Prove your humanity

NOTE: This story was originally published August 25, 2017

In Hampshire County West Virginia, there is a small mountain ridge called Ice Mountain. Historical records suggest that, years ago, ice could be found here, even in the heat of summer.  Roxy Todd recently visited Ice Mountain to find out if ice could still be spotted, and to check out the rare plant species that have existed there since the last ice age. 

LISTEN: “Hiking Back in Time on Ice Mountain”

The hike begins at the base of Ice Mountain.

Aside from the occasional car, the town of North River Mills is quiet. An old white house, with a wooden porch, is draped in the shade of three sugar maples. Across the street is a red barn that was built in the 1700s.

I’m already dripping with sweat as I enter the forest and begin the hike.

My guides are Rodney Bartgis, who recently retired from the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, and Mike Powell, who now works as the land steward for the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit group that owns Ice Mountain and manages it as a nature preserve. 

Visitors are allowed to hike here, but only if they’re accompanied by guides. Several trained volunteers take people on about 125 guided hikes a year.

As we enter the forest, Bartgis points to one recent change to Ice Mountain. Small ferns and other native plants are being crowded out by an invasive species, Japanese stiltgrassHe says stiltgrass is usually spread when visitors hike off the path, accidentally bringing the plant with them on their shoes or clothes. Garlic mustard, and even tasty wineberries are also invasive.

“I always encourage visitors to Ice Mountain and other places like this to eat as many wineberries as you can,” said Powell. 

Powell’s job includes organizing a few events each year to help get rid of some of the invasive plants to the forest.

“They’re just spreading faster than we have the ability to control them.”

This means the weeds are beginning to creep closer to the part of Ice Mountain where most of the rare plants live.   

I feel it before I see it. Beside my leg I feel a breath of cool air, like a refrigerator door is open.

Deeper into the forest, the canopy of trees grows thicker. Pine trees and rhododendron crowd the edges of the trail. There’s more wildlife too.  As we hike along a creek, ferns, white pine and hemlock trees replace the invasive stiltgrass we saw earlier.

After about ten minutes, we pass our first ice vent. Actually, I feel it before I see it. Beside my leg I feel a breath of cool air, like a refrigerator door is open. Then I see dozens of ice vents that vary in size. Some are as small as my hand. Others I could stick my head into. It’s kind of like a honeycomb, with all these little holes in the hillside rocks.

I go closer to one of the vents and put my face beside the cold air, and in a flash of inspiration, I put a can of seltzer water a few feet in to cool down. These ice vents probably formed thousands of years ago, at the end of the most recent ice age. Extreme, repeated temperature fluctuations between seasons likely cracked open the sandstone rocks in this mountain, creating crevices and holes as far down as 50 feet. 

Dwarf-dogwood, or bunch berry, is one of the rare plants that grows at Ice Mountain. (Photo: Roxy Todd)

Bartgis explains that water there freezes in the winter and it’s so well-insulated that the mountain creates this underground refrigeration effect year-round. 

“In the winter, water can get down underneath those rocks and gets trapped,” he said. “And when it’s cold it can freeze. So water is able to move down through the rocks. Cold air can also sink into those rocks.”

Today, you can’t find ice after April or May. But years ago, it never melted, even in the summer.

“So ice mountain was popular as a place for people to come make ice cream at least until the 1920s maybe until the 1930s,” said Bartgis.

As the years go by, Ice Mountain seems to lose its ice earlier and earlier each spring.

“It suggests that we’re seeing change here,” said Powell. “What that change is associated with it could be a couple of different things, but we don’t think we’re seeing ice accumulation in here as much as in the past.”

Geologists haven’t decided if climate change is responsible for the declining ice, or if it has something to do with people no longer carving out openings in the ice vents.

Rare Plants Have Been Here for Thousands of Years

Whatever the causes might be, the good news is that rare plants that have lived here for thousands of years are still thriving, and for now, the invasive species like garlic mustard and stiltgrass haven’t moved into this part of the forest.  Just a few feet from the largest ice vent are a handful of rare plants that Bartgis points out.

“This little plant here, some people call it a dwarf dogwood, some people call it a bunch berry,” said Bartgis. “This is one of those northern plants that comes south through the mountains. In West Virginia where you’d normally go to see it would be somewhere like Dolly Sods or Spruce Mountain but here it is growing fairly commonly around these ice vents.”

There’s also wild rose, partridge berry, oak fern, and a weird sounding plant called skunk currant. But the crowning jewel of Ice Mountain is the twinflower.

“When it’s in bloom, it will have two lovely flowers that dangle,” said Bartgis. “It’s a very pretty plant.”  

When plants like twinflowers first appeared in this forest, ancient animals lived in these mountains.

“The other things that were living here with the twinflower were cariboo, and muskox, maybe even grizzly bears.”

Bartgis said he loves visiting places like Ice Mountain to see rare plants that mostly only grow in faraway places like Alaska, or Russia, or thousands of years ago.

“I get to see things that otherwise I would have to be 1,000 of years away in time or thousands of miles away in distance to see… here in West Virginia,” he said. 

Before we head back, I go to check on my can of seltzer water. The temperature inside the ice vent is in the mid-40s. My water tastes amazing.