Chapter VII

When Is A Waterfall?

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

Not when it is turned off, surely. Yet what is one to term the location of the fall all that is off falling? Not a waterfall still; that is misleading. Not the where-it-ought-to-be-running-overplace-if-it-were-running; that is a little inconvenient for a signboard. And yet, just see the predicament into which the paucity of our vocabulary may throw a man who adheres to the truth. For instance, a summer visitor at the Laurel House -- the hotel that is perched alongside the great Kaaterskill Falls -- may very easily plunge a truthful attendant into a dilemma of this sort, simply because there is no word at hand to describe an abrogated cataract. She may request to be shown the falls. What is he to do?

If he replies that there aren't any, he is exposed to the indignation of a woman who considers that she is being trifled with. If, on the other hand, he leads her to the vacancy where the water should be falling but isn't, he is again exposed to her indignation, this time because she considers that she has been trifled with. And yet, if, on the third hand (and this shows how preposterous the situation is), he should tell her the truth-that it isn't time for the waterfall yet she would complain to the management of his impertinence.

Kaaterskill Falls

Kaaterskill Falls

To avert injustice being done either the waterfalls or the management, one has only to regard the Catskill peculiarities of supply and command. The heavens supply, the proprietors command, and between the two the visitors are not deprived of their spectacle as they otherwise would be. For the Catskills receive a great deal of water, but let it all run off. There are only a few ponds, only small areas left of deep pine soil. From November until March a cover of snow hoards up almost all the precipitation. In midspring this is released with a gush. The country becomes one vast waterworks. Every inequality in the land is a gulley running with snow-drip. The brooks are noisy, the large streams leave their banks and wander about the lowlands. The highlands pour huge streams from every projection. Whatever isn't a cataract is a cascade in April; but by May the pace has become normal, by June the smaller rills are dry, by July the larger brooks are shrunk, and if August be dry one would have to carry water to the chief waterfalls to make them go.

Now, carrying water to waterfalls may be a shade less absurd than carting coals to Newcastle, but it is an expensive mode of entertaining summer guests. Yet many of these guests have come to the hotels in response to the lavish advertisement of the beauty of the waterfalls. Hence the hotel proprietors are face to face with a trying situation: How to live without waterfalls but not without guests. They meet the situation triumphantly by turning off the one and keeping the other. They save up the waterfalls by doing without them at night and at other times when they are not of much use, and are thus able to provide a life-size cataract at certain hours when somebody happens along who can afford one.

Consequently, everybody who can't visit the Catskills when Nature is running naturally can get almost the same effect when she is run by hand. Even in an average summer there is a surprising amount of water still foot-free in the wooded valleys, and every few years one of those wet seasons arrives when Neptune himself would be quite proud of the results.

Crest Of The Kaaterskill

Crest Of The Kaaterskill

On that day when Brute and I turned by luck to come back by the brink of the Kaaterskill Clove, the only flood in our thoughts was the flood of sunshine, and the only fall was the one we were trying not to take down to the bottom of the ravine. We went in a southeasterly direction, at first, from the hotel to a bare place called the Palenville Overlook, which showed the ravine to splendid advantage. Then, picking our way along the slipperinesses, we reached Sunset Rock, a magnificent sort of promontory-place to which we shifted our allegiance from all previous outlooks. Opposite, the great side of the Clove rose in our faces. Shadows fell in heavy blocks along the ravine, and white cascades fell with inverted spires in three places down the confronting wall.

Here the spell of winter was laid upon us. A chickadee in some distant dell reminded us of life; everything else was radiant marble or dreaming wood. Afternoon in the shadow of Round Top was well advanced, and the air had begun to drift down the Clove with its weight. But there was no wind. The stillness of the whole day and the radiance of it will always be in my memory, an actual presence. Only a few times in a life would there likely be anything so stable, so impressive, as that day-span of shining quiet; and it was just my luck that I had been able to spend it in such a memorable place with a genuine, fine spirit to enjoy it with.

At last the cold began to search us, and, trying to fix the crystal panorama in our memories, we moved on. Bright finger-tips of cloud rising in the west were beginning to foretell the morrow. The witch that weaves the storm-cloud for the Catskills had been all that day preparing, and these were the first shadows of the veiled spirits who were to do her bidding.

