Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake
By Jack Brubaker
The Pennsylvania State University Press
Copyright © 2002 The Pennsylvania State University.
All rights reserved.
I stood in that meadow with sun reflecting back from the isolated drops of water and realized that for a river like the Susquehanna there could be no beginning. It was simply there, the indefinable river, now broad, now narrow, in this age turbulent, in that asleep, becoming a formidable stream and then a spacious bay and then the ocean itself, an unbroken chain with all parts so interrelated that it will exist forever, even during the next age of ice.
Thomas Applegarth upon reaching a source of the
Susquehanna in James Michener's Chesapeake
Rain falling on a barn roof near that source of the Susquehanna River farthest from the Chesapeake Bay rolled off the south eaves toward the Susquehanna and the north eaves toward the Mohawk. So it is said. The claim cannot be verified because the barn was destroyed decades ago. In its place is the largest monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. Now rain falling on the monastery property drains either into soggy regions to the north that feed the Hudson by way of the Mohawk or into a swamp on the south side of the watershed ridge. The overflow from the swamp forms the beginning of the Susquehanna's North Branch.
These wetlands stand about 1,500 feet above the sea, considerably lower than some other elevations along the Susquehanna's northernmost reaches, which can rise over 2,000 feet. Lakelike after snowmelt or spring rain, the swamp shrinks to ankle depth in drought, with green and brown bottles sticking out of the gunk. Northern white cedars and swamp grass rim the tannin-dark water. Relatively warm and probably spring-fed, the swamp rarely freezes in winter.
This mucky puddle is as unremarkable as the monastery that soars nearby is unforgettable. One of the nation's great rivers rises beside a cathedral with brilliantly gilded onion-shaped domes, where bearded, black-habited monks go about their monastic duties just as their brethren do thousands of miles away.
In 1930, two young Russian immigrant monks purchased the Starkweather farm, including its old water-dividing barn. The monks planted crops and began work on a complex of buildings that would attract other Russians and sightseers from around the world. They constructed a chapel and, in 1950, the cathedral. An expanding brotherhood then built the main monastery and opened a five-year college-level seminary. Today the monks of Holy Trinity Monastery operate a large printing plant and continue to farm.
To the monks, the cedar swamp is wasteland and a nuisance when it overfills. To Bruce Harter, who until recently lived on land adjoining the monastery property, this swamp is the birth water of the Ocquionis (an Iroquoian word, supposedly and inexplicably meaning "he is a bear").
Harter and his father and grandfather before him watched Ocquionis Creek trickle out of the swamp and across their land toward the village of Jordanville. Harter has always thought that the Ocquionis (also known as Fish Creek) is the ultimate source of the river. His father and grandfather believed the same.
Ocquionis is a tranquil source. "There has never been a flooding, except once," Harter says. He is standing in the side yard of his former Jordanville home, looking toward the narrow course the Ocquionis takes down through the fields from the monastery, half a mile away. "The monks got the Department of Environmental Conservation to blow a beaver dam at the edge of the swamp in the spring of '49 and that caused the flood."
Beavers occasionally dam the creek south of Jordanville as well, and that may explain how the tiny Ocquionis provided sufficient water to baptize some of the original settlers. In the decade after the War of Independence, a wave of revivalism swept through the United States. When that wave reached the Ocquionis, those dunked in the deepened creek named the town for the biblical baptismal river.
The Ocquionis is barely three feet wide where Route 167 crosses it in Jordanville, a village of fifty-some houses in Herkimer County. The creek winds west and then southeast to the hamlet of Cullen, where it is joined by a tiny branch and becomes unjumpable. Nester Shypski, one of many Russian Americans who live in this area and take pride in the monastery up on the ridge, shows where the creek runs underground for half a mile or so on his 175-acre farm. He also points out "chyle holes"deep caves into which rainwater disappears before joining the Ocquionis.
When the creek reaches the village of Richfield Springs, it is running about twelve feet across. Shallow and filled with rocks, it spills its sometime swamp and baptismal and underground water into Lake Canadarago. It also carries in sulfur from dozens of springs immediately north of the lake. The Oneidas appropriately called this area Ganowanges ("stinking waters").
Richfield Springs adds to the stink, conveying effluent from its wastewater treatment facility into the creek less than a mile above the lake. In the late 1800s, the village built one of the first sewage treatment plants in upstate New York. That relatively primitive plant failed in the 1950s and '60s. Raw human sewage mixed with the sulfur and wastes from dairy operations and a pea-processing plant to degrade the lake severely and create a rare aromatic experience.
