"I will never kick a rock"

The New Kaaterskill Falls Trail, Part Three

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The New Kaaterskill Falls trail – Part Three: The Side Trail

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Perhaps the best thing about the new renovations at Kaaterskill Falls is the new side path. People have always wanted to walk in from the right side of the falls and explore the great ledge that caps the lower falls. To do that in the past, you always had to follow a small natural ledge. It was narrow and, with a dirt path, it could sometimes be slick and dangerous. People had slipped and fallen to their deaths there. That natural ledge had to be widened; it was.

Now there is a broader, flatter and far more stable path (our first photo). You simply make a left turn and walk out onto that part of the new trail. Soon you are atop the ledge of rock that makes up the lower falls. It’s one of the most popular destinations for hikers at Kaaterskill Falls. From the top of that ledge, you get a fine view of the canyon below the lower falls (you should always be very careful not to get too close to the edge – there was a death here this last summer). Alternatively you can turn around and look up into the great amphitheater at the fall’s center (our second photo). That “amphitheater” is a grand rounded cavity, roofed over by a massive ledge of thickly stratified sandstone.

 

Let’s take in that second view, looking up into the amphitheater; it is so much more revealing, geologically. Our second photo was taken from the top of the ledge. The view looks into that cavity, and the upper half of the photo shows its “roof.” That roof consists of sandstone strata 20 or more feet thick. Those strata dip first right and then left. These are typical stream channel deposits. We are looking at a cross sectional view of an ancient river, and a very large one at that. The strata below the river deposits are finer grained red shales. These were deposited on the floodplain surface that lay adjacent to the old river. These are often called overbank deposits. Take another look; those sandstones are river deposits, the red shales in between are floodplain sediments. Now you know about 90% of what there is to know about the stratigraphy of the Catskill Delta!

 

The two units of rock are very different in how well they hold up in the face of weathering and erosion. Those sandstones are very sturdy materials. They have resisted the effects of weathering and time has left them as a roof-like ledge, overhanging the softer strata below. Those softer shale strata were far more easily weathered, and nature sculpted them into that amphitheater. All this has always contributed to the scenic beauty of the falls. Thomas Cole painted a view from the inside, looking out. His painting was turned into a print which is commonly available online or in antique shops. Winslow Homer climbed to the back of the amphitheater and did a painting of some “Gibson Girls” climbing its slopes. It too is commonly available as an antique print. Both images are easily found online. Now, with the new trail, it is easier to go see them “in person.”

On our way back down the side trail we found another surprise. As we approached new main staircase we found that the side of the trail exposes one more ledge of rock. This one reveals the presence of a fossil soil. That’s the dark horizon just above the trail on our third photo. That, properly, is called a paleosol. It was not an especially well developed soil but we found some typical soil structures. These were vertical cracks. This sort of thing is called desiccation fracturing. These cracks took us back in time to a Devonian age dry season. Many geologists believe that the Devonian climate here was seasonal. There were dry seasons and wet seasons; the desiccation cracks were formed within the soils during one of those very ancient dry seasons.

 

Our paleosol was at the very top of the dark part of that side trail ledge. Whenever we see such a thing we can’t help but to reach out and put our fingers on the top of that soil. We understood that we were literally touching the surface of the ground that had existed here 380 million years ago. Once, a person could have walked around on that surface.

We returned to the main staircase and climbed uphill. At the end of the staircase we found a dirt path and there was another curiosity. We looked down and saw that this modern soil was also cracked in a manner to what had happened here during the Devonian (our fourth photo). What a strange thing it should be for the modern-day world to so closely mirror something that is found in ancient rocks!

 

At the top of the trail, we turned left and headed for the top of Kaaterskill Falls.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Visit their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist” or their blog site “thecatskillgeologist.com”

 

 

The Kaaterskill Falls Staircase, Part Two March 3, 2022

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The New Kaaterskill Falls Trail: Part Two: The Staircase

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

We continue our exploration of the recently renovated trail system at Kaaterskill Falls. The most important of the recent changes here was the installation of a new set of stairs up the right side of the falls (our first photo). You climb up the yellow trail and, just short of the bottom of the falls, you branch off to the right and make your ascent. We are told that there are about 190 of them. They are bluestone steps, cut from modern Catskills quarries. We expect that they will be enormously durable; they should last “forever.” About halfway up there is a side trail which leads to the ledge that makes up the top of the lower falls.

