(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of student essays written by McCall-Donnelly High School juniors for their Spring 2018 Literary Journalism course.)

The Rocks In Us: The Geology of Valley County, by Natali Hutcheson

The geology of Valley County tells a fascinating story. The mountains, rocks, and plants that surround us daily have an ancient story to tell; however, every natural thing around us speaks a different language. Thankfully, the language of rocks and mountains isn’t too difficult to interpret. If you look closely enough, the earth in Valley County will gladly tell its story to you. The thing we don’t realize is that we are the story.

Arial view of Little Payette Lake and Boulder Mountains in Valley County. Photo: Natali Hutcheson.


It’s summer and I need a small adventure to clear my mind. I gas up the ATV and open the gate in the fence towards the back of my property bordering state land. I have an affinity for navigating backroads without a map, so I drive myself on a new trail. I find myself in a thicket of large aspen and various pine trees. The air is cool and dry. I cough the dust from the trail out of my lungs. I slowly brake and look around. To my left is the slope of the mountain that I’m scaling. To my right is a beautiful view of mountain faces and trees, but something catches my eye. Off in the distance is a large lake cradled in the mountain’s arms. It looks untouched. While staring at the beautiful body of water, I ask myself, “How did that get there? It’s literally in the middle of a mountain.”

Geological things usually don’t baffle me too much because I’ve been interested in geology since I was in second grade, but this lake bothers me because I know nothing about how it got there; so, I continue driving and ponder the lake. I pass a few odd-looking rocks with large white cracks in them. I go by quickly because I finally see sky and want to reach the top of the trail. The ATV rumbles around a few steep, rocky, sharp corners as I pull up to a half circle of rocks and turn it off. I look over the edge of the mountain and see the two Payette Lakes. The sight is astonishing, seeing all the little hills and rocks that obviously tell some story about the geology of Valley County.

How glaciers carve valleys. Graphic courtesy of author.

How Payette Lakes Came to Be

The Payette Lakes were carved by a massive glacier that once covered the entire Long Valley. Glaciers habitually advance and retreat which explains the formation of the lakes. Moraines, large mounds of soil and rock deposits left from glaciers, surround the lakes like a barrier. The bigger Payette Lake was formed first. When the glacier retreated and advanced again it carved out Little Payette Lake. The bowls filled with water after the glacier and snow began melting. The valley around the lakes is a U-shaped valley. If you look through the valley, the mountains around it look like a U. This shape screams glacier. Compare this to a V-shaped valley, which would have been formed by a river eroding through rock over thousands of years.

Creating the Mountains Around Us

In our valley, tons and tons of ice ground into the granite and basalt in the area. Eventually the glacier carved deeply enough that it began the formation of the mountains around Valley County. These mountains are folded mountains which means the earth literally just squished and folded up because of active faults in the area.

Both the glacier and the faults contributed to the formation of the mountains. If you look at the mountains in Valley County and compare them to a mountain chain like the Rocky Mountains, they look different. This is because the Rockies are fault block mountains. They formed in stair steps when a massive fault line broke repeatedly in one long chain.

Erratics along Elo Road near McCall. Photo: Natali Hutcheson.

Many Stories: Fantastic Erratics, Granite Batholiths, Drumlins and Moraines

You may find yourself travelling along a road and notice random boulders lying in the fields. This is a result of plucking. Plucking is something glaciers do when they travel over rocks, also known as erratics. During plucking, the glacier drags rocks and plants along and then drops them at any given time. The erratics along Elo Road have always fascinated me. These plain boulders tell a story that’s millions of years old.

Many people, including myself, pass the boulders on a daily basis, but we rarely stop to listen to what they have to tell us. Their language is both simple and complex because they have so much to say. They have more wisdom than the Lodge Pole or Ponderosa pines that coat the mountains around us because they are so young. The boulders tell us about the long distance they traveled and the pain they experienced under the weight and pressure of the glacier. Their jagged edges were made smooth.

There is always something I can learn from these boulders. They survived their journey and are now at rest. They aren’t perfect, but they are as round as could be after their time with the glacier. The boulders have taught me that no matter how much my face is ground into the dirt, no matter how long it takes to be okay and at peace, I will be okay. I will survive and I will be better at the end than I am now. Although the boulders tell a story full of wisdom, they aren’t the only geological things that tell a story in Valley County.

A granite batholith is a large collection of granite in one given area. Valley County sits on the largest batholith in the state. Granite is generally a mixture of feldspar, quartz, and mica. These three igneous rocks look very different but sit close together, kind of like a family. Without each individual in our families, we would lose our firmness, structure, and solidity. A family that is close and happy is immovable from the things life throws at them, just like granite refuses to crack under the pressure of a massive glacier. Without my family, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. They help me grow and develop my talents and interests. Some of my best friends are considered family because they help me stay strong during my hardest times. They remind me to be kind to those around me. My family reminds me that I am valued and I have important things to do and say. Just like the granite needs feldspar, quartz, and mica to stay strong, I need everyone in my family to stay strong too.

Drumlins near Donnelly. Photo: Natali Hutcheson.

Drumlins and moraines are two other geological story tellers of Valley County. Drumlins are mounds of rocks and deposits from glaciers that look like an upside-down canoe. Depending on which way the drumlins are facing helps me determine which direction the glacier was moving. The image on the left is a picture of drumlins in Donnelly, a small town in Valley County. I noticed when looking at these that they are facing north and south, which means that the glacier had a north-to-south movement. Just like in life, I have had friends and family point me the right direction. I listen to them. These drumlins are trying to point us to their past. Something significant happened in these locations that I feel an urge to understand.

Moraines are long deposits that look like large hills that were left after a glacier pushed its way through the ground. Moraines can be seen on Mission St. and Norwood in Valley County just south of McCall. Moraines are similar to drumlins in that they are both glacial deposits, but moraines are much longer. They are all over Ponderosa State Park as well as Lake Fork. They are perpendicular to the glacier’s movements because it’s the soil that the glacier pushed. Life has bumps, hills, and mountains that seem difficult to climb. While it may seem difficult to push through, we do.

Life Lessons Learned from Geology

We push through life and leave our mark whether it’s easy or hard. We change the world and we help our descendants have an easier road. We plow through the rocks and mud until we meet our goals, and when our time comes, we recede and melt. We make room for those who haven’t had the chance to make the difference we have made. As we recede, we flow the path of least resistance. We have completed the most difficult part of our journey. Just as the glacier that formed this valley receded, melted, and became the Payette River, we live, grow old, and die, leaving our wisdom with younger generations just waiting for them to listen. The earth around us has billions of years of wisdom worth checking into.

(Cover photo: Payette Lakes and Valley County from summit of Brundage Mountain, by Rebecca Wallick.)

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