Everything about the upstate New York landscape appears modest to me. The farms sit beside each other like contented co-workers. The hills and ridges slope down and up gradually. The old rock that forms their backbones lifts them high, but not impossibly high. The trees cover those hills like a carpet without rising to great heights. Even the sunrises and sunsets are less blazing than in the southwest or the Great Plains, though they still require a lot of sky for their shows. In many ways, the land seems like the people’s gentle words, or like the lakes that sidle between the tree-covered ridges, lying contentedly in the basins the glaciers made for them eons ago.
Deserving of the word, grand
One such basin, however, spreads mightily out – the Genesee River. Similar to its cousin, the Colorado River, it has taken years to carve out a vast gorge, now preserved in Letchworth State Park. Also, like the Colorado River, the Genesee River’s canyon deserves the word "grand", earning and reclaiming the power that word once possessed.
The differences are clear; it’s the similarities that reveal themselves with subtle searching, as similarities do to the sensitive in many areas of life. Everyone has seen, in pictures or in person, the glorious reds, oranges, ochres, violets and yellows of the stained sandstone of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. At first glance, Letchworth’s rock, mostly dark gray sedimentary shale, seems duller and less lustrous.
Wait a while – perhaps for the light to change, perhaps only for more perception to come with time – and look with binoculars, or with the 25-cent tourist telescopes helpfully provided by local business Bausch and Lomb (headquartered in nearby Rochester). Yes, there it is, gray – and lots of it, the brown, tilled mud of long ago ages turned to stone, as water brought layer after layer of it onto ancient creek beds. It isn’t just gray you see; you are really seeing grays. Light and dark grays, changing color as they erode down the cliffs in those ever-spreading alluvial fans, shaped like an upside-down funnel made of rock and sand, topped with a rock column, much like those in the other Grand Canyon. Not only are there light and dark grays; there are grays that hint at black and white, similar to the cliffs of Dover in England. The sun makes them whiter, but you realize that many of them would be that way anyway, showing hints of a volcanic quartz or gypsum. It would be so if it were midnight and a torch, a flashlight, or the moon were the only source of illumination. Like a painting by the minimalist artist Ad Reinhardt, Letchworth Gorge is a tour de force of what can be done with various shades of white, gray, and black.
As if this weren’t enough, more colors emerge and perform for the patient eye. The brown of earth is seen here and there, a reminder of the face the mud once wore. Even more striking and challenging to see, are the reds – some the hue of rust and some a bit brighter – tumbling down the eroded gorge sides in neat, waterfall-type columns. Some of them hint at the southwestern Grand Canyon; others imply an organic origin, perhaps that of lichen or red moss. Either way, the reds are fascinating surprises. A grayish-brown shade, drab at first glance, but wonderfully aged when one looks longer, greets those who gaze along the floodplain at the bottom of the canyon.
The first stop, at the northeast end of the park, is dominated by the Mount Morris Dam. This huge triangular structure straddles the gorge from side to side, looking more in place than one would expect, not least because its gray concrete adds another cool, calm tone to the similar ones of the rocks. (On some level, it’s more appropriate since this gorge and Manhattan are in the same state). The glorious grays of the gorge share a surprising variety with the concrete and glass city skyline. (On some level both look unimpressive at first, but gain a certain fascination with time and light. Both also have a certain physical geology and presence.) Even so, it’s hard to look at the dam and not see an intrusion. It’s easy to imagine some Edward Abbey type hoping to free the canyon from its grip with some well-placed dynamite. It is worth remembering, however, the reason why the dam was built in the first place (for flood control further downriver, according to exhibits in the visitor center), and to understand why the local populace might want it there. Preservation questions are never as simple as propagandists like Abbey made them.
One has only to drive or walk a few minutes further down the rim of the canyon to get away from the dam to learn that, at least esthetically, the dam did not ruin the gorge. There is the bottom, a vast flood plain adding its browns and reds to the cascade of the walls above. Through this flat table land flows the Genesee, its water the color of coffee with cream, calmly and unobtrusively going about its business, sometimes forming rapids and eddies, but more often walking in a steady, marching cadence. To its side, one can see bits of beach, sometimes covered with somber gray marshland, or with a vast carpet of fallen trees and branches, the dead of the forest on a last trip to heavenly disintegration and re-integration into the mud of the plain and, eventually, to more shale. Speaking of shale, the cliffs preside above all this (and below us as we view), spreading out or hoarding up high.
