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Hike of the Week: The Waters of Prospect Park


Think of a hike and you think of nature, right? And this hike in Brooklyn's Prospect Park will look a lot like nature, but that's actually a complete deception. Almost nothing in the entire park is "natural."


DSC01045 When the then-city of Brooklyn set out to build a park to rival Manhattan's Central Park, they hired the same team of architects, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and turned them loose on a 585-acre tract of farmland and rocky hills (actually the edge of a terminal moraine). They created meadows, they dug a lake bed out of farmland, and they stripped the clay-rich soil from some of the hills to both create a rocky mountain ravine and to provide a clay liner for the lake.


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Running through a large part of the park, they created a water course that starts from a spring with a waterfall, follows through two ponds and runs as a mountain stream through The Ravine, empties out into the calm Lullwater, and then feeds a "river" that flows into the lake. When the park opened in the 1860s, the spring was fed by water pumped from a well; as the water table lowered, city water replaced it.


You can follow the course of the water, and of this hike, on the map, starting just above the words "Quaker Hill" and continuing east and then south and ending in the Lake. Click on the map for a bigger view.

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My spring hike through the park, centered on the course of the water, is far from all of the park, which is full of meadows for romping and picnicking, running and cycling paths, playgrounds, sports fields and a pair of memorials to Revolutionary War battles fought in and near the park. I'll be back with more on other days!



Here's where the water begins, at the Falkill Falls. When my kids were young, they liked to walk in and behind the water, but it's presently off-limits. In 1994, after years of budget neglect that brought parts of the park (it's not nature, remember!) near collapse, the city began a 25-year restoration plan that means parts of the park are behind fences for several years at a time to allow restoration and repair.



After the falls, the water crosses under the pathway, and enters the Upper Pool, today a not-so-often visited but beautiful pond, glimpsed through the trees, on the edge of the area used by ballfields. Years ago, it was a popular site, known as Swan Lake for the boats that offered rides along its shore. 



Next after the Upper Pool, logically, is the Lower (and smaller) Pool. And here we begin to see a current problem in the Park: the park's waters are currently under attack by an invasive fern called Azollo caroliniana which could kill off everything in the lake by blocking sunlight to both underwater plants and the more than 20 species of fish living in the lake. Plans are underway to address it, but in the meantime it's an ugly mess.



Between the Upper and Lower pools, an area of water, sand and rocks has been fenced off to create a Dog Beach, where pets can go into the lake with no fear of going too far. As I passed, a number of dogs were playing in and around the water, including fetching balls tossed by the owners. But one large dog, below, would only go as far as he could walk; the minute dog-paddling was called for, that was it. The ball was never retrieved!





 After the Pools, the water passes under this rustic bridge, and takes on the name of The Ambergill (which is also the name of the bridge), and flows out toward The Ravine. You can just see it in the second picture, almost hidden in the woods.





The Ambergill continues along the edge of this road, now hidden behind the new and untrimmed growth in an area closed for the moment, and passes under this bridge, officially called the Nethermead Arches, but locally called the "three-arch bridge." You can only see one arch now, but before the restoration work, you could see that one arch carried the path, the center arch is the streambed, and the third is part of the Park's bridle paths.


 The Nethermead Arches lead out of the Ravine and toward the Nethermead, or lower meadow. Along the way, the Ambergill passes under one more bridge, the Music Grove Bridge, at the edge of the Nethermead, and passes behind the 19th-century bandstand that gave the Music Grove its name.




As I passed by, some musicians were practicing...with occasional spectators wandering over from the shaded picnic area on the edge of the Nethermead.



Tempting as it would have been to wander over and join friends who were picnicing at the edge of the field, I continued on my watery way, passing over the Binnen Bridge. Under this bridge, the stream cascades over rocks and falls 15 feet or so to feed the Lullwater, a serene pond laid out in front of the 1905 Boathouse. Below the falls, there's a rustic viewing point.

The boathouse was built in 1905 to replace a rustic one designed by Olmsted and Vaux; their general preference was for imitating countryside, but later designers had more monumental ideas. The Boathouse was designed by Helmle and Huberty, proteges of McKim Mead and White.


DSC01054As with numbers of other structures in New York parks, it took a hit in the 30s and onward, and came within 48 hours of demolition in the 1960s. A campaign led in part by Brooklyn poet Marianne Moore helped save it, one of the first victories for preservationists. It's now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it's not really out of the woods. After its most recent restoration in 2000, it became in interpretation center run by the Audubon Society which ran many programs there, but for budget and other reasons, that ended last year. Now it serves mostly as a site for romantic weddings.



The Lullwater Bridge marks the boundary between the Lullwater and the stretch of water Olmsted and Vaux intended as a "river" feeding into the Lake. As you can see: plenty of ferns and algae here! 


On the opposite shore from the Boathouse, I followed a path that skirted the edge of the Lullwater and then of the river. Along the way, some flora and then a brightly-colored bit of fauna with his head cocked to stare.





Finally, just past the Terrace Bridge, the water reaches the Lake. Actually, ALL water in the Park eventually reaches the lake! Did I say at the beginning that this is not nature? Nature doesn't have a system of drains, channels and tunnels that run under the pathways and collect every drop and feed it all into the Lake, but Prospect Park does!

Small and beautiful detailing marks many of the Park structures; inside the Terrace Bridge, this support has been numbered and identified for restoration and painting.






And here, at last, the waters reach the upper arm of the Lake, above the Peninsula.

Doubling back to get to the other parts of the Lake, I passed through the Cleft Ridge Span, and entered the Concert Grove area.
The Concert Grove borders the Lake, but was cut off from it for nearly 70 years by the very-popular Wollman Ice Rink. A major recent project has re-opened the shoreline, and moved the skating to a new location. In the 19th century, the Concert Grove was the venue for singing competitions among German and Norse choral societies; it's lined with statues of great musicians donated by the societies. DSCN1530There used to be a small "music island" just offshore for the performers. Restoring that is part of the renovation of the park, but you can see that it is still quite overgrown! The lower picture shows the plan for the future.


Behind the trees in this photo you can see the edge of the new skating facility, built in what used to be the parking lot of the old rink.


And here's a final picture, a view of the main portion of the Lake; I'm using this one so you can get a view of the Lake without the invasive green....sigh!


And here's a satellite view from Google Maps; find it on Google and you can zoom in on any of the features in the hike.
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And, for a winter's view of Prospect Park, here's a TravelGumbo blog from last December... 


Click HERE for more Gumbo blogs and pictures from Brooklyn parks and NYC



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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