"I will never kick a rock"

Cairo Round Top Mountain June 6/28/18

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The Round Pyramid of Cairo

On the Rocks

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

April 19, 2012


Once you begin to notice it, Cairo Round Top is a mountain you can see from all sorts of places within the Hudson Valley. It can be seen from the north and south and from above and below. It’s aptly named and rather picturesque for its smooth rounded profile, but the question that emerges is how did it get there.

Round Top rises above Cairo

Any geologist, working in this region, would immediately guess that glaciers had something to do with it. And that’s exactly the case with Round Top. The proof comes with a careful look at its upper slopes. Most of Round Top is posted land, but there are several roads that circumnavigate the hill. On Heart’s Content Road, southwest of the hill, you can get a good look at Round Top. Up toward the top there is a great ledge of rock. It’s typical Catskill sandstone. Long ago, nearly 400 million years long ago, that sandstone made up the channel of an ancient river. The quartz sands of that river have hardened into rock. Quartz sandstone is among nature’s hardest and most durable rocks. Hence the cliff, but there’s more than that.

About 22 thousand years ago a very sizable glacier was advancing down the Hudson Valley. It filled the valley right up to the top of the Catskill Front. Indeed, it overflowed into the Catskills themselves. That, however, is another story. The important point here is that much of the time the ice overrode Round Top, the hill is only a little more than 1,400 feet tall and was not much of an obstacle to the flow of the ice. The glacier simply flowed across it.

Glaciers have a very predictable effect upon mountains that dare to get in their way. They tend to streamline the upstream side of the hill. That accounts for the smoothly rounded form of most of Round Top. The other thing that a glacier does is a little more difficult to explain. The downstream side of the impeding hill comes to be sculpted into a steep downstream-facing slope, often a cliff. The process is called “plucking.” The ice apparently adheres to the rock and yanks loose large chunks of it and drags it off. Over time a cliff results, a scar of the plucking process. That is the explanation for that sizable ledge at the top of the south side of Round Top.

Okay, so far, so good, it sounds like we have explained Round Top, but we haven’t. We understand the shape of Round Top but what is it doing there? Our curiosity is about why the mountain exists there at all. You see, the Hudson Valley glacier advanced down the valley at least from 25,000 to 14,000 years ago and that is a lot of time. It also passed down the Hudson Valley about 120,000 years ago during an event often called the Illinoisan glaciation. The passing ice plucked the Catskill Front as well as round Top and over time it sculpted the Wall of Manitou as the Catskill escarpment is sometimes called.

And that is our problem. How come Round Top didn’t get scoured away entirely during all of this glaciation? We don’t know and that bothers us.

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

An ice-scoured plain 6-21-18

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An ice scoured plain

Robert and Johanna Titus

June 21, 2018


We have been members of the Mountaintop Arboretum at Onteora Park in Tannersville pretty much since it was formed about 20 years ago. We have lost track of how many times we have made presentations there. But we are speaking at the Arboretum once again this Saturday, June 23, 2018 at 10:00 AM. We will be giving a PowerPoint presentation about the ice age and bedrock history of the Arboretum grounds. Then we will be taking our audience outside to do a geology walk across a good part of Arboretum property. It will be an easy walk across a relatively flat landscape. Try to come along, if you can fit it in to your schedule.

You may not be able to attend so we thought we would put together a bit of a quick guide for some time when you will be able to get out there. The main part of the Arboretum grounds are called the West Meadow and that is in the northwest corner of the property. Scattered across the West Meadow are the trees that make up the bulk of the Arboretum. You can visit and wander the trails that are there. You can look at the various species of trees which are all well labeled. There is even some art in the form of stone sculptures.



Map of West Meadow.

But, of course, when we are there, we see the geology, a lot of geology. We will be speaking about it all on Saturday, but let’s focus on the West Meadow today. To get there you travel north on Rte. 23C north from Tannersville until you reach the Arboretum. You can park on Maude Adams Lane and then walk back to the gate to the West Meadow. When we are there, we look across the grounds. What we see is a landscape that shows the effects of glaciation. We see what might be called an ice-scoured plain. That is, we see a glacier sweeping down from the North and overrunning the grounds of the Arboretum.

The most obvious manifestation of that is the exposed bedrock, right there at the gate. The bedrock, here, has been scoured by the passing ice. It has a smoothed and polished look to it. Wander around and look it over. You will, we think, be able to see the polish. Also, look for long straight scratches in the surface. They have a north to south compass orientation. These are glacial striations. If you have been a regular reader then you have seen these before. They were made as the glacier dragged cobbles and boulders across the surface. These are faint impressions and we couldn’t get a good photo, but you should be able to find them without much trouble.


Next, watch for crescent shaped fractures in the rock surface. These are called chattermarks, they were formed when a boulder was dragged across this same surface. The weight of the ice pressed down, but the push of the glacier pushed it forward. When the push overcame the weight, the boulder “leaped” forward and “landed” leaving the crescent. Over time a series of crescents was formed.


