The trail to Vernooy Kill Falls leaves the road to enter a moist hemlock forest. As we traversed the rock-strewn, stream-braided terrain on a perfect spring day, we felt we were entering a world apart. And so we were, for we would cross two creeks and climb a moderate slope on an old jeep road recent rains had turned into another, temporary, stream. We had entered a place of shadowed silence, pierced by sunbeams in gaps between the hemlocks, punctuated by the leisurely singsong of a blue-headed vireo high above. Below us, a Louisiana waterthrush flitted in the ravine, announcing its presence with three loud whistles followed by a warbled twitter. I was able to catch a glimpse of this streak-breasted, tail-bobbling warbler playing peek-a-boo with me behind a log. My son dipped his hand into an eddy in the creek, which had evidently been partially dammed up by windfall debris, and held up the milk-white, gelatinous egg mass of a spotted salamander. These salamanders, like wood frogs, whose clear egg masses we also spotted here, usually breed in vernal pools, where their eggs are safe from predation by fish.
It was a shimmering day, and this seemed just the right place in which to savor its finer qualities: clarity, brightness, and the music of birdsong and running water. But we were clearly walking through a zone of devastation. Many large trees were uprooted on both sides, and some were broken off, ‘live-snapped’ ten or 15 feet above the ground. Some of these were massive trunks of hemlock, white pine, maple, white ash, yellow birch, and red oak, chainsawed by trail crews not long ago, so their annual growth rings could easily be counted. It looked like the work of Hurricane Irene, ripping through the region in August 2011 with winds that seemed to strike this forest from the northeast, judging by the way most of the felled trees were facing. One wonders how long the evidence of such a catastrophe will be visible on the forest floor. I suspect it will persist for centuries, slowly taking the muted form of “pillow and cradle” topography that results, after many years of decomposition, from the trunks of downed trees alongside the craters where their roots were torn out of the ground.
After any disaster, however, there are wild creatures that benefit from the changes it has wrought in the forest. I was reminded of this fact by the aria of a winter wren, a long burst of melody that belies the diminutive nature of the singer. These tiny brown birds are master skulkers, so I hardly ever see one. But their songs, arising often from just such a jumble of blowdowns as this, where their nests will be safely hidden, are unmistakable. We also found a young garter snake weaving his way above and under the litter of fallen branches, no doubt also glad of the extra cover they afforded him. More recently gusts of wind had brought down the flower-studded boughs of red maples, full of sap, and some aspen trees as well, loaded with resinous, swelling leaf buds and catkins dangling like red caterpillars, dusting our hands with yellow pollen when we brushed them. These blossoming branches, brought down to the ground by a spring gale, might make a welcome repast for deer, ruffed grouse, or snowshoe hare. ‘It’s a ill wind that blows nobody good,’ as the saying goes.
Higher upslope old growth forest gave way largely to thickets of mountain laurel. We began to catch views of the Catskills in the distance through the bare branches, and felt we had indeed, in passing over the divide for the Vernooy Kill’s watershed, crossed a kind of threshold. We were now solidly in the Catskill Mountains, if only at their margin. The landscape had a different feeling here, and we could sense our proximity to the high peaks of Slide and Peekamoose. As if to mark our arrival at the falls, downy yellow violets began to show their cheerful faces among the brown leaves on either side of the trail. They were a welcome sight, the only bits of bright color on a forest floor that still looked like winter for the most part.
But the falls themselves, dropping some 60 feet in all down a series of broad sandstone ledges, were the ultimate expression of this day’s perfection. In the shining and shadowed waters that coursed down those rocks the brightness of April sunlight mingled with the somber tones of hemlock shade. The Vernooy Kill itself was stained the color of tea by the tannin-rich leaves and needles steeping in pools where we have refreshed ourselves in summer, but which now invited only our black Labrador retriever for a swim. From the wooden footbridge that spans the Vernooy Kill below the falls, we could see the 20-foot high stone wall that remains from the gristmill that once harnessed the stream’s power here, operated first by Cornelius Vernooy in the early 1700’s, and remaining in operation until 1809. It was the power of falling water to grind grain that first attracted settlers from Europe to this spot, and one imagines the traffic of farmers driving their horse-drawn wagons here for decades, laden with wheat, rye, or corn. But now it is beauty’s power alone that draws people like us to this old crossroads, as a new season of growth and young life approaches, like a wagon spilling blossoms as it bounces over the bluestone slabs and cobbles.
To reach the trailhead for Vernooy Kill Falls, follow Rt. 3 (Samsonville Road) from Route 209 (about 1.5 miles north of the junction of Rt. 209 and Rt. 44-55) 1.3 miles to Cherrytown Road. Turn left onto Cherrytown Road, continue for 3.6 miles to Upper Cherrytown Road. Follow Upper Cherrytown Road 3.2 miles to DEC parking area for Sundown Wild Forest on your right. Blue-blazed trail to Vernooy Kill Falls, 1.8 miles each way, starts across the road from the parking area.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (email@example.com) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.