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.
Subscribers to the 12MC Twitter site likely noticed that I’d been on vacation recently and probably already understood that it foreshadowed another travelogue. You’ll be happy with the next several articles if you like those.
I was in Western North Carolina using Asheville as my base of operations for the week. I wasn’t sure exactly what to call the region. Was it Western North Carolina, or merely Western Carolina? There was a Western Carolina University in Cullowhee and a Western Carolina Regional Airport in Andrews, both in North Carolina, although the name seemed to shortchange people who lived in Western South Carolina. Ultimately I decided to name this travel series "Western North Carolina" because it seemed to be more precise as well as the more common usage even though it offered an overabundance of cardinal directions in my mind. Either way I didn’t get too concerned.
First we had to get down to Asheville, though. I didn’t take the most logical or direct route. That would be anathema to any dedicated county counter worth his mettle. We headed first to Chapel Hill for an overnight stop. My wife had a connection to the University of North Carolina and this was her first trip back there in nearly twenty years. That’s how I sold a concept that would set-up a county counting adventure far away from Interstate Highways on the second day of the drive down to Asheville.
Chapel Hill remained as nice as it had a couple of decades ago so everyone seemed to enjoy the detour. I even noticed an interesting sundial outside of UNC’s Morehead Planetarium (map) that would have been a perfect addition to my remarkable sundials article had I known about it earlier.
We headed to Asheville after Chapel Hill. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, I spent several days in town and never caught a glimpse of its most famous attraction. I guess a random one-time reader who landed on this page through a search engine query might be surprised, even shocked with my decision. How could someone travel all the way to Asheville and completely avoid the Biltmore Estate — the largest home in the United States — constructed by George Vanderbilt in the 1890’s? Most of the regulars, however, probably knew that 12MC often disregarded the obvious sites for those more esoteric. Plus I’d already seen a bunch of large estates on my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island. I didn’t need to see another house, not even the biggest one (map)
A tip of the hat goes to Loyal Reader Rhodent who suggested I focus my attention elsewhere. He offered sage advice that led to lesser-known attractions like…
Western North Carolina Nature Center
When I saw the phrase "nature center" I cringed a little because I thought it might be like the little nature center near my home. I expected the typical couple of rooms with turtles, snakes and a few dusty taxidermy birds, and maybe a short walking trail through the trees. The Western North Carolina Nature Center was actually more of a small zoo (map). It featured all the familiar fauna one would expect from the local area tucked into an expansive wooded hillside. The kids loved it. I will also add that the white-tail deer there were the luckiest ones alive. Imagine having shelter, regular feedings and a peaceful place to stay during hunting season!
I began each morning with a walk through a different section of Asheville. The city offered a compact inner-core and I became familiar with its basic layout quickly. Asheville centered on Pack Square Park (map) and radiated out in all directions from there. A larger share of what I’d lovingly call itinerant hippies congregated throughout downtown, certainly more than what I’d expected for a city of its size. They seemed harmless enough, as if the only real "danger" might involve an unexpected drum circle or getting tangled in a web of white guy dreadlocks, or perhaps catching a vague waft of smoke of questionable origin. I’m quite immune to panhandlers and buskers thanks to years of living and working in a highly urbanized environment so I just went about my walks.
Much of my wandering involved the South Slope area, named that way because it occupied a downhill slope immediately south of downtown. What the designation lacked in originality it made up for in accuracy. It was also an area of great transition and clearly hit a tipping point towards gentrification recently. The craft breweries came first and continued to arrive. A couple of years ago this was little more than several rows of small, grimy warehouses and blue-collar businesses in various states of disrepair. Some of those elements remained and I took great delight in finding the original remnants prior to their transformation. And certainly they will transform. Soon. I saw construction everywhere; loft apartments, boutiques and more breweries on the way.
I also enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods just north of downtown like Historic Montford and the areas around Charlotte Street (map) with beautiful homes from the turn of the last century up through the 1930’s. It reminded me a lot of my own neighborhood before people started bulldozing historic homes to replace them with McMansions. Hopefully Asheville has better zoning laws to protect its vintage character.
Asheville provided a great central hub to the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains with abundant hiking, climbing, swimming, and rafting. We would pursue all of those activities in due course. However I can’t deny that an immense concentration of breweries springing from the hillsides attracted my attention too. I like to visit breweries although I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire article devoted to Asheville breweries coming soon.
Twelve Mile Circle is just getting started on this Western North Carolina trip report. Hopefully there will be something for everyone whether casual tourists, outdoor enthusiasts, hardcore geo-geeks or whatever. In the meantime, feel free to view my public photo album if you simply can’t wait to see where this is all heading.