Found: the lost river of Xanadu

| 02 Nov 2012 | 01:32

You can’t see the Neversink Gorge except by hiking down into it. It’s hidden behind the unassuming house trailers, log homes, bungalows, split levels, and ranch houses that line Katrina Falls Road, which leads six miles from the Rock Hill exit on Route 17 to the trailhead. During the long siege between eccentric millionaire Benjamin Wechsler and the New York State Department of Conservation, this major geological feature was as unknown to the state’s residents -- who owned it, by the way -- as the dark side of the moon. The privileged few who’d seen the gorge emerged with breathless reports of trout-laden waters, ancient hemlocks, stone canyons, cascading pools, and crashing waterfalls. They called it “fabled” and “legendary,” a “jewel” (both “crown” and “hidden”), even “the lost river of Xanadu.” It was the “River Runs Through It” of the East. It made the Nature Conservancy’s list of 75 “Last Great Places.” In 1978, the state bought thousands of acres in the gorge, one of the most famous trout streams in the country, without realizing Wechsler owned the hunting, fishing, and trapping rights. Wechsler refused to relinquish them. He believed the state would let the place turn into “a garbage dump” if the masses were allowed to romp there, unleashed. In 1993, at the age of 63, he told The New York Times he had gotten “too old to enjoy wine, women, and song,” which allowed him to commit himself more fully to the fight. Rumors of the gorge’s wonders reached me 25 years ago, but I never dared hope I’d live to see them. The tortuous legal wrangle over recreational rights brought to mind Dickens’ description of the typical case before the House of Chancery, with “its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard.” But by the end of the 1990s, the state had swept away Wechsler and his qualms with an eminent domain proceeding. Throughout the fight, all sides expected 1,500 people a day to tramp through the gorge and destroy it through sheer numbers. But in hiking through the gorge dozens of times over the past ten years, we’ve rarely seen another soul. The few cars in the lot -- the Audi from Westchester, the BMW from Connecticut – belong to fly fishers who stalk their prey in utter quietude. Great tangles of wild rhododendron encroach on lightly used trail sections. Spur trails lead first to Denton Falls and then, three miles in, High Falls, an 18-foot drop across the river’s 160-foot expanse, which we might call, in overwrought gorge parlance, “the crown jewel of the lost river of Xanadu.” Maybe. All I can say is, at least once in each trip I’ve ever made to the gorge, there comes a moment when I’ll stop in my tracks, and say out loud to the scene in front of me: “I just can’t believe this.”