Monday, September 28, 2009

Whitewater Rolls In High Knob Massif

September 27, 2009
Little Stony Creek of Clinch River Basin
High Knob Massif of High Knob Landform
Churning Upper Falls of Little Stony Gorge
Photograph by Roddy Addington - © All Rights Reserved.

Whitewater rolled out of the high country of the sprawling High Knob Massif during the weekend of September 26-27, thanks to a healthy 3.75" to 6.00" of drenching rainfall.

This was captured in dramatic fashion amid Little Stony Basin by my friend and photographer Roddy Addington on Sunday, September 27, after the flow had actually decreased from its peak on Saturday ( September 26, 2009 ).

Downcutting through resistant ledge-forming quartz arenite sandstones, amid rugged depths of Little Stony Gorge, has created one of the most complete whitewater runs in the southeastern United States, with BIG drops and a continuous action-packed adventure via 250 to 300 feet of vertical drop per mile for 3 miles.

High Knob Massif
September 27, 2009
Bracing For The Impact 
Upper Falls of Little Stony Gorge
Photograph by Roddy Addington - © All Rights Reserved.

Little Stony Gorge is part of the little known but unique and locally infamous 5-PLUS-5 section of the High Knob Massif, where FIVE Class V steep creeks are lined up consecutively from west to east across the core of the massif ( with many other very steep creeks and micro-creek tributaries ).

South Fork Gorge
Straight Fork Gorge
Chimney Rock Gorge
Mountain Fork of Big Stony Gorge 
Little Stony Gorge

Actually 6 counting Guest River Gorge that goes up to Class V.
Straight Fork & Chimney Rock being never run and unrated.

Little Stony Gorge recently being rated Class IV-V, like adjacent Guest River Gorge, but with absolute Class V+ drops ( e.g., the Big Falls ) at any level and a Class V-V+ nature at high volume.

Little Stony Creek is an American Whitewater rated Class IV-V steep creek at normal flows. The rating varies depending upon what kayaker you talk with, and what level(s) they have run it. Like most all steep creeks, the difficulty of Little Stony Gorge varies significantly with flow volume

Reference the High Knob Landform and 
more detailed information.

High Knob Massif
September 27, 2009
Upper Falls of Little Stony Gorge
Going Vertical On Little Stony Creek 
Photograph by Roddy Addington - © All Rights Reserved.

Most amazingly, Little Stony Gorge possesses the least mean gradient, the least max gradient, and the shortest distance of THE FIVE major gorges noted above ( and is also much shorter than the AW Class IV-V rated Guest River Gorge of the High Knob Massif ).

Although the Straight Fork & Chimney Rock gorges have not been "officially" rated, they are the real deal with 1460 to 1505 feet of vertical drop in only 4 miles ( analogous drop to that of the tight & technically STEEP Class V+ South Fork Gorge ).

South Fork Gorge of High Knob Massif

It should be noted, however, that adding the Ramey Fork of Little Stony onto the Little Stony Gorge run generates a 433 foot per mile gradient, via 650 feet of vertical drop in 1.5 miles.  The Ramey Fork plunges into Little Stony Gorge just downstream of the ledge supporting falls, where the best rapids begin.

While seldom if ever run, this tributary has a big boulder garden and is there as a potential future addition ( like many others within this remote massif ). 

September 27, 2009
Jefferson National Forest
Little Stony Basin of High Knob Massif
The Awesome Upper Falls of Little Stony Gorge
Photograph by Roddy Addington - © All Rights Reserved.

YouTube Video of the Action
The Upper Falls of Little Stony Gorge
Video Courtesy of ridingvalkyries

The above drop has broken bodies & boats!  It is a 25-30 footer that some proclaim is the best within the southeastern United States. 

However, it is not the highest or toughest drop in the great High Knob Massif, or even on the Little Stony, as just downstream, after an 11-footer, is the Big Falls of Little Stony Gorge 
with its 35-40 foot plunge!

John King, former American Whitewater stream team coordinator for this area, reported that only 3 people had "officially" dared the plunging fury of the Big Falls up through 2008.

[ Update: Nearly a dozen had run it up through 2012 ].

Big Falls of Little Stony Gorge of the High Knob Massif
Photograph by Roddy Addington - © All Rights Reserved.

