Tuesday, April 28, 2020

On Track?

     "Well, on a train, I met a dame"

     The opening line, not to mention the title of the old blues number Train Kept a Rollin' is all about male fantasy. But the song is fantasy in more ways than one. In truth, not so many trains are rolling as in the past. Cars, trucks and changing economics are to blame. The result - abandoned rail corridors - can be both a loss and an opportunity.
     The loss is that rail can be the most efficient way to move heavy stuff. And a pretty good way to move people as well. I remember, many years ago, the senior Doc Ellmers telling me about a trans-Canada rail trip he and his wife took. He said it was one of the great experiences of his life and ever since I've wanted to go for a long distance train ride. Who knows? maybe some day I'll hop on board at Fort Edward and enjoy the scenic route along Lake Champlain to Montreal and back. But that would take a free day or two so I'm not holding my breath. 

Between a rock and a wet place - web image

     But what about the opportunity? Across the country many of these former lines have been turned into recreational trails. Currently, there are ongoing discussions about the unused stretch from Saratoga up to North Creek and beyond. A trail is one of the options being considered, while in the heart of the Adirondacks many want to see the rail bed from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake converted for biking and hiking. To the south, in the Hudson Valley, sections of the Empire State Trail are built on old rail rights of way.

     In eastern Washington County a long running tale of rail abandonment has been playing out along the border. The line was built in the mid-1800's connecting Eagle Bridge, New York with Castleton, Vermont. It used the valleys of the Owl Kill, Battenkill, White Creek and Indian River to weave a lowland route thru the Taconic hills. Trains were kept busy hauling passengers, slate and marble well into the 1900's, but then came a period of slow decline. The D&H system ran off the financial tracks in the 1970's and the last rail cars rolled in 1980. 

The train doesn't stop (or go) here anymore - an old trestle across White Creek

     The line was subsequently mothballed with its future uncertain. Eventually it was determined that rail was no longer feasible and Vermont converted two non-contiguous sections totaling about 20 miles into a recreation trail. Apparently there were questions about who owned the bed's right of way in New York so the trail was never completed. After many years these issues have been resolved and now there is a renewed push to finish the trail, making it continuous from Salem thru Granville and on to Castleton. Details of the plan can be found here.

       Screen shot from trail feasibility study

     The cultural attitudes revealed by both support and opposition to this project could fill a small book. I've got spring crops to plant so there will be no book forthcoming from me, but I would like to share a few observations. 
     People aren't plants, we're not rooted in place. Moving thru the world is essential to our survival, to who we are. Trails make that movement easier and perhaps we should think of all our highways, canals and rail lines as simply different types of trails. In cities and villages sidewalks function as pedestrian 'trails'. In the mountains you'll find hiking trails, often leading to views and scenic spots. But in rural, agricultural areas walking seems less common. The distances are greater and the idea of leisure recreation is looked upon with suspicion by people who do hard physical work. In the country the internal combustion engine rules and motorized travel has become the norm: cars and trucks on the road and ATV's and snowmobiles off-road.

Ready to rip

     In the more developed parts of our region trails are very popular. Think of the Warren County Bike Path, the Betar Walkway in South Glens Falls, the Spring Run Trail and Bog Meadow Trail near Saratoga. In Essex County, just to the north, the homegrown CAT trails are embraced by locals and visitors alike. And how do you explain Vermont's quick conversion of its D&H segments to rec trail while in Washington County the project languished or even faced opposition.

The trail near Rupert, Vermont

     I'm not sure how many walkers, bikers and skiers a rec trail in a rural area would attract. Personally, I find the straight and level of converted rail somewhat boring. I will admit to being bad and using the existing rail line between Greenwich and Salem to access swimming holes on the Battenkill. But that section is still in active, if light use by trains and is not being considered for a trail. If it were to become available in the future its proximity to the river would make it highly desirable for recreation.

Rail and river (on left beyond trees) at Battenville

     Where I see real potential is in building an equestrian trail network in Washington County. Horses just seem to fit here. They are part of the culture of the place and a robust trail riding industry would bring many economic benefits. Stables that offered trail rides would in turn use the services of veterinarians, farriers, feed and tack suppliers and farmers who grow hay and straw (full disclosure - I'm one of those farmers).

