One hundred thirty miles north of New York City, in the heart of the Catskill Mountain range, two adjacent peaks, Plateau Mountain and Spruce Top Mountain, point northward in solitary silence. They are joined, however, by a curved ridgeline that links the south faces of the peaks. Disregarding the preferences of local inhabitants living in the shadow of one or the other peak, an unbiased observer might think of the promontory as one large U-shaped mountain. In any event, the water run-off from rain and snow drains through eroded creek beds down the rift valley between the peeks and merges, eventually, in Cook Brook. Cook Brook, after a mile or so, empties into my grandfather’s lake.
The lake acts as a major regulator of water-flow.
The creek beds above the lake may flow heavily as a result of a rainstorm or due to snowmelt but at other times they can be quite dry. Because of the enormous storage capacity of the Lake, its outlet into the extension of Cook Brook results in an almost constant flow of water. Another regulator of water flow is the below ground water table. Precipitation that is absorbed into the rocky mountain surface as groundwater can emerge at lower elevations in the form of refreshing mountain springs. The lake is also generously fed by constant springs that hold water temperature down as well as help to sustain the lake’s outflow.
All of the summers of my childhood were spent in a summer home on 14 forested acres that adjoined the 130 acres owned by my grandfather. As a result, I became accustomed to and appreciated the beauty of the dark and damp woods, the vista of Spruce Top looking down on our lake. I loved rock hopping in Cook Brook or walking in the dark nights along the dirt roads on my grandfather’s property. Often we could not see our footsteps and were guided only by the open sky and stars visible above the cut of the road through the woods.
The lake outflow, down two concrete spillways, falls about thirty feet into a collecting pool from which Cook Brook resumes its journey a short mile or so downstream to its junction with Schoharie Creek. The brook is a boundary line for one side of our family property. The property itself is laced with paths that are soft and pliant due to hundreds of years of deposit of the short needles from hemlock and spruce trees. Here and there are large shelf-like rock out-croppings that make wonderful platforms for sunbathing or picnicking. The water flow is diverted around such rock formations occasionally creating large pools of icy water that make good swimming holes. For the most part, the bed of the brook consists of boulders that are rounded and smooth from the grinding action of being pushed downstream by the force of rushing water. Sometimes the rocks are flat slabs of sedimentary shale – more recent additions to the stream bed. Normally the water itself in this mountain stream is crystal clear and constantly rushing, meeting shelf rock that obstructs it; finding alternate channels; rushing with increasing force through narrowing channels, falling constantly from one level to another; forever changing its rate of flow and channel direction.
For most people who encounter a brook, the mind turns to thoughts about how to get across to the other side. There are two methods depending upon stream flow characteristics. Either you remove shoes and socks and wade across, or you look to a section with sufficient number of stepping stones to enable you to traverse it safely without falling in. Cook Brook was clearly in the latter category. At least it was for a young growing boy.
There were times, of course, when removing socks and shoes was appropriate and necessary. For instance, young boys could engage themselves for an entire day building a dam across the stream. The object would be to raise the water level somewhat, to create a pool to give the rushing water a momentary rest. The supply of rocks and stones was limitless and there was enough moss, sticks and gravel to fill in the cracks in our little levies. So we would work on our dams for long stretches of time, stopping to rest only when our feet were numbed from the cold water.
Another activity was to break off short sticks and let them race down the brook, finding their own channels. This is what probably led to the most adventuresome brook activity – skipping or rock hopping quickly up or down the brook. We needed to do this to keep up with our floating sticks. There were long sections of the brook that one could leap from one rock to another without stopping. If you wore ankle high boots you were less likely to be hurt if you lost your foothold and fell in. On the other hand if you wore soft and pliable sneakers, it was easier to grip the uneven surfaces of the rocks and therefore the risk of falling was decreased. Eventually we all found sneakers indispensable.
There was an art to rock hopping in Cook Brook. You did it on the run. It is like running through a maze where you must see the entire brook configuration ahead of you and make constant quick decisions on the safest route. You sought the largest stones always, of course, and you were always wary of flat stones, which might look nice but frequently would be unstable so that when you alighted on one, the stone would slip off whatever it was perched on and you risked a bath. The trick is to move so fast that your next stride is already nearly complete before you have fallen off the unstable rock. If you are agile enough and develop strong ankle support, it is possible to run up and down the brook from rock to rock without falling.
Every few years we would experience a torrential rainfall that would turn Cook Brook and the entire lake reddish-brown from the silt that was washed down the mountainside. The water really roared down the spillways below the lake and from our summer house we could hear Cook Brook accepting the torrents. The lake would remain unswimmable for a week or more and the brook would be too fierce for dam building or rock hopping. On one such occasion though, my cousins and I were driven down to Schoharie Creek just below Dibbles dam. There we each launched small, flat-bottomed boats and, equipped with kayak type paddles, we raced down the Schoharie to a point behind Kissley’s bakery in Hunter where we were picked up.
I suppose that there are disadvantages to spending one’s summers in the mountains. We were really isolated a great deal of the time from the diversions that most people today consider essential and take for granted. For example, the nearest village, Tannersville, N.Y., was three and a half miles away. My father had the family car in the city during the week and we would only see the car from Friday night when he arrived, until 6 a.m. Monday morning when he left again. As a teenager, I often walked the three and a half miles to town and back just to have a soda for something to do. There was no television, of course, and radio reception was non-existent except for short wave broadcasts. We did have a wind-up Victrola, and played cards at night. What I did experience, however, was an enhanced relationship with nature, with the mountains and the woods, and with Cook Brook.