about it is the quietness. We’re very isolated and away from traffic and the regular noises that people just get used to, but we’re also close enough to town that needing anything is never an issue.
“Unless we are having a lot of guests out here, and we do that pretty often during the warmer months, you can hear Earth go about its business,” he said. “I get to hear the creek running by, the wind in all of these beautiful trees, and the animals doing what they have to do in order to survive. It makes for a lot of peaceful and interesting observation.”
Dr. Wack and his brother, John, were both tenured professors at Wheeling Jesuit University, and while John’s expertise was history, Tom’s were English and composition. The brothers began instructing at the college during the 1960s, so a few years after the turn of the century they decided to seek this hidden-away piece of paradise.
“My brother, John, and I bought this property 10 years ago because we decided we wanted a place where the family could gather,” Dr. Wack explained. “We knew about this farm because my daughter is the wife of the owner, and that’s why we decided to take a look around here. We looked at the cabin at the end of the road, but it only has one good-sized bedroom and a bunk room. So we kept looking.
“Then we found out this place was vacant after it had been owned by the Naegele family, so we talked with the son and set up the purchase within a couple of weeks,” he continued. “We were very pleased it worked out the way it did because my brother and I were pretty convinced this would be a perfect place for us and for our family to get away from all of it.”
Tom’s grandson, Josh, is one family member who appreciates this refuge.
“I feel so fortunate to have KBL at this time in my life,” he said. “My kids absolutely love being out in nature and spending time with family. KBL provides such a magical place that has the comforts of home, mixed with a beautiful backdrop provided by Mother Nature. It provides a setting in which my children and I can spend as much time as possible with their great-grandfather and other family members.
“It’s not often that kids have the opportunity to get to know their great-grandparents and hear family stories firsthand,” Josh continued. “It’s a place that I hope stays in our family for a long time.”
This Native American owns no direct history to the creek or this place particularly but Kicking Bear is still honored, in a way, by KBL. Not only is the lodge named what it is, but there’s also a large portrait of him in the cabin’s living room area. Each person who treks through the door for the first time is told the tales of Kicking Bear.
“Kicking Bear was a Lakota Sioux Indian chief, and my professor is an expert on Indian history, and he came up with the name for the camp,” Dr. Wack explained. “I thought it was a pretty good idea, so it’s been ‘KBL’ ever since. It means something to us, and it makes sense to everyone in the family.
“Not a lot of people know much about Kicking Bear, but his history is pretty well documented, and he was very important to the Lakota Sioux,” he said. “He made a difference, and my brother always admired him for that. It’s the perfect name for this place, really.”
The professor emeritus lived in the Wheeling area at the time he and his brother closed on this property, but soon after moving into a retirement community a few years ago, he quickly realized he had a contrasting option he couldn’t decline.
“To a large extent this place has been my source of peace and happiness,” Dr. Wack admitted. “I moved into Welty less than three years ago, and I quickly learned that living in that kind of facility during the summer months is not a whole lot of fun, so I decided to come out here in the month of June that year.
“This year I made the decision to come out even earlier, so I moved back out here in early May, and I’ll stay here as long as I can before it gets too cold,” he said. “I’m hoping we have a warm fall season so I can remain here until maybe November. We’ll have to see.”
While he enjoys the quiet and loves to watch the birds at play, Dr. Wack also looks forward to the sound of wheels on his secluded, graveled path to his getaway because it can only mean a member of his family or a close friend is soon to visit him in his haven. They come from near and far to bring supplies, to toss a line in the water, to cool off in the flows of water, or to simply sit, take it in, and breathe easily.
“Not only does my family from Wheeling come here, but I have a lot of family that live outside this area now, and they all come here each year, too,” Wack reported. “I have a son who lives in Los Angeles who comes in a couple of times a year, another son in Maryland who comes very often, one in Pittsburgh who comes down frequently, and I’m lucky because they like to do a lot of good work here. I have a lot of family in the South Bend area, and they come here, too.
“We had a big tree branch fall on the end of the porch about two years ago, and there was damage,” he said. “So we’ve been working on that a good bit since, so I’m lucky to have them, and I’m lucky to have so many grandkids and great-grandkids that really enjoy coming out here, getting into the creek and just having fun like I used to when I was that age. Outside was our playground then, and that’s how the grandkids treat this camp, and it’s a great thing to watch.”
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Keeping up with everything involved in maintaining KBL as the rugged-yet-comfortable retreat it is today takes daily attention to details.
“Our family is a very close one, and we always have been,” Dr. Wack said. “And we’re going to keep this place in the family for as long as possible. It is a big responsibility. It’s not that it’s an expensive thing, but the maintenance is something you always have to pay attention to because it’s out here in the country.
