Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Trust Me

     Equinox is my anchor.

     The Vermont mountain roots me in place and time. It's there, dominating the eastern horizon from every field on my farm. I can tell the season by how far north or south of it the Sun rises. And I know it's the vernal/autumnal equinox when the Sun comes up directly over the top. From the west its familiar shoulder-summit-shoulder shape emerges out of the darkness as dawn approaches and at sunset I've watched it turn red, yellow, gold and then purple.

Equinox on the horizon

     The geography between my home and the mountain is the world I know and love. The Hudson River and the Taconic Hills. The villages: Greenwich, Cambridge and Salem. Farms, woods, wetlands and the Battenkill. Dirt roads and winding trails.

     And the mountain chronicles where I am in the arc of my own time on Earth. When I was younger I hiked, skied and ran up its steep slopes. Now I'm content to wander down low, still there, still feeling its immensity but not needing to challenge it.

View from the bottom

     That's what Gwenne and I try to do every year about this time. Wander down low on the trails of the Equinox Preservation Trust. The Trust manages a 900 plus acre swath of the mountains eastern flank rising up from Manchester Village. Last year, on an idyllic spring Sunday afternoon, the parking lot above Burr and Burton Academy was nearly full. I suppose that should have been worrisome but the trails here are so wide and numerous that distancing is not a problem. Back in the early days of the pandemic it actually felt reassuring to see smiling people without masks!

EPT hikers not wearing their masks!
Image from the EPT gallery

     The blue summit trail functions something like a 'Main Street', with other side trails branching off. I made the mistake of saying "Remember the last time we climbed the blue trail all the way to the top?" Gwenne remembered it all too well. She was eight months pregnant at the time, it was a hot July day and the way is unrelentingly steep. It had been my idea to go for a little hike. I like to joke that Holly climbed Equinox before she was born but Gwenne doesn't see the humor.


     In last years schizophrenic spring it had snowed a few days before our visit and it would snow again a few days after. But while we were there it was sunny and nearly 70. Prime time for spring ephemeral wildflowers and we identified at least a dozen with several mystery blooms thrown in for good measure. Alphabetically, everything from bellwort to wild ginger. Now, in any nature blog worth its salt, this is where you'd see a colorful gallery of flower close-ups. But not here, not with my sad photography skills and cheap little point and shoot. Better to go to Saratoga Woods and Waters   where you will see great shots, most taken in eastern New York but of many of the same species found on Equinox.

     Equinox has long been a mecca for botany enthusiasts. The reason is the geology - marble and limestone below steep upper slopes that bring down plentiful nutrients resulting in luxuriant plant growth. From just above the 1000' contour up to about 2600' is a natural community ecologists call the Rich Northern Hardwood Forest - perhaps the best example in all of the Northeast. Below that zone are reforesting farm fields replete with stone walls and old roads while above is high elevation yellow birch - spruce - fir. For the fit and ambitious you can hike up thru these different bands over a few short, steep miles. Or you can simply wander down low on trails with such whimsical names as The Snicket and Flatlander.

     There's a pond, a viewpoint and numerous small streams. There are also dog walkers, trail runners, mountain bikers and the occasional equestrian. These are trails for everyone but there are enough of them that you can find quiet spots where it's just you, tall trees and a whole bunch of wildflowers. Trust me.

* For trail maps and more information on the history and ecology of the Equinox Preservation Trust lands here is a link to their website.  



Monday, April 12, 2021

'Springs' Time


          In spring I sprang into my stiffly sprung truck to go in search of seeping springs.

   Don't you love the English language? One word, so many meanings. Of Webster's multiple definitions I want to focus on this one:

          spring - a source of water issuing from the ground 

     That's why, after some research, I did indeed pull myself (I don't 'sprang' so well anymore) into my truck to visit several area springs. In this post I'ld like to share a little of what I found.

     There is something almost magical about seeing water suddenly appear from out of the ground. Dirt and rock ... they are dry, solid, hard. How can a liquid pour out of them? The scientific explanation is that we're seeing one small part of the water cycle. That's the process where the Sun's energy evaporates water, it rises, cools and condenses into clouds and then falls back to Earth as rain and snow. Most comes down in the oceans, some of the precipitation becomes trapped in glaciers and some flows off the land in streams and rivers. Then there is always a little bit that soaks below the surface to become groundwater.

