A $10.5 million project is underway to eliminate a mining hazard and create a massive rock-crawl obstacle course at the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area.

An abandoned mine pit known locally as “The Caves,” located beyond Bear Valley Road in Coal Township’s Third Patch, is being filled with an estimated 2.8 million cubic yards of dirt.

When it’s finished, a 6,600-foot stretch will be topped with thousands of boulders — a manmade attraction for the AOAA off-road park traversable only by rock-crawling vehicles like specialized Jeeps, trucks and buggies.

“The minimum size is going to be like a dishwasher in your house. Some will be as big as a school bus,” Dave Porzi, operations director, AOAA, said. “Machines are going to break. This is going to be extreme.”

The fill material and boulders come from a spoil pile created when the nearby “Whaleback” rock formation was uncovered during coal mining decades ago, according to Porzi.

Porzi likened the obstacle to rock crawling portions along the Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. It’s a popular spot for off-road enthusiasts, something the AOAA hopes to capitalize on for a rare East Coast feature.

It’ll remain unnamed, at least at the outset, until a rider makes it through the whole course. Whoever completes it first gets to name it, Porzi said.

“We want to bring the West Coast to the East Coast to challenge themselves on this,” Porzi said.

As to the course’s potential popularity, Porzi said, “I hope the hotel’s in,” referring to two hotel developments planned for Shamokin.

Aside from the rock obstacle attraction, another 4,370 feet of easy off-road trails plus a 2,000-square-foot mud pit, an emergency helipad and parking area are also planned for the AOAA’s Western Reserve.

The project began in August, is funded by federal mine reclamation dollars and is slated to last about 30 months, Porzi said.

Morgan’s Excavating of Mount Union has a crew of about nine employees working at the site, according to foreman Ralph Morgan. Morgan wiped a rag over his oil-covered hands after changing a filter on a mammoth haul truck. Aside from articulated rock trucks, the excavating firm is using wheel loaders, bulldozers and excavators.

Morgan was matter-of-fact in describing the project scope.

“We’re just gonna move about 3 million yards of dirt here into that big hole up there and built the AOAA rock-climbing trail,” Morgan said. “Rocks are the challenge here. It’s going to be hard on the metal.”

The 88-acre worksite is closed to riders. The AOAA park as a whole is about 8,500 acres — featuring 375 miles of trails stretched across forest and reclaimed coal lands in Coal, East Cameron, Mount Carmel, West Cameron and Zerbe townships in lower Northumberland County. The park is bisected near the trailhead by Route 125 in Coal Township.

“The Caves,” a popular swimming hole and one-time party spot, is gradually disappearing with every load dumped by 40-ton articulated rock trucks. The water was 17 feet at its deepest and 7 feet at its edges, Porzi said.

Eliminating the hazard is part of the project’s purpose, which was approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation. The Bureau administers the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program.

About half of the water pit is gone. It’ll take much longer to fill to the top of the estimated 100-foot high wall.

An access road once accessible by off-road vehicles and, at points, only by foot is wholly cleared and widened like a highway, itself filled with material to a depth of about 30 feet, Porzi said.

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