Monday, November 17, 2008

Dan River Basin Fly-over

October 31, 2008

A crisp fall day and clear blue skies provided some lucky Dan River Basin Association staff an opportunity to take to the sky and view our beloved river basin from a perspective quite different than we normally do. A planned flight over the basin had been postponed several times in the past few months but now it was finally going to happen. Our flight today was courtesy of SouthWings. SouthWings is a non-profit organization that offers, free of charge, flights to other non-profits, over areas of environmental concern. "Conservation through Aviation" is their guiding mission.

Excerpt from Southwings website:

"We enable those we fly to see beauty and human-induced landscape change in our environment from another, otherwise inaccessible, vantage point. Utilizing the aerial perspective, SouthWings' service provides experiential understanding of environmental challenges and opportunities for conservation. This perspective fosters understanding of scale/magnitude and the relationship of cumulative and compounding environmental effects."

We are extremely grateful to SouthWings for this unique opportunity to learn from the sky !

Our pilot, Susan Lapis (who was fabulous), flew into Danville Regional to pick up the DRBA crew for the day. Katherine Mull, Jeffrey Johnston and Lindley Butler were scheduled to make the flight, but Dr. Butler had a conflict so he reluctantly gave his seat up...and I was the lucky one to take his place. Cameras, maps, and GPS in hand, we boarded the Cessna 182 as Susan made last minute pre-flight checks. "Please be sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their upright and locked position. Flight crew, prepare all seats for departure."

Indifferent to earth's gravitational constraints, we powered down the runway and lifted into the great wide open with the Dan River stretching out before us, a shimmering ribbon of life beckoning us to follow the watery highway.

Gaining altitude and speed, Susan deftly banked to the west and coaxed the plane along the flanks of the Dan as we began our journey cruising at 800 feet and, gliding over town and countryside, past fields, farmlands and forest, the headwaters calling with its siren song from deep in the Kibler Valley gorge.

The city of Danville quickly came into view, its tobacco warehouse district sprawling along the south side of the Dan, arched bridges spanning the river connecting new development and industry with the rich history of a once vibrant tobacco based economy. Just across the river lay the 1908 site of the Wreck of the Old 97 made famous in a popular tune and recorded by countless artists, the site today reduced to nothing more than a historic marker on the side of the road.

There were several areas of concern, and we photographed as many sites as we could that we felt contribute to overall degredation of the river corridor.

Some obvious threats to the river included clear-cuts and bad land management practices. Less obvious and even a bit scenic were several golf courses that bordered the river. The effects of sediment loads from erosion and groundwater runoff are obvious forms of pollution, but the golf course can have a negative impact as well from heavy fertilizer runoff into the river.

Other erosional problems were obvious in areas heavily used by 4-wheel drive and off-road vehicles.

Susan was an outstanding pilot, and she was able to keep just south of the river affording Jeff and myself with ample opportunities for photographs and observation. I felt a bit sorry for Katherine on the other side of the plane as she had to settle for the occasional glance of the river as we banked to get a better view or follow a sharp bend. We positioned ourselves about 800 ft. above the river and were torn between flying lower to photograph the historic batteau channels, wing dams and native American fish weirs, famous along the Dan, or staying high enough to get a broader perspective of the landscape to better locate clear cuts and other riparian issues.

We chose to stay at an elevation that would afford us the best view of the overall landscape while still getting a close look at the river itself. Perhaps a future flight can be directed toward river structure photo graphic surveys.

A conspicuous "Y" shaped junction came into view, and we knew we had reached the confluence of the Smith and Dan Rivers.

We left Eden behind and continued on across Rockingham and into Stokes county, arching around the edge of sprawling Belews Lake with its myriad islands and conspicuous power plant. The lake was just visible to me over the nose of the plane, but Katherine was finally afforded a decent view without straining across to look out the opposite window!

The Pine Hall brick manufacturing facility was an obvious landmark along the river. From here to Kibler Valley, the terrain would now be predominantly farmland and forest.

Passing over a large field on the edge of the river, we noticed a corner filled with bright orange pumpkins discarded after the harvest. Did they just plant too many or were these pumpkins that didn't make the cut? It was a fitting tribute to our Halloween flight.

After what seemed like a mere 5 minutes, Susan informed us we had been in the air for over an hour! Wow, time really does fly!

Just ahead was a large aquaculture operation right along the river bank. We wondered what, if any, detrimental effects this operation could be having on the river aside from a poor riparian buffer.

The landscape was changing once again and Hanging Rock was looming to the south. We were flying level with this prominent land feature when Susan decided we needed to climb a little higher due to the rapidly increasing elevation of the surrounding land.

The view was spectacular but it seemed like a good idea to keep it below us rather than next to us. As we climbed to 3000 ft., we had the most spectacular view as the wild beauty of the Kibler Valley gorge opened in front of us and seemed to swallow the silver ribbon we had been following for the past hour. There was no doubt that this place was still wild. Few roads run through this rugged terrain, and a thick carpet of hardwood forest and precipitous mountains effectively hide the sparse encroachment of civilization through these rugged mountains.

This is most undoubtedly the "Jewel of the Dan River Basin," and we should be ever vigilant in our efforts to protect and preserve this incredible wild area. …to be continued.

next post: Kibler Valley, Philpott Lake and the Smith River corridor

Article and photos by Brian Williams
Edited by Vicky Thomas


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