story and photo by Derek Doeffinger
What do you do when that 90-degree heat wave makes you feel like you have been encased in plastic wrap? Do you sit inside thinking maybe winter wasn’t so bad after all? Or do you head to the cool air of a supermarket and wander about aimlessly just to keep busy?
I have an alternative suggestion. Dig out your old sneakers, slip on your lawn mowing shorts and head to the creek for a stroll. It will cool you down, give you some exercise, entertain and even educate you.
Sloshing through a shaded, slow-moving creek or sitting in the occasional knee-high pool is about as carefree as it gets. And if you happen to choose a creek with a small waterfall, all the better.
You may not think of yourself as the type who would head out to a creek to cool down. And you’ve probably never stretched out flat on your back in the shallows and let the ripples of a stream envelop you. But if you’re open to new experiences, here’s one that won’t cost a dime and will definitely expand your horizons.
A simple pleasure
Creek strolling is more interactive than cloud watching but less invigorating than rock climbing. And while it may sound a bit too down-to-earth or a tad too yucky, you might be surprised that you feel some pride when you tell your friends “Yeah, I actually went creek walking yesterday.”
What’s required? Just your presence. There’s no long-term planning, tee-time reservations, appointments, trainers, helmets, paddles nor car racks. And no dressing up. If you’ve got clothes suitable for mowing the lawn, you’ve got clothes suitable for creek walking. Just put them on, pack a sandwich and a bottle of water, maybe some repellent and a hiking pole for extra balance.
Creek walking is an activity that’s been practiced for a long time. It probably started with the area’s earliest inhabitants. Back then people of all ages likely headed to nearby creeks where they could sit in a pool or lay in the shallows to feel a cool sheet of water move over their skin. Choose a creek on public land. Plenty of town, county, and state parks have creeks.
Listen to your feet
Each step in the creek is a step closer to being yourself for a few hours and a step away from the world of social media, school, office and house work, computers and traffic.
As you start up the creek, you need to realize you’re not on a sidewalk or groomed trail, but a wet and damp waterway filled with submerged, slippery rocks and mud-filled sink holes. Your ingrained walking habits could upend you. Act like you’re walking on a driveway with a few icy patches. And don’t try to keep your feet dry by rock hopping – it’s a sure way to take a tumble.
Within that first hundred yards, you may slip or wobble on a rock and begin to have second thoughts. Should I be doing this? Go another hundred yards, slowly, with shorter strides and a bit more flat-footed so you push off with less force. And listen to your feet – they are teaching you about this new type of walking.
If you listen, they will tell you if they’ve found a firm foothold or a slippery one. They’ll tell you to pause before you put your full weight on a spot, that you need to find a more stable foothold or to proceed more carefully. By listening to your feet, you hush other nagging voices that often frazzle your brain. And who doesn’t want a quiet mind now and then?
So expect a rock to wobble, a foot to slide, a shoe to get covered in mud.
Creek walking is both new and old. Even a first timer may have the sensation of déjà vu, that an ancient skill is being awakened. The cry of an unseen hawk, the diving splash of a fish-seeking kingfisher, the squawk of a startled heron, the trickle of shale fragments down a bank – they all stir memories, perhaps of childhood, or much older than that.
A 2-foot-thick log stretching from the bank to the middle of the creek blocks you. It presents choices. Do you wade into the knee-deep pool by the bank and walk under it or walk around it? You’ll figure it out and quickly gain confidence as you do.
For a few hours you’ll find your day delightfully different, especially if you find a waterfall to sit in or stand behind. Looking through the sheen and funnels of falling water gives you a new perspective. This is the type of setting that spoke to Frank Lloyd Wright.
You may hear whispering, inside or outside your head, and wonder why. Then you realize all of nature is whispering. The ruffles and ridges of water babble around rocks, gush as they slip over a small ledge and splash into a pool below. Leaves whisk against the sky. Your feet scrape across a rock. The occasional frog squeaks and kerplunks at your approach.
If you brought a bunch of kids who are having a blast, their noise becomes your quiet. But you may want to return later, with only a friend, to experience nature’s inner tranquility.
If you return to the same creek year after year, you’re sure to notice changes in the course of the creek, altered by spring floods. While you won’t find gold nuggets like those in California, you may find a few fossils and will certainly see a wide variety of seedlings and saplings.
Eventually it’ll be time to head back. Tomorrow don’t be surprised if the small balancing muscles of knees, ankles and hips that worked so hard and quietly to keep you upright are now complaining, and probably not whispering.
- Do not creekwalk if the water is high, fast or rain is forecast within 50 miles. Creeks in gorges can go to flood stage quickly even from thunderstorms miles away.
- Choose a creek with a gentle grade with no steep crags that require climbing.
- Try not to take kids under eight. Enforce the same no-running rule posted by swimming pools.
- Take a hiking pole if you’re unsteady on your feet or haven’t creek walked in several years.
- Wear footwear with soles strong enough to protect from pointy rocks.
- Put your phone in a water tight bag.
- Choose your footing carefully. Even dry rocks can be slippery when a wet foot walks on them.
- Don’t carry glass.
- Bring a small first aid kit.
- Don’t slide on rock faces – they’re quite abrasive and very hard.
- Pack a big towel to keep your car seats dry and some dry clothes.
Where and When
If you know of a potential creek nearby for walking, make sure it’s on public land, fairly flat and allows walking along or in it. Above all, only go when the water is low and no heavy rains are forecast for that day. Be gentle with the stream.
Here are some places I’ve tried. State parks are generally the safest and easiest. It’s best to go early on a midweek day (always with somebody). After Labor Day is best. Check state parks for their dog policy.
Taughannock Falls State Park, gorge trail: This state park has a wide, mostly smooth dimpled limestone creek bed which is easy to walk when the water is low. There is a parking lot – with a fee – on Route 89, 10 miles north of Ithaca.
Upper Taughannock Creek: West of Route 96 offers large rocky shelves that are ideal for sunbathing. There is no fee or facilities. Park at roadside pulloffs on Rabbit Run or Taughannock Park Road.
Grimes Glen: Located on public land, the trail starts simple, gets rough and gives way to gentle stream walking. A small parking area is at 4703 Vine Street in Naples.
Great Gully: This is a private preserve open to the public. An excellent stream walk has some rocky areas, but leads to a wide 15-foot-high waterfall half a mile in. Located on Route 90, a few miles south of Aurora.
Mulholland Wildflower Preserve: A two-thirds-mile trail winds along much of the creek. A 5-minute walk leads to nice rock outcroppings. A small parking lot is next to Six Mile Creek, located on Giles Road off Route 79, east of Ithaca.
Tinker Falls: This is less suited for creek walking and more for walking behind a waterfall. An easy wide trail gets you almost to the falls. The short bit of remaining trail and stairs to the falls is steep. Located halfway between Syracuse and Cortland on State Route 91.