Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Road to Death Rock

      No one is shooting at me. For that I am grateful.  

     It could be otherwise.

     I'm on Battle Hill, a rocky knob just north of Fort Ann.It's late October of 2020 and all I hear is the sound of traffic on Rt. 4. But if this were July 8, 1777 the sound and the scene would be much different. That's when a fierce battle was being waged in these very woods. 

     The Americans were retreating from Ticonderoga and had camped near Fort Anne. When the pursuing British forces reached the narrow gap between Wood Creek and the steep hill, the rag-tag army of farmers made their stand. They were able to stop Burgoyne's soldiers from advancing and by crossing the creek a little downstream they cut-off the escape route back to Skenesborough. American fire pushed the British up the hill where there was a hot standoff until a band of Indians whopped into the fray. These reinforcements allowed the Red Coats to slink back north with their tails between their legs. The Americans, though victorious, knew their enemy would return with far superior numbers so they in turn retreated south to Fort Edward. Though they couldn't have known it at the time, their valor may have been pivotal in delaying Burgoyne and setting the stage for his eventual defeat at Saratoga.

     Reading about battles gives you the dates, numbers and positions but their is something visceral about standing on the ground where the action took place. From a ledge I imagine soldiers scared and out of breath, stumbling over the bodies of the fallen as shot meant for them thuds into a tree. Here is a place where you can sense the true horror of people hunting and killing each other. It's a sobering experience that can leave you shaken.

     I was on my way to Whitehall but couldn't resist stopping at another spot that always brings a shudder. A few miles north of Battle Hill, just past Kelsey Pond, there's a long road cut. The Rt. 4/Rt. 22 corridor extending up to Ticonderoga is a favorite of geologists. All kinds of rock easily accessible. Maybe too accessible.

     On the west side of the road is a large ramp that's obviously 'fresh'. This is where a huge slide occurred on October 15, 2012. It totally blocked the highway with an estimated 2000 tons of boulders. In a small miracle no one was hurt although several cars narrowly escaped being buried. But you know what's really scary? These cuts are popular teaching locales. I've been here on tours when bus loads of geology students were literally nose to the rock - looking, listening to their professors, learning. Can you imagine if the ledge had let loose right then? The thought gives me chills every time I drive by here.

Deere, deere ... heavy equipment prepares to clear the Rt. 4 rock slide back in 2012
Derek Pruitt photo from the Post-Star

       Drive a little further and, if you dare, you can turn right towards Comstock. After crossing the canal you come face to face with the massive grey walls of Great Meadow Prison. Can there be a more foreboding place? Razor wire and guard towers and eerie floodlights that pierce the night. People in cages. Anger, regret and despair seem to seep out of here and into the surrounding countryside. This is life at its worse, not a Halloween make-believe haunted jail but the real deal. I cringe just being near the prison and yet it seems important to experience and acknowledge its existence.

     On towards Whitehall with a quick stop at a small roadside cemetery. It's on the left, all but invisible to the thousands who zip by here everyday. This must have been a serene spot at the time of the first internments in the late 1700's. But rest in peace? Here today? Not likely with the incessant buzz of traffic. The place left me with an uneasy sense of disturbed spirits. Unlike the permanent residents, I could move on and soon enough I was back out on the road, back in the mad rush.

     The only difference was that I was actually going to Whitehall while nearly everyone else was going thru it on the way to someplace else. If there was such a thing as a transportation hub in Washington County it would have to be Whitehall. Canals, railroads and highways all converge here. In the past this meant great economic vitality. Today, not so much.
     A former car hop place seems to memorialize the towns reversal of fortune. It's been abandoned, decaying and kind of creepy for as long as I can remember. This along a strip where even the ubiquitous franchises - McDonalds, Subway, Dunkin Donuts - have pulled out. As Marie Kondo would say, "Whitehall could use some tidying up."

Fries and a shake? Maybe not

     Two of Whitehall's most famous (and semi-frightening) residents can be found in the village center, down by the canal. Henry Francisco resides in the Skenesborough Museum. Reputed to be 134 years old when he died, it's hard to tell if Henry is a mannequin, a mummy or the real deal just sitting for a spell. The museum is filled with neat exhibits and well worth a visit but the wizened Mr. Francisco is the image that sticks with me. He looks like something people would put on their porch this time of year to scare the willies out of Trick-or-Treaters. 

       Then there's Big Foot. Let's just say Big Foot is big around here. Books, festivals, likenesses - all based on some supposed sightings  years ago. Fun? well maybe. Kitschy? absolutely. Someone trying to make a buck? probably. But with Covid and opiates, with a warming climate and boiling politics, with nut-cases armed to the teeth you have to question the wisdom of encouraging people to be looking over their shoulder for a large hairy beast? It just seems to reinforce a sense of lurking evil.

He's everywhere...a few Big Foot sightings around Whitehall

     And there are other things about Whitehall. Stalker Road? Doesn't that sound inviting. Rattlesnakes? You either bemoan their persecution or rank them right up there with Big Foot as reason to avoid the area. Skene Manor? The local landmark sits high and supposedly haunted.

