The Other Side of Time - Purple Mountain Press

Essays by "The Catskill Geologist"
Robert Titus


It's spring, and a young stream's fancy turns to erosion. All winter long snows have piled up, while ice has accumulated within the frozen ground awaiting the release brought by the returning warmth of the spring sun. Now the grounds are soft, and the waters are flowing into swollen and churning streams. This is the time to look for the spring torrents of Kaaterskill Clove.

The flow of most streams rises a great deal at this time of the year. Of course, not all streams are the same; they vary quite considerably. Geologists recognize a number of different types of streams, but I think that most of them can be classified into two of the most commonly observed categories: the mountain and the floodplain streams. As their names imply, these rivers have a lot to do with the landscapes that they flow through. However, it is not only activity, but time, which defines the streams. Floodplain streams are the workhorses among rivers. They are usually large and heavily laden with sediment, mostly sand, silt and clay. It's their job to transport this material down the river to the ocean. Floodplain rivers are found in the lowlands, and they flow quietly across flat valley floors. Floodplain streams do have their moments of excitement, especially during the flood season, but most of the time they are stable and predictable.

Not so the mountain streams. They are not the large transporters of sediment. Narrow, but active, their job is to erode landscape, carving deep, jagged valleys into the highlands. We describe them with words such as "canyon," "gorge," "ravine," or "clove." These streams are far more erratic in their behavior than other streams. They are wildly active and energetic. Their white waters tumble down steep slopes. We use words like "torrent," "churning," and "swirling" to describe their flow. Mountain streams are noisy, foaming, and powerful. They have waterfalls, cascades, rapids, eddies, and cataracts. The young and reckless among us challenge them with canoes and kayaks; the rest of us watch from the safety of the banks. But all of us pause for a moment when we encounter one; they have majesty.

The finest mountain streams of the Catskills are those that form the cascades along the Wall of Manitou: the Catskill Front. One of them is Plattekill Creek, but it's hard to get close enough to this stream to really see it. The one to visit during a Catskill spring is Kaaterskill Creek, the most accessible of the mountain stream gorges. One should begin the trip upstream, and then follow an increasing swell of water down the canyon.

From the east or west, follow Route 23A to County Route 18 in the hamlet of Haines Falls. Turn east, on 18, heading toward the North/South Lake State Park. Watch for Laurel House Road and turn into it before getting to the park. Hike from the end of the road down the trail to the falls. Here Spruce Creek, an upstream tributary of Kaaterskill Clove, plunges over Kaaterskill Falls.

Depending on what kind of season it has been, there should be a good flow of water down the creek and over the falls. If you get there early enough in the season, there should still be a great cone of ice at the base of the upper falls. You can see the falls from the trail which winds its way above the falls along the north rim of the clove. This should only be followed with great care as the trail is likely to be wet and slippery at this season.

You may well have already been to this site, but if not, you do owe it to yourself to make the trip. For hundreds of years, people have been awestruck at this location. There is an inscription at the top of the falls, probably carved into the rocks by an early nineteenth-century visitor. It's now long-weathered and incomplete but it reads:

Wounderous pla . . . n rocks lofty & torne . . . r agin down the rudged steep I don't know who the carver of those words was, or when he was at the falls, but I do know the emotions he felt there.

The trail system in this vicinity is very old, having evolved from the paths and carriage roads of the hotel era, and it reaches all the best scenic overlooks. Maps are readily available. To see the other major falls of upper Kaaterskill Creek, hikers follow the Blue Trail east to the Layman Monument or, better yet, to Sunset Rock. From here there is a spectacular view of Haines Falls (not the village but the falls itself), at the head of the valley. The waterfall is distant and often hidden in shadow, but if the flow is high, it can be seen.

I like to visit Sunset Rock whenever I can. The view here changes considerably, and so I like to come at different times of the year and at different times of the day. In the morning, mists and fogs often enshroud the valley far below. I don't like high noon when too much of the sun's glare is reflected off the foliage and too much of the colors are lost in the harshness of the light. I much prefer mid-morning or late afternoon, when the light comes in at a low angle. The colors are rich and soft then, and best for viewing. In the summer, the view will be lush with the season's greenery. In winter it will be barren, and gray or white; dark shadows of tree trunks will provide a sharp contrast with the white snow. Autumns here are breathtaking. Throughout the year, there is usually a haze as the air of the clove tends to be humid. But on those cool, dry days of spring, there is a clarity to the air that is unmatched during the rest of the year. Spring is a fine time to visit Sunset Rock.

Kaaterskill Clove has been a favorite of tourists and hikers since the early nineteenth century. This site also attracted many artists of the Hudson River School of Art, the first of which was Thomas Cole. The list goes on to include Sanford Robinson Gifford, Asher Brown Durand, William Henry Bartlett, Harry Fenn and many others. Even the political cartoonist Thomas Nast did some drawings here. A large number of our modern photographers have done work at these sites.