     The truth is that rock and dirt aren't as 'dry, solid, hard' as they may seem. Two terms are important to understanding groundwater:

     porous - containing pores or void spaces

     permeable - capable of transmitting fluids

     Some rocks (sandstone in particular) are said to be porous and permeable because there are spaces between individual grains that can be filled with water. Other rocks (shale, limestone) are not porous but they do have enough cracks and fissures to allow water to infiltrate. They are permeable.

     Swamps, ponds and lakes are depressions below the level of groundwater. A spring is groundwater coming to the surface in a continuous flow. In hill country the water has often percolated down to an impermeable layer. When that layer crops out on a slope the water emerges as a spring. Springs can be further characterized as artesian (where the water comes up out of the ground under pressure), as thermal springs and geysers where the water encountered hot rock below the surface and as mineral springs with a noticeably high concentration of chemicals dissolved in the water.

     Mention mineral springs around here and one word comes to mind. Saratoga. It's a place that owes its existence to its waters.Native Americans valued their perceived health benefits and Europeans quickly became enamored of them as well. A resort grew out of their sought after medical promise. Around 1900 over 200 springs and wells were being tapped. This overdrew the aquifer threatening to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Today there are only around twenty springs still active.

Native Americans carrying an ailing Sir William Johnson
to High Rock Spring

     The waters at Saratoga have attracted almost as many geologists as tourists. Despite many studies over the years the springs are surprisingly good at guarding their secrets. It is known that they emerge in an area of sedimentary rock that has seen displacement along northeast trending faults. On the west side of the fault limestones are at the surface and on the east side it's shale. The fault is vertical and the movement has been west up/east down. All the springs are along the fault or on the east side.

Limestone on the up thrown side of the Saratoga fault

High Rock Spring is in the pavilion with the fault scarp in the background

Not much happening on this early April day.
Maybe they wait till tourist season to turn it on.

     The water is cold (52 to 54 degrees F), highly carbonated (carbon dioxide gas), has a variety of minerals but with a particularly high sodium content (making them brine springs) while being low in sulfates. There is no clear consensus of where or how the water originated. One theory postulates a source as far away as the Catskills or even Pennsylvania, presumably being pushed by hydrostatic pressure thru cracked and faulted rock all the way to upstate New York. And despite the City of Saratoga's promotional literature, they are not the only game around.

This old map shows several area springs
with the arrows theorizing where the waters come from

These three photos are from Quaker Springs.
The pavilion with hand pump is relatively recent.
Nearby is a small cistern where mineral water seeps out.

     To the east and northeast, only a few miles away, are Quaker Springs and Gurn Springs. Both have mineral waters said to be similar to Saratoga's. Across the Hudson and into Washington County is the site of the Vita Spring in the Town of Fort Edward. At one time Vita was a really big deal. Today it seems to have disappeared almost without a trace. 

     I say 'almost' because if you stand at the intersection of Blackhouse Road and Co 46 you can see a line of willows leading off thru an overgrown field. They are said too mark the road that used to lead to the spring and bottling plant. In local antique shops you can still come across the occasional VITA labeled bottle in which the water was sold. The spring was discovered and developed in the 1860's when the site became a popular gathering place for picnics and parties. Chemically, the water was said to be similar to the Gurn Spring and those of Saratoga.

From an old geologic map

     The bedrock here is shale with a thick cover of clay. The carbonate rock that holds the mineral waters lies deeply buried beneath the shale and clay. It's curious that the water could find its way to the surface thru these relatively impervious layers. It is also interesting to note that several drilled wells in the general area also encountered mineral water. 

     The site of the Vita Spring is on private property and I don't know if it still flows or if there are any artifacts from its heyday to mark the spot. If you walk the lane leading from the DEC Grasslands parking lot down towards Dead Creek you will be close to what was once Washington County's homegrown version of the mineral water health craze of times gone by. 

Vita, where art thou? Do you see a spring? Neither do I.
Old maps would put it somewhere in the middle of this Google Earth image.
Co 46, Blackhouse Road and the DEC parking lot are upper left with Dead Creek lower right.

