Sunday, October 4, 2015

After the Falls

     The marriage between water and gravity is on the rocks. Just look under the Rt. 29/40 bridge in Middle Falls to see what I mean. The Battenkill here is all grown up, just a few miles and a couple of tiny tributaries from its confluence with the Hudson. Above this spot is a big watershed encompassing the central part of Washington County and a good chunk of Vermont. From the high ridges of the Green and Taconic Mountains streams drop precipitously to form the river in the Valley of Vermont. Below Manchester, all the way to Center Falls, the gradient is steady making for
family-friendly floating and legendary fishing. Below Center Falls it gets more complicated with a series of dams and pools until Middle Falls where things head seriously downhill.
     The Battenkill's level above Middle Falls is 305 feet and it joins the Hudson at 80 feet. That's a drop of 225 feet in just four miles. Yet there's some great flatwater paddling in this stretch. What gives?

     The answer involves limestone, shale and concrete. After skirting the Village of Greenwich the river bumps into a north-south band of limestone and dolostone that acts like a dam. This is the rock that is quarried by Peckham and called Cement Mountain on topographic maps. It causes the Battenkill to draw a big lazy backward S before finding a way over the barrier at the falls beneath the Rt. 29/40 bridge.
     Currently the water power here is used to generate electricity but the site has a long history dating back to 1766. Called at various times Arkansaw and Galesville, it finally became Middle Falls in 1875. Plaster and cement, woolen and flouring mills have all been located here.

     The hydro plant maintains a small parking lot that's a mini-adventure to access. It's just off Rt. 29/40 on the south side of the river along the lane leading to the Battenkill Country Club. If your car's undercarriage survives the descent, you can leave it here and follow a short trail down to the water. This is called the Tailrace Access and is probably mostly used by fishermen. There's a tiny, gravelly beach that's a pleasant spot to hangout and, depending on water level and how much hospitalization insurance you have, you can explore a little ways up towards the falls. Old mill buildings and aqueducts are visible and the juxtaposition of limestone and plentiful moisture may make this a botanically rewarding spot. In that respect it reminds me of Carvers Falls on the Poultney River up in Hampton.

     It may be possible to put a canoe in here but I would not recommend it. There's just a short, fairly swift run down to the next falls which you absolutely don't want to go over. What I would recommend is the short walk back up to the middle of the highway bridge to view the falls and rock formations. None of this is visible from a car and it's really a neat sight. You might also consider strolling downhill to the country club vista. Warning: this scenery is dangerous. It made me consider taking up golf.

     The opposite bank of the river can be accessed by driving across the bridge into Middle Falls and taking the first left on Co. 53 to its end where the Dahowa Hydro facility has a place to park and a path that leads down to the water at a trestle crossing.

     Just downstream from this spot is a dam (or two?) and Dionondahowa Falls. But you can't get there from here. To view the Big Falls backtrack to Middle Falls turning right on Rt. 29 and driving a mile or so till you pass the Ice Cream Man (it's difficult but possible to drive by this yummy place. Don't worry we can come back later.).

     Turn right on Windy Hill Road and in about half a mile look for a small two car parking spot, just a little nook beside the road that's easy to miss. From here a short trail leads to several viewing platforms where you can see the falls, its plunge pool (the Devil's Cauldron) and the gapping downstream chasm in all their glory. This used to be a popular picnic spot and pleasure grounds accessible by trolley from Troy. The line crossed the deep canyon on a high bridge and you can still see its grade in the woods as it paralleled the river down to another crossing at Clarks Mills. From there the route went north towards Fort Edward and eventually Lake George. Remnants of the bed are visible in Denton Preserve and a bridge carrying it over the Moses Kill still stands.

     Those interested in the history of Dionondahowa falls and the old trolley line can read David Nestle's Rails along the Battenkill and check out the Gill Room local history collection in the Greenwich Library.
     The shale gorge here may be a relatively new landscape feature, cut since the last glacier melted. I've heard theories that the pre-glacial Battenkill used to flow south thru the Cambridge valley towards the Hoosic before being diverted by ice and outwash deposits into its present course. In any case, the river you see today has cut down thru its own delta of unconsolidated sediments (gravel, sand and clay) which built up where it entered a lake 13000 years ago.

