Saturday, April 4, 2015

Between a Rock and a Perfect Place

     Ascension and descension have got my attention. Ascension Rock is a geological and historical curiosity located in the Town of Hampton. The descension is at nearby Carvers Falls where the Poultney River drops over a rocky ledge. The two sites are within a few miles of each other in the northeastern corner of Washington County. This is where walking east will take you into Vermont and heading west will take you...into Vermont! Ah, the delicious fickleness of geography.
     You could spend a few pleasant hours or many days exploring the picturesque little chunk of ground that puffs into Vermont like an inflated balloon. Lying north of Rt. 4 and wrapped by the Poultney, it's a great place to bike with several loops heading out from Whitehall. If you cross over into Vermont there's a wild dirt road paralleling the river that you might need a mountain bike to ride. You can also paddle the Poultney and it's possible to go upstream on its lower reaches where it's called East Bay. Plan on seeing lots of birds and wildlife. New York State has a Wildlife Area on Co. Rt. 10 (bring a canoe) and the Nature Conservancy has protected a lot of land here on both sides of the river. This is also a great place to do geology with several interesting quarries, road cuts and exposures. It's a favorite stop on college field trips.

Poultney River

East Bay Wildlife Area

Quarry on Co. 10

     But I need to curb my enthusiasm and focus on the two places I've mentioned. Carvers Falls is the last big drop on the Poultney's long twisting trip from high up in the Taconics to Lake Champlain. The falls have a long history of hydroelectric development and there's interpretive signage with old photos that bring the site to life. Viewing platforms and trails give access to the dam, penstock and powerhouse. Put your kids on a leash because the gorge below the falls is steep and deep.

     A layered band of limestone creates the cataract and I have a feeling this might be a productive spot for naturalists in a few weeks. Limey ground often has a diversity of plants and there's a nice mix of shaded and sunny, wet and dry, open and wooded niches. Poke around here later in April and May and let me know what you find. There's also a canoe portage around the dam. The Poultney can be paddled both above and below Carvers Falls (not over it!) but there may be rapids, ledges and tree strainers so approach a river trip with caution. Below the falls and gorge there's a pool that looked like it might be good fishing and swimming.

     And you could decide to be baptized in the Poultney as many were in years gone by. One of those was an interesting man of God named William Miller. His home, farm and a chapel he built along with Ascension Rock are located on Co. Rt. 11 just north of Rt. 4 near the Vermont border. Miller's study of the Bible lead him to believe Christ would return sometime around 1843 - 1844 based on a prophecy in Daniel 8:14. A bright comet visible in daylight was seen in the spring of 1843 stirring further interest in heavenly comings and goings. By 1844 Miller had preached some 4,500 sermons and attracted a following of Millerites to his beliefs. Finally, October 22, 1844 became the accepted date of the second coming. A group assembled on an enigmatic rock exposure in back of where the chapel now stands. There they waited, and waited and waited some more. When the guest of honor didn't show up the event became known as the Great Disappointment. After being dropped from the local Baptist church Miller built the little white chapel next to his farm and this is considered the birthplace of the Adventist Movement in America. Miller died on December 20, 1849 and is buried in the small cemetery on Golf Course Road between Rt. 4 and Co. Rt. 11.

     Memoirs of William Miller by Sylvester Bliss is the standard biography but Fair Haven's Dorothy Backus Offensend has published a small booklet entitled Prophet in the Wilderness that's a short, entertaining read. It grew out of a course on Washington County history she took at ACC. She is a descendant of Miller which spiked her interest. The book includes several anecdotes better read for their humor than veracity. One involves a Millerite who went up on a hill in the evening to await the coming of the Lord. He was followed by a bunch of hooligan kids who hid in the woods till the man fell asleep. The youth creep up, spread dry hay around the slumbering figure and set it ablaze. The startled man jumped up wailing "I knew I'ld end up here. I just knew it." Presumably the boys were amused and had a good story to tell.
     In another tale, Miller went up on the roof of his house one rainy night to be closer to Jesus when he came. Wet and bedraggled, he came down in the morning and knocked on the locked door saying
"Let me in Lucy. It's your husband." To which Lucy supposedly replied "I don't have a husband. He's gone up to Heaven."

Miller Home

Miller Chapel

     Curiously, my wife Gwenne lived in the very house where Miller is said to have sat on the roof in the rain. Her family owned the Miller property for a number of years before selling it to the Adventists. The church has gatherings there and we happened to stop by one day last fall during an event. I wandered out to Ascension Rock where groups were talking, enjoying the scenery or simply absorbed in quiet contemplation. Several people asked me to take their photographs.

The Path to Ascension Rock

The Rock in Winter

Intricate Erosion

Summer View

     What you see is a sloping exposure of eroded gray bedrock maybe 100 feet to a side. It's probably dolostone which is related to limestone but with some of the calcium replaced with magnesium. It seems to have a joint pattern, and weathering has left it with a sensuously smooth surface and solution channels where water has run off.
     It's a chunk of the carbonate shelf of ancient North America, deposited nearly 500 million years ago in shallow seas bordering the continent. Related layers include the ledge at Carvers Falls, cliffs and quarries between here and Whitehall and the active open pits in Kingsbury and South Glens Falls.
     Extending from the southwest corner of Washington County in Easton diagonally up to Hampton and beyond, these carbonate rocks have been buried under strata from the east thrust over the top of them during the Taconic orogeny. Near the western edge of these darker, bent and broken Taconic rocks a hole has been eroded thru them opening a window to what lies beneath.
     Ascension Rock functions as a window in another sense. People have an innate need to understand their place in the world. We turn to myth, art and religion as well as philosophy, history and science for answers. You can see this quest for meaning playing out on the stage of our little outcrop. Geologists see clues to the formation of the physical world. Historians and students of human nature find rich material in the Miller story. The faithful feel a strong spiritual presence here while artists along with anyone who appreciates natural beauty will be inspired.
     Over the pulpit of the Miller Chapel are the words For At The Time Appointed The End Shall Be. You owe it to yourself to visit Ascension Rock before then.

Higher Ground

     Maybe there's something in the water but Washington County seems to have an extraordinarily rich diversity of spiritual communities, past and present. Here's a brief list:

     - Moravians of Camden Valley
     - Philip Embury and one of the earliest Methodist congregations in America also in Camden    
     - Miller and the beginning of Adventism in Hampton
     - The Monks and Nuns of New Skete in White Creek
     - In Easton there's the New Covenant Community, Christ the King Spiritual Life Center and
       Easton Mountain-a community, retreat and sanctuary
     - Common Sense Farm is a 12 Tribes Community in Cambridge
     - There's a growing Amish community in the Whitehall area
     - In Vermont, but a landmark from much of Washington County is Mt. Equinox where there is a
       Carthusian Monastery

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