Monthly Archives: July 2012

Chasing Waterfalls and Fleeing Lightning – Adventures in an Adirondack Kayak

Be it by canoe or kayak, there’s something expeditionary about paddling –
When exploring unknown waters in a regular boat, you need bearings, knowledge of depth soundings, – and for most of the world, these factors have already had the mystery mapped out of them.

Not so with a kayak.  Moving in one, you can actually get into nooks and crannies unknown to others.  Making tiny discoviers that are yours alone.  And like an ancinet mariner, you guide journeys on speculation, word of mouth, and sheer curiosity.

The narrow brook rumored “to empty into the west side of the lake some miles northward, and is filled with turtles you can’t really see elsewhere in such numbers”, becomes, in a mini-way, a challenge to confirm or discomfirm; to see with one’s own eyes and report back- as if no one had before tested those waters.  A small island you come upon unexpectedly becomes a place to land and roam.  A place to plant your imaginary flag and claim as your own.

And when you come home, you have all the land marks plotted in your memory.  You also return with stories – of ghostly abandoned settlements on the shore, of the enormous heron that flew suddenly at your head –  of the beavers that met you at the banks of the river, and with whom you traded lonesome stares.

All this talk is grandiose, but these are the sorts of thoughts that begin to enter the head after hours on the open water, monotonously paddling, alone with the scenery and with your flighty mind.

Succinctly put:—  there is always something unexpected that happens when embarking on a kayak expedition, and sometimes that something can be truly magical.

-Especially in the Adirondacks – that rough, boreal range.  Mountains once the size of the Himalaya, all but their hardest stone worn away by the eons.  Ancient peaks scatter about the landscape and, in between them: timelessly dark and forbidding forests, and vast, twisted networks of lakes, marshes, and streams.  It is possible up here to journey hundreds of miles by canoe or kayak.  Even all the way north to the mighty St. Lawrence River; and conceivably all the way to Montreal.  This eroded dome of the northern sky has eluded the not-distant cities so much so that it remained virgin until the late 1800’s; — and even still, has parts that are yet to be really explored.

Today the goal is a waterfall south of the lake, on the Raquette River, a flow often referred to as the aquatic highway of the Adirondack.  We set off from town with the following words as our sole naviational aid: “move south as far as you can go – when the lake narrows you will see a small island, which is a nice place to rest upon; after this, you will see marshy areas: steer ’round the rock outcropping and enter the river.  Keep upstream until you reach a landing marked with a white ‘X’.”

It is a great feeling to be floating atop this vast and synaptic network of streams and lakes.  We hit the lake with confidence-  taken with our easy glide through the water.  No sooner had we settled into this lovely, jaunty pace, when a great wind pressed directly before us.  Our progress challenged, we began to bear down.  And as the wind ceased to let up, we ceased to let up; and strained against it for hours, even as whitecaps overswept our bows.

Remembering a landmark from years ago, we cut across the center of the breezy lake and fought around a rocky point and finally into a marshy cove, sheltered from the wind.  Now stopping to rest for the first time after maniacally pressing forward, the mind began to entertain thoughts of going back – of cruising that great wind back to the comfort of home, and to a nice lunch; but —–  also to regret and “what if”.

This respite cut short by biting flies, we pushed onward, and came upon a small island (“…you will see a small island“…) Relief.  Then not terribly later, the wind turned merciful, and the landing marked with the white “X” appeared, at the base of an impassable rocky cascade.

Now a mile hike – to the Falls.

“There is always something unexpected that happens when embarking on a kayak expedition, and sometimes that something can be truly magical.”
We were elated to make the falls – lunch tasted so good, like it always does after succeeding a challenge.  The water was running low, and other travelers were swimming in the rapids of its outflow, bouncing all about the submerged boulders, and jumping from cliffs into frothy maelstroms.  We saw a man basking at the foot of the waterfall.

“I want to go where that guy is”

We clamored into the pool near the base of the cascade, wading into the surging whitewater, careful of boulders and the current.  We found a perch at the very foot of the falls.  An incessant blast of water.  There’s no natural power quite like it.  This was the reward.  The unexpected magic.  Full enchantment.   These turbulent pools became an oasis of innocense- none of us had had this experience ever before.

Happily having forgotten time, we indulged our reluctance to get on our way and leave the wonderful torrent.

Our inner clocks had stopped, and we’d neglected the minutes.

