Last week’s head cold prevented me from going through my slides from the previous weekend’s trip to West Virginia as soon as I would have liked. I’ve now done so, and liked the results well enough to create a Monongahela National Forest photo set. Folks with high-speed access might enjoy the slideshow, which — in case you’re unfamiliar with Flickr — displays the photos at the original size I uploaded to the web (sometimes as high as 180k). If you’re on dial-up, it’s easier to click on the thumbnails at the main set page, which take you to a medium-sized version. To see the full size, you have to click on the magnifying glass icon right above the photo. Maybe this is all intuitive for some of you, but it wasn’t for me when I started using Flickr.
What is it that keeps pulling me back to northern West Virginia and the magnificent Monongahela National Forest? Maybe the fact that it looks so much like home — only more so. Though the basic geology is virtually identical to where I live, the mountains are higher, the relief is greater, the roads are scarier and the people are much fewer. I’ve probably said this in one of my previous posts about West Virginia, but the mountains and hollows there look the way this mountain and hollow appear in some of my dreams — the ones where I’m five years old again.
My hiking buddy L. and I just made our fourth visit in two years. Time constraints and the length of the drive down there (four and a half to five hours just to get into the northern part of the forest) meant we’d only have one full day, so we decided to play it safe and re-visit areas we’d seen before at different times of the year. The first of these was Bear Heaven, a primitive campground and picnic area on a high ridge eleven miles east of Elkins. We discovered it on our last trip, in late July 2005, and were enchanted by the huge, weathered mazes of rock under a maturing second-growth forest, reminding us of lost cities being reclaimed by the jungle. Our last morning on that trip started out rainy, so we took our umbrellas and wandered out among the misty rocks. Many of the boulders were thick with lichen, including rock tripe lichen (genus Umbilicaria) bigger than any we’d seen before.
L. is an enthusiastic spinner, weaver, and dyer, so our main excuse for returning to Bear Heaven was to collect fallen rock tripe to use in dyeing — it apparently yields a legendary purple known as orchil. Also, the campground is cheap: only five dollars a night. The temperature dipped well below freezing both nights, and that combined with a brisk wind, I think, kept the one noisy bunch at the other end of the small campground from partying much later than 10:00 o’clock.
Bear Heaven features the same weathered tors as the much better known Bear Rocks Nature Preserve, adjacent to the Dolly Sods Wilderness. Both bear-friendly destinations are created from the same Pottsville conglomerate, a formation first described from beds in the anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania. Some 300 million years ago, in between the swampy periods that gave us all that coal, a vast, shallow lake gathered the silica-rich erosional remnants of an earlier, granitic version of the Appalachian chain. Over millions of years, as additional sediments accumulated on top, the sandy lake bottom hardened into rock. Then came the head-on collision of North Africa and North America, mashing against each other and pushing up mountains on either side of the orogenous zone in the same way that the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Eurasia is currently making those bumps knows as the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush.
Hundreds of millions of years later, erosion has sadly diminished what must once have been soaring peaks, but the low ridges that remain memorialize the violence of their origins in the incredibly complex folding and fault-thrusting of the bedrock, especially in the eastern and central portions of the chain. West of the Allegheny Front, sediments lie flat enough to justify use of the term “plateau” (The Allegheny Plateau in Pennsylvania and West Virginia; the Cumberland Plateau farther south), but dramatic down-cutting by creeks and rivers can expose a wide range of geological formations within a short distance just as surely as the accordion folding of strata in the ridge-and-valley province to the east. This geological diversity and constant variation in altitude within a convoluted landscape, combined with the relatively wet and temperate climate, helps make the Appalachians a hotspot for global biodiversity.
The vast, old Appalachian mountain chain has shaped the natural history and biodiversity of the continent. Its elevational, moisture, and latitudinal gradients have helped to protect its species during periods of climate change, resulting in today’s richness of life-forms. The elevational differences help to extend the distribution of certain species throughout the region. Species that thrive in the colder northern latitudes, often occur in the south too, at higher elevations. In terms of species number, the Appalachians are among the richest temperate areas. They include 255 birds, 78 mammals, 58 reptiles, and 76 amphibians.
The mountains we see today are like bones in a long-buried skeleton, exposed when the land rose and the sea’s long fingers began to cut more deeply, seeking out the softer sediments. Many of the rivers are far older than these latest incarnations of the Appalachian chain, which is how they have come to cut directly through the hardest layers to such dramatic effect. But first- and second-order streams tend to follow paths of least resistance.
The Pottsville conglomerate accounts for many of those “bones” in the plateau portions. It caps some of the highest ridges, including West Virginia’s highest point, 4,863-foot Spruce Knob, also within the Monongahela NF. Due to its unique physical and chemical properties, this conglomerate often tends to erode into maze-like rock cities, and close up, one can see that flat surfaces both horizontal and vertical are stippled with little hollows and bowl-shaped depressions. It’s a bear’s heaven, one supposes, because of the abundance of suitable denning spots. In Pennsylvania, local toponyms for outcrops of the Pottsville formation include Wolf Rocks and Panther Rocks. They’re places that really bring out the kid in me — I want to crawl through every cave and canyon and scale every tor.