High Knob Massif
Whitewater Videos of Runs

WARNING: The High Knob Massif Whitewater Domain is for 

October 28, 2006
Little Stony Gorge of High Knob Massif
Whitewater Run In Little Stony Gorge of High Knob Massif
Video by Chris Gorman & AutoBoof Productions

One For The Books
The Fast & Furious Storm of January 2013
Little Stony Gorge of High Knob Massif
Courtesy of YouTube & Watersheds Films

Spring of 2008
Guest River Gorge of High Knob Massif
Video by Chris Gorman & AutoBoof Productions

Spring 2012
Guest River Gorge of High Knob Massif
Courtesy of YouTube & Creekerjdub's

Other American Whitewater rated runs in the High Knob Massif area include the following:

Cove Creek Gorge.....Class IV-V+ 
( Cascades Section )

Dry Fork Gorge.....Class IV-V+
( Jasper Creek Narrows of Stock Creek Basin )

Crab Orchard Falls.....Class IV-V
( Guest River Gorge Tributary )

Clear Creek Gorge.....Class IV+
( Mainstem of Clear Creek )

Devil Fork Gorge.....Class III+(IV)
( Mainstem of Devil Fork )

Upper Stock Creek Gorge.....Class III-V

Powell River ( Appalachia-Big Stone Gap ).....Class II-IV

Lower Big Stony Gorge.....Class III
( Fast bedrock run )

Powell River ( Norton-Appalachia ).....Class II-III

Stock Creek to Natural Tunnel.....Class II-III
( Lower Gorge section )

Powell River ( Big Stone Gap-Dryden ).....Class I-II

Clinch River ( St. Paul-Dungannon ).....Class II

Many other STEEP micro-creeks are potential runs.

Reference LINKS in upper right of every main page
on this website for a more complete listings & information.

Unique Geological & Climatic 
Setting of High Knob Massif

A unique geological and climatic setting has made this remnant high country mass of the High Knob Landform a haven for steep creeks, but its been largely overlooked throughout the years due to several primary reasons:

1 ). Prior to my long-term climatic research there had been little understanding of this massif and landform ( and its significant wetness ) from such a viewpoint across multiple sciences.

2 ). Few understood that all the mountains from Guest River Gorge to the Duffield Valley are part of the same connected and consolidated mass, from which all these creeks originate and drain, despite it being obvious on satellite imagery & mapping.

3 ).  A previous and distinct lack of understanding of its basic structural geology & hydrogeology 
( i.e., beyond that rooted in endless hydrocarbon searches ).

Figure 1
*Structural Geology of Central-Southwestern Massif
Adapted from Mitra ( 1988 ) - Figure 23
on Page 93 of GSA Bulletin, Volume 100.

The RED line above denotes the topographical surface form of the High Knob Massif into which all of the basins and gorges have been carved over time ( up until present ) across its central and southwestern portions.

A notable exception to this ideal form, as also applies to Figure 3, being highly overturned stratigraphy that is associated with the Back Stone Mountain Syncline along its southeastern flanks, as well as locally overturned rocks toward the northwest across its Little Stone-Pickem Mountain flanks.

*The above also being exemplified by USGS Cross-Sections within the Big Stone Gap, East Stone Gap, Norton, & Wise-Fort Blackmore quadrangles ( especially visible when joining stratigraphic units which have been weathered away by erosion ).

A notable duplex-imbricate system, which has developed upon and in association with the great Cumberland Overthrust Block, forms the  structural geology of much of the High Knob Massif and has generated its most impressive gorges ( southwest of Little Stony Gorge which 
is carved into the single tectonic ramp zone like adjacent Guest River Gorge ).

The duplex-imbricate section of the massif being highly correlated to that portion with higher topographic relief, roughly from Burns Creek and Bowman Mountain southwest to Cliff Mountain and The Divide near Duffield.

High Knob Lake Basin - Duplex Above Single Ramp
Photograph by Wayne Browning - © All Rights Reserved.

The main crest zone of the High Knob Massif correlates well to the duplex region, which can be seen in the above photograph looking across lofty High Knob Lake Basin as standing above the lower tectonic ramping zone of the Osborne Ridge backcountry in the distance.

Mountain Fork of Big Stony Creek ( American Whitewater rated Class V+ steep creek ) draining the High Knob Lake Basin, between the higher mountain walls visible downstream of this broadly U-shaped basin seen across middle, right foreground above, is only one of many major gorges carved into the duplex.

With contrast from the late afternoon sun, and a telephoto lens, upper portions of the complex 41.9 square mile Big Stony Basin multi-gorge system stands distinctly above the lower elevation Little Stony Basin ( 16.4 square miles ), only a portion of which is visible in this photograph as the outward spreading backcountry along Osborne Ridge.

The 40+ square mile Powell Mountain block of the massif, from South Fork Gorge to Cliff Mountain, is also dominated by long, deep mountain gorges drained by STEEP creeks as part of this most interesting duplex-imbricate system.

Gorges and hollows carved into the frontslope and forelimb ( e.g., Pickem & Little Stone Mountain ), as illustrated by Figure 1, of this system are generally much shorter but even steeper and more precipitous in their downward plunge off the massif. 