But now we were behind schedule and the weather beginning to foul. We sprinted back under a darkening sky and fickle gusts.  Trying to find the direction of the wind with wet fingers and monitoring flags on the rocky shore, wishing for a thread to tie on as a telltale.

Forks of lightning flashed in the distance.  The water, steely by the hazed sun that remained, turned metallic and alien.  The chop became chaotic.  We, out here in the middle, unprotected.  Fighting to get close to shore.

Then, the wind got itself organized and turned suddenly to the east.  By some ancient instinct, you know what this change of weather means –  you’ve now undoubtedly entered the storm.  The peaceful sojourn in the narrow, clean currents of the now far off Raquette River have turned into a jelly-muscled full-on push, and an ever-growing fear of the lightning.  By this point there were not many worse places to be than here on open water.

The wind was taking control of the kayak, despite my fight.  A sense of powerlessness crept in.   I was beginning to find myself helpless to the unharnessed forces around me.

Nature trumps all.
All of us, long since having lost each other, by some providence reunited near where when had started out.  Now there was huge rain, a terrific gale-  the middle of the storm.  Lying low in the boat, avoiding the lightning with a feeling of futility, we raced home.

Finally docking, ecstatic and adrenalined by the experience, now in the warm comfort of dry indoors, we reveled, like the ancient explorers, in recounting our legends –  The biting wind, the thoughts of turning back, the cavalier way of navigating, the frustration, fatigue, and how we were schooled by that damn storm.

But –  where our excitement really lied, was not in our travails, but in what we’d found.  The rest was great adventure, but every great adventure needs a discovery.  And for all the curses yelled into the weather out there, the fact was – we  discovered, by our design, luck, and folly, a place where we could swim under a waterfall for the first time in our lives, laughing with those closest to us.

More on the Adirondacks:


Cotton Candy – July, 2012

Cotton Candy

It was that sort of summer-
-wind that comes in
like a breath of cotton candy

From creaking boardwalks
and sand it comes,
filtered by the brilliance
of long long days, and even longer nights.

Tracing the American Revolution in New York City

Boston and Philadelphia are undoubtably, and rightfully, the two cities people most associate with the American Revolution.  It was there that revolutionary fervor coalesced into the formation of a new republic.  New York, however, hardly played a small role in the struggle for independence.

In 1765, near Wall Street, a protest against Britain’s oppressive Stamp Act took place at what would become Federal Hall, and not long after, New York saw the establishment of the first Sons of Liberty group.

During the summer of 1776, with the ink barely dry on the Declaration of Independence, New York became target number one of the British forces.  Previously unable to keep control of Boston, Britain sent its forces southward.

In Bowling Green, the town commons at the tip of Lower Manhattan, there stood a statue of King George III.  Upon learning of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, jubilant patriots tore down the statue and melted it into gun shot.  The fence which surrounded the statue still stands at the same spot today.

The Bowling Green Fence that once surrounded the statue of King George III that revolutionaries dismantled after hearing of the Declaration of Independence

During the same week, however, one of the largest fleets the mighty Royal Navy had ever assembled entered the Bay through the Narrows dividing Staten Island and Brooklyn (spanned by bridge only in 1964). Hundreds of masts covered the water from shore to shore, and many panicked New Yorkers, having never witnessed such an intimidating spectacle, packed up and fled the town in droves.

British fleet entering New York Harbor

At the time, the city’s population was 25,000, cramped at the bottom of Manhattan, and barely extended above Chambers Street.  North of the town were scattered a number of farms and estates- such as Peter Stuyvesant’s Bouwerie in today’s East Village, and the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Dyckman House far uptown (both of which still stand).  Rural Brooklyn was scattered with villages like Bushwick, Gravesend, and Flatbush.

To control New York was to control the greatest port and wealthiest commercial hub in America – but just as importantly, control of New York meant easy access to the Hudson River, which could be used to cut off the New England colonies from Philadelphia and Virginia.

On August 27, 1776, the British landed troops near the mouth of the Gowanus Creek (now the horrifically polluted Gowanus Canal).

The Gowanus Canal, once known as Gowanus Creek, and today horribly polluted.

