Monday, September 15, 2008
More geology than any blog needs
How could I possibly turn down a place called Smoke Hole Caverns? It is the reason i headed towards to WV on my walkabout in the first place; we do a local elementary school every year and visit this place at lunch. For goodness' sakes it advertises that it has the largest gift shop in West by-god Virginia - of course i've been there! But there has never been time to do the cavern tour - until now! I just couldn't resist the enticement of "the world's largest ribbon stalactite" or "the second highest room in the Eastern US." Those are some lofty promises. After you pay your $12 inside the gift shop, you walk through a lovely arch to a nicely manicured waiting area next to the ominously locked gate in the side of the mountain The tour group gathers right inside the cave-like antechamber where the temperature had already dropped drastically, heading for the final cavern temperature of a balmy 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Our tour guide, Erin, explained that the front portion of the caverns were originally used by the Seneca tribe as a natural smokehouse. When the first European settlers came into the mountains they saw smoke rising from vents in the rock - hence the name. During the Civil War, both sides used the caverns as shelter and a storehouse. But when you think of humans utilizing caverns in West Virginia, you gotta think of moonshiners. Erin explained the process of moonshine distillation with a model still and i finally found out that X, XX, and XXX marks on the jugs denote how many times that batch has been run through the still. There are no XXXX jugs because on the fourth round of distillation the still would probably blow up; you know someone found that out the hard way. She told us there were no samples before any weisenheimer had the chance to ask. These caverns are made of quartz, sandstone and porous limestone. The main rooms are still "alive" which means that water is still constantly sifting through the ceilings and walls, depositing minerals and filtering the water that eventually goes into the Potomac then the Chesapeake Bay and eventually comes out of the faucet in my kitchen. It is illegal in WV to destroy any "living" rock so Erin was very specific about what we could and couldn't touch since it carries a $28,000 fine. Unlike most caverns, Smoke Hole is a vertical cavern; we weren't going underground, but rather climbing up inside of the mountain (made easier by steps). At the bottom she pointed out what looked like a dry stream bed - the raceway where rainwater flows out of the mountain - and that the only vegetation were mosses and tiny ferns that only grow because of the artificial lights installed for the tours: As the water flows it deposits minerals, which over the years pile up into various structures. When it is a straight deposition you get flow stone. There was a cool series of flow stone steps which look like waterfalls frozen in the earth; they are lit to reflect their name "Rainbow Falls." Flow stone can be very old and eventually look like someone has run their fingers through play-doh to create the walls When the water bubbles out from the ground in slow springs it makes a crazy pattern like brains which look freaky, but the water coming out is really fresh and clean and cold; we took turns tasting some - yummy! After we had ventured quite a ways into the mountain Erin turned out all of the lights. Caves are the only place on Earth where there is total darkness - it was cool and a bit creepy. She slowly turned on lights as we walked the path and climbed steps revealing room after room of amazing geology When water drips from the ceiling it forms stalactites (remember the C in the name is like C for ceiling) like these tiny pencil stalactites. The resulting splash on the ground beneath forms into a stalagmite. (and the G for ground is in its name as well) When the stalactites merge with their stalagmites it forms a column; the place where the minerals fuse is called the Kiss After walking and walking we finally came to Smoke Hole Caverns' claim to fame. When the water droplets don't drip straight down, but rather run down a track in the ceiling and then drip, it forms a ribbon stalactite. Here, my friends, is the largest ribbon stalactite in the world That picture doesn't really depict the size of this thing hanging over your head in a picture. It is so large, but looks so delicate. It is really impossible to capture how high some of the rooms were, with chasms dropping off next to the path and the ceiling vaulting hundreds of feet over your head. You are surrounded by rock on every side (the light brown blip at the bottom left of the picture is the top of a hat on a 6foot4 man) The furthest chamber into the mountain is called the Queen's Chamber where there is a natural pool of freezing cold water called the Queen's Bath. If i was the queen i would demand that the water was heated a bit. Over the Queen's Bath there was a huge formation called the Queen's Canopy - it seemed like a fitting place for my picture One of the things advertised was the cavern's fish pond Obviously there is no natural light in the caverns to establish an ecosystem. There was a small natural collection area of water that used to be part of a larger ancient pond. You can see the demarcation line on the wall where the water level used to be much higher; the crumbley looking stuff on the bottom half is crystallized cave coral. The only 2 commercial caverns in the world that have it are Smoke Hole and someplace in New Zealand. The owners make sure that the water level stays high enough when there hasn't been a lot of rain and keep on the pond lights for 12 hours a day so that the trout they stocked stay healthy. It was cool to look down and see fish swimming right under you inside of the mountain. Golden trout were first discovered in Petersburg -just 10 minutes up the road from the caverns- and are now raised there commercially so there is a golden trout in the pond as a shout out to local industry. These caverns aren't as big as either nearby Seneca Caverns or the much more famous Luray Caverns in Virginia, but they have a certain Roadside America charm to them.