But the new staircase continues up and to the right. After a while it levels off a bit and there you will find that the staircase ends, and a dirt path follows. After some more climbing up that more gentle slope you reach an intersection with the Blue Trail, one of the main trails in all of the Catskill Front. Take a right and you can follow the Blue Trail to North/South Lake Campground and, from there, all the way to Windham High Peak. But we were looking to the left.

In many ways, the staircase is a return to the distant past. During much of the 19th century there was another staircase hereabouts. It was composed of wooden steps and followed much the same path, leading up the right side of the falls. We are very fond of a print done back then, showing a very out-of-shape man climbing down to the bottom of those steps (our second picture). He is sweating profusely, and he is clearly out of breath. We are guessing that this old staircase was built and maintained by the Laurel House Hotel which was perched just above the top of the falls. We do not know when that staircase disappeared.

The new staircase solved an old problem. In the recent past, once you got to the bottom of the falls, it was only natural that you would want to continue on, climbing to its very top. That was never easy. If you look to the left of the falls, then you will find a rocky cliff. There is no way, unless you are a very accomplished mountain climber, you would want to go that way. In the past, if you looked to the right, there was a slope that, although steep, could be climbed by a recreational hiker. At its top you could continue on to the left and reach the top of the falls.

But, of course, there was another problem. After decades of climbing this slope, it had just plain gotten worn out (see our third picture). Human foot traffic is recognized by geologists as a major category of erosion. Tens of thousands of people had made the ascent year after year. The trail on that slope had gotten just plain beaten up and ugly. It just was not what was wanted in a forest preserve. It only got worse when the weather had been rainy. That slope became a quagmire of mud. And the long-term prognosis was very poor. Kaaterskill Falls has always been a draw; it had always been a lure for countless hordes of hikers, and it was only getting worse.

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The irony was that people came to see an especially beautiful natural site and their very presence was destroying it. Our column first took note of all this in 1998. We argued that a staircase was needed to save the falls. There had been that wooden one there during the hotel era of the 19th century, but that was long gone. Sadly, things are never simple. Staircases are expensive but, beyond that, there was the notion that this wilderness site simply should not have a staircase; such things are not “natural.” It involves and age-old debate between the philosophies of conservation and preservation. We always felt that the preservationists had gone too far, but what could we do?

They tried to solve the problem years ago. It was decided that the trail, just right of the falls, should be officially closed. When you got that far, you found a sign that said the trail was closed. A fat lot of good that did; people just kept climbing that slope and its condition continued to worsen. This was a major problem and it had to be addressed. The new staircase solves it. We think they have done a very good job installing it. They tidied up the slope, left and right, removing the scars of recent foot traffic. And, the staircase blends in very nicely with the surroundings. In fact, several of the photos we took were of no value because the stairs were too hard to see!

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

A Hike up to Kaaterskill Falls, Pt. 1, Feb. 17, 2022

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The New Kaaterskill Falls trail – Part One: Bastion Falls

On The Rocks, The Woodstock Times, 2016

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus         

 

We begin today a series of columns about the newly renovated trail leading up to Kaaterskill Falls. We want you to go and see what has been done there; it’s a wonder. We started, of course, at the bottom; geologists always do it that way; that’s where the oldest rocks are. You start at the bottom and work your way upward, traveling through time into younger and younger strata. Hereabouts the bottom is just below the bridge at Bastion Falls.

Bastion Falls tumbles over a thick ledge of rock just right and uphill of the highway, Rte. 23A. It is a massive ledge of tan colored sandstone. Whenever we see a thick sandstone of this sort we envision a river – a big river. These sandstones had, long ago, been sands, and those sands had been deposited in the channel of that river. What a thought this is; we were looking at a modern creek and its waters were tumbling over a ledge of rock created by a much larger river, one that had occupied this very space – about 380 million years ago. The two rivers cross each other in space, but not in time. Roads can intersect each other but rivers cannot – except in time.

