My son and I visited Zoar Valley in western New York, a canyonland near the village of Gowanda, once the biggest glue producer in the world. This area is a blend of posted property, state forestland and designated nature preserves. Zoar Valley, named for the biblical city of Zoar, is drained by a major tributary of Lake Erie– the brawling Cattaraugus Creek, along with the South Branch Cattaraugus. These big streams have cut through Devonian shale deposits carving vertical cliffs approaching 400 feet or more in height. Above and beyond them stands an old growth forest, one of the finest of its kind surviving in the East.
We hiked the vast acreage of the Deerlick Nature Sanctuary, managed by The Nature Conservancy. Our 3.6 mile ramble passed through dark ravines with a hunting mink and the song of winter wrens. On the ridges, we encountered greening fields of leek and pointillistic blooms of spring beauty and hepatica. Eighty acres of old growth forest, with exceptional specimens of maple, birch, hemlock, beech, and tulip tree invited the imagination to behold a stunning biodiversity. Grape vines of incredible size appeared to intertwine limbs and trunks, suggesting that something similar might be needed to attach, or glue, our thoughts and feelings for an understanding here.
Many of the trees are exceptionally old (up to 500 years) and massive. Record specimens of basswood, sycamore, and American elm are located nearby in the Zoar Valley Unique Area (1425 acres) and its larger neighbor, the Multiple Use Area, administered by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
It was comforting to know that some of the giant trees are unapproachable due to their position on the dangerous slopes. Warning signs are in place, but wayward hikers have succumbed to the allure of cliffs and the illusive certainty of shale. The giants remain, resisting even those who would come to study them. The giants provide a comfort, an illusion of purity: life goes one, with us or without, forever.
After our lunch break in Gowanda (fast food like a glue that binds mind to muscle, but with taste) we headed for a second trail, descending to the river bottom, saying howdy to the spicebush flowers and to lovely blooms of bloodroot and red trillium.
The confluence of the branches was a place of quiet, unattended power. The Catt (as the big creek is known) can be a seething, clay-colored mess following precipitation, but today it looked deceptively calm beneath its cliffs and overcast sky. In the 1920s a major power company owned this parcel, planning to construct a hydroelectric dam nearby, but abandoned the location when it learned that the brittle face of shale would not comply.
The land’s heart was pure; the company’s intent was muddled. Herbert F. Darling bought the land and later, in 1961, gifted 1425 acres to the state. A hippie commune in the 60s, followed by the “irresponsible behavior” of sketchy visitors, brought an end to overnight camping as the state took more control of the environment.
We stood on the flood plain and in the woods nearby. I looked at the riffles and envisioned the migration of steelhead in their time of spawning. I had yet to fish this water, but something told me it would call me back in another season ripe with promise .