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Bushwacking in the Backyard

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Bushwacking in the Backyard

 

A thirst to explore sends the writer and his children on a mission up a local stream ¡ªand proves that adventure can be found anywhere

By Reed Sparling

 

by Reed Sparling

 

 

I  am an armchair adventurer. I love accounts of exploration, reading about people who flirt with danger, whether they¡¯re climbing a Himalayan peak; hacking their way through deepest, darkest Africa; or freezing to death at the South Pole. Sadly, while I consider myself to have an adventurous spirit, I have neither the fortitude nor the funds to mount such an expedition. I also like sleeping in my own bed.

 

Perhaps it¡¯s the onset of middle age, but recently I had an urge to leave my armchair and test myself ¡ª or at least pretend that I was. I wanted to accomplish something that few had done, something whose outcome was in doubt, something that entailed danger and suspense, if only a little bit of both. Plus, it couldn¡¯t be too far from home: the urge wasn¡¯t so great that I¡¯d give up that bed.

 

There¡¯s a small creek known as the Casperkill (or Casper¡¯s Kill, on some maps) that flows through the town of Poughkeepsie. It runs through Vassar College and beneath Route 9 before emptying into the Hudson, but where it begins I hadn¡¯t a clue. It would have been easy enough to find out on a map, but what fun is that? I would put together a team that would follow the Casperkill from mouth to source. There would be just three ground rules:

 

1. Achieve our goal by sticking as close to the creek as possible.

2. Don¡¯t get hurt.

3. Don¡¯t get arrested for trespassing.

 

I was willing to settle for two out of three.

 

This is where I should talk about the months of preparation that went into the trip: the securing of sponsors, the rigorous exercise undergone as a prelude to the main event, the stock­piling of stores, the fashioning of a clever acronym to describe the mission. None of this oc­curred. On the determined day, I hurriedly downed two Extra Strength Excedrin and filled up several water bottles while my daughter, Hilary, the other member of the team, created a trail mix of Rice Krispies Treats cereal, pretzels, and chocolate morsels. That done, our support crew ¡ª my wife ¡ª drove us to our drop-off point, where the great unknown stared us sternly in the face.

 

Actually, I had done some preliminary research. I wasn¡¯t about to follow any waterway: it had to have a pedigree. And the Casperkill certainly does. With the help of several ladies at the Dutch­ess County Historical Society, we learned that it was named after Jan Casper (or Kasper, Kaspar, even Caspar ¡ª spelling Dutch names is a haphazard affair), a resident of Coxsackie who was either the brother-in-law or half-brother of the wife of Pieter Pietersen Lassen, the first permanent resident of Dutchess County. Lassen came to America from Amsterdam as an indentured servant in 1659. He saved enough to buy an Albany brewery, and then set off for the wilds by 1688, at which time he was living in a stone house near the mouth of the creek he named after Casper. It must have been a spectacular place to live. (Lassen has been less lucky in the afterlife: along with a handful of other early Dutch residents, he¡¯s buried atop a knoll right next to the Tri-Municipal Wastewater Treatment Facility on Sheafe Road.)

 

Lassen was only part of the story. Long before him, the Wappinger Indians had settled by the creek. At nearby Bowdoin Park, arrowheads and tools dating as far back as 7500 B.C. have been found in several rock shelters (one of which has been restored to show what the dwelling would have looked like); they are displayed in a small museum. And a sign next to the Lassen cemetery notes that it was the site of an Indian village between 1000 and 1600 A.D., when these first inhabitants switched from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one. Post-­Lassen, Vice President George Clinton had his home next to the Casperkill¡¯s mouth. After his death in 1812, the estate was owned by James Talmadge (who as a congressman helped forge the Missouri Compromise), and then by his daughter, Mrs. Philip Van Rensselaer. She turned it into what one account called ¡°the finest country seat on the Hudson.¡±

 

Prior to the start of the trip, we made two forays, one legal, the other not. I alone explored a bit of the creek that flows through land owned by Tilcon¡¯s New York Trap Rock quarry at Clinton Point, a 1,200-acre limestone mine that has obliterated the Clinton estate. I walked in until I reached a marsh, through what the Indians called Pietawickquasseick, or ¡°the high lands at the end of the bog.¡± All was peaceful, except for the knock, knock of a pileated woodpecker who didn¡¯t seem to mind my presence. Yet even here, where the nearest house is half a mile away, modern life rears its head in the form of a half-submerged shopping cart. How it got there ¡ª and why ¡ª remains one of the expedition¡¯s unsolved mysteries.