     Washington County's other well known source of mineral water is Argyle's Lick Spring. It flows from a hill side right on the Giddings Brook thrust fault that marks the westerly limits of the Taconic Range. It is said to have a disagreeable taste and odor from entrained hydrogen sulfide gas (think rotten eggs). The gas originates from the decomposition of pyrite (iron sulfide) in shale rock. Reportedly geologists have analyzed its water which has some similarities but also some differences with those of Saratoga.

     Perhaps what's most interesting about Lick Springs is its cultural history. The name is said to derive from herds of deer that came to 'lick' up the water. In the past it was a popular gathering spot for local people. Concerts, July 4th fireworks and large get-togethers lined the road with horse and buggies and filled the field that fronts the spring. While it is on private property there has always been a sense that a natural feature such as this belongs to all. An enlightened attitude that has enriched the community. For many years Harry McNeil cleaned and cared for the site. Now it's part of the Harold and Joyce Davis farm. They are gracious hosts who encouraged me to visit. Should you go, the courteous thing to do is ask before walking the short distance up to the Lick Spring.

     Local springs that issue from rock are usually small. Lick was just barely a trickle and I'm not sure if Vita flows at all. But there are other springs that have gravel and sand deposits as their source and these can be quite robust sources of water. Three of these were used as municipal supplies in the past and while there seems to be a move to drilled wells for public supply, the springs are still there spewing crystal clear water.

     The Village of Hudson Falls is built on a sand/gravel plain formed by the ancestral Hudson River where it flowed into post-glacial Lake Albany. This deposit is saturated with water and it seeps out in numerous springs where it is captured in a reservoir located between the Boulevard and River Streets.

     If you walk along the Feeder Canal Trail from the Rt. 4 ice cream stand back beyond the water tower the reservoir will be down a steep bank to your left. The springs emerge from the bank and feed the reservoir. In season the hillside is lush with vegetation and wildflowers, an oasis of nature created by the plentiful moisture. 

     A similar situation exists in the Town of Easton where springs and a reservoir used to supply the Village of Schuylerville. Here the delta deposits were built by the Battenkill River. The fairgrounds are on its level top and Rt. 29 climbs its steep foreset. The springs are located up an access lane from Co 113 (River Road). Water used to flow in a pipe beneath the Rt. 29 bridge to the village. This supply has been replaced in recent years by wells drilled on the Saratoga County side. The sands and gravels of the delta are highly permeable but embedded layers of clay act as barriers and the water flows out where these clay lenses intersect the hillside.

Feeling unwanted? These spring waters used to supply Schuylerville.
Now they flow under Co 113 and on to the Hudson.

     Another set of springs has provided the Village of Cambridge with its water supply for many years. They flow out of a similar aquifer...a large deposit of flat lying gravel. Called The Plains, it stands out as an unusually level area in otherwise hilly Washington County. Located to the north of Rt. 313 in the Town of Jackson, The Plains is outwash that was dropped by flowing water as the last glacier receded. A large block of ice lingered adjacent to The Plains and when that eventually melted it left a depression currently filled by Eldridge Swamp. The springs feed into the swamp and years ago a small reservoir was dug to collect their water.

The Plains

The reservoir

     The Gottry family managed the water source for many years but now a commercial outfit called American Waters owns it. As is the trend, wells were drilled and the open reservoir doesn't seem to be in use anymore. While there is no visible surface flow into it, a vigorous small stream flows out. All that water must come from springs that well up from the bottom of the reservoir. 

     There's a spot I like to visit just a short walk east from the water works. It's right at the wet edge of Eldridge Swamp, right where upland gives way to wetland. An old mossy log lies here, a demarcation between wet and dry. A spring bubbles up from beneath that log and I sometimes sit here for a bit listening to its soft gurgle. It's a place filled with the promise of new life, of birth. I watch the flow twist and wind its way downslope adding its waters to those of the swamp. From there it's on to the Battenkill, the Hudson, the Atlantic. To be here is to be present at the start of a great journey. Just a little hillside spring but it brims with freshness, hope and renewal.