Monday, September 7, 2015

My Fair Delta

     Around here it's God, Country and the Washington County Fair, not necessarily  in that order.
The Fair is the Big Kahuna of local events in this quiet, mostly rural place and many people plan their entire year around fair week in late August.
     Many people, but not all. With a dry, sunny stretch I was too busy doing agriculture to spend time at a fair that celebrates agriculture. Not that I'm complaining. After a frustrating early season it felt good to get a bunch of hay baled, cleaning up most of my fields before it was time to chop corn.
     Truth is, I haven't been to the fair in many years. Too risky. All those Monster Trucks on the prowl. And you never know when a tsunami of bloomin' onions and fried dough carried on a rogue Slushy wave could sweep you away. Besides I'm prone to panic attacks around population densities that would put Shanghai or Singapore to shame. Just not my thing. Still, I do miss seeing the loving attention the kids dote on their animals and the Alice in Wonderland feel of strolling thru the Fowl Barn. Are these birds real or am I dreaming?

     What really interests me is what lies beneath all those cows, under the whirligig midway and the thundering tractor pulls. Dirt, of course, but not just any dirt. This is post-glacial, deltaic deposits from the late Pleistocene. Sands and gravels put here by a young and muscular Battenkill working overtime to flush away the melting glacier and haul off the mess it had left behind.
     This happened about 13,000 years ago when the Hudson Valley from down where New York City would be all the way north to the snout of the receding glacier held not a river but a huge lake. Morainal deposits to the south formed a dam that backed up the cold, muddy meltwater for hundreds of years. Tributary streams loaded with sediments built up deltas where they entered this lake. Some examples are the Mohawk's delta beneath Schenectady, the Hoosic's near Schaghticoke, a small delta built by the Mettawee near North Granville and the Battenkill's fan shaped creation between Greenwich and Schuylerville.

     As a fast moving, high energy river empties into quiet water it loses the ability to carry a load. Heavy gravels settle out first, then sands and finally silt and clay further out. The Battenkill's delta was built in a dynamic environment of glacial recession and readvance, along with fluctuating lake levels and rebounding topography as the earth's crust slowly sprang back from the incredible weight of the ice.
     The delta deposits are level and very well drained making them ideal for a fairground. It's no coincidence that early in its history the fair was located on glacial outwash in Cambridge where similar conditions prevail. Or that the Schaghticoke Fair is on the Hoosic River's delta.
     The sands and gravels have been mined by Tracys on Windy Hill Road and used by BJs and the Fort Miller Company. While the soils can be droughty, there is a lot of agriculture on the delta with Hands and BJs to the south of Rt. 29 and large fields of corn and alfalfa in the Bald Mountain area.

     As water percolates down thru the sand and gravel it encounters buried layers of clay that act as a barrier. The water then emerges as springs on the steep western face of the landform. Several of these springs used to be tapped for the Village of Schuylerville's water supply. Beneath the unconsolidated deposits is a foundation of shale bedrock that's common in this part of the Hudson Valley.
     A good way to get a feel for the delta is a bike tour. One of my favorites I call "the fairy ring" because it circles the fairgrounds without getting too close, staying out of range of those Monster Trucks. Now that the Dix Bridge is open, Hudson Crossing Park is a good place to start. Alternately, you could begin at the Ice Cream Man because you know what you're going to want at the end of the tour (Almond Joy here I come).

     Here's a brief description of the tour. Park at Hudson Crossing off Rt. 4 north of Schuylerville. Pedal across the Dix Bridge over the Hudson River into Washington County. In post-glacial times you would be under several hundred feet of water here at the bottom of Lake Albany. Look for Revolutionary War historical markers and the site of the former Schuyler Prep School on the left. To the right is a wooded peninsula formed where the Battenkill joins the Hudson. It's possible this could be added to the Hudson Crossing Park.

     The road (Co. 70) divides. Go left a short distance, then right on Co. 113 to another left onto Clarks Mills Road. Get ready for a long climb up the front of the delta. You'll cross old RR tracks, pass a small farm and a few residences. To your right is the notch the Battenkill cut into the delta as the lake level lowered. After about a mile you will have gained a couple of hundred feet in elevation and arrived at a flat tableland of farm fields. The corn shows signs of drought stress from a dry late summer. These soils are very permeable with water dropping below the plants roots. Alfalfa can do well here because it has very deep roots that can access water lower in the soil profile.

     Ride along the top of the delta to a right at the intersection of Co.77. The farm to your left has been preserved by ASA. In a clump of trees across the road is a small brick building that was once a schoolhouse. Heading east the hill in front of you is Bald Mountain. In the 1800's it was quarried for lime and there are still a couple of stone kilns in the woods here. This was a thriving industrial site at the time with the lime being taken a few miles down to the canal at Thompson where it was loaded on barges and shipped to New York City.
     The road goes up a little rise and skirts the southern edge of the mountain. Take a right on Fiddlers Elbow Road and ride towards Middle Falls. Here you're on top of a narrow belt of limestone that was shoved here by the Taconic rocks to the east. There's a long dirt road off to the right that descends to the Battenkill and the Wrek campground. I wouldn't recommend this on a bike but you can drive down to get a sense of how deep the river has excavated into the delta. Plus there's a large gravel bank used as a shooting range. With permission and without live fire this could be a good place to examine the deposits.
     Continue on to Middle Falls, where Rt. 29 crosses the Battenkill. Here you can see the river pour over limestone and begin its final descent to the Hudson. Ride on this busy highway for just a short distance to a left onRt. 40 and then a right on Bulson Road. Notice how flat it is. At Wilbur Avenue take a left and then a quick right onto General Fellows Road.
     Observe how the resource is being put to varied uses. The Fort Miller Company makes precast concrete products while Hand Melons and BJ Farms have fields along either side of Wilbur Avenue beyond the turn off onto General Fellows. As you ride west you will see a large excavated pit on the left that has become a pond. It reveals the level of the water table and illustrates what a hugh aquifer these deposits are.

     At one time both Easton and Greenwich had their landfills on the delta. Times have changed and they are now closed and capped. The rapid percolation of leachate thru sands and gravels created problems.
     Eventually you leave the level top and descend the face towards the Hudson, going past Booth's farm and compost operation to an intersection with Co. 113. Turn right and follow the road back to Clarks Mills with the delta's steep front on one side and views of the river and bottomlands on the other.

     Just past the Rt. 29 intersection (careful here!) is the stately De Ridder House and a charming little stream wending its way towards the river. This may be the stream that originates from the formerly tapped springs. Beware notorious Snake Hill on your right. This dirt road slithers steeply up to the fairground flats. It's where generations of Schuylerville runners (yours truly included) have done their hill repeat workouts. Decades later and I can still feel the pain.

     A little further and you'll cross the Battenkill where a dam and shale gorge mark its last hurrah before confluence with the Hudson. A good place to thank the river for creating a fairly amazing delta.

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