The swiftly changing skies of mountain-lands and their effects upon the distances are the most beautiful of all the highland scenes. In the Catskills particularly is this so. The Kaaterskill Clove is the largest causeway out of the great citadel. Its sides are flung wide enough to stage the parade of storms, and in many seasons it is more impressive than far deeper gorges, simply because of the exceeding richness of the Catskill skies. The Rockies swim at the bottom of a sea of incredible clearness; the Cuban Mountains wrap themselves in sultry vapors of rare tints; but the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and the White Mountains are situated in a current of the atmosphere, continental in its sweep, hastening as it nears them, which provides an ever-changing pageant of light and shadow, storm and shine. One day will fairly pierce all distance with its brightness, and the next soften the ranges into an intimate neighborliness. The empty blue of a summer 's morning will tower with thunder-castles by noon, and by evening all will be fair once more, the farther valleys rich with a thousand shades worn by the humidity. In midwinter., in early spring, in noonlight, in moonlight, and at dawn, there is always some combination of light and shade and forest beauty to make one pause.

From the Sunset Rock it is not far to the Falls of the Kaaterskill. Stealing to the edge, which was an extremely unobstructed slide of ice, we looked down. Despite the continued cold, there was a fair volume of water falling into its vase of ice. This vase was over a hundred feet high, irregular at the top, and shaded from clear white into yellows and deep blues. And always the water poured into the vase as into a drinking-horn that would never be filled.

A stairway climbs down into the wide bowl that the fall has carved in the reluctant rock, and down it we slid at our peril. Snow-dust, ice, frost blown from the cup's white rim, whole palisades of ice, were only too eager to abet our descent. The going down to Avernus was as nothing for or ease. And the temptation was to take one's eye from the footing, to gaze into that fascinating twilight vision of descending white. At the bottom we safely looked and looked until the amphitheater of giant icicles had faded from blue to gray-green and into the colorless filmy gray of night. Then we felt at liberty to go, frozen, hungry.

The head of the Kaaterskill Clove is crowned with falls. There are half a dozen major ones and a score of minor. The Haines' Falls achieves a descent of 240 feet in two leaps, and as much more in a few succeeding. They are beautiful from the foot of the gorge, and impressive in spring or after a heavy rain in summer. Like the Kaaterskill, they are carried on in summer on the installment plan, being dammed until a spectacle has accumulated, the theory being that half a fall is no better than none. Brute and I were very lucky. We saw them after a winter of continued cold, when tile accumulation of ice was exceptional. Again we saw them after a heavy snow had softened the portcullis of icicles and draped the sharp edges of the rock with curving lines of bewildering beauty. And once more I saw them in a season of much rain, when the roar and spray at the bottom grew into a contending melee of naked forces. The heavy foot of the descending torrent thrust on one the horror of mere brutal insistence.

In the vicinity of Haines' Falls there, is a waterfall for every person, one for every mood. The Bastion, the Buttermilk, the LaBelle, are some for those who like their waterfalls to begin with B. You can follow up any brook only a little way, and you are certain to come upon mossy grottos, cool, damp, and very lonely, where you can have a waterfall to yourself. Or you can linger around the more famous sights and collect the exclamations of the tourist arrivals. If you wish for loveliness, visit these places in early May. The bushes will be in their new greens, the trees beginning to bud, the first flowers whitening the woods that are themselves so delicately dappled with the fresh foliage. And as you come upon one exuberant cascade after another you will wonder how old Earth, replete with merriment, could affect you drearily again. It is worth while going long distances to fill one's memory with scenes to aid one in harsh seasons.

The reverse of the spring gladness has its charm, as well. It comes at that pause of the season after the summer heat and before the autumn rains. Then steal up to the Kaaterskill and sit at the foot of the thread of water that falls into the quiet bowl. The shrunken stream only whispers now, but in the stillness you can think back to the time when you heard it roaring. It seems now more likable, if less splendid. And the woods are thinking it all over. Leaves fall one by one, and here and there shafts of light shine down where the woods were lately dark. A maple gleams among the beeches, which are growing yellow, and the hemlocks are full of the sense of coming winter. If you sit quite still you may see a thrush drink from the pool or hear the chirp of some passing bird. But never a song now. Winter is on the way. A red squirrel is busy on the upper bank, and the bell of the distant train tells you that there were once people here. Otherwise you have only the Falls and the weight of endless time.


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