In the early 1970s, Richfield Springs, with state and federal support, constructed one of the nation's first three tertiary treatment plants, designed to remove nitrogen and phosphorus. This operation eliminated most of the nutrients flowing from the village into the Ocquionis and Canadarago. The quality and clarity of water in the lake improved dramatically.
Glaciers scoured out Canadarago and Otsego, its sister lake to the east. The glaciers pushed moraines (boulders, gravel, sand, and other geologic clutter) to the southern ends of these largest natural lakes in the Susquehanna watershed. Meltwater, rapidly filling the two basins, soon breached the lakes' moraine dams, and they drained down to their approximate present elevations. They continue to drain southward, unlike the better-known Finger Lakes farther west, which drain northward because their southern moraines remain unbreached.
Fed by the Ocquionis and three other tributaries, Canadarago is considerably smaller and shallower than Otsegoabout four miles long, one and a quarter miles wide, and, at its greatest depth, 44 feet. Yellow perch, walleye, pike, tiger muskies, pickerel, and large- and small-mouth bass thrive in the comparatively warm water. Searching for the best fishing spots, hundreds of boaters cross wakes on the modest lake each summer.
Except where farmers plow right up to the shoreline, the lake is surrounded by cottages of mixed quality, trailer parks, and motels catering to a seasonal trade that doubles Richfield Springs' population in July and August. The dense summer population around the lake succeeds an earlier, grander seasonal settlement that centered on the sulfur springs and was confined, for the most part, to the village proper.
At the southern end of Canadarago, water spills over a dam designed to elevate the lake by several feet. The outlet stream is called Oaks Creek. It is a fine fishing stream, filled with brook trout.
Some ten miles south of the lake, Oaks Creek joins the Susquehanna's North Branch. Just beyond this commingling of waters, this forerunner of all the long, shallow stretches of the Susquehanna can be waded during low flows without wetting the knees.
An exclamation of surprise broke from the lips of Deerslayer ... when on reaching the margin of the lake he beheld the view that unexpectedly met his gaze.... On a level with the point lay a broad sheet of water, so placid and limpid, that it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere compressed into a setting of hills and woods.
James Fenimore Cooper, describing his hero's first
sighting of Lake Otsego in The Deerslayer
Willard Harman unfolds a multicolored map of Lake Otsego's watershed. The watershed, covering seventy-five square miles, is shaped roughly like an inverted triangle, with the bottom point at the Village of Cooperstown. The triangle's sides angle narrowly from the lake, then spread and run far north of it, deep into the Town of Springfield. All of the water that falls into this area, within northern Otsego County and a small section of eastern Herkimer County, feeds Otsego Lake and, eventually, the Susquehanna.
"We have created two Otsego Lake protection districts," explains Dr. Harman, a professor with the State University of New York College at Oneonta and director of its Biological Field Station on this lake. "One of them is in the proximity of Otsego Lake and has a bunch of restrictions related directly to the lake itself. The other one, more than twice the size of the first, protects the aquifer throughout the; Town of Springfield."
A burly biologist with a habit of talking himself nearly out of breath, Bill Harman is the driving force behind regulations on the lake and in its watershed. As a scientist and a member of Springfield's planning board, he worries as much about pollution entering the springs and ponds and streams north of the lake as he does about more direct degradation.
"Our interest is primarily in the lake," he says. "However, when you have a facility like this, you don't just stop at the lake. The lake, like the Susquehanna, is not just a hole in the ground with water in it. What comes off the land around it greatly impacts on its character and what lives and doesn't live there. And so we find ourselves more and more interested in what's going on in the lake's watershed, which really is more the headwaters of the Susquehanna than the lake itself is."
Like Lake Canadarago, Otsego is watered by a number of creeks and brooks, most of them growing from swampy sources near the Mohawk-Susquehanna watershed divide. One of these swamps, Maumee, lies in Herkimer County, just south of the Jordanville swamp that drains into Canadarago.
Otsego's primary tributaries are Cripple and Hayden creeks and Shadow Brook, all flowing into the northern end of the lake. The easternmost, Shadow Brook, extends about six miles and has the largest watershed. It flows almost entirely through farmland, picking up significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from manure runoff and transporting them into Otsego. These nutrients undermine the lake's ecology but have no adverse effect on the enormous carp that spawn each spring at Shadow Brook's mouth in picturesque Glimmerglass State Park.
In portaging from the Mohawk River to Lake Otsego, the Iroquois followed paths near Shadow Brook. Three Dutch traders probably came this way in 1614, six years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. These traders began at Albany, canoed up the Mohawk, portaged across to Otsego, and continued down the Susquehanna to Tioga Point. After Native Americans captured and released them, the traders descended the Susquehanna as far as the Wyoming Valley before crossing to the Delaware River and returning to New York.
