Skinnydipping the Paleozoic

Rondout Creek

A few days after 9/11, still in shock, a half dozen of us fled New York City for the seclusion of a friend’s country farmstead. I drove up with my sake buddy Koichi in a borrowed Bonneville station wagon. We spent the weekend camped out at Stefan’s place, cooking, drinking, talking, not talking, and swimming in the Rondout Creek. Basically just trying to come to grips with the unthinkable.

I had been in Times Square when the towers fell, in a meeting at a television network. Instead of discussing the children’s show I was directing the entire office stood watching CNN on the lobby monitors. After the second tower collapsed we scattered to the hoped for safety of our homes. It was, of course, a beautiful late summer day. I marched north with the solemn throngs evacuating midtown. If you looked south you could see the thunderhead of smoke and ash blooming where the avenues converged. I walked past St. Patrick’s Cathedral and felt, for the first time in a long time, compelled to attend Mass.

    Banks of the Rondout

Stefan had grown up in that ramshackle, two story house on the outskirts of the little town of Rosendale. His bohemian parents had settled there in the early 70s. He was introduced to computer programming by a summer tenant living in their barn and went on to RIT and Silicon Valley, where we met. He relocated to Kyoto for a few years, but was lured back to New York to take over the sprawling 60 acre spread from his mother. Most of the property is covered by pine forest and bounded on three sides by creek. It occupies the northern terminus of the Shawangunk Ridge, a Mecca for rock climbers. From a cliff behind the house you can watch a nice sunset over the Catskills. Fresh from Japan, Stefan dubbed his domain Camp Warui (I believe the translation is "crazy").

Nervous energy clung to us like the scent of smoke from Stefan’s wood stoves. One day we tried to work it off by taking an hours long wander through the woods. Koichi chain smoked while Hope, Lisa and Maureen wove skeins of constant banter. Stefan was our near mute guide, breaking silence only to point out the latest in an endless parade of local fungi. His land is also infested with white tail deer, I pocketed a small antler I found. Wild turkeys, red foxes, an albino hawk and the occasional black bear and bald eagle roam the property as well.

   The mycological bounty of Camp Warui; a little milk snake I caught. (photo S. Lisowski)

Toward the end of our ramble we descended to the broad creek. The riverbank was covered in smoothly worn stones, many perfect for skipping and soon a competition ensued. In our scramble to score the perfect 10-skip-stone Lisa turned up something else: a big rock broken to reveal a dense crosshatching that looked more organic than lithic. I didn’t know what made this ancient cast, but it instantly put me on alert: were there fossils here?

I had grown up your typical child dinosaur nut. I consumed books on prehistoric life, watched KING KONG five days running one Christmas vacation, and had an outstanding collection of die cast saurians. I scoured the granite boulders studding the hills around our Connecticut home aching to discover some petrified relic. I imagined ossified vertebra in every ridge of quartz crystals, but there was nothing. How was I to know, at 8 years old, that I lived in the wrong geological neighborhood? My reading and visits to the American Museum of Natural History only reinforced the notion that fossils were rare as buried treasure, found only in far flung places like Montana and Mongolia. Undernourished, my interest waned.

    My first discovery: a platter of brachiopods found near Oneonta.

It was nearly jump started twice in my 20s. Once, swimming in a lake near Oneonta, NY, I chanced on a plate sized slab of stone thoroughly corrugated with seashell impressions. Some foggy recall suggested they were brachiopods, lamp shells in common parlance. A few years later, idling by another upstate lake, I happened on a smooth rock with a gap in its surface, like a window to a hollow interior. Something compelled me to split the rock on another stone revealing the part and counterpart (positive and negative casts) of a nice trilobite, a long extinct arthropod. In each case I thought it was just dumb luck. I held onto those specimens, but it would take another decade, and Lisa's discovery, to jog my fossil jones into high gear.

The Rondout Creek is a medium sized river that winds through Ulster County on its way to join the Hudson. Between the villages of High Falls and Rosendale it rushes swift and shallow between a cornfield and some public woodland before colliding with the Shawangunk spur. At this point it slows and deepens as it takes a sharp left around this barrier -- creating a perfect spot for swimming. There’s even an exposed ledge that makes a nice sunbathing and diving platform, all on Stefan’s property, a five minute stroll through the pines from his back door. And the seclusion of the site invites a clothing optional policy.

When Lisa found that mysterious rock she might as well have hit me over the head with it: synapses fired, dots connected. I’d found fossils before in upstate New York. Here I was upstate. Lisa found what looked like a fossil. Maybe there were more.

At this point in time I was wholly ignorant of matters geological, a situation only slightly improved now. In my mind, fossils were still outsourced from the arid west and other places where there was more, well, rock.

   Cement mine lagoon lit by luminaria; the ruins of Roebling's aquaduct.

