Sunday, September 22, 2019

'Round Cement Mountain

     You know you're getting old when it seems to take years to climb the stairs. The 'stairs' I'm thinking of are the stepped pools of the lower Battenkill River. Starting from the confluence with the Hudson there are a half dozen of these damned flat waters leading up to Center Falls. Above there the river flows free. Each stair step offers short, interesting paddle trips. A while back I had the idea to profile each of them starting from where the two rivers merge and working upstream. 

Battenkill meets Hudson

     The exertion must have been too much for this tired farmer because I seem to have stalled out at Middle Falls. Long time readers may notice a pattern. I was also going to visit all five of the state forests in southeastern Washington County. Did four but the fifth is still awaiting my arrival. And then there was my plan to do a series on all of the canal locks. Two done with quite a few to go. As the saying goes... a man's reach should exceed his grasp.
     Years ago I was among a group of paddlers who met with the developers of the Middle Falls hydro facility. We worked out access to the river for canoeing and fishing. Unfortunately there was never any signage and the site, strewn with rusty equipment and overgrown, was unappealing. Although I launched from there a number of times, it always felt like trespassing. Consequently, few people used this section of the river.

     Today the situation is much improved. The Battenkill Conservancy working with Boralex (the current hydro operator) has created an attractive place to park and get to the water. Look for a Corridor Connection sign on the Easton (south) side of the river at the Rt. 29/40 bridge. It's a short carry to where you can either float over the top of the debris buoys or go around where they attach to the shore on the upstream end.

     The dam creates a pond with very little current. On a recent trip we easily paddled to above the Hegeman Bridge and could have gone further if time had allowed. While certainly not wilderness, the area has a primitive feel. Lush vegetation crowds the banks. It's as if you are on a southern bayou. Dense patches of Japanese knotweed (an invasive) are especially noticeable. 
     Early in the trip, just beyond the houses and backyards of Middle Falls, you'll see a narrow channel leading into a wetland of emergent aquatic plants. This can be explored, dependent on water level. A little further look for Hartshorn Brook entering on the left as you paddle upstream. Another rewarding place for the naturalist. Cat tails, pickerel weed and lily pads galore.

     The river here is wide and lazy. Cottonwood, sycamore, black willow and box elder line the shore. We saw a variety of birds including blue and green herons, a white egret, cormorants, kingfishers and cedar waxwings as well as the ubiquitous geese and ducks. What appeared to be an osprey nest crowned a structure in the Peckham quarry and eagles are also a possibility.
     Mention Cement Mountain and most locals will look at you like...well, like you've got cement in your head. But look at the topo map and there it is: Cement Mtn. You can see all 50 feet of it rising up from the right bank as you paddle upstream. Obviously, Everest is not about to be dethroned. 

     This is part of a five mile long block of limestone/dolostone that outcrops from Bald Mountain south thru Middle Falls and on into the Town of Easton. This feature has been a controversial enigma to geologists for many years, with a consensus gradually emerging that it is part of a carbonate shelf that developed off ancestral North America some 500 million years ago. During the Taconic Orogeny pieces of the shelf were broken off and scrapped along beneath the mudstones being thrust up onto the edge of the ancient continent. Subsequent erosion has left some of these fragments exposed, much like melting will reveal the detritus carried by a glacier. 

Screen shot of geologic map by W.B. Bosworth - blue band is carbonate block

     This detached block is what creates the falls here and the energy of the water has been put to use in many ways. The area was originally known as Arkansaw and then Galesville before finally settling as Middle Falls. Grist, plaster and woolen/knitting mills have harnessed the river in the past. At the base of the falls you can still see the foundations of some of these early enterprises. Today the hydropower is used by Boralex to make 2MW's of electricity. That's enough for 900 people.

     The carbonate rock has also been extensively quarried from the earliest days up to the present. Robert Lowber operated ten lime kilns at Bald Mountain in the 1850's and 60's. Some still stand. There's also a large water filled quarry between Rt. 40 and Fiddlers Elbow Road. Kids use to swim there but now it's off-limits. Today the Peckham Company has operations right where you launch canoes. They produce crushed stone and asphalt from the deposits of Cement Mountain and also have a newer quarry a few miles to the south. I'm guessing that the mountain got its name from the plaster and cement industries that John Gale developed here some 200 years ago. 

     Paddling upstream beneath an old railroad bridge you'll hardly be aware of all the mining and industrial activity that has gone on just a few feet away. Nor will it be obvious that 12,000 to 13,000 years ago this area was entirely submerged beneath the waters of glacial Lake Albany. From the present site of the Village of Greenwich the meltwater swollen Battenkill flowed into the lake depositing its sediment load as a large fan shaped delta that stretches from the Hand's and BJ's fields to the south to the Rt. 29 fairgrounds and on up to the Bald Mountain flats. When Lake Albany eventually drained the river began cutting down into its delta until it encountered the newly exposed barrier of the carbonate block where it makes a sharp right turn and flows along the edge of the limestone, finally jumping across it at Middle Falls.

Google Earth screen shot - Cement Mountain on lower left

     You can paddle thru all this history and even pass under some lost history at the site of the Hegeman Bridge. Here an old, much loved metal truss bridge was replaced with a bland concrete structure some years ago. We turned around above here but with time and energy you might be able to go all the way up to the base of the next dam on the backside of Greenwich. With a slight current the way back goes quickly. Just point the bow downriver and be sure to turn right at Cement Mountain.