But we were only looking at a fragment of something much bigger. Our Bastion Falls River had been only one among many, many others. We turned around and looked up to the top of the clove, rising hundreds of feet above us. Much of what we saw was composed of many other petrified river channels. In between the channel sandstones were the silts and clays of ancient floodplain deposits. Again, we looked up and recalled what we have long known, all this that we call the Catskills is a great petrified delta. It once was a delta that would easily have rivaled the Mississippi River Delta of today’s Louisiana. It has a name: the Catskill Delta. We turned around and continued our climb up a scenic modern canyon but, at the same time, we were acutely aware that we were passing across the top of an ancient delta.

A lot of people confuse Bastion Falls with Kaaterskill Falls, but Bastion is just the warmup for the main act. The falls, here, need more explicit signage. We knew better; we climbed down to the stream bottom below the falls. There we saw a number of very large boulders (the right side of our first photo). These were tan sandstones too; we surmise that they had, perhaps ages ago, weathered free from the main ledge and fell to where we saw them.

It would have been easy to ignore these boulders; they really seemed to be thoroughly routine rocks. But we were curious about them; we scrambled around and looked them over. It was worth the effort. Soon we found something special: several feet of a fossil tree trunk, lying of the surface of one of those boulders. It had been a fairly sizable tree with a four-inch diameter. Unfortunately, its roots and foliage were absent, long lost to the vicissitudes of time.

We had traveled back in time to visit the fabled Gilboa Forest. That was the forest of primitive trees that had, during the Devonian time period, those 380 million years ago, lived upon the floodplains of the Catskill Delta. We did not have a specimen well enough preserved to put a name on it, but we knew with certainty that they had been trees; we could see their bark. You don’t find fossil tree trunks in the Catskills all that commonly, so this was worth our efforts. But it soon got better; we poked around and in just few minutes we found sections of two more fossil tree trunks on two more of those boulders. Finding three trunks in just a few minutes is genuinely unusual. We needed now, as scientists, to conjure up a story to explain this remarkable happenstance.

It wasn’t hard for us to come up with a hypothesis. Our fossil trees had all been buried in the sands of a sizable river channel. Sizable rivers have, from time to time, sizable floods. It was easy for us to look into the past and envision three of those floods, each carrying one of those tree trunks. What a thought! All around us recreational hikers were climbing up the yellow trail. They were admiring the beauty of the canyon. We had been doing the same – until we had taken a detour through time.

Well, you see what we are doing here. Over the course of the upcoming weeks, we intend to continue with a series of articles which will take you up the Kaaterskill Falls canyon. We will see it as it is today, and we will marvel over how recent engineering has improved the experience here. But our main goal is to travel through time and see this vicinity as it was during the Devonian time period, and also about 14,000 years ago during the ending phases of the Ice Age. This canyon has always been a wonderful place for you to visit. We hope to give you the kinds of knowledge that will make it far better.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Visit their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist” and their blog site “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

 

 

The Cold in Texas – Feb. 10, 2022

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THE CATSKILL GEOLOGISTS – ROBERT AND JOHANNA TITUS

The Mountain Eagle Nov. 29. 2019

THE TEXAS COLD

 

This winter’s weather news from Texas has been horrendous and we are sure you have heard about it. The temperatures went down to as low as 9 degrees overnight in the Houston area. It snowed, pipes burst, and food and water shortages resulted. The cold has been called historic and it was. We have a child and two grandchildren down there, so this was a real concern.

Why? We think there is something going on that you need to understand. What happened in Texas has occurred up here as well; it’s just that we don’t notice it so much. It all began with global warming and its effect on the jet stream. Decades ago, when global warming was still just hypothesis, that hypothesis predicted that polar regions would warm up a lot more than temperate regions. Northern Alaska would warm up a lot more than New York State. It has. The Arctic has become not nearly so much colder than lower latitudes. Importantly, the temperature boundary between Arctic and temperate climes has blurred.

