Sunday, February 16, 2014

Plotterkill Falls, 2014-02-16

Kevin hadn't been hiking for about a month - the weather has been awful, and Kevin has been busy - so jumped at the chance to go snowshoeing on a sunny day and headed off to Schenectady's Plotterkill Preserve. The goal for the day was to catch a view of the lower Plotterkill Falls and Rynex Kill Falls, which are difficult to see in warmer weather. (The combination of the brush and the flow of the water makes them hard to get to.)

Kevin started out from the Coplon Road trailhead mid- to late-morning. He wore the tails on his snowshoes for the first time, because the 3-4-foot snowpack in the gorge was fairly powdery and unconsolidated, and he needed the flotation. The Coplon Road access trail and the south rim trail down to the stream were well broken out and he descended with very little trouble. The stream crossing was the easiest he's ever made it: cruising over all the water and scree on snowshoes is the way to do it!

stream crossing

(Kevin's luck is usually to find the crossing like the picture below, and have to detour some distance upstream or downstream to find a bridge)

Ford on the Plotter Kill

On the far side, Kevin notices a well-trodden snowshoe track heading off to the left! Great! He'll be able to follow someone else's track to the falls. (He's never been in there, and is glad not only for the guidance but also for the broken trail. Where the snow has slid off the avalanche scar, there's at least four feet of snow on top of the frozen stream. A broken trail is much easier to deal with!

The track is easy to follow. It crosses and recrosses the stream several times, and sometimes scrambles the bank fairly steeply, but Kevin's snowshoes are up to the task, and before long, he's catching his first sight of the lower falls.

First sight of the waterfalls

The distant picture fails to convey the scale; the falls are 60-70 feet high. When Kevin approaches closer they loom far overhead.

Lower Plotterkill Falls

Kevin notices that only one of the snowshoers who broke trail for him has come up to look at the lower Plotterkill Falls. The rest of them have turned right to the Rynex Kill Falls. When Kevin follows, he finds out why: they were a party of technical ice climbers, and the ice on the Rynex Kill Falls is pockmarked by their crampons and ice tools.

Rynex Kill Falls

After the obligatory pause for photography, adjustment of snowshoe bindings, and wiping of goggles, Kevin turns around and heads back downstream. He notices that one of the climbers has improvidently tried to come in bare-booted. While the crust on the snowshoe track holds him most of the time, he's left some spectacular postholes when he's broken through. Kevin probes one of them with a pole - it's thigh-deep on Kevin, and he's not exactly short.


Before long, Kevin's back at the stream crossing below the avalanche scar, and turns up the trail to the north rim. Again, he is thankful that the ford is frozen over and he has a well-compacted track to follow.

Crossing by the avalanche

He pulls up his televators (wonderful invention, those!) and climbs up the north rim, following the climbers' track. During one of his stops to pant (that hill is steep), he pauses to look across the gorge at the old avalanche.

On the way to the top of the falls

As expected, most of the snowshoe tracks turn left at the north rim trail. (A few hardy souls have made the loop of the lower preserve.) Kevin follows, and is able to cruise along the north rim pretty well, except for the occasional spill and muttered profanity where he trips over a posthole and falls down. Barebooter, whoever you were, wear your snowshoes next time! Before long, Kevin comes to the stairway down to the Rynex Kill crossing. The stairway, three feet deep in snow, is kind of slippery, and Kevin executes an "inadvertent seated glissade" down to nearly the level of the stream. Nothing is hurt but his dignity, and with his snowshoes under him again, he strides out to where the climbers had their top-rope and have churned up the snow at the lip of the falls. The view he gets of the sidewall is another one that is impossible in warmer weather; he'd be standing in water on slick shale a few feet from a sixty-foot drop-off.

Top of Rynex Kill Falls

Beyond the Rynex Kill, the going gets tougher. The climbers have not gone that way, and indeed, nobody on snowshoes has since the last storm (which dumped about 14 inches of snow in the gorge). There are the tracks of two cross-country skiers, and that's about it. Kevin chooses the one that a herd of deer have decided to follow, on the basis that he can't mess it up for skiers any worse than the deer already have, and continues up the north rim. It's nearly as hard as breaking virgin snow, and Kevin's tracks are deep enough that he has to lift his snowshoes a long way at each step. He takes a number of spills from misjudging how high he has to step and catching a toe in the soft powder. Nevertheless, he manages to wallow on until the upper Plotterkill Falls comes in sight through the trees.

Approaching Upper Plotterkill Falls

Once again, the frozen stream lets him venture out for unusual viewpoints. He snowshoes across to the lip of the falls

Upper Plotterkill Falls

and is able to get a view down the gorge from the middle of the stream - another one that's impossible when the water is flowing.

Looking down the gorge

At this point, he turns around and retraces his steps to the car. On the way out, he notices a dead tree with an astonishing amount of woodpecker activity:

Woodpecker tree

and snaps one last picture of the bare rock where the avalanche swept everything into the stream.

Plotterkill avalanche

On the snowshoe out, he passes a group of three guys who have come in with downhill skis or snowboards and snow shovels, and have been busily constructing moguls on the pipeline cut. I guess that's one way to avoid paying for a lift ticket somewhere! It looks as if they've been having a great time. He returns to his car, soaking wet, tired, and grinning. All in all, a fun four hours or so.