A Catskill Catalog: Nov. 4, 2009

We had just had lunch at the Roscoe Diner and were heading home. The Jeep loves the back roads (as do we) so we left state Route 206, Cat Hollow, taking a right onto the Beaverkill Road into the Middle Mountain Wild Forest. At Craigie Clair we cross the Beaverkill, that celebrated trout stream now on our left, the Civilian Conservation Corps-built state campsite just ahead. Take a left and we’re heading into Lew Beach.
We are in world-famous destination fishing country. We pass Lee and Joan Wolff’s fly-fishing school and Larry Rockefeller’s Beaverkill Inn. At a non-descript point in the road, my fly-fishing friend points out a roadside plaque. Here, in 1937, a group of outdoorsmen, hunters and fishers, founded Ducks Unlimited, America’s premier volunteer organization dedicated to the conservation, restoration, and maintenance of America’s wetlands. We are driving through some pretty special country.
Just before Turnwood, we turn up the Barkaboon, pass Little Pond State Campsite on the left and Big Pond on the right. Up and over, we are heading out of the Beaverkill Valley, into the valley of the Delaware River’s East Branch. At the Pepacton Reservoir, we turn right, along New York City Road 9. Past Millbrook, the road now is NYC Road 10 (I can’t explain), the backside of the reservoir. It’s quiet and scenic. We’re heading home.
“Whoa! Did you see…?” I did. The eagle flew out of the woods at about eye level, its white neck feathers bristling, wings at full span, eyes and curved beak fiercely thrust forward. It exploded out of the trees just to the left of us, its power, its sheer strength and power absolutely evident. We stopped the Jeep, followed its swooping turn upward with our eyes.
The eagle perched in a tree 100 feet or so behind us. We got out and looked, admiringly. The eagle turned his head, spread his immense wings, flew to a tree a little further back. Perched, he looked familiar, our national symbol.
He peered right and left, turning his head to look in that eagle-eyed way, then flew off over the reservoir, looking, we figured, to fish.
But that bristling neck of fierce white feathers! That image will stay in my mind’s eye, I think, forever. Perched, the eagle looks majestically calm. With bristling neck, it looks like nature’s enforcer: don’t mess with me; I’m an eagle.
I am not a hunter, so only once have I seen a buck deer in full attack. It was years ago, up McKinley Hollow, off the Oliverea Road, above Big Indian. Driving quietly up the road, I suddenly heard a rustle in the woods. I turned to the sound to see a big buck charge through the woods, snorting loudly, his dark heavily-muscled body driving powerfully forward at full speed, his head down, antlers menacingly thrust out. I swear I saw steam shooting out of his nostrils, like those old children’s books about Ferdinand the bull. So much for Bambi! This deer was fierce, powerful, impressive.
Impressive, too, is the fact that we have these powerful, beautiful animals to see, to surprise us as we make our way through our mountain lives. An 1896 report on the mammals found in the Catskills reported that “the last wolf disappeared from the Catskills, along with the deer, many years ago.” Some folks are presently pushing for a restoration of wolves, but 113 years after this report, the deer herd has certainly been plentifully restored.
At a time when it seems to many people that government can’t do anything well, the accomplishments of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Federal Endangered Species Act have been remarkable. When I got to the Catskills, wild turkeys were nonexistent. How often now we must wait as a tom leads his flock across the road.
Bears were exceedingly rare here in the 1970s. Today, unmolested garbage cans are much rarer than bears. And Bald Eagles were close to going the way of the dodo bird. All of these animals were specifically protected, sometimes reintroduced, by government programs.
I saw my first eagle from the mathematics classroom window in Margaretville Central School. It was perched in a tree overlooking the East Branch. People came running to see. He was, then, just a few years ago, a very rare sight.
And bears? Some wags used to say they’d wait by the bus stop in Big Indian every time a bear showed up in a suburban back yard in Westchester. Sure enough, they’d tell us, a day or two later, they’d see that bear get off the Pine Hill Trailways bus, suitcase in hand, porkpie hat perched jauntily on his head, stepping off that bus into his new Catskill Mountain life.
I never believed them. But there sure are a lot of bears around here these days.