Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The X-C Files: To a T

     Fluff. According to Mr. Webster it's 'something inconsequential'. As in "That Wash Wild  blog is vapid fluff." But, this being the English language, there are other meanings. Such as, 'being light and soft or airy'. A perfect description of the snow we found on the Feeder Canal Towpath. It was like skiing on a cloud. A silky, slippery, effortless glide. 
     Snow like that is a rare and precious thing. Not to be wasted. Especially after the mid-January monsoon/heat wave that left the ground all but bare. Then came the surprise gift of a cold, gentle snowfall that dropped 6" of (you guessed it) fluff. I had to spend a day plowing but once that was done we had the chance to sneak away for a few hours. Decided to head to Hudson Falls and the Towpath. Finally, a good decision for a change!

     There's a place to park where the Feeder Canal crosses under Burgoyne Avenue. A plowed and sanded place to park. Unfortunately, the plowing and sanding continued on down the hill. That was the end of my dream of a swooping run in untouched powder. Replaced with a hug the sidelines/avoid the sand strategy. But it wasn't that bad and there was the amazing stonework of the old canal locks to distract me. The Feeder Canal was built in the 1820's with the purpose of bringing Hudson River water to the summit section of the Champlain Canal, which ran from Fort Edward to Whitehall. But Glens Falls businessmen saw the opportunity to export more than just water. With the construction of a series of locks the feeder was made navigable and for many years it saw bustling traffic as lumber, stone, lime and paper were shipped downstate.

     The feeder joins the Champlain Canal at a 'T' intersection some 100 feet lower in elevation than the parking area. In descending this slope the canal and towpath (and skiers) are dropping off a large, level plateau of deltaic and beach sands deposited in glacial Lake Albany 13,000 years ago. The lake eventually drained and what would become the Hudson River cut thru the sands, falling from the hard rock of the Adirondacks to the softer shales of the valley. Early settlers quickly recognized the waterpower potential. Dams and mills were built and the communities of Glens Falls, Hudson Falls and South Glens Falls developed on the sand plain.

Surficial Geology Map - the brown shaded area is the sand plain

     It took a staircase of water to get from the top to the bottom of the delta sands. The staircase consists of beautifully crafted locks that raised and lowered the canal boats step by level step ... no whitewater kayaking required. They are amazing structures and many people visit here simply to marvel at the engineering.

From the Feeder Canal Alliance Website

     On the left side of the Towpath is a 'structure' of another sort. The hulking hill enclosed in a chain link fence is the closed and capped Kingsbury landfill. It has a companion on the other side of the canal and somewhat screened by trees - the Fort Edward landfill. I don't know the history of these sites but I'm guessing they started as sandpits that had been excavated for fill. Once you've got a big hole, well, the garbage has to go somewhere. If the idea of skiing between two mounded dumps bothers you, try thinking of the Towpath as the cleavage between a pair of huge boobs. Works for me.

Google Earth shot of the Feeder Towpath snuggled between two capped landfills

     At the bottom of the hill is a bridge that crosses what looks to be an overgrown ditch. This is the old Champlain Canal and the Feeder joins it at the 'T' junction. Here you have a choice. To the right the Towpath leads to Fort Edward. We decided to go left following the old canal northward. It's perfectly level and with good snow it's easy to fall into a pleasing kick and glide rhythm.

     There were lots of animal tracks and some open water that hosted a few ducks. Off to the right are railroad tracks with the occasional passing train. Beyond the tracks is the modern Barge Canal, still dependent on the Feeder for water. Bond Creek is another source of canal water and this segment of the Towpath comes to an end at its banks. Time to turn around and be treated to a reddened Sun setting thru the trees.