     These are the flats that stretch from the Bald Mountain area in the north thru the fairgrounds to the fields of Hand Melons and BJ Farms further south. In the center of this unusually level landform the river has carved out a path.
     As you stand high above the gorge (keeping a tight grip on dogs and kids) you are looking down at the upper reaches of a nice paddling destination. But, as you've probably guessed, you can't get there from here. It's time to get back in the car and drive to the lower end of Windy Hill/Hogsback Road, past the H&V mill, across the bridge to a right on Pulp Mill Lane.
     From a parking area at the end carry your boat a few hundred yards thru an old mill yard till you're on the upstream side of the second Clarks Mills dam. The gate here is closed in late afternoon, just when most people get out of work and have time to paddle. Some miscreants have been known to carry around the right side of the gate when its shut. Once you're above the concrete dam look for a small launch site. I'ld like to say its clear sailing (or paddling) from here but I'ld be lying. The water close to shore can be choked with aquatic vegetation until you get out in the main channel. Persist and you're rewarded with a pleasant flatwater trip of several miles until you reach the shale gorge that leads up to Dionondahowa Falls. Here its up to the water level and your ambition how far you go against a progressively stronger current.

     I've canoed here several times, including a trip earlier this summer. It's certainly not wilderness but it's wild enough to host lots of life. I've seen turtles, deer beaver, egrets, comorants, herons, geese and ducks and heard a barred owl hooting. Shallow backwaters are filled with water chestnut, milfoil, yellow water lily and every type of green growth imaginable. There are mud flats, low spits and steep wooded banks lined with cottonwood and sycamore and giving way to a lush mixed forest. Yellow iris (invasive but attractive) lines the shore in early summer.

     There are also people fishing from small motor boats. At first this was puzzling. How did they get the boats up and around the dam? The answer is, they didn't. As we neared the upper end of our paddle, civilization appeared in the funky form of The Wrek. This is an RV campground with boat launch for members and trap shooting into a big gravel bank carved out of delta deposits.
     There were colorful strings of lights and music could be heard but not a single person seen on a beautiful summer evening. Several weeks later on a Saturday night Holly and I drove in off Fiddlers Elbow Road past a sign proclaiming "Bobby James, the singing DJ in concert". There's a long dirt road descent, you cross RR tracks and take a left at the Snob Hill sign. The Wrek wasn't exactly hopping but we did see a few signs of life: a couple of girls on floats in the river, a scattering of people sitting outside their campers and that was about it. Apparently Bobby James is the very quiet, invisible singing DJ because we neither saw nor heard a peep out of him.

Place at the Table - Fish and Drips

     Big Falls always leaves me with a big appetite. Good thing the corner of Rt. 29 and Windy Hill Road is nearby. That's where the Moby Dick Fish Fry wagon is parked next to the Ice Cream Man most of the summer. Dinner here includes a big pollock sandwich, onion rings or fries and some cole slaw. This place bucks all the foodie fads and I love it. It doesn't pretend to serve local, organic or even fair trade, whatever that means. The rolls aren't whole wheat or gluten free and everything but the cole slaw is fried. Furthermore, according to a recent Outside magazine article we shouldn't be eating anything out of the ocean. So enjoy a small helping of guilt along with a nice selection of condiments and great summer time cart food. And here's a little known fact about Moby Dick's Fish Fry...Herman Melville was inspired to write a novel after eating here!

     Now on to the main course. The Ice Cream Man has been a real sweet deal for many years. I can remember when Keith Mann started out small and quickly became an icon of summer in southern Washington County. All you had to say was "Log cabin?" and everybody was on board. Today the little stand where it all started has grown and expanded. Ice cream will do that to you. There's still window service under the porch roof while an indoor counter with seating and a screened room off to the side have been added. But my favorite spot remains the picnic tables in a shady grove out back.

     The stand has changed hands several times thru the years and each owner has added their personal touch with one thing remaining constant - great tasting, freshly made ice cream in a variety of creative flavors. Cones, sundaes, shakes and handpacked pints are available and a soft custard has become popular. The lines can get a bit long on summer evenings but they move fast and it's fun to chat with people. Like that interesting conversation I had with a couple of guys awhile ago. I think they said their names were Ben and Jerry...

Wild Watch

     This week it's a case of the early bird getting the moon... and some planets. In the wee hours between 4am and 6am the waning crescent moon will be threading its way past Venus, Mars and Jupiter and approaching Mercury on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, October 8-9-10. All this takes place near the constellation of Leo so its bright star Regulus also is part of the mix. Later in the month on the 17th the three planets form a close group and on the 25th Venus and Jupiter are side by side before sunrise. It's also a good month for meteors with the Draconids on Thursday the 8th and the Orionids on Tuesday the 20th.
     I've always thought that from now till the end of the year offers the best sunsets and cloud formations. I don't have a scientific explanation, just years of personal observations. Also more sundogs from fall thru winter.
     I spent the day disking a field of corn stubble in preparation for a rye seeding. Had lots of help with a red tailed hawk swooping down on mice right beside the tractor, and flocks of geese landing in adjacent fields. Now as I write in the evening a barred owl is hooting outside. I think I'll go out and listen to what he has to say...

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