That led to results that had not been anticipated; the jet stream was affected. We hope you know that the jet stream is a flow of air that undulates up and down as it continuously flows from west to east. See our diagram. This brings us a lot of our weather, especially winter storms. Historically, the jet stream has been a relatively gentle up and down undulation. See the blue dashed wavy line on our diagram. That is best developed when the contrast between cold Arctic and warmer temperate warm is sharpest.

But when the Arctic warms up the jet stream is altered. The up and down undulations become shorter and steeper; they become more pronounced. See the red solid wavy line on our diagram. Their west to east motions also slow down considerably. All this can have a dramatic effect on climate and weather. The down undulations contain the coldest air. When those jet stream undulations spread to the far south, they can bring unusual, even historically cold air into a region where that is not typical. Then because of the slow movement, that cold can stay put on a region for a prolonged period of time. That’s what has been happening to Texas this winter.

Well, these undulations pass through the Catskills too. You will hear each one described as an Arctic vortex. But, up here, we just do not see them as historic events. But this was a very serious event in Texas. We think you should be watching the jet stream diagrams on your local TV forecasts. You can also probably find a webpage that will keep you up to date on the jet stream. You may come to better understand what is happening. And that’s, after all, what our column is all about.

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

Rip’s Spillway – Feb. 3, 2022

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Woodstock Times – On the Rocks

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

For most of the 19th Century the Rip Van Winkle House stood near the top of the canyon at Sleepy Hollow. It was a restaurant and inn that served the needs of the many travelers of the Old Mountain Road. That road stretched off west from the city of Catskill and it ascended all the way up the Catskill Front and beyond into the Catskill Mountains. It was once one of the great highways of the region. Today, Rt. 23A is its only descendent, and that road climbs up Kaaterskill Clove, the old path has long ago been bypassed.

But the old highway is still there in the form of a very fine hiking trail and it’s open to horse riding as well. The Rip Van Winkle House burned down in the early part of the century, but its site is still very easy to find. Sleepy Hollow is a very typical Catskill Clove. It has a nice rocky mountain stream, and the cool, shady location is still an ideal rest for today’s recreational travelers. It’s the stream that made this location. The creek has been here since the ice age ended and the powerful erosive currents that were generated by the steep slopes have carved the canyon.

The creek here is what geologists called a misfit stream. That is the stream is much smaller than it should be in order to have carved the canyon in which it flows. Little valleys are carved by small streams and big canyons are carved by big streams. That’s the way it should be, however that’s not the way it is here. But that is not to say that there is any real mystery. Geologists encounter many misfit streams and the explanation for the bad fit is almost always involved with an ice age past.

Back at the end of the last ice age there was a very large amount of ice being melted in the face of warming climates. Not surprisingly, many streams were temporarily glutted with meltwater. Great foaming, churning whitewater streams existed where today quiet little brooks are the norm. That’s what happened here. If you climb up the canyon from the Rip Van Winkle House site, you will soon encounter an old stream channel that branches off to the right (north). It’s a fine channel, but it is dry. If you follow it and climb quite some distance, about 500 feet, nearly straight up, you will ascend to a gap in the mountain. To your right is something known as Rip’s Rock, a great picturesque ledge that reaches out into the Hudson Valley. To your left the same ledge merges with the Catskill Front. In between is the gap of which we speak. It is an old meltwater spillway.

Toward the end of the ice age there was a glacier in the Hudson Valley that banked up against the mountains right here. That glacier was melting, and water was rushing off of it. The water had to go somewhere, and it was channeled right where this dry spillway is. For a relatively brief period of time there was a great rush of water right here. All that foaming, churning, swirling water we spoke of earlier was funneled through this gap. Brief as that flow was, it was very powerful and erosive enough to produce the gap we see here.

This sort of thing is called a paleo-form. That is to say that this landscape feature is literally a fossil, or relic, of different climatic conditions in the past. This is a relic of that very brief moment in time when the ice was melting. Once carved, such a feature is very difficult to erase, today’s erosion rates are so slow.

