"I will never kick a rock"

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Robert Titus

Robert Titus has 75 articles published.

Struggles of a Devonian clam

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The struggles of a Devonian clam

The Catskill Geologist

Spring 1994

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

 

We miss Walter Meade’s articles in Kaatskill Life. Walt was with our magazine from its inception until his death. He enjoyed a lifetime of close observation of Catskills natural history and he shared his experiences with us in his writing. Our favorite article was from the Winter 91‑92 issue. Walter had been walking through a light winter snow when he found fresh turkey tracks. He followed them and found the evidence of the unseen animal’s activities. It fed upon a wild rose bush, it drank water from an old tub and then the hungry bird fed yet again, this time upon some ferns. Walt never did catch up with the turkey but he did find evidence from the tracks that the animal had become aware of its stalker. The wary turkey had watched Walt’s approach and then had taken flight. Wing tip marks in the snow were the last traces that Walt found of that bird.

What a wonder it is to observe nature as it is in today’s living outdoors, to see the plants and animals in the fullness of their lives. What a privilege it is to see the effects that seasonal changes have on plants and animals. In our time nobody did it better than Walter Meade.

 

Though one of us is a biologist and one a paleontologist, most of the time the plants and animals that we study have been dead for about 400 million years. Unlike Walt, we almost always catch up with the creatures we stalk. They are frozen in rock; in the eternal winter of death, they cannot take flight. But, even though we can catch up with them, we are almost always deprived of the pleasures of observing them as they were in life. As we study fossils, we are acutely aware that what we see are just the cold, dead, mineral remains of creatures which were once really alive.

Occasionally, however, the fossil hunter does have the opportunity to make truly vivid observations of moments in the lives of very long ago. Here in the Catskills, you can sometimes come across some of the most remarkable records of ancient life, moments of danger and desperation endured by some of the most humble creatures of the very ancient Catskills, the clams.

These clams are of a species which has no common name. It is described in Latin as Archanodon catskillensis. The species lived in the rivers and lakes of the Devonian age Catskill Delta (Kaatskill Life, Summer 1992). Lardner Vanuxem, a New York State Museum geologist, discovered them during the 1830’s. Figure one shows his illustration of one of them. Figure two shows how we interpret them to have reposed on the stream be3ds during life.  They each had a strong, muscular “foot” to dig a shallow

   < Fig. 1                                                                           Fig. 2 >

 

on the stream beds during life. They each had a strong, muscular “foot” to dig a shallow

resting place on the stream bed. Then they laid in the sands with their shells open and inclined toward the currents. Stream flow brought nutrient‑bearing waters to the clam and delicate membranes filtered food from those waters. This species of clam was gregarious and lived in colonies. See figure three which shows a slab covered with the impressions from one of these colonies. Each imprint is the resting mark of an

individual clam. The slab is upside down and the marks are of the sediment which filled in the original impressions. Figure four is a close-up of such a burrowed surface.

Archanodon must have had a simple and easy life, although not one without its hazards. These dangers of the Catskill Delta were described earlier (Kaatskill Life, Summer 1991). Frequently there were great floods and huge quantities of brown water swelled the streams, overflowing their banks. As a flood swept across the clam colonies, they were generally able to hang on and survive. Soon thereafter the real perils began. The subsiding flood waters deposited large amounts of sediment. In the Catskill Delta it was not unusual for several feet of sediment to be deposited in a few hours by a single flood. If you are a three‑inch clam buried by three feet of mud, you are in trouble. Our clams faced an unenviable moment of terror: they must dig or die . . . they dug.

With its large foot, Archanodon was an active clam and it was able to work its way upward through the sediment and escape its premature grave. Look at figure five.

These are the burrows left by the panicky clams. Notice the horizontal structures within the vertical burrows; we call these meniscus structures. Each meniscus records a single

upward motion of the clam as, inch by inch, it worked its way to freedom. Often, in bluestone quarries, we find slabs of sandstone with round traces where the clams burrowed right through the, then still soft, strata (figure six, burrow is above and right of hat). Apparently the clams were

nearly always successful. I have never found a fossil clam only halfway back to the surface nor have I found one still at the bottom. Evidently, whole colonies were able to scramble back to the surface and reestablish themselves, no doubt waiting to face the next flood.

 

Life is a struggle, today or 400 million years ago, and these fossils demonstrate that so clearly. We paleontologists don’t often get to see history as vividly as do the naturalists of today’s world, but we do have those rare opportunities. The Archanodon burrows are good examples; there are others. These are called trace fossils. They are not traces of the ancient bodies, but traces of life itself. They remind us how brief a single lifetime is in the long history of life itself. These creatures of the distant past were, in their time, just as real and lived just as fully as do the plants and animals of today and those of the distant future. There is philosophy in rocks.

