Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Unfinished business

     Ever heard the hypothetical question that goes something like: "Who from the past would you most like to share a drink with?"
     Jesus always tops the list. Shakespeare and Albert Einstein are also frequently mentioned, along with Mother Teresa and even Billy the Kid! Great choices although I'ld watch my wallet if Billy was sitting on the next stool.
     But there's a variant of the question that might give some pause:
"Whose ghost would you care to meet in a dark room?"
     For me that's an easy one. It would have to be David Pitkin.
     Pitkin was well known locally. He was born in Corinth in 1939, lived in Washington County for a time and died in Chestertown in 2013. He was a teacher for thirty-six years finishing his career in Saratoga Springs. After retirement he moved on to writing and publishing books, with something like ten titles to his credit. By any reckoning his was a full life well-lived. Yet it was a life obsessed with death, or more precisely, with what follows death.

David Pitkin - web image

     While ghost stories are a popular genre, Pitkin brought a singular thoughtfulness and sensitivity to the realm. 
His motto was"enlighten, don't frighten". He saw ghosts as former humans with unfinished business on earth and treated them with dignity and respect. It's a more nuanced approach than the typical Halloween fare we're inundated with and in its gravitas, it's more affecting. To him death was best seen as the world that follows what we call 'life'. He has been called a philosopher of death and its aftermath.

     After publishing his first book, Saratoga County Ghosts, in 1998 he was frequently contacted by people eager to tell their own haunted stories to a sympathetic listener. By the end of his life he had interviewed close to two thousand people, doing extensive research and often visiting the sites where ghosts had been seen.

Washington Academy in Salem - Haunt of the 'Grey Man' ?

     Sites like Salem's Washington Academy where he tells of the 'Grey Man' sometimes seen wandering the school's halls and of his own home in Salem which also had a ghost that he convinced to leave. These, as well as stories set in Greenwich, Hartford and Hudson Falls will have special appeal to those interested in Washington County. It is history writ small, down to the level of the all but forgotten individual "with unfinished business on earth". And it bears mentioning that Pitkin died leaving an incomplete manuscript he had been working on. 


     Working somewhat the same vein but in a different style is Vermont's Joesph Citro. He too has many books to his credit and while I don't have it in front of me right now, in one of them I remember reading the story of how Ghost Hollow got its name. The woods and swamps across the Poultney River from Whitehall have always had a spookiness about them and Citro's tale only adds to the eery feel.

Goggle Earth looks down at Ghost Hollow from a safe distance

Joe scaring himself silly

One of his many books

     Some stories are just better told live and Whispering Bones has become a Halloween storytelling tradition in Cambridge. Kelvin Keraga, Siri Allison and others will scare you on Wednesday, October 30 at 7:30 pm. This years event takes place at Argyle Brewing's Cambridge Depot tap room. Who knows? maybe the ghost of Billy the Kid will stop by for a beer.

Would you buy medicine from this man?
Whispering Bones master of ceremonies - Dr. Erastus


     The scariest place in Washington County? You get there by turning off Rt. 22 onto Quarry Road in Comstock. The hulking fortress on your right is the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, aka the Comstock maximum security prison. A little ways down the dirt road you'll see a small enclosed cemetery on the right. This is where some of the founding families of the area are buried. If you keep going a little farther you'll come to a second graveyard with a rough stone wall around it and gorgeous views across the valley to the Adirondack foothills. Some of the stones date to the 1700's but towards the back is a grassy area surrounded by a hedge of Northern White Cedar. Here the markers seem to be little more than small, eroding squares of cement with numbers and dates but no names. I believe this to be the final resting place of inmates who died in the prison and presumably didn't have any family to claim their bodies. If ever there were souls with "unfinished business", it must be those lying here. In some ways, it is one of the most beautiful spots I know. But when you think about the cruel, wasted lives of those buried under little chunks of cement, the place can chill you to the bone. 

