For years it’s been a New Year’s Day ritual for me to hike to a waterfall, usually with family or friends. Waterfalls are inspiring at any season, of course, but after a period of freezing weather their ornate splendor is breathtaking as a Gothic cathedral. This year we returned to Awosting Falls, hoping that just two days of deep cold following a stretch of unseasonable balminess had transformed them into the icy sculpture we had admired on other winter hikes there. So we set out from the Peters Kill parking area of Minnewaska State Park with a keen sense of anticipation. This waterfall, though familiar to us, is never quite the same on any two days, and this is especially true in winter. And the chance to be surprised, as well as inspired, is precisely what draws us to waterfalls at the start of a new year.
Awosting Falls is named for Lake Awosting, since that’s where the Peters Kill begins its journey northeast ward through the Shawangunks to where it empties into the Rondout Creek. Along the way it forms many cascades and pools as it flows over tilted strata of white quartz conglomerate. Surely the Peters Kill is among the loveliest of streams in our region, gliding gracefully in and out of the shade of hemlocks, dancing with the sunlight as it drops from one stone shelf to another. Of course in freezing weather the stream’s beauty is heightened by fantastic ice formations that encase its fast-flowing waters in gleaming crystal.
Our walk along Trapps Carriageway skirted sheer conglomerate outcrops that reminded me of the masonry walls at Macchu Picchu in Peru with their perfectly fitted stone blocks. Except that these vertical rock faces were formed not by human hands wielding chisels, but by the masonry of water, seeping into a joint (fracture) and freezing to wedge it wider till the stone split in two. Soon after passing this cliff we reached the Peters Kill, which the carriage road followed the rest of the way to the falls.
Along the way I noticed that the same rhododendron shrubs I had seen a few days earlier, when the temperature hovered around the freezing point, had curled their leaves tightly into tubes. It’s a fact that the rhododendron is a kind of thermometer, and a pretty accurate one at that: at 40 degrees, its glossy evergreen leaves are flat, and droop slightly, at 30, their edges start to curl inward, and at 20 they darken and roll themselves up like cigars. It’s the plant’s adaptation to resist drying out in the winter wind, and a reliable guide, if you have a rhododendron growing outside your house, as to how many layers of clothing to wear outdoors.
Awosting Falls did not disappoint us. Two days had given wind and freezing water enough time to work their magic. Now the stone cliff behind the broad falls bore an extravagant frieze of ice just above the plunge pool, and higher up was fanged with icicles. Were it not so cold, we might have stood there and gazed all day. But we continued on, after some picture-taking, following the carriageway as it climbed the slope and curved around to the head of the falls. Icicles had grown so large on the outcrop along the road as to begin to make a kind of ice “cave.” I resisted the urge to climb up into it, this time, but look forward to returning when its walls of ice are fully formed.
We were well satisfied by the beauty of the Peters Kill and its Awosting Falls by the time we reached the car we had left parked in the Awosting lot near the main entrance to Minnewaska State Park. It’s hard to say why we are so drawn to waterfalls, aside from their stunning beauty at this time of year. Perhaps their fascination lies in the way they seem to be in motion and at rest at the same time. The fact is that it’s not just the water but the waterfall itself that is always moving, though it seems to be suspended in space. That’s because a waterfall eats away at the cliff face behind its plunge pool. As it undermines the tough rock layer it leaps from, so that its edge keeps breaking off, the waterfall is slowly ‘migrating’ upstream. But for our brief moment of time it seems to keep its place, and to embody the illusion of permanence we often cling to even as we long to embrace what is new. Maybe that’s why we feel that a waterfall is the perfect destination for a walk at the turning of the year.