Ready to ride - east side of Lake George

     It is simply using Washington County's long agrarian heritage to supply a new 'product' - quiet relaxation on the back of a horse. The forest preserve trails at Dacy Clearing in Fort Ann are already popular with riders. When completed the Empire State Trail along the canal will be another option. Add the D&H rail trail and you begin to have real potential. Beyond that there's a need to retain the county's many quiet dirt roads and perhaps add some connectors to create interesting loops. 
     It would take vision and leadership, work and investment to make the county truly horse (and rider) friendly. But the rewards could be worth it. Maybe it's time to back away from some of our high octane "wroom - wroommm" habits and return to older, simpler ways. As the saying goes "The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man".   

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Argyle Wet/Argyle Dry

Web image

     People will tell you that Argyle became a wet town on election day last November. That's when voters rescinded a long standing prohibition on the sale of alcohol. True but not the whole truth. From a naturalist's perspective, what is now Argyle became wet with the waning of the last glacier some 13,000 years ago. All that melting ice - it was up to a mile thick! - flooded the landscape for hundreds of years. And even after the ice sheet had wasted far to the north it left behind a topography that didn't drain all that well.

Argyle - ice sculpted hill and hollow

     Glaciers aren't just frozen water. They also carry a load of rock and dirt that gets scrapped up and embedded as the advancing ice flows across the land. With warming and melting this load is dumped back on the scoured surface in a variety of forms  including kames, outwash, eskers, deltas, moraines and till. 
     Rain and snow have been falling on this landscape ever since and gravity has been pulling all that water inexorably to the sea. But it's not an easy commute. The combination of a rumpled bedrock surface along with the overlay of glacial carnage creates an obstacle course that every drop of runoff must navigate. And this in turn has resulted in a fascinating variety of wetlands, ponds, lakes, streams and rivers.

     There is something rejuvenating in the sound of running water. As winter drips into spring I get the urge to walk by splashing brooks and sit beside waterfalls. You can do this anywhere (and you should) but in this post I'll share a little of what I've seen in central Washington County. In wet Argyle.
     Let's start with the concept of watersheds. Every drop that leaves Argyle is destined to end up in the Atlantic Ocean but not all take the same route. Most of the town slopes toward the Hudson River where it's a straight shot south to New York Harbor. But in the northern reaches of town the tilt is in the opposite direction. Here the headwaters of Wood Creek begin a journey towards Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River that could last hundreds of years, with most of that time being spent in the big lake.

Different directions - these two wetlands in the northwest corner of Argyle are only separated by a low knoll but the top one drains to the Hudson via Dead Creek and the Moses Kill while the bottom one is the source of north flowing Wood Creek. This water will make its way thru Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence.

     Even within the parts of Argyle that drain to the Hudson there are a variety of paths. The Moses Kill system is the biggie but to the east some water flows into both Black Creek and the Cossayuna/Whittaker Brook valley. These in turn are tributary to the Battenkill which joins the Hudson near Schuylerville. Also of note is Slocum Creek which gathers itself in the southwest corner of town before embarking on a twisty route thru the hills towards its confluence with the river below Fort Miller.
     Drain the swamp? Just another promise broken and that's a good thing. There are a lot of wetlands tucked among the hills of Argyle and they provide many benefits including flood control, groundwater recharge and wildlife habitat. They are low spots where water is blocked from flowing freely thus becoming almost filled with sediments. Many were lakes and ponds when the first Paleoindians hunted and fished here 12,500 years ago.

Tamarack Swamp

     Tamarack Swamp is the reigning heavyweight of Argyle wetlands. Anyone who drives Rt. 40 towards Hartford has seen its sea of cattails that come right up to the highway. The swamp fills a valley that stretches four miles northeast of the hamlet of North Argyle. The southern end feeds into the Moses Kill while Hartford's Big Creek flows out of the north end near where Coach Road joins Rt. 40. The divide between the Hudson and the Champlain/St. Lawrence drainages lies within the swamp.
     A soil profile from Tamarack Swamp is revealing. From the surface to a depth of six to seven feet there is decaying organic matter. Then comes six inches of shelly, calcareous marl with deep silt below that. The marl layer seems to represent a period when this was open water filled with clams and snails. Eventually the warm, shallow lake became choked with vegetation and the organic muck has been accumulating ever since.

