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Where the Pools Are Never Crowded, And Water Slides Are Nature's Own.
SCROLL DOWN for full text of the New York Times article about river swimming in the Adirondack High Peaks (August 17, 2001). More pages in An Adirondack Miscellany: Newspaper reports, Magazine articles and Book notices.
[Click on Photo to return to Summer Swimming for more about river swimming and the old Covered Bridge.]
The 'ol swimmin' hole by the falls and covered bridge in Jay is popular with visitors and natives alike. Lots of room to sit and sun on the large flat ledge (rocks) above the falls. And deep swimming holes aplenty. Sliding down the falls is fun for the young at heart. There are huge shade trees along the bank and the old Covered Bridge makes a scenic backdrop. Raspberry in season. Swim upriver in deep water for quite a way. Or meander along the trail on the east bank.
(New York Times, Friday, August 17, 2001)
The pool in the hard rock of the Bouquet riverbed was filled with dark and mysterious water. Was it 8 feet deep, 12 feet? Did it go to the center of the earth?
My 10-year-old research assistant insisted that I go first. I had been there before and he hadn't, and besides, things that lurk in wet places under billion-year-old stones are far less likely to swallow adults whole.
I stepped from the hot, dry boulders onto a shallow rock shelf, where the water covered only my ankles. I sat down with my legs over the edge, dangling in the deeper water, and then slipped out of the hot August air, beneath the smooth, cold surface and let myself sink, down, down and still farther down.
The pleasures of geology are various, some dramatic, some subtle, some you might never expect. Climbing mountains, large and small, is probably the most obvious way to wring pleasure out of the earth's wrinkles. But there are others. Golf, for instance. John McPhee, the poet laureate of geology, once noted that golf course designers were forever trying to reproduce the glacier- scoured terrain of Scotland, where that game began.
You might say that water-park designers do the same, making human elaborations on the slides, chutes and waterfalls that mountain streams and rivers create as they cut and polish the rocks they flow over and through.
The stony rivers of the northeastern Adirondacks in the High Peaks region near Lake Placid are full of such natural playgrounds, some hidden, some right by a highway and some so crowded with thrill seekers that you might as well be at the nearest Six Flags.
They all offer the chance not only to escape the heat, but also to enjoy a painless flirtation with geological processes. No need to master the intricacies of stratigraphy or the history of plate tectonics. The forces that carve and break rock are on obvious display.
My son and I sampled a few of them last week. I drafted him partly because water play is always more fun with a child and because I figured that he would keep me honest. I tend to get sentimental where water and rocks are concerned. My critical faculties are easily dulled by sun- dappled streams burbling over moss-covered rocks. Ten-year-olds, in my experience, have a natural immunity to the soporific effects of beauty. They are interested in fun.
Our first stop was a spot on the east branch of the Ausable River in Jay, N.Y., usually called the Jay Rocks. After a stretch of water that moves fairly slowly over a silty bottom, the river tumbles down a series of clefts, creating pools, pocket waterfalls and one very popular slide. My family vacations in this area, so I've been here often in the past.
The first time I saw someone go down the slide was a few years ago. I was with my children, sitting on the rocks in the sun. Across the river I saw a large man stand up, stretch and dive head first into a puddle.
I thought it was a puddle, anyway, or at least far too shallow to swim in. But when I leaped up to see whether his head had been driven into his shoulders, I saw him surface and ride the outflow from the small pool, bouncing and sliding down slippery rocks into a a much bigger, more turbulent pool, from which he emerged with all his limbs intact, apparently refreshed and happy.
From a distance, I guess we couldn't see the scrapes. The truth of the slide was captured perfectly last week by a man who had just come down, when I asked him how it was. "Any bumps?" I asked. "Yeah, there are bumps," he said, looking at me as if I had left my brains in the Winnebago. "It's rock."
There is no Teflon in nature. When water carves a pool or conspires with moss to make a slope slippery enough to ride down on your behind without wearing a hole in a bathing suit, you are still sliding down rock, which is harder than flesh and never quite as smooth as you might hope.
