Hydrology in the Cradle

I went to Banner Elk Elementary School, where my fifth-grade class consisted of less than ten people. Those days, my world was as big as the darkly varnished hallways in that old historic building, so when we would take our annual field trip to the Biltmore House it was a pretty big deal. The Biltmore House is the largest privately owned home in the Untied States, built from 1889-1895. This truly is no ordinary home though, its architecture is based on the French Renaissance style known as, Châteauesque. The lavish home is embellished with the finest, art, furniture, and accessories. It was my favorite field trip because I got to ride the bus with my best friends for two hours, make silly faces at the gargoyles, daydream about playing the most epic game of hide and seek, and eat lunch out of a brown paper bag. Life couldn’t get better. At the time I didn’t understand the magnitude of such a structure. It was a big house, “so what?” I would think. Little did I know that Gifford Pinchot, the father of forestry, was the first Biltmore Estate Forester, who planted seeds about starting a school of forestry. Little did I know that Carl A. Schenck created the first practical school of forestry with the beneficiary support of Mr. Vanderbilt. Little did I know, nearly two decades later, I would find myself working for the Forest Service. Now, I find myself surveying the creek that runs through the Cradle of Forestry of America. How. Freaking. Cool.

One of the pedestrian walkways in the Cradle had begun slumping into the stream channel from a storm. Our team of hydrologists was notified so we went and checked it out. The walkway was slumping into the channel due to instability in the bank material caused by incision that was occurring at high flows related to storms. Our task was to survey the channel and find an appropriate representative reach to be used when creating our stream simulation which would be referenced during the restoration design process. We found an appropriate reach and began taking measurements. We measured the bankfull width, the wetted width, and the length; width; depth of the only pool feature present within our representative reach, and noted key features. We also sketched out a plan view of the distinguishing characteristics of the stream, such as riffle and pool features, woody debris, as well as large trees or boulders near the stream. This gave us an idea of what materials were present for use in the restoration design. The sketch also gave us an idea of appropriate spacing for features, and where the “problem” area was within the pedestrian walkway in relation to the stream. We decided to use a tree that was already down in the channel as a sort of “log-vane” structure. The log-vane structure will help redirect the flow of water away from the weak collapsing bank and recover the bankfull bench to promote resiliency at high flows. We also planned to put in some grade stabilizing features such as step pools that would help dissipate energy when those high flows due return. We planned to use as much material as we could that was already present at the site to try to maintain aesthetic. Nobody like giant chunks of quarry rock in a stream that’s intended to look natural.

As I stood there surveying the stream and taking notes, I got chills all over my body. Generations of the finest foresters were made here, and now, I was getting to work for the Forest Service over a century later as a hydrologist. Who would have thought!?

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