The ensuing battle took place along rugged and forested ridges in the area of what is now Park Slope, the hills of Prospect Park, Sunset Park, Cobble, and Greenwood Heights.  A monument to the engagement stands atop Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn, in today’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Revolutionary War monument atop Battle Hill, Greenwood Cemetery

The Continental Army, under George Washington, did not fare well and were pushed back to Brooklyn Heights overlooking Manhattan island.  On the night of August 29, in complete silence and under the cover of a thick providential fog, Washington demonstrated for the first time his knack for narrow escapes across rivers (The more famous being the immortal Christmas crossing of the Delaware later in 1776)  The British force awoke to find that nearly 10,000 men had slipped across to Manhattan.  Over the next few weeks, however, Washington was forced uptown to Harlem and Fort Washington, a fortification that gives the modern neighborhood its name.  The nearby outpost of Fort Tryon, atop a schist ridge where the Cloisters are located today saw Margaret Corbin become the first American woman ever to fight and suffer wounds for the future United States.

Site of Washington’s secret escape across the East River to Manhattan (from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade)

In the end Washington had to quit the city and withdraw over the Palisades, the steep cliffs lining the Hudson River near the upper end of Manhattan.  It had been the largest military engagement in North America up until that point, and, despite the loss, proved that the Continental army had the ability and leadership to hold their own on the open battlefield.

The Palisades – lining the Hudson on the New Jersey side. Washington retreated from New York along these cliffs – across from the Fort and neighborhood that now bear his name.

New York became an occupied city for the rest of the War.  As such, it drew a great deal of refugees still loyal to the Crown. The port city already had a reputation of frivolous wealth and sin; and now filled with soldiers, the undesirable elements, especially prostitution, were drawn out more than ever.  Trinity Church, then as now a large landowner, held the area north of the church in what is now Tribeca.  The church proved to be a terrible slumlord and the neighborhood went to seed, earning the sarcastic nickname “The Holy Ground”.

There were darker forces at work in revolutionary NY, however, including the Great Fire which ravaged the city not long after Washington’s departure, leveling 1/4 of the buildings in the worst destruction New York has ever seen.  Paranoia must have gripped the city as both sides accused the other of sabotage, some even being executed for suspected involvement.  Nathan Hale, who uttered “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country”, was one of those caught up in the reactionary anger.

The Great New York Fire of 1776 in which a quarter of the city was destroyed

Meanwhile, one of the most repulsive episodes of the war was taking shape in the East River, at Wallabout Bay, where the Brooklyn Navy Yard now stands.  Here the British anchored hulls of decommisioned ships in order to hold prisoners of war.  The conditions were appallingly cramped – with disease and starvation running rampant.  More American soldiers died on these ships than in all of the war’s battles combined, and for years, human remains would wash up on the Brooklyn shore, where relatives would look for signs of their discarded loved ones.

Wallabout Bay (Brooklyn Navy Yard). – where tens of thousands of American POW’s perished on rotting British prison ships

Today, there is a Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Ft. Greene Park, which overlooks the Bay.

The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, Ft Greene Park

When the war ended, the last British troops in the fledgling United States departed from Manhattan.  As the last ships disappeared from view, an American flag was hoisted in Battery Park, and General Washington processed triumphantly down Broadway, along the route that today’s skyscraper-canyon tickertape parades now take place.

Along the route of General Washington’s triumphant parade into liberated NYC

At Fraunces Tavern (still standing), Washington held a farewell banquet for his officers, raising 13 toasts to the army’s valor and to the allies of the Revolution. (NY Morning-Post coverage) The day was November 25, 1783, commemorated yearly until World War I as Evacuation Day.  For a while, it was one of the most important public holidays in New York.  As they left, British troops greased the flagpole at the Battery in order to make it difficult to replace the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.  As part of future Evacuation Day festivities, boys would make a game of racing up a greased flag pole in order to be the first to tear down a mock British flag.

Fraunces Tavern – near Battery Park – Where Washington gave his farewell address to his army after the last British forces evacuated the US from Manhattan

As the United States’ first capital from 1788 to 1790, Washington took the presidential oath of office not far from Fraunces, at the same spot where the Stamp Act was protested twenty years previous –

Federal Hall – site of the 1765 Stamp Act protests, and of George Washington’s 1789 presidential inauguration.

As always, physical history is hard to come by in New York- it’s difficult to walk among skyscrapers and fathom that two centuries ago, at the same spot you are standing, muskets were being fired in the woods.  But the past in always there, just underfoot, and in the imagination, and in stories.




Incidentally, the British occupation of New York produced the finest topographical map of the early city.  The amazingly accurate chart shows just how rugged Manhattan was before urban expansion:

British Headquarters Map 1782