Exploring Eastern West Virginia

Understanding where you are–not just you as a dot on a map, not just your GPS coordinates of latitude and longitude–requires some knowledge of how that place came to look the way it does.

Why this kind of forest mix and not another? Where does the water come from that fills this creek or river and where does it meet the sea? What is the history of mountain-building, erosion, human use and abuse that has created this landform?

Sense of place necessitates sense of time.  Time is not so easy to see on a map or out a car window as you zip along through new places, so you have to do a little homework and headwork to “see” how hundreds of millions of years have orchestrated what appears before you in your two minute glance from at a scenic overlook.

All of this is to say that I was in a different chapter of West Virginia’s past in my recent travels in the Canaan-Davis area. I knew to expect what I saw there, but seeing it for myself was the best teacher.

Xs mark the region mentioned in this post–the Canaan/Blackwater River area near Davis.

A few related observations or facts:

In eastern WV, you’ll be among true mountains by their geology–the results of the Appalachian orogeny or continental drifting mountain building episode–not erosional remnants spoken of as mountains in the “coal country” part of the Mountain State. And perhaps the most striking feature to me was the resistant Tuscarora sandstone of many of the ridges like Seneca Rocks.

Unlike horizontal layers of ridgetop sandstone that caps ridges in our Ridge and Valley (places like Walker Mountain and other ridges on either side of I-81) the sandstone layer here is vertical, giving rise to striking sharp spines broken by watergap valleys.

From the base of Seneca Rocks at the end of a 1000 foot climb on the trail.
From the base of Seneca Rocks at the end of a 1000 foot climb on the trail.

Around 250 million years ago, much of the state (for eons under shallow seas) was uplifted, drained of its sea, and thereafter eroded away. The Allegheny portion of WV is an elevated plateau dissected by clear streams called creeks but the size of Floyd County’s Little River.

Given that higher elevation, the area supports vegetation that still persists there since the last ice age. Spruce, fir and hemlock covers much of the higher ridges but even reaches into the elevated valleys.

So the soil is acidic, the water in the streams is often tea-colored (hence the black of blackwater falls and river). In many places there is very little light on the forest floor. So I did not see the variety of wildflowers I would have seen in more open places like Dolly Sods.

The impenetrable forests (formerly characterized by much Rhododendron) and formidable “fronts” presented by the sharp mountain ridges were such that this area was not explored by man–white or red–and only in the mid-1800s was the area explored.

Unfortunately, it was then rapidly logged in a time without restrictions–which would make one contingent of our current politics giggle with delight. The region was stripped of vegetation, fires in the remaining slash and forest duff took the land down to bare rock in many places like Dolly Sods.

The town of Davis was once referred to as Stumptown, because you could walk for miles jumping from stump to stump.

That said, the Canaan Valley was impressive–an island of level land in a landscape of mountain waves. Some 15 miles long and several miles wide, the fog settles over the moist and parklike countryside of a morning and deer are everywhere. This last image, from our balcony on the 4th floor of the Resort Lodge.

Morning View from Canaan Valley Resort Lodge
Morning View from Canaan Valley Resort Lodge
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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Is the color photo at the top of the post and the foggy black and white taken from the same place? Also, in which part of that map of WV is “coal country” located? My ignorance of eastern US is showing. Geology is a science I would very much like to have studied in college.