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Archive for March, 2012

Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the 1000 Islands-Seaway region of upstate New York.  Housed within this special region is a unique ecosystem full of hidden treasures, water adventures, and extraordinary wildlife.

Collectively, the Great Lakes boast the largest freshwater coastal dunes on Earth, and the lion’s share of New York’s barrier beach system lies within the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area. The dunes shelter a special ecosystem but are fragile themselves.

This rare habitat off Lake Ontario is stewarded by the Department of Environmental Conservation. It’s home to a fantastic diversity of species. Trout, bass, salmon, pike and perch fill its creeks, ponds and streams. The air is alive with bitterns, terns, harriers, swallows and other birds. Woody areas and brush conceal foxes, rabbits and coyotes, while deer and turkeys hug the edges. More adventurous explorers will find mink, muskrat and beaver.

Paddling out to Lake Ontario on South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

The DEC advises that it’s best to see the preserve by paddling, so a small group of us launched from a soft edge along the inner reaches of South Sandy Creek. There was a small rock ledge to keep one’s butt out of mud. Just as I was getting into an excellent kayak kindly provided by Cornell’s Pedal & Paddle, a butterfly (perhaps a kind of metalmark) alighted on the stone’s edge. The good omen was worth a minute or two wait until our friend was off again on a nectar quest.

Butterfly at the launch rock of South Sandy Creek. A good omen. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Our group was led by the Oswego County Kayaking Club through Janet Clerkin, Oswego County Tourism and Public Information Coordinator. Janet’s husband, Kevin, joined us and the club was represented by Dick and Naneen Drosse. My travel buddy, Ed Hancox, is a fresh river guy from New Jersey and was delighted by the clarity and peacefulness of the Sandy Creek. As founder of the Long Island City Community Boathouse on NYC’s salty and turbulent East River, I relished the contrast between the two locales.

Our guides paddle in the shade of the dense foliage along South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

The tranquility of South Sandy Creek allows a paddler to reach what’s called “mindfulness” in Eastern traditions. There are moments when the smallest detail catches your eye, while you also sense a transcendent connection to the world through water.  Here I was, starting the day psyched to see the largest lake in my 43 years and discovering that among the most memorable sights were tiny things — a purple milkweed seedling blossoming from a huge dead tree and countless northern bluet damselflies that looked like Navajo jewelry.

Damselflies are smaller and more delicate than their dragonfly cousins and can fold their wings in. Like dragonflies, damselflies can operate their two sets of wings separately, but are not nearly as strong fliers. They flit near the water surface and rest frequently. I spotted a yellow leaf and waited there for a landing, knowing it would the best color contrast for my photo subject.

A single milkweed flower growing from a massive tree that fell into South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)
Purple milkweed just where it likes to be, between a small wood and a stream. (Photo by Erik Baard.)
The air just above the creek glinted with bluet damselflies, which frequently came to rest on vegetation. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

South Sandy Creek is banked by dense zones of cattails,  a native that’s nonetheless crowding out other important species, explained Gerry Smith, president of the North Country Bird Club. Human control of water levels for shipping and hydroelectricity disrupts natural fire cycles. Other species are no longer able to seed into burnt clearings, according to Smith and a number of regional ecologists. Since the hydro projects were completed 50 years ago, Smith said, cattail-eating muskrats are less populous, exacerbating the problem.

One of the greatest concerns Smith and the DEC hold regarding this habitat change is that overgrown cattails eliminate sedge meadows, which are black tern nesting areas. Black tern numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

Rising over the cat grass in the photo below is a kind of hogweed called cow parsnip, which looks like tall Queen Anne’s lace. Despite the usefulness American Indians found in properly handled cow parsnip, one might almost wish that the cattails crowded it out. As our guides cautioned, touching this plant can severely injure skin (some people can be blinded by hogweed). Cow parsnip is the only indigenous North American hogweed, endangered in some regions while considered a nuisance in others. It contains a phototoxin, a poison activated by ultraviolent light and water — not perfect for a sunny paddling day. The DEC has issued warnings and seeks to eliminate invasive Central Asian hogweed, especially in areas where people are likely to come into contact with it.