     We saw just one other couple. They were walking their dogs and that is probably the trails most popular use. For a completely flat outing you can go out and back from Mullen Park in Fort Edward. The trail is so open and easy that it might be a good nighttime option with a little light from a headlamp or bright Moon. It's also a favorite spring birding walk featuring a nice mix of wetland, meadow and wooded/brushy habitat. The Towpath certainly isn't wilderness but it is a good model for accommodating historic preservation, recreation and natural beauty in a hard working, heavily used landscape. That suits me...to a T.  
Google Earth view of our route: the Towpath and Kingsbury landfill at bottom of image to the T, then north towards top with RR tracks and Barge Canal paralleling to upper right

     * Predictably, there was a warm up/melt down shortly after our trip. Snow conditions are ephemeral but the Towpath is always there. When the skis are taking some time off there's always walking, running or biking. Flexibility is the adjustable wrench in your winter activity toolbox.

     * Viewing Kendall McKernon's dream like photos of the Feeder Canal is the next best thing to being there (maybe even better!). You can see some of them here.

Photo from the web

     * The Feeder Canal Alliance is a great organization working to preserve and promote the waterway. Visit their site where you also order copies of Michael LaCross's booklets on the Feeder. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The X-C Files: Carter's Pond

     Not sure if a 'track tour' is even a thing, but I think I just went on one. It was at the Carter's Pond Nature Trail in the Town of Greenwich. Gwenne and I spent a pleasant hour skiing the woods there. But a good part of that hour was spent looking at the myriad animal tracks criss crossing the forest floor.

     The snow was soft and powdery - great for skiing and for preserving a record of all kinds of critter activity. Beds where deer had settled into the snow were common. Also, lots of small rodent prints with an obvious tail drag mark. Piles of cone debris at the base of a tree were sign that somebody's lunch counter was in the branches above. We saw beaver gnawed trees and a couple of lodges out in the pond. Sportsmen place nest boxes here and Gwenne noticed a couple of ducks in the open water of the outlet stream.

     Carter's Pond Wildlife Management Area is a 453 acre block of state land in south-central Washington County. Most people will access it by turning onto Rt. 338 (aka Co. Rt. 49) from Rt. 29 halfway between Greenwich and Salem. In a mile or two you'll come to a couple of parking areas. The first is for the nature trail and the second for  boat launch and ice fishing access to the pond. One word of caution - neither area appears to be plowed which makes winter activities a little dicey. This is a place where they spend tax dollars encouraging people to visit but neglect to tell you to bring your own plow and shovel.
     As it turned out, getting into the parking area was the biggest adventure we had all day. The skiing here is relatively tame. The trail isn't groomed or particularly wide but it is mostly level. First thing you'll see is a wooden viewing platform overlooking the pond. The trail here is hardened and constructed with wheelchairs in mind - at least in summer. A nice touch making this a destination for handicapped folks looking to immerse in nature.

     On our visit we skied a short distance to a small dam that creates the pond. There were views to the north of a valley surrounded by hills. These are the folded and faulted low Taconics consisting of rocks that were formed to the east and subsequently thrust into place 450 million years ago. While the topography can seem chaotic and jumbled there is a discernible north - south trend to the ridges and intervening valleys. In this particular valley Cossayuna Lake, several small impoundments and the extensive wetlands of Carter's Pond are tied together by Whittaker Brook, which eventually empties into the Battenkill River.

Ice fishing tent on Carter's Pond

     Glacial deposits from thirteen thousand years ago shape the landscape we see today. Wetlands and lakes are the result of blocked drainage. Outwash and kame deposits are currently mined for sand and gravel. We skied on a sinuous raised ridge that might be the remnants of an esker - a snake like mound of gravel left by streams running beneath glacial ice.
     With deep snow this ridge and short steep banks dropping down to the stream could provide skiers with a few thrills. In winter there isn't a real need to stay on the trail. The hardwood and pine forest is open and the area so small and contained that there's no chance of getting lost. I've heard there are plans to build a bridge across Whittaker Brook which would give access to more of the area on the Ferguson Road side.

     The nature trail traverses the southern point of the arrowhead shaped WMA. To the immediate north is the pond and then extensive wetlands along with small upland areas. Drive up 338 to the hamlet of Cossayuna and you can take a right on Mill Road, east across Whittaker Brook to another parking area on the northern border of the WMA. This offers the possibility of skiing on the open uplands and exploring the marshy areas along the stream. That's if you've got any energy left after shoveling out a spot for your vehicle in the unplowed lot!

