On The Loss of a River

When I was growing up I spent a lot of time in the Adirondack Park. I went to college just north of the “blue line” (as the border of the park is commonly known) and spent a year after college serving with AmeriCorps and the Student Conservation Association (SCA) in the Adirondacks. During that year I worked on a number of week-long conservation projects in the high peaks area of the park outside Lake Placid, NY.

I started many of those trips in Keene Valley, hiking in on a trail that runs parallel to Johns Brook. One week we hiked in and demolished an old lean-to at “Slant Rock” that had grown unsafe. We blazed a new trail and built a new shelter from scratch. I spent another week repairing the Johns Brook interior ranger station, a backcountry base station for park rangers.

Johns Brook wound its way through my summer that year, and has since wound its way through my memory. I listened to it as I slept, swam in it, drank from it, scrambled down its banks. A year after working on that project at the ranger’s cabin, one of my friends who I had worked alongside, died suddenly. The weekend of his funeral I hiked back up there and sat on a rock in the middle of Johns Brook feeling the mighty stream roll over me. This past summer marked ten years since that summer, and I returned to Keene Valley with my wife and son, and we spent long afternoons swimming in Johns Brook and the neighboring Ausable River.

And so, when I received the note below from a longtime family friend who lives in Keene Valley, I was struck by how quickly the landscape of our memories can change, and how profoundly I could feel the loss of a river. Read on to see what I mean.

 A Report from Johns Brook

by Henrietta Jordan, September 26, 2011

 Fifty years ago, a friend and I spent a splendid August afternoon boulder-hopping down Johns Brook. We started just beyond the old trestle bridge about a mile from the brook’s confluence with the Ausable River, and carefully worked our way over the great grey rocks and the small pools and eddies, daring each other to cross the rushing waters of the main stem of the stream. Although I was a lot more agile then than now, this was hard work for a pudgy nine-year-old in tread-worn red sneakers, and it was with a great sense of accomplishment that we climbed out of the brook bed at the Rte. 73 bridge in Keene Valley.

(photo by Naj Wikoff)

That brook is no more.

Most of the section of Johns Brook we clambered down that day has been dredged and diked into an unrecognizable flat-bottomed stream, riffling over a bed eerily stripped of the large boulders that once filled this iconic Adirondack mountain brook. They have been piled up in huge mounds lining the banks recently scoured by Hurricane Irene’s torrential floodwaters—in a couple of places, steering the brook away from  its meanders into a straighter, more uniform channel. As my dogs and I splashed down the channel through the shallow, strangely warm waters this afternoon, I had the feeling I was walking in a drainage ditch. It reminded me of the stony, lifeless rivers in the Yukon and California, that still, more than a century after the Gold Rush, bear the scars of heedless miners who took the ore and left the sludge.

Thus was Johns Brook punished—for the crime of responding to Irene’s wrath as mountain streams do when 10 inches of rain are dumped on them in 18 hours.  Already saturated from a wet summer, the soils of the Johns Brook Valley could hold no more, and the rainwaters turned the brook into a leaping, roiling brown torrent that tore at its banks, uprooted trees, and spread up into the woods. From my porch, about 100 yards away from the rocketing waters, the boulders and tree trunks crashing down during the storm sounded like artillery fire.

After Irene passed, the brook was a mess—huge chunks of its banks had been gouged away, tree trunks and debris were piled up, and cobbles were strewn everywhere. But it was still a brook. And if you walked the banks of it, you could see that this had happened before, that violent storms had caused pileups of boulders now covered by forest duff and trees, as the brook shifted in its valley over millennia as brooks are wont to do. Unlike drainage ditches, brooks are complex and dynamic hydraulic and geomorphic systems that, like all systems, strive to reach equilibrium when they are destabilized. River scientists have learned how to help speed up the stabilization process by reforesting banks and recreating step pools, chutes, side channels, backswamps and other natural features of healthy streams.

(photo by Naj Wikoff)

Unfortunately, this did not happen in Johns Brook.  Local and state officials took advantage of the Governor’s temporary suspension of permit regulations and Adirondack Park Agency rules to “fix” the book by drastically altering its flow and transport of sediment into the Ausable using methods that have largely been discredited.  Giant bulldozers ripped up the lower reaches of one of the most beautiful streams in the High Peaks, an ecologically rich habitat for brook trout and the invertebrates they feed on, and transformed it into a rock-lined half-pipe that will make floodwaters flow even faster and more violently into the Ausable.  As a citizen and taxpayer, it makes me inexpressibly sad to know that the destruction of Johns Brook was done in my name and with my money.

Can Johns Brook be restored? Yes—if we are willing to admit that we got it wrong the first time and work with the forces of nature to help the stream heal and better withstand the impacts of high water flows. This can’t be done overnight and it won’t be cheap, but the consequences of not trying will be far more costly, especially when the next big weather event sends floodwaters racing down the straightened and channelized streambed into the settled area of the hamlet even faster than they did during Irene.

I’d like to think that someday, not too long from now, my grandchildren will boulder-hop Johns Brook between shaded, deep green pools filled with brook trout, shrieking with delight as they dip their toes into the clear, cold waters of one of the most beautiful mountain streams in the Adirondacks.

Gov. Cuomo has not yet halted the continuing well-meaning but incredibly destructive efforts to “fix” the Ausable River and its tributary brooks. Now is the time to speak out to save our rivers and streams.

Henrietta Jordan is Principal Consultant at Trailmarker Associates. Find out more about her work at www.trailmarker.org and www.helpwithaccreditation.org.

UPDATE:

Not long after writing this post an article appeared in my local paper with a photograph that was strikingly similar to the one above. The article recounted a local river here in Western Massachusetts that suffered the same fate as Johns Brook. However, the state is ensuring that the “restoration” damage is repaired. One can only hope the same will be true with Johns Brook.

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