Prehistoric Catskill Monsters 11-9-17

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CATSKILL PREHISTORIC MONSTERS:

APPARITIONS OF THE ANCIENT SEA SCORPIONS 

The Catskill Geologist

 Winter l993

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

One of our favorite authors is H. P. Lovecraft. He was a horror and fantasy writer, featured mostly in long-ago pulpy magazines such as Weird Tales. Lovecraft’s work, while well thought of, is hardly great literature; it does, however, make very fine reading. His stories were usually set in isolated, backwater New England villages of the l920’s. Villainous creatures and people possessed by evil spirits were commonplace in his plots, as were monsters, aliens, ghosts and other terrible apparitions. Very often you never really did figure out exactly what kind of entity haunted these Lovecraft stories. Typically, his tales had a “lost in time” feeling to them; hence their appeal to a geologist. Often these awful Lovecraft characters were from very ancient epochs in Earth history. Much of the intrigue was in the fact that these dark entities had long ago possessed great mystical powers. Later they lost control of these powers and then they, themselves, fell into the possession of those very same evils. Their defeat banished them to a kind of timelessness. They were only able to take out their terrible rage on those weak mortals who fell within their grasp.  Fantastic as Lovecraft’s stories were, there was a kind of eerie plausibility to them. The stories worked because communications were so much poorer back then and so much of our nation’s rural landscape was isolated and mysterious. After all, back then who knew exactly what all lay out there lurking in the woods? Similarly, do we really know all that is hidden out there in the woods of today’s Catskills?

Lovecraft rarely featured the Catskills in his stories, and we wonder how often he visited our mountains. It’s too bad, as our dark cloves and isolated valleys would have made perfect settings for his stories – malignant versions of “Rip Van Winkle!”  But science often provides us with real-life stories, nearly as good as anything Lovecraft could have written.  And, here in the Catskills, some of these stories abound with monsters – great, creepy, crawling ones at that. The season is cold, dark and gloomy right now, so set a fire in the fireplace and turn down the lights. We would like to tell you about a real-life, monster-ridden town, right here in the Catskills. This is a town where Lovecraftesque monsters really are lurking in the dark; they’re hiding in the fetid, moldy, and darkened foliage of the Catskills. Our rock-Gothic tale even involves the long-ago discovery of the dead and dismembered head and limbs of an ancient monster. And this necromantic tale reminds us that we share this landscape with a heritage of antediluvian beasts that went before us. And maybe, just maybe, you can come face to face with one of these creatures.  We’re not kidding! They’re out there, if you’re “lucky” enough to encounter one.

First you’re probably wondering what peaceful Catskill village harbors the ghostly apparitions of those monsters of the past. Let’s end the suspense: the answer is Andes.  If you haven’t visited Andes before, it’s a pretty little hamlet on Rte. 28 in the western Catskills. Small and isolated, with plenty of l9th Century buildings and homes, it would have been a perfect setting for a Lovecraft story in the 1920’s. Today it remains a remarkably well-preserved old town and is very much worth a visit. Look especially for some nicely kept old homes and the old bank building which is now a real estate office.

Our story is not about sightseeing, however; it’s about monsters. In recent articles we have described the early history of our Catskill rocks, the Devonian Period, about 380 million years ago, when this area was a great delta complex. One group of organisms, which inhabited the area at that time, was the sea scorpions known also by their scientific name, the eurypterids. We have several pictures to show you. Take a look at the first (fig. l).  It is a painting by the famous paleontological artist, Charles Knight. Knight made his

 

reputation as an artist primarily by painting dinosaurs, but he also did a number of ancient sea

scapes to illustrate invertebrate fossil species. This Knight painting shows several eurypterids inhabiting a very hypothetical Devonian seafloor. The two largest forms in the scene are of the types that have been found in the Catskills. The one on the left is known as Pterygotus; the one on the right was called Stylonurus until its name was changed to Hallipterus. Pterygotus has been found in the upper reaches of Schoharie Creek near Gilboa.  We will write about that one some other time. Hallipteus, found in Andes, is the one that we want to talk about today.

Eurypterids, now entirely extinct, were still fairly common in the Devonian Period. They crawled and swam in the nearshore marine waters, the brackish coastal estuaries, and even in the nearshore freshwater rivers. If you have read our earlier articles, you will already know that these environments are commonly represented in Catskill rocks.  You will be reminded of scorpions when you examine these pictures, and there is a good reason for that. The scorpions and eurypterids are closely related. In fact, today’s living scorpions probably list the eurypterids in their family tree. Hence the common name, sea scorpion.

Eurypterids were probably quite common in the Devonian Catskill area, but they are rare as fossils. Their skeletons were sturdy in life, but were composed of materials which usually decayed after death. We simply do not see many of them as fossils. Take a look at our second picture (fig. 2). This specimen is the carapace (head) of Hallipterus

 

excelsior, one of the largest eurypterids ever found. This head, alone, is ten inches long. It was found during the very early l880’s by an Andes farmer in a little quarry. The quarry was close to the town library and the World War I monument, but it seems to be overgrown and buried now; we looked for it recently but could not find it. The specimen was found on a loose boulder, not part of any bedrock. It probably came down the Tremperskill valley from the hills above. The rest of the body, if it still exists, has never been located. The fossil was acquired by M. Linn Bruce, who was then a student at Rutgers College. Bruce, who would later become lieutenant-governor of New York, donated the specimen to Rutgers.  One of us (Robert) was an undergraduate at Rutgers and can very well remember that specimen upstairs in the Museum of Geology Hall.  Perhaps it’s still there. If so, you can see it if you are ever in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Only a few other fragmental specimens of this type have ever been found. The next picture (fig. 3) shows one of them; these are appendage fragments of a very closely

 

related species from Pennsylvania. When these fossils were discovered, nobody knew what the whole animal looked like, or even how big it was. Later a paleontologist named Charles Beecher found related species from England and was able to produce the reconstruction we show you in figure four. If his reconstruction is accurate (and it may not be), then this was quite a monster. At an estimated 54 inches in length, this was a lot bigger than your average land scorpion, not something you would worry about finding in your boots.

