The readers of Twelve Mile Circle seemed to anticipate where this conversation was heading when I wrote about the advanced age of the French Broad River recently. I’d actually intended to write a single article about really old rivers. I had to split it when it got too wordy. I’d seen that same list of rivers by age on Wikipedia noticed by several readers and I decided to have some fun with it. I won’t recite the list in order though. I’ll meander though a bit of it in my own peculiar way.
For sure, I thought, someone would mention the ironic naming of the New River in southern Appalachia, flowing from North Carolina into Virginia and then into West Virginia. I wasn’t disappointed. The New River originated during the same Alleghanian Orogeny as the previously-mentioned French Broad River, as did the Susquehanna River. They all dated back about 300 million years, predating the Appalachian Mountains.
Nobody really knew exactly how or when the New River came to be encumbered with a misleading name although the Friends of the New River offered several possibilities.
One educated guess regarding the origin of the name is the theory that in the late 1700s or early 1800s, surveyors were working their way across the new country. When they happened on the New River, they discovered that it wasn’t on any of their existing maps, so they charted it and labeled it as "a new river." Another version of this story attributes the label "a new river" to Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s father. The official name change to New River seems to have occurred between 1740 and 1750, although the two names, Woods and New, were used interchangeably in records and on maps in other states until about 1770.
Thus it could have just have easily been known as the Woods River into perpetuity, named for Colonel Abraham Wood who trades with local Native Americans in the 1650’s. Instead it became a very old river with a very New name.
If one searches for the oldest river using online tools one will invariable encounter frequent references to Africa’s Nile River. However the Wikipedia list didn’t even place it in the top ten, explaining that it was "65 to 75 [million] for the Sudd section; the rest of the river is only 1 or 2 million years old." Further, the page linked to a site at the University of Texas – Dallas that stated, "Although the Nile seems like an ancient river – after all, it was there long before one of the earliest civilizations began to develop on its banks – it is really a very young river and has gone through many changes over the recent (in geologic terms) past." The only ancient part — still considerably younger than the French Broad — was a portion in South Sudan in a swamp (map).
Don’t expect the rest of the Intertubes to issue a clarification though.
So now we finally arrive at #1 on Wikipedia’s list, presumably the very oldest river in the world, Australia’s Finke River along with various other smaller rivers nearby (map). They all predated the Alice Springs Orogeny, which would make them up to 400 million years old. The orogeny happened so long ago that most of the mountains have eroded away with the exception of the MacDonnell Ranges and a scattering of other ridges deep within the Australian interior. The highest remaining remnant was Mount Zeil at 1,531 metres (5,023 ft) (map)
I seem to have a little extra room in this article. I guess I should also list second place from the list too, if only because I’ve been there in person (as noted on my travel page for the Citadel of Dinant in Belgium, one of the oldest parts of my website). This was a long time ago. In fact, the image I’ve embedded came from a time prior to digital photography. I had to scan it from a print photo.
The Meuse predated the Hercynian Orogeny that resulted in the formation of the Ardennes. The river course ran from a corner of France to Belgium, onward to the Netherlands and finally into the North Sea.
Several months ago I mentioned that I would be supporting a runner in Mainly Marathon’s Center of the Nation race series. That adventure is now just around the corner. I’ll be in eastern Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, and in western North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, September 14-19, 2015. They have options for single races and distances as short as 5K in case there are any 12MC runners in the area who might be interested. I have a big list of adventures planned including a few based on readers suggestions, so thank you all for that earlier input.
The recent Twelve Mile Circle journey to western North Carolina included one of my favorite activities, whitewater rafting. The boys were finally getting old enough to join us although we still kept it pretty easy on them, sticking primarily to a series of Class II and Class III rapids (moderate to intermediate). This made a guided rafting adventure on the French Broad River particularly enjoyable and appropriate for our little group (map).
Similar references and claims repeated themselves as I searched for a suitable rafting operator. Invariably websites noted that the French Broad River was the third oldest river in the world. It was always the third oldest. Even the U.S. Forest Service repeated the claim. I didn’t have any ability to corroborate or debunk the statement at the time so I tucked it away in my mind, intending to check it later. I’ve learned since then that measuring the age of rivers wasn’t an exact science. However, geologists could determine their relative ages in wide general bands based upon various signs and conditions. Determining an exact order would be problematic.
The best that might be said of the French Broad River was that it was really, really old, maybe 300 million years old. I pondered that for a moment. The first dinosaurs evolved during the Mesozoic Era, 225 million years ago. It was entirely possible, even likely, that the course of the French Broad River predated dinosaurs. Many geologists believed that possibility because the current flow of the French Broad could exist only if the river predated the Appalachian Mountains, because it sliced entirely through the range.
Mountains formed over millions of years in fits and starts, providing plenty of time for rushing water to preserve the original channel via erosion while the range slowly rose around it. Otherwise — had the river had been younger than the mountains — the channel would have formed on one side of the range or the other.
The mountain range surfaced during the Alleghanian orogeny, when the Euramerica continent (including modern North America) and the Gondwana continent (including modern Africa) slammed into each other to form the super-continent Pangaea. Orogeny was nothing more than a fancy word meaning, "the process of mountain formation especially by folding of the earth’s crust." Thus, geologists could estimate the age of the mountains and then by implication work backwards to estimate the age of the river. The initial collision took place approximately 300 million years ago so the French Broad River must be something older than that.