If we are lucky, our ears are as dazzled as our eyes. For far down below, a thousand or more Canada geese enjoy the cool water on a break from some long migration. They spread out along the brown beach, on tree trunks and rocks along the ledge, looking like bits of pepper scattered over a steak. Others gather in a huge flock, like a crowd at a rally, in the very middle of the cold river water. Their squawking and singing are audible, far above, brought up and around by echo.
On the rim, there are splendors as well. In spring and fall, green and brown leaves assert themselves. I prefer the bare trees of winter, which hold on to the soil in a delaying action against the erosion, their trunks worn and wizened by the wind, cold to the point they have now assumed the evil shapes of the frightening forests of children’s storybooks. They are not malevolent, just cynical survivors. The opposite edge of the canyon is the best place to see them. There, one can observe the way their roots grip the ground, forming cylinders of yellow dirt around their tendons, holding on for dear life, implacable enemies of erosion. Some of these old contenders are junipers that have been here, doing this job, since before Columbus arrived in the New World.
Farther back from the edge, a more ordinary eastern forest of oaks and evergreens spreads out, although it is no less beautiful. Taking a fire road or hiking path into this growth, or along the cliff edge, yields another surprise – a deteriorating brick wall, its mortar coming loose. Its bricks are most unusual, made not of brown clay, but of a variety of local rocks, some the same gray as the gorge, some brown, some clear as quartz, all cut to roughly the same eight-inch-square size. Since it parallels the cliff edge, perhaps the wall represents an old barrier railing – testimony to how long humans have been present at this place, and how long they have been reverent of it.
The river’s torturous bends and meanderings, and the gorge’s matching moves, soon make the dam and the park entrance invisible; they are easily left behind mentally and physically. We follow a road through trees and neatly-mown fields, past cabins and gazebo-adorned overlooks, to another U-shaped bend and its concomitant valley. This area is known as the hogback. The reason is not obscure; there, in the steep, elongated ridge formed in the center of the bend, is the hog’s back shape. But no hog had a back quite like this one. Indeed, the ridge more closely resembles the back of a stegosaurus. Along the crest (or, one might say, the backbone), jagged rock pinnacles rise, harsher versions of the stalagmites in limestone caverns, competing for scarce summit space with the gnarled, venerable junipers. Different from limestone cave formations, in that they were sculpted by subtraction and not addition, these rock creations nevertheless inspire in a similar way. In particular, the barbs and pointed edges of the formations present a variety of colors as well as textures, with grays, browns and blacks in profusion.
Below these rocks, the same stratigraphic layers seen around the dam spread horizontally. At first, it looks the same as further up canyon, but again, observation reveals a wider variety of grays, yellows, and reds, the canyon never repeating itself in precisely the same way, even as it restates a familiar theme. The colors are still carried below in the same buttressed-fan shapes, widest at the bottom where they form gravel pedestals for columns of worn gray rock, erosion still carrying on its steady work. Our eyes proceed to the bottom, where the flood plain still spreads out like a circular table leaf, and where the Genesee still relaxes and pools on its gentle way. Its touch seems soft, but in reality, of course, it created all of this destructive splendor as surely as a sculptor chisels out a masterpiece from rock, and with as much force. The only difference is that here, the force is spread along a time line instead of being supplied in an instant. Its passiveness, therefore, is a deception.
One can see this best in winter or early spring, when a startling metamorphosis occurs at the volition of the weather. Normally, the floodplains are flat expanses of brown or reddish grass, through which the Genesee makes its unobtrusive path. A day or two of rain, or of snow melt, and the plains are gone, replaced by the shoulders of a dramatically expanded and stronger river. The water goes right up to the edge of the alluvial fans, and begins chipping away at them again, thus making, given enough time and weather, an even larger canyon with an even wider floodplain. For now, however, there is enough drama in the way that the water, augmented by precipitation, engulfs the formerly serene floodplain enough that the latter utterly vanishes underneath it.
Winter brings other surprises to the gorge and the surrounding forests. The bare trees and their brown trunks still echo the brownish-gray of the canyon rock just below their roots, of course, but all is not brown. Many trees wear coats of green moss, providing a counterpoint that would be little noticed in a warmer time of year. Also, here and there, stands of pines add an even bolder hue of green to the mixture of sights along the rim. Of course, thick snow sent from nearby Lake Ontario often covers the trees and their brown limbs, along with the alluvial fans and the narrow edges of horizontal crevices in the rocks. As it melts in the spring, the snow adds to the water that wears away the floodplain sand, and the same change in temperature that melts the snow expands and contracts the cracks and worn points, changing the canyon by a few grains of sand every year.
