Mohonk volunteer photographers do their part for preservation

This photo was taken at the intersection of two carriage roads on the Mohonk Preserve — Undercliff Road and Overcliff Road. It is adjacent to the new “Trapps Bridge,” which crosses over Route 44/55 in Gardiner. (Photo by John Hayes)

The Shawangunk Ridge is as photogenic a place as it gets. A staggering number of photographs are taken there. There’s enough photographic imagery that could ever be used to promote the Mohonk Preserve’s preservation efforts and to document visitor activities.

But even extreme beauty becomes commonplace with familiarity. Our sensibilities become accustomed over time to take for granted even the most compelling images of nature’s wonder on the more than 8,000 acres of Preserve mountain ridges, cliffs, forests, fields, streams and ponds.

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To provide updates of these natural wonders, the Mohonk Preserve sponsors a group of local photographers willing to volunteer their expertise. Currently numbering some 40 members, the Mohonk Preserve Volunteer Photographers provide the organization with a steady supply of new images capturing the many facets of the mountains. The images they record are used to build awareness about the Preserve. Their work contributes to the printed promotional materials and interactive slideshows at the visitors’ center on Route 44/55.

From time to time, the images are displayed in a gallery setting as a group show. The Gardiner Library is currently hosting “Focus & Light,” an exhibit of photography by members of the volunteer photographers’ group. The show remains on view during regular library hours through Thursday, January 31. For more information, visit https://www.gardinerlibrary.org/.

“Path Closed” depicts a spot just below Skytop Tower at Mohonk Mountain House on a wintry day when a trail was closed to access. (Photo by Ted Sendler)

Million-dollar rock

“Undercliff/Overcliff” by John Hayes depicts the intersection of Undercliff and Overcliff roads, two carriage roads that come together on the Mohonk Preserve. “What I liked about the scene when I came across it, was that the snow was still in the hooks of the trees, even though the sun had already started to come out,” he says. “The idea for this image was to try and capture the shadow and light, and the general feeling of quiet ambiance I felt coming across the scene that morning.” The spot is also interesting, he notes, because the large rock seen on the right side of the image is known in local lore as “the million-dollar rock,” because “it’s said that that’s how much it cost to leave that rock where it was while they blasted out Route 44/55 through the notch.”

Hayes enjoys photographing winter snow scenes. “I find them to be the most visually striking. They catch your eye more. And they show the Preserve in a way that’s different than the person who comes up only in the summer sees it.”

Ted Sendler is another member of the group drawn to photographing winter scenes. His “Path Closed” depicts a spot just below Skytop Tower at the Mohonk Mountain House on a wintry day when a trail was closed to access. The image was captured at sunrise (although as Sendler points out, the sun isn’t visible in it).

He came across the scene while hiking with his wife, Sami Shub, also a member of the volunteer photographers. (Her “The Other Magic Kingdom” hanging at the Gardiner Library near Sendler’s image depicts the Mountain House as seen from a high vista at some distance.) “We love to hike in all different seasons, but winter is a special time,” Sendler says. “It’s a peaceful time. You get to see an expanse of the entire preserve in a different way.”

Pin Oak Alley, in the Foothills of the Mohonk Preserve from the Testimonial Gatehouse off Gatehouse Road and Route 299 in New Paltz in early Fall. (Photo by Renee Zernitsky)

A grand entrance

Renée Zernitsky’s “Focus & Light” (from which the show borrows its name) is a color-drenched image of Pin Oak Alley as seen after passing through the iconic stone gateway. Captured on a fall day when the colors were “just about changing,” according to the photographer, the scene is enlivened by the small form of young Tanner Horn, then age four, seen from behind as he revels in the freedom of the open space. As Zernitsky recounts, her grandson was visiting for the day, and when he saw the scenic road lined with massive oaks he took off running.

Pin Oak Alley was once where visitors received their first impression of the glories of nature that awaited them when they completed their journey up the mountain to Mohonk Mountain House, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. By the early years of the twentieth century, a formal entrance to the property was established with the construction of the Smiley Testimonial Gateway (now known as the Mohonk Testimonial Gateway), funded through contributions gifted to Mountain House co-founders Albert and Eliza Smiley upon the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary in 1907. Construction began in 1908 at the entrance to the still-magnificent Oak Allée, where visitors would be met by horse-drawn wagons sent down the hill by the hotel to fetch them. The area is still accessible to visitors, but is no longer the point of access.

Zernitsky has been a member of the Mohonk Preserve Volunteer Photographers for more than 20 years. “Fall is absolutely magnificent up there,” she says. Though she never tires of photographing the sights on the mountain, her forte is photographing all the different flowers that grow there. “I think I’ve done every single one. Now I’m waiting for that one flower that hasn’t come up for 100 years. Maybe one day it will.”

Sunrise from Humpty Dumpty Road looking south toward the Trapps in the Mohonk Preserve. (Photo by Tom Weiner)

The benefits of volunteering

Sendler and Shub often hike together when spending time away from the East Village at their second home here. They’ve participated in various volunteer activities over the years, initially working with the phenology program, observing and documenting the effects of climate change on native flora and fauna. “And then I got involved with the back-country patrol,” Sendler explains, “which goes into the remote areas of the Mohonk Preserve and helps hikers and visitors better navigate. We also bring back information for the rangers about where there might be fallen trees or slippery areas.”

Photography has long been an interest for the couple – “it’s second nature to us,” he says – and four years ago the two joined the photographers’ group, sometimes leading the hikes. “And to try to capture the different types of beauty that exist in the Preserve has been a gift to us,” Sendler says.

The volunteer group meets monthly. They discuss upcoming events and decide who will document the various happenings. They offer each other feedback or advice on photographic techniques. 

“I’ve made some wonderful friends in the group,” Zernitsky says. “They’ve encouraged me to work on photojournalism, which I really enjoy, and my photography has grown.”

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Susan Lehrer, whose “Looking Ahead” in the group show was taken on a hike to Gertrude’s Nose, enjoys interacting with the other photographers learning from each other. “Everyone has various levels of experience, but it’s a really great group, and people are so nice about sharing their expertise. And everybody has something different that catches their eye.” 

John Hayes has been a member of the team since around 2001. He only recently stepped down as coordinator of the group, a position he held for nine years. “My job as coordinator was to motivate everyone to get out there and capture these images. We’re all amateur photographers, but this allows us to be ‘a cog in the wheel’ of this great organization that protects the land so people can enjoy it. The land will remain, and I get to be a part of that by capturing these images.”

For information about the Mohonk Preserve Volunteer Photographers or other volunteer opportunities at the Preserve, visit https://www.mohonkpreserve.org/how-to-help/volunteer/opportunities.html.

Mohonk Preserve volunteer photographers. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)