Sunday, May 31, 2015

Summer Snow

     I was having a brief "Oh no! Not again," moment. On Rt. 40 between Argyle and Greenwich I thought I saw snowbanks beside the road. But it was almost June and after last winter we didn't deserve this. Thankfully, I was mistaken. It wasn't snow but a profusion of tall, white-flowering plants that created the illusion.

     Ever the curious naturalist, I pulled over to take a closer look. We all know what curiosity did to the cat and I was about to make my second mistake of the day. I didn't have a field guide with me so I carefully examined the plants, noting the fern like leaves, the ribbed stalk, the flower clusters known as umbels. When I checked my references at home it turns out these are all characteristics of Poison Hemlock. Just ask Socrates what Hemlock can do to you.
     So here I was with no life insurance and lots of exposure to Poison Hemlock. Or maybe not. I wasn't absolutely sure of my identification and this could be Hemlock-Parsley, a non-poisonous but similar looking member of the large Parsley family that also includes the familiar Queen Anne's Lace. There are books and websites galore devoted to poisonous plants and if I survive my recent encounter I plan on reading all of them. On the other hand, if this ends up being my last post, consider my identification verified. Meanwhile, unless you're more botanically confident than I, it might be wise to avoid these plants. It isn't just the winter snowbanks that can get you.

     If you just can't get enough of summer "snow" then Black Locust trees might be your fix. All across Washington County they are dazzling in their white blossoms this week. Oddly, locust is a legume related to alfalfa, clover, beans and peanuts. Most legumes have symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots resulting in increased soil fertility where they grow. The locust tree is a member of the pea family, look at its flowers now and seed pods later in the season and you'll see a resemblance to the common garden pea. The flowers, which hang in clusters called racemes, are very attractive to bees. Every locust I looked at this week was buzzing.

     The trees spread by seed and root suckers and tend to be found in groups. Locust Grove Smokehouse just south of Argyle takes its name from one such clump. I can picture other copses of Black Locust on Scotch Hill Road, Owl Kill Road, Co. 59 and Reafield Farm Road. That's just a short list from memory, they are widespread and now's an easy time to find them.

     Locust is an incredibly hard, rot-resistant wood often used for fence posts. When I was a boy over fifty years ago I helped my Dad build fence with locust posts. They're still standing and I still remember how hard it was to drive a staple in them.
     Honey Locust is a closely related tree that doesn't seem to be as common. It has delicate double multiple leaves, curly-cue seed pods and the most wicked thorns imaginable. There was a beautiful Honey Locust by the road just a mile from my farm. I often stopped to admire it, but never hugged it - not with those thorns. Then one day there was just a stump and some sawdust. I guess the road crew thought it was too close, that some drunk might run into it. I kinda hope they got pricked by its thorns. If anyone knows of a Honey Locust in Washington County I'ld love to hear about it before the highway guys do.
     Hope you get out and enjoy the locust/hemlock "snow" (from a safe distance) before it all "melts".

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Touring the First Treadpool

     People watching is so endlessly fascinating because we come in such a variety of shapes, shades and sizes. It's also a little threatening to those of us (yeah, my hand is raised) who don't conform to some ideal standard of body type or style. My advice: just enjoy those around you in all their vibrant individuality and diversity. That, and become a student of geomorphology.
     That would be the science of landforms. Being aware of and trying to understand the processes that shape the earth's surface, its "look", can be every bit as engaging as focusing on the superficial appearance of some hapless person. Furthermore, those hills and valleys aren't going to feel self-conscious or inadequate. Gaze on them without guilt.
     The geomorphology surrounding the Battenkill River is a great place to begin. Its origins are where drainage from both the Green Mountains and the Taconics funnels at a steep gradient down into the Valley of Vermont. Think small streams with rapids and waterfalls. Then, below Manchester, it flows gently inclined for thirty plus miles, cutting across the trend of the mountains in a scenic gap. It's possible to float this entire stretch without a single portage. I did this years ago and dream of doing it again.
     If the headwaters are like a pitched roof and the valley section resembles a flowing nature trail, then you could think of the lower river as a staircase. From Center Falls down to the Hudson, dams form the risers and the pools behind them are the treads. Each of these "tread pools" is unique and fun to explore. In a recent post we visited the bottom of the stairs where the Battenkill joins the Hudson near Schuylerville. This time we'll step up one level to the pond above  the lower dam in Clarks Mills.
     Just north of where Co. 113 crosses the river turn onto Pulp Mill Lane. You're in the Town of Greenwich with Easton to the south. The H-V mill owns most of the land bordering the river and they've done a good job of providing access. Look for their signs and parking spots at various points. Note the houses along Pulp Mill Lane. Most have been modified somewhat but they are all basically the same. I've heard they were built by the paper mill years ago to house workers. Anyone know more about their history?

