Get Outside/Zoar Valley
Where is Zoar Valley? Even the locals disagree on this basic point, and much else besides. There is no waterway named Zoar, no waterfall, no town or village. Today most think of the Cattaraugus Creek gorge, or perhaps the road that runs above it along the north rim. But old-timers harrumph at such talk. After all, they were literally born there, at home, in the first decades of the last century. They insist the valley of Zoar is several miles to the east: the wide tranquil fields that served as a verdant haven for the first settlers who named it “Zoar” from the Book of Genesis. (Lot flees the dark destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and upon entering Zoar, “the sun was risen upon the earth.”)
With even the location of the place in question, it is no wonder so much of Zoar’s history remains shrouded, an unlikely series of fortuitous mysteries. The confluence of the main and south branches of Cattaraugus Creek, the precarious canyons they form, and the wider floodplain beyond has served as an obscure refuge for generations of Western New Yorkers: farmers in its flat gorge-bottom floodplains until the 1920s, a hippie commune in the 1960s, the occasional nudist today. It has also attracted devoted admirers and stewards, such as Julie Broyles (see below), who has spent many years researching, defending, and protecting Zoar.
That Zoar remains so wild is part happy accident, part ahead-of-its-time land management, and part nearly forgotten philanthropy. Originally owned by the Holland Land Company in the early 1800s, much of the property surrounding Zoar Valley was clear-cut. For the vale itself, however, fate intervened. Common practice at that time was to float logs downstream once felled; the steep gorge walls kept much otherwise prime timber untouched as it was unfeasible to drag some giants so far to water. Instead, in a burst of forethought, they were left to reseed the area, and so still dominate the land today.
Other happy geographic coincidences kept Zoar pristine through the centuries. An intended 1865 railroad was deemed impractical and never built. The Niagara, Lockport and Ontario Power Company, the precursor of Niagara Mohawk, planned to put a series of hydroelectric dams in the gorge, but ultimately found the shale there to be too unstable to support the weight of the water, and the project was abandoned. For decades, the power company simply sat on the land, leaving it uncut, and thus through inefficient management and true benign neglect allowed the wilderness to thrive.
Enter the Darling family, unintentional conservation pioneers. Herbert F. Darling, Sr., was an engineer in Ohio in the 1930s when he moved his company and family to Buffalo, following Depression-era public works construction opportunities. HF Darling Incorporated built the Lockport rock tunnels and much of Buffalo’s sewer system, providing the wherewithal to make one of the most unheralded acts of generosity in WNY history: the purchase and donation of idyllic Zoar Valley.
The spirit of the father continues in Herb Darling, Jr., an elder statesmen of the forest whose twinkling eyes convey his infectious optimism. He is past chairman of the board of the Buffalo Science Museum and president of the New York State chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, a group breeding and doing biotech research to restore the blight-devastated tree that has been all but extinct since 1940. Darling and I sat down in the office he still maintains at his family’s engineering firm in Williamsville to talk about how a father and son and a dash of serendipity produced a future for an American icon.
How did your family’s connection to Zoar Valley begin?
My father and I loved to hunt, and we had been hunting in Pennsylvania, and he got tired of driving that far. Through the power company he found out about the dam they were going to build down there, but the foundations were no good and they wanted to sell the land. I’ve never seen so many deer in my life as I’ve seen in Zoar Valley, so I begged him, “Can’t we please do this?” But he said, “It’s a large proposition and I’m not sure I want all that land.” He finally decided to buy it because I think he made up his mind he wasn’t going to keep it all. He was going to share it.
So he bought it to give it away?
He never bought it to sell it. He bought it to make sure it stayed in a natural state. Between his conversations with the fellas in power back then, and mine [with] the Department of Conservation, it has worked out really well, all the way through, because his request was to keep it as natural as possible, but maintained for hunting and fishing. So we agreed with the preservationists that the old growth in the gorge and 300 feet back would be untouched, but the rest would be managed.
How old would you have been then, when you were begging your dad to buy it?
Eighteen. And I’m seventy-eight now! [laughs]
Then how did you get started working to restore the American chestnut?
A hunter friend of mine found a huge chestnut tree in Zoar in 1989. I thought it was blight resistant, and I went to the chestnut foundation which had only been formed in 1983. They came up and looked at it and said “Herb, you’ve only got about four or five years.” So my son and I put an 80-foot scaffold up it, and went up and pollinated it and tried to stop the fungus blight. But it was ineffective and in five years the tree died.
If you needed an 80-foot scaffold, that must have been an old tree.
It had had the blight for a number of years and we caught it just in time. It was just lucky it had lasted that long, but it had no natural resistance. A real American isn’t going to survive.
What are you growing in the valley?
