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This Film Explores the History of the Esopus Creek and Ashokan Reservoir

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Photos courtesy of Tobe Carey

A local documentary filmmaker teams up with Ulster County fly fishermen to tell the story of the Hudson River tributary in Mountain River.

In the middle of the Catskills runs a 65-mile Hudson tributary with a fascinating history.

The Esopus Creek, which flows across Ulster County, takes its name from the Esopus tribe of the Lenape. This community lived on the lower half of the creek when the Dutch settled in the Hudson Valley in the early 1600s. Today, fly fishers flock to the Esopus Creek every spring and summer. This important body of water has captivated historians, artists, and environmentalists alike. 

Esopus Documentary Filming

Tobe Carey has been making documentaries for almost 50 years. Currently based in Glenford, Carey and his family moved to Woodstock from New Hampshire in 1969. Once in the Hudson Valley, he became involved with a group of local educators and artists called The True Light Beavers. Together, the collective started an alternative, community school in Woodstock. In 1979, Carey and a group of like-minded artists founded Willow Mixed Media. The non-profit arts group produced and distributed videos and artwork on social interest topics.

With a long love of filmmaking and photography, Carey began to research the history of the Ashokan Reservoir after a friend approached him about producing a film about the place. Three years later, Willow Mixed Media released Deep Water: The Building of the Catskill Water System. Carey’s latest project is a 73-minute long documentary about the Esopus Creek. Mountain River: The Esopus Creek follows the creek from its headwaters on Slide Mountain to the Ashokan Reservoir and into the Hudson River at Saugerties.

Esopus Documentary Stocking

“Forty percent of New York City’s drinking water comes from the Schoharie Reservoir, which feeds into the Esopus Creek,” Carey says.

After teaming up with photographer and fly fishing guide Mark Loete, the two began to delve into the area’s geological history. The film touches on the long-standing issue of the Espous’ turbidity. The quality of the Esopus has impacted the Ashokan’s drinking water supply for many years. 

Ashokan Reservoir Sunset

Ashokan Reservoir

“There was a big push to determine where this turbidity was coming from,” Carey says. “It comes from the Ice Age deposits of sand and silt. Whenever there’s a rain event, some of the clay washes back into the stream. Then, it goes down the creek and ends up in the reservoir. It was really an issue of geology and how to deal with the legacy of the Ice Age along the river. “

Along with the area’s geology, Carey’s documentary investigates the Lenape people’s relationship to the creek. After that, he tackles the colonial history of the Hudson Valley and the Espous’ role in the American Industrial Revolution. 

Fisher Chris Hensley

Fisher Chris Hensley

In the 17th century, a series of mills and dams were constructed along the 65-mile bank of the Esopus. The paper industry in particular found new life along the creek. So did lead and paint industries. The creek’s twenty-foot natural drop in Saugerties was augmented into a dam, which generated power for some of America’s very first automated machines. 

“There was a tanning industry that was dependent to a great degree on the water flow,” Carey says. There were grain mills, sawmills, and lumber mills as well. With the arrival of the Ashokan in the early 1900s, however, everything changed. Water flow was cut off below the reservoir. This proved a substantial problem for farming, irrigation, and industries that had once thrived along the creek’s banks. 

Esopus-Documentary-Ashokan

The effects of climate change are also explored in Mountain River. An increase in the severity of storms is just one of many environmental changes impacting the Hudson Valley. Organizations like The Watershed Management program have been working to mitigate the water’s turbidity by putting in plantings around the creek bed. Likewise, various organizations work diligently to protect wildlife and natural habitats. 

“It’s important that we don’t change what geologists call the ‘messiness’ of the river,” Carey says. “When a tree falls in the creek, although it may block the water in a certain way, it also provides an opportunity for a new community of life to form around it. They’re trying to maintain a very complex web of life while also attempting to control the effects of climate change.”

In order to paint a picture of the Esopus and the community around it, Carey spoke to many local fly fishers. They’ve spent substantial amounts of time angling for trout in the creek. For many, the Espous has become their “home stream.” Fly fishing enthusiasts travel all over the country, and some even go as far as Canada for salmon. Above all, the Esopus boasts an incredibly beautiful experience.

Espous-Documentary-Kayak

Of course, fly fishing isn’t the only activity available to visitors. 

“An 18-mile underground tunnel takes water from the Schoharie and runs it into the Esopus. They use that water release, and allow water sports on the creek,” Carey adds. Three to four times a year, kayaks and canoes are permitted in the Esopus. (However, this requires very particular conditions.)

Along with its fascinating history, the creek has proven itself to be a prime location for naturalists and fishermen alike.