West Virginia is full of surprises. Take the Canaan Valley for instance. In a land of densely forested mountains, who would expect a bowl-shaped valley that, at 3200’ in elevation, is the highest large valley east of the Rockies? And who would expect that valley to hold such rich and extensive wetlands, with a climate and flora more typical of Maine and Canada?
The Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is situated here, and one sunny morning my friends and I dropped in for a short visit.
Here’s a surprise, and some advice: don’t be a tourist. The locals pronounce it “Kuh-NANE.” Not the way I learned in Sunday School!
Unlike deeply forested Spruce Knob and Cathedral State Park, there were few trees in this area of Canaan Valley NWR. This open habitat may not have been to my friends’ taste, but I enjoyed the change of scenery. Plus, there were lots of flowers to photograph. Asters and goldenrods were everywhere.
Looking closer, we saw bubbles. Perhaps Madam Witch has something boiling in her cauldron? Nope – it’s a limestone spring. Layers of limestone slope from the mountains to the valley. Pressure in the underlying aquifer forces water up through cracks in the limestone, to escape in silty bubbles.
Before this visit, I could have named a half dozen types of wetlands, and thought the list complete. Surprise! Canaan Valley has an astounding 23 types! This was once a beaver pond. The residents moved out some time ago, and the pond filled in, leaving a patchwork of pools, shrub thickets, and wet meadows. Wetlands are one of the most ecologically diverse – and important – habitats on Earth. I was glad to see this one, like most of the wetlands in the Valley, protected by the National Wildlife Refuge.
The old fields are maintained as meadows by occasional mowing, for the benefit of songbirds and other critters that use grassland habitat.
Here and there, marvelously twisted old snags poked above the wildflowers and grasses. We saw a kingbird perched on one, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. Alas, he was too fast for my camera. Old dead trees make wonderful hotels, with cozy cavities for nesting and an all-you-can-eat buffet of bugs and grubs open round the clock.
A fence surrounded the young trees to protect them from hungry deer. These balsam firs stood tall and proud.
Surprise! That huge green mound was a hummock of sphagnum and haircap moss. I’m accustomed to sphagnum; we see it all the time in New Jersey. But never in such a tall mound.
Remember these beautiful blue skies and puffy white clouds! For another West Virginia surprise lurks around the bend, as the lovely sunny morning we enjoyed in the land of Canaan would soon turn to something altogether more foreboding…