We like the term “fossil spillway” for this feature, but some geologists like to make it a little more dramatic and they would call this a fossil waterfall. That’s an exaggeration, but it’s really not too far off the mark, there was once a very powerful flow here, close to that of a true waterfall. If you climb up and down this spillway, try to keep that in mind. Make the fossil image part of what you see here. It should not be too difficult to imagine the great fossil flow that once was here. It was ice cold, extremely fast and, more than anything else, powerful. Above it there was still a very sizable glacier. The ice was wet, gray, and dirty; it was melting so quickly that you might say it was disintegrating. But the overpowering impression you would have had here back then was the noise. This fall of the water was loud, a steady mind-numbing roar. How ironic, how wrong it is that this is called “Sleepy Hollow.”

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

Rip’s Rock- Jan 27, 2022

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Rip’s Rock

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

One of the nicest hikes along the front of the Catskill Mountains is the trek up the Old Mountain Turnpike. Today the turnpike is just a hiking trail, but in the 19th century it was one of the region’s most important highways. It was the dirt road that transported carriages up the Catskill Front to North Lake and into the Catskills beyond. Many of the people who made this journey were on their way the Catskill Mountain House Hotel. The trip up the mountain was a tough one, for horses and people alike, and so, not surprisingly, there was a small halfway house along the way. Coaches stopped and passengers could refresh themselves while horses rested a bit. This was the old Rip Van Winkle House.

New and better roads left the old highway obsolete and abandoned. But today you can still follow the old turnpike. From Rt. 23A in Palenville, head up Bogart Road and watch for Mountain Turnpike Road. Turn left (west) and at the end of this road is the trailhead and parking. After about a 45-minute hike you will reach a dramatic hairpin turn in the trail where it crosses a mountain stream. That’s the site of the Rip Van Winkle House, just a little bit of foundation remains.

We enjoyed this hike just for the pleasure of it, but I had some geological interest as well. On the map of this area is labeled “Rip’s Rock.” Whatever that might be, it piqued our curiosity and we wanted to find out more about it. The best topographic map we could find showed a great ledge and we wanted to find out what its geology was and maybe also answer the question of how it got there. The problem was that Rip’s Rock was a full 600 feet straight up, not quite a vertical cliff but a pretty steep incline.

Actually, there was one other problem: there are about a dozen or so smaller ledges between the Old Mountain Turnpike and the great ledge of Rip’s Rock, each one, it seemed, was determined to slow down our climb. They did, but eventually we found ourselves at the base of the last and greatest ledge, Rip’s Rock itself. It took a while, but we found a cleft in the ledge and access to the top.

Reaching the top of any great ledge is one of the great experiences of the Catskills. It’s something like rising to the surface of the sea after a deep dive. As your head emerges above the top of Rip’s ledge the whole sky opens up, especially to the east, as the panorama of the Hudson Valley appears. Below is the ravine that cuts into the mountain. Its formal name is “Rip Van Winkle Hollow.” Stony Brook, the mountain stream here, has been cutting into the Catskill Front since long before the last glaciation. In part, that’s why Rip’s Rock is here; the ledge was left behind by the erosion of that mountain stream. It’s the top or lip of the canyon.

But there is much more to the story of Rip’s Rock. We soon found the evidence that we had suspected since we first gazed upwards at the ledge. The exposed bedrock, up at the top, has been ground and polished by the passing of ice. More than anything else Rip’s Rock is a monument to the ice age. From about 22 to 14 thousand years ago there were several episodes when masses of ice passed across the ledge. The ice acted like sandpaper and ground the ledge into a smooth surface. Cobbles and boulders dragged along added gouges or striations into the surface. Also, the moving ice adhered to the bedrock and yanked loose very large blocks. This, more than anything else, left the jagged cliff that we see here.

Rip’s Rock is a feature that we have seen before in these columns. It’s called “ramp and pluck topography.” The ramp is a gentle slope ground into the top of a hill by passing rock while the pluck is the jagged front left when the ice yanked loose its large rocks. We see them in many Catskill locations. The ledge at the top of Overlook Mountain is the nearest example. So too, are the Palenville Overlook and Pratts Rock in Prattsville. We have talked about all of those in past columns.