 

If you already are a fossil hunter, you would probably like to add one of these to your collection. But, alas, the chances are slim. In fact we don’t expect any of you are likely to find one, but we would like you to know what they look like, just in case. Eurypterids are really scarce in the Catskills; we know of only the two which were found in Andes and Gilboa. But there may be more, and if you feel like doing a little monster hunting in the Catskills, we would certainly encourage you to try. Pay no attention to the red sandstones of the Catskills; they’re old soils and don’t contain marine fossils. Instead, watch the brown and olive gray strata which are probably river beds. Don’t expect to find a complete eurypterid; fossils that good just do not show up. Instead watch for eurypterid parts.  Study figure four, so you will know what to look for, and … good luck!  (If you do find one, please let us know.)

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net.

The View from Sunset Rock 11-2-17

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On The Rocks

The view from Sunset Rock

Robert Titus

The Woodstock Times

Oct. 3, 1996

 

Autumn is a gift, especially in the Catskills. This season of leaves is the time of the year to get out and enjoy a farewell to the warm weather. The heart of this scenic season extends from the middle of September to the middle of October. These are times when the first winter high pressure systems come billowing out of Canada. They bring clear, dry, but still warm air masses to the Catskills. With them comes a clarity of the atmosphere and a scenery unmatched the rest of the year. Within an hour’s drive or so from Woodstock there are a great number of wonderful fall landscapes well worth a visit. It is a terrible shame to let this time pass by without getting out. Take advantage of the autumn; winter is so long!

There are some scenic views which stand out, literally above others. Some of the truly great Catskill views can be found at North Lake State Park. From the edge of the escarpment on the Catskill Front there is a 70 mile panorama of the Hudson Valley. Turn around and there is a view of the neighboring Catskill peaks. People have been drawn to North Lake since the early 19th century when the first road was cut up the mountain. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries this was the site of the famed Catskill Mountain House Hotel, once the premier resort hotel of America. Today the location is part of the Catskill Forest Preserve.

After entering the park, drive to North Lake itself and hike north on the Blue Trail. It’s an easy walk for most people, young and old. You are following in the paths of thousands of hikers who have visited here over the past two centuries. Almost all these people have been greatly affected by the scenery here.

The trail takes you along the very edge of the Catskill Escarpment. At some places it passes within a few feet of a sheer cliff. Along the way you will pass Artist’s Rock and eventually you will reach the Yellow Trail turnoff. Follow this to its end and there you will reach a ledge named “Sunset Rock” after a great boulder there. Before you is one the single grandest views in all of the Catskill Mountains. To the east is that 70 mile view of the Hudson Valley with the Taconic Mountains beyond. To the south is the view of North and South Lakes, and to their east is South Mountain. Beyond them you can just make out the upper reaches of Kaaterskill Clove and still farther away are Roundtop Mountain and High Peak.

It’s an impressive sight to say the least, and it’s one which has played a role in the development of American art. Virtually all of the great 19th century landscape artists, beginning with Thomas Cole, came here. They set up their easels or sketched here and turned out canvases portraying the site at different times of the year and different times of the day. Watch for work by Cole, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Jasper Cropsey, William Henry Bartlett and others. Most of their many works are easily found online.

But I am a geologist and, while I greatly admire those artists and their work, I see other things from this site. I sit on Sunset Rock and look north, and soon I can see it as it was 23,000 years ago. As I watch, the years and decades pass by rapidly. The climate slowly turns cold and soon it is becoming Arctic. As the decades and centuries elapse the forests turn sickly gray and then die. The skies are usually blue and sunny, but cold dry gale winds blow out of the northeast. They shatter the brittle old tree limbs.

To the north a low whiteness appears in the Hudson Valley. It is dark blue in the morning, radiantly white at noon and aquamarine just before dark. As the years continue this white advances south and its image focuses into that of an advancing glacier. It passes beneath the Sunset Rock ledge and continues down the Hudson. Slowly the swell of ice thickens. Like a stream in flood, the ice slowly rises and fills the valley. It laps up onto the Catskill Front and soon a stream of white overflows the valley and advances southwestward across what someday will be North and South Lakes. The moving ice is very erosive and it’s beginning to scour out these basins.

Now even more ice pours down the Hudson. All along the Catskill Front ice is overflowing the valley and still it continues to thicken. Next comes the great swell of the main glacier, an ice sheet at least 3,000 feet thick. The white soon overwhelms all of this region. It continues to advance southwestward until all of the Catskills are entombed. The whole region becomes a great white, high Arctic plain.

That’s a somber vision to have on a beautiful autumn afternoon, but that is what I see from Sunset Rock.

 

Contact the author at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Read Robert and Johanna Titus in the Woodstock Times, Kaatskill Life magazine, Upstate Life magazine and the Mountain Eagle.

The Ravine 10-26-17

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The Ravine”

Windows Through Time

Columbia/Greene Media

July 29, 2009

Robert and Johanna Titus

 

When one of us (Robert) was a boy of about ten, one of his absolutely favorite places to go with his friends was a place simply called “the ravine.” It was a pretty decent canyon cutting through a sequence of Triassic age red sandstones. Boys would hike up and down it, scramble beneath overhanging ledges of rock, and just have a good time. As a grownup geologist his life hasn’t changed much. The one exception being that now he now explores ravines with his writing partner and wife.

To the two of us the word ravine still conjures up images of damp recesses and moss covered rocks, with fern forests, whitewater brooks and plenty of rapids. Ravines are still nice places to go, and hike, and explore.