Quarry Road and the first cemetery

The second cemetery on Quarry Road

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Have a 'Rice' Day

     With Labor Day a distant memory and summer rapidly fading I thought it would be a good time for a quiet paddle on the Hudson River.
     Wrong again.
     No sooner had I launched from the southern end of Lock 6 in Fort Miller when the sharp "SKEWK" of a green heron rocked my boat. There were two of them and they were not happy. I was just lazily drifting along the east bank, with no evil intent whatsoever,  but the birds were having none of it. They hopscotched just ahead of me loudly voicing their irritation at my invasion of their territory. 
     Eventually I must have crossed some invisible boundary because the herons declared victory and things settled down. That's when a flock of ducks exploded out of nearby cattails with raucous quacking. This was good for a sharp spike in my heart-rate so I decided to slip into a shallow bay to calm down. I was idly enjoying the scenery when I happened to look down to see the heavy weight champion of the snapping turtle world submerged just a few inches below my boat. He was about half as big as the little 12' solo canoe I was in. I had recently found an Old Town Pack on Craigslist and this was one of my first outings in the tiny craft. I was still getting used to its balance and stability, a little nervous to begin with, and the prospect of Snappy breaching like a whale and flipping me over only added to my jitters.
     Maybe that's why a great blue heron decided to distract me by flapping out of a nearby tree and flying just feet over my head, croaking ferociously the whole time. By then I was like a Bond martini, 'Shaken, not stirred'. Having totally disrupted the ecology on one side of the river, I decided to cross over to the opposite bank in search of a little serenity. That worked for a bit but I soon found myself in the churning waters below the Crockers Reef rapids. Maybe it was just an illusion of the waning daylight but that's when I swear I saw the ghost of Israel Putnam running the whitewater in his bark canoe, just beyond reach of a hail of arrows! I sure was enjoying my nice quiet evening paddle... 

     To access this part of the Hudson you can leave your vehicle at Mill Park and carry a boat the quarter mile or so to a rocky point where the canal and river merge. As you paddle downstream, the eastern shore is literally the new kid on the block. These are 'made' lands, built from shale excavated when the canal was dug over a hundred years ago. There are five or six acres here owned by the New York State Canal Corporation, with some of it leased to nearby homeowners. Our good friends, the Cushings, have built an attractive deck and dock on this shoreline. Other sections are wilder. It's interesting to see how plants have colonized what was essentially bare ground not too long ago.

Purple loosestrife and yellow sneezeweed share a moment on the 'spoils' shore

     Just beyond the area of canal spoils you'll see a patch of emergent vegetation growing out of shallow water. These are wild rice beds and well worth exploring. Wild rice (Zizania aquatica), while not necessarily rare, is not common either. It's a semi-aquatic grass that grows in quiet water two to four foot deep. The plant is a native annual only related to the familiar white rice in that they are both in the grass family. 

The wild rice beds seen from shore

     Maturing in fall, wild rice is a favorite food of both people and waterfowl. It may be one of the reasons this section of the river hosts so many ducks and geese. Harvesting wild rice is a cherished tradition among the Ojibwa of northern Minnesota. They drift amongst rice beds in a canoe, bending the plants into the boat and gently tapping them with 'knockers' to collect the prized grain which has no gluten, is high in antioxidants and may lower cholesterol. 

Then and...

Web images

     That's the way it's been done for millennia but today most of the wild rice found in stores is grown commercially in California and harvested with a combine. Native Americans refer to this disparagingly as 'paddy rice', lacking the delicate flavors and textures of the true wild variety. I wouldn't advise harvesting the small Fort Miller beds with a combine or a canoe. Best to leave them for the birds and to self-propagate. 

It's wild (rice) out here

     A little ways further you'll see Slocum Creek flowing into the Hudson from the east. The area is lush with aquatic vegetation. This stream drains a small watershed between the Taconic hills and the river. You can paddle a short distance up it to where shale outcrops block the way. On the other side of Rt. 4 are old abutments where the original Champlain Canal crossed the creek. You might also see the path of an abandoned trolley line that paralleled the canal. Further up its coarse Slocum has cut a deep ravine that looks interesting but is on private property and off-limits. At one point up East Road Slocum Creek and the Moses Kill are close to merging. Stay tuned to see what happens there over the next few thousand years.