Rip’s Rock is a great hike with a wonderful vantage point at its top. You can stand at the top and gaze out into the breadth of the Hudson Valley. But as we said, this is also a monument to the ice age. When you stand there atop the Catskills you must imagine a few thousand feet of moving ice above you. It’s the Hudson Glacier slowly moving down the Hudson Valley. In the darkness you can hear the groaning and grinding sounds punctuated by sharp cracks. Every once in a while, however, there is a truly loud crack: That is rock breaking loose as Rip’s Rock is being shaped by the ice.

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

Poet’s Ledge -Jan. 20, 2022

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A hike to Poet’s Ledge

Windows Through Time; The Register Star; Oct. 4, 2012

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

We wonder how many of you understand just how deeply 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 images from the immensity of time.

Well, it happens to us–all the time. One of our 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 we find ourselves at the top of Poet’s Ledge, it is impossible for us not to ponder such moments. We look up the clove and I see glaciers in the highlands. In our 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. We always pick the day when the melting is at its all-time peak. Actually, we pick the very hour when the flow hits its maximum. When we are in a mind’s eye mood, we can do this sort of thing.

We look up the clove at that great high-elevation ice once again. Then we notice that, exactly where Haines Falls is today, there is a break in the ice. A roof has caved in right here, and we can see a massive current. 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. We 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, we notice and appreciate, and understand the terrible muffled roar that we hear.

The two sub-glacial flows form a confluence immediately below us, 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 the powerful, raging, foaming 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.

And then it all ends; we have returned to the beautiful vista of today’s Poets Ledge.

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

 

Cold enough for you? Jan. 13, 2022

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Cold Enough for you?

The Register Star

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Jan 13, 2022

 

Our Catskill region summers generally bring wonderful weather with dry air and cool nights. Our Catskills Autumns are spectacular with their foliage. Our winters are dreadful and once again it is that time of the year. We stoically accept the onset of another cold season and make do with the holidays as some sort of compensation. Few of us, however, know or even wonder why we must endure this annual season. Do you? Many of you might be able to give a reasonably good explanation for our winter season in terms of the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. Many, or even most, of you, however, might flub the story; it is just a little too complex for a quick, glib explanation.

But it really doesn’t matter; we are not interested in the standard astronomical explanation of winter. We would like to consider a deeper reason, in fact, the real reason it is cold out there right now, and that has little to do with the Earth’s orbit and it has a lot to do with the Catskills and their geological history. If that surprises you then read on:

Even if your astronomy is not very good, most of you can probably run through a quick description of the Greenhouse Effect, it’s one of the leading environmental fears we face today. Briefly, our world’s industries are burning fossil fuels and pumping out large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps solar energy much the way the glass traps solar energy in a greenhouse. As industrial production of carbon dioxide continues, it may be that the Earth’s climate will warm up with all sorts of unfortunate side effects. Such a fate is sometimes referred to as the “Greenhouse Earth.”

But what if it were the other way around? What if the quantities of carbon dioxide were declining instead of increasing? That gets us to a term which is rarely used – the “icehouse Earth.” That’s certainly not anything that anyone has been much worried about, but it actually has happened, and that gets us back to the Catskills.

The Catskill Mountains are composed of sedimentary rocks that date back to the Devonian time period. This was a time when the world was truly a Greenhouse Earth. There was 16 times as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then as is today. That greenhouse effect must have been enormous. But it was not to last. Off to the east, in what is today’s New England, there was a rising mountain range – the Acadian Mountains. As their uplift continued, they reached elevations that may have rivaled those of the Himalayas. Rising mountains are subject to chemical weathering and erosion. Those processes converted Acadian mountains into sediment which, eventually, hardened into the rocks of the Catskills. What is critical here is that the processes of chemical weathering consume carbon dioxide, they take it right out of the atmosphere. As the Acadians weathered away and the sediments of the Catskill accumulated, the amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dropped dramatically, from 16 times as much as today to something closer to modern levels. This, as you might guess, resulted in a reversal of the greenhouse effect and quite a cooling of the climate. In fact, there was an early ice age at the end of the Devonian Period???

