“If there ever was a stream cradled in the rocks, detained lovingly by them, held and fondled in a rocky lap or tossed in rocky arms, that stream is the Rondout…My eyes had never before beheld such beauty in a mountain stream. The water was almost as transparent as the air,…so cool, so deep, so pure…If I were a trout, I should ascend every stream till I found the Rondout.” – John Burroughs, in his essay “A Bed of Boughs”
Contrast this description with the truckloads of trash left behind each summer weekend by tourists at the Peekamoose Blue Hole since the once pristine swimming spot was mentioned in articles and on websites about the Catskills. As the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Town of Denning, join together to cope with the mess, the latest measure is to put up signs on the road along the Rondout Creek, advising motorists that they will be towed if they park there.
“I never dreamed a swimming hole would get so crazy,” said Dave Brooks, town supervisor of Denning, where Blue Hole is located, adjoining the Town of Olive. “We’ve been getting an average of 800 to over 1000 people on summer weekends. It’s too many people for a little area.” Parked cars made it difficult to get down the road, a threat particularly if emergency vehicles need to pass through the region.
Following the 2015 publication of the articles revealing Catskills swimming holes, the problem was especially acute, not only at Blue Hole but also at locations such as the Mill Stream in Woodstock, where parking has now been forbidden near the popular swimming spot. This year, DEC has zeroed in on Blue Hole, where emergency regulations have been invoked, restricting open hours to one half-hour before sunrise through one half-hour after sunset. Portable restroom facilities have been installed for human waste disposal, along with a dumpster for all other waste. DEC now prohibits boom boxes, glass bottles, cooking grills, littering, and parking near the site. However, the crowds continue to gather, prompting the Denning town council to establish towaway zones.
“Blue Hole has been in issue for two years,” said Ed Ostapczuk of Trout Unlimited, which has been encouraging local agencies to address the problem. “Over a year ago, we recommended towaway zones. People have been ignoring the laws, ripping up the No Parking signs.”
Brooks said Denning, which does not have a police force, will rely on state troopers and the county sheriff’s department to enforce the towaway zones. “The park rangers are also up there on weekends,” he said. “We’re trying to rein it in. We have more meetings with DEP and DEC scheduled in October. We’ll keep going till we get this thing figured out.”
Wendy Rosenbach of DEC said Back Country Stewards from the Student Conservation Association were onsite nearly every weekend from May to September of 2015 and 2016. The stewards help educate the public about wilderness ethics and “leave no trace” principles. They also clean up litter. DEC has increased law enforcement presence of both Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Officers.
Meanwhile, city personnel have been lending a hand. DEP spokesperson Adam Bosch said he visited Blue Hole on seven weekends this summer, telling people to take out their trash and picking up litter himself. DEP is responsible for maintaining water quality in New York City drinking water, which comes largely from Catskills reservoirs, and Blue Hole is part of the Rondout Reservoir watershed. “We don’t want to see it degraded,” said Bosch. “We did water quality testing above and below the swimming hole, and we didn’t find water quality issues. But we agreed to encourage the public coming there to be good neighbors. If you’re from New York City, treat the water like it’s going to come out of your tap in a few months — because it is.”
Bosch said conditions were slightly better this year than last. “Rangers were pointing out the signs and telling people they had to park in designated spots, even if they had to hike a mile up or down the mountain — and they did! In June and July, I noticed a lot of people being better about picking up after themselves, putting trash in the dumpster the DEC had put there. In August, there was a noticeable uptick of people coming, maybe close to 1000 on the hottest weekend, and more trash being left behind. So we got out there again, the rangers, me, folks from the Student Conversation Association.”
Most of the people Bosch met at Blue Hole this summer were from Brooklyn or the Bronx, but he also encountered visitors from Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Georgia, and all over the Hudson Valley. “It presents a quandary,” he commented. “I know, as someone who lives locally, a large portion of our economy is based on tourism. Information is put out to invite people to visit our natural resources. But when people come to one particular spot, it puts a strain on those resources, and we have to figure out how to respond. I told people, ‘If you want to come back, make sure it’s as beautiful as you heard it was.’”
Blue Hole has been selected a 2017 Hot Spot by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a national non-profit organization that teaches people how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. The Center supports community-driven projects to improve conditions at Hot Spots on public land. For more information, see https://lnt.org/get-involved/hot-spots. Concerned citizens can also volunteer to help keep the area pristine through the Catskill Conservation Corp (CCC), which organizes monthly volunteer litter collection events held on the 3rd Sunday of every month from May-October. See https://catskillconservationcorps.org.
We can all help by not telling anyone to go swimming at Blue Hole.