Let's start with a riddle:
Q. - Where can you find a summit in a valley?
A. - Between Lock 8 and Lock 9 of the Champlain Canal.
Perhaps a little explanation is in order. First, what about the 'valley'? The canal is located in the Hudson/Champlain lowlands. To the northwest are the Adirondack Mountains. To the east are the Taconics. These lowlands are one small strand in a long rope called the Great Valley. It's a tectonic feature that undulates for thousands of miles along the eastern margin of the North American continent.
The result of plate collisions, it is mostly floored with relatively soft, easily eroded sedimentary rocks. This in turn makes it the path of least resistance for water. In our part of the Valley, the Hudson River flows south to the Atlantic and Lake Champlain fills a basin that eventually drains north and east thru the St. Lawrence.
But what's with the 'summit'. To understand this you have to put yourself in the boat shoes of a captain trying to cruise between the two waterways. The Hudson River below Troy is tidal, essentially at sea level. Lake Champlain has a mean surface elevation of 96.8'. That's almost 100 feet higher.
Lock 9 looking south
How to get from one to the other? A canal with locks should do the trick. And that's just what boaters have used for nearly 200 years. Stand at the south end of Lock 9 and you are looking at the 'summit' level of the Champlain Canal as it climbs up from the Hudson and over the watershed divide before descending to the level of Lake Champlain north of Whitehall. The pool of water between Locks 8 and 9 has an elevation of ap. 140'. For boats, this is the summit. It's all downhill from here.
Google Earth screen shot with the canal splitting the image and Lock 9 below center
Unfortunately the same can not be said for a beautiful little train station that used to stand between the Smith house and the tracks. It was demolished in the '60's. Also nearby is a two-grade school house that was shuttered when the winds of consolidation blew thru - also in the '60's. Look around Smiths Basin today and it's hard to imagine a time when this was a bustling hub of commerce and shipping with 150 residents.
Even the sign could use a little help
Look for a waterfall on the opposite side of the canal from where the access road begins. This is Big Creek, which drains much of the neighboring Town of Hartford. There's a small parking lot used by people who fish here. Notice the attractive two tone paint of the Rt. 149 bridge. In November, 2016 a group of construction workers fell from scaffolding into the canal while painting the bridge. Tragically, one of them drowned.
It's about a half mile drive in to the lock. The grounds are attractive and well-maintained. There is a long boardwalk for docking and fishing as well as several picnic tables. By following a catwalk across the canal you can access the east side. This is actually an island formed by the canal and Wood Creek. Walk around and you'll see several spillways, all part of the engineering that turned a small natural waterway into a route large craft can navigate. On the north end of the island you can see a level bed leading to abutments on either side of Wood Creek. This used to be a railroad spur that served a quarry/lime kiln industry about a half mile to the east.
Take particular note of the trees on the island. They look like Black Walnuts to me. I'm familiar with Butternuts and field guides show only small differences between the two related species. In fact, one of the trees here does look more 'butternutty'. I'ld love verification from someone with more botanical acumen than myself.
Black walnuts are highly prized for their wood and you don't see many of them anymore. Hopefully their location in the canal park will keep these trees protected. I'm sure the local squirrels would concur.
In addition to the nut trees you'll see rows of Northern White Cedar, groves of Black Locust, huge Cottonwoods and at least one Catalpa along with a mix of other common hardwoods. While the underlying bedrock is shale, I have a hunch that the nearby proximity of limestone and the history of a lime industry with associated dust and spillage could make this an interesting place for botanizing. I hope to return next spring/summer.
The canal season is winding down. It is drained and closed to boating during the winter. But people can visit the park year-round. As I was leaving, a family had just arrived. The dad was organizing bait, tackle and poles. Two 'born ready' young boys couldn't wait for the action to begin. One was swinging his line with treble hooked lure in big arcs. I gave him a wide berth. The other boy kept opening the truck door causing the horn alarm to go off. Their mom, sensible woman that she was, sheltered in the front seat, with phone to ear.
Walking by the harried dad, I remarked, "Looks like those fish are in big trouble." He just shook his head with a rueful chuckle. All I could think of was the old Harry Chapin song 'Cats in the Cradle'. I hope these boys grow up just like their devoted dad. I hope they bring their own kids (and grandpa) fishing on the canal someday.
Easy was the operative word. A relaxed, easy bike ride. That's what we wanted. Holly had already gone for a long run earlier in the day. She was feeling a little worked. And I have been spending more time with tractor seats than bike saddles. Not in the best of shape. Still, it was a rare sunny afternoon that we both had free so I tried to come up with a hill-less route. That's not easy in Washington County but the Tour de Smiths Basin comes close.
From the Lock 9 access road we pedaled across the tracks, past the Smith house and onto Towpath Road. It's gravel but firm enough for road bike tires. There is still a little water in the old 1822 canal ditch but it's inexorably filling in. We rolled along at a pace just a little faster than that of the mules who used to pull canal boats along here.
Along the towpath
A left onto New Swamp Road took us up and over the modern canal, past some beef cows and a haunted house. This is the Great Kingsbury Swamp where an 1801 'circle hunt' finished off the last pack of wolves that had been preying upon farmer's livestock. It's low, flat and wet here but there have been attempts to drain it and you can see deep ditches. We stopped at the Wood Creek crossing and considered the paddling possibilities. It looks doable. Native Americans used it. Maybe we'll follow in their tracks next summer.
After several abrupt right-left-right turns the road rises a little to an intersection with Rt. 196. This is a much busier highway but it's just a short ways east to the Adamsville four corners where we turned left onto Co. 43. This is a scenic road with views of the Adirondacks to the west and a few glimpses of the Taconic hills to the east. It's a rolling route thru farm country with nothing steep or challenging. Just right.
Eventually the road curves around a large dairy farm and a wooded hill rises on the right. The hill is a big chunk of limestone thrust up onto younger shale rock. You soon pass the narrow notch of an access road cut thru the shale into a limestone quarry. This hill provided the stone that fueled five kilns and a large industry from 1882 to 1925. Just before Co. 43 crosses Big Creek and intersects Rt. 149 you can see a bank of eroding lime and charcoal. Just a small reminder of the bustling activity that once took place here.
It's a short ways back across the canal to the access road. The loop can be done in a leisurely hour or so. We encored our ride with a stroll beneath the nut trees of Lock 9, grateful for a little November sunshine and some beautiful countryside to explore.
There's an association for that...
Want to know more about growing nut trees? Try this site.