The New River’s Unique Formation

by nrvmagaz

For those new to the world of river sports, here’s why this mighty grandfather of East Coast Rivers is the perfect place to get your feet wet.

We cannot help but feel calm beside a river as the water courses by with vigor and purpose, making its way to some distant destination. To use the jargon of the day, the New River is surprisingly “user-friendly,” and its ease of access makes it the perfect place to enter the world of river sports.
In the words of local river enthusiast and owner of Stride stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) Luke Hopkins: “The New River Valley is one of the best places to get into river sports. The New River is a particularly great place to get your feet wet, pardon the expression,” he laughs. “It is much more accessible than say Great Falls. You can walk right into the river with ease, making it enjoyable at any age.” Nevertheless, we are also just a stone’s throw from some of the most impressive whitewater this side of the Rockies. With a short car ride, one can get the full effect of Class IV rapids kayaking or rafting.

Unburying the River’s History
At the ripe old age of approximately 450 million years, the Appalachian Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the entire world. Philip Prince, Ph.D., is as unique as the New River itself. An instructor in geosciences at Virginia Tech, Prince is a world-class paddler and an AT thru-hiker (he did the entire route in 2006). He speaks deliberately and in a relaxing nasally tone: “I’m about as Appalachian as one can get.” A colonel-esque moustache adorns his upper lip, and his deep, Southern drawl pours slowly from his thin wire frame. His neck is befittingly bowtied, and his feet are most often tucked inside homemade leather shoes. We met in the Geology Museum on campus, and if you haven’t been there, you should go. A fully assembled, teenage Allosaurus skeleton resides therein, and a giant glowing orb of “Pangea” spins slowly.
To uncover the truth about the New River, we have to know a bit about the earth itself and how erosion works. Prince brings out three tubs of Play-Doh to illustrate the ways of the world. “It’s not about whether the mountains came before the river or if the river was there before the mountains,” he explains. “The mountains were always here.” In the course of centuries, the mountains were buried and subsequently unburied as the topography changed. The mountains we see today have been exposed by the removal of about three miles of overlying rock. This slow process allowed the 320-mile New River to gradually find the best way across the ridges on its way from the high Appalachians to the Ohio River, ultimately leading to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s right, it flows westward.”
Geologists use a device called a “pressure box” to model the folding and faulting of rock layers, which are represented by a variety of materials. This model uses flour and cornmeal to represent the four massive wrinkles of rock into which the New River Valley has been carved.
Contrary to expectations, the river doesn’t empty itself eastward into the Atlantic Ocean. Early pioneers discovered the river flowed to the Ohio and realized it was the gateway to the West, the New Frontier. Perhaps someday many, many years from now, it will eventually connect with the Roanoke River and flow eastward.

Up, up and away

In addition to this odd East to West flow, the New River is also unique in that it flows north. These peculiar directional habits, coupled with the fact that the river cuts right through Appalachian rocks that are proven to be erosion-resistant, lead people to believe that the river’s formation preceded the uplift of the Appalachian Mountains themselves.
At McCoy Falls, one can see that the mountains look as though they sprang up around the river. Part of that illusion is due to the deception of elevation. Even though Blacksburg technically sits in a valley, it’s relatively high up. It is quite a descent to the river so the jagged cliffs and mountains look enormous.
“As a geologist, I think the most unique characteristic of the New River basin is that despite its large size, it sits at a higher elevation than surrounding river systems. Neighboring rivers have developed courses which move water out of the high country to the modern coastline as quickly as possible; the New River does not do this,” Prince explains.

Text by Emily Alberts
Photo by Wild Country Studios

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