     You'll see a small pull-off in about a third of a mile or you can go a little further to where the lane stops at a gate. Either place is a good put-in. Beyond the gate is an old mill building and access to the next higher pool above the second Clarks Mills dam. Just poke around a little, read the signs and you'll figure it out.
     The first pool is small, only a mile or so in length, and can be paddled in less than an hour. You might want to do both pools in one visit by parking at the end of the lane and doing the short carry between them. Alternately, you can enjoy the lower section and its wildlife in slow motion. That's what we did on a recent late spring evening and there was nary a dull moment.
     Within a blink of launching we were watching a busy muskrat as he cruised the shoreline. Next up was a tiny green turtle (painted?) basking with just her head above water. Later we saw mid-size turtles on a floating log and were startled by a very large snapper that came up for air right next to our boat.
     Fish constantly break the surface and at one point we saw a big guy at least three feet long stir up a mud storm as he torpedoed thru the shallows. The bird life is overwhelming to someone as ornithologically challenged as myself. Expect to see ducks, geese herons kingfishers and sandpipers
near the water as well as cardinals, orioles and many others in the trees along shore.

     You can closely approach the base of the upper dam which I've heard has a tunnel thru it. There are also a series of piers that look like they may have carried a railroad at some point in the past. The shorelines are clothed in a rich variety of wetland plants, sedges and grasses, and trees and shrubs. Enough to keep any naturalist busy over multiple visits.

     After we circled the pond and were back on shore we watched a beaver out surveying his kingdom, swimming in lazy circles. I did a quick tally of the evening's sightings: mammals, birds, reptiles and fish but no amphibians. The bottom of the food chain was wisely playing hard to get. Then I noticed something move in the grass. A closer look revealed a tiny green leopard frog blending in perfectly. Be careful little buddy, it's a jungle out there.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

On the Record

     May goes like this: corn, hay and play each pleading "Me! Me! It's my turn now." It's like having a bunch of kids, all demanding their every need be met, preferably yesterday.
     Field corn needs to be planted early in the month so I can be ready to go at the hay when it's time and all this happens when the outdoors is at its best for botanizing, biking and paddling. Sadly, play often gets pushed to the back of the line. Something about having Puritan ancestors...
     But Sunday was different. We had put in a long day on Saturday and got a lot done. Holly left early Sunday morning to run a half-marathon in Massachusetts (1:55!) and then continue on to New Haven where friends were graduating. The old folks (Gwenne and I) were left to take care of the farm and Holly's dog. By noon cows had been milked, calves feed and two loads of green chop delivered. There was time to escape for a few hours!
     We opted for a hike up Record Hill in the Town of Putnam, far northern Washington County. This is a Lake George Land Conservancy property with a new trail and improved access. It took us about an hour to drive up Rts. 4 and 22 where we turned left on Co. 1 towards Glenburnie. After a couple of miles and just before the final descent to Lake George you take a right on Schwerdfeger Road and look for a small sign and blue disk on the left. A parking lot is staked out and will be cleared soon but for now you just pull off the side of the road.

     The trail starts out level thru mixed hardwoods and hemlocks with one small stream crossing. Soon you reach an attractive col with a big ledge, birch trees and a junction. Veer right here to head for the summit and avoid going straight which would take you down to private property in Glenburnie.
     After climbing a little further, we stopped to share the same thought, "If this is our play day, why are we working so darn hard?" The trail was steep and the sun wicked hot. The route goes up the south facing slope and the forest cover is thin, providing meager shade. We were walking thru an open woodland of small hickory, oak and hop hornbeam. There was enough light for grass, ferns and a sprinkling of wildflowers to blanket the ground. Park like is the oft used description for these type of communities.

     As you ascend, gray bands of gneiss covered in lichens and rock tripe punctuate the hillside and contrast with glimpses of sparkling blue Lake George. If a trail is going to be steep it better not be long and this one isn't. The top is open rock mixed with patches of blueberries and views down and across the lake. Black Mountain and the Narrows dominate to the south with Blairs Bay directly in the foreground. A ridge drops off to the west leading to the familiar proboscis known as Anthony's Nose. Following the trail a few steps further we discovered  another outcrop that provides a window on Rogers Rock. The smooth slab is a landmark on the north end of the lake rising hundreds of feet straight out of the water. With binoculars I watched as a couple of climbers worked a route I had done many years ago.

