Sense of Place: The Catskills, NY

Friends and Family at the Catskill Mountain House site, Palenville, NY

The picture above is one that is very important to me.  It captures a lot of emotion for me.  I think it’s a very happy picture, and it includes myself, my dad, my brother, closest friend, and his dad.  This picture was taken at the site of the historic Catskill Mountain House hotel in Palenville, NY.  Why is this place so important to me?  Well, it is important for many reasons.

A Father and Son

Growing up, my dad would spend his summers living at his Grandparent’s house in Palenville, NY (Green County).  Palenville is located in Kaaterskill Clove of the Catskill Mountains.  Each day, himself and his cousins had free reign to romp around the woods, and go swimming

My dad back in his old stomping grounds. “Fernwood,” a swimming hole located in Kaaterskill Creek, just down the road from his grandparent’s house.

in Kaaterskill Creek for hours.  It is a place that is very special to my father.

The Catskill region of New York is, in fact, a state park.  Growing up, I frequently visited the Catskills with my parents on weekends or on vacation.  Depending on which part we visited, it was only 2 or 3 hours from my home in Stamford, CT.  My dad was able to express his love of this particular place.  His love of the Catskills is one that was so infectious, it was instilled in my and my brother.

These experiences, particularly with my dad and brother, have influenced me in a very dramatic way.  It was in the Catskills that I first went hiking.  I also learned the joy of searching for and relaxing in remote swimming holes.  Sometimes, if feeling adventurous, I would be able to satisfy my need for adrenaline by cliff jumping (usually at the dismay of my mother).  Additionally, time spent with my father in the Catskills solidified my environmental ethic.  He constantly preached keeping the creek and the mountains clean. We would constantly pick up garbage when we found it, and scour at the countless examples of graffiti on the rocks surrounding Kaaterskill Creek.  Without my dad’s guidance about preservation of this beautiful place, I don’t think I would be in my current major, and I don’t think I would care so deeply about the preservation of America’s wilderness and its overall ecological health.

I even collect postcards from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s from the Catskill Mountain region, particularly Greene and Roxbury Counties.

The Place

I just wanted to elaborate a little more about the place.  The mountains are old.  They rarely reach over 3,500′ feet.  The primary rock in the area is sedimentary, which is highly susceptible to erosion.  To make it clear, these mountains are not the Rockies.  However, what the Catkills lacks in elevation, it makes up for in history, folklore, culture, and other sublime landscape features.

The Catskills, particularly the area surrounding Kaaterskill Creek is home to much folklore. There are stories of how the creek, and particular swimming holes, were formed, or how they got their name.  One swimming hole named “Niobe,” was supposedly formed when an Indian princess cried so much after the death of her love, that the creek filled with water.  Another swimming hole, named “Fawn’s Leap” (one of the larger cliff jumps in the area, around 40′), is named after a story about a doe and fawn fleeing from predation.  The mother deer leaped across the creek, making it safely to the other side.  However, the fawn was not so lucky, and it fell to its death in the creek below.  Last, and most famous, it was said that Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in Kaaterskill Clove.

“Catskills Creek” by Thomas Cole

Additionally, the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley was the home and inspiration for the likes of great American artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederick Church, etc.  This group of artists is referred to the Hudson River School of Painters, and they commonly depicted the grandeur of the Catskill Mountains.

A picture of mine…can you recognize the mountains from Thomas Cole’s painting above?

The Catskills was the center of the romantic movement in the 19th and 20th century.  When people began escaping the city live to spend time in the wilderness, the Catskills was an extremely popular destination.  The Catskills boasted three high end hotels:  The Catskill Mountain House, Hotel Kaaterskill, and The Laurel House.  People,

Old postcard of the Catskill Mountain House

especially from New York City, would come to the Catskills seeking solace and time to admire the amazing landscape.  Let me emphasize, the Catskills is not the tourism mecca is once was.  Today, it is stressed economically, and the tourism is not as high.  But in the past, it was the place to be.