     Philip Skene is the founding father of the area. Thus Skene Mountain, Skene Manor and Skenesborough - an early name for Whitehall. In the 1770's the British Captain amassed holdings of  56,350 acres extending from Fort Ann to far up the shores of Lake Champlain. He built a stone house and barn on the north side of his namesake mountain, but they stood for less than ten years before being destroyed in the war. Being loyal to the King, he was on the wrong side of history and eventually lost everything.
     He had already suffered his greatest loss, that of his beloved wife Katherine in 1772. Therein lies the origins of haunted Skene Mountain. Legend has it that Katherine wasn't buried but kept in a vault above ground. You can imagine where that has gone. In Whitehall even Big Foot is wary of Katherine's ghost. For a number of years patrons of a tavern in Skene Manor could see her (fake) hand reaching out of a grotto. Made up stories created a lot of 'buzz' for the restaurant/bar. It's a 'buzz' that continues to echo. 

See something in that upstairs window? Ghostly Skene Manor

     While in town I returned a  book about the Skenes to the local library. "Kathi" of Skenesborough was written in 1914 by May Belle Curtis. It is historical fiction telling the family's story in the years 1774-1775. I had been trying to find out how Death Rock got its name and a local historian suggested "Kathi" might have a clue. 

     Death Rock is a prominence on West Mountain. West being the ridge between the village and South Bay. On my tour of scary sites Death Rock seemed a fitting finale. Little did I know how frightening my attempt would be.

Vintage post-card view

     The short version of Death Rock's name involves an Indian maiden and unrequited love. "Kathi" tells the whole tale. Since the time of the Skenes, for some 250 years, people have enjoyed the trek up the mountain to picnic and take in the scenic vista. It's part of the cultural heritage of the area. There is interesting geology, breathtaking views and, of course, the name/origin legend.

     An abandoned road that begins at the end of School Street has long provided convenient access. But on my visit I found a huge boulder blocking the way and POSTED signs plastered to the trees. It appears Whitehall has suffered yet another loss. A favorite outing for hundreds of years is no more. The simple pleasure of hiking to Death Rock has ... well, it has died.


     Halloween frights - ghosts, goblins, witches - they are fun. But for myself, and for others who love to roam wild places, the continuing loss of our shared heritage is scary beyond words. 


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Georgy Girls


Christopher Spangler photo

     Georgy Girl was a 1966 romantic comedy starring Lyn Redgrave. It featured a bouncy, hummable title song by The Seekers. I've never seen the movie but for some reason the song has stuck with me. Maybe that's why my first thought upon seeing this photo was "These are the new 'Georgy Girls'". Lake Georgy girls to be precise.
     In these pandemic times the masks need no explanation but maybe the pose does. The four women are whimsically demonstrating their swim stroke, a motion that served each well in recent Lake George swims. You may already be familiar with these athletes and their accomplishments. Perhaps you have read about them in local media. What's extraordinary is to see them all together, clearly enjoying each others company. 
     That's Louise Rourke on the left. In 2018 she did a relay swim of the lake that raised well over $100,000 towards eradicating polio. Louise was stricken by the disease as a young child (notice the leg brace) but has overcome its debilitating effects to lead a full, productive life. She has a deep love for Lake George and has written a memoir about growing up with polio and how liberating swimming has been for her. Watch for Louise's book which should be available soon. 
     Next to Louise is Bridget Simpson who partnered in the Swim for Polio and who also completed a solo swim in 2017. Bridget is a Ticonderoga resident who often swims from the Tiroga Beach. In my humble opinion this Washington County gem is the best beach on Lake George. Always looking for a challenge, Bridget has become fascinated with the idea of doing an 'Ice Mile'.
     The girl looking at the world thru rose colored glasses is Charlotte Brynn. She's originally from New Zealand but has been living in Vermont for some time. This summer Charlotte set dual records becoming both the oldest (at 54) and the fastest (just under 18 hours) to swim the lake.

Charlotte Brynn and Gwenne Rippon
Christopher Spangler photo

     Finally, that's Caroline Block on the right. She's done the only double crossing of the lake to date. 'Crossing' can be a bit confusing when it comes to Lake George. Many who spend time on the lake might think of crossing as going from shore to shore, east to west or vice versa, a distance of several miles on this long but narrow water. But in distance swimming parlance that's not what crossing means. Block actually swam end to end - a distance of 32+ miles - and then turned around without stopping to swim back another 32+ miles, spending over 52 hours in the water!
     The photo was taken last month at a book launch event in Lake George Village. Gwenne Rippon's Called by the Water - When Diane Struble Swam Lake George is about her mom's historic first swim of the lake in 1958. One of Struble's favorite sayings was "You never know who you might inspire". When you look at these four women I think it's safe to say that Struble inspired some pretty amazing people. I'm hopeful these swimmers will inspire a new generation to both protect the lake and rise to its challenge in the years to come.

Christopher Spangler photo

     In the photo above Andrea MacGloin is signing as Gwenne  speaks about her book. Caroline Block is hearing impaired and needed a little help to catch the stories about Struble, swimming and the lake. It struck me how someone can be so talented (Block has a doctorate, is about to take the bar exam and obviously has phenomenal endurance) yet still have disabilities. We all have strengths and limitations. Maybe it's the attitudes we bring to them that make a difference. 

     I like author and swimmer Sally Friedman's idea from her book Swimming the Channel: "...the feeling that this is what we do best, the most we can offer to those we have loved...". May we all offer to the world that which we do best while taking inspiration from others who do the same.

Louise speaking as Andrea signs
Christopher Spangler photo

     All the photos here were taken by Christopher Spangler/Down to Earth Aerial courtesy of Rotary International. Rotary has also sponsored Louise Rourke and is helping with the publication of her book. Many thanks to Rotary.