In 1737, Cadwallader Colden, New York's surveyor general, noted that goods could be portaged from the Mohawk to Otsegoa distance of fourteen milesand then transported down the Susquehanna in flat-bottomed boats. George Washington, passing this way in 1783 on a postwar exploring expedition, observed Lake Otsego and the portage path to the Mohawk.
In the 1820s, Governor DeWitt Clinton and others proposed that a canal be constructed to extend from the recently completed Erie Canal (which parallels the Mohawk) along Shadow Brook to Otsego and down the Susquehanna. The plan never attracted widespread support. In the next decade, construction of a superior alternativethe Chenango Canal, connecting the Erie Canal at Utica with Binghamton on the Susquehannakilled the idea.
Because Shadow Brook is Otsego's largest feeder stream and because of this long history of travel and anticipated travel along it to the lake, some local residents say it should be considered the Susquehanna's primary source. Every source has supporters.
Neither Shadow Brook nor any other tributary or landscape feature of this region prepares a visitor for Lake Otsego. In an agricultural area where mediocre soil insufficiently rewards all but the most determined farmers, Lake Otsego is a 50-carat diamond in a 14-carat setting. The Iroquois called it O-te-sa-ga. The word may mean "a place of greeting," and Native Americans certainly met and gathered here. In several of his nineteenth-century novels, James Fenimore Cooper called it the Glimmerglass. Subdued by a haze that often accompanies sunrise at Otsego on calm mornings, the lake can indeed seem to glimmer. Cooper described the lake in The Chronicles of Cooperstown as "a sheet of limpid water, extending ... about nine miles, and varying in width from about three-quarters of a mile to a mile and a half. It has many bays and points, and as the first are graceful and sweeping, and the last low and wooded, they contribute largely to its beauty. The water is cool and deep, and the fish are consequently firm and sweet. The two ends of the lake ... deepen their water gradually, but there are places, on its eastern side in particular, where a large ship might float with her yards in the forest."
Like most glacial, deepened valleys, Otsego's basin is bathtub-shaped and steep-banked. It gathers most of its water from the north and west because its eastern sides are steepest, rising 400 to 600 feet above the water surface. Otsego's average depth is 74 feet, maximum 166 feet, making it one of the deeper lakes in New York. Sited so close to the Susquehanna-Mohawk watershed divide, it is also one of the state's higher bodies of waterl,195 feet above sea level.
Nearly half of Otsego's shoreline, unlike Canadarago's, is forested and protected from development. Most of the lake's east side remains natural, thanks to ownership of vast acreage by Cooperstown's philanthropic and paternalistic Clark family. Crucial sections of the western slope, however, are wide open to erosion. Rain washes silt into the lake and landslides occur periodically at several locations. Increasingly powerful motorboats and increasingly numerous personal watercraft add to the problem if they raise wakes close to shore.
The north end of the lake and much of its northern watershed lie on limestone, which buffers acid rain as well as runoff from the acid sandstones and shales that underlie the southern section. Glacial scouring exposed the limestone, which is dissolved by water rushing in from Shadow Brook and other streams and then settles to the bottom of the lake as a white marl. That marl, along with blue sky and the lake's green plankton, contributes to the lake's distinctive turquoise color on its best days.
Unlike Canadarago, Otsego is a cold-water fisheryone of the best in the world, according to its devotees. Its cooler lower levels shelter native lake trout and landlocked salmon. Fishing boats occasionally haul in a trout weighing more than twenty pounds. Landlocked salmon can grow to half that weight. Anglers also prize the Otsego bass, a native whitefish called a grayback by locals. It is closely related to another popular lake whitefish, the cisco or greenback, a species introduced to the lake in the 1930s.
All of the cold-water species (with the exception of lake trout and landlocked salmon, whose numbers are increased by annual stocking) have been declining in recent years, largely because they must compete for food with introduced warm-water species. Six species of new fish, including alewives, have been dumped into the lake illegally since the 1980s. Alewives look much like small shad, but there is nothing small about their effect on Otsego. Alewives eat huge meals of crustacean zooplankton, thereby starving Otsego bass, ciscos, and other fish that formerly dined on that food. Before it began disappearing inside alewives, zooplankton ate algae, cutting the souplike growth in Otsego to near zero. Now algae bloom on the lake each summer, reducing the water's clarity and threatening to turn its turquoise to pea green. When algae die, they sink, decompose, and deplete the lake's deep-water oxygen, further jeopardizing the cold-water fishery. Thus have alewives, an unwanted species, destabilized the entire lake culture.
Excerpted from Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake by Jack Brubaker. Copyright © 2002 by The Pennsylvania State University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.