September 5, 2009

Quechee Gorge: Roadside geologists' favorite


If you go

Quechee State Park, 764 Dewey Mills Road, White River Junction, VT 05001. (802) 295-2990.

Simon Pearce, The Mill, Quechee, VT 05059. (802) 295-2711. For restaurant, (802) 295-1470.

Armed with new geologic interest after our recent immersion at Ithaca's Museum of the Earth, we recently took another look at Vermont's Quechee Gorge.

Quechee has long been a popular mainstay of the roadside geologist. Many just pass by as they drive Route 4 across Vermont. More stop and enjoy the view from the bridge. To fully appreciate this natural attraction, though, spend some time walking the nearby trails.

The gorge, 165 feet deep, runs for about a mile right where the Ottauquechee River (from the native term for "swift mountain stream") makes a sudden southward turn.

Once upon a geologic time, the river ran a more gradual course. Glaciers, specifically the Laurentide Ice Sheet 100,000 years ago, led to changes, including formation of a massive body of water called Glacial Lake Hitchcock. When the ice receded, the Ottauquechee deposited a delta on the site of today's gorge. When Lake Hitchcock drained, the river followed the sandy course of the delta. Continued erosion of bedrock created the natural feature we see today.

Though the need for a bridge over the chasm was apparent early, initial attempts were quickly washed away. In 1875, the first railroad bridge was built to span the distance; its completion was commemorated with four brass bands and 3,000 onlookers. Today's iron span dates to 1911. It, too, served as a railroad bridge until 1933. Then U.S. Route 4 was put right over the dormant rail bed.

Sidewalks accommodate overlooks on both sides of the bridge. The views are pretty, but don't stop there.

Switchbacks allow descent to the banks of the Ottauquechee River. A downstream ramble brings one to the jagged rock base of the gorge. On a warm summer day, you'll be joined by plenty of waders enjoying the water.

Walk about half a mile along the broad, well-traveled path then look back upstream. You'll see the bridge high in the distance. From here, you'll better appreciate the depth of the chasm that's been cut by the river.

Now retrace your steps then continue farther toward Dewey's Mill Pond. From 1836 through 1962, this mill, owned by the same family throughout its history, processed cotton and wool. During World War II, 240 people worked here making uniforms for the Army. At one time, the mill also made uniforms for both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. All that's left is a peaceful body of water.

The small Visitor Center by the bridge gives more information on Dewey's Mill. In addition, attractive panels impart information on the local flora and fauna.

From adjacent Quechee State Park Campground, a nicely interpreted nature trail winds down a hill to the river. Blue blazes mark the path. This provides a nice prelude to exploration of the gorge.

Tree species are described, including the tall Eastern hemlocks that dominate the forest, and white birch. Despite the presence of a few murmuring pines, this is not the forest primeval. Seventy percent of Vermont's forests had been cut down by the mid-19th century by lumbermen and farmers. Many of the latter raised sheep; the wool supported the growth of New England's textile industry. There was a time when Vermont boasted six times as many sheep as people.

As in the Adirondacks, the forests of Vermont have returned. It's estimated that trees cover 85 percent of the Green Mountain State now.

Tree cavities along the trail give the opportunity to ponder the woodpecker. Most of the holes testify to their hunt for insects, though larger ones may have served their time as nests. Our trail leaflet also called our attention to beaver activity. The narrative refers to the rodents as "ecosystem engineers" for the way they alter the landscape. I suspect some would apply a more negative appellation.

One spot is notable for its broad beech ferns. Early spring growth produces fiddleheads, a much prized delicacy in Vermont.

A short drive (or a pretty long walk) brings visitors to the other major mill of Quechee, a stone complex just beyond a weathered covered bridge. Its days of grinding grain then spinning and weaving wool and cotton ended in the early 1950s, but the complex has been nicely preserved for another use — glassmaking.

Irish artisan Simon Pearce relocated to this place in 1981. His glassblowers produce an astonishing variety of wares. Observers are welcome to spend time watching them at their work. It's impressive to see the red-hot molten glass rolled into masses of various sizes then put into molds and blown into their final shapes for a vase or bowl. Formation of a spout, trimming of the lip and/or addition of a base might complete the process.

The Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) is also within walking distance of Quechee Gorge. I've written about this engaging place in a previous column. We can always count on a variety of interesting exhibits there, though demonstrations with the resident raptors are the main attraction.

Those wanting to linger, perhaps by camping at the 611-acre Quechee State Park, will find no shortage of activities to occupy their time. Shopping options include outlet stores, antiques and locally made crafts. The short ride to Woodstock offers additional opportunities, including Billings Farm and the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Site.

Dining options around Quechee are numerous. Simon Pearce Restaurant, in the previously described mill, offers inventive cuisine for lunch and dinner. We've also enjoyed excellent dinners at the Mansard-roofed Parker House Inn just next door. Reservations are advisable at both during peak season — and remember, that's now!

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