These actively eroding upper reaches of Kaaterskill Clove are typical of the mountain stream. The walls of the "rudged" valley tower above the stream. The primary erosional effort of the stream is to cut downward into the landscape. There is very little sideways erosion, and so the valley is narrow and has no flatland. This creates the picturesque scene that attracts us.

You can get a good intuitive sense of the greatness of geologic time on the Blue Trail of Kaaterskill Clove. The ages of the various facets of the landscape are well known. Look west at Haines Falls, the most youthful part of the landscape. It began to form after the Wisconsin Glaciation ended, freeing the clove from ice only about 14,000 years ago. Haines Falls has retreated up the valley a few hundred feet since that time. Kaaterskill Falls, which you cannot see from Sunset Rock, was similarly formed. There are other young features as well. Directly across the valley, several young canyons are cutting into the steep slopes of High Point Mountain, which towers above the south slope of the clove. There is less water in these streams, so they have not cut into the mountains as deeply as has Kaaterskill Creek at Haines Falls. While these three canyons are usually dry, they may be active at this time of the year. If so, look for cascades of white water plummeting down the slopes at extremely rapid rates of speed.

The great expanse of Kaaterskill Clove is much older than the small canyons at Haines and Kaaterskill Falls. Nevertheless, this is still a young valley and its steep walls, and narrow, white water streams are so typical of mountain streams. This canyon is associated with the last two great episodes of glaciation; that's young for geology. It's the first of these, the Illinoisan Glaciation, that began to scour the Wall of Manitou. After the glaciers melted away, erosion began to cut Kaaterskill Clove into the eastern front of the Catskill Mountains. All this was repeated during the next phase of the Ice Age, the Wisconsin Glaciation. The same story applies to Plattekill Clove as well.

Now look to the east where only a narrow glimpse of the Hudson Valley is visible. One immediately sees that the Hudson has a far wider and deeper valley; it is orders of magnitude larger and older. The Hudson Valley was already very old long before Kaaterskill Clove began to form. It is at least tens of millions of years older. In this region, only the Berkshires to the east and the Catskills, themselves, are older than that. They were already very aged, long before the Hudson River Valley even began to form-hundreds of millions of years old.

Return to Route 23A and drive east into the Kaaterskill Clove. Park at the sharp bend in the road, and walk down to Bastion Falls. Downstream, the flow of water picks up, and Bastion Falls is likely to have a greater rush of white water than you saw above. Now some of the real strengths of the springtime stream should be apparent. There is power to the flow here. The now raging current breaks up upon the boulders and turns into the white froth of the cataracts below. The current splits into a chaos of competing cascades. There is noise at Bastion Falls but only a hint of what we shall hear farther downstream.

Below Bastion Falls the stream levels out for quite some distance. Subtly, Kaaterskill Creek is changing; water is seeping into the stream along its banks. It is on this stretch that the river gains its full volume and strength.

Farther down the gorge is Fawn's Leap, the lowest of the major falls. Here the stream gets to display all of its might at last. The surge of the spring stream will occur at some time in March or April. When I was at the falls in the spring of 1994, the flow was quite impressive. The steady roar and continuous foam of the falls makes it a great spring season spectacle. There are different ways to view the falls, and one should never be in a hurry. The sound, smell and feel of the falls are part of the experience at Fawn's Leap. I like to climb down low (but not too low) on the banks below the falls where I feel that I am part of the scene. There, the might of the falls is projected in its sound as well as in its sight, and there is a freshness in the fragrance of the passing waters that I much enjoy. On a breezy day there is also the feel of the water's fine spray on my face. Whenever possible, I enjoy climbing up onto the rocks above the falls and looking down upon the flow. Fawn's Leap is not a place just to be viewed, but a place to be savored with all the senses. Geology is a contemplative science. Much of what the field has learned was produced by individuals who were long steeped in experience. Spend some time at Fawn's Leap, and you too may come to really experience the majesty of a mountain stream at this, its season of peak flow. Fawn's Leap can be thought of as a landscape machine. Look up at the walls of red sandstone towering above. These were carved by the same process of erosion which is happening within the falls today. It is this falls, and any number of its long gone predecessors, which have created Kaaterskill Clove. At Fawn's Leap you can come to truly appreciate the nature of the great chasm that has been cut at Kaaterskill Clove and the time that it took to carve it. This is landscape being formed as rapidly as it can be.

The spring torrent of Kaaterskill Clove is a must-see in the Catskills so wait for a particularly rainy spell of springtime weather and, a day or two later, do make the trip. A few words of caution are necessary. The spring torrents lure us too close to the edge. We are beguiled by their power and danger. The soils are loose and wet at this season, so please take great care when visiting this great vision. Too many of us have learned this lesson in the most bitterly painful way.

Meet the author, Dr. Robert Titus

152 pages, illustrated, 7 x 10, 2007
$15.00 paperback--a Purple Moutain Press original

Other books by Robert Titus: The Catskills in the Ice Age and The Catskills: A Geological Guide

Copyright © 2007 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.