Fifty years ago, a friend and I spent a splendid August afternoon boulder-hopping down John's Brook. We started just beyond the old trestle bridge about a mile from the brook's confluence with the AuSable River and carefully worked our way over the great gray rocks and the small pools and eddies, daring each other to cross the rushing waters of the main stem of the stream. Although I was a lot more agile then than now, this was hard work for a pudgy 9-year-old in tread-worn red sneakers, and it was with a great sense of accomplishment that we climbed out of the brook bed at the Route 73 bridge in Keene Valley.
That brook is no more.
Most of the section of John's Brook we clambered down that day has been dredged and diked into an unrecognizable, flat-bottomed stream, riffling over a bed eerily stripped of the large boulders that once filled this iconic Adirondack mountain brook. They have been piled up in huge mounds lining the banks recently scoured by Hurricane Irene's torrential floodwaters - in a couple of places, steering the brook away from its meanders into a straighter, more uniform channel. As my dogs and I splashed down the channel through the shallow, strangely warm waters this afternoon, I had the feeling I was walking in a drainage ditch. It reminded me of the stony, lifeless rivers in the Yukon and California that still, more than a century after the Gold Rush, bear the scars of heedless miners who took the ore and left the sludge.
Work crews have severely altered John’s Brook since Tropical Storm Irene, as seen last week in Keene Valley.
(Photo — Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve)
Thus was John's Brook punished - for the crime of responding to Irene's wrath as mountain streams do when 10 inches of rain are dumped on them in 18 hours. Already saturated from a wet summer, the soils of the John's Brook valley could hold no more, and the rainwaters turned the brook into a leaping, roiling brown torrent that tore at its banks, uprooted trees and spread up into the woods. From my porch, about 100 yards away from the rocketing waters, the boulders and tree trunks crashing down during the storm sounded like artillery fire.
After Irene passed, the brook was a mess: Huge chunks of its banks had been gouged away, tree trunks and debris were piled up, and cobbles were strewn everywhere. But it was still a brook. And if you walked the banks of it, you could see that this had happened before - that violent storms had caused pileups of boulders, now covered by forest duff and trees as the brook shifted in its valley over millennia, as brooks are wont to do. Unlike drainage ditches, brooks are complex and dynamic hydraulic and geomorphic systems that, like all systems, strive to reach equilibrium when they are destabilized. River scientists have learned how to help speed up the stabilization process by reforesting banks and recreating step pools, chutes, side channels, back swamps and other natural features of healthy streams.
Unfortunately, this did not happen in John's Brook. Local and state officials took advantage of the governor's temporary suspension of permit regulations and Adirondack Park Agency rules to "fix" the book by drastically altering its flow and transport of sediment into the AuSable, using methods that have largely been discredited. Giant bulldozers ripped up the lower reaches of one of the most beautiful streams in the High Peaks, an ecologically rich habitat for brook trout and the invertebrates they feed on, and transformed it into a rock-lined half-pipe that will make floodwaters flow even faster and more violently into the AuSable. As a citizen and taxpayer, it makes me inexpressibly sad to know that the destruction of John's Brook was done in my name and with my money.
Can John's Brook be restored? Yes - if we are willing to admit that we got it wrong the first time and work with the forces of nature to help the stream heal and better withstand the impacts of high water flows. This can't be done overnight and it won't be cheap, but the consequences of not trying will be far more costly, especially when the next big weather event sends flood waters racing down the straightened and channelized streambed into the settled area of the hamlet even faster than they did during Irene. I'd like to think that someday, not too long from now, my grandchildren will boulder-hop John's Brook between shaded, deep green pools filled with brook trout, shrieking with delight as they dip their toes into the clear, cold waters of one of the most beautiful mountain streams in the Adirondacks.
Henrietta Jordan lives in Keene Valley.