That was about all the geology my simplistic mind could comprehend. I still wondered about the river’s name and assumed correctly that French Broad had nothing to do with a woman from France. English explorers discovered two rivers of comparably broad width situated near each other on opposite sides of the Eastern Continental Divide on the unsettled fringes of the Carolina colonies.
The western river flowed towards the interior of the continent, in the general direction of lands claimed by France in the Mississippi watershed. Thus it became known as the French Broad River. Its course took it past what later became modern-day Asheville, then northwest through the Appalachian mountains (going past Lover’s Leap) then due west to the current city of Knoxville. There it joined the Tennessee River, onward to the Ohio River and finally into the Mississippi River.
The eastern river was located just outside of modern-day Asheville, directly past the summit of a ridge a few miles to the southeast. It flowed into the Congaree River and then to the Santee River and finally into the Atlantic Ocean. It became known as the English Broad River because that’s where the English has established their colony. The name shortened later to Broad River, so now there was a French Broad River and a Broad River. I saw the Broad River when we visited Lake Lure during the same trip. I’m lucky to be able to say that I had the distinction of experiencing both the Broad and the French Broad Rivers during our outdoor activities.
Was the French Broad River the third oldest river in the world? Well, who knows. It certainly fell within the top tier of ancient rivers.
Hurricane Katrina formed ten years ago today, on August 23, 2005, and hit New Orleans on the 29th. I wrote about some of my family’s experiences previously in Hurricane Katrina: Family Memories 5 Years Later. I can’t believe another five years has passed. I can’t believe I’m still writing Twelve Mile Circle either.
Twelve Mile Circle faced a bit of a geographic dilemma in western North Carolina towards the end of the week. I began to notice that I might risk a doughnut hole county if I wasn’t careful. That condition would occur if I counted a bunch of contiguous counties and then left one in the middle uncovered. I’d hate to do that. I’m not getting any younger and I may not have an opportunity to come back again and clean it up.
That’s when I decided that I couldn’t leave Rutherford County unvisited even if its local seat of government had the unwieldy name of Rutherfordton. I understood the need to honor Griffith Rutherford, brigadier general in the American Revolutionary War, but couldn’t they have at least named to town simply Rutherford or even Griffith? Nonetheless I now needed to contrive a reason to stray into Rutherford with the family and avoid an unsightly doughnut hole on my county counting map. There appeared to be a nice park and a lake about 25 miles (40 kilometres) southeast of Asheville that would do the trick. It actually worked out quite nicely, both because it satisfied my ulterior motive and because it was a genuinely enjoyable spot.
The body of water turned out to be Lake Lure (map). A town of the same name hugged its shores. Lake Lure was an artificial creation of the Morse family. They dammed the Broad River within a particularly scenic Blue Ridge valley in the 1920’s, creating a roadside tourist attraction that still remains popular. The Town of Lake Lure purchased the lake in the 1960’s and turned it into a public park, including the attractive man-made beach. It was a great spot for the kids. They enjoyed the beach and playing at the adjacent water park. Later that morning we rented paddle boats and circled the lake a couple of times until the sun and humidity drove me back to a shaded shoreline. We finished the morning with lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake.
We devoted the afternoon to Chimney Rock (map), another attraction on the northwestern nub of Rutherford County. The Morse family must have had an entrepreneurial streak because they also turned Chimney Rock into a tourist destination at the turn of the last century. Otherwise the outcrop probably would have been just another granite pinnacle. They saw its appeal and went so far as to bore an elevator shaft through the cliff nearby so visitors could reach the promontory almost effortlessly. The state of North Carolina purchased the property in 2007 and Chimney Rock State Park became one of the state’s newest additions. Along with the 315 foot (96 metre) spire itself, the park offered miles of hiking trails and a magnificent waterfall.
The elevator was closed for repairs during our visit so we had to climb the switchback stairways up to Chimney Rock. That wasn’t as bad as it sounded. There were plenty of intermediary ledges that offered increasingly better views of the valley far below so it broke-up the climb into manageable chunks. My younger son and I decided to climb even higher while the rest of the family stopped at the snack bar for ice cream. I’d noticed a wonderfully-named promontory mentioned on the trail guide and I was drawn to it — Exclamation Point!
I was in pretty good shape, having completed the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail recently. I had no problem climbing several hundred steps. My son had abundant childhood energy so we practically flew up the mountain, leaving most of the other visitors in the dust as we climbed up to Exclamation Point at 2,480 ft. (756 m.). We overheard two sweaty and exhausted teenagers commiserating with their friend on the summit. They’d been passed by "an old man and a kid." That was us! Maybe their embarrassment will encourage them to put down the Cheetos and get off the couch every once and awhile. Yes, I felt smug. I admit it.
Another Exclamation Point
Exclamation Point was such an awesome name that I had to see if it had ever been used elsewhere. Actually, the U.S. Geological Survey listed only one Explanation Point in its Geographic Names Information System, and it wasn’t even the one in North Carolina. Apparently the Explanation Point near Chimney Rock was an unofficial designation. The only Explanation Point recognized by the USGS could be found in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Montrose County, Colorado. Hikers can experience this outcrop by taking a moderate route on the North Rim of the park, three miles round trip on the North Vista Trail.
It looks like I found another spot to place on my list of things to visit someday.