Triple Point

(This column was first published in the August 23, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    On a spectacular August day I stand at the edge of an open field that slopes up slightly to a high point perhaps a hundred yards away. I would like to walk there but a posted sign reads "No Trespassing." No marker indicates that this location is different from any of the other nearby hilltops.

    But this one is indeed special. There are only two others like it in North America. This is a height of land overlooking three major watersheds.

    To my east is Pine Creek. Its initial trickles of water flow farther east and then south about 70 miles before they empty into the Susquehanna River. Continuing from there they reach Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

    Over the shoulder of the hill to my southwest is Woodcock Creek, the headwaters of the Allegheny River. It flows northwest to loop around Allegany State Park (notice that strange juxtaposition of spellings) before turning south toward Pittsburgh. There it joins the Monongahela to form the Ohio River which continues on into the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

    Over the other shoulder to the northwest is the source of the Genesee River, our country’s only river to flow north along its entire length. Its water tips over the Letchworth and Rochester falls to empty into Lake Ontario. There it joins the Great Lakes watershed draining out through the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

    This triple height of land is just two miles from the small village of Gold, Pennsylvania. And Gold is only twenty miles south of Wellsville, New York. I have come here because my attention was drawn to it by an excellent book by Clive Dobson and Gregor Gilpin Beck entitled simply Watersheds. It is published by Firefly Books. It is the kind of thorough and interesting survey of this important topic that belongs in every library. Of particular interest to me is its map of our continental watersheds. I was delighted to find this rare multiple source so close to Buffalo.

    Many years ago when I lived in Minnesota I visited the Iron Range triple point. From there water flows to the Mississippi, the Great Lakes or Hudson Bay. What I remember most about that adventure was the stunning cold. I stayed there only a few seconds. It was thirty below and the stiff wind drove me quickly back downhill. (The third triple point is in the Rockies near the Canada-United States border. Its waters flow to the Mississippi, Hudson Bay or the Pacific. Unfortunately, I have not been there.)

    It took an hour of library research in the University at Buffalo map room to locate the point where I now stand. Looking down over the mixture of farm fields and woodlands that stretch off to the horizon, I feel that my research and the drive down were well worth it. This is indeed a beautiful spot, the attractiveness of the soft green countryside enhanced by deep blue skies with cotton batten clouds that roll on overhead.

    It occurs to me that local residents may not appreciate the uniqueness of their location but I am reassured when I drive down to a nearby farm whose sign reads "Headwater." I ask a young man wearing an Allegany College t-shirt if the sign indicates knowledge of the triple point. "Oh yes," he responds proudly, "It’s an important part of our local lore."

    Now heading back toward home, I think of how these riverine systems are perpetual motion machines that have run for thousands of years and I more deeply appreciate Norman Maclean’s conclusion to A River Runs Through It, "I am haunted by waters."-- Gerry Rising