There is plenty we don’t understand about this story, but this was a turning point in Earth history. Carbon dioxide would never again be as abundant as it was during the early Devonian. It levels would rebound again during the age of the dinosaurs and those great naked monsters certainly must have enjoyed the temporary restoration of the greenhouse heat. But there simply would never again be so much carbon dioxide and the climate would slowly deteriorate, with cooling temperatures, especially during the last 60 million years. Some argue that this is what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. There is a good argument to be made too. Winters, which probably had not been much of a problem during the early Devonian, slowly become colder and more distinct from the rest of the year. The process has continued right into our time. In reality, even if industrial pollution continues unabated, ours is still a time of an icehouse Earth. Glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland attest to that.

So, are the Catskills responsible for winter? Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, but it is fair to say that the many processes that came to produce the Catskills were all part of a climate machine that eventually created the icehouse Earth climate that we can look forward to for the next two months.

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

The depths of Lake Bearsville; Jan. 6, 2022

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The depths of a lake

On The Rocks; The Woodstock Times. 2008

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

We geologists make observations and then we make deductions: that’s how our science works. In this light we would like to pick up where we left off the last time. In that last column we claimed that once, maybe about 14,000 years ago, all of Woodstock, extending west to Bearsville, lay at the bottom of a 280-foot-deep ice age lake. It is, logically enough, called Lake Bearsville. It has been recognized by geologists since the middle 1980’s but little research has been done on it. In the great scheme of things, Lake Bearsville is not all that important; it is one of many small lakes that formed at the end of the Ice Age. There are but limited numbers of geologists running around loose in the Hudson Valley and many other geological features are of more compelling significance. But naturally if you live in Woodstock this one is important. So, we have nominated ourselves to do the research and bring to the fore long lost images of the ancient lake. We think people around here should know something of their ice age heritage and this is as good as it gets.

Once we had determined that there had been a lake here and saw the lake bottom in the Bearsville area, we started looking for more evidence. We recognized that the lake had been formed by an icy dam. A glacier to the east, a tongue of the Hudson Valley Glacier, had blocked the flow of water in that direction. The waters of Lake Bearsville had to have escaped through some exit and it should be possible to find that egress. This kind of research is first done on a topographic map. You look at the contours and search out an old escape route for the waters. Our eyes were drawn to the top of County 46. There we saw a notch which seemed just right.

We drove up to this site and saw just exactly what we had expected to see. The notch lies near the very top of Little Beaver Kill. This is a stream which today, drains water off to the west. The notch at the top of the valley is what we geologists call a “paleoform.” It’s a landscape feature that formed in the distant past when things were different. Most streams do not have notches at their tops; they simply peter out. This notch actually used to lead into the Little Beaver Kill. Water rushed through it and on down the kill. Today, the notch is almost entirely dry; you will not see a stream flowing by at all. It looks like a stretch of valley though; we found small cliffs of bedrock which had been carved by the one-time flow of water that passed by here. That’s typical of a paleoform.

This notch is what we call a glacial spillway; it was once actively draining water out of Lake Bearsville. If you visit this site, turn to the east and, in your mind’s eye, gaze off in that direction and see the ice age lake that was once here. All along the shores you are likely to see platforms of ice extending out into the lake. The middle of the lake should be ice free, dark, and very deep. A slow current will be flowing toward you. As it approaches the notch, it is squeezed into the narrows between those two rock cliffs and picks up speed. A quiet but very powerful flow of water rushes past. There is something akin to the hum of electricity, but otherwise it really is silent.

Off to the west, the flow quickly becomes a loud chaos. A raging, foaming cascade makes up this ice age version of the kill as it pounds its way downhill. There is an enormous amount of power to all this; it is the very image of the end of the Ice Age. Glaciers are melting rapidly, hereabouts, and vast amounts of water have to drain off somewhere and they too must do it quickly.

