Even if you’ve never heard of Mountain Lake, which would be totally logical considering its location outside of Blacksburg, Virginia, and elevation of roughly 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) above sea level, you’ve undoubtedly seen it. The lake is where Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) share a brief summer romance at Kellerman’s Resort in the 1987 classic “Dirty Dancing.”
What is Mountain Lake VA?
If Mountain Lake is a name you are familiar with, you presumably already knew that.
Additionally, as you are surely well aware, the large lake from the movie is now less than half full and resembles a dried-up pond more than a lake.
The Mountain Lake Lodge, a regal hotel perched on its southern border and portrayed Kellerman’s in the movie, now owns what’s left of Mountain Lake.
What formerly offered boating and swimming as holiday activities has had to change its emphasis to land-based pursuits including archery, hiking, a ropes course, and “Dirty Dancing”-themed activities.
I initially visited the lake in 2016 when I was a resident of Blacksburg, and I went back in October 2019 with geologist Chester “Skip” Watts from Radford University.
Since his time as a student at Virginia Tech, he has been fascinated in the lake and has been researching it for ten years.
Even though the lake has changed, the surrounding environment is still lovely, particularly in the autumn when it is surrounded by colorful trees that wave in the cool mountain air.
When you walk around its circumference, you can still make out the original basin and the height of the water when it is filled to capacity.
Instead, a long, white pier that never reaches the water juts out from the lodge’s well-known gazebo, and ancient boats rest high off the ground where the water should be.
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What Makes Mountain Lake So Distinctive?
Mountain Lake is the sole natural lake in the southern Appalachian Mountains and one of only two natural lakes in the whole state of Virginia.
Because it empties and replenishes nearly entirely every few hundred years, it is unlike any other lake we are aware of.
The lake’s water level changes significantly even during the interim times.
While Watts and I are seated in the lodge, he tells me a tale about how, in the early 1900s, when the water level was so low, hotel staff members covered the bottom drainage holes with mattresses to prevent the water from draining.
Because of this, Mountain Lake is unique in another way: It features several tiny holes on the bottom that continuously drain the water from the lake and based on a dye test conducted by Watts’ team, deposit the water around a mile distant.
According to the sediment record, these holes have been there since the lake’s creation, which occurred at least 6,000 years ago.
Why Does the Lake Keep Draining?
For most of the 20th century, the lake seemed to be one.
But there was a noticeable decrease in water volume starting in 2002.
Water levels constantly fluctuate, according to Watts.
“But for years, the lows kept going lower and lower.” Due to a rainy year in 2005, the numbers increased again, but by 2008, the lake had almost totally dried up.
From 2008 through 2012, it remained mostly deserted.
According to research done for Jon Cawley’s PhD thesis on Mountain Lake in 1999, the body of water has only seen four entirely empty times in the previous 6,000 years and was ready for another low point.
Three years later, he was shown to be correct.
According to Cawley, a biologist and geologist who has researched the lake for more than 20 years, it is “so extremely rare in geology” that you can make a prognosis like that and then have it come true, not just within your lifetime but also fairly soon after you make the statement.
He is presently employed at the Smithsonian Institution as a research geologist.
Many scientists came to the lake to investigate what was going on.
The Mountain Lake Lodge’s management scurried because their hotel’s namesake had been turned into a pool of muck.
Naturally, the holes were a part of it; with almost no water in the lake, the drains had become clearly apparent.
However, the gaps have always existed. People questioned if anything could be done to stop the lake from emptying out fully this time and why it had done so this time.
According to Watts, the lake’s water budget may be used to explain when it empties.
He advises comparing the water budget to a savings account. You want an ever-increasing financial account, he claims.
“There are losses, in this example the lake’s outflow, but there are also inflows.
Therefore, as long as your inflow exceeds your outflow, the amount of water will increase until the pond is full.”
But in 2008, it was obvious that the outflow was surpassing the influx.
Construction, drought, and climate change
This is due to a few factors.
One is that the region had a drought between 1997 and 2002, which resulted in almost 30% less average rainfall than the years between 1982 and 1996.
Both Cawley and Watts believe that climate change contributed to this drought, at least in part.
Cawley used to comment that while he was working on Mountain Lake “In this region of Appalachia, Mountain Lake is the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
There, you will see climate change before many other locations “as compared to other regions in the globe, the Appalachian Mountains feature one of the most diversified populations of plant and animal species per square mile.
Mountain Lake Lodge was constructing a meeting facility on its land above the lake at the same time.
The Lodge built stormwater management basins to conform to state laws. According to Watts, this was typical procedure, and presumably not much attention was given to it at the time.
When he heard about it, he thought that groundwater would still be used to transport the water to the lake.