The water was a bit low last week, and there were more bumps than I remembered. I banged my foot and my son, who got through the first trip fine, suffered an abrasion or two. He reported with glee to the rest of the family that he was fine until I forced him to go down a second time so I could get a good photograph.
I asked David Franzi, a geologist with the Ecosystem Studies Field Laboratory of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, to name the kind of rock on which my son claimed that I had sacrificed his rib cage.
He said that it was most likely anorthosite, the common bedrock of this part of the Adirondack Mountains. Geologically, the Jay Rocks are an example of what happens when softer basaltic rock is mixed with the mountains' hard bedrock. The river wears away the soft rock first, sculpting pools and small falls and chutes. When you go down a slide, I like to think that you become a small part of this geological process. Like pebbles or grains of sand that the river uses to scour its rocks, your knees, ankles and ribs contribute infinitesimally to further erosion.
Sometimes rock simply fractures and splits because of geological stress. The Bouquet River (pronounced boh-KWET or boh-KET), like the Ausable, has several spots where fracturing has done all the work.
Of course, any unsupervised swimming is dangerous, even in a pond, and some of these areas have been sites of injuries and fatalities. A current, rock formations, changing levels of water — all add to the risk. Geological processes include no safety measures, and nothing but common sense and caution can prevent an accident.
With care, however, a dip in an icy stream far from crowds is exhilarating. Some such spots are miles from any road, others just a long enough walk to keep down the competition. One, sometimes called Shoe Box Falls, is on the north fork of the Bouquet River, about a half-hour from the road.
Like the Ausable, the Bouquet originates in the mountains and flows through the Champlain valley, running northeast into Lake Champlain. The Bouquet is stony in its beginnings, coming out of what is called the Dix Range. The rock is almost exclusively anorthosite, Dr. Franzi said.
When we reached our spot, we were the only people there. Shoe Box Falls is not a dramatic, sunny waterfall, but a spray that falls into a dark, narrow cut between large rocks that is perhaps 6 feet wide and 15 or 20 feet long. Downstream from this "shoe box" is the pool into which I ventured first at my son's urging.
There's an enveloping metaphorical warmth to forests. If you like, you can imagine yourself merging with the web of life the deeper you go. Mountains are older and colder, both literally and metaphorically. You don't merge with rocks. Of course, the Bouquet is full of all sorts of life, but I've found that when slipping into cold water of unknown depth, it's more comfortable to dwell on geology. It's not at all clear that you would want to merge with whatever brushes against your legs as you float.
I assured my son that the water was safe — no trolls, no mutant toe- eating brook trout — and then we moved on to the real point of the day, not some adult's animated daydream of the web of life, but the rock that you can swim under at the entrance to the shoe box.
You have to dive about five feet and swim about the same distance. Whether you can do this safely depends on your swimming ability and how comfortable you are in a small, dark, submerged space. I can only say that my son and I did it, not jumping or diving in, and exploring the area by sinking feet first and looking before we tried it. To us it seemed a challenge, but a reasonable one, and I have to say that there is nothing quite like the thrill and chill of being both under water and under a rock, as long as you're sure that you're going to come back up.
We tried a few other spots over the course of the week, but my son and I each decided that we liked Shoe Box Falls best. It was private, beautiful and, most important, there's that rock to swim under.
I realize that I still haven't said how deep that pool is. I'm not sure. In parts of it I descended feet first and eventually reached bottom, but in other parts, where the rock sloped, I did not touch solid ground. So it may well go to the center of the earth. And I've no idea what's down there.
Taking a Plunge In the Mountains
The swimming spot sometimes called Shoe Box Falls is about a half-hour's walk over an unmarked trail up the north fork of the Bouquet River. The hike starts where the river crosses Route 73 in Keene, a little more than a mile northwest of the junction of Route 73 and Route 9. The hike, sometimes muddy, requires some rock-hopping and climbing. It is along the left bank of the stream, heading southwest as you face it from the road.
Maps of the Adirondacks that show hiking trails are available at outdoors stores and from the Adirondack Mountain Club, www.adk.org. The rocks on the Ausable River in Jay, N.Y., are right in the center of town. Ask anyone.
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