There is nothing unique about this; all throughout the Catskills and Hudson Valley scores of similar ice age streams are, at this very moment, powerful cascades. To be on a hot air balloon, drifting across this landscape, on this day, we would see and hear all of them; it would have been unforgettable.

But none of us was on that balloon, and this image has been forgotten, until today, right here, in this column. It is the job of a geologist to resurrect the past, one chapter at a time and we have done this, our job, for today, except for one thing: we promised to explain how I knew that Lake Woodstock was 280 feet deep. Remember that the floor of the old lake lies, in Bearsville, at and elevation of 600 feet. The spillway lies at 880. You can do the math. Again, as I said the last time, when you travel west on Tinker Street, gaze up those 280 feet and see the icy lake that was once here. Geology has always been a science of discovery and this, we think, is a very good one.

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

 

Woodstock in the Ice Age Pt 5 – Lake Woodstock

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A Woodstock Ice Age, Pt. 5; the bottom of an old lake

On the rocks – The Woodstock Times, 2008

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

The Comeau, and plans for its development, have generated a lot of discussion in recent months. We don’t live in Woodstock. and it is not our place to voice an opinion, but it is proper for us to describe the geologic history of those 76 acres. And there is a lot of interesting geology there. Let’s focus, today, on some of the ice age history.

If you walk the Comeau trail, almost to its western end, you will find two earthen banks along the Saw Kill. If you know what to look for, there is a lot of ice age history to be seen there. Lots of streams display earth banks; these are formed when stream channel erosion cuts into the side of the riverbank and excavates into the “dirt.” In most cases there is little of great note and even a geologist will walk by without paying much heed, but not here.

If you look carefully, you will find that the earth is layered or stratified. It’s not immediately obvious, but it’s there. Careful examination will reveal more. Some layers, or strata, are light colored and relatively thick. Others are thinner and darker. The thick light layers are made mostly of sand while the thinner strata are mostly clay. This might not sound all that important, but it speaks volumes to the geologist.

  Varves

These horizons of sediment are referred to as “varves.” They are seasonal deposits that form almost only in ice age lakes. Now we are making progress. The sediments here take us back to the end of the Ice Age. At that time, summers were just getting warm enough to melt part of the great glaciers that had filled all of the area’s valleys. The valley of the Saw Kill was emptying of its ice. But, off to the east, there was still a large glacier: the Hudson Valley glacier.

That mass of ice served to dam the lower reaches of the Saw Kill valley and the dam was responsible for something that can be called Glacial Lake Woodstock. When you drive along Tinker Street, just west of the Comeau, you will observe a lot of flat landscape. That’s the floor of the old lake. And the stratified sediments within the Comeau were deposited on that lake floor.

  Lake Woodstock, Green

During summers it got warm enough, so the ice melted off of the lake’s surface. Then wind would generate currents within the lake. Those currents swept sand out into the lake and deposited it in the form of those thick, light-colored horizons; we call then “summer varves.”

During winters the lake surface froze over, and there were virtually no currents below the ice. During that time sand could not be moved around and the only deposition that did occur was of very fine, organic rich clays. Hence the origin of the thin, dark “winter varves” that we observe along the Saw Kill.

You can explore the old lake yourself. As we said, you can drive west from the Comeau and observe a lot of flat lake bottom. Bring a map along and you can map the lake bottom and really experience the lake. Some of the flattest lake bottom lies just south of the Saw Kill, across from the Comeau. Most of Bearsville was built on the western end of the lake bottom. Pretty much everywhere south of Tinker Street and west of Woodstock was lake bottom.

An obvious question is “how deep was the lake?” There is an answer to that question, and we will develop the argument for it in a future column. But for now, let’s just say that the lake level was at 880 feet in elevation. But the lake bottom, just across from the Comeau lies at just 600 feet. You do the math; the lake was 280 feet deep!

Drive down Tinker Street and look around at the flat lake bottom; that lake was big. Then look up 280 feet into the air 280 feet; that lake was deep. You have driven down this road so many times and you never guessed this, did you? It rather rearranges your sense of reality. But that is something that knowing a geological history is likely to do from time to time.

 

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

 

 

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