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A collection of odds and ends from 2004

| Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004

During the year little bits and pieces of information, news clippings, field notes, comments and questions from readers, and scribbled thoughts on scraps of paper have accumulated, like leaf litter, in an old wooden desk tray. The tray sits beside a window in my workspace with a view of the bird feeder. That location assures that I'm always aware of this pile of ideas that usually don't have enough content for a full article, but absolutely deserve mention.

So, here's a collection of my odds and ends from 2004.

In late August I wrote about my favorite overlooks in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. I used the words gorge and water gap, referring to the deep valleys that are often viewed from the rock outcrops. A reader commented about the definitions of the terms and my application of them. Indeed, I used the terms incorrectly. A gorge generally refers to a deep valley that has been cut into a topographically flat region such as a plateau. It's a small version of a canyon as in the Grand Canyon cut into the Colorado plateau.

An example of a gorge in this area is the deep river valley of the Clarion River in northern Pennsylvania. The deep river cuts of the Monongahela River in Washington and Fayette counties might also be called gorges. The deep valley between Johnstown and Bolivar is called, incorrectly, the Conemaugh Gorge. It, correctly, is the Conemaugh Water Gap.

Water gaps are deep valleys made by an existing river that cuts into a mountain, as the mountain is being geologically uplifted. For example, Chestnut and Laurel ridges in the Laurel Highlands were eroded to sea level. The Conemaugh, Youghiogheny and Cheat rivers all were flowing on the flat low plain in ancient times when the mountains had been leveled. More recently, hundreds of thousands of years geologically, the region began to be uplifted by deep earth forces. The rivers eroded faster than the land was uplifted like a knife cutting down through layers of a cake. As erosion cut down at nearly right angles to the line of the ridges it carved out what we call water gaps. Through Laurel and Chestnut ridges in the Laurel Highlights are deep narrow gaps carved by the Cheat, Youghiogheny and Conemaugh rivers. Another example of a water gap is where Loyalhanna Creek cuts a steep narrow course through Chestnut Ridge between Latrobe and Ligonier, also the path of Route 30.

Sticking to vocabulary, I enjoy finding new, interesting words. One that I used in the last year was petrichor (PET-ri-kuhr). It's a noun that refers to "the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell". We are all familiar with petrichor but may have never had a specific word to describe the fragrance. Another word that I recently found but haven't had a chance to use in an article is profluent (PROF-loo-ent). It's an adjective that means "flowing smoothly; flowing in full stream." Look for profluent sometime in 2005.

Mail from readers always provides interesting observations and questions and often gives me a chance to delve a little further into a subject. After an article on squirrel nests, a reader asked about the construction of squirrel nests. They were interested in how flimsy the nests appeared and how the animal could be protected during rain and snowstorms. I found that grey squirrel nests, also called dreys, appear to be haphazard piles of leaves and twigs, but actually are elaborate in construction. The outer layers are twigs with the leaves still attached. This is due to the fact that if you cut a tree branch when the leaves are still growing, those leaves will remain attached rather than fall off as they do in the autumn. Inside the shell of branches is a sphere of dried leaves in several layers. These are like shingles on a roof and are very effective in keeping rain water or melting snow from entering the center of the structure. The central cavity is lined with shredded bark creating a layer of insulation with air pockets. Some nests are far less elaborate, but these may be dummy nests that are designed to fool predators.

Some of the scribbled notes in my "End of the Year File" are what I feel are unforgettable moments of the year. In 2004 the most unforgettable moment was Sept. 18 at Ohiopyle. Hurricane Ivan had dumped rain on western Pennsylvania for hours and the creeks, streams and rivers were raging. That morning I checked the river level gauges on the Internet, and the Casselman was 10 feet at Markleton. It is usually around 2 feet or lower in the middle of September. I walked from our house in Confluence to the Route 281 Bridge over the Casselman and the levee channel was three-quarter filled and rushed past the village with a torrent of mud-brown water speckled with bits of debris.