And while I said these mountains were not the Rockies, they do have their own amazing

Kaaterskill Falls

natural features, including but not limited to the tallest waterfall in the state of New York:  Kaaterskill Falls.  Take that, Niagara Falls!

Palenville, NY has historically been referred to as “The Land of Falling Waters,” as a reference to its numerous waterfalls.

My Recreation in the Catskills

The Catskill Park has been my playground since boyhood.  There have been many things that have influenced my recreation experience. First of all, some of the land surrounding the creeks is privately owned.  In the past, most people were very generous and would let anyone swim on their property at any time.  However, with and increasing tendency of people to initiate lawsuits (even at their own fault), access to swimming holes has been restricted.  Now, people are gating off access to their land, and not allowing people to swim and cliff jump due to fear of lawsuit.

Additionally, there is a solid hunting culture in the Catskills.  One of my favorite seasons to be in the Catskills is in the fall.  Unfortunately for me, when I go to the Catskills in the fall, it is in the thick of hunting season.  There are many places I would like to go hiking, but am fearful for an arrant shot by a hunter.  My ability to recreate where I want is limited.  Fortunately, there are state park lands that are off limits to hunters, and I can usually get my recreation fix.

Thought experiment

The thing that would negatively affect my connection with this place would be an influx of more people.  While there is a bit of tourism to the Catskills, it is not very high.  While the mountains, creeks, and waterfalls are beautiful, there is not a terrible amount of tourism infrastructure.  Tourism would probably provide great revenue for the region, it would take away from my place identity.  The Catskills feels like it’s “mine.”  I think about the Catskills in terms of me and and my father.  Not anyone else.  While I feel so strongly about this particular place, and think everyone should experience it, I also want to keep it all to myself.  I know its secrets, I have my own special places within it, and it would feel weird to  see more people there, at the hands of an increasing tourism industry.  For example, Kaaterskill Falls gets crowded at times, but you still have to hike to it.  I don’t see it as completely implausible for a paved path, possibly one that is wide and handicap accessible, to be installed. However, if that were to happen, it would completely change the meaning of the place.

Conclusion

When you have a special place, it is amazing feeling.  My connection between the Catskills and my father is one that I feel is totally unique.  It is extremely important to me, and could not exist outside of/without the natural landscape of the Catskills, particularly the Kaaterskill Clove area.  I have developed a relationship with the place, the people I share it with, and the people who live there.  Recreation has been a huge part of my experiences in the Catskills, and it is still my favorite place to go when I need to get outside, clear my head, or just spend some great time with friends and family.  It’s my favorite place in the world.

Myself at a great swimming hole, “Rat Hole,” in winter
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4 thoughts on “Sense of Place: The Catskills, NY

  1. At last there is someone out there who shares the same emotions about ” Palenville” I myself has spent all my summers at my Grandparents house located in Paleville, last day of school in NYC June 26th we would head up to Palenville for 8 weeks of pure bliss…… how the local kids couldn’t wait for the City Kids to arrive to start our summer… Swimming in the Creek, hanging out at the Chicken Coop… and on rainy days playing board games in the Bungalow…and sneaking up to Pine Grove against my Grandmothers wishes… its where the Big Kids hung out she would say…. God Bless my Grandparents and the house in Paleville as it will be shared by future generations in our family and it is my wish the younger generation 12 great grandchildren will experience what Palenville truly is…….. with the world of technology and social media I feel truly blessed to have a place where I can go to just be me and to breathe the fresh air, hear the birds chirp and just to enjoy the finer things in life Natural Beauty! Every time I hear the song by Madonna ” Used to be my playground” reminds me of Palenville…. Thank you for your story I truly enjoyed it… Takai

    1. Hi Takai,

      Sounds just like the stories my dad tells me. Any chance you recognize the last name Foley or DeMasi? Those are my families which would also spend their summers in Palenville. My great-grandmother lived on Woodland Lane, not far from Pine Grove, Fernwood, and Niobe.

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