SURROUNDING™ THE HIDDEN TREASURES OF IRVINE
And many are precious. The people, especially. Friendly faces and intriguing stone facies, abound all about in natural spaces. Some are mysterious, and others, not hidden. Nature is like that. Good things that are obvious, and others that you have to work for!
Some of its pleasures lie in buried layers, visible only as the stream scythes of time cut down within their many swings of drenching rain. By walking along these plentiful waterways, we catch a glimpse of Kentucky’s foundational basis. The sedimentary nature of its bedrock anchor and the layers of stone that cradle gem-like minerals rolled up within them.
In some of Kentucky’s lucky places, these landforms, and the wealth they bear, are more readily available for inspection. The lid of the treasure chest opened, the contents spilling out for detection. Just look up at the road cut you drove through, and then down at the polo field of pebbles in the streambed below.
Irvine is one of these places. The world opens up in here, and invites your examination. Just ask John Finley, who brought Daniel Boone, who then brought his brother, Squire, and camped in grasslands located just beyond the Kentucky River. They followed bison roads from prairie herds that crossed the wide Kentucky River at the Irvine ford and sought out the lush meadows and salt licks tucked within these knoblands.
The descendants of the earliest of peoples that reached here were still crossing the river when the European colonists reached it. And both groups of hunters set up base camps on the south side of the river ford from which they could spread out and extend their hunting range. These base camps were called “station camps” by the Europeans, and “Station Camp Creek” was so named for its historical designation. That creek is central to this essay and the natural history of Estill County!
This area is set against the mountainous region of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfields. Where the younger, higher Cumberland Plateau meets the older, lower Bluegrass plains. The border of the higher plateau is being eroded down by time and worn back by water flowing out of its range of mountains. And the face of that border is the treasure chest of Estill County, displaying and displacing all of its valuable contents for you to discover.
We call it the Knobs Region of Kentucky. A place where people come to live and camp and hike and fish. A place to wonder at what fossils and geodes you might pick up from the sparkling, wading water.
Estill Countians are proud to say that they live, “Where the Bluegrass kisses the Mountains.” I’ll say! And where members of the Southeast Kentucky Gem, Mineral and Fossil Club claim to be nature’s “Agate Addicts.” “Stoners,” in the natural sense. So let’s hike into those knobby lands and see what that’s all about!
We will have two great guides, Francine Bonny, the Fairy Godmother of Estill County, and Skip Johnson, who knows about everything else!
The Warrior’s Path [in Algonquin, “Athiamiowee” (Path of the Armed Ones)] crossed the Kentucky River at Irvine. It led from the Cumberland Gap to the Shawnee Village of Eskippakithiki [in Algonquin, “place of the blue licks”], just north of Irvine. The trail upon which John Finley led Daniel Boone in 1769, only to find that village abandoned. On the trip where Boone first viewed the Bluegrass from Pilot Knob [but which one?]. You walk with history when you cross through Estill County!
And here is an interesting geologic addition to our traveling geographic inspection. It is called the “Borden Delta.” It is composed of rock strata that formed on sand, stone, shells, and mud that surged down in erosional sub-sea waves from streams in the highlands far to the east [during the rising of the Appalachian Mountains]. The geologic layers that concern us, here, are the Renfro Member [with “cardboard” colored limestone], the Nada Member [blue shale containing geodes and agates], and the Cowbell Member [blue shale containing balls of ironstone].
In the 1960s, it was discovered that geodes that formed in the upper Nada Formation [more than 350 million years ago!] contained microcrystalline crystals of silica [silicon dioxide, SiO2] with bands of brilliant yellow, red, and black colors caused by the addition of different minerals.
And they just roll out of the Nada shales, washed down in the “tides” of spring and fall. This is a famous place for rock hounds to hunt. Especially collecting those agates with the “Imperial Red” center outlined by a collar of shiny dark black color.
So let’s get going. Drive over the new Proctor Bypass Bridge [Route 499] from Irvine and pick up the road toward Richmond [Route 52]. You are on the hill cutting through to Drowning Creek. In the road cuts, look closely for the “cardboard” limestone layer of the lower Renfro Formation and the blue Nada Formation shale below. It is nice to know that you are driving through such buried geologic treasures. And don’t forget to take the two old Richmond Road loops to see what getting to Irvine used to look like!