 

Another day ¡ª with Edmund Daddona, plant manager at the quarry, as our chauffeur ¡ª Hilary and I managed to drive unmolested past 100-ton haul trucks and house-sized earth-movers to see the Cas­perkill¡¯s mouth, which was carpeted by a neon-green algae that stretched out into the Hudson. Despite the giant canyon ¡ª the quarry extends 175 feet beneath the level of the river, and Daddona told us there¡¯s another century¡¯s worth of do­lomite to come out ¡ª the creek seems to go its merry way around it, through a narrow strip of forest reminiscent, perhaps, of the years when the Indians named this Thanackkonek, or ¡°place of nut trees.¡±

 

These trips whetted our appetite for the grand adventure. It was 11:30 on a humid July morning when Hilary and I finally left the friendly pavement just across the road from the quarry property. We were literally one step into the morass of brambles and blowdowns when a bass voice boomed, ¡°GET THE HELL OVER HERE!¡± We stopped, terrified, and waited. ¡°I SAID, GET THE HELL OVER HERE!!¡± Hilary looked to me for guidance, but I was already rehearsing suitable expressions for my mugshot. Should it be a look of ex­­­asperation? Stupidity? A mix of both? Then a small white dog, the object of all the shouting, approached us, eagerly sniffing our heels. We breathed a collective sigh, wiped away the sweat (that had nothing to do with exertion), and marched on.

 

From the get-go, it was a slog through hell that would have been alleviated greatly by a machete. Thorns tore up our bare legs, while vines snatched at my hat. The ground was soupy; it made a sucking sound as we pulled our sneakers out of the muck. A woman in a housedress peered at us intently from a nearby backyard. Twice she shouted something at us that we couldn¡¯t understand. Emboldened by our encounter with the dog, we pushed on. It would be our last contact with another human for some time.

 

About a half hour into our trip, the creek passed through a condominium complex. For a rest, we availed ourselves of the roadway, and must have looked a sorry sight to anyone who spotted us. Past the condos, the shores were so choked with brush that we took to the water, which rarely went above our knees. We criss-crossed the creek repeatedly, to stay out of deep pools, and regularly climbed over and along huge logs that blocked our path.

 

¡°I think we¡¯re almost to Route 9,¡± I¡¯d say to Hilary, encouragingly. But the creek was toying with us: it slyly meandered this way and that, making us walk twice as far as we would have on the nearby road. At least the water was soothing and the scenery beautiful. Except for a preponderance of balls lodged in the nooks of blowdowns, civilization seemed very far away; you¡¯d never have known that we were in the middle of suburbia. It was along this stretch, on a small sandbar, that Hilary found treasure: a jagged piece of stone­ware marked ¡°Mabbett & Anthone Po¡¯keepsie, N.Y.¡± Later research determined that the firm was only in business from 1837 to 1839.

 

Just when it appeared that someone had absconded with Route 9, we heard a rush of water and came upon the huge square culvert through which the creek flows beneath the road. Walking through it was cool ¡ª cool neat and cool temperature-wise. At the other end there¡¯s a small waterfall, created to provide power to an old mill. (You can still see its ruins.) When I moved forward to take a photo of the falls, my left leg disappeared completely into a hole, leaving me in a most awkward position. Fortunately, Hilary grabbed the camera, my backpack (in a rare instance of foresight, I¡¯d placed my wallet in a plastic bag), and then me, preventing me from taking a full-body plunge into the water.

Here the Casperkill turns north and parallels Route 9 for a stretch. It was already 1 p.m., so we stopped at a deli for lunch and a well-earned sit-down. Then it was back into the woods. As the creek veered again to the west, a narrow trail followed it. We passed through stands of jungle-like ferns so tall they engulfed Hilary. We startled a few deer, and birds tweeted at our approach; otherwise, we had the creek to ourselves.

 

The creek passes through the fairways of the Casperkill Country Club. Leary of being struck by a hook shot, we stuck to a road that rings the course until we caught up with the creek again. About 20 feet on, it passed beneath a tall chain-link fence. ¡°I think we can go beneath it,¡± I suggested, then proved it, in the process getting completely soaked. On the other side, however, the stream passes perilously close to houses in a ritzy neighborhood ¡ª the kind where mothers would be only too happy to call 911 the moment they saw two bedraggled bumpkins emerging from the deep onto their back lawn. There was no recourse: we had to backtrack to the clubhouse, where we could call our support crew to come pick us up and drive us around the impediment.

 

By the time we got to the phone, Hilary was done in. Her legs looked like someone had been whipping her, at least those parts where the scratches weren¡¯t coated with mud. As we waited for the car, she composed a farewell message. ¡°I¡¯m sorry I have to go now,¡± she uttered in a mock heroic voice. ¡°I don¡¯t think I will make it anymore, and I know I am a large burden. Please remember me throughout the trip.¡± Were I not laughing, I¡¯d have cried.

