Zoar Valley Meditation

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.

Handcrafted matching juniper walking sticks were gifted to me recently. Leaning against big grapevines…
vast quantities of wild leeks…

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.

fly rods are never far behind… here’s an old South Bend 290

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.

this squaretail was photographed & released the day before our visit to Zoar…
son Brent on the South Branch just above its confluence with the main stem Cattaraugus Creek…

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.

upper Genesee brown released 4.14.21…

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 .

bloodroot, one of my favorite spring wildflowers…
A friend made this pair of matching juniper sticks. They covered their first 5.6 miles easily…
finding the first trillium (Zoar Valley) is always a hoot…

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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18 Responses to Zoar Valley Meditation

  1. Brent says:

    Hey, that all looks familiar! Interesting tidbit about Gowanda’s history with glue–where’d you read that? Looking forward to continuing the adventure in a couple days.

    • Brent says:

      Re: the village (not county) of Cattaraugus, one of the resident factories makes lollipop sticks. Interesting to think that American factories still produce something so quaint!

    • Yessir, thanks for that! The glue reference came from an online source, might have been Wikipedia? And yeah lollipops in Catt village… I read that also. Very quaint, especially when considering the image of those aging hillside factories.

  2. bill wilson says:

    Hello Walt,
    Talk about timing: Just yesterday my wife told me she really wanted to see the valley. She has never been there.
    When I was younger (about 50 years ago) my then brother-in-law took me fishing in the Cattaraugus Creek in Zoar. Years later, a couple friends from high school and I visited via Point Peter Road. This was after the commune was disbanded. It’s a beautiful area, and there were no trails then like there are now. It was undeveloped. Those cliffs are very dangerous and many have fallen into the gorge over the years.
    Funny story: When my buds and I headed out, we were stopped by police who searched our car. One officer was sociable, the other a hard ass. He went through my tackle box and questioned why I had a few tiny corks. He was skeptical when I told him I used them as bobbers. Do drug users use corks?
    Thanks for your stories and pics.

    • Hey Bill,
      Thanks for reading & sharing your great real-life story. Good timing, indeed! I made my first & only other visit off Point Peter Road about the same time as your youthful visit to Zoar. Strange to think about those times now. It was not unusual to be stopped by police then for no obvious reason other than a guy might have long hair. I remember one initial question: “Any drugs in this car?” Uh yeah, you might check just behind the headlights… Anyway, it’s good to know that you’re familiar with the Zoar. I do hope that the development there stays in check & that visitors treat this special place with care… I don’t know if drug users employ corks but, if so, I hope they’re considerate of their bait!

  3. Wow, this spot is so pretty. I love the cliff and all the flowers!

  4. Great pictures as usual. Really nice walking sticks too! Looked like a ‘fresh’ Brookie – steel colored. And a nice upper Genny Brown! Interesting area for certain. Great post. UB

    • Thanks UB. The practical thing about the sticks is that they help an old guy keep his balance in precarious places. Also good for warding off “Snarly Yows” & “Snallygasters” on the trail!

  5. Bob Stanton says:

    A timely post, Walter. Timely in that yesterday I had to take my mother to Cleveland Clinic for a doctor’s appointment. Traveling down 90, through northeastern Ohio, I crossed rivers like the Chagrin, the Ashtabula, the Grand. I thought long and hard about what the landscape looked like 200, 250 years ago and more, to a time when whites first encroached on the ancestral lands of the Erielhonan, the Shawnee, the fleeing Lenape, the Mingos, the Seneca thinking of empire. Sad that I’ll never know, but places like the Zoar Valley and Heart’s Content can give us a glimpse into what it looked like. Though my grandfather wasn’t a fly fisherman, he often fished the Zoar Valley for steelhead. I think perhaps I’ll take a trip up there. You know I’m a sucker for big trees.

    • Bob, the Zoar & Heart’s Content are like living museums to connect us, potentially, to those aboriginal, pre-European landscapes you refer to. Those places are especially valuable because they’re so few & far between today. It’s probably too late now to find the steelhead in the creeks, but we should take a trip & check it out next fall or the following spring!

  6. Very interesting! I grew up in NY state (in the Big Apple area), but never heard of the locale you write about.

    • Zoar Valley is a world removed from metro NYC by some several hundred miles or so. Even for residents of western NY, lots of folks are unaware of it or, if they’ve heard about it, they have never actually been there. That’s part of its appeal for me. Thanks Neil.

  7. plaidcamper says:

    Easy to understand how you’d get stuck, in a good way, on places like this valley. Old growth is hard to find, sad to say.
    What a hoot, enjoyed this one, Walt – thanks, as always!

    • Adam, it is hard to find, and often overlooked or not respected. Especially in these settled regions of the East. Always good to hear from your picturesque & briny corner of the world!

  8. loydtruss says:

    Gorgeous landscape with a touch of Spring flowers to enhance the surroundings. I feel in some respect that the public takes for granted all the century-old trees we have left in this country. Thanks for sharing

    • I agree, Bill. Some of those ancient trees appear to be sentient, and could probably teach us something about life, if only we would look & listen. Thank you for reading & commenting.

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