Clellie Lynch: Exploring unheralded New York State park

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Last week, on the first cool morning in September, Danny and I head out a little after sunrise to Peebles Island State Park, a park of 190 acres situated at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers near Waterford, New York, where the shirt and collar industry once thrived. We live within a stream's flow of these great rivers, but have rarely spent time exploring. The time has come!

Soon after we cross a bridge or three, we roll into the parking lot in the shadow of an old factory, Cluett, Peabody and Company Powerhouse, the bleachery for the collars for Arrow and other shirtmakers. White detachable collars have gone the way of corsets, memorable now from movies set in earlier centuries. I do remember, "stays," those flat pieces of plastic that slipped into slots in dress shirts to insure perfectly pointed collars. Often they ended up in the basin of the washing machine.

The main building is an early 20th century red-brick, two-story factory with enormous windows most of which are boarded up. A towering silo, checkerboard with ceramic tiles missing here and there, overlooks the area. The lower outbuildings have windows with curtains and cars and bikes parked in front, so are presumedly occupied.

ALWAYS A HIKE NEARBY

Who knew this state park even existed? We didn't until my brother, Kent, gave us a Falcon Guide entitled "Hiking through History: New York" by Randi Minetor. I recommend the bird finding Falcon Guides to everyone, but had never come across their hiking guides. Research turns up plenty, no "Hiking through History: Massachusetts" though, only one for New England that includes Massachusetts.

The selected hikes are very detailed and each one includes the area history and what archaeological remains and relics may be seen. Camp Hero in Montauk is still graced with its radar tower, which, as a child, entry forbidden, I watched from afar as it slowly rotated to scan the skies, for, I thought, aliens. A few iron mining buildings remain along the Taconic Trail Hike not far from Bash Bish Falls.

No matter where you find yourself in New York State there's a nearby, relatively easy, hike (history included) for you in this book: the Tawahus Ghost Town in the Adirondacks; the Erie Canal Waterway; ravines near Niagara, Seneca longhouses along the trail at Ganondagan State Historic Site, battlefields in Saratoga.

At the Peebles Island trailhead not far from the bleachery, we follow the recommended Perimeter Trail that circumnavigates the island. The fairly well-maintained paths are dirt/gravel interrupted now and again by enormous, convoluted, toe-tripping tree roots.

As we meander down the path in this wooded oasis surrounded by urbanity, enormous oaks, some with trunks three or more feet wide, create a shadowy, leafy ceiling. A white-breasted nuthatch joins a flock of chickadees in the treetops. Where the sun does shine through the leafy canopy, wildflowers bloom. Large patches of snakeroot with those fuzzy, white flowers are predominant. These may be pretty to look at, but when the plant is eaten by cows, their milk becomes toxic. Much to his sorrow, Lincoln's mother succumbed to this poison.

The path rises as we come to the western shore, now about 40 or so feet above the Mohawk. The trees are sparser and younger. Acorns riddle the path. Pointy-leafed oaks, lobed-leafed oaks, chestnut oaks mix with maples, butternuts and beech. I see five pointed sapling stumps, obviously gnawed and timbered ages ago by beavers, but I can't imagine why. Did they drag the saplings down the hill or maybe over to the bluff and push them into the river. Very odd.

Standing near the edge, Danny and I scan the rocky flats finding a great blue heron standing, staring at the shallows. Many ducks, non-descript in eclipse plumage, dip and dabble where the water is deeper. A couple querulously quack: Mallards. We search in vain for shorebirds, but know now we should have brought the telescope. What were we thinking? The silhouetted bird in the dead tree on the far shore is a merlin. Danny is able to take a snap with the long lens and enlarge for identification. Not as good as a telescope, but definitely useful.

We continue along. The woods are quiet save for the pewees and waxwings; the views are spectacular. The green islets surrounding Peebles Island — Bock, Goat, Polderump and Second—are easily identified. Across the way in Waterford, church spires and three, bright blue, onion domes define the skyline. An osprey chirps. The bird soars above the water, its head turned sideways the better to see those submerged fish. A Cooper's hawk comes out of nowhere and zooms by, nearly brushing my arm.

The occasional runner, hiker, walker passes by, including a couple that points out where the eagles are nesting. We cannot see the aerie for the leaves, but three young bald eagles make an appearance during our outing. Further along, concrete and wooden dams traverse portions of the Mohawk creating these shallows and enabling engineers to control the waters in times of snowmelt flooding. Below the dam, the rocky riverbed is well exposed with patches green with plants, here a finger of loosestrife, there a spray of goldenrod and throughout spikes of grasses and sedges. I see movement and find four killdeer.

MANY QUESTIONS RAISED

At the south end, the river deepens behind the dam, home now to three wing-drying cormorants. A string of orange floats, each with a ring-billed gull atop, tells kayakers and boaters to go no further. On the opposing shore of Second Island, two empty hovel-ly duck blinds await the fall season.

Along the eastern portion are low rapids that become whitewater during snowmelt. At the top , the Hudson is visible, and along the northeast is the beginning of the Erie Canal. Back at the parking lot, the bird count is 21 species, seen or heard.

And we have many questions: Are there visible remains from the Native America village, the Dutch, the Peebles mansion and other inhabitants over more than 300 years? Are many of the woodlands in this area similar to those on Peebles? We saw only one coniferous tree among the wide variety of deciduous ones. Quite different from woodlands in the Taconics.

Alas, the information center is closed. The park ranger is out on the range. Time to schedule another trip to Peebles!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.




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