Next, look around and you will soon see a large boulder. That’s something called a glacial erratic. That’s a boulder that was swept up and carried along by the advancing glacier. The boulder reached Arboretum grounds when the climate warmed and the glacier melted away. The boulder has been sitting here ever since the end of the Ice Age.

Glacial erratic

Now you know enough to be able to wander the grounds of the West Meadow. We are sure you will enjoy seeing all the trees that are there. After all, that is why the Arboretum was established. But now you will be able to understand and appreciate that this is an ice scoured plain. Watch for other ice scoured outcroppings; there is a very good on in the southeast corner of the meadow. You will see other glacial erratics as sell; they are scattered about all across Arboretum property. We hope you will just plain understand this landscape better.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net.




Rock jointing in Plattekill Clove 6-14-18

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Cabin tales #2 – The Joints

On the rocks

The Woodstock Times

Sept 2, 2010

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


This is a new installment of a series on the geology of Plattekill Clove, all written at the little red cabin owned by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. One of the great pleasures of staying at the cabin is walking, after full darkness, downhill to the bend in the road and gazing out onto the Hudson Valley. You can only see part of the valley from there, but it is a grand view. The most striking feature is the Kingston Bridge, all lit up and shining in the surrounding darkness. This is Thomas Edison’s breaking of four and one half billion years of nighttime black. Still, Nature had always had her own lightshows. The best part of the evening stroll is, on those occasional nights, when you can turn around and look west, and see the flashes of lightning from an approaching Catskills thunderstorm. If they are in season, the walk back is lit by the lightning bugs serenaded by crickets, and that can be positively intoxicating.

But daytime is when you are most active around the cabin. There are things that can only be seen then. The most rugged part of Plattekill Clove is found at its very top. That’s a complex stretch of canyons called the Devil’s Kitchen. It is a striking feature, easily viewed from the old stone bridge on the highway at the very top of the canyon. You crane your neck and look down what seems, and is, a precipitous drop.

A small stream descending down the mountain from the north has, over the eons, carved this . . . what to call it . . . not a canyon, not a ravine, perhaps just a jagged cut, no a jagged slash in the rock. The walls on both sides are shear vertical cliffs. They are so flat as to almost be shiny. None of this is accidental; the walls of rock that you are seeing are called joint planes.Hundreds of millions of years ago, great tectonic collisions had squeezed these rocks. Later, when the compression was ended and the rocks relaxed, they expanded and became brittle. That’s when they snapped and those perfectly flat and perfectly vertical fissures appeared. You need to pause and really look at them in order to truly appreciate their form, and their beauty.

After forming, so long ago, these joints sat in stillness for almost all of those hundreds of millions of years as the physical laws of inertia prevailed. Silent and unmoving they did absolutely nothing. But, that would change, especially with the coming of the Ice Age. That’s when they began to be affected by the harsh vicissitudes of glacial climates. Water seeped into these joints, it expanded, as it turned into ice in the freezing cold, and that resulted in further cracking. The expanding ice widened the fissures and they became broader and more prominent. That let still more water enter and chemical weathering followed. Nature was working on the old joints. She had become an artist, a sculptor in order to create something aesthetic from them.

But Nature is slow and patient; she is inexorable. The old fractures became active and they began to expand into the rock that lay between the joints. And those new fractures, in turn, expanded and widened themselves. Then they split and then the new fractures split again. Systems of fractures began to break up the rock. Still more water entered and still more ice formed and still more fracturing occurred.

Now the Ice Age ended. The climate warmed up but the winters would still be frigid and ice would perform its engineering at that time of the year, but something new would assist. Nature enlisted a new ally. That stream we spoke of earlier, made its appearance. Streams are also sculptors and good ones. This one descended the mountain and reached the Devil’s Kitchen. There it speeded up the sculpting process. During peak flows, the rivulet becomes a torrent and a powerful one. It can dislodge blocks of rock, sometime very large ones, and haul them off. Slowly, the Devil’s Kitchen took on its present form. One by one, great chunks of rock were knocked loose and carried away. Slowly that slash in the mountain became the steep, jagged and picturesque thing of natural beauty that it is today.

The old artists of the Hudson Valley School of art would have preferred the word sublime over picturesque and they would have had a point. The scene here is sublime in the sense that it portrays nature not as parkland, but as a rugged, certainly wild and even violent entity. We come here stand and we gaze at Devil’s Kitchen and we are overwhelmed by it; we should be. Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net.

Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

The top of Kaaterskill Falls – June 7, 2018

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The New Kaaterskill Falls trail: Part five: The top of the falls

On the Rocks

The Woodstock Times

Feb 9, 2017

Robert and Johanna Titus


Kaaterskill Falls has always been renowned for its scenic beauty. It first became widely known after the nearby Catskill Mountain House Hotel opened in 1824. From the hotel the young landscape artist, Thomas Cole, went exploring and visited the falls. He painted two of his most well-loved views here, one from the top of the falls and another from the bottom. You will have no trouble finding these images online. The falls have, subsequently, been painted by generations of artists who followed in Cole’s footsteps.

