Will Nixon and I stood on a low bank of the Hudson in one of its reaches near Saugerties, watching a bald eagle fly slowly upriver looking for breakfast. A kingfisher chattered nearby.
“I always think kingfishers look like toy Prussian soldiers!” Will commented, stepping nimbly up onto an uprooted tree projecting into the stagnant shallow water. Shading his eyes from the sun, he pointed to a Great Blue Heron standing motionless not far from us. Out in the deep channel of the river a barge moved slowly north. “How would you like to stand that still for so long?”
“I would feel like a zen master,” I replied.
Morning on the Hudson, clear blue immensity above, the sun glinting off the water. We had come to explore Falling Waters Preserve, an 168-acre slice of paradise that serves as a summer retreat for the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill. The Sisters have entered into an agreement with the Esopus Creek Conservancy and Scenic Hudson that restricts development and creates public access to a portion of it.
After the monsoon conditions of the previous month, it was a relief to be able to walk outside on a dry day. (From Woodstock we had driven Glasco Turnpike, only to be stopped by a road closing. It looked like a bridge had fallen victim to the floods.)
Most days pass in a blur of routine, but when you have dedicated a morning to a good walk, your vision sharpens and lingers on everything. As we drove through Saugerties and made the turn onto North Front Street I was entranced by the way the morning sun caressed the worn brick of the restaurants and antique shops.
Three miles from town we made a left at York Street and drove up to Falling Waters Preserve. No one was around, and we had the place to ourselves throughout our visit. Large educational signs informed us of the history of the area and its special features.
We started out on the Upland Trail, a gravel road that passes a large hayfield. A roomy cedar bench was placed for walkers who wished to sit and contemplate the emptiness of the field. In the distance we could hear the faint roar of traffic, and its presence emphasized the quiet of the morning.
“It’s almost impossible to escape noise pollution,” I said, recalling a night camped out in Yosemite National Park where I thought I’d found the heart of silence at last, only to have my illusions shattered when a low flying jet passed overhead.
In less than a mile we arrived at the waterfall that gives Falling Waters Preserve its name. Ulster County is blessed with many fine waterfalls, the sight of which is both mind-cleansing and awe inspiring: this one — cut deep in a gully it had been carving for millennia — was particularly powerful, because of the rains.
There is another cedar bench placed above this cataract. I wondered if it was the work of Father Charles Jorn (1906-2002) who, during his October vacations at Falling Waters, spent every day except Sunday clearing trails and creating the park as it is today — using only a machete and a rake.
Watching the waterfall was hypnotic. The water boiled over rocks with immense power as it roared toward its meeting with the Hudson.
As we stood gazing out over the great river that runs both ways, I thought of the people who had stood where we were standing. Over 400 years before, Henry Hudson had sailed his tiny ship Half Moon up the river named after him looking for a short cut to the riches of the Orient. “It is as pleasant a land as one need tread upon,” Henry declared — and went home.
The land he tread upon was occupied by 17,000 Algonquian speakers who had been tending the land of the Hudson very nicely for some 9,000 years. They were called many names, but the one that stuck was Lenape, which simply means “human being.”
Paul Goodman dubbed the river “the Lordly Hudson” and its majesty is particularly evident when crossing its bridges.
The Walkway over the Hudson at Poughkeepsie offers the best view of the Muhheakantuck — to give it the name it bore when Hudson showed up — but I’m fond of looking south down river when crossing the bridge to Rhinebeck. Although I’m not fond of churches as a rule, I bless them for buying up the shorelines and keeping them pristine. Without the Dominican Sisters, Will and I would not have been able to enjoy such easy access to the river.
I imagined a lone Lenape, finished with hunting for the day, standing in this very spot at sunset, perhaps washing himself: he looks up and sees the Half Moon, rubs his eyes as we might at sight of a flying saucer. He sees what seems like an apparition. He does not see that the little ship portends the end of his way of life. ++
Once the site of a commercial ice house for river ice harvested during the winter and shipped to New York City in warmer seasons, this beautiful property has long been a retreat center owned by the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, a religious order of more than 375 women who work with the poor in 12 states and in Pakistan and Peru. Only a handful of women live year-round at the center, though the others regularly visit. For years, the Sisters have allowed local people to share their trails, but now they’ve made formal arrangements with Scenic Hudson to create a park. There’s a parking area, a visitor’s kiosk, trail maps, marked carriageways and woodland footpaths, and handsome new cedar benches along the way for walkers to rest themselves and their thoughts as they gaze across a wild grown pasture or meditate upon the falls themselves. All of these features were created for the Preserve’s opening this past July with volunteer help from the Esopus Creek Conservancy as well as the work of paid contractors. In our present era, when governments seem both bloated and starving for resources, we rely all the more on private, non-profit groups like Scenic Hudson based in Poughkeepsie and Saugerties’ own Esopus Creek Conservancy to partner with a willing landowner like the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill to bring us new outdoor opportunities like this preserve, where people may walk for more than a mile alongside the river. Over the years, Scenic Hudson has helped develop more than 50 parks in the region. As parks go, this one has been a hit. “It’s much more popular much faster than we expected,” says Steve Rosenberg, the Executive Director of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust. In a town with too little public access to its most majestic feature, the Hudson River, the walking public has found a gem. For information, visit the website: scenichudson/parks/fallingwaters