But, as you can probably guess, there is a lot more. We’d like to take you to a ravine in the Hudson Valley and take a look at it and learn something of its marvelous history. That would be the ravine found along something called Doove Kill. We’d like you to visit it with us, take a good look at it, and then, most importantly, think about what a ravine really is.

 

 

To get there we would like you to find your way to the village of Blue Store, along Rte. 9 in Columbia County. From there, take County Rte. 8 east and uphill. Travel just about three miles and watch for Black Bridge Road. Turn left there and you will very quickly encounter a bridge. The bridge passes across Doove Kill, and you can park near it, get out and take a look. Here you can get your first glimpse of the ravine and actually think about ravines in general.

The features that most identify a ravine are the walls of rock that make up their steep slopes. You can see them here. Typically, the creek is forced to pass across ledges of bedrock and they break up its flow and produce whitewater which helps the scenery considerably. Turn around and continue east on Rte. 8 for just about a half mile more. You will soon enter the village of Snyderville and there you will find Taghkanic Road. Turn left onto Taghkanic and watch, again to your left, as you continue down that road; you will soon see more of Doove Kill.

For a short distance the road passes parallel and very close to the Kill. Here it is a very real ravine; it meets all of the criteria. It is deep, steep-sloped, and has plenty of exposed bedrock. There are two small waterfalls here, but unfortunately they are on private property, and we would like it if you did not disturb the residents. But there are places where you can pull over, park, and gaze into the gorge, without bothering anybody. It’s a nice place, except for the poison ivy!

But, we have been promising to do some thinking about what exactly a ravine might be, so we had better get going on that. We can learn more by returning to Rte. 8 and driving farther east, and finding our way into Lake Taghkanic State Park. As you can guess the park is named after the lake that is there. If you drive to the northwestern corner of Lake Taghkanic you will find the source of Doove Kill.

We have to go back into time about 14,000 years. Back then the Lake was a great deal larger than it is today; and a lot deeper. The lake was swollen with the water melting off of retreating glaciers.  Flowing out of that ice age version of the lake was an enormous volume of water. In short Doove Kill had a very different personality back then. It was a raging, foaming, pounding, thundering, whitewater and ice age torrent.

Now you must rethink everything that you have just seen along Doove Kill. In your mind’s eye, we would like you take those stretches of ravine that you just saw on Black Bridge and Taghkanic Roads and fill them, almost to the top, with that powerful whitewater flow. That makes Doove Kill something that you might call a Category Six whitewater stream, or at least is was back at the end of the Ice Age.

Changes your impression of Doove Kill, doesn’t it?

You might even say that it rearranges your whole sense of reality. All of a sudden your image of the Kill has been dramatically altered. It has become a far more exciting place, one with a real ice age heritage.

And that is the whole point. We all started out with an appreciation for the scenic beauty of something that we called “the ravine.” Probably all of us have been to our own ravines and enjoyed the experience immensely. But now we have learned something very different. There is the notion that such a landscape feature has a geological heritage. And it can be a very rewarding experience to come to understand that heritage.

 

The glaciers of Overlook 10-19-17

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The Glaciers of Overlook

The Woodstock Times

Aug 22, 1996

Robert Titus

 

Mountaintops develop over millions of years and they show all the scars of those great lengths of time. If you know what to look for, you can read a lot of the history that those scars record. Such is certainly the case with Overlook Mountain. The mountain is virtually a history book, recording the events of the great glaciations that once buried the Woodstock area in thousands of feet of ice.

Overlook has long been a popular goal for day hikers. The final stretch of trail leads to the old fire tower at the mountain’s summit. As you round the last turn and approach the tower you will find considerable bedrock at your feet and that is where the story begins. Bedrock is common on the mountain but here it is different; it has a polished look. Also there are long straight gouges, called glacial striations, on its surface. These are the unmistakable signs of the great ice sheet that once covered Overlook.

 

Glaciers move slowly, but they do move. A great thick glacier, as it passes across a knob of rock, will act like a sheet of sandpaper; it will grind the rock down. The bottom of the glacier is dirty with sand, gravel, cobbles and boulders. The sand causes the polishing. The last few cobbles to be dragged across the rock leave the striations. Hence, the features at the top of Overlook.

The fire tower site thus conjures up quite an image. This location is more than 3,100 feet above sea level and more than 2,500 feet above the floor of the Hudson Valley. The glacier must have been a half mile thick  . . . or more. This is known to science as the Woodfordian advance of the Wisconsin glaciation of about 23,000 years ago. With the possible exception of Slide Mountain, it seems likely that all the Catskill Mountains were covered by the Wisconsin ice sheet. The Catskills then resembled Antarctica or Greenland of today.

We can read the nature of the ice’s movement. There is a compass direction to the striations, a little west of south. The ice sheet must have been relatively thin at first. It seems to have been channeled southward down the Hudson Valley. Then, as it thickened, it swelled up out of the valley and flowed southwest across Overlook Mountain.

The fire tower site is only the first stop in an exploration of the Overlook glaciation. From the fire tower, head east to the ledge which looms over the Hudson Valley with Lewis Hollow immediately below. The site was a popular one during the hotel days. The drop-off is an impressive one and this is a fine example of sheer cliff. The cliff faces a little west of south. And so it is oriented with flow of the ice. That betrays its glacial origins.

The cliff is an example of what is called “glacial plucking.” Ice tends to stick to rock, and so as the ice passed across the south end of the Mountain, this adherence caused it to yank or pluck loose large mases of rock. After enough of this plucking a cliff developed.

