The Legend of the Catskill Witch

The Legend of the Catskill Witch

By George Baird and Erica Obey

Eyes of the Catskill Witch

Eyes of the Catskill Witch

The legend of the Catskill Witch is as old as the gnomes playing at ninepins or the Headless Horseman, having made her first appearance as a postscript to Washington Irving’s tale of Rip van Winkle, where she is described as dwelling

on the highest peak of the Catskills, and had charge of the doors of day and night to open and shut them at the proper hour. She hung up the new moon in the skies, and cut up the old ones into stars. In times of drought, if properly propitiated, she would spin light summer clouds out of cobwebs and morning dew, and send them off from the crest of the mountain, flake after flake, like flakes of carded cotton, to float in the air; until, dissolved by the heat of the sun, they would fall in gentle showers, causing the grass to spring, the fruits to ripen, and the corn to grow an inch an hour. If displeased, however, she would brew up clouds black as ink, sitting in the midst of them like a bottle-bellied spider in the midst of its web; and when these clouds broke, woe betide the valleys!

Top Half of Kaaterskill Falls

Top Half of Kaaterskill Falls

Irving’s witch was also a bit of a shape-shifting mischief-maker, inclined to amuse herself by leading unwary hunters astray.  More ominously, she was also a jealous guardian of her property, and when a hunter ventured to steal one of the gourds she had secreted in the trees that surrounded her lakeside retreat at Garden Rock, she threw it at him in a fury, releasing the waters that became Kaaterskill Falls to sweep him to his death in the gorge beneath.

Although little has changed about the Catskill Witch’s legend, beyond Irving’s hunter being transformed into Rip van Winkle’s more adventuresome companion, Solomon Brink, her precise abode “on the highest peak of the Catskills” remains hard to find.  At 4190 feet, Slide Mountain is the highest peak in the Catskills, but during the nineteenth century, that honor was usually assigned to the more visible peaks of the Escarpment, including Overlook Mountain, near Woodstock, and Roundtop and Kaaterskill High Peak.  The competing claims of the latter two were further muddied when Arnold Guyot, a professor of physical geography at Princeton, took it up himself to map the entire Appalachian chain – at age 55.  During the course of climbing peaks, scrambling over rocks, and scooting along dangerous ledges in order to determine that Slide was the highest mountain in the Catskills, he also summarily reversed the names of High Peak and Roundtop, when he discovered that the mountain then known as High Peak was in fact the shorter of the two mountains.  The Catskill Witch’s association with Kaaterskill Falls has also led her to be associated with the Escarpment itself, and North and South Lakes are often said to be her eyes.

Roundtop's First Snow

Roundtop’s First Snow

We, however, decided to seek her on Roundtop Mountain.  A five mile roundtrip bushwack up the mountain’s northwest ridge, with approximately 1200 feet of elevation gain, it seemed a reasonable project the first weekend of November, when the leaves were down so we could see the way more clearly, and the temperatures were predicted to be in the 40s.  But this was our first glimpse of our mountain.

Undeterred, we channeled the spirit of Solomon Brink to urge our car up the rutted road to the trailhead – only to find ourselves forced to turn around and walk up to the trailhead instead.

Which is exactly where we left it.  We can take a hint from a weather witch as well as the next hiker.  Instead, we drove over to the quick hike to the top of Kaaterskill Falls, where we paid our respects to Garden Rock [seen at top of post].  And quietly left before we got swept away.

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