     Geologists view lakes and ponds as ephemeral landscape features. As sediments are washed into them they evolve into wetlands and then dry ground. Drive along the east side of Summit Lake and you can see this process happening. On one side of the road is the open water of the lake and on the other is a cattail wetland with trees becoming established on drier spots.

Summit Lake - open water

...and adjacent wetland

     I have fond memories of picnics at Summit Lake. With the farms never ending work a stolen Sunday afternoon here was as close to a summer vacation as we got. I remember a beach, diving platform and tree shaded lawn. Most of all I remember the huge pavilion and its candy counter. If I'd been a very good boy I might be given a dime to spend at that counter! Today the pavilion and picnic area are long gone and there seems to be no public access to the lake. It's sad to think that the joy this little lake used to bring to so many is now reserved for the few who can afford water front property.
     Summit Lake drains thru its adjoining wetlands and a small stream that drops some 250 feet into Cossayuna Lake. Argyle's biggest, Cossayuna is quite shallow with an average depth of only twelve feet - well on its way to becoming a wetland. The outlet stream, Whittaker Brook, flows thru several small impoundments and an extensive marsh in Carter Pond Wildlife Management Area. Four mile long Cossayuna is ringed with private camps but does have a DEC boat ramp. Fishing for warm water species is said to be good.

Cossayuna and Big Island looking south

     Also worthy of mention is tiny Mud Pond. It sits at almost the same elevation as Summit Lake but is several miles to the northeast. From the road you can see a little open water surrounded by extensive cattails...the same story of evolving from wet to dry. The pond drains via a small stream that has cut a notch thru Todd Mountain before flowing into the Moses Kill below North Argyle.

Mud Pond beyond the cattails

     You could say that the Moses Kill is what made Argyle. With the Taconic front range running diagonally up thru town there are plenty of hills and lots of gradient. Early settlers exploited the energy of falling water at a number of sites on the main stream and its tributaries. These industries are gone now but historians have documented grist, saw, cider, woolen and fulling mills as well as cheese factories, tanneries and a starch mill. One old feature that still exists is a beautiful stone arch bridge that carries the highway over the Kill at the north end of Argyle Village.

Gillis Brook - the power of falling water

     Finally, it's interesting to trace the tortuous route of tiny Slocum Creek as it wends its way thru the Taconic front and on towards the Hudson at Fort Miller. It heads up in some wetlands on the east side of Rt. 40 before crossing under the road near the Auction Barn. Then it drops briskly thru a gap in the hills beside Sullivan Road before flowing due south in a hidden valley. Eventually it finds a way around Gavettes Mountain picking up a few feeders as it cuts into the deep clays of the Hudson Valley. 

Slocum Creek

     There's a spot on East Road in the Town of Fort Edward where the Slocum and Moses Kill watersheds are separated by just a few feet at a narrow divide. It is possible that Slocum Creek could 'capture' the Moses Kill here at some point in the future. I'll be keeping a close eye on this spot over the next few thousand years. 


     Looking at all this water made me think about beer. That's how great minds work! My next thought was "I'm in luck". After more than a hundred years of prohibiting the sale of alcohol that all changed last November. Influenced by the craft beer boom and a couple of local guys who had to start their Argyle Brewing Company in neighboring Greenwich, Town voters made the switch at the last election.
     Agricultural Washington County has been dependent on dairy farming for much of its economic activity over the last century. Too dependent. Dairying has shot itself in the foot with unbridled expansion and oversupply fueled by the availability of low paid, illegal immigrant labor. The result is a relatively few mega-farms milking many hundreds, if not thousands of cows and getting preferential treatment while honest hardworking families are forced out of the dairy business. Only in America...
     This trend has left many empty small farms and idled many skilled farmers. What's needed are options other than dairy and that is where craft brewing, wineries and distilleries may fill a niche. Highlander Brewing has taken advantage of this changing environment. Located on Co 47 mid-way between Argyle Village and Cossayuna Lake, it claims to be the only craft brewery in the state that grows its own hops and malting barley.
     I stopped by Highlander and had an interesting conversation with Rich. We had fun trading war stories about bagging grain on open combines when we were young boys. It was a hot, dirty, hard job that either turned you off to farming forever or convinced a kid that this was what he was meant to do. Rich and I are still farming but he had the good sense to switch to growing hops and barley while I'm still milking cows. Congratulations to Rich and Highlander Brewing for making Argyle tastily wetter...