Generations of recreational hikers have also visited the falls and now the new staircase makes such visits much easier and far more practical. We have always admired the scenery at Kaaterskill Falls, but we are different from most others; when we visit the falls or look at those paintings, we see glaciers! We stand at the top of the falls and look down to see a glacier filling the valley below us; as we watch, it slowly rises up the canyon and then we have to step out of the way as it swells up over the falls themselves.  We lift ourselves up into the air and turn around to watch as the flow of the ice continues on to South Lake. Geologists can do that sort of thing.

How can we claim such otherworldly visions, especially as scientists? It is an extraordinary claim and Carl Sagan said it best when he said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Can we back up our “visions” with evidence? Yes, we can. It all began down at Bastion Falls where we began our trek several columns ago. We had climbed down from Rte. 23A and were about to ascend the canyon. But, we looked around and noticed a number of boulders with remarkable features on their surfaces. Take a look at our first photo; see one of these boulders. Notice that the surface of this rock is covered with large deep scratches. These are called glacial striations. This rock had been swept along with the flow of ice and dragged along for who knows how far. Along the way it was dragged up against many other similar rocks, and each impact left a scar in the form of a striation.

After seeing the first of these down at Bastion Falls, our eyes were trained to notice more – many more. These comprised the “extraordinary” evidence of the glacier that had, long ago, flowed down the Hudson Valley, risen up Kaaterskill Clove and then turned into the falls canyon. We kept finding more of those striated boulders as we climbed up all the way to the bottom of the falls. We realized that we had been following in the path of the glacier that had been here perhaps 14,000 years ago. But, the question remained: had that glacier ascended up and actually crossed over the top of the Kaaterskill Falls themselves. Those falls are 260 feet tall; could a glacier have actually “climbed” over them? We needed more extraordinary evidence. We climbed the new stairs and hiked on to the top of the falls hoping to find that evidence.

At the top of the new staircase a hiker is led to a dirt trail. That trail, in turn, leads to an intersection with the Blue Trail. A right turn there takes you on to the northern rim of Kaaterskill Clove; a left turn takes you to the top of the falls. We went left. Soon we were standing on the great ledge that makes up the top of the falls. We gazed down the canyon below and could not help but envision it filling with the ice of a glacier that slowly rose right up to where we were standing. But had that glacier actually passed this spot; had it risen and continued on to the north? We looked about and there was the evidence, something we had never noticed before at this spot.

It had been very dry in recent weeks and the flow of water was very low. Most of the bedrock at the bottom of the stream was now exposed and on its surface we found the evidence we had been looking for. The sandstone came from a Devonian stream channel and it contained several small quartz cobbles.  These had been carried by that long-ago flow of water. All these cobbles had originally been rounded by the Devonian streamflow. But now, each one had had its upper half planed off. Its flat upper surface had been scraped flat so that it lay at exactly the same level as the surrounding sandstone (see our second photo). We were fortunate to have visited during a drought. Most of the time this ledge is very wet and very dangerous.

These were ice age features that we have frequently seen elsewhere at North Lake. When a glacier moves across a sandstone landscape it is likely to intersect cobbles within the country rock. It will plane right through them. These are fairly common on the Blue Trail at South Mountain and near Sunset Rock, but this was the first time we had seen them at the top of Kaaterskill Falls. They are features unique to the flow of glacial ice; we had our undisputable (and extraordinary) evidence. Our glacier had risen up over the falls and scoured off the tops of those pebbles as it continued upstream. But there was more.

At the top of Kaaterskill Falls lies a gigantic boulder (our third photo). Curiously, it does not have a name, but we immediately recognized it as being what is called a glacial erratic. Erratics are boulders that were swept up in the flow of ice and transported from where they came from and left where they are found today when the ice melted. This erratic had likely fallen off of South Mountain and onto and into our advancing glacier. It then flowed with the moving ice just to a site which would eventually be the top of the falls. Then the climate warmed, the ice melted and the erratic was lowered down to where it is seen today. It’s additional convincing evidence of the local glacier.

Climbing up to the top of this boulder is not easy but it is worth the effort. We did so and found the name Sanford Robinson Gifford inscribed on its top. Gifford was one of the most esteemed members of the Hudson River School of Art. He had painted here and commemorated his visit with the inscription. We wondered if he knew the ice age origins of this boulder.

One final treat for us was to walk down the dirt path that leads to the lands west of the falls. It only took us three minutes to get to the new deck with its knockout view of all of Kaaterskill Falls. We described that in the March 24th issue.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Visit their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Everybody else has.