You will find the occasional boulder on top of Overlook; I found an especially large one right on the brink of the cliff. These are called glacial erratics. They had been plucked off somewhere to the north and dragged south to this site. They were left behind when the ice melted. Once there were probably a lot more erratics near the edge of the cliff. Alf Evers, in his history of the Catskills, records that all the smaller ones were, long ago, pushed over the edge. The sport was called “boulder rolling.”

Still, there are a lot of erratics on Overlook – away from the cliff. Take the trail back down the hill. To the right, just past the ruins of the old Overlook Mountain House Hotel, is another plucked ledge. Below it the woods are littered with an abundance of erratics. There is no cliff here to push them over.

Before leaving Overlook it is worth returning to the ledge. Gaze out into the valley and with your mind’s eye you can visualize the time when it was filled with a stream of ice flowing south. The ice gleamed white with an abundance of dark blue curved crevasses. Its tide slowly rose up the valley walls and eventually overtopped the mountain. All the Catskills were soon a vast Arctic wasteland. It’s quite a scene to imagine, a scene now only recorded in the rooks.

Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu.

Poet’s Ledge 10-13-17

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A hike to Poet’s Ledge

Windows Through Time

Oct. 4, 2012

Robert Titus

 

I wonder how many of you understand just how philosophical we geologists can be. We tend to find ourselves drawn to some fine geological location; then we come to a pause in our rambles, and we drift, insensibly, into deep trance-like thoughts, usually involving thoughts of the immensity of time.

Well, it happens to me – all the time. One of my favorite locations for rambling into the past is a trek to “Poet’s Ledge” in Kaaterskill Clove. If that sounds like a nice place to hike to, then you are right. It’s a gorgeous ledge of sandstone, perched near the top of the eastern end of the clove. It has a spectacular view of this spectacular chasm. You gaze west and you take it in – in its entirety. It can become a profoundly philosophical experience, an almost dangerous one.

From up there, the clove is almost unblemished. You can see the highway that ascends it, but very little of anything else “civilized.” It’s almost pure raw wilderness from up there. We geologists gaze into the clove and see it as it developed, probably over the past 120,000 years. Much of the clove was eroded towards the end of the Wisconsin phase of the Ice Age. That was a time, between 10,000 and 18,000 years ago when the glaciers that had over-ridden the Catskills were in full retreat. They were melting away and enormous cascades of water must have been coming down the canyon of Kaaterskill Clove.

When I find myself at the top of Poet’s Ledge, it is impossible for me not to ponder such moments. I look up the clove and I see glaciers in the highlands. In my mind’s eye it is always an overcast day. The weather is unusually warm for the Ice Age, but this is the end of that time and warm is okay. The glaciers up there are gray on this cloudy day. They are totally disintegrating in the warmth. I always pick the day when the melting is at its all-time peak. Actually I pick the very hour when the flow hits its maximum. When I am in a mind’s eye mood I can do this sort of thing.

I look up the clove at that great high-elevation ice once again. Then I notice that, exactly where Haines Falls is today, there is a break in the ice. A roof has caved in right there, and I can see an enormous current of water. It is an absolutely enormous fire hose of ice water. The flow comes from a hidden sub-glacial Kaaterskill Creek. It reached where the falls are today and then momentum carries it forward so that it could bore its way through the ice and create a great cavity. I gaze at the flow of water passing through that cavity.

Below, there is, once again, a roof of ice. Much of Kaaterskill Clove is still filled with ice. The creek is confined to a tunnel passing down the canyon beneath that ice. It is a very erosive flow of water and much of what we know as the clove today is being carved down there.

Across the clove is another flow of water. It pours off the mountaintop, just west of Indian Head. The water, up there, is visible, but it quickly disappears into another hole in the ice. There are two sub-glacial torrents in Kaaterskill Clove and now, for the first time, I notice – and appreciate – and understand the terrible muffled roar that I hear.

The two sub-glacial flows form a confluence immediately below, almost a thousand feet down. All downstream from here the roof of ice has entirely caved in. The torrent of water continues rushing down the lower canyon. Right now the “Red Chasm” of Kaaterskill Clove is being given birth to by these powerful, raging, foaming, pounding, thundering, whitewater torrents. From here echo’s a thundering roar; nothing is muffled about this sound. It deafens the ears.

This panorama from Poet’s Ledge is a horrifying scene of nature’s rawest power. The sights, the sounds, and the pounding vibrations all combine to make a jarringly terrifying scene. The pounding meltwaters are cascading, crashing, coming down the canyon with the power of a small asteroid. Never before has there been so much power here; never again will there be this much.

And then it all ends; I am not alone; I am with a group of hikers. We have been sitting on the ledge, having lunch. They are talking and laughing; I have drifted away. Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu

 

A night on Overlook Mountain 10-5-17

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A Night on Overlook Mountain

Robert Titus

Kaatskiill Life, 1994

THE ROAD to Overlook Mountain used to be important. It served two main functions: It brought resort tourists up to the mountain’s hotels. Several were built there in succession; they all burned. Also it brought downhill lumbering wagons loaded with Catskill bluestone from the area quarries. Today the road is no longer important. It can’t even be called a road anymore; it is just a hiking trail.