Spring, of course, brings other changes to the area. The trees begin to reintroduce their green leaves, and the cliff sides, the hogback, and even the floodplain become beds of green. By summer, the green turns more garish with rainfalls, or loses its color if the rain is infrequent. The heat of summer also seems to bring an intensity to the rock formations in the hogback, and it can create mirages of water along the access road, even as the real water in the river recedes. Fall brings its familiar colors to the trees along the cliff, and the hogback enjoys this revival, which, of course, lasts only until the snows of winter come.
Turn left as you leave the hogback, and you continue along the edge of the canyon to the south. A glimpse of the far side of the canyon is possible here and there. Strangely, the trees seem to have multiple green hues at different levels, resembling the multi-level rainforest canopy that nature enthusiasts must remember from their high school textbooks or National Geographic specials. Periodically, an overlook gives us an opportunity to stop and see more of the valley. In this middle section, the rock formations and the river are often hidden by the vast tree expanses, especially in spring and summer. (Strangely, the wildlife is not always as hidden; the last time we visited an overlook near the park’s center, we saw two ladybugs waiting for prey on a flower stem, and a female deer calmly eating fronds only two hundred yards from where we were standing.) In a few places, the rocks protrude, sometimes menacingly close to the viewer. At other times they emerge several hundred feet away and across the expanse of the canyon, always showing the same variety of grays seen further upriver.
Eventually, the journey takes you to a large picnic area, which is an interesting feature in itself, with its tall trees that create a dark area of refuge from hot days. The picnic area is on the side of a gentle slope; climbing down the slope past the tall trees and dark, dusty forest floor brings you to a viewing area hundreds of feet above the river. Here, you can see a tortuous bend in the river, surrounded with more rough-hewn walls of gray, white, and reddish rock, much like that seen from the overlooks further north and downstream. This is where the gorge most closely resembles similar places out west, such as the Grand Canyon, or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. A few hundred feet downstream from the bend lies the first of the park’s three fall areas, the Lower Falls.
The Lower Falls isn’t really a waterfall; it is more accurately described as a set of rapids. Nevertheless, it is impressive. After the bend, the river seems to flow more quickly and heavily. It courses over and around a hundred small rocks that seem to lie scattered at even distances from each other across its bed, gathering white steam as it rushes along. Just past these rocks is a large island (or peninsula, depending on the water level) covered with sandy soil, more of the small rocks, and little else. Some of the water takes a circuitous route, and moves unobtrusively through a channel between the island and the west shore. Much more of it is squeezed into a narrow band, no wider than a stream, on the island’s other side; there, it pushes over more large rocks and becomes a white, churning strip, gradually plunging downward into a wider area of the river that catches it in a pool. The side of the pool is hollowed out from all of the beating action; in fact, even the layered rock walls above the water appear to have caved in from the pressure. Just a few feet further on, the water continues on its journey quietly, as if nothing happened at all.
The subtle Lower Falls does not prepare visitors for the experience of the larger cataract upstream, the Middle Falls. Nothing would be adequate preparation. The drive (or the walk) from the Lower Falls picnic area features more of the same things the visitor has already seen: steep hills, mowed lawns, forests, and scattered clumps of tall trees enjoying their seniority. Walking across the lawn toward the river, one hears the first hint of the falls – a distant, ineffable roar, getting closer and closer. Then, one sees the quiet Genesee River, once again as calm as it is on either side of the dam, or as it coasts around the hogback. Then, two or three minor cataracts go quietly over crosswise changes in the level of the river bottom, these shelves providing an introduction to what is coming.
Finally, as our eyes continue downstream, we behold the Middle Falls, a strangely dour name for a rearing behemoth of black rock, white water, and white noise. Down the rocks the water thunders, falling not straight and with ease into the catchment pool fifty feet below, but bumping and stumbling onto rock faces that endure thousands of gallons of this abuse every day, down layers of vertical rock and its rough protrusions, and finally landing in a white haze that appears to gradually sort itself out into a calmer body of brown liquid.
This is an illusion, since binoculars reveal the pool at the bottom of the falls to be seething with outward motion. The sculpting force of the pool’s persistent waves can be seen in the flat terraces of rock on the opposite bank, perpendicular to the falls, and in the notches worn into the platforms nearest the portion of the pool where the most water strikes. Here, we can watch breakers strike these very notches with a force and a sound as great as a hammer against an anvil, and be reminded, as we were when we saw the alluvial fans at the hogback, that nature is still at work here.