     A project to rebuild a small bridge connecting two sections of River Road is currently underway where the creek flows into the Hudson. This would be a great place for a small parking spot and canoe launching site but I doubt it will happen. Access for paddlers and fishermen seems to be the last thing on the mind of engineers when they design bridges and that is a shame. Small car-topped kayaks have become ubiquitous and people want places to put them in the water. Washington County spends tax dollars encouraging people to visit and recreate here but when they come they're more likely to be greeted by POSTED signs than by easy access to the area's natural attractions. 

The Barn on Snappy's bay

     There's a small island just offshore from the mouth of Slocum Creek and a short distance further is a little tucked in bay (Snappy's home) where you can see the attractive Barn at Bassett House Retreat Center. Below this point the river narrows somewhat, pinched by shale ledges on the eastern shore. Kids used to have a rope swing here, attached to a big oak tree and good for a swooping thrill. For some reason the tree was cut down. Wouldn't want anyone having good old-fashioned fun now, would we...

Shale ledges, no swinging allowed

     You can easily paddle downriver to Lock 5 and Hudson Crossing Park on this flatwater stretch. Indeed, by using the canal locks you could conceivably go all the way to the Atlantic (and beyond) without ever getting out of your boat. Maybe someday, but on my short outing I headed over to the western shore crossing the line between Washington and Saratoga County somewhere in the middle of the river. Thankfully, no border wall here. At least not yet.

     In a role reversal of sorts the Saratoga County side is actually less developed, more natural than the Washington County side. Here you'll find wooded banks sloping down to the water. There are shallow, beach like stretches - not exactly sandy but not mucky either - that invite a swim. One feature to look for is an enchanting little alcove where Pecks Creek drops over ledges before flowing into the Hudson. I believe this is on the Foster farm because I remember having big fun sliding into the water here with Tom and Jack. That was many years ago when we were kids.

     As you paddle past outcrops, notice how the layered shale is tilted at angles. These rocks were originally horizontal, formed when sediments eroded off the Taconics settled into a sea filled trough. Subsequent tectonic forces cracked and shifted the formation. In ridges on my farm I've observed harder, more resistant layers of mudstone in the shale. Along with erosion, these factors lead to some topographic relief in what is essentially a lowland valley.
     Crockers Reef is a good example. Here the buckled shale has formed a geologically temporary obstacle to the Hudson's flow. It bridges between the hamlet of Fort Miller and what's called Harris's to the west. And it's the reason both locales exist because the drop creates water power that has been exploited for centuries. Before that it may have been a fording site with an actual fort built on the Saratoga County side just above the rapids.

     On the evening of my paddle I returned to Lock 6 by crossing at the bottom of the reef. The water boils and surges here, a little intimidating but not really dangerous. In times of low flow I've actually been able to paddle (hard) up into the rapids where you can get out and (carefully) rock hop around. But that pales compared to a story told about Israel Putnam's adventure here.

Israel "don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes" Putnam
aka Old Put

     Putnam (1718-1790) became a legendary Major General during the Revolution serving directly under George Washington. Prior to that, in the French and Indian Wars, he fought with Rogers Rangers. He was noted for his bravery and hair-raising escapes. At one point, Indians had captured and tied him to a tree, ready to burn their enemy alive. With the help of a sudden thunderstorm he managed to get out of that hot situation. Here on the Hudson he was stationed at the fort on the west bank. One day he canoed across the river in the calm water above the rapids. After conducting his business on the east side he got in his boat ready to return when he was confronted by a band of Indians on the bank above ready to ambush him. There was a brief moments stare down before Putnam swung his canoe around and into the rapids, away from his attackers. It must have been one wild ride because the Indians were so amazed that they let him go, even giving a whoop of admiration at his daring escape.

"Can't catch me here!"

     The scene was somewhat less exciting as I made my way back across the river to the take out. The only other people were a mom, dad and little girl fishing from the rocky point. All was quiet now with the only sound coming from a guy in a tiny canoe as he let out a little whoop of admiration for this lovely place.

     The Town of Putnam in northern Washington County was named for Israel Putnam.

Image from the Town's web site