However, a few years later, while his students were working on a project to predict the groundwater profile of Mountain Lake, they found that the water being diverted by the basins really wasn’t getting into the lake.
A large portion of it has been moving underground to a neighboring brook.
Watts claims that it is probable that the basins are at least partially to blame for the lake decreasing given that this development took place in 2001, just before the water levels started to fall.
Cawley also highlights other neighborhood elements, including residences, the hotel, and the University of Virginia biological station.
According to him, the sediment cycle may also be to blame.
The “pipe” where the water drains out may sometimes get congested with silt and become smaller, while other times it might wash away and cause the water to drain out more rapidly.
The difference in sediment varies throughout time.
All of these things are complicated, claims Cawley.
“You can’t argue that x, y, or z caused the lake to evaporate.”
Is Mountain Lake Ever Going to Be a Lake?
The hotel made the decision to fix the holes in Mountain Lake where water was draining in 2013.
Watts and his team contributed maps to the project, but he claims they were ultimately excluded from it and that it was carried out in a different way than he would have suggested.
Because you can’t predict the future, Watts adds, “what we were asking for was for it to be done in phases.”
You may block this area, at which point the water would rise and you would need to prepare for the next step.
Instead, the patching was finished all at once using a mixture of mud, materials, and bentonite, a swelling clay, which was scraped off the lake’s edge.
After the repair, the lake did swiftly fill, but other holes appeared higher up from which water continued to leak. In the end, the hotel was disappointed since the water level never went back to full pond.
Even if there is now water in the lake, it is no longer safe for visitors to swim in it or even paddle a boat in it.
Watts claims that if the hotel continued to be interested in attempting to fill the lake, its best option would be to use a gravity feed pipeline to reroute some water from another nearby watershed.
Hopefully, this will increase the inflow that decreased when the conference center was constructed in 2001.
Watts responds, “I’m quite sure that would work.”
There would be environmental problems, so it would need to be done cautiously.
But as of right now, Mountain Lake Lodge has changed its name.
The lake’s distinctive hydrology and ecosystem are now included into the tourist experience, which primarily concentrates on terrestrial activities.
As far as Watts is aware, it is not presently focused on filling the lake back up to capacity.
Which suits Cawley just fine since he enjoys the lake exactly as it is.
He asserts, “The lake will look for itself.” “It’s not damaged. It is carrying out its intended function perfectly.”
Things to keep in mind before visiting Mountain Lake VA
Mountain Lake’s size is approximately 50 acres, and over the 19th and 20th centuries, its level remained mostly stable at a height of 3,875 feet.
Christopher Gist of the Ohio Land Surveying Company recorded the lake’s existence in writing for the first time in 1751.
It afterwards took on the name Salt Pond.
In the far north, where the Appalachian Range was subject to geologically recent glacial activity, natural lakes are widespread.
But there has been a lot of conjecture over the origins of this lake, the only one of its kind in the southern Appalachians.
The lake, which is preserved by a fissure at the bottom that offers an exit for both silt and water and prevents the lake from otherwise just becoming a bog, was generated by an extraordinary mix of natural processes, according to recent scientific investigations.
Rainfall levels determine how much water is replenished, and the fluctuating lake levels seem to be the result of material being washed out of the fissured bedrock bottom.
Geologists say that the lake is roughly 6,000 years old, and that rock collapses and damming must have caused it to develop.
The lake is nourished by chilly subterranean springs, which prevent the temperature from rising much over 70 °F (21 °C) on the top and 46 °F (8 °C) fifty feet (15 m) below the surface.
The level of the lake has a history of shifting considerably depending on the passage of water through these channels because of the lake’s bottom’s shallow channels and openings.
When full, it is more than 100 feet (30 meters) deep.
It has seen dry-season level dips of up to 15 feet since 2002. (4.6 m).
Due to vastly divergent descriptions of the size of the lake in the past, the last time there were such level changes was between 1751 and 1804.
Mountain Lake was little more than a reddish-brown hole that was only partly filled with water from 2008 to 2020.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a notable fluctuation in the lake’s water level.
It began to decline in 1999 until rising to its previous levels in 2003.
It plummeted once more in 2006, emptying entirely for a few days while leaving behind dead and decaying fish. Most of the time from 2008 to 2012 it was vacant.
However, resort staff members saw that the lake had started to re-fill during a rainy spring of 2020, and by July 14th, the lake had filled back up to nearly a third of its original capacity.
Researchers had looked at the local geology during the most recent dry era of the lake and came to the conclusion that the lake had a natural rise-and-fall cycle.
The aforementioned vents in the lake bottom are thought to function as a natural plumbing system for moving collected material during dry seasons.
The lake is said to experience its lowest periods in a cycle that lasts around 400 years.