Figure 2
Duplex In RED - Single Tectonic Ramp Zone In BLUE
Adapted from NASA Visible Satellite Image by Wayne Browning

This system is roughly illustrated above, with the section of the massif within RED being the duplex-imbricate zone which lies adjacent to a single tectonic ramping zone ( in BLUE ).

Figure 3
*Structural Geology Eastern Portion of High Knob Massif
Adapted from Mitra ( 1988 ) - Figure 23
Page 93 of GSA Bulletin, Volume 100.

The BLUE line above denoting the idealized topographical surface form of eastern portions of the High Knob Massif, with the notable exception being that its southern & southeastern flanks possess highly overturned stratigraphy associated with the very rugged Back Stone Mountain Syncline ( the basins, hollows, and gorges of today having been carved into this form over time ).

*The above also being exemplified by the USGS Cross-Section shown on the Coeburn quadrangle.

The core of the duplex has been breached southwest of the High Knob peak and Grindstone Ridge Dome, within which lies today the majestic Powell Valley of Wise County ( inverted V-shaped, green valley visible in Figure 2 between steep, brownish mountain walls standing beneath snow covered highcountry of the massif ).

Without getting too technical in geology, this duplex has formed via folding and upward arching of the main Pine Mountain Thrust Sheet by an underlying system called the Bales Thrust, and its associated imbricates.

This has generated an atypically wide and complex fold with many enhanced faults and fractures ( this has played a very important role over time in the great karstification of the High Knob Landform ).

This can be seen in the idealized form of Figure 1, where movement along ramp Number 2 of the Bales Thrust Sheet has generated enhanced upward movement and folding along ramp Number 1 of the main Pine Mountain Thrust ( additional imbricate thrusts & faults exist which are not shown in this idealized form ).

A topographical aspect of this interesting structural geology is that the High Knob Massif possesses a very long backslope, such that it has the longest distance between its crestlines and south flanking valleys along the Clinch River of any mountain in all of western Virginia the form illustrated by Figure 1 ).

The backslope is so long that the distance from Valley Creek in northern Scott County, Va., to the crest of Grindstone Dome, or High Knob and Eagle Knob in Wise County, Va., is greater than the entire distance from base to base across Mount Rogers, much greater than the entire base to base distance across Brumley Mountain, and much, much greater than the distance across Whitetop Mountain.

An array of long, deep mountain gorges have eroded into this long backslope over time, such that the High Knob Massif contains one of the greatest concentrations of gorges of any singular mass of mountain in Virginia ( and Appalachians ).

This atypically LONG backslope has also allowed for creation of an array of elevated basins, with lofty valleys and coves where more resistant stratigraphy is present.  These extend into the single tectonic ramp zone as well, which is also broad in nature but lower in mean elevation ( e.g., Little Stony Basin ).

The bottom line, all these gorges are drained by steep to VERY STEEP creeks and micro-creeks!

Aerial View of High Knob Massif
Photograph by Donnie Rose - © All Rights Reserved.

The above being very exciting to me personally, since many years ago upon first beginning my research in the massif I wondered what supported such distinct and visible terrain differences across its highcountry ( such as that seen in this aerial photograph taken by Donnie Rose in which the higher, more folded duplex section is visible across much of the picture in front of a small section of lower lying terrain seen in upper left background ).

Now these differences are known to be caused by the transition from a single tectonic ramp to that of a duplex-imbricate system, in going from rugged Guest River Gorge southwest to the Duffield Valley ( and beyond, as the duplex dominates much of the HKL across Lee County into extreme northern Tennessee ).

Rain Event of
September 25-27, 2009

The rain event that got whitewater rolling out of the High Knob Massif this weekend generated the heaviest amounts, of 5.00" to 6.00", across the Big Cherry Basin ( southwest from the High Knob peak ).

The tendency for enhanced precipitation amounts across the High Knob Massif has made it the wettest location in Virginia for which we have available records over the longer-term, and thus raises the potential significance of all these steep creeks!

Upsloping S-SE winds enhanced totals along the crest zone and southeastern slopes of the massif, despite weak orographic forcing, with downsloping into the City of Norton reducing totals to 3.74" .

Although 3.74" was still more rain than measured in places removed from the High Knob Massif and Big Black Mountain lifting corridor, it was a notable reduction of rainfall due partly to large quantities of air being deflected down and sinking into Norton lee of  the sprawling massif.

Rainfall totals within the Big Cherry Basin, Big Stone Gap, Appalachia, Keokee, and Holmes Mill, Ky., corridor were further enhanced by vigorous convection ( thunderstorms ) which fired during the afternoon hours of September 25.

A Doppler estimated bullseye of 3.00" of rain was indicated that afternoon along the northwestern flank of the HKL, centered on High Butte of Stone Mountain between Lake Keokee & Roaring Branch Gorge ( just southwest of the "Big Stone Gap" in the mountain ).

