Life in the Shadows

In New York's Watkins Glen State Park, certain wildlife thrives in shade.

In the northern areas of the United States where cold and cloudy winters can linger, we often assume that sun is good and shade is bad. On a gloriously sunny day in May, however, my hike through New York’s Watkins Glen State Park dispelled this notion and revealed the nuances of the unique ecology in the famous gorge.

photo of watkins glen
Watkins Glen's one-and-a-half-mile gorge has a sunny side and a shady side throughout much of the day, the perfect habitat for certain wildlife. Photo by Fred Murphy.

With a touch of humidity in the air, the morning weather set the stage as I got the inside scoop from Finger Lakes State Parks Region environmental educator Josh Teeter.

Meeting me and my traveling companions at the entrance to the park, Teeter pointed out that the former parking lot, now a spacious pedestrian plaza, demonstrates the emphasis on presenting the park in its most natural state. The ornamental plantings lining the walkways and all the vegetation throughout the park itself consist of only native species such as aster, goldenrod, oak, maple, sycamore, and hickory.

Fueled by food and drink from top-notch cafes and wineries of the Finger Lakes region, I entered the gorge carved from 380-million-year-old sediment layers and began the steep climb up the wide trail. The slow pace needed to navigate the wet, stone steps paid big dividends. Cheerful orange columbine nodded in the dappled sunlight of mossy, rock crevasses as my hiking boots occasionally sloshed into puddles on the path.

Teeter explained that the east-west orientation of the one-and-a-half-mile gorge and the lack of sunlight in the deep recesses has created a sunny side and a shady side throughout most of the day. This is the perfect habitat for the Gray Petaltail Dragonfly which preys upon other insects. The eggs and nymph stages need the perpetually damp or mucky areas of seepages on the shady side, whereas the adults fly over to the sunny side to warm up, catch a meal, or mate.  Humans can thank the shade and the dragonfly both for their bug-free hikes in the refreshingly cool gorge during warm spring and summer months.

Next, we came upon a tree that took a logic-defying U-turn out of the rock face where its roots were anchored. We’ve all seen a houseplant turning toward the window, or bright yellow sunflowers nodding in the sunlight’s direction. But the tree trunk’s bend downward, outward, and then up was especially acrobatic. I learned that there is a hormone in the tree trunk facilitating these twists. On the shady side of the young stem, the hormone stimulates extra growth, enabling the tree to expand in non-linear fashion unconstrained by gravity and light, and eventually arch back up toward the sky.

The most iconic features of Watkins Glen are its cascading waterfalls, 19 in all. They were running at full force during my visit after an especially rainy spring. It wasn’t difficult to see why John Watkins purchased the land in 1794 and used the power of falling water to grind grain into flour there. During the boom years following the Erie Canal construction, when building materials were in high demand, his heirs also ran a mill for producing plaster. In later years, the landowners capitalized on the gorge’s natural beauty and charged visitors an entrance fee. That’s when promoters fittingly changed the name of the ravine from “Big Gully” to the more romantic “Watkins Glen.” Eventually, the nearby village took on the same name and it remains to this day.

The climb became steeper, but never dangerously so. Whereas ladders and falling rocks presented challenges to the gorge goers of earlier years, neither were factors today. Once New York State purchased the land, the government’s budget allocated resources to create gentler, hiker-friendly grades including tunnels through the rock. The park installed iron railings and overlooks above the most prominent features. To ensure the ongoing safety of visitors, each spring the park sends out a specialized maintenance crew whose members rappel down the 200-foot cliffs, checking for rocks that could potentially fall onto the paths below. They remove any rocks that have become loose over the winter.

All the thought and engineering that goes into public safety efforts at Watkins Glen also makes the route more fun and dramatic. As I passed behind roaring waterfalls, I paused to listen to the soothing rush and peer through the glistening wall of water into overflowing chasms below me. Rainbows are made possible by the bending and dispersion of light by water droplets. The interplay of sun and shade in the gorge enhanced the light show and my camera picked up a rainbow that even my own eyes had missed during the sensory assault of the moment.

Citing the lack of significant water influences in my astrological chart, a fortune teller once told me that I was a stressed individual, basically a cold-hearted Grinch, and I needed to take drastic remedial steps to open my heart to life’s possibilities. In Grinch-like fashion, I dismissed it as hogwash. But in retrospect, maybe the self-described clairvoyant was on to something, because like the buzzing dragonflies and twisting trees, I felt the restorative powers of the shady glen that morning. Without the shadows and darker moments in life, we don’t get enlightenment. In this, it seems, nature and the human psyche are in alignment.

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