Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

A Brief History of Buttermilk

Plunge hole and waterfall, Buttermilk Creek

Like so many other interesting places in the area, Buttermilk Falls is not exactly mobbed, or at least not very often.  If you go there, even on a day as nice as yesterday, you’re just as likely to find yourself alone.  Still, after doing the 100 mile drive, I was surprised to find that I had the place essentially to myself.  Not that I minded, though.

Buttermilk Falls lies just on the southern end of Ithaca.  Heck, you can see the “main” 165 foot waterfall from the road.  People go there in the summer to swim in the large, deep pool at its base.  But most people don’t venture any further than that.  And up until yesterday, I’d never gone much beyond that point, either.  You can chalk that up to ignorance.  I simply didn’t know what was further upstream.

In actuality, the gorge that Buttermilk Creek runs through rises some 600 feet in about 3/4 of a mile.  That may not sound like much, but it’s a steep climb.  Just try it sometime.  The good news, I guess, is that along the way you’re going to encounter a whole mess of amazing stuff.  There are at least 2 unique glens in the gorge and something like 8 to 10 major waterfalls.  All of this is through what’s known as the Ithaca Formation, shale and igneous rock that’s roughly 300 million years old.  Not exactly Grand Canyon vintage, but  still pretty damn old.

I find this eternal battle between water and rock just fascinating.  You can see how the water has cut through the rock at angles that are sometimes close to 90 degrees.  Or you can see where it’s carved nearly perfectly circular plunge pools – like the one in the foreground of this image.  If you look closely at the gorge walls, you can see (and hear and feel) water seeping through from above.  It’s constant.  It makes the path you’re walking on always muddy and always slippery.  The water, as I’ve said before, always wins.  Eventually, there will be no 600 foot rise up the gorge.  There will be no gorge.  It’ll all be flat.

But you and I won’t see it.  Nor will my granchildren’s grandchildren.  I just hope that they find the time to spend a few hours in these places, like I did yesterday.  It’s got to be better than playing video games, right?

7 Responses to “A Brief History of Buttermilk”

  1. Juha Haataja

    An exceptionally fine composition, that photograph. I admired how the leaves are on the “shelves” as if put there on display.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Juha.

      By the way, I saw Mark Hobson’s remark concerning “pretty pictures” yesterday, along with the reference to your blog. I also saw the reference to Dan Jurak’s blog on your site (I’ve never seen his work before). I tend to agree that Dan and Mark are on opposite ends of the photographic spectrum! I have to admit that I like Dan’s images better than Mark’s, although some appear to be just a wee bit “over-juiced”.

      I’ve come to hate that “pretty picture” term. In my mind, it’s just plain unfair to label anyone’s work with that moniker.

      • Juha Haataja

        Yes, the term “pretty picture” feels rather offensive.

        However, for some reason, I have a dislike for certain photographs, namely such wildlife photographs which you get with full-frame cameras with extreme telephoto lenses, cropping the subject so that the bird (or whatever) is isolated from the environment (“bokeh” rules), colors are heavily saturated, and all blemishes are photoshopped away. Maybe I would use the term “pretty picture” for these photographs…

  2. Earl

    Paul, a beautiful scene well captured in this photo. I, like you, am fascinated by the rock water battle — if there was ever an argument for persistence winning out. I also look at timeless scenes such as this and think how perhaps original natives of north america, before this nation was formed or even discovered, stood much where you did and observed nearly the same scene. In the greater scheme we are but a speck.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Earl. I know the feeling you describe. Whether I’m here or wandering around the desert southwest, I always wonder who’s footsteps I might be walking over. For millenia, people have lived and died in these places. The petroglyphs and pictographs I’ve seen out west make you wonder what they were thinking when they made them (no one really knows what those images mean).

      As for Buttermilk Falls, the last native Americans to live there were the Saponi (I believe they migrated northward from Virginia and North Carolina). They were more or less “adopted” by the Iroquois nation and lived near what is now Ithaca in a village called Coreogonel. During the American Revolution, the village was destroyed by the continental army (as were many other Indian settlements). The Saponi, I think, fled to Canada.

  3. themiddlegeneration

    What a beautiful photo! I saw this after your b&W one of the same falls.Ithaca isn’t too far away from me. This might be one of the places I try to visit in the spring. I bet the snow melt is spectaular!

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks. If you go to Ithaca, though, don’t do it too early in the spring. They keep a lot of those gorge trails closed until the ice is completely gone. And that’s too bad, because I’d really like to see some of these spots with the ice in place. Heck, you can wander around most national parks in the winter. But not here in NY.


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