Alright, on to Pea Ridge Road [Route 594].
“Ah-wah-nee,” the Shawnee said [in Algonquin, the “Grassy Place”]. And they often camped here. And there were even more grasslands along a long creek, cutting back into the Eastern Mountains. That is where the Warrior’s Path entered, and along which John Finley and Daniel Boone set up their “base station” for widespread hunting excursions. “Station Camp Creek” is what you are now moving along!
Keep driving south on Route 594, as it turns up Red Lick Creek, which comes down from Berea. Now cross that creek at Murphy Flat Road, and swing around the ridge to sidle back up to Station Camp Creek again. Then cross over the Middle Fork of Station Camp Creek on Jakes Heavenly Highway [and I am not kidding here!]. Then enjoy the beautiful back roads of Estill County and drive to Alumbaugh, where there is an old, closed, barn-like, one-time grocery store that reflects the larger community that once inhabited here.
There is a low water, concrete bridge crossing over Station Camp Creek at that point. The ridges are tight on either side, and as you move through, you are passing over the Warrior’s Path.
Believe it, and you will feel it. This was a natural ford. Park and walk back down to the creek. Did the Long Hunters cross here, too? Is this where “Captain Will” Emory, the mixed blooded Cherokee warrior, captured Daniel Boone in 1769?
Station Camp Creek runs more than 50 miles in length. Continue to follow its course upstream as Route 1209 runs along within its ridges. There are two creek access points farther up, both covered with pebbles on pleasant bank beaches. One is below Brushy Mountain. The other is a little farther up, behind Richardson Cemetery.
You are deeply within the knobs, now. Ridges closing in, clothed in rich forests of green. Rich in rock and vegetable growth. And I don’t just mean the abundant timber that fed the old iron smelters. I mean Ginseng, and the delectable Morel Mushroom!
The much-anticipated Mountain Mushroom Festival is held on the last full weekend in April. It includes a “Morel Market,” the “Fungus 5K Race,” a “Gem and Mineral Show,” and lots of local craft creations. For thirty years, they have held this festival. Call Francine and join the fun. She has been working it for all of its existence!
Let us end up this essay, riding deep down within it. On the watercourse that created the region. Back at the Alumbaugh and the low water bridge. Drop your canoe in here!
It is November, cold at 40 degrees, but beautiful. Fall colors have fallen in the water, floating like listless boats carried along by the Autumn creek current. The canoe follows the leaves as their swivel shows the swish of deeper water.
The creek is clear, not like a crystal, but like in nature. There is no coal mining in this watershed. The water carries a faint green, even blue, color. And I can see all the way to the bottom, where sunken boat leafs rest quietly down there. A Paul Sawyier aquamarine setting. I can see why he used watercolors for painting in Kentucky!
Find a pebble beach to beach your canoe. Unpack your lunch. Walk over the rocks. See if you can find some of the geodes that I talk about. You will surely see some ironstones. But there is another delightful stone unique to Irvine, and also beautiful in shape and color. It is called “dipolite,” and is a type of flint found in oddly shaped, light brown [almost orange] nodules from this region.
And, if you are lucky, you will find palm-sized rock clusters of what are surely ancient root balls. But they are not. They are worm casts, now cast in stone, from rocks formed in mud flats in the Pennsylvanian Period Kentucky coalfields more than 300 million years ago [Asterosoma, from the Breathitt Formation]!
We will pull out our canoe at a bridge just below the mouth of the Middle Fork of Station Camp Creek. Up that Middle Fork, up along its side streams and steep slopes, will be found that cardboard-colored Renfro limestone, with the Nada blue shale below. It is the lid, open now, of one of Kentucky’s famous treasure chests, with gems of geodes falling out to be picked up.
For this region is the home of the finest Kentucky Agates. The brilliant red, black, yellow, and green geodes. And they have been waiting for millions of years to be seen.
Welcome to Estill County, land of water and rock and, now, you!