Actually there was a lot of rock around Camp Warui. Rosendale had been a major mining town throughout the 19th Century. The limestone hills across the river are riddled with enormous man-made caverns, the remnants of former cement mines. Rosendale cement played a major role in the construction of the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. John Roebling, the designer of that bridge, prototyped his revolutionary suspension system on an aquaduct that spanned the Rondout a mile upstream. The aquaduct was part of a canal system that transported coal from Pennsylvania to NYC. Now its overgrown ruins serve as a diving platform for local kids while the mines host poetry readings and raves.

So there was a lot of rock under those verdant hills. Certainly the tough conglomerate of the ridge. But there were also all those stones on the banks and shallower stretches of the river. I began to inspect these piles during my semi-regular visits from the city. And indeed, I began to find fossils. Mostly they were brachiopods, Paleozoic seashells of symmetrical design that formed dents in the otherwise smooth river rocks. When I took to pulverizing the stones I found even more: spirifers that sparkled with quartzy glitter, strophomenids shining with mother of pearl hundreds of millions of years old. Others were merely gray or brown casts. But I was enthralled. In summer I would swim up or downstream to these stony islands, bruising my knees as I scrounged for any glimmer of shell, burning body parts that rarely saw sun.

    Sparklin' spirifers; part/counterpart of a cephalopod + brachiopod; half of my first trilobite.

Sometimes I’d find a slab too heavy to swim back to the ledge with. In those cases I would paddle over on one of Stefan’s inflatable rafts and ferry the big rock back as I swam alongside. This amused other bathers on the ledge, and a pile of fossil pocked cast-offs began to accrue on the end of Stefan’s patio.

In colder months there was a stony stretch of bank downstream that I could bushwhack to without getting my feet wet. Once I noticed a shell imprint in a scrap of blue gray shale in a pile at the top of the driveway. It had been hauled in from God know’s where to replenish the packed gravel drive. I spent a few hours combing through that mound of shards, finding a few shell casts and an intriguing mystery fossil. I identified this months later while flipping through a field guide, suddenly recognizing it as a partial cephalon (head) of a Cryptolithus trilobite.

Now my research told me that Cryptolithus is an index fossil for the Ordovician. It also told me the Gunks, on which Camp Warui sat, are a product of the Silurian. I already knew that pile of shale didn’t originate on Stefan’s property. But the brachiopods from the river, best I could tell, were Devonian species. Paleo folks obsess about such questions. Paleo people’s pulses quicken when they drive past a road cut. I had become such a person.

A nice geological rule of thumb runs something like “Jagged rocks are from here, smooth rocks are from someplace else”. Meaning that a rounded rock must have been tumbled smooth from travel, propelled by water or ice. The nearby Catskills are not mountains thrust up by tectonic forces but rather a plateau savaged by glaciers. The Rondout’s a swift river. There was no shortage of erosive suspects. So where did these rounded rocks come from?

    The Rosendale road cut from a side street; the stony banks of the Rondout.

One day I packed a lunch and set out to follow the river, upstream. I spent several hours braving disease ridden ticks, thorny brambles and trigger happy farmers to finally emerge onto -- the main road. I had driven up and down this stretch of asphalt countless times. But this time I gazed across the pavement with new eyes: I was looking at a cliff. A road cut really. But basically, a huge vertical expanse of rock. I hopped gingerly across the two lanes, waded into the weeds off the shoulder and peered hard at the rock face. And damned if it wasn’t full of fossils. Brachiopods were sandwiched in various strata like deli meat in a hero. Several boulders lay at the bottom of the cliff -- not a good sign, from a safety point of view -- but an easier place to try to extract specimens. Or so I hoped. I broke out the hammer and chisel, but mostly it was no-go, the gray limestone was unyielding. 

Then I discovered some strata, tinted a rusty ochre, that was so soft and crumbly I could dig into it with tweezers. This yielded delicate specimens of brachiopods, corals, crinoids and tentaculites. I wasn’t sure that I had found the source of the fossils in the creek, but I had certainly located a source, and in this I was happy.

photo, S. Lisowski      

I would come to learn that central New York State, starting there, a stone’s throw from the Hudson River and stretching three hundred miles west to Lake Erie, was one of the most prolific sources of Devonian fossils in the world. Paleontological pioneers like James  Hall and Charles Doolittle Walcott hailed from the region and cut their teeth collecting its treasures. Fossils were neither as rare, nor as remote as I’d thought. It was simply a matter of being in the right geological place at the right geological time. This revelation opened a whole new world for me. Or an old world. Really the same world, seen through a new lens.

Now why this obsession came over me when it did is another question. Was it a reaction to a world historic tragedy? Or the fulfillment of a childhood wish at the onset of middle age? A little of both? All I know with certainty is it’s propelled me down a path I’m traveling to this day.

Stefan since discovered an easy place to view local fossils. It's on the grounds of a nursery center, Victoria Gardens, on Route 213 between Rosendale and High Falls. The proprietors cut into the hillside to level off an outdoor display area out back. Between potted plants, the rock underfoot is studded with brachiopods. Collecting might not be kosher, but there're plenty of specimens to photograph.