Cats, cows and hogs along South Sandy Creek. That is, cattails and cow parsnip, a kind of hogweed. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

One friendly family did well to avoid hogweed and sun alike, in style.

A mellow family outing on South Sandy Creek. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

It was oddly intriguing to be bounded by thickets of blistering hogweed, as if we were herded, corralled. Surely the creek wasn’t that eager for us to stay on the true path to a lake, as magnificent as it might be. What else? It was then that Clerkin, who doesn’t engage in much idle chatter, said, “Some believe that this place was ‘Eden’ for an Iroquois nation.”

When moments later we glided into an expanse of white lilies on Floodwood Pond, I could share that vision of Eden.

White lilies and purple loosetrife in Floodwood Pond. (Photo by Erik Baard.)
Yellow lily in Floodwood Pond. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

The resemblance of the waterlily and lotus is superficial compared to their genetic distinction, but both inspire spiritual reflection. I can’t revere one without feeling resonance from the other.

Returning to this place, I will be reminded of the lotus, believed in ancient India to be the first creation and a divine womb. According to the vanished Iroquois nation of Attawandaron, Ji-gon-sa-seh (the Mother of Nations) was created between Sandy Creek and South Sandy Creek. The Attawandaron (“Neutral Nation” to the French and “Strange-speaking People” to the Hurons) were last recorded as a living people in 1671. Other Iroquois carried their oral traditions forward.

But we’re long out of Eden. That beautiful spray of purple loosestrife behind the white waterlily above is a threat to the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area. Each one of these Eurasian invasive plants can produce a million hardy seeds. Indeed, some ecologists believe purple loosetrife seeds arrived in the ballast water of the very ships for which lake levels are now controlled. “Purple loosestrife degrades wetlands. It’s really something. It’s in the top 20 list of nasty invasive species in the state,” Smith said. Even muskrats avoid purple loostrife areas.

The entire stretch we’ve just shared wouldn’t exist if not for the region’s precious and finite resource — sand. Oceans produce sand constantly, but in the Great Lakes, “What you see is what you get,” explained Smith, left over from glaciers and floods eons ago. The Ontario Dune Coalition strives to preserve the dunes through management and plantings. Two vital plants for stabilizing dunes and kick-starting viable habitat are wormwood and beach grass, seen below.

Beach grass and wordwood (spiking up at center), the first two protective colonizers of dunes. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

“The sand is finite, but that’s not to say it doesn’t move around,” explained Smith. “Some sand will move on shore in the winter and fall during storms and with heavy waves.”

Sand also naturally converges through water movement into the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area and nearby Sandy Island Island Beach State Park, he said. For some species, that sand movement is critical. High water can sometimes collapse part of a dune. One the lee side of a dune, the wind can’t smooth and sculpt, so a sheer bluff remains. Here you’ll find nesting bank swallow nests, pictured below. “Bank swallows burrow in and live there from May through mid-June or July. They collapse in winter and the next year they redo it again,” Smith said.

Bank swallow burrows on the lee side of dunes collapsed by high water. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Just past the bank swallow summer timeshare there’s a great set of beaches and a swing rope hanging from a tree for horsing around. The water is crystalline.  Only a stripe of zebra mussel shells on the beach indicates that this pleasure has nefarious origins. We relaxed and swam in and out of the gateway between Lake Ontario and the inland ecosystem, marked by a small hook of sand.

Our gateway, the creek system mouth. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)
Successfully rehabilitated Lake Ontario dunes on Sandy Island Beach State Park. (Photo by Ed Hancox.)

Sandbars form in the calmer wave conditions of summer. For a paddler, this adds to the enjoyment of Lake Ontario. A calm channel carved by the creek outlet leads out into the lake, flanked by waves breaking over sandbars. One can opt to play at the deeper edges of the sandbars, or stay on the “blue carpet.”

Ed is thrilled to reach sight of the white crests of Lake Ontario sand bar waves. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

From here, the Great Lakes Seaway, St. Lawrence River and a water world to explore! But your romance or family time might benefit from the quietude of a few hours enjoying and honoring a forgotten Eden.

 

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An early pass on our Black River tour. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The variety of water conditions in northern New York is a continual source of amazement to a visitor. For a water lover who isn’t ready to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel but hungers for more of an adrenaline rush than lovely, languid creeks can deliver, there’s the whitewater of the Black River.