The Poison Sea May 31, 2018

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THE POISON SEA – Or Dog days of the Devonian



Kaatskill Life, Summer 1994

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


THE CATSKILLS rarely have a season of “dog days”, the time of hot, humid, heavy, stagnant air. That weather is the lot of more southerly climes. Up here, more often than not, our summers are nearly ideal: warm, dry and pleasant. However, that was not always the case. The rocks contain the record of a very different time in the history of our region, a very long time of perpetually unpleasant summer.

Drive along U.S. Route 20, in the vicinity north of Cherry Valley, and you will see some remarkable strata, the jet-black shales of a unit of rock called the Marcellus Group. All sedimentary rocks represent ancient environments, but it usually takes a while to decipher their


history. The Marcellus communicates its story as soon as it is seen. Its strata are thinly-bedded sedimentary rocks which were once the mud of an ancient ocean’s sea floor.

Robert last visited these rocks late in March with his stratigraphy class. At the time, a late winter snow flurry was approaching. In the cold cloudy sky, the Marcellus is an almost sinister looking sequence of rock: dark, forbidding and mysterious. And that’s exactly what it once was because the Marcellus records the history of the “poison sea” which once covered the western Catskill region.

Courtesy of the New York State Museum

It was the geography of the time that made the poison sea. The Catskill vicinity then lay in tropical latitudes so that the climate was quite warm, and so was the ocean. The ancient Acadian Mountains blocked the weather patterns which otherwise would have approached, riding through on the easterly trade winds. That’s the important part. You see, with the weather patterns blocked, there was relatively little wind blowing across the Catskill Sea and thus few currents to churn up that ocean. West of the Acadian Mountains, the sheltered sea became a hot, stagnant “soup”.

We can visit similar seas today. The Black Sea, though not on the equator, is a good example. Being land-locked, weather patterns do not much affect the Black Sea. The waters of such seas are usually stratified. Although the surface waters are very warm, they do contain a lot of oxygen and sea creatures can and do flourish in these shallow waters. It is different below; there bacteria consume all of the oxygen and the sea water becomes anaerobic, making it poisonous for any creatures who may wander in. They don’t; these waters are lifeless.

Such conditions persist right down to the bottom. As is normally the case with oceans, mud accumulates on the sea floor. The mud of oxygen‑poor seas is always jet black in color and, when it is compressed and hardened into rock, it becomes black shales. That’s how the Marcellus black shales formed.

Meanwhile, at the surface of the Catskill Sea, conditions were different. There was plenty of oxygen and a flourishing community of marine life. Masses of floating algae, with many small animals, thrived in a rich planktonic ecology, an oceanic jungle. Today we often call such a marine community a Sargasso.

Floating creatures seldom have skeletons and so they are rarely preserved as fossils. Consequently the Marcellus shales display only a few fossils for the careful hunter to find. Back in the 30’s Winifred Goldring, a paleontologist with the New York State Museum, studied the Marcellus and published some fine illustrations (figure three). Among her specimens, three (A, B and C) are tiny shellfish called brachiopods (brachs for short). Brachs will remind you of clams but they aren’t; they are an entirely separate group of shellfish. One specimen (D) is a clam. Notice that brachiopod shells have symmetry and the clam’s shell doesn’t. Pictures E and F are a puzzle. These creatures, called styliolinids, are extinct and we don’t know what they were. That’s a common problem with rocks this old. All of these invertebrates were small and lightweight. They could float in the surface waters of the poison sea, drifting as plankton or attached to floating wood or seaweed. Specimen G is different; it was an active swimmer. We call it a nautiloid and its descendants are still alive. The chambered nautilus, of the south Pacific, is today’s living nautiloid. Closely related to squids and octopods, the nautiloids had tentacles and well-developed eyes. They were active predators, swimming in the surface waters of the poison seas.

You can visit the shales of the poison sea yourself. From Cherry Valley, take county Rt. 166 northeast to Rt.20. Head west on 20 about half a mile and look for the shales on the north side of the road. You can see a better exposure if you head east on Rt. 20 and travel 2.6 miles, where you will reach Chestnut Street. There you will find an outcrop with two units of shale separated by about five feet of gray limestone.

If you patiently pick through the shales, you will certainly find many styliolinids; watch carefully as they are very small. With luck you may find some of the other fossils as well. I have seen some very fine fossil snails below the limestone at the eastern outcrop. That limestone can also be a lot of fun too. This unit represented a temporary break from the poison sea conditions. For a period of time a shallow, oxygenated, tropical sea prevailed here. The limestone has a number of fossils in it, typical of such seas.

The poison seas are misnamed; there were never any active toxins in them, just an absence of oxygen. Nature does that from time to time. The lesson we learn from the poison seas is not that nature creates inhospitable environments, but that she allows life enough time to adapt to her conditions. The planktonic creatures of the Marcellus black shales thrived just a few feet above one of nature’s most inhospitable environments.