     Here on the east side, Record Hill along with Anthony's Nose and Profile Rocks have steep, west facing cliffs that probably mark fault lines where blocks of crust have dropped forming the graben occupied by the scenic lake. These cliffs are used by peregrine falcons and should be avoided during the nesting season so as not to disturb the birds. It looks like you could hike down to the shore at Flat Rock but I'ld check with the Conservancy first to see if that is ok.

     Near the summit we stopped to inspect a shiny, platey band of rock - I'ld guess biotite mica - accented by a colorful pale corydalis flower. Fortunately, I was able to rein in my
rock/flower/tree identification urges or we'd still be up there.

     We lingered for awhile snacking and swigging on water bottles. Eventually the black flies drove us down but not before we spent time picking ticks off the dog and ourselves. Lower down it was mosquitoes that took over nuisance duty (pick your arthropod poison, there's a lot to choose from).

     Climb Record Hill on a hot day, gaze down on Lake George and tell me you don't want to jump in it. Back at the car, we decided to take our sweaty, burnt and bitten selves down to Glenburnie with visions of a cool dip. But Glenburnie wasn't with us on that
plan. While this is as scenic and charming as Washington County gets, it's also mostly private. The best we could find was a chained off gravel lane that apparently gives Putnam residents "with a sticker" a place to launch boats. There's a sign with so many "No's", "Do Not's", and "Prohibited's" that you'd grow old and die before you read them all. But we were looking the other way as we walked past the sign and waded out into the lake. With Record Hill as our witness, we splashed our faces with water that felt like it had been ice just a few minutes earlier. And it didn't feel wrong at all. In fact, it felt deliciously right.

       Note: The Lake George Land Conservancy has an outing to Record Hill planned for Saturday, June 20 from 9:30 to 12:30. Call 644-9673 to register. Also their annual Hike-a-thon is scheduled for Sunday, July 5. Check their website for more details.  

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wedded Waters

     You run into an friend that you haven't seen in awhile and it takes a minute to warm to each other. Pretty soon you're sharing old times and making plans to get together in the future. Connections are dusted off and the relationship is ready for another chapter.
     Canoeing can be like that. Our boat had been collecting dirt and bird droppings since last October and the rush of early spring work had left little time. But this evening, a clear late spring gift that begged for a mini-adventure, was our chance. We put in at Hudson Crossing north of Schuylerville and within minutes the serenity and simple rhythms of paddling felt like a close pal I'ld been missing.

     On the other side of the river we noticed some driftwood logs with curious black bumps on them. A little closer and Gwenne quietly proclaimed, "Turtles. Look at all the turtles." Dozens of them, all sizes, just hanging out in the late afternoon sun, working on their warmth deficit after a long winter burrowed in the mud. We drifted silently at a distance but that was still too close and one by one they slid into the water with a gentle "plop".
     Slipping around the point where the Battenkill joins the Hudson the wildlife parade continued with several types of ducks (mallards and other unidentified quaking objects), a great blue heron, a kingfisher, a beaver, more turtles and lots of red-winged blackbirds. Later, back on shore, we saw what looked like a black-headed grosbeak although books place them further west. Also there was an osprey gliding above the water on an evening hunt.

     The flora here doesn't take a backseat to the fauna. Sycamore, cottonwood and silver maple define these low shorelines much like spruces and firs do on mountaintops. Ferns were popping up out of the rich alluvium and honeysuckles were in full bloom. Spring wildflowers are starting to fade but we did see a few Jack-in-the-pulpits.

     We paddled up the Battenkill, shallow and with a strong current, to a tiny island just below a dam and the Co. 113 bridge. In low water it's fun to walk the shale river bed when most of the flow is diverted through the H-V paper mill. Tonight we were content to turn around and let the current carry us back to the Hudson and the confluence where the two rivers wed. Here, water that began as a trickle from a wetland high in the Green Mountains mixes with Adirondack snowmelt from the slopes of Mt. Marcy. Together it all flows south to an Atlantic destiny.

     The Battenkill is famed for its clear trout water reaches from Vermont into Washington County,  down past Eagleville, Shushan and Rexleigh. But for flat water boaters the lower river below Center Falls is every bit as attractive. Here a series of pools behind dams have easy access and out and back convenience. I try to visit each of these spots during the year and I hope to profile them as the summer progresses. We are blessed with a paddling paradise. My advice: find something that floats and enjoy it before Old Man Winter comes back to crash the party.