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.