A few specific storm rainfall totals for the September 25-27 period included:

Flat Spur of Hazel Mountain: 1.92"

Whitesburg 2 SSE, Ky.: 2.01"

Mountain Mission School in Grundy: 2.23"

Nora 4 SSE: 2.33"

Hurley 4 S: 2.58"

Hearld of Sandy Ridge: 2.60"

Baxter, Ky.: 2.79"

Fort Blackmore: 3.08"

Nealy Ridge: 3.15"

Clintwood 1 W: 3.21"

Natural Tunnel State Park: 3.24"

Dungannon: 3.27"

Coeburn ( downtown ): 3.55"

Norton WP: 3.74"

Duffield TVA: 3.80"

( South Fork Gorge )
Big Stone Gap WP: 3.84" 

Robbins Chapel: 3.98"

Head of Powell Valley: 4.17"

Fox Gap of Indian Mountain: 4.50"

Bonny Blue: 4.65"

Mountain Empire Community College 4.81"

( Little Stone Mountain arm )
Appalachia Lake WP: 4.89"

Appalachia ( downtown ): 5.02"

Keokee ES: 5.62"

Closplint 4 ESE, Ky.: 5.73"

Big Cherry Dam of High Knob Massif: 5.87" 
Some flooding did occur across the area, with numerous road closures in Wise County.  A few pictures submitted to the public archives of WCYB-TV illustrated the situation.
Flooding In Big Stone Gap - September 26, 2009
  Flooding In Norton - September 26, 2009
High Water In The Wallen Creek Basin at Stickleyville
Photograph by Jennifer McElroy

This event boosted September rainfall totals into the 9.00" to 11.00"+ range within the wettest places amid the High Knob Massif, with 11.00"+ amounts being located in Little Stony Basin ( no wonder whitewater has been gushing! ).

Although the Little Stony Basin received less rainfall during the September 25-27 episode, than did Big Cherry Basin, it was a target of excessive rain and hail during PM hours of September 8. 
During the September 8 event, nearly stationary thunderstorms with backbuilding convection ( aided by Doppler indicated storm relative easterly upslope flow from Guest River Gorge toward Moore Knob ) generated excessive rainfall and hail with flash flooding into Little Stony Gorge.  A very localized but notable event.

While flooding was more widespread during the September 25-27 event, the severity of flooding within the hardest hit East Stone Gap to Big Stone Gap area was reduced by several important factors:

1 ).  A forested, intact Big Cherry Basin watershed.

2 ).  Sinking of significant amounts of water into extensive underground conduit systems.

3 ).  Big Cherry Dam which held back ALOT of water from the highcountry basin.

Although the High Knob Landform, and in particular it's remnant massif, can handle more total rain ( and rain + snow melt ) without flooding than other locations across southwestern Virginia, due to its unique hydrogeology and great karstification, there eventually comes important points at which subterranean conduits fill up.  

When that happens, flood potential increases rapidly to generate very flashy situations where water rises can become extremely fast!

Breaks Gorge Whitewater
While the High Knob Massif certainly offers the ultimate & beyond in STEEP Creekin' ( VERY STEEP ), awesome Breaks Gorge located on the Virginia-Kentucky border amid Breaks Interstate Park provides the most dangerous commerically rafted river experience in the region!

Breaks Interstate Park In Dickenson County, VA
Fighting The Current Amid Russell Fork Gorge
Photograph by Roddy Addington - © All Rights Reserved.

In addition, as is now a much anticipated annual tradition, the Whitewater Rolls rain or shine during each weekend in October via controlled releases from John Flannagan Dam.

This gives the Russell Fork big volume to go along with a respectably steep mean drop of 140 feet per mile ( max gradient of up to 190 feet per mile ) to make it one of the truly classic river runs in the United States.

Riding Air - Russell Fork Gorge - Breaks Interstate Park
Photograph by Roddy Addington - © All Rights Reserved.

The Russell Fork Gorge is a solid Class IV-V+ adventure, set amid a gorgeous mountain chasm carved into the northeastern end of Pine Mountain.

Pine Mountain is a geologic mirror image of the northwestern flank of the High Knob Landform ( the HKL being the dominant anticline of the great Cumberland Mountain Overthrust Block ).
Featured on this website numerous times, Pine Mountain is the second major anticline forming this world-renowned Cumberland Block and stands as the northwestern most mountain ridge of the southern Appalachians, Cumberland Mountains, and Cumberland Overthrust.

Taking A Spin - Russell Fork Gorge
Photograph by Roddy Addington - © All Rights Reserved.

For much more information on Russell Fork River whitewater action, and the many activities of each season, please visit this interesting website of veteran kayaker & American Whitewater stream team coordinator Steve Ruth

The "Lord of the Fork Race," named in honor of the great John Lord who lost his life on the river, is now an annual tradition!