Just as it’s hard not to compare the gorge and its gray rock to the similar formations of the western Grand Canyon, analogies are inevitable between the Middle Falls and its cousin on the nearby Niagara River. No comparison can really be made, however, that decides which is "better," or more scenic. The two are superficially similar, but the differences are many.
Niagara Falls is certainly higher and wider, and derives much of its power from the water’s straight, singular jump into the turbulent pool below it, as well as the curve of the Horseshoe Falls’ point of no return. Middle Falls’ structure is also not perfectly straight, and is actually a semicircle, but instead of a single drop off and fall, there is something more complex going on. The water does not have a clear, straight way. Instead, it bubbles and rebounds, bouncing off horizontal shelves and platforms that have stood in its way for thousands of years. It then gushes down smooth surfaces before hitting other projections. All of this creates a lot of noise. I suspect that if a sound engineer were to compare the decibel levels of the Middle Falls and Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls, they might be closer than expected.
To the side of all the Middle Falls’ commotion is a paradoxically quiet, misty cave, much like Niagara’s famous Cave of the Winds. This cavern features a collection of detritus that was too strong and heavy for even the tough pool waves to wash away: logs, large branches from the nearby trees, boulders, and more than a few human artifacts. With the mist and the dripping water from the cave walls, the effect is that of a strange, hazy museum.
All of this may seem like an environment that is implacably hostile to life, other than the weeds and small bushes that grow in profusion on the canyon edge, fed by the steam from the falls. The truth is that a wide variety of life breathes even here. Watch the flat rocks opposite the falls, and you may see an occasional welcome visitor – a beaver, in search of branches for his nearby dam. The wood cast over the falls into the misty caves or into the alcoves in the rock is a treasure to him. As he walks across the floor-like stone surface, he looks like a doughty survivor, as do the trees that hang on the precariously eroded cliff far above his head.
To watch that cliff, and to gaze down from it toward the falls, is to behold a whole history of the canyon, even deeper and more complicated than the similar one at the hogback. At the very top is light brown or red topsoil, eroded and scored by past rainfall and wind. This level’s weathering makes it resemble the badlands of the American West. The soil is what sustains the trees along the ledges at the falls, as well as the ones along the hogback. Below is a darker brown or red layer of ground, firmer and less eroded, and altered somewhat with white mineral streaks or extruding rocks. Below this, a rocky layer serves as a foundation and a trough for the river water. It looks like the firmest of all the layers, but in reality, it has been eroded too, moreso than the newer layers above it, even if the forces sent to destroy it have actually made it more rugged and permanent. This is the gray, red and black rock we have seen in other parts of the canyon, which makes up much of the alluvial fans, cliffs, slides and other formations, as well as the multiple floors and shelves of the falls. The misty water from the falls gives some of it the dark brown color of dampness, while other parts of the wall are clothed in a different brown – that of mud, smeared against the wall by floods and storms of previous years.
Nature’s work, of course, created those floors, shelves and buttresses. That work continues, even to the point of making other rival falls. Opposite the roar of the Middle Falls is an inaudible murmur, the trickle of a much smaller tributary. This smaller waterfall begins somewhere in the grass above and to the right of the Middle Falls, and streams down between the rocks and through the weeds. It finally plunges down into the wet cavern with the collection of fallen wood, turning the rock brown with dampness and wearing it away. It would be quite a sight in and of itself, but for now, it exists in the shadow of its much larger cousin.
A short walk up the path that follows the edge of the cliff downstream, and one sees another miniature waterfall, a somewhat older child to the infant below it. Instead of taking a single course, it divides into thin arms of water that look like unfrozen icicles. These thin rivulets of water pass over several large boulders and plants to land in the waterfall’s own version of the canyon, a clean and clear pond. Both of these mini falls testify to the continuing process here. The Middle Falls is triumphant now, but someday, it will have receded, or eroded into a somber rapid like the Lower Falls, while these much smaller relatives will have gained prominence, pouring their own rushing white water into a changed, but still journeying, Genesee River that continues to carve its own gorge into the quiet New York countryside.
Tony Porco lives in a Washington, D.C. suburb with his wife and son. His writings have appeared on the BootsnAll and Democratic Underground websites, along with the newsletter of the National Aquarium in Washington. His poetry can be read in several literary magazines.