Perched on the balcony of an intake tower that's 10 stories high, visitors Saturday got an uncommon view of a place one tour guide called a hidden gem.
"People in Dickenson County don't really realize what we've got here," said Jackie Mullins, who volunteers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and manages the flood control facility. He remembers when it first opened back in 1964.
Mullins was quick with a welcoming smile for children and families and with details of what they would see as he swung open the heavy, large doors to the inside. No pictures are allowed.
From the view above, the experience got even rarer as the dam tour dropped visitors 160 feet under water in the tower elevator to see the outflow tunnel.
In the cramped space about big enough for three average sized people, Park Ranger Mike Phillips told two visitors the most common questions of the day had been about how the gates work that release the water and the tunnel through the mountain that the water flows through. The tunnel is 850 feet long and 16 feet in diameter.
About every five years, the tunnel is inspected for safety and Phillips had the opportunity recently to walk through it. "I've been in caves before but it's nothing like that," he said.
And in the cool of the very bottom of the tower, Phillips said questioning minds also want to know if it always stays that temperature. It does, he said.
"My potatoes would keep down here," observed visitor Ron Peters, also a county supervisor and Haysi Kiwanis Club member who stopped by for a tour himself after Kids Fishing Day that morning.
Peters hadn't been out there before and neither had most of those who visited that day. Some 56 people turned out and learned how water releases are made in order to prevent flood damage downstream.
Along with Mullins and Phillips, Park Ranger Audrea O'Quinn helped guide tours. Inside the top floor of the tower, the three chatted about what makes Flannagan special. Premium fishing of bass, walleye, crappie, hybrids and more, with at least two state records caught from the 1,100-acre lake. There's boating, skiing and whitewater rafting as well as three family-friendly campgrounds. "We stress family friendly," O'Quinn said.
Most of the visitors are locals, they said. Flannagan isn't central to any one community in Dickenson County. They said they've seen an up-tick in out-of-town visitors ever since they put Flannagan campgrounds on the national reservation directory.
Mullins said he's met travelers from all over the country.
On the other side of the mountain, Park Ranger Marty Davis and volunteers Gary Kendrick Sr. and Gary Kendrick Jr. hosted Kid's Fishing Day, which drew more than 80 kids this year.
O'Quinn said the Corps of Engineers had a water safety booth. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries stocked trout and were on hand to assist children fishing. Little Stoney Creek Trout Unlimited did fly tying and casting demonstrations while Chris Fleming taught casting lessons.
There had been no plans to provide any prizes that day, but O'Quinn said Peters was there to volunteer and was moved by the sincere interest the kids had for fishing. He decided to hold a drawing and gave away a lifetime fishing license. The winner was Brady Fuller, age 8 of Haysi.
David Clevenger, a local fisherman, donated his personal Bait Caster fishing rod and reel. He said he woke up that morning feeling the need to do something for a child at Kid's Fishing Day. The winner of the gift was Isaiah Neeley, 6, of Haysi. Fleming also pitched in several fishing items.
"It was a reminder that Dickenson County is a place where people care about each other and especially kids," O'Quinn said. "It was moving to see folks step up to make a kid feel special."
Dickenson County Kid's Fishing Day began as a partnership event by the Corps of Engineers and Game and Inland Fisheries in 1995 and at one point had a volunteer community committee that did fund raising. Federal and state agencies cannot collect nor accept donations, O'Quinn pointed out. The volunteer fundraising ended as the health of those community leaders declined, she said, but the agencies still wanted to continue to provide a day dedicated to youth fishing.
She said they would be willing to working with another Kid's Fishing Day Committee if one should form independently in order to collect and accept donations for the event. The Corps would provide guidance and outline acceptable activities for events on federal land. For more information, contact the Flannagan Project Office at 276-835-9544.