Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Two): Creeks, Gorges, Towers

When I was a little kid, in the days before GPS and Google Earth and Mapquest and the like, if I found a creek in the woods, and I wanted to know where it came from, or where it went, I had no choice but to follow its course as far as I could, upstream and down, to see what I might find. No matter where the creek led, or what I found when I got there, the trek itself was reward enough, and I have always regarded Creek Walking as one of my favorite summer pastimes. (Marcia will attest to the fact that it’s dangerous to take an unplanned hike with me, since I’m more apt to lead us on a muddy off-trail “adventure” than I am to enjoy a pleasant stroll down a well-manicured trail).

I can remember Creek Walking from my earliest years with my father, racing sticks down Rock Creek in Albemarle, North Carolina or the streams that cut through Naval Ammunition Depot Earle, New Jersey, winding between that military base’s seemingly endless lines of explosive-packed bunkers. When we moved to Dale City and then Lake Ridge, Virginia, I was of an age where I could organize expeditions on my own, and I remember many great days spent carrying canteens and rations into the woods to follow creeks as far as we could get, while still making it home for dinner on time.

When I moved to Latham in the early ’90s, one of the first things that drew me into the woods here was the profusion of visible creeks within a couple of miles of my house. I suspect that most folks never notice these creeks, but I’m highly attuned to culverts under roadways, and marshy roadside basins that must drain somewhere, and I saw plenty of things that intrigued me as I drove or walked or biked the highways and byways around my neighborhood.

Once I actually started following the creeks, I found things that exceeded my wildest woodland expectations, as there’s a stunning series of beautiful, deep, winding gorges between Latham and Watervliet that offer reward after reward as you work your way downstream toward the Hudson. Some of those rewards are natural, and some of them of man-made, with one of the most prominent of the latter category being the drainage tower, in the middle of a deep woods flood-control basin.

I did a Creek Walk this weekend, including a visit to the tower. I was stunned to see how much it appeared to have shrunk since the last time I was down there, as bits of flotsam and jetsam have washed down the gorges and piled up ever higher around its base. See for yourself:

Watervliet woods drainage basis tower, 2005.

Same Tower, 2011, eight feet shorter, at least.

It took me about three hours to travel maybe three miles, as the crow flies, though I suspect I actually walked closer to six miles with all of the meandering. Some of that time was spent walking on the creek banks, but much of it was spent actually walking in the creek itself. I also had to do several scrambles on all fours up a variety of scary screes and slopes, bits of slate and shale crumbling beneath me as I climbed. There were spots in the gorges where I suspect that had misfortune fallen upon me, it would have been a long, long time before anybody found my remains, unless a heavy rain carried them down into the drainage basin around the Tower. The sense of isolation is always awesome in those areas, even though I was never more than maybe half a mile from the developed areas around me.

That’s the best part about the woods: you can lose yourself in them, in both the scary and the wonderful senses of that phrase.

Here’s the photo documentary of this weekend’s walk, including creeks, gorges, towers and a woodtruck. Click on the photo below to get the version with the accompanying narrative text, or click here just to see the slideshow.

How much wood would a woodtruck truck if a woodtruck could truck wood?

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

21 thoughts on “Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Two): Creeks, Gorges, Towers

  1. Who’s responsible for the upkeep of the HQ tower? Or do the powers that be figure a big enough flood would sweep the flotsam and jetsam away and let it do its job?

    I have a question about your nomenclature. Hyphenating Creek-walk makes it look like an adjective, so I am jarred by the upper case C…like you are walking on some kind of perambulation having to do with the Creek tribe. I believe this may be an example, a rare example at that, of some sort of anal retentive newspaper guy trait surfacing in me (I had a colleague who would call me late at night over grammatic minutiae, to which my standard reply was, “Well change the goddamn thing!” and hang up). So disregard as you wish.

    About the possibility of them finding your bleached bones years after a Creekwalk…when I go off on my futile attempts to harvest a venison, The Missus insists that I inform her, in general terms, of how I plan my day up on the hill. Makes her feel better, and in case some nasty thing does happen and I can’t get to my cell phone to call for help, it would give her the opportunity to tell the compadres a general trajectory to follow.

    And I still owe you a donut and a bottle of wine I think.