The trip to the top of Overlook is well worth the effort as the peak offers one of the best views in all of the Catskills. To visit this mountain in the early fall, just as the leaves are turning, and to spend the night there under a rising full moon is one of the great experiences of our Catskills. The climb up the path is a bit tedious, however. The trail has none of the interesting steep, rocky stretches that you usually encounter on Catskill trails, just a steady, grinding incline. You know that the long climb is nearly over when you reach the old walls of the last of the Overlook Mountain House hotels. The ruin is a gem. Four stories tall and composed of poured cement, it has the look of something that will be there for an eternity. It won’t.

Beyond the hotel is the mountaintop itself and a state fire tower with its panoramic view. The peak is windswept, and large knobs of rock poke through the thin soils. The strata speak to the geologist and tell of the ancient Acadian Mountains which once lay to the east, but are now nearly entirely eroded away. The rocks we see here were once coarse sands, sediment which accumulated on the slopes of those long ago mountains. These are not sediments anymore; time has hardened them into rock.

Sunset is subtle: The afternoon light dims imperceptibly and then the sky darkens rapidly. This location has been here for four and one half billion years and the site has witnessed all of the sunsets that such a length of time brings. To the east, exactly as the sun descends, a full moon rises; it is the fabled, harvest moon. The first lights to join the moon are the brightest stars; they are soon joined by the lesser lights of the full moon’s sky.

I will have no fire at this night’s camp. I would enjoy the heat, as it is no longer warm out. I wish instead to be alone in time here and I do not want any bright lights to distract me from participating in this particular cycle of time.

Off to the east are the Berkshire Mountains. These beautiful and serene hills are the remnants of the much older Acadian Mountains which once towered over this horizon. It grows fully dark now and the Berkshire landscapes stand in sharp contrast under the rising moonlight. As the moon continues its ascent, it draws away from the mountains and they fade into the darkness. With an evening mist, the lights of civilization in the valley below also disappear.

The Berkshires were not always here, but it has now been four hundred million years that the moon has been rising above their silhouettes. Before then the view was not that of New England but of an ancient ocean, the Iapetus Sea, unblemished by any land masses, let alone mountains. Back then it must have seemed as if that sea’s stretch extended forever into the east. But that was false and there were clues of something going on out there beyond the eastern horizon. From time to time, dark clouds of smoke rose above the horizon. First they were only low, dim and distant, but later they appeared larger and darker than ever before. There had to have been a day, a moment in time, when a single pinnacle of land first emerged upon that horizon. During the lifetime of any Devonian age creature, no change would have been noticed, but as many lifetimes passed, that pinnacle was transformed from an occasional glimpse to a permanent fixture upon the seascape, growing larger and broader. Occasionally great, thunderous roars would emanate from that eastern monolith and sometimes even lightning could be seen within the billowing black masses of soot. It was the nighttime and moonlit eruptions which were the most spectacular. The immense, rising clouds of dense smoke, sharply outlined in moonlight, would have been unforgettable – had anyone been there to remember.

In between these more and more frequent volcanic episodes, the peaks of the now great mountain range became white with snow. Even here in the tropics they had grown tall enough. Beneath the snowy fringe, the mountains were a desolate brown and lifeless gray. But as they loomed taller and closer, a thin low red horizon competed with those elevated but more somber colors. Then finally, joining the red, was a very low wisp of green.

The Overlook Mountain vicinity had once gazed out upon the unbroken blue of the Iapetus Sea, but now it would witness the disappearance of that sea. The red and green horizon grew closer and the image sharpened into that of a low tropical foliage growing upon the brick red soils of a coastal delta. These were the world’s most primitive forests, dominated by twins of the great tree ferns. Crawling the soils were the first land animals, primitive insects, millipedes and spiders. These were the pioneers of forest ecology, and forest ecology is the chief claim to fame of the great Catskill Delta.

The delta advanced slowly, but it could not be stopped; time cannot be stopped. The waters went from salt to fresh; they suddenly grew murky and brown, and the Overlook vicinity was buried. The shrouds of burial were the sediments of the rivers, lakes and swamps of the great delta. These soft, warm sediments encased and preserved much of the delta forests.

Millions of years, then tens of millions of years of blackness followed. The pressure of the thickening sediment intensified. The great delta became a petrifaction, its soft warm sediments hardened into cold stone sculptures of rivers, lakes, marshes and forests. After about one hundred and fifty million years of increasing pressure, the weight of the overburden stopped growing. And, after a long pause, the pressure, ever so slowly, began to lessen.

If it was possible for light to penetrate rock, even a little, then, over the next 200 million years the Overlook vicinity would have become dimly and then brightly illuminated. But this does not happen; light does not pass through rock and Overlook lay, for all of this time, in complete blackness.

The sleep of Overlook was dreamless and darker than anything humans can know. It was deepest and coldest just before the dawn. Above there were thick and heavy glaciers grinding their way southward. The full moon, now low in the western sky, brightly illuminated a plain of arctic desolation, extending in all directions as far as could be seen. Only in the west were there peaks that rose above this crystalline sea. These appeared as silhouettes of black against the radiant moonlit horizon.

The processes of weathering and erosion do their work slowly but they never quit. Glaciers do speed up the process and the inevitable results are sudden: the breakthrough occurred and sunlight, for the first time in 400 million years, warmed the strata of Overlook.

*      *      *

Just exactly as the harvest moon sinks beneath the horizon, the new day’s sun breaks above the cloud banks of the Hudson below. This view, a Frederic Church masterpiece, has returned once again as it has for millions of years, and as it will for millions more.

I sleepily watch the sunrise above the low fogs of the Hudson Valley. Beyond there is neither an Iapetus Sea nor an Acadian Mountain Range to be seen, only the low blue hills of the Taconics. I am stiff and cold and in need of coffee. That can be found in the lowlands below, where I will soon return.