*      *      *

Visiting the Marcellus shales is not the same as seeing the poison sea itself. To do that, pick one of those hot, humid but clear summer days and, in the stillness of the early evening, find a vantage point looking down upon the valley of the Mohawk. The Chestnut Street site may do. From here you can still see the entire expanse of the old poison sea, stretching from the eastern to the western horizons. You are a little above the old sea level, and the atmosphere is just as it was back then.

The summer sun is setting in the northwest and, as it approaches the horizon, the valley of the Mohawk darkens and flattens into a land of somber colors. The fields become a brownish, algae green; the forests turn jet black. To the northwest, the horizon becomes the image of a very still sea. Back to the east there is a distant bank of clouds. As this eastern horizon darkens, those clouds sharpen into the clear vision of the peaks of the ancient Acadian Mountains. Distant mountain ranges often masquerade as clouds, and there is always a shock of surprise when one recognizes the illusion. The lower Acadian slopes are a dark blue brown; they are already in the shade. The jagged pinnacles are small brilliant pyramids; they still reflect the sun.

The air is absolutely still and the surface of the poison sea is as flat as water can be. Gauzy clouds of green algae alternate with bottomless pools of black waters. Occasionally, bubbles of fetid gas rise to the surface and oily dots mar the blackness. Only these betray the suffocating gloom in the depths below. Small, delicate wakes encircle the green; unseen predators are hunting unseen prey. Now a few swells pass heading westward, waves reflected off the distant coast. The green patches lazily drift back and forth in these oceanic breezes. Abruptly there is a disturbance, a quick splash and, for a split second, a mass of tentacles, a single eye and then a brown and white striped shell are seen breaking the water.

Quiet quickly returns as the sun sets and the sea darkens. The evening stars now appear and they seem to be reflected on the glassy sea below. But these reflections gradually blur, and they enlarge into luminous patches of light. Phosphorescent plankton are completing their evening ascent. Their dim glow is all that will light the dark of this Paleozoic sea.

In the growing dark, the image of the poison sea dims. The bioluminescent patches shrink and sharpen into yellow pinpoints of light. Far below, the electric lights of the Mohawk Valley are coming on and now it is they which reflect the stars above. The poison sea is gone, long gone, just an image in the eye and mind of the pensive geologist.

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

Sam’s Point in the Shawangunk Mountains May 24, 2018

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Visions of a Hudson Valley geological past: Glaciers at Sam’s Point

Watch out for moving ice

Robert and Johanna Titus


The Shawangunk Mountains are certainly among the most scenic locations in our region, and uniquely so. This ridge of resilient quartz sandstone towers above the Hudson Valley. One of its most popular locations is Sam’s Point Preserve, near the south end of the mountains. It’s thousands of acres are perched atop the mountains at elevations well above 2,000 feet. It’s owned by the Open Space Institute and managed by the Nature Conservancy. In the past there were commercial uses of this land. There were abundant blueberries here, and people were hired, every summer, to come and pick them. Then, in addition, there have been several resort hotels.

But we came here to learn about the geology. How had the area’s geological history given rise to this scenic wonder? We headed up the trail. It didn’t take long to figure out why the Shawangunks are even there. All along the trail were massive outcrops of quartz sandstone and conglomerate. Quartz is very resistant to weathering and a mountain made out of such rocks will stand out as all other bedrock around it erodes away.

We got up to Sam’s Point itself and soon learned much more about the geological history that went into creating the landscapes we see today. We arrived at the easternmost of two sandstone platforms, each seemingly designed for sight-seeing.  Naturally, we were more interested in looking down at the rocks than gazing at the distant scenic views. There was some special things that caught our eyes.

We saw a polished sheen and faint scratches on the surface of the rock. We quickly recognized these to be common ice age features. Sam’s Point has had a long ice age history, probably going back to the time when glaciers first came down the Hudson Valley. At that time this site had ice passing across it. The ice was dirty, carrying a great deal of sand along with it, mostly concentrated at its base. The sand, probably mixed with a lot of silt and clay, actually polished the bedrock. It sanded it down and planed it off.

There was more. The glaciers carried with them a large number of cobbles and boulders. As these were dragged across the surface, they gouged scratches into the bedrock. Geologists call these glacial striations. We have seen such surfaces many times so it was hardly a great revelation, but it did speak clearly to us of the fact that there had once been a sizable glacier here. Then we saw more.

We looked up and there was Sam’s Point itself. It is another natural platform of quartz sandstone, but this one is bounded by a vertical cliff, a big one. Most people would enjoy it as a fine scenic overlook, but our eyes took us back into the Ice Age. Geologists call features like Sam’s Point scour and pluck topographies. These are common and each is the product of the passage of the ice. The Hudson Valley glacier advanced from the north and, as it crossed Sam’s Point, it scoured and striated that platform at the top of the cliff. That’s the scour part. Then, as the ice continued south, it stuck to the bedrock and then yanked enormous masses of it loose and carried them off. That left gaping scars in the mountaintop and one of them is the cliff of Sam’s Point. That is also the pluck part of this landscape. The cliff faces a compass direction of south-30 degrees-west. That, presumably, was the direction the glacier was traveling. We looked at the striations beneath us, and we had a compass. They had the same orientations.

