Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dan River Basin Fly-over Part 2: Kibler Valley and the Smith River

Wow!..…what a view!

That was really the best description I could manage at the time.
The view is just stunning up here looking down on Kibler Valley, the “Crown Jewel” of the Dan River Basin.

Just past Hanging Rock and heading northwest, we were hypnotized by our first view of the gorge. The rugged mountains in this range may not be the birthplace of the Dan River, but it sure is the place where it learns how to play!

Kibler Valley is a little gem hidden away in the mountains of Patrick County. The river valley has it all; great trout fishing, excellent whitewater boating (when the powerhouse is generating) and beautiful mountain scenery. It’s a beautiful site viewed at ground level and even more spectacular from the air. The most noticeable sign of civilization was the Primland Resort perched on top of one of the flatter mountains surrounding the valley.

Leaving Kibler Valley and heading west, we flew past Lovers Leap on Hwy 58 and tracked east till we spotted the impounded waters of Philpott Lake, its long blue fingers stretching out across the landscape and cutting watery swaths through the canopy of fall trees. As we approached the lake, our pilot Susan, swung the plane around so I could get a good photo of the dam. You could clearly see the white "bathtub ring" delineating the edge of the lake, indicative of the low water levels over the summer. I had her circle a couple of times to get the right angle. (In retrospect, this may have been a mistake for the backseat passengers)

After a couple of swings around the dam, we turned southeast and began heading downstream through the Smith River Basin, following the rivers course as we made our way to the confluence with the Dan . I was so excited getting to see the river from this angle. Having canoed or fished most of its length, I could now see it from a drastically different perspective. I asked Susan to circle around each time I wanted to get a closer look or had missed a photo opportunity. These tight turns and dips probably exacerbated the situation in the back seat and Jeff decided it was time to stop simultaneously trying to mark sites with the GPS, look at the maps and take photos. Later down the river we realized that a few more turns and Jeff may have been turning to the airsickness bags. Oops, sorry.

Taking a detour from the river we headed up the Towne Creek watershed to check out the riparian areas along this tributary of our river basin.

Towne is the first major tributary that enters the Smith River, and the confluence is just below the Philpott Bridge and the Henry County Water pumping station. This is the beginning of the "Special Regulations" trout waters of the Smith. Perhaps you have even fished the river here or at least seen it after a heavy rainfall event.

At times, the Smith can turn into a mean and muddy river.
Have you ever wondered where all that mud comes from? Towne creek is just one of the tributaries that dump its muddy load into the Smith, bringing sediment from the far reaches of its watershed. One only has to stand on the Philpott bridge after heavy rains and observe the clear water upstream, then look down to the mouth of Towne Creek and see the dramatic red ribbon of mud as the sediment load begins the journey down the Smith as seen in the below photo.

Continuing up Towne creek we spot some clear cut logging areas that could be a source of some of the sediment loads. Not all forestry operations follow "best management practices" and these clearcut areas can contribute to sedimentation in streams when the logging roads become "erosional highways" during rainfall events. Even the edge of the green fields can have erosion issues if the pasture is devoid of a tree buffer along the banks.

Though some logging areas have left a buffer strip of trees along a major trib, its the cumulative effect of the sediment loads finding their way down all perennial and intermittent streams, eventually reaching the main tributary that provides the real problems.
In addition, once these areas are cut, the logging roads often see continual heavy use by off-road vehicles. This in turn contributes to the erosion problems that are associated with these areas. A watershed is defined by its uppermost elevations and all the water within these boundaries heading for the lowest point. For most of Henry County, that means that its heading to the Smith. You can clearly see the logging roads that become "sediment highways" during periods of heavy rainfall.

Banking to the right, we turn south and head down the Smith, coming in low over the town of Bassett. Here is where the landscape once again changes dramatically. We leave the fields and forest of the upper Smith in Henry and head down into the heavily industrialized sections of Bassett and Stanleytown.
We are now flying over what was once the heart of Southwest Virgina's economy. The furniture and textile factories have moved overseas now taking with them many local jobs. Scarce now are the jobs that once employed thousands while the abandoned buildings stand testament to a once thriving industrial complex that flourished along this river corridor.

You get a better sense of just how big these plant sites are when you see them from the air. We note the stark contrast between surface areas; the heavily forested western side of
"the horseshoe," compared to the massive area of impervious concrete and asphalt of the industrial complex of the JD Bassett plant site between the Trent Hill Bridges. Special thanks to Dr. David Jones for preserving the heavily forested ridge in the above photo, now known as "Lauren Mountain."

Further downstream we see massive areas of asphalt, concrete, and rooftops. These surface areas are impervious to water and the run-off has no chance for filtration or flow reduction before entering the river. This dramatically shows why it is so important to have forested riparian areas that help slow water, filter out sediment and pollution before it enters the river.

