Cave Mountain looms over our farm and goats Essie & Snowball – 11/29/19

We hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.  We enjoyed the day with our son, Michael, who was visiting from his new home in Berkeley Springs.  Since moving there at the end of June, Mike has left his former Wal-Mart job to work for the Fairfax Coffee House in downtown Berkeley Springs, which is a 15-minute walk from his house.  The shop is located across Fairfax Street from the famous Berkeley Springs State Park.  We are very thankful for the change in vocation his recent move has given him because he is using the experience he has gained working there to satisfy his internship requirement for his Potomac State College degree in Restaurant and Hotel Management.  He has now completed the required number of work hours to satisfy the internship requirement and we anticipate that the college will award his diploma some 7.5 years after he completed all of his coursework.  If you will be visiting Berkeley Springs, WV, please feel free to stop by and say, “hello” for us.

We are also thankful this year for surviving (with only minor damage) the Thanksgiving Eve windstorm that swept through our mountains.  It is a storm that will be remembered for many years.  It arrived as a “dry front” (a weather front that drops no rain or snow) late Thursday afternoon (November 27).  By nightfall, the winds had built into strong, frequent gusts that roared almost constantly along the summits of the surrounding mountains.  In our valley, some 1,426 feet below the summit of Cave Mountain, the ferocious gusts slammed into our house causing the walls and roofing to creak and pop under the strain throughout the long, dark night.  Between the hours of 11:00 PM on November 27 and 4:00 AM on Thanksgiving Day the strongest gusts were almost constant, waking us up several times to the relentless force of the wind as it whistled through the tiniest cracks around the door and window frames. I could only imagine what damage was being caused by the periodic thuds, rattles, and cracks I could hear somewhere out in the smothering gloom of night.  I thought about our goats, Essie and Snowball, cowering together in a corner of their goat barn petrified with fear by the ferocious night sounds just outside their walls.

By 3:30 AM, I could lay in bed no longer.  I knew I couldn’t get back to sleep until I had satisfied my mind that our house wasn’t being torn apart.  When I heard a brief lull in the fury, I got out of bed, put on my bathrobe and coat, and went out on the front porch to see what was happening.  The prevailing winds were blowing from the southwest and west.  None of the furniture on our porch had been shifted, although I could hear one of the folding deck chairs I had collapsed and stacked against the wall for the winter season rattling in the intermittent gusts.  That was one of the sounds I was hearing from our bedroom.  I shifted it slightly, and it settled into a more stable position.

I left the porch and walked away from the house far enough to see the slope of the roof.  Our chimney pipe still stood resolutely and I could discern from the shadowy outline of the roofline against the dimly lit starry sky that our roof remained intact.  I strolled around three sides of the house to reassure myself that everything was okay and that the shed and garage doors had not been blown open.  I watched the trees sway as they yielded to the brutal force of each wind gust, and I could hear loud creaking sounds from branches rubbing against one another in the woods along the ravine.  I realized that might be another of the night sounds I had heard.  I even stumbled once or twice as I struggled against the wind’s fury.  When I finally convinced myself that all was fine, I dashed into the house, leaning hard against the wind to close the door.  Before I got it closed tightly, a large, dried oak leaf blew into the foyer and swept across the floor behind me.  Somehow, I managed to get another hour of sleep before Calli leapt up on my side of the bed to announce that she was ready for her 5:00 AM breakfast.

Strong winds pushed our trailer 10 feet into a corner of our garage – 11/29/19

The winds began to die down shortly after dawn.  By the time I had fed the goats around 7:00 AM, they were willing to go outdoors.  They seemed as curious to know how their world had been rearranged as I was. I surveyed everywhere around the house, shed, garage, and goat barn.  The only debris I found was some scattered limbs blown from our neighbor’s dead black walnut tree.  However, I did notice that our small tow-along trailer had been blown from its storage position at least ten feet back into the back corner of the garage, causing several dents and scrapes in the metal siding.  Although I had left the trailer ramp locked upright, the force of the wind was strong enough against the open mesh ramp to force it back.  After moving it back to its original position, Barb and I chocked the tires in place with some rocks.  Fortunately, the gouges left in the garage wall did not penetrate the metal siding.  However, I realized that, If the trailer had not caught the back corner of the garage as it did, it might have rolled all the way down into the wooded ravine behind the barnyard (a distance of more than 30 additional feet), leaving us with a difficult task to retrieve it.  Any trees in the view from our house that still retained their dead fall leaves were stripped completely bare by the windstorm.

Barn damage from the trailer impact – 11/29/19

The windstorm also caused a recent wildfire to spread out of control in Smoke Hole Canyon (on the back side of Cave Mountain from our farm).  As of today (November 30), the Dry Hollow wildfire, as it has been named, has burned 720 acres on both sides of the South Branch River.  The strong winds caused many dormant and dead trees along the precipitous canyon slopes to fall adding fuel to the fire.  The fire produced so much smoke that it spread throughout our valley during the afternoon on November 29 creating a smoky haze that obscured our view of the mountains beyond the nearest hills.  The last such major wildfire in Smoke Hole Canyon occurred during October and November of 2013.

Wildfire Smoky Haze – 11/29/19

According to weather observations across our region, the peak wind gust we received from the storm topped 60 MPH.  Official observations from the Cumberland airport to our north in Wiley Ford, WV recorded a maximum gust of 62 MPH, while the nearby Petersburg Airport recorded a peak gust of 64 MPH and Snowshoe Resort on the summit of Cheat Mountain (to our south) registered a maximum wind speed of 67 MPH.  Although these peak gusts are comparable to a previous windstorm that I described in an earlier website post, entitled “The Lion Roars” (March 2, 2018), the average wind speed was much stronger during this Thanksgiving Eve storm because all of the strongest gusts we heard were longer in duration and occurred with greater frequency.

Windstorms of this nature can be relatively common occurrences in the Appalachian Mountains during the winter season (and into late fall and early spring).  It is during the winter months that the northern jet stream, which is the track that drives most storms, settles along the Appalachian Mountain chain.  The rugged topography of the eastern mountains causes winds to be compressed as they flow over the folded mountains causing the downslope windspeed to increase as they descend into the adjoining valleys.  This effect helps explain why the summit of Mount Washington (at 6,288 feet above sea level), in my native state of New Hampshire, has some of the most ferocious winds in the world. 

Although our Allegheny Mountains are not known to be a “high” mountain range, they represent the first mountains of any consequence that eastward flowing winds encounter after descending from the Rocky Mountains.  This is just another aspect of how the Allegheny Mountains distinguish the special natural character of our Potomac Highlands region from all surrounding areas.  If you choose to experience it for yourself, expect things to be very different here.