     The dead of winter is actually full of life if you're out and observant. At Carter's Pond, on the farm and elsewhere Gwenne and I have recently seen a fisher, a porcupine, Red Tail and Coopers hawks, flocks of crows and several deer. We've heard a barred owl hooting at night in our big maple tree. And we've seen tracks and sign of beaver, fox, mice, rabbits, squirrels, turkey and woodpecker. In the cold, white spareness of winter there is something uplifting in these sightings. Life persists and if we bravely meet the seasons challenges another spring will be our reward.

     Shortly after our visit we had a January meltdown with rain and temps in the 60's. Time to switch from skis to surfboards! But as I write it's cold and snowing again so who knows? No matter how you get out there, winter is a good time for tracking and wildlife viewing. There's a new book that could help. I've heard it's good.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The X-C Files: Hudson Crossing


Snow that squeaks beneath my skis
Sunshine sparkling upon spruce trees
Kicking and gliding with a free heel
Watching a Red Tail swoop for his next meal

When the waterer's freeze
When the diesel gels
When I'm feeling sad
 I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad 

- with apologies to Richard Rodgers

     There has to be something more to winter. More than fighting the intense cold that has settled in. More than the daily struggle to keep water and feed flowing to the cows. For me that something is little ski get-aways. I'm not talking about jet-setting off to Chamonix or St. Moritz. My escapes tend to be more plebeian. Usually just and hour or two in late afternoon. Usually in and around Washington County. As the season unfolds I'll try and post a few of them. Hopefully it will give you some ideas and inspiration for your own winter adventures.
     New Years Day dawned, one more in a long line of 20 below mornings. It took till mid-afternoon to get chores done. By then it had warmed to a balmy single digits above zero. Perfect conditions for a holiday ski tour. But with only an hour or so till sunset my choices were limited. Fortunately, Hudson Crossing is just minutes from the farm. My old truck was willing to start (a good omen for the coming year) and soon enough I was clicking into my skis with a little daylight to spare.

     I did a slow amble along the river, up to the point and back down beside the frozen canal. The Hudson was part open, part iced over. Ducks and geese seemed equally at home in the water or on the floes. Birders can get their fix here most any time of the year. Eagles and ospreys are always a possibility.

Cold Feet at Hudson Crossing

     The 'Crossing' of the park's name is apt. Burgoyne's troops ferried the river here on their way to a whopping at the Battle of Saratoga. You'll also see the abutments of long gone trolley and railroad bridges. The shallow, bedrock riverbed made this a practical place to build. Today, the old Dix highway bridge has been refurbished for walkers, bikers and snowmobilers (but not cars). The snow machines use it to link trails on the east and west sides of the river. They stay on a corridor from Rt. 4 across Lock 5 to the Dix Bridge while walkers and skiers use the rest of the park. It's an arrangement that seems to work well.

     People had skied, snowshoed and bare booted around the perimeter path. It's also a good place for winter trail running, if you have micro-spikes. For more milage you can continue on the old Champlain Canal towpath towards Schuylerville and beyond. The Crossing's trail isn't groomed which is fine with me. It's mostly level with just one short steep slope. For a little wiggle of a downhill run try the path down to the canoe/kayak launch. Just be prepared to stop at the bottom lest it become a canoe/kayak/skier launch.

     I had a good time skiing my way into 2018 here. As a bonus, on the way home I got to watch a big, fat, Full Moon rise over the Argyle hills. And remember, if you need to defrost after a visit, Amigos is nearby with tasty Margaritas and sizzling Mexican fare. Let the rich and famous have their Vails, their Aspens. We've got Hudson Crossing - one of my favorite places.

     * Here's a little New Years gift - a link to Julie Andrews singing 'My Favorite Things'.  

A 'berry' fine New Year to you