Now we had a nice, coherent explanation for the topography of Sam’s Point. That’s what scientists call an elegant solution to a scientific problem. We would have been flushed with pride at having made such marvelous discoveries, were it not for the fact that thousands of other geologists had preceded us here, and they had, no doubt, all come to the very same conclusions.

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

The Mountain House ledge May 17, 2018

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Visions of a Hudson Valley geological past: “The Mountain House Ledge.”

Robert and Johanna Titus


Certainly one of the most historic sites in all the Catskills is the Mountain House ledge at North/South Lake Campground. We are betting that most of you have been there. It’s a grand, broad shelf of sandstone, jutting out 2,000 feet above the floor of the Hudson Valley. It’s claimed that you can view some 70 miles of that valley from this site. It is, of course, the very place chosen for the building of the Catskill Mountain House Hotel, back in the 1820’s. That was the grandest of the grand hotels of the Catskills during our region’s most fashionable era. The hotel attracted a Gilded Age aristocracy; a Who’s Who of the American elite vacationed there. But something spiritual happened here too. America came to love nature at this location. It was here that the Hudson Valley School of art was born, when Thomas Cole spent a summer sketching the scenery. Almost equally distinguished was the poetry and prose that was inspired by this “sublime” wilderness landscape.

There is no way to overestimate the historical heritage of these few acres of land. The whole culture that we equate with the word Catskills had its birth at the Mountain House. And the hotel had its birth on this scenic ledge. It is one of our favorite places. We frequently go there and just sit upon the ledge’s rocks. We touch the sandstone and look around. All that lies above the ground, above those rocks, belongs to history. Here historians such as Roland Van Zandt and Alf Evers prevail. They explored the past at this site and recorded its many influences on our modern culture.

But, we touch those rocks again. Everything below the ground belongs to us! All around is the historical heritage of modern Catskills culture but below is a geological past that reaches back hundreds of millions of years. Nearly four miles of sedimentary rock lies beneath us – right here. And, down there, every stratum of rock has its own history, from its own time.

We touch this ledge and contemplate its petrified sand. It accumulated on the floor of a river channel. That was during the Devonian time period, about 380 million years ago. A river flowed by, right here, and then it disappeared off to the west. We gaze west and then turn around and look, more intently, eastward hoping to see where that stream and its sand came from. But . . . there’s nothing there but the great emptiness of the valley.

Suddenly, we are time travelers; around us it is the Devonian time period. We are just above the waters in the middle of that stream, looking east. To our left and right are the river’s low banks. Rising above them are Devonian trees, at least they must be trees; they are so exotic, so strange in appearance. Frail looking trunks rise 25 feet above the banks. There are no branches, not until the very top is there even any foliage. All this defies all efforts at description. There are no leaves, just things that might be called fronds. But even that term does not suffice. These are among the most primitive “trees” known to science. They represent evolution’s earliest efforts at the very concept of a forest, and Devonian evolution has not yet become very good at that. If these trees defy description, it’s because nothing like them grows today.

We turn and look east. In the distance a mighty mountain range towers above that horizon. We quickly realize that the Taconic and Berkshires of today are but the roots of this ancient mountain range. Their middle slopes are gun metal blue and cut by many enormous ravines. Above the blue is a horizontal white snow line. High above that are the white peaks of this enormous range.

Our journey into the past is a brief one. Soon we sit again upon the Mountain House ledge and see our modern landscape. We have beheld its geological heritage.

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


The Greenport Mastodon May 10, 2018

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The Greenport Mastodon

Windows Through time

Feb. 28, 2013

Columbia Greene newspapers

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


Our topic today will be one of the most notable paleontological discoveries ever made here in our region: the finding of the first mastodon. This was a big find and was made a long time ago: way back in 1705. That’s when a Dutch colonist found a huge tooth in a bank of clay along eastern bank of the Hudson in Greenport. It weighed almost five pounds and our Dutchman must have been most impressed. Not so impressed, however, that he was not willing to sell it for a half gill of rum (two ounces) to a local assemblyman.

The tooth worked its way up the political food chain to Lord Cornbury, then Governor of the New York Colony. He sent it off to the Royal Society of London. Today, that would be like sending it to the Smithsonian Institute. The tooth attracted a lot of attention in London, and from just the right people.  In 1705 not much was known about prehistoric monsters, in fact very little was known about prehistory. The scientists of the time were puzzled.

