MOHAWK - Discovering the Valley of the Crystals Copyright 2003

Chapter Twelve - The Tributaries

Lisha Kill and Niska Island

    Ever since we canoed past Niska Isle and the mouth of the Lisha Kill, I was tempted to return. When I learned that there was once a Mohawk Village on the "island" and that a trail crossed the Lisha Kill to reach it, I was hooked.

   There was once a Mohawk Indian village on the hummock at the mouth of the Lisha Kill.
Today Niska Isle is almost surrounded by water . . . and water chestnuts.

    The Lisha Kill starts in a pond 2 1/2 miles straight south of the Mohawk River in the town of Niskayuna, Schenectady County. Like most Mohawk Valley streams its route is far from straight as it flows south, west and north in a 9-mile arch to reach the river. At 2 miles it passes just west of Maywood, flows through the community of Lisha Kill at 3 miles, enters a wooded ravine at 7 miles, eases into a swamp at 8 miles, and flows into the Mohawk River through a bay on the backside of Niska Isle. 

    Niska Isle wasn't always an island. Before the river was dammed to create the Barge Canal in 1915, Niska was a chunk of  highground at the junction of  the Lisha Kill and Mohawk River. Because it was defensible, covered with rich alluvial soil, and near the river where fish and waterfowl were abundant, this 1/2-mile by 1/4-mile hummock was an ideal location for an Indian village. Indeed, for many years this was the site of a Mohawk Village. There was a trail between this village and the Normans Kill that led to the Helderberg Escarpment where the Mohawks found chert for making tools and weapons.

From the launch site on Niska Isle we could see Lock 7 Dam.

    For many years a ferry crossed between Niska and Vischer's Ferry. The roads leading to this point from both the north and south sides of the river are still called Ferry Road. Later a bridge was constructed across the river near this same location. Stone abutments mark the location of this long ago bridge.
 Today a surprisingly high bridge arches over the Lisha Kill to reach Niska Island. Surprisingly until you realize there was once a railroad under it. The railroad bed is paved and part of a hiking and biking trail system.

Discovery: Niska Island - Something Old - Something New

July 29, 2003,  65 degrees, Sunny

Much of Niska Isle is a vegetable farm as it was when the Mohawks lived here hundreds of years ago.

    Following Ferry Road, Dave Hamilton and I drove across the arched red bridge to Niska Island. The road ended at a small parking area where we unloaded the canoe and carried it down to the Mohawk River. While we were thus engaged, a fellow parked his car at the other end of the parking area and unloaded a fishing rod, cooler and lawn chair. I asked him how the fishing was. He said, "Sometimes its good, but I don't care. I come here on my day off to relax." He grabbed his gear and disappeared into the woods, heading upriver. It was 9:30 a.m.
    From the launch site we could see water coming over the Lock 7 Dam about a mile upstream. We paddled in that direction, encountering the fisherman we met earlier. He was fishing next to the old stone bridge abutment. He told us he has caught bass, pike, muskie and panfish from that location.  We continued our upstream paddle for about a quarter-mile and landed the canoe near the upper end of Niska Isle.  After climbing the wooded riverbank,  we broke out into the fields of a huge vegetable farm. Corn, squash and perhaps beans were growing where Indians had farmed hundreds of years ago. I could almost see the Mohawk women harvesting vegetables from their Three Sisters garden plots while their children played games nearby.

Dave pulled up one of the water chestnuts. These imported plants
are detrimental to other aquatic plants, and fish and wildlife.

     We returned to the river and headed downstream, intending to paddle around the island, into the bay and up the Lisha Kill to the bridge we had driven across. When we passed the fisherman at the stone abutment, I asked him if the correct pronunciation was Leesha Kill or Lysha Kill. He said it was the latter.
    It was a beautiful morning: blue sky, accentuated by clouds and the vapor trails of high-flying jet aircraft. A half-dozen aircraft passed overhead at low altitudes. We were right in line with a runway at the Albany Airport.
        Bass boats scurried and cruisers plodded up and down the river, creating wakes and waves that muddied near shore waters and rocked the canoe. As we paddled through weeds along the edge of the island, the water literally boiled with carp that were spooked by the canoe. We saw swirls, clouds of mud . . . and fish we guessed to be 20 pounders. A few were 30-pound monsters.