Between the drops and twists of this Class IV rapid there are mellower stretches where one can take in the exquisiteness of the Black River Valley. This rift is carved by a flow that on many spring days measures well over 60,000 gallons per second. High, layered walls of granite cocoon you away from the sounds of traffic and medium-sized city life. The canyon is clearly still evolving and deepening, with chunks of stone sometimes calving and falling into the river and tree roots more finely crumbling the rock face.

Pushed up and over rocks. Note the limestone slabs leading toward the deeper canyon. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Leaping out for a swim on a quiter stretch of the Black River. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

You’ll want to paddle with an expert guide (I was fortunate to raft with Alex Atchie, a veteran guide with Adirondack River Outfitters) who’s up to date on new hazards and opportunities for fun. And yes, those are often one in the same!

At one point Alex decided to play in a vortex. Paddlers were allowed to opt out and wait on a limestone ledge — many did.

We spent a few long minutes hurling ourselves from one side of the raft to another to keep from keeling over. At any given moment one of our crew or another was submerged or invisible through spray. At one point when our raft was barraged and seeing that I wasn’t freaked out, Alex decided to strike up a casual conversation with me. “Pretty stupid way to make a living, eh?,” he joked. Absolutely not! “It’s refreshing,” I replied, encompassing both the cool, clear water running over our shoulders and the lifestyle Alex embodied.

In a vortex – Alex, in white helmet, leans forward to chat. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Two front paddlers submerged. One’s girlfriend looks concerned. Author in black shirt toward rear. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Everyone came up with smiles. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)
Raft or bathtub? (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The Black River, which runs 114 miles from the Adirondacks to Lake Ontario,  probably gets its name from concentrations of dark tannic acid deposited by trees — some oaks are especially rich in it. A bit of trivia for your imagination: If alligators lived as far north as the Black River, they’d be quite dark because their hides pick up the tannic acid.

The Black River nearly turns our raft into a taco shell. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

Apart from hawks a-wing, the biggest predators you’ll likely spot on the Black River are nautiloids. These gorgeous fossils dating to the Ordovician period bulge from limestone at several haul-out points. Unlike the gently spiraled chambered nautiloid of today’s Andaman Sea, many of these invertebrate ancestral hunters had shells shaped like javelin tips. Though the examples I saw on the Black River were measured in inches, one discovery in Arkansas measured eight feet long! You can see in these nautiloids development toward today’s squids, who are also propelled by water jets. An apex predator during an age of high levels of atmospheric CO2, nautiloids ruled warm seas that overflowed the continents as never before or since. That epoch seems to have ended in an Ice Age 443 million years ago.

Ordovician life in an illustration posted by the University of Wisconsin.
Similar nautiloids unearthed in Morocco and exhibited at the Museum Victoria in Australia. (Photo by Simon Hinkley for Museum Victoria)

For me, seeing these fossils was as thrilling as the whitewater that nearly tossed me into them a few times!

Of course gawking at fossils in a strong set of  rapids might be a reliable way of becoming one yourself. When it comes to the Black River, seasoned whitewater paddlers worry most about the Knife’s Edge where water can push overturned paddlers into hollows. Alex has an endearing habit of telling our group about worst case scenarios regarding each rapid after we’d zipped safely by. He did, however, give us repeated and explicit instructions on each approach and wasn’t shy about barking out navigational commands over the roar.

Alex has bonded himself to the Black River for 30 years and knows its ways. He’s also a font of the Black River’s natural and industrial history, and how they’ve intertwined. The river’s admirable present condition is in great part thanks to advocacy from paddlers and diligence from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which maintains a Black River website for salmon, bass, trout, pickerel and pike fishing enthusiasts.

A calmer and verdant end to an exciting tour. (Photo by Kristy Hoover)

The Black River is a place of stories — whether your own fish tales and whitewater rafting boasts, local lore or the fossilized life its coursing reveals from deepest time. Looking ahead to next spring, make time to visit and let those stories live through you!

Getting to Watertown is easy, either by Amtrak to Syracuse or the Watertown International Airport.

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