There were two hypotheses. Some thought that the tooth belonged to a remarkable beast or fish, but they could not imagine what type of creature it had been.  Lord Cornbury and others had another idea; the tooth belonged to a “giant” and they were talking of a biblical giant, referred to in Genesis 6:4. This tooth, they thought, had belonged to a huge human being!

To his credit, Cornbury sent people to search the original site for more skeletal remains and they found parts of a very much decomposed skeleton. They estimated that the beast had been 70 feet long. In fact, they had greatly exaggerated its size, but you can imagine how they reacted to the very notion!

From the beginning there were others who speculated that the remains belonged to an elephant, but what kind of an elephant and how did such an animal get to the Hudson Valley? For the second part of the question, here again, contemporary religious views offered a solution: the beast had been carried here by Noah’s Flood. That would be difficult to prove, but it was an appealing idea.

It would take decades to solve the other half of the problem – what kind of elephant had it been – and that came when many more mastodon bones were found in the Ohio River valley, and a complete skeleton was unearthed in New York’s Orange County. Now, at last, scientists could see a whole skeleton with tusks, and clearly its bones were those of an elephant, or at least a distant cousin of today’s elephant. But only a distant cousin; now there was a new scientific problem. The mastodon did not match the Indian or the African elephants; it was a separate and new species.

But nobody had ever seen such a creature in the wild. That was still another problem. At this time the very notion of extinction was a new and very troubling concept. Could mastodons have once lived and then gone extinct? Not many people were comfortable with that thought. Theologians, especially, argued that no such thing could have happened; God would not allow extinction of species he had created. Perhaps but, if so, where were the living mastodons?

That was a serious scientific question in the early 1800’s and President Thomas Jefferson, an accomplished amateur scientist in his own right, thought he could solve it. The Lewis and Clark expedition was soon to head west, and Jefferson specifically asked its members to be on the lookout for mastodons. Certainly the animals were extinct here in the east, but perhaps they still lived somewhere out there beyond the Appalachians.

Well, Lewis and Clark found a lot of things all across America, but they never saw an elephant. The results were clear: mastodons were extinct and, like it or not, extinction was something that really could happen – and really had happened.

All this adds up to some very important early progress in the science of paleontology. Our Greenport mastodon was among the very first prehistoric monsters to be discovered. Later generations would discover the dinosaurs, but these great mastodons are still quite something to contemplate. All this would lead, with time, to a great understanding of the exotic nature of our planet’s paleontological history; this was one of our first glimpses into life’s distant past.

But, equally important was the introduction of the very concept of extinction. We take that for granted today but it was a most remarkable, and disturbing, discovery three centuries ago.

Reach the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Watch for more articles in Kaatskill Life, the Woodstock times and the Mountain Eagle.



The myth of Spook Rock. May 3. 2018

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The Myth of Spook Rock

Stories in Stone

The Columbia County Independent; Nov. 23, 2004

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


MAYBE YOU READ the Independent’s recent (2004) review of Pasquale Morrone’s book “Spook Rock.” It’s a work of fiction based on a mythology. That, of course, is not something that usually attracts the attention of a scientist. We don’t devote a lot of time to myths, but in this case we think that we can be forgiven. Morrone’s book is centered on a real rock and we always like a rock with a good story. Spook rock is located south from Rt. 23B on Spook Rock Road where it passes very close to Claverack Creek.

The legend has it that, long ago, an Indian maiden fell in love with the son of a chief of another tribe. Her father, also a chief, predictably, did not approve of this. One thing led to another; the two lovers met in the darkness at Claverack Creek.  Great. A  great boulder was hit by lightning and fell from the cliff above and landed upon them. They ended up crushed to death. The rock is still right where it fell and, presumably, the unfortunate lovers remain beneath it. Stay away on full moon nights!

Naturally, we could not resist going and seeing such an ill-mannered rock. It’s easy to find; it lies near the western bank of the creek, conveniently close to the road and there is very good parking. Unfortunately, we had to wade out to it. Our first scientific discovery was that spook rock has many very sharp corners to it and these are hard on bare feet.

We quickly recognized the rock; it is a piece of what we geologists call the Devonian aged (about 400 million years old) Manlius Limestone. That’s a type of rock that makes up a sizable portion of Becraft Mountain. With this, we had confirmed one important element of the myth. This rock certainly had tumbled down from the Manlius Limestone ridge above.

But soon another story began to emerge. We looked at the gray limestone and saw many thin laminations within it. We knew what these were; they are called algal laminates. Geologists have long recognized these laminations as being the fossils and ancient algae. You see, some colonies of very primitive algae grow into sheets on tidal mudflats and coat the surface with their own stickiness. As the winds and the tides rise and fall, grains of silt and clay adhere to the sticky algae and thus the laminates come to form. We looked at this and we were transported through time.

June 10, 400,002,000 BC, high noon. All around us lies a bleak flat landscape. To the west, quite some distance away, we can see an ocean. It is a beautiful aqua color. This is a peaceful sea, with virtually no waves breaking on its distant shore. It’s called the Helderberg Sea; we have been here many times before and knew what to expect.