 

When my wife showed up, so did my son Evan, who said he wouldn¡¯t allow me to continue on alone. He looked so clean and neat, I pitied him for the baptism of fire he was about to face. But not for nearly a mile: first we had to make our way through the residential neighborhood, all on the roads. At last we reached Spackenkill Road, from where the creek flows through woods and fields owned by Vassar College. Getting to the stream here posed a problem. Evan suggested we simply jump the half a dozen feet off the road into the water. I don¡¯t think he was kidding, but I wasn¡¯t up to that. (See rule #2 above.) Instead, I simply barreled through the brush. A few extra cuts and scrapes wouldn¡¯t make any difference at this point, I figured.

 

     The going got rough again, and we not-so-rough barely kept going. Sometimes we slogged through water up to our waists; at other times, we were reduced to crawling on our hands and knees through tunnels in the shoreline brush. Tall, sharp grasses sliced our legs. But the beauty of our surroundings eased our pains. We flushed an enormous great blue heron from its perch; there were deer in abundance; and the creek was fragrant with the smell of wild mint. Had there been some Spanish moss hanging from the trees, I¡¯d have sworn I was in a bayou in Louisiana. At last we came to a bridge over a small waterfall. Evan runs here, so he knew a route we could take along a trail that parallels the creek. It was a beautiful forest walk along a ridge, with the water just below us. I worried a bit that we should be closer to the stream, but who was going to bust us: the adventure police?

 

We got our chance to meld with the water soon enough, after the creek crosses Zach¡¯s Way and passes through the most impenetrable thicket on the entire trek. When we weren¡¯t crawling we through deer runs, we were perpetually hunched over, as if we were suffering from stomach cramps. Finally, it got to be too much. I boldly stepped off into an adjacent swamp (not without falling off a log into the mire) and out onto the road. We kept to that for about a quarter of a mile, then there was one last scamper through the underbrush before the landscaped grounds of Vassar College hove into sight. Shangri-la couldn¡¯t have looked any sweeter.

 

At Vassar, the Casperkill has been dammed to create picturesque Sunset Lake, which is ringed by beautiful trees. There¡¯s some interesting history here, too. Before the lake¡¯s creation in 1915, the creek served as a conduit for the college¡¯s sewage until downstream residents complained. They suggested the college build a six-mile pipeline to the Hudson.

 

That¡¯s when Ellen Swallow Richards, a Vassar alumna, the first female graduate of MIT ¡ª and a pioneering ecologist ¡ª suggested the college invest instead in a sewage treatment plant. ¡°It seems to me,¡± she said, ¡°that an educational institution should lead rather than follow.¡± Vassar followed her advice, and Richards designed the system.

The lakeshore was also the scene of a marvelous example of student unrest. In 1969, administrators decided to plonk a residence for the college¡¯s vice president on the hill above the water. Students protested vigorously, but unsuccessfully, and the foundation was dug. Then, under cover of darkness on October 21, some 90 youths and five professors came back with spades and surreptitiously filled in the hole. Actions spoke louder than words, and the house was sited elsewhere.

 

     It was nearly 5 p.m. when we passed the lake. I¡¯d have happily crawled into a hole, but we had at least another mile to go. As long as it stays on college grounds, the creek is easy to follow; when it hits Routes 55 and 44, however, it drops out of sight, beneath the highways. When it reappears in the parking lot of the Dutchess Center shopping plaza, it¡¯s a sorry sight. What had been a Jack La Lanne of waterways is now a 98-pound weakling: spindly, weed-choked, and full of garbage. ¡°It¡¯s hard to believe this is the same creek,¡± I groused to Evan. (The Casperkill hereabouts has been ill-used for some time. In the 19th century, brickworks mined clay from its banks.)

 

Still, we pushed on. Less than half a mile away, across the road from a Super Stop & Shop, we came to the object of our mission: a small, scummy pond in front of a large reedy marsh. Out of this, a faint trickle begins to make its way to the Hudson, past ¡ª uh-huh ¡ª an overturned shopping cart. Some things never change.

 

As Evan rolled his eyes, I took a plastic bottle out of my pack. Just before Hilary and I set off, I had scooped up a bit of Casperkill water, which I now returned to its symbolic homeland. (Think De Witt Clinton and the Erie Canal.) The ritual completed, we waited for our ride. Given time to think without worrying if I¡¯d conk my head or lose a shoe in the mud, I decided that of all the hikes I¡¯ve completed, none has given me more satisfaction. And there was more to come. Back in my armchair and scanning a map of Dutchess County, I noticed that the body of water that is the source of the mighty Casperkill ¡ª tamed by little old me ¡ª appears to have no name. Around my house, at least, it shall henceforth be known as Sparling Pond. ¡ö

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