    • That’s funny that Creek-walk caused you pause, since I struggled with it while writing . . . I did “creekwalking” first, and that made me get anal about the spell-check showing it wrong, which generally makes me want to turn things into proper nouns, since they don’t have to pass spell-check. So I was hearing “Creek-walk” as a noun in my head . . . sort of like the woodsy version of Victorian Stroll. You’re probably right, though, that it should be Creek Walk instead of Creek-walk, though . . . off to edit accordingly!

      Speaking of venison, there are a lot of deer in these woods (see the photo of the disassembled one in this set for evidence thereof) and I’ve seen two hunting stands, neither of which is technically legal, I suspect. I don’t hunt, but I imagine that hunters are among the small number of people who ever actively walk through woods like these, and experience the same sense of stupid wonder there that I do.

      I actually took a cellphone into the woods with me this weekend . . . and I have to confess that it’s the very first time that I’ve done so. It wasn’t a function of me feeling the need for safety, mind you, but rather that the weather was kind of marginal and I didn’t want to have to walk back home from Watervliet, so I called in the sag wagon as I had my coffee at Stewarts.

      Wine and donut sounds marvelous . . . we certainly need to make it happen sooner rather than later!!!

    • Oh, and in re who’s in charge of the tower . . . the Town of Colonie GIS website says that the land around the tower and the lower dam is owned by the City of Watervliet, so I assume that the whole system is designed to keep walls of water from cascading down onto that low-lying burg on the river. When I took the photos in 2005, there was a better gravel road access down to the basin floor, so my hunch is that they had mucked out the basin sometime before that, and that the current state is more typical of what it looks like when it’s left alone for too long. Most topo maps of this area show the whole basin as being a lake, so presumably when it storms or at snow melt season, it fills up. I just don’t go down there at that time of year, so when I see it, it’s just surrounded by muck and logs and detritus . . . I did sink about calf deep on one leg when I mis-stepped off a log this trip . . . the ground around the tower is just super-saturated mud with a firm layer of junk on top of it . . .

    • If it runs in a straight line, looking at a map of ‘Vliet, I’d say about 4,000 feet. It goes underground just West of 12th Avenue, between Ball Place and 24th Street Extension . . . here. It’s incredible how close the gorge is there to roads with heavy traffic. The tunnel goes under in an area where the only way out of the gorge would be to climb up into someone’s back yard, so I actually backtrack about 600 feet from the end, climb the southern wall of the gorge, and then jump the fence into the back of the apartment complex on Route 2 . . . somehow that seems (slightly) less rude . . .

    • If you zoom out on that link in the prior comment a bit, you can pretty clearly see the lower dam, the drained marsh, the steep slate spine, the berm, the tower, and the gorge winding all the way back over to Swatling Road, where I picked it up this time. If you’re looking for a muddy adventure, I’m always happy to tour guide . . . I think my next trip will be to the area I know as Mordor . . . good fun!!!

  2. Always enjoy these additions to the “Hidden in Suburbia” series — tromping around in the woods has always been one of my favorite activities (our back yard goes right into the Pine Bush).

    A cautionary note — be sure to check yourself over for ticks after each excursion. Like your woods, the Pine Bush is flush with deer and the ticks that love them are already out in force this year. I’ve pulled a bunch off of myself and the kids the past few weeks and it’s not even June. Blech.

    • I always check, and I never find them . . . . I wonder, actually, whether the fact that I usually jump into the hot tub (102 degrees, highly chlorinated) after a hike gets rid of any of them that might be clinging to me . . . . might have to investigate the literature on that one . . .

      • Got my first one but good last spring. He really tunneled in well. The Missus got him out with those awesomely great pointy tick tweezers that everybody in the NE should have. I called my doc, said I didn’t want to have both prostate cancer and Lyme – should I come in? “Oh, he wasn’t there long. Lightning doesn’t usually strike twice,” Doc said, and he was right.

        • I missed one in ’08 that was crafty enough to latch onto the back of my leg, way up where I never would’ve found him without benefit of a mirror. That little sucker racked me up good…no fun, that Lyme.

          We started with the daily spring/summer full-body tick check on the kids at a young enough age that it is second-nature for them now. Our toddler has startled more than one uninitiated visitor, as he is wont to begin stripping the minute we are in the house after spending a day out-of-doors, chanting “look for ticks!”

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