We called it quits when we were close enough to photograph the red bridge.

      When we rounded the bend at the lower end of the island we discovered a bay filled with water chestnuts.  Unfortunately, these are not the same water chestnuts that are popular in stir-fries and other Asian dishes. If they were, they would be harvested extensively and not filling bays and backwaters, and threatening native plants, fish and wildlife. This water chestnut---native to Asia, Europe and tropical Africa---was introduced in New York State in the late 1800s, but didn't spread to northern waters until the 1990s. They thrive in slow moving nutrient filled waters, crowding out other plants, and reducing light penetration so much that oxygen levels so vital to fish and other aquatic species are depleted to dangerous levels.
     We pushed and paddled into the floating leaves, looking for an open channel. It was like canoeing on a water-soaked carpet, possible but exhausting. We stopped from time to time to catch our breath. Dave pulled up one of the plants, displaying the circle of leaves and extracting the "chestnut." This seed, about the size of a  large acorn, has four horns that feature sharp spines with barbs. When the floating leaves die off in the fall, the nuts sink to the bottom, growing new plants the following season and for a dozen years thereafter. These spined seeds can cause painful injuries when stepped on.
    We had no intention of stepping on them, and soon lost our enthusiasm for canoeing through them. When we were close enough to photograph the red bridge, we headed back to the river, reaching open water at 11 o'clock.  Fifteen minutes later, after  running the carp gauntlet, we landed where our adventure started.

Discovery: Lisha Kill Forest Preserve - A Mohawk Valley Gem

July 29, 2003,  75  degrees, Sunny

The carpet of water chestnuts in the bay made it impossible to reach the mouth of the Lisha Kill by canoe, and most of the land along the stream was posted, so we were delighted to discover that a section ran through a 112-acre Forest Preserve.

According to the trail sign about the only thing permitted in the preserve was hiking the trails.

    After eating lunch at a picnic table overlooking the river at the Niskayuna Railroad Station Park, we drove west on Rosendale Road, looking for the entrance to the Lisha Kill Forest Preserve. At first glance this stretch of road seemed to run through a sparsely-populated wooded area, but as we looked for the driveway into the preserve, we discovered that just behind the roadside trees were private homes. We had to drive back and forth on the road a couple of times to locate the old Niskayuna Grange Hall. The only other vehicles in the small parking area were a car and a Nature Conservancy truck. A crew that had been working on the trail and bridges were resting on the grass beside the Grange Hall.

Dave Hamilton crosses a tributary of the Lisha Kill on a newly-planked bridge.


It was 1:15 p.m. when we entered the forest on a well-worn trail just beyond the Nature Area sign. Except for occasional beams of sunlight, the entire length of the trail was shaded. A few minutes into the walk we crossed a small stream on a newly-planked bridge. From there we hiked a stretch of highground overlooking the Lisha Kill, and passed through a "second-growth ancient forest."  Considering how close this was to a highly-populated area that had been heavily farmed and logged over the years, we were surprised to discover trees that were well over 150 years old. Heavy-trunked hemlock, white pine and a variety of oaks towered some 100 feet over our heads.

We climbed down into a ravine to see the Lisha Kill up close and personal.

Our only detour from the trail was a climb down into the ravine to explore a stretch of the Lisha Kill. In addition to an impressive---and quite steep---little gorge, we discovered crystal clear water running over rock and cobble. A beautiful stream but too shallow to hold bragging-size fish.
    The trail looped around to return to the Grange Hall. Along this stretch it followed an old roadbed. I assumed it was a farm or logging road, but a young woman working with the Nature Conservancy crew said she was told the road was used to test the tanks that were built in Schenectady during WWII.

A section of the trail ran along this old road bed.

     Our entire trek lasted a little more than an hour, but it was enough to appreciate that Lisha Kill Forest Preserve was indeed a Mohawk Valley gem.

Follow the path of this discovery trip by clicking on Mohawk Valley Maps: by Maptech. Type Niskayuna,  select New York, press GO! Click on top and right margin arrows to locate the Mohawk River and Niska Isle.

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