Geology is literally at the foundation of everything having to do with Natural History, the root of it all, but even beyond that, there is the spectacular emotion that comes over a person when they spot a shiny speck in the dirt that might be a crystal. These two powerful draws pulled the Young Explorers out into the field on Saturday November 21, 2015 for a day of rockhounding, history lessons and exploration.
The day started at 9am with 8 kids and 4 adults headed west towards Saltville. Our first stop was along route 603 at a road cut along Fox Creek Falls. In that cut we could see a dense conglomerate that represented a fast flowing stream much like the current Fox Creek. You can clearly see the rounded rocks touching one another to indicate the tumultuous flowing water. With closer inspection one can study the layout of the individual stones in the conglomerate and identify the direction of water flow.
The next stop was also along 603 where we had clear views of still-water sedimentary rock where one could observe the very distinct layers that defined varying seasons of silt and speed of erosion. Circular scars in the form of bore holes were left by geologists at both sites and made the kids jealous that they could not retrieve such perfect samples of geologic history.
Our third stop took us to a site that none of us had ever visited, just across I-81. It was a small limestone quarry in the valley along highway 107. With eyes peeled for fossils the group quickly realized that the quarry held a wealth of tiny crystals and set their sights on scouring the crushed stone for dolomite and quartz vugs. One very spectacular specimen sparkled amidst the limestone: a small quartz crystal that is referred to as a "Saltville Diamond". Even at just 6 millimeters in diameter it's beauty shone like an engagement ring in contrast to the limestone and dolomite it was perched on. We also found multiple curious formations in the limestone that tell a distinct geologic story...
From there we headed over to The Museum of the Middle Appalachians in Saltville, VA where we intended to study their impressive local geologic and ice age mammal displays. Instead we ended up talking with their curator almost entirely about the history of Saltville and the importance of salt to humans. Mildly disappointed on the focus and a bit behind schedule we left the Museum and headed west to "The Great Channels of Virginia". Although the curator drew us a treasure map for a local fossil collecting site we had to skip over the site to begin our strenuous 6 mile round trip hike before the day got any further along.
After a quick lunch in the route 80 trailhead parking lot, we gathered our explorer packs and set off on foot towards the Great Channels. This fascinating geological feature is part of a State Natural Area Preserve that encompasses 721 acres around Middle Knob on Clinch Mountain. The peak of which caps out at just over 4,200ft and hosts a fire tower as a beacon for the destination. Geologists speculate that the 400 million year old sandstone formation was cracked to its current state during the last ice age when the power of ice wedged the rocks apart to create the channels.
The hike to the top gave us clear alternating views of the Blue Ridge's Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain in the Southeast and the 4,600ft evergreen cap of Beartown Mountain to the Northeast with the West Virginia coal laden mountains off to the far north. The trail spanned millions of years of geologic record with layers and layers of sandstone rocks as we climbed to the top. One particular section held a mass of fossil deposits including Trilobites.
At about 3,800ft in elevation the forest dramatically changed to a rhododendron understory and the harder sandstone formations began their presence along the trail cut.
As the trail leveled out and the destination came into reach, the kids (and adults) picked up the pace and excitement. We arrived at the peak and fire tower, a little bit confused about what and where the Channels were but eager to seek out the reason we had made the journey. After a short inspection we found a sign that pointed the way.
Of all things that can influence one's emotion, perhaps a dramatic change in space is the most powerful. The wonderment of a new spectrum of senses will heighten your attention to detail and bring on a wave of excitement like no other. In the case of the The Great Channels that change could not be more dramatic. One goes from a vast windswept and sun-bleached peak where the ruins of a shelter bare evidence of brutal exposure... to the flip opposite: a series of crevices that feel as cozy and protected as a hobbit hut.
The light switches from the glaring bright white of a clear November day to a soft ambient sandy glow filtered by 40' tall moss lined walls. You go from being a speck in a near endless Appalachian vista to being a wedge between rock walls that are sanding holes through your pack as you explore deeper. Your steps echo through the seemingly hollow white-sand and moss-lined bottoms of the crevices. The wind may be howling above at 40mph but you would never know it inside of the Channels. The air is still, humid and cool but not cold. The rocks are cold, and damp to the touch, but with the ever-present texture of 80 grit sandpaper. The walls are a surface of endless undulations and soft curves that beckon you along the path. Around each corner lies another irresistible dark crack with soft light glowing at end. The few trees that have taken root in the Channels climb straight as arrows to the window of light above . You have to brace yourself between the rocks to tilt your head back far enough to find that same light. The sounds are all still, quiet and reflective, except the occasional "WOW! you've got to check this out" echoing from around the corner, but which corner? It is a maze of channels that feels like it repeats endlessly but uniquely at the same time. It is a wonderment everyone should experience sooner rather than later.
Running out of daylight we had to cut our exploration of the channels short at just 45 minutes and reverse course to avoid hiking in the dark. With such a short trip this adventure just cracked the door of our curiosity about the Great Channels. We will be back to answer the many questions aroused by the hike. The explorers in us stood on the edge of the steep ridge looking west, longing to continue the adventure into the ridges and valleys before us but alas we must turn around and refocus our attention on the yet unexplored coves of our homeland: The Blue Ridge.
The hardy group made the chilly trek back to the cars, arriving just as darkness set in at about 5:45pm. The parking lot resolution was that we needed sustenance! The drowsy caravan headed east to Marion and 27 Lions where Mrs. Benish treated us all to brick-fired pizza and coca-cola! After twelve hours in the field this impressive group of explorers put another notch in their belt with this bond forming western quest to the Great Channels of Virginia.