Time, the English geologist James Hutton observed, gives us no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.

 

Visions of the past – Molly Smith’s parking lot

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The Hudson River Art Trail: Site four, Kaaterskill Clove

Windows Through Time

Feb. 26, 2015

Robert and Johanna Titus

 

Today we continue our journey following the Hudson River Art Trail. Conceived and implemented by Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole Historic Site, the Art Trail takes visitors to sites where they can view the scenery first painted by members of the Hudson River School of Art. Today we visit site number four. That is Kaaterskill Clove. Windows Through Time has visited the Clove frequently to describe the geology that is there in abundance. Today is no exception, but we will view the geology in terms of the landscape it produced and the landscape art that it inspired.

The art trail guide will lead you to the Molly Smith parking lot. That’s a bit more than halfway up the mountain along Rte. 23A. It’s the most substantial parking lot in Kaaterskill Clove. If you get there before 10:00 on most weekdays you will probably find a space to park. If you come on a summer weekend, then we wish you good luck. If you can park, you will be drawn toward the back of the lot where you will find an art trail poster. These are to be found at all sites. They explain what was painted at each particular location.

 

Beyond the Molly Smith poster is a fine view of Kaaterskill Clove. It shows the deep chasm that is there. It is a yawning gulf that stretches out far downstream and almost as far upstream. The dimensions are impressive. From Haines Falls where it begins, down to Palenville where it ends, it stretches almost five miles. It’s a mile across and, at its deepest, it’s roughly 1,500 feet from top to bottom. We think that it is the best scenery east of the Rocky Mountains!

The artists of the Hudson River School surely thought so as well. They visited here and frequently painted it. There are good vantage points at Haines and Kaaterskill Falls. More views can be obtained from the cliffs rising above Rte. 23A. We love the view from Poet’s Ledge.

That one offers the best vista looking west and up the canyon. Wonderful views can also be seen from the trails which follow the north and south rims of the Clove.

Thomas Cole painted it in 1825. The Clove was visited and painted by Asher Brown Durand, and Frederic Church. What landscape artist could resist such a place? But, although we are geologists, we believe we are inspired much as they were. But, more to the point, we see this landscape as they could not, and we paint it with words. Our views and our word paintings are rooted in the distant ice age past.

Our vantage point requires the challenging hike to Poet’s Ledge. You take the Blue Trail up from Palenville and turn right onto the Yellow Trail. Soon you descend onto a fine bluestone ledge which rewards your efforts with a sweeping and truly breathtaking panorama of the whole clove. It must be the best clove view that can be found. Make this hike at the peak of the leaf season and see if you can ever forget this scene.

But we see it as it was toward the end of the Ice Age, and, not just any moment, but a very special one. The closing chapters of that glacial epoch witnessed the melting of the ice that had covered the Catskills. Stand on Poet’s Ledge and look up. Once a full 2,000 feet of ice lay above. Think about that for a moment, and then imagine what happened when it all melted.  Our journey into the late ice age past will take us to see that.

There must have been day and an hour when more meltwater passed down this clove than ever had before and ever would again. We stand atop Poet’s Ledge and we see the very moment all this was happening. We look up and see a thunderous fountain of water emerging from the top of a nearly hidden Haines Falls. The speed of this monumental jet is so great that momentum carries the water out far above the canyon before gravity can pull it down. This peculiar ancient Haines Falls makes the modern falls pale in significance. That great spout drops to the bottom of the canyon and its flow is soon joined by a rush of water almost as powerful. This one is emerging from the canyon below Kaaterskill Falls.

Now the two flows combine to make a single powerful torrent, flowing on down the gorge. The roars echo off its steep walls. These are the reverberations of the surges that carved the chasm those artists painted. We have been watching the actual formation of Kaaterskill Clove.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page ”The Catskill Geologist.”

 

Visions of the past -Mountain House

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The Hudson River Art Trail: Part Eight, the Mountain House ledge

Windows Through Time

Robert and Johanna Titus

Columbia Greene Newspapers

March 26, 2015

 

We have been traveling along the first nine sites of the Hudson River School of Art Trail. This has been taking us to various locations where the great 19th Century landscape artists once stood and conceived many of their works.  The trail was sponsored and implemented by Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Our goal has been to demonstrate that each of these sites, renowned for its scenic beauty, was the direct result of ice age events that occurred perhaps 20,000 years ago. We have been arguing that it was the ice that sculpted the beauty that those artists painted.

Today we have arrived at site number eight, the great ledge where the famed Catskill Mountain House Hotel once stood.  Thomas Cole stayed there on his first visit to the Catskills in the autumn of 1825. From the hotel he went exploring the wilderness of South Mountain. He sketched what he saw, and turned those sketches into canvases that began the Hudson River School of Art. If you visit the site today, you will find that the hotel is long gone, burned to the ground about a half century ago: arson by agents of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  The ledge remains, and it must look much as it did before the Hotel was built. It forms a massive cliff of Catskill bluestone that commands a 70 mile panorama of the Hudson Valley.

What did the Ice Age have to do with this mass of rock? We must find out. We take a mind’s eye journey into the deep past. We travel through time until we arrive at the very moment when the glaciers were just about ready to overwhelm the Mountain House ledge.  We are now standing on the very same sandstones, but we have gone roughly 20,000 years into the past. The Ice Age has been underway for several millennia now, and a great glacier has almost filled the Hudson Valley. Surprisingly, the ledge sticks out perhaps 15 feet farther into the valley than it did when we left modern times. We walk out those extra 15 feet and stand on what is for us a new edge of the cliff.