The Youghiogheny gauge at Confluence was at 12 feet, right at flood stage. The Yough Dam outlet was closed. The short stretch of the river on the west side of the Confluence was mirror-still, backed up by the raging Casselman. A short stretch of the Great Allegheny Passage Trail along Ramcat Road was covered with a couple inches of water. Just a mile downstream, at a river gauging station, more than 10,000 cubic feet of water per second was headed into the Laurel Ridge Water Gap. That's more than 18,000 tons of water every minute.

I knew that the river at Ohiopyle would be impressive. We got in the car and were in Ohiopyle around 9:30 a.m. and indeed the scene was remarkable.

Ohiopyle Falls wasn't. Instead of a foaming plunge of water there was simply a bump in the raging river. With dozens of large and small tributary streams feeding the river between Confluence and Ohiopyle, the volume of water had increased. At the falls, I estimated that around 20,000 tons of water were falling over the 18-foot drop every minute. Considering the enormity of the flood water volume, combined with the gritty mix of mud, gravel, and even larger rocks, I imagined the brown ribbon as a liquid band of sandpaper tearing at the riverbed.

Standing on a deck overlooking the falls, I could feel the water pounding the underlying rock. The low, half-felt, half-heard rumble was frightening.

We spent a couple hours visiting familiar sites such as Cucumber Falls, Meadow Run Slides and the High Bridge. Along with the Falls, one of the most imposing places to experience the magnitude of the water was the Route 381 Bridge. Huge pillows of water were piling up against the concrete piers of the bridge and curling back upstream. The spray from the muddy turbulence wetted my face from the rush of air that was generated from contact with the quickening water.

Ivan on the Yough will remain indelibly a part of my memory; visually, audibly and from the pounding of tons of water and the fine spray of mist on my face. It was a definitive example of the ferocity of nature at one of its most violent times.

Excuse my immodesty, but I'm particularly proud of riding more than 1,000 miles on my bike in 2004. All of those miles were logged on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail. Most were in the stretch between Meyersdale, Somerset County, to Connellsville. I realize that for avid cyclists the 1,000-mile mark in a year isn't that formidable, but for a naturalist who stops the bike every 3 feet (an exaggeration -- I can usually ride more than 30 feet at a time) to check out a wildflower, identify a bird, enjoy the beauty of a scene, take a picture or just generally enjoy the day, more than 5 miles on a ride is exceptional. I haven't set my mileage goal for 2005 yet, but maybe I should consider wildflowers or birds per mile instead.

There are a couple things that were suggested by readers and now I have them on my to-do list for 2005.

Waterfalls are a passion of mine. After an article about waterfalls in the region, I received letters and e-mails suggesting some that I didn't include. Thanks to the readers who sent suggestions. One of the recommended falls that I want to get to see is Lambert Falls in Somerset County, which was new to my list, and Buttermilk Falls in Armstrong County, which has been on my list for years, but now I have good directions.

Another place on my "Must Visit in 2005" list is the Dunbar Creek, Limestone Run area in Fayette County. Again, it's been on my radar for years, but a reader e-mailed photographs of the area, the steep rugged valley on Pennsylvania State Game Lands #51. There is a parking area maintained by the Game Commission near the juncture of the two streams. To the south is a wild landscape with deep ravines cut into the heart of Chestnut Ridge. There are old logging roads and animal trails, but no "official trail system" so I'm looking forward to wandering on my own, depending on a map and the position of the sun. The day should prove to be a wonderful new experience and make a good article, so expect to read about Dunbar Creek next year.

That's it for 2004. Thanks for all your complimentary e-mails and letters, photographs of your favorite places, questions about the natural history of western Pennsylvania, photographs of plants and animals to identify, and being a regular reader. See you in 2005.

Paul g. Wiegman is a freelance writer, photographer and naturalist born and raised in western Pennsylvania. Write to him c/o Tribune-Review, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601; or e-mail him at pgwphotography@earthlink.net .

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