“You don’t have street cleaners or the other services that you take for granted when you are in the city, and the weather out here is a lot different here than it is in Wheeling, too,” he continued. “You get a little snow in the city, and you can count on a plow to drive by soon after, but that doesn’t happen out here. That’s one of the reasons why I move back to Welty when I do. But that’s a tough day; I can tell you that.”
Wake up. Do what he wants. Go to bed. Sleep. Repeat the next day.
“Unless the family is here, ordinarily it’s just me here during the summer,” Wack said. “I am up fairly early in the morning, and after my breakfast I begin working on a daily message to my family. It’s full of news about what’s going on, and there are also some reflections and ruminations.
“I also work every day on genealogy, and I have been doing that for the past 40 years because I’ve been putting together a history of our family right now,” he said. “I read a lot, too, and I am still writing every day, and I enjoy that. This is the perfect place to do it because there’s very little to interrupt you here.”
Josh, along with everyone else in the Wack family, is on the receiving end of the professor’s consistent messages, and he has admired the evolution that’s taken place since his grandfather launched his insights.
“It started out as a way to let his six children know that he’s awake, alive, and doing well, and then it turned into what it is today which is a blog-style entry that tells our local weather forecast, family birthdays and updates, current events, genealogy, politics, religion, and sometimes an original poem or short story, or an analyzation of a poem,” the grandson explained. “The recipients are mainly family spread out all over the United States, but he has developed a fan base along the way, which includes family friends.
“And ever since my grandfather was in the Navy, he has had a deep love and connection with the water, whether it be the ocean, a lake, a river, or in this case, a creek,” Josh said. “That played a major role in the purchase of KBL and why he loves to be there so much.”
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There are critters in the woods, and there are critters in the water, too, and although he doesn’t fish or even get his feet wet in Big Wheeling Creek, he loves watching the catches and the float-byes.
“There’s a lot of fishing that takes place out here, and my son once caught a bottom feeder that was about two-feet long,” Dr. Wack recalled. “The water is down a little now. If it were a little deeper, you would see the kayaks, one after another, floating down the creek. There are a lot of canoes, too, and that’s become very popular the last few years.
“There are big fish in there; I can tell you that. I’m not a big fisherman myself, so I’m not really sure of everything that is in there, but I see them in there when I walk down to the creek, and I can tell you the size of some of them has surprised me,” he continued. “There are days when the kids and grandkids spend a lot of time fishing, and they always have success so it’s frequently a very good time for them.”
This Kicking Bear Lodge has afforded his grandchildren and great-grandchild a playground, one really unlike those on the streets of Wheeling. The level of the creek fluctuates, of course, and safety precautions do, too, but most often it’s about swimming and exploration.
“The kids and the grandkids really love the creek, and if the water is higher than it is now, I know the parents really watch over them when they go in, especially when they were smaller than what they are now,” Dr. Wack explained. “But if we’re having another beautiful day, the kids should get outside instead staying in the house. This is the real way to play.
“We’ve had what I refer to as a ‘real’ summer this year, so I’ve not had a lot of time for the television during my stay this year, and I’m not complaining about that,” he admitted. “I’d much rather be out here than stuffed inside. And by the time some of those drama shows on television come on during the evenings, I’m usually ready to go to bed so I can get started on the next day.”
That’s because there is seldom a distracting noise, but those darn shooting stars might interrupt a train of thought from time to time.
“It so quiet, and it’s very dark here at night. We don’t have the light pollution you have in the city, and that’s something my brother, John, really likes because you can really see the stars out here,” Dr. Wack said with a broad smile. “He’s something of an amateur astronomer, so he really does appreciate these night skies.”
His family is well aware of what this hideaway means to Dr. Thomas Wack Sr., a man who once lived directly across the street, literally, from Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne. This place, KBL, is now where he satisfies what he must after earning his undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. degrees at Notre Dame University, teaching English literature at his alma mater and at Xavier University, and finally moving to this valley to accept an instructing position at then Wheeling College.
“My greatest memory of my grandfather will always be at KBL,” grandson Josh added. “His favorite thing in the world is when a heavy daytime rainstorm hits, he puts on a jacket, fixes a strong gin martini on the rocks, smokes a cigar, lights a small fire in the chimnea, and stares out at the creek as he sits under the roof of the covered porch. Aside from when he was with my grandmother, it’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him.”
And that’s because he and his brother have accomplished what they wanted. The Wack family used to gather at one house or another, and it was always a crowded, somewhat uncomfortable situation that did not occur nearly often enough. The Kicking Bear Lodge has changed that.
“The best part about living out here, simply, is the total relaxation,” Wack insisted. “No matter what you may be doing, you’re relaxed, and no matter how many people are visiting, you’re relaxed. And it never hurts to have a good cigar and a martini.
“When I have to move back to the city, well, that’s usually the worst part about living out here. This year I expect it to be particularly difficult because I’ve been out for quite a while,” this legendary educator added. “But that’s just when I start looking forward to my return to the Kicking Bear Lodge.”