Immediately before us is the glacier. It is past sunset on an April 3rd and so it’s now completely dark. We can’t see very far out onto the ice. But we can hear it. This ice age version of spring has been relatively warm and that has accelerated the southward flow of the ice. As the brittle ice lurches forward, it generates quite a racket of groans, cracks, and pops. It is tonight, a very active and noisy glacier.

Now a dim glow appears across the valley. It’s a nearly full moon, about to rise above the Taconic Mountains. Its brilliant sheen creates a silhouette above the profile of those otherwise black mountains.  The moon bursts above the highest peak and shines down upon the now moonlit valley glacier.

We turn around and look up toward the slopes of an equally illuminated South Mountain. They are blanketed with new snow. Poking through that snow are the stumps of ancient trees. There had been a forest here before the ice age. Those trees all died and only these stumps remain as a testament of the dense woodland that was once here.

We look up and see snow covered slopes shimmering with a silvery luster, created by the moonlight. It is a most impressive vision; we recognize how fortunate we are to witness this. We are drawn upwards; we start an ascent of South Mountain. After climbing a few hundred feet, we turn around and look down into the valley again. Now we really can survey all that is before us. An ice age midnight approaches, and the moon is high in the sky. Its brilliance lights up the ice all across the valley.

The silvery gleam of the glacier is broken by great jet black fractures. These are the enormous crevasses that form in a valley glacier while, like tonight, it is actively moving.  The brittle ice cannot bend; any stresses within it result in great fractures. These occur from time to time, and they generate the very loud cracking sounds that sporadically echo off the mountain slopes.

But suddenly we hear something far louder. The advancing ice has formed a tight bond with the Mountain House ledge bedrock. That has generated stresses that eventually cannot be resisted. The moving ice has just ripped loose an enormous mass of rock, 15 feet of it. We have witnessed the violent formation of the modern Mountain House ledge, the ledge that attracted so many artists.

But, none of them ever painted this scene.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

 

 

Visions of distant past – The boulder rock ledge 9-15-17

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Visions of a distant past: The ledge at Boulder Rock

Robert and Johanna Titus

Never before published

 

If we are wearing the right shoes, we can climb to the top of Boulder Rock and get a much better view. Looking south, we can see Kaaterskill Clove; looking southeast, we see the southern Hudson Valley; looking east, we see the Taconic Mountains and, finally, looking north, we can see much more of the Hudson, stretching almost to Albany.

But it is not today’s scenery that captivates us; it is an image from the distant past. We geologists are like that. When we are standing atop Boulder Rock we can transport ourselves into the past of some 14,000 years ago. We stand upon the boulder again, but now in a different moment of time, and before us lies the Hudson Valley as it was during the latter stages of the Ice Age. We have arrived here just a few minutes before dawn on a cloudy day. The cloud cover is thin and so a lot of defused sunlight manages to penetrate it. This Ice Age Hudson Valley is cloudy but well lit.

 

The climate has, in recent times, warmed considerably and the glacier has begun vacating the valley. But there is still a lot of ice out there. An enormous glacier had once been advancing down the Hudson and, at its peak, it had risen up well

 

above the Boulder Rock ledge. In fact it had overridden all of South Mountain, and North Point too. But, recent centuries have seen it melting away.

Still, the valley remains almost filled with ice. The glacier is almost 2,000 feet thick out there, just a short distance to the east. And, stretching beyond that, the ice reaches all the way to the Taconic Mountains on the other side of the valley, a distance of many miles. Those mountains rise above the glacier. They lack much in the way of color. They can, this morning, only muster a darker shade of gray, enough to contrast with the glacier. The ice is also gray, but mostly a lighter tint of that dull “color.” As it has melted away, soot has been brought to the surface to discolor it.

The surface of the glacier is irregular; here and there we can see shallow pools of water. These never get very big; they always find a way to drain down into the ice below. The bottom of the glacier cannot be seen, but it is very wet down there. The glacier is broken by great fissures; these originally formed as crevasses, back when the ice was still advancing to the south. The brittle ice could not stand the strain of movement and it gave way and fractured. But that was long ago; now the old cracks have lost their once sharp edges. These have gradually melted away. Warming climates have taken a toll. The glacier has an aged look to it.

Time passes and the rising sun has broken through the thin cloud cover and now sunshine radiates across the entire vista. As the sun continues its ascent, the ledge all around basks in its warmth. Even in these cold times the sun can warm things up. Some of that radiation is reflected downwards. That is probably why there is a great gap between the boulder rock ledge and the ice below it. Sunshine has melted away the nearby ice to open up this yawning chasm. The hours pass by and soon it is midday. Now it can be seen that the sunlight is shining directly into the gap and its walls of ice have become shiny with fresh meltwater.

But this day will last no longer than any other; the sun continues its inevitable traverse off to the west. Near the end of the afternoon it disappears into another bank of clouds, much thicker this time. Now the weather changes quickly; it grows windy and cold. Soon a heavy snowfall begins. By early evening a thin bank of snow has drifted up against the western side of Boulder Rock.

Past midnight the skies clear, the winds die down, and it grows truly frigid. The stars are bright, even in this night’s full moon. For long hours before the next day’s dawn, the Hudson Valley is illuminated in the moon’s spooky silvery light. Cold, silent and dead, it is a wondrous sight to behold. Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

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