We’re growing trees from all over the state. We got some seeds from pollinating that first tree we found, and now others, all native American chestnuts. It’s a gene pool for the future. It’s almost like it was supposed to happen, me finding that first tree, because later I met a chemical engineer who introduced me to gene splicing. We now have a grant through the College of Science and Forestry in Syracuse to store the embryos we collect. So when we do get the blight-resistant tree from gene-transfer research, we will have a line ready. At first, interbreeding [blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts with American chestnuts] was the only way we had to go, but now we have this other route, so the answer may come from taking the best of the bred hybrids, and putting the genes in them! We don’t know; we’re trying everything.
So what was it about that first 80-foot tree? Do you have dear memories of chestnuts as a child?
No, I really don’t. We just had horse chestnuts for slingers and klingers in school. But I thought they were all gone. And then, all of sudden, there’s one, and I thought it might have the resistance. But of course it didn’t, and it just made me mad. And I said, “I’m going to do something about it!” If we can just keep these trees going long enough, who knows, when we get the trans-gene trees, we can mate them and mass produce them.
So what is the bridge between the love of hunting, and then buying land to give it the state and all the work that followed? There is a philanthropic impulse there—most people just want somewhere to hunt. What was it that led you to do this?
I think it was my father, no question about it. He just believed in sharing. [pause] And it was an awful responsibility, that much land.
But your family didn’t just buy it and give it away and forget about it. It’s, what, sixty years later, and you’re trying to regrow chestnuts on it.
That’s true, but that’s what you’re hoping for, for the future of the whole thing. You want to see it prevail as Dad wanted. Just tell me the problem to solve and I’ll do it.
That Zoar Valley is best known locally for thrill seekers perishing every year is a natural tragedy. Yes, careless hikers who don’t respect the steep gorge walls will find themselves in trouble. But the paths are safe, and not only is it the best hiking within an hour of Buffalo, it is the wildest, most pristine country for far wider a span. Superlatives are hard to avoid when discussing Zoar: it contains the largest trees I’ve ever seen outside of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. The tallest basswood tree in the world (128 feet) hides in Zoar, as well as the second tallest tree in all of New York State—a 156-foot tulip. For reference, the copper portion of the Statue of Liberty is 151 feet tall.
The primary impediment to enjoying Zoar is knowing where to park and hike. There is no front gate, no sign to let you know you have arrived. Such secrecy creates a sense of mystery, as though you have discovered some hidden treasure. And you have—the trailhead sign-in roster at Deer Lick indicates only a half dozen hikers a weekend enjoy the solitude
For information on how to access Zoar, Julie Broyles’s zoarvalley.org website is invaluable. There are three main parking areas on the south rim, and all are accessed by leaving Gowanda to the east via South Water Street. Turn right on Broadway, and left on Point Peter Road. Several miles down on the left is the parking area for Deer Lick, our first stop.
Deer Lick Sanctuary is owned by the private nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, but is open to the public. Its many miles of well-marked trails are indicated on handy maps available at the kiosk in the parking area. Once inside, take the Yellow Trail to the top of Deer Lick Falls. On the way, you’ll know you’ve hit the old growth when the place starts to feel different. The land undulates like a gently swelling sea, as trees have been given the time to live, die, and rot away, creating shallow depressions that have not been pounded flat by mechanical harvesting equipment and many booted feet. You can spot wild grape vines (as thick as your leg) and a dozen tree species in a single glance, the multiple layers of canopy obscuring the tops of giants you wander among. The wildlife is as thick as the trees; a bright white and orange eastern milk snake rattled at me as I wandered toward the gorge. Deer Lick Falls itself—a charming slate staircase—is worth the price of admission.
The only thing you can’t see or access safely at Deer Lick is Cattaraugus Creek, so for that we head north on Point Peter Road. There are two options: the parking area at the end of Forty Road or the trailhead at the end of Valentine Flats Road, both directly off Point Peter. The Forty Road lot provides direct access to the creek, but little room to hike. While walking in the stream at low water conditions may be appealing, know that the Catt is infamous for flash flooding, a serious safety risk.
Instead, go to the Valentine Flats access point. The trail is wide but unblazed, and easy to follow if you follow these few directions: At the Y at the top of the gorge, you can follow the trail to the left for only a short distance before it stops at a steep eroded drop off (go no further!) and a beautiful overlook of the gorge and Valentine Flats. Back at the Y, head right to safely head into the canyon and the rock beaches along the water’s edge. There is another Y at the bottom of the gorge; right takes you to the confluence of the main and south branches of the creek, left to a rock beach below the rapids. Here you can safely dip a toe into the water and look up at the 400-foot cliff walls, and the old growth stretching out of them, on all sides.
Brian Castner writes about the outdoors for Buffalo Spree, and pens the “Escape the Urban” column at WNYMedia.net. He has never actually hugged a tree, but came close while researching this article.