Deer Lick


(This 717th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 26, 2004.)


In late November Mark Spahn recommended that I visit the Deer Lick Conservation Area in Zoar Valley. He told me that waterfalls that were hidden by foliage in summer were now visible, fast flowing and very attractive. Good idea, I thought, as I had been spending too much time indoors. Like many other hikers, I usually leave the woods to hunters at this time of year, but this would be a mid-week walk in a sanctuary.


I asked a friend who already had his freezer full of venison, Jerry Lazarczyk, if he would join me. Jerry approved the idea and he drove us down through Gowanda to the preserve in early December. That was, of course, before lake effect snowfall transformed the Southern Tier.


We parked at the sanctuary trailhead on Point Peter Road and as we donned our gear I thought about the preservation of this region.


Deer Lick is part of the Nature Conservancy's Zoar Valley initiative. Conservancy members seek to protect as much as possible of this enclave, which spans the Cattaraugus Creek Valley in Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties, and features hemlock-hardwood forests, streams and fens as well as towering cliff communities more than 300 feet high. In a recent Conservancy-sponsored biological inventory of more than 14 gorge systems draining into Lake Erie, Zoar Valley emerged as the top priority for conservation.


And there is much to protect. This is the home of black bears and bald eagles. That fly fishing favorite, steelhead trout, reside in Cattaraugus Creek as do tiny and threatened sand darters. Along the rocky creek shores of Valentine Flats rare tiger beetle species are found. I once joined Wayne Gall collecting them there.


I also visited the area with Bruce Kershner's group locating old growth trees. Found in the Zoar Valley are some of the largest in the Northeast, including a 128-foot basswood that is considered one of the tallest in the entire world. That same biological inventory of the valley revealed more than 600 acres of old-growth forest.


But those were summer visits. My one winter excursion in Deer Lick was also with Dr. Gall. We had to struggle through deep snowdrifts, but remarkably we collected many insects: springtails, winter stoneflies and snow crane flies.


The day of our hike was overcast and gloomy. A light drizzle fell, but that was far better than the predicted heavy rain. It had snowed, however, and some of it remained in protected areas.


The forest floor was covered with leaves, not the curly ones you rake up in your backyard in fall but flattened, slick inch-thick layers of slippery wet parchment. Walking on this surface was very difficult. On some of the slopes where there were no rocks or bushes for footholds, it was like sliding on a tilted ice rink. Jerry carried ski poles but, since I had forgotten mine, I had to make do with natural walking sticks picked up along the trail. Much to my surprise, however, I made it through the five-mile hike without falling, a near record for me.


That may make our outing seem more like work than pleasure. Far from it. I join my hunting friends in my fondness for walking in the winter woods. Of course the summer colors and most wildflowers are absent, but in those seasons there is almost too much to see. In winter your senses must be more alert to pick out the occasional delights.


We did find many green plants: Christmas ferns and marginal woodferns, several varieties of club moss or ground pine, many other mosses, gill-over-the ground and garlic mustard. None of the red fruit remained on the partridge-berries we found; the grouse must have gotten there first. But among the many drab colored mushrooms there were also bright orange and red fungi.


On that morning the forest was essentially silent. The few birds we saw - several mourning doves, a few chickadees and a junco - were near the trailhead as were several does.


We did see the waterfall. Near the end of the white trail we could look east between the trees across the gorge. There we could see the narrow cascade dropping over a hundred feet down the near-vertical wall of the chasm.


Then on our way back we stopped at the far smaller but equally attractive Deer Lick Falls. We had to leave the trail and descend down a steep bank to get a good view.


We promised each other that we would venture out again soon, but we'll probably have to bring snowshoes.-- Gerry Rising