Scrambling over and around big rocks was just the thing to get our blood moving on a chilly morning after a hearty breakfast at camp. We waited until the sun was fairly high to improve our chances of lichen- and photo-prospecting success, but then were a little disappointed when the rocks didn’t appear quite as marvelous as they had on our previous visit, in the mist and rain. L. got a couple quarts of fallen rock tripe pieces and was satisfied, I think, but I didn’t get nearly as many good pictures as I had hoped, and I think it’s because I was looking with the wrong eyes. I kept searching for the Bear Heaven we’d seen before, and feeling frustrated when it didn’t appear. I circled one of the “cities” twice, looking for a deep canyon that I’d glimpsed from both ends last time, but it seemed to have vanished. I’d be tempted to think I dreamed it if L. hadn’t been there too.
We did make some interesting finds that morning, though. Yellow birch has always been one of my favorite trees, largely because of the way its ropy roots loop over the ground or twine around rocks and stumps. Black birch does this also, but it’s a much shorter-lived tree; yellow birch can live for two hundred years and get up to five feet in diameter at breast height. (The breast height of the hiker, that is. Most birches don’t have breasts.) I’ve seen yellow birches that approached that size in a spectacular old-growth forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Sylvania Wilderness in the Ottawa National Forest. I’m sure there are some ancient yellow birches lurking on inaccessible slopes in the Monongahela National Forest, but I haven’t found them yet. Probably if we can ever get our asses down to the Gaudineer Scenic Area’s 140-acre old-growth fragment we’ll see some good-sized specimens. But no matter. Even young yellow birches are fun to look at, and I enjoyed all the yellow birches at Bear Heaven because it’s one species we don’t have here in Plummer’s Hollow. It’s a slightly higher-elevation or more northern species, even if sometimes I have to drive down to West Virginia to see it.
The outcroppings we were exploring were on the leeward side of the ridge, which appeared to foster a moist microclimate. Many of the rock faces were thick with moss as well as lichen. One of our most interesting discoveries that morning was a large beech tree whose trunk had been colonized by rock tripe — something I’ve never seen before.
Red spruce — once dominant in all the higher portions of the Monongahela, and the tree that gives its name to Spruce Knob — is making a good comeback at Bear Heaven, intermixed with eastern hemlock. The following picture of a red spruce growing on the top of a tor shows why these trees tend to dominate rocky, infertile sites: they don’t need much soil to get by.
As with yellow birches and hemlocks, red spruce roots are adept at exploiting every crack and crevasse in search of water and nutrients. In addition, they form symbiotic relationships with a species of truffle and an associated species of bacteria, which together help them obtain scarce nutrients such as nitrogen. The spruce and truffle/bacteria combination are two legs of a three-legged stool. The third leg is the northern flying squirrel, which likes to eat — and incidentally plant and spread — the underground fruiting bodies of the truffle. Widespread cutting of old-growth conifer forests throughout the northeast, combined with incursions of the more numerous southern flying squirrel, which carries a disease often fatal to its northern cousins, has almost wiped this species out in Pennsylvania. In West Virginia, a subspecies called the West Virginia northern flying squirrel enjoys federal protection as an endangered species. Here’s how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes it [PDF]:
Imagine if small families of mastodons lived in isolated areas on mountaintops. People would think such creatures were very special and that it was remarkable, possibly miraculous, that these animals from ancient times were living in our present age.
A subspecies as old as mastodons lives today in isolated clusters atop the central Appalachian Mountains in the highest elevations of West Virginia and adjacent Highland County, Virginia. A relic of former ages when the earth was very different, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel was isolated from the northern flying squirrel species when ice sheets covering North America receded about 10,000 years ago.
West Virginia northern flying squirrels live in high-elevation, spruce-northern hardwood forests of the Allegheny Highlands consisting of red spruce, fir, beech, yellow birch, sugar or red maple, hemlock and black cherry. The squirrel historically lived in the old-growth spruce forests that dominated the highlands until extensive industrial logging decimated this habitat between the 1880s and the 1940s. Even in the wake of this landscape level of habitat loss, West Virginia northern flying squirrels were resilient enough for a few residual populations to survive in small, scattered patches of less than ideal habitat while forests regenerated over the following decades.
The brief document continues with descriptions of an on-going, large-scale red spruce restoration effort in the Monongahela and adjacent areas — a rare example of the kind of habitat restoration mandated under the Endangered Species Act — and concludes by saying that, while the West Virginia flying squirrel will never be common, its population seem stable and its long-term prospects look good. (I wish we could say the same about the northern flying squirrel in Pennsylvania.) I must admit, I wasn’t thinking about flying squirrels on our latest visit, but even if I had remembered to listen for their soft, high-pitched chirps after dark, I doubt I could have heard them over the high winds.
Our biggest discovery of the weekend, where Bear Heaven was concerned, was that there was a lot more to it. In the inclement conditions of our previous visit, we hadn’t noticed the small picnic area, which features but a single, dilapidated picnic table and a pump that dispenses sulfur-tasting brown water. The attraction is its proximity to another whole series of rocky tors. On Sunday morning, before we left, we walked over and were impressed by the difference a few hundred yards could make. This rock city was higher and dryer, much less mossy and relatively less lichenous, though that may have been due to a greater number of visitors climbing all over them and breaking the lichen off in their eagerness to get a view from the top. Whereas the leeward rocks were covered in many palaces with polypody fern, the windward rocks harbored woodfern.
The most striking difference was in the shrub layer. Among the leeward rocks, the dominant shrub was mountain holly, which took us a while to identify since it isn’t such a common species back home. The windward rocks, by contrast, rose from a typically dense thicket of rhododendron, which must have been beautiful during our July visit, if only we’d known to look for it.
Don’t forget to send any and all tree-related links to Rachel of frizzyLogic, who will be hosting the next Festival of the Trees on November 1. Address your emails to: festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com, and send them no later than October 30.