A blooming good time at Roaring Run
From the looks of the crowd gathered along the trail and the sounds of clicking cameras, you might figure one of those Smoky Mountain-type tame bears had been spotted, but the attraction was much smaller and gentler. It was a pink lady slipper.
The Kmart film development service was going to benefit from this striking, native orchid bathed in the morning sun that filtered through towering hemlocks along Roaring Run.
Located in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, north of Eagle Rock, Roaring Run is best known as a put-and-take trout-fishing area. But on a recent spring morning, several days after the last visit of the hatchery truck, more visitors were carrying cameras, field guides and picnic baskets than fishing rods. This isn't just a fishing hole.
Ed Haverlack, a national forest biologist, was guiding a group of 45 visitors on a wildflower walk, pointing out the showy orchis, the crested dwarf iris, the devil's bit, the bishop's cap.
"When my family moved to Virginia from Pennsylvania, we nearly wore this place out," said Haverlack.
The recreation area is a fine place to see nature up close, and may be one of the best-kept secrets in Botetourt County and beyond, he said.
"When it is in your back yard, you never go to it, but people will travel hundreds of miles to come visit it after hearing about it," Haverlack said.
An excellent time to visit is spring, when the wildflowers provide a blooming good time, and when the creek is full and vigorous as it cascades down the mountainside over 300 million-year-old bedrock.
What you have is a surprising amount of natural diversity in a relatively small area, said Haverlack. As the creek canyon climbs steeply, the moist, humid environment, where hemlocks, sugar maples and bass woods thrive, transforms to a dry site clothed in chestnut oaks, pitch pines and Virginia pines. When the weather turns steamy, it is like air conditioning in the canyon and a tanning booth on the top side.
The steepness of the ravine causes the sunlight to fall at different angles and with varying intensity, leaving a variety of plant life to cling to its own little niches, said Haverlack.
There are songbirds, too, although the roar of the stream can make it difficult to savor their voices, said Mike Donahue, a naturalist from Roanoke.
When you move a short distance from the series of waterfalls, you can hear the staccato chatter of the great crested flycatcher, the bell-like notes of the wood thrust and the enduring song of the red-eyed vireo. Broad-wing hawks soar across the sky, and sometimes pause to nest in the tallest trees, their voices like the sound of branches creaking in the wind.
The winged creatures also include butterflies: Tiger swallowtails, silver spotted skippers, zebras. And don't forget the mayflies and stoneflies that emerge from the coldness of the creek, said Donahue.
Haverlack's face saddens when he talks about the hemlocks. They are dying, their life sucked away by woolly adelgid, an insect that gathers on their short, flat needles like globs of unsightly whitewash.
Some of the trees have splintered and thundered to the ground. Others have been cut by forest officials who are fearful they will fall on unsuspecting visitors. Still others are doomed, but don't know it.
Many are more than a century old. Their drooping boughs protect wildlife from the wind and snow, their cones are a source of food for evergreen connoisseurs, and their shade helps keep the stream temperatures low, the way trout like it.
"When they are gone, there may be some change in water temperatures," said Haverlack. That could be harmful to the micro-invertebrates and the brook trout, he said.
The trees that tumble into the creek are being left as they fall, said Haverlack.
"There was a time when we would have removed them," he said. The forest service now calls the downed trees "LWD." "Large woody debris," Haverlack explains. They provide places for trout to hide in the shadows, spots for aquatic life to thrive.
The sycamores are in trouble, too, from a fungus.
"You have two riparian species dying out," said Haverlack. "What is going to replace them, I don't know."
It is difficult to envision anything replacing the ancient hemlocks, tall and straight and shadowing out the understory to project a cathedral-like reverence.
Nearby is the Roaring Run Furnace, which produced material for iron ingots, stoves and other products in the mid-1800s. The furnace is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and its old tram lines provide hiking trails. There is a picnic area nearby.
The most popular trail is a mile-long trip along the stream, which is one of the finest waterfall walks in the state, but seldom listed as one.