At this distant time, Columbia County lies very close to the equator, and at this noontime hour an intense tropical sun beats down mercilessly. In short, we have arrived at a bad time. To make things worse, the Devonian age atmosphere has much less ozone in it. Today ozone shields us from ultra-violet radiation which minimizes the threat of sunburn. We feel the difference; we would not be able to stay here long before we were seriously sunburned.

All around us lies a sticky mat of dark olive colored algae. These creatures should, like us, have been baking to death in this awful sun, but they weren’t. They belonged to a breed of algae called the blue-green algae, and by the time of the Devonian they are a very old type of microbes. They have been on earth for three and a half billion years and in that time they have evolved a tolerance for intense sunlight. This noon time will pass and they will be just fine.

A wind begins to blow and soon it picks up. Now billowing clouds of dust are blowing from the highlands to the east. The dust coats the sticky algal mats and they turn white. Another lamination is being added to the countless numbers that lie below. If they are turning white, we are turning red. It is time for us to escape the Devonian and return to Claverack Creek as it is today.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their columns in the Mountain Eagle.


The Glaciers of Hunter Mountain April 25, 2018

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On The Rocks

August 29, 1996 1996

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


They say that it is human nature that the end of one conflict often bears the seeds of the next. This somber observation may be the case with Hunter Mountain, the second highest mountain of the Catskills. Recently (That was in1996) there was a proposal to alter the New York State constitution in order to allow the development of about 3,000 acres at the summit of Hunter Mountain. This would have allowed the expansion of the Hunter ski complex into something comparable to what we now see in Vermont. Currently skiing on Hunter is confined to the “Colonels Chair” which lies on the slopes of Shanty Hollow. If the proposal had gone through (It didn’t), skiing would have been expanded to Taylor Hollow to the northeast and Becker Hollow to the east. These three hollows have origins that date back to the last time the mountain was besieged. That was during the ice age when the proposed ski bowls of Hunter were occupied, not by skiers, but by Alpine glaciers.

Few people realize the role that glaciers played in making our Catskill landscapes. The story takes us back to a chapter in glacial history described as the Wisconsin glaciation. Catskill glacial history is complex, but there were two very different phases. First there was a time when a great, half mile thick sheet of ice swept across our mountains. The Catskills then resembled the high ice plains of today’s Antarctica. By 16,000 years ago, however, the Catskills had escaped the worst grip of this phase. The great thick ice sheet was gone, but all was not over yet. Glaciers were still found in the shaded valleys, and also in the high mountain niches that were giving birth to a number of Alpine glaciers. If you are familiar with the images of the Swiss Alps of today then you know that high up in the Alps, large glaciers form in pre-existing hollows. These are nourished by snowfall and, with cold conditions, these picturesque Alpine glaciers descend the slopes and flow into the valleys below. That was the case with Hunter Mountain.

As time went by these glaciers modified their own Alpine niches. Glacial ice forms a sticky bond with the rock beneath it, and as the ice moves, it plucks loose large amounts of this rock. Alpine ice is thus a very effective agent of erosion. Given enough time, this expanded the niches and enlarged them into beautiful, bowl-shaped features called “cirques.”

There are a lot of cirques in the Catskills, but few of them are as well developed as those of the Alps. This phase of glaciation was too short for Swiss-like landscape to develop. Warmer conditions returned, and the Alpine glaciers melted. Nevertheless Hunter Mountain displays some of the best cirque landscape seen in the Catskills. In addition to the three hollows we mentioned earlier, there are the hollows at Myrtle Brook, Diamond Notch, West Kill and Hunter Brook. All seem to have once harbored glaciers. Some of these can be seen from Rte. 23A, below.


                                                                          Cirques, left and right of the ski slopes.


                                                         A map of Hunter Mt. showing its seven Alpine glaciers.  


The effects of glaciation persist long after the ice is gone. These bowls initiate what we call “watersheds.” The hollows are ideally suited for the purposes of gathering rainwater and passing it on to the river systems below. Of the seven hollows which surround Hunter Mountain, five of them feed water into the Schoharie Creek watershed. Only one of these five, Shanty Hollow, is currently a ski slope, but Taylor and Becker Hollows were planned to be added. Watershed protection was one of the most important reasons why the State purchased the land in the first place, and was one of the primary reasons for opposition to the ski slope expansion.

You can see some of this Alpine landscape. From West Kill Valley take the Devil’s Path up the western slope of Hunter Mountain. There is a fine ledge at the top of the trail. That is the top of a cirque. The cliff below drops off into an Alpine glacier’s niche. Look west into the valley of West Kill. The beautiful U-shaped valley you see is the product of the glacier’s erosion as it flowed down the valley.



                                                                             View of U-shaped West Kill Valley

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


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