This next 1o-mile section contains the highest concentration of industrialized areas along the Smith. Traveling through Bassett, Stanleytown, Fieldale and Martinsville, you see the connection between river and industry graphically represented. The neat thing about this section is even though it has its share of industrialization, it also contains some very scenic areas as well.

We are now approaching the southeastern end of Martinsville and the next major dam on the river. The impoundment created by the Martinsville dam backs up the water for a couple of miles, slowing the flow to a crawl way back almost to Koehler. This historic dam was once home to the Irvine Mill and in fact, The Irvine River was the name this river was first known by. In the late 1800's, it became Smith's River, and today the possessive has been dropped and it's known as just The Smith River.

What is that big brown stain near the dam? We drop lower for a closer look. Its just the usual load of floating debris that backs up behind the dam. If you spend much time on the river, you see trash and debris floating downstream, but here is where you really get an idea of the load as it all washes up and forms a virtual island behind the dam.

Further downstream now we cross the bypass (Hwy 58). Just to the south is the new Smith River Sports Complex still under construction. They did a good job here of keeping the silt out of the river during construction and the riparian area along the Smith is still intact.

The next big landmark was an obvious one, and it was really cool to see this from 1000 ft.
I've included several pictures here taken of the Eggleston Falls Section. This is really our only full time class III rapid on the Smith and a favorite place for play-boaters and sightseers. The beauty of this section can not be overstated, but alas...there is trouble in paradise.

The disturbing feature here is the obvious destruction caused by off-road vehicles in the area of the Smith River and the confluence of Marrowbone creek. "X" marks the spot in the below photo showing the paths created by ATVs and 4-wheel drive trucks. We hope to be able to repair this area in the future and have been working with the landowner to that end. The amount of trash dumped here coupled with the erosion caused by vehicles on land and even some "inconsiderates" driving in the river, is a destruction that has to stop if this place is to be repaired.

More shots from the Eggleston Falls area.

Perhaps one of the best river trips for fun and scenery on the Smith is the Marrowbone to Mitchell Bridge Run. This has a little bit of everything and is a good stretch to take the beginner to intermediate paddler on to learn some basic whitewater skills. Once again though, we are confronted with an unpleasant view-scape of clear-cut logging and erosion paths. This huge area is located along the banks of Leatherwood Creek, about 2 miles upstream from Mitchell Bridge.

It's not too hard to see the relationship between logging areas and erosion in this view and one of the reasons Leatherwood Creek becomes so full of sediment during rainfall events.

In the above photo, "Lunch Rock" is visible as it stretches nearly halfway across the river. This is a popular place to stop during river trips on this section. You can see the landscape; upstream to the right is a huge clear cut section of forest. It's not hard to imagine what happens during heavy rainfalls, infact, even satellite photos show the muddy waters of Leatherwood as it enters the clear waters of the Smith. Some of this sediment load is naturally occurring as Leatherwood is a dynamic Piedmont stream, almost a river itself, and it drains an enormous area. However, much of it does pass through lands comprised of logging areas, farmland, residential and commercial operations. Perhaps as we continue to educate streamside property owners on the importance of riparian buffers, we will eventually start to see a change in the land use on properties adjoining these important tributaries.

We pass over the Morgan Ford bridge at Sandy Level and before you can say barf-bag...we are in North Carolina again..."How ya doing back there Jeff?"
I have to say, as many twist and turns as I requested from our pilot Susan, the passengers in the back seat held it all together quite well. I'm not sure I would have had the stomach for it, so I was happy to be in the front!

Now it was time to head back to Danville, and we once again joined up with the Dan River and this time Katherine was afforded a view out her window..finally! It was a great view too...that is right up until we noticed the effluent coming from the city wastewater treatment plant and a giant stain of purple entering the river. The Hanes factory was obviously sending water to the treatment facility at the time...Purple underwear day I guess!

In the below photo, you can see the waste-water treatment plant and the stain entering the river at the bend.

So our happy, and somewhat pale group, had made it back to Danville. Man that flight was short..."how long have we been up?" Susan informs us that it is over two hours now. Wow, set down on the runway, grab some barf bags and lets get back up there! Ya ready Jeff?

Touch on terra fermma once again.

We took the requisite "triumphant return of the conquering heros" photo then thanked Susan profusely for a fabulous flight.

We hope to get airborne again and this time check out the lower sections of the mighty Dan from Danville down to Kerr Reservoir. Thanks once again to our outstanding pilot, Susan Lapis, and Southwings for their dedication in helping nonprofit organizations better understand our river basins. We have seen the ecology of the present and now can plan the resource protection for the future.

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