The trees that once grew on the lake floor are reminders of
another time when Virginia's only natural mountain lake was doing a
disappearing act. According to Roanoke College professor Jon Cawley, this ebb
and flow pattern is normal for Mountain Lake. But vanishing completely is
something it hasn't done in more than 200 years.
Cawley, a board member on the Mountain Lake Conservancy,
finds the phenomenon interesting and thinks humans shouldn't tamper with the
lake. But the hotel's management has seen reservations drop by more than 5 percent,
and heard the grumbling about the mud-rimmed lake as the water deficit slips to
20 feet below normal. The working boat dock, and the blue lake that served as a
backdrop for Patrick Swayze's romantic moves in the movie "Dirty
Dancing," are now a brisk 10-minute walk from the stone hotel.
For four years now, Mountain Lake has been slipping away,
draining down a hole in its bottom faster than rain and springs can replenish
the renegade waters. How low will Virginia's only natural mountain lake go?
When will this trend reverse? These are crucial questions to hotel general manager
H.M. "Buzz" Scanland.
"We are at a stage where we will very likely have to
help nature," Scanland says. He's in a quandary trying to figure out what
to do without damaging the lake's ecological balance or spoiling its natural
Cawley, who did his doctoral dissertation on the lake's
water system, says in the past a small earthquake usually plugged the hole
enough so the lake refilled. Although the lake is full more often than not,
Mountain Lake has been shrinking and refilling for at least 6,000 years, Cawley
"Mountain Lake has a unique valve system," he
says. "It does the ebb-and-flow thing roughly every 75-100 years. The
amount of water leaving through the hole is about the same, but, with a
drought, less water is coming in."
As part of his research, Cawley had scuba divers explore
the lake and has taken sonar readings of the entire lake bottom. He knows the
main hole is a 3-foot by 15-foot gash in a fault line running directly under
Mountain Lake. The hole breaks through about 20 feet of sandstone and shale
into a natural pipeline Cawley believes resurfaces half a mile away at Pond
Drain, the outlet that normally flows from the surface of Mountain Lake. Local
legend posited the hole's existence long before Cawley's dissertation offered definite
proof. Avery Dollinger, whose parents were caretakers of the hotel, heard
stories of employees throwing mattresses, broken boats and other debris into
the lake's deep end in the 1940s to stanch a leak. After a 1959 earthquake
cracked the lodge fireplace, the lake reportedly rose nearly 20 feet in a few
Although no one living can remember a time when Mountain
Lake didn't exist, historical records indicate the lake disappeared between
1751, when surveyor Christopher Gist discovered the "clear-water lake with
its fine meadow," and a generation later. Early settlers salted their
cattle in a wet depression between the ridges and named the area Salt Pond
Mountain. Then, in the 1820s, the lake reappeared; early owner Henley Chapman
reported trees standing beneath the clear water. Carbon-14 dating of the dead
trees found as the lake recedes indicate some stopped growing even earlier—in
Plugging the main hole won't restore Mountain Lake, Cawley
says. During heavy rains, the pressure differential occasionally causes water
to gush up from the fissure, so a plug would likely be pushed out also. And
even if the plug held, the lake is honeycombed with smaller holes and cracks,
Ideas to restore the lake have ranged from erecting a bottom
liner on a frame ("You might as well add chlorine and paint the bottom
blue," Cawley sniffs) to pumping water back into the lake from Pond Drain
or wells. They started in July by pumping well water into the lake.
"But because it comes from the same source, we might
be taking water away from the lake to put back into the lake," Scanland
Another possibility is to pump water from outside the
Mountain Lake drainage basin.
Cawley questions whether anything should be done at all.
Mountain Lake is an early warning system for the Southern
Appalachians, he says. He sees the lake in its natural condition as a gauge of
climactic conditions and of the severity of acid rain. "The only pollution
that comes into the lake comes through acid rain," he says. "We can
see a significant difference in the lake's nitrites, ammonium and phosphates
before and after a heavy rain.
Cawley thinks the resort should capitalize on the changes
in Mountain Lake. "This is a unique time in the history of Mountain
Lake," he says. "It's not likely to stay this way."
Each of these times corresponded with a global period of
reduced solar output Cawley refers to as a "minimum" or
"minimal." During these colder, drier times, the sun's magnetic activity
in the form of sunspots was low or nonexistent. Solar output was less, by as
much as 5 percent some years. Some scientists correlate crop failure, plagues
and population unrest with these periods.
The last such period was the Maunder Minimum, named for the
scientist who observed it. During this period between 1645 and 1715, the sun
had a low radiance level, causing glaciers to advance, the canals in Venice to
freeze, and crops to fail globally. A milder minimal, the Dalton Minimum;
occurred between 1795 and 1820, when settlers reported seeing Mountain Lake as
Despite the May frosts this year, we are not now in a
minimal, Cawley says. The sun is warm and sunspots are active. He predicts that
Mountain Lake is not likely to empty soon, although it could get a little lower
if left to its own devices.
• Mountain driftwood. It's worth
a trip to Bob Evans' shop at Mountain Lake Hotel to see his gnarly new Knobbits
with stones in their beards.
• Better birding.
Virginia Tech professor Jerry Via, who leads bird walks for hotel guests, says
the new, wide-open space around the lake offers more opportunities to spot
birds in the trees. And killdeers, ground-nesters, have moved onto the former
• Finer fishing. The
resort still adds 700 pounds of trout annually to its floating stock of trout,
bass and blue gills, and now all fish are concentrated in almost half the
space. Does it make better fishing? Let's keep it a secret, says a Covington, Virginia,
angler who hooked two tagged trout in a single weekend, winning $400 in hotel
• Swimming pools.
Mountain Lake has added two heated outdoor pools to compensate for the loss of
• New artistic perspective. Regional
artists gathered lakeside in spring for a workshop. Their responses to the
changing shoreline comprise a traveling exhibit, due back at Mountain Lake in