November 17, 2010

Not Winter, But Fall Creek

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This weekend was great because I got to walk around with a t-shirt on again without looking like I was showing off or something.  The 65 degree weather made it a great weekend to be outdoors around Ithaca, but instead of mounting a distant expedition, I stayed on campus and played football, frisbee and joined in on a game of kubb (a Swedish lawn sport played by tossing blocks of wood).  I also took the time to check out one of our local attractions, Fall Creek, in more detail.  Fall Creek, which separates North and Central Campus, is an incredible and unique attraction in the Ithaca area.  It is more powerful and dramatic than Cascadilla Creek on the other side of campus, and it has the bonus of including Beebe lake.

I have separated the stretch of Fall Creek near campus into eight arbitrarily named sections: Flat Rock, Forest Home, the upper gorge, Beebe Lake, North Campus, the lower gorge, Ithaca Falls and Stewart Park.  There is lots more to see farther up river, where the creek meanders through a wooded flood plane, but it requires a trip by car to get there.

Flat Rock is only around a half hour walk from the Thurston Avenue Bridge.  It is the section of Fall Creek which runs though the Cornell Plantations, which I have still yet to thoroughly explore. Flat Rock is exactly what it sounds like: the creek gets shallow and runs over flat shale.  It looks like a great place for wading or playing frisbee. It is also a good jogging spot, because Forest Home Drive runs right alongside the creek.

Of course, in order to jog to Flat Rock, you have to pass through my second section of the river, Forest Home.  This hamlet is where Ezra Cornell had a cabin in the woods, which he named his “forest home”.  It is pretty unusual to see someone running through this “joggers’ paradise” on a nice day.  There are two rustic truss bridges, which allow Forest Home Drive to cross the creek and then cross it again only a third of a mile upstream.  By the bridge farther down stream is a small dam, almost completely eroded away, that creates a modest waterfall, water level dependent.  On the other side of the bridge are some little rapids, the first hint of the craziness farther down stream.  Also next to the bridge are the remains of a stone structure, possibly a mill, that consist of little more than two stone walls.  They hang out over the river, seemingly eaten away, and one has a gap in it, like a missing tooth, where a window used to be.

Farther down stream, Fall Creek gets more exciting in the upper gorge section.  From the bridge about which I just waxed poetic, it is a short walk down Forest Home Drive to Sackett Foot Bridge, the stone bridge at the far end of Beebe Lake.  This area is also easily accessible to North Campus via the path along the edge of Beebe or the path from behind Appel Commons that runs up to the observatory.  Above the foot bridge, Fall Creek gives its first hint at being a gorge before mellowing out for the Beebe section.  There is a short trail on the opposite side of the footbridge from the road that leads up to Lover’s Falls.  Between these small falls and the lake, the gorge gets around 20 to 35 feet deep, and the cliff edge overhangs the creek in some places.  It is the perfect place to swim and go “gorge jumping,” although it is, of course, illegal to swim in the gorges.   Student also jump off of Sackett Foot Bridge itself.

For those far more common times when the weather is not conducive to swimming, it is nice to walk around Beebe Lake, the next section of Fall Creek.  It is yet another similarity that Cornell has to Hogwarts; when Harry and friends need to work out a problem or calm down their teenage angst, they walk around Hogwarts’ lake.  The trail around the Beebe Lake is perfect for jogging, calming oneself down before a prelim or just for relaxing outside.  The lake, created by the dam next to Triphammer Footbridge, has a little island in the center, and is around a third of a mile long and almost a mile to walk around.

It is beautiful to observe the gorge and the waterfall from the two bridges over to North Campus, but much better to go down into it.  This North Campus section of the river (I feel ridiculous still calling it a creek at this point) can be accessed via an overlook foot path behind Risley Hall.  There is a warning sign marking the start of the trail, which descends down to the river edge.  Down there, there is a broken stone picnic table,  benches and a treehouse with multilingual graffiti scrawled all over it.  While the path is short, it is still pretty cool to see this section of the gorge from a different perspective.

Moving on down towards the lower gorge, the next access point to the bottom is near the suspension bridge.  This is accessible by walking down Fall Creek Drive, off of Thurston, or by walking behind the Johnson Art Museum.  If you continue downstream along the path on the campus side of the suspension bridge, you will come to another warning sign marking the top of the gorge path.  The switchbacking trail, comprised of stone steps partially covered with drifts of leaves, makes its way all the way down the steep slope to a fenced-in area.  From this spot you have a view of the suspension bridge far above you, with a waterfall and the old hydroelectric plant below it.  If you want, you can step over the railing and walk out onto the stone bank of the river, where you can find fossils.  This area is also one where I have noticed people swimming.  The water runs shallow here, much like Flat Rock, and you can wade and then soak up the sun on the warm flat stone.  When I visited last weekend, I also observed bits of pumpkin scattered around the bottom of the gorge from flaming pumpkins chucked off of the bridge.  Some of the bits inevitably got swept down steam and over the waterfall that can be seen just before a bend in the gorge.  This is the waterfall that can be seen from the Stewart Avenue Bridge.  This also has some good swimming spots, accessible by Ezra’s Tunnel.  However, to maintain its status as a secret tunnel, I will not reveal its location.

Original Author: Zac Peterson