In Search Of Giants

I don’t think we get enough adventure in our lives. Blame it on television, middle age or a complacent spouse, but when was the last time you did something out of the ordinary? You can leave the mountaintops of Everest to someone else, but how about a walk along the gorge? Several people have told me how much they’d like to see Buttermilk Falls in Westfield, and yet there it is, just a five-minute stroll into the woods from the road – no map or rope necessary.

I recently learned that I could take a boat all the way from Bemus Point to New Orleans. My husband-who is my favorite critic – was rather circumspect when I told him about it. I suppose he is glad that we don’t own a boat.

He’s used to my far-fetched ideas, but he knows I only explore them in theory. He understands that I don’t really want to take a boat to New Orleans; I just want to look at the maps and see how it is possible. I want to discover the depths of the rivers and waterways between here and there, or see the things we’d float by. It’s kind of like taking a trip without having to pack a suitcase or rent a river boat.

Do you remember a boat called the BPV Libelula that went from Bemus Point to New Orleans in 2005? I found their travelogue on line, and so off I went on a virtual adventure, cascading down lazy rivers, passing by cities and up and down through locks. I was happy to see that a modern adventurer had thought to make the journey again, underscoring the importance of that passage once made by Native Americans and early settlers. It took the Libelula almost three months to complete the trip – much longer than my husband is willing to take off of work or go without a shower.

One day, I’d like to go look for a few of the Indian mounds scattered around Chautauqua County. I don’t think it will be an easy task – given the time that’s passed. It seems the earth covers things up as the decades go by, and how far down you have to dig depends on how far back in time you want to go.

The mounds are called earthworks by archaeologists, and no one knows much about them except that the mysterious civilization who built them disappeared a few centuries after their arrival. Tens of thousands of these earthworks were found by the Europeans in the Chautauqua County and Finger Lakes area, and as far away as the Ohio and Mississippi River Valley. The Iroquois Indians who came after the mound builders seldom had any tradition about who had put them in place.

But the story gets better: As these earthworks were either excavated or destroyed in the last few centuries to make way for progress, a few curiosities were reported. Historians say when exploring some of these mounds sometime around the 1820s, skeletons were uncovered whose measured height was anywhere from 7 to 9 feet tall. Author and local explorer T. Apoleon Cheney documented these measurements and sent them to a museum in Albany. Today, you can see a replica of what these purported tall Native Americans might have looked like, as two replicas were carefully carved over several years by one of the reported witnesses. They still stand proudly in the Cattaraugus County Memorial Historical Museum in Little Valley. I’d like to go and see those statues, and maybe one day venture to the sites where the mounds were documented in Sinclairville, Cassadaga or Sheridan.

History may have had a little dirt thrown over it by the ages, but what I like about Chautauqua County is that it’s never been paved over. You get the feeling you can still take a paddle boat to New Orleans from here (with a little portaging) or find a few arrowheads just beneath your gaze.