Water and beer. Highlander Brewing and hop yard reflected in a pond

Dry Town Hops - another facet of Argyle's craft brewing industry

Thursday, April 9, 2020

A Line in the Clay

     It's a quiet day at Lock 12. One of the better preserved remnants of the old Champlain Canal, it feels unusually subdued. Normally busy Route 4, just a few feet away, has little traffic now. And you'll often hear frogs, see a few ducks and geese or maybe some turtles sunning themselves here. But not today. Life seems to be sheltering someplace else.
     But if you remain still, quietly listening, the lock may speak to you. A little imagination helps but I think I hear the clop, clop, clop of a team of mules pulling a canal boat. Then the teamsters salty language egging them on. And the creak of the wooden lock gates opening followed by the rush of water.

Web image

     Between 1823 and 1913 (when the wider Barge Canal was built) this little ditch was a busy place. Lime and potatoes, building stone and coal - it proved easier to float heavy loads rather than cart them over rough roads. From when this commerce was at its height to the years after it faded, America has seen countless wars, epidemics and economic upheavals. The canal was here when some people thought the moon was made of green cheese and you can still see parts of it long after other people have walked on that same moon.

     I spend a little time here every spring. I like history that you can not only read about but also walk beside. I'm impressed by the solidity of the massive limestone blocks. Their persistence is somehow reassuring. I'm drawn to places that endure, that stay the same. If I hear the cliche "Embrace change. Change is inevitable"  one more time, there could be trouble.
     From old Lock 12 it's a short distance to Lock 6 of the modern Barge Canal. The Hudson River serves as the canal up to Fort Edward but there are places at Stillwater, Northumberland and Fort Miller where locks and a dug channel are needed to bypass rapids. Even the 'new' canal is over a hundred years old so it's been here all our lives. But lately I've been wondering, will it always be here or is it just one more thing we take for granted but are in danger of losing?

Lock 6 in Fort Miller

     In some ways the canal seems a dinosaur whose days are numbered. There are almost no commercial barges and even small pleasure boat traffic seems light. The canal is well maintained but it must be very costly to operate and upkeep in relation to its use. New York State has a large budget deficit. There's never enough money and there will be less in a virus choked economy.
     There are also ecological concerns. By its very nature the canal provides a link between the Hudson, Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes. This mingling of waters has provided an open door for invasive species that are wrecking havoc. Most of us have heard of Eurasian milfoil and water chestnut, of zebra mussels and spiny water flea. There are dozens of others, each causing disruption in their own way. Some scientists think closing the canal and breaking the connection is the only way to prevent ever worsening infestations.

     My boat of choice weights a little over 30 pounds and is powered by a paddle. I don't use it on the canal all that much and never go thru the locks. The heavy soils from Fort Edward to Whitehall leave the water muddy from suspended clay particles and the straight, trough-like feel doesn't make for the best canoeing. But I do like hanging out at the locks and especially enjoy seeing kids fishing for catfish and bullheads.

     Perhaps the Empire State Trail, currently under construction, will be the future of the canal corridor. Certainly walking and biking are within economic reach of more people than a cabin cruiser. It would be great if a path along the canal became an integral part of a network of equestrian trails in Washington County. If, at some point, the locks ceased to function and the canal was closed to thru traffic it might still be possible to paddle parts of it. It could even be more attractive to canoeists and kayakers than it is now.

Empire State Trail pedestrian bridge over Slocum Creek in Fort Miller

     It's so easy to become complacent. To take things for granted. Health, security, political stability, peace. Freedoms. Being able to go when and where we want, to assemble and socialize with whoever we want. If any good comes out of these dark times it may be an enhanced sense of gratitude. An awareness of how good life here has been. A knowing that in other times and other places simple existence is far from guaranteed. There are days when a sense of foreboding creeps over me. Not just for the canal, but for America as well. 

Looking for light at the end of the tunnel

Deeper into the canal...

     There are numerous guides and memoirs to both the old and new canal. With local libraries closed indefinitely, you could try the Washington County Historical Society's online bookstore. I remember enjoying a book by Captain Fred Godfrey that I believe they stock. And here's a link to an online PDF that has lots of useful canal info, much of which is helpful to paddlers. Finally, this post's theme song has to be by Joni Mitchell. As we're all finding out, there are a lot of Big Yellow Taxi's out there waiting to take away the things we love.