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Mountain Home Magazine

The Distinctive Divide in God's Country

Apr 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow

We are a divided country. Some of those divides we can do something about, but the others, well, they’re geography, pretty big geography (continents, mountain ranges, rivers, massive watersheds, and such), and we really shouldn’t be messing with them.

We have one such geographical feature right in our own backyard. No, no, it’s not the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon—granted, that is an extraordinary geographic formation, and I love it, but it is kind of right there, in your face. You can’t miss it. The one I’m thinking of is somewhat more subtle. It’s on private property, and if it weren’t for the sign, you might not know it’s there. It’s the northern terminus of the Eastern Continental Divide, and it starts in our own Potter County, in Ulysses Township, at an altitude of 2,523 feet. The view is classic Potter County—a mix of mountains, woods, and old farm fields. And it’s an extra-special spot, in part because Potter County is, indeed, God’s Country, and because it is the Triple Divide, the only Triple Divide east of the Mississippi.

Right here—there’s a sign on Route 449 at the corner of Rooks Road, near Gold—are the headwaters of three rivers and their watersheds, which go in three different directions: the Allegheny, the Genesee, and Pine Creek/West Branch of the Susquehanna. Pine Creek and the West Branch drain into the Atlantic Ocean; the Genesee, a tributary of Lake Ontario, drains into the Gulf of St. Lawrence; the Allegheny joins the Ohio River, flows into the Mississippi, and ultimately empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

If, for some sad reason, you happen to spill a portion of your Innerstoic cider or craft beer here at the Triple Divide, it has options as to where it will end up.

Continental divides are drainage divides, meaning that water on one side—precipitation, streams, rivers, and their watersheds—flows into one ocean or sea, and water on the other side flows into another ocean or sea. The divide could also be endorheic (yeah, I had to look it up, too), meaning that particular drainage system is a loop and not connected to an ocean or sea. Every continent except Antarctica has at least one divide. North America has six. One is entirely in Canada; the other five are all or partially in the United States.

The Continental Divide of the Americas, a.k.a. the Great Divide (If you’re crossing it, The Band also has a song for that!), is probably the most famous, as divides go. It separates the watersheds of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans. It starts in Alaska, at the Seward Peninsula, takes a jog through western Canada, then runs south along the Rockies and on into Mexico, Central America, and down to the tip of South America, where it ends at the Strait of Magellan. What a road trip that would be.

The others are the Laurentian or Northern Divide separating the watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean and Hudson Bay; the St. Lawrence River Divide, separating the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence watersheds from the Atlantic Ocean; and the Great Basin Divide, a group of contiguous endorheic watersheds in several western states.

Ours is not the only triple divide in the US—others include Triple Peak Divide in Glacier National Park, the Hill of Three Waters in Minnesota, and Triple Peak Divide in Tulare County, California.

So what’s a continental divide, triple or otherwise, without watersheds and rivers? Not much, really—just a spot on a mountain, waiting for something to happen. Perhaps you’ve never wondered about watersheds— what they are or how they function—and you’re probably not alone. What a watershed is, is a network of moving water that drains the surface of the land. It starts with a trickle, somewhere at a relatively high elevation, with water bubbling up from a spring or maybe just groundwater that has found its way out and down. It just needs a bit of a slope, and gravity does the rest. The trickle turns into a rivulet or a brook, then, given the right conditions, something bigger—a creek or a stream, all the while gaining momentum and volume from precipitation, springs, and tributaries feeding into it. It typically ends up going to a river somewhere which in turn goes into an ocean, or maybe it empties into a lake, wetland, or swamp.

The largest watershed in the world is the Amazon. The largest in the United States is the Mississippi River watershed. It drains 1.15 million square miles from all or parts of thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is an estuary, meaning it is a mix of fresh and salt water. It drains 64,000 square miles from six states—Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia—and the entire District of Columbia. Our Triple Divide waters are part of the latter two. Go us, right?

If you like maps, take a look at some showing the divides. Wikipedia, the USGS,’s-water-sheds, and are a few places you can find maps. The ones that show the watersheds, especially if they’re in color, are like looking at the circulatory system of a living thing. Which is really what you are looking at.

We celebrate fish with this issue, but we can’t celebrate fish without celebrating water. Of all the things we can do to a river, on a river, in a river, with a river, it’s imperative that we think about what we can do for a river. Honor it. Keep it clean. Value it.

The last lines of “The River Hymn” go like this:

“The whole congregation was
standing on the banks of the river
We are gathered here to give a
little thanks thanks”

If you make a trek to the Triple Divide, give a little thanks to the Allegheny, the Genesee, and Pine Creek. Maybe pour a bit of liquid—water or adult beverage (but just a smidgeon—no point in wasting it)—on the ground, think about its journey, and consider the wonder of this splendid place we call home.

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