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Mountaintop to Tap

This past summer, we were among six students from Sidney High School and six students from the New York Harbor School who made a remarkable journey from the Catskills to Central Park— the same journey that New York City's water makes. The trip commemorated the 10th anniversary of an agreement between upstate communities and New York City. Under the historic agreement, upstate and downstate communities work together to protect the land and streams that supply almost nine million people with some of the cheapest, cleanest water of any large city in the world.

The six upstate youngsters accompanied the six Brooklyn youths from New York Harbor School on a 200 mile, three week watershed trek. Along the way, we got blisters on our feet and photography lessons from a famous National Geographic photographer; we sang and danced with Molly and Jay Unger, were filmed for a documentary and interviewed by ABC and NBC news, and rubbed shoulders with politicians and scientists. We learned about the geology of the Catskills, the science of clean water and the purpose of maintaining a healthy, viable riparian buffer while getting soaked in rainstorms and baking in the heat.

The preparation for the trip took months. We signed liability waivers, got checked out by our doctors, arranged for insurance, prepared for the physical challenge, read about the history of the New York City water supply system, and bought or borrowed supplies we needed --- backpacks, hiking boots, sleeping bags, rain gear, and food.

We reached Belleayre Ski Resort on July 7th. Before setting out, we met with several key people and learned the history and ecology of the watershed. A forest ranger taught us about hiking safety. We could proudly say that we knew what to do in a tent during a severe lightning storm and how to go to the bathroom in the woods. We also spent a few days working out the group dynamics of our city and country companions. Every decision had to be made by reaching a consensus. One experience that brought us together was a swimming hole we found in Delaware County, known as "The Blue Hole." The water was crystal blue, 46o F and showed all of us how truly clean and pristine the Catskill water is.

Then we laced up our boots, put on our 60-pound packs, and headed out on the first leg of our journey, a four-day hike. We took along chemical test kits and leaf packs to see how clean the small streams of the headwaters were. The leaf packs were used to help identify some of the aquatic insects that might indicate stream health. The hike was physically and mentally challenging. We climbed over boulders, battled pouring rain down slippery cliffs and walked until we couldn't take another step.

We learned how to find water in a tiny puddle and filter it to drink and that nettle plants hurt worse than spider bites. As we hiked three mountains—Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg—we got to see firsthand where the headwaters start and we touched he droplets that would some day make it to a drinking glass in New York City.

After a few days of rest and regrouping with some hiking, learning, and some fun tubing down the Esopus Creek, we made our way to the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, New York, and began the second leg of our trip, rowing down the Hudson River.

There was a huge storm that night, so we woke up wet and grouchy. There were two 26-foot wooden rowboats waiting for us, a sailboat called the Green Lantern, and an authentic wooden tugboat named the W. O. Decker. Five students and a leader occupied each rowboat at a time. Each day we covered about 15 miles. Some days we rowed with the tide; other days we rowed against it. We docked in various towns. With each new location people asked us questions and encouraged us to keep going. We traveled in all types of weather, but it never discouraged us from seeing how beautiful the Hudson River Valley really is. Many of us had a chance to learn to sail from a real skipper who even spoke with an English accent. We charted our course, operated the tugboat, rowed together as a team, did some chemical tests and became immersed in maritime studies of the Hudson River. One day we rowed too close to the Indian Point nuclear power plant and the armed guards came zipping over to us. We shared a dock with a replica of Henry Hudson's Half Moon and got a first-rate tour by the crew.

We docked for the last time in Croton Point Park, on the east side of the Hudson. The final part of our adventure was walking to Manhattan, about 60 miles south along the entire length of the Old Croton Aqueduct. As we moved closer to the city, we saw great changes in the landscape. Relationships between students grew, we saw fewer and fewer trees, and the buildings got taller. We noticed that when we were upstate, the people seemed to appreciate the water and were very curious and understanding about what we were doing, but as we approached the city, fewer people seemed genuinely interested. A person on the street even commented, "I wouldn't drink that water, I have my iced tea instead." As the mountains turned to grass and the grass to concrete, we all realized that what we were walking for is a great cause and we all hoped that people would realize just how precious the water they are receiving from the Catskills really is.

The trek was partly a physical challenge, but it was more about just how connected upstate New York and New York City are by water. Our hiking group, six of us from upstate and six from downstate, grew together in the course of the trip in the same way that different regions of New York State have worked together to solve problems. Through the trip we all became experts on water and the watershed and will try to spread the need for protecting and conserving this vital resource.

None of this would have been possible without the support of so many sponsors: The Stroud Water Research Center, the New York Harbor School, the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, NYC Department of Environmental Protection, the Upper Susquehanna Watershed Project, the Catskill Mountain Keeper, the Riverkeeper, Sidney High School, and many others, including our parents. We especially give thanks to our leaders, Wes Gillingham, Sara Scott, Todd Paternoster and Tizoc Gomez who made it happen for us and gave so much of their time and energy. Please visit nytrek2007/ to find maps, many exciting pictures, and journal entries from the 21-day trek.

Journalism students at Sidney High School, participated in the Watershed Trek this summer.

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