A golden mile of rail trail

“The walk to take today is the walk you took yesterday,” says John Burroughs in his signature essay “A Sharp Lookout.” One of my favorite everyday walks is on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail between Plains Road and Cedar Lane, from just north of mile marker 8.0 to just south of mile marker 7.0. This “golden mile” of rail trail traverses a rich diversity of habitats and landscape features, all within an easy walk of the Village of New Paltz.

One of the pleasures of this rail trail ramble is what I call the “water meadows,” a marsh of sedges and grasses through which a stream winds its way towards the Wallkill. It’s a good place to see great blue herons poised in the shallows, fishing, and muskrats. I watched a pair of muskrats this spring gathering succulent roots from a mudflat and swimming with them to their den, a burrow leading into the bank. This week I notice their reedy lodges, like thatched huts, built up higher along the stream’s edge, perhaps in anticipation of the coming storm and the high water levels it will bring. It is known that many animals seem to be able to sense the approach of a storm before humans do, so it’s not so farfetched that muskrats might be able to forecast the weather in this way. Not long ago I looked down from the rail trail at a very large snapping turtle plowing his way along the shallow streambed, as if he were dredging the channel. This week, at the same spot, I was serenaded by white-throated sparrows among the brown thickets of marsh vegetation, whistling their pure, plaintive “old Sam Peabody, Peabody” calls to announce their arrival here from nesting areas to the north.

This tributary of the Wallkill reproduces in miniature the classic meanders of the mighty Mississippi. The word ‘meander” comes to us from the ancient Greek word for a river in Turkey (called Phrygia by the ancient Greeks), whose sinuous course is marked by the loops we now call meanders wherever they occur. A stream such as this one, flowing across a bed of silt, develops meanders by depositing sediment inside each bend it makes, and cutting into the outside of the bend, forming a cutbank. The pattern is endlessly varied and complex, and constantly evolving, but forms in response to a simple, inexorable law of physics. Flowing water always deposits its load of sediment when it slows down, and carries it away when it moves faster. Since water flows faster around the outside of a bend, as the outside of a turning wheel moves faster that the inner rim, it naturally erodes into its bed there, and deposits silt on the inside curve. Over time, this process amplifies the bends into meanders such as those we see here. What fascinates me, meandering along on my walks, is to observe the variations this stream plays upon the theme.

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Continuing south past the water meadows I pause to admire the outcrops of Martinsburg shale, formed from clay deposited in shallow seas over 450 million years ago, long before there was a Shawangunk ridge looming to the west. One rock face, with its overlapping slabs, resembles a house wall sided with wooden shakes. One doesn’t need geological training to notice how the thin, flaky beds of shale have been tilted almost to the vertical in some places, and contorted by tremendous earth forces. This rock has, in fact, in the course of its long history, been affected by more than one mountain-building episode, each caused by the collision of plates bearing the continents of North and South America, Africa, and Europe. At present, the outcrops bear “hanging gardens” of columbine, whose yellowed leaves are still present in late fall, and the evergreen polypody fern, spinulose and marginal wood ferns. The common polypody fern rewards a closer look. Turn over a frond and you will find large golden “fruiting bodies” which contain the spores by which the fern reproduces. Seen through a hand lens, they look like bunches of golden grapes.

On my return, I notice the reddening leaves of a stand of scarlet oaks, and wonder how many will remain after the storm has run its course. Now that most of the maples have been stripped of their foliage, these oaks provide the most satisfying autumnal tints. I pick a leaf, and admire its deeply incised contours, which reminded Thoreau of a coastline with coves and promontories. As I end my walk, I can say with satisfaction, paraphrasing Thoreau’s statement about his native Concord, “I have traveled much in New Paltz.”

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