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A brown, irregularly shaped hunk of fossilized dinosaur dung is circulating around the stone-floored rock shop.
The middle-school students, surrounded by shelves full of amethyst, pyrite, quartz crystals, and cracked open geodes, let their hands roam over the hunk and then pass it along. They don’t know that the mystery rock they’re scrutinizing is a chunk of prehistoric waste. Greg Beckler, owner of Natural Stone Bridge and Caves, will tell them eventually.
This game of pass the poop continues in a semi-circle as Beckler encourages the kids to really explore the fossil. Dip their fingers into its cracks and seams. Give the poop a deep, full inhale.
“Just don’t taste it,” he clarifies.
Natural Stone Bridge and Caves, a 1,000-acre geological wonder in Pottersville, New York, is all about exploring what can be found inside the earth. After most of the class has touched and taken a whiff of the dino-discharge, Beckler reveals the identity of this particular piece of history to a chorus of “ews.”
Beckler is a tall, distinguished man, with a neat, white goatee. He’s outfitted in hiker’s garb – boots, shorts, and a t-shirt. He is engaging, easygoing, and welcoming, eager to impart a lifetime’s worth of scientific knowledge and family anecdotes to anyone within earshot. Today, he’s sharing his decades of insight with local students.
The kids who just discovered they were petting prehistoric poop wander out of the shop and on to their next activity. Another group crowds into the rock shop and Beckler begins his presentation from the beginning. He holds the fossilized toe of a duck-billed dinosaur high about his head and asks the students crowded around him if anyone can identify the bone.
“An elbow?” guesses a student from the crowd.
“No. I’ll tell you when you’re getting warmer,” says Beckler.
Beckler holds the bone out with a puzzled look.
The caves have called to Beckler since he was a child.
Part of the reason for his affinity to the place is that it is an unparalleled attraction in the Adirondacks. The natural stone bridge, which spans over the entrance to the cave system, is 62 feet high and 180 feet wide. This opening is considered the largest marble cave entrance in the East.
Formed by an east-west fault line during the last ice age, the massive bridge and underlying cave system formed more quickly than normal due to the rock’s marble composition. As ice age glaciers melted, acidic water poured into the marble, forming the 14,000-year-old cave system. Water from streams and run-off is still cutting and carving the caverns to this day.
The park has been in Beckler’s family for centuries. Jacob Van Benthuysen, eight generations before Beckler, acquired the land as a reward for serving in the Revolutionary War.
The land was home to a logging operation for several decades, then Beckler’s grandmother bought the property from her Aunt Annie and Uncle Jim, who were the first to use the park for tourism.
Beckler grew up in the park. His family moved onto the property in 1970 when he was 11 years old. His mother and father, Jenny and Ed Beckler, convinced his aunt to sell them the park in a one-day negotiation. They ended up running it for 33 years.
Keeping the park running was a huge family undertaking. Along with Beckler’s daily responsibilities, his first job was as an amateur photographer. His parents fronted him the money to buy a polaroid camera. He would wander the property snapping black and white photos of guests and then sell them for a dollar.
“I was an entrepreneur at age 11,” he joked.
Beckler’s childhood wasn’t all work, though. He did a lot of exploring during those summers in the early 70s. He happily recalls one of his first caving excursions. He was no more than nine years old when his cousin Tommy, who introduced him to the caves before his parents bought the park, led a late night romp deep into a cavern. Tommy had squirreled away miniature bottles of soda in rebellion against his mother. Beckler got to chug as much Coke, root beer, orange soda, and Sprite as he could handle.
Tommy’s mother was strict. “He was only allowed one soft drink a week,” but he slipped open the old fashioned latch on the storage door and helped himself to the soda-supply.
In some ways, not much has changed since those summers in the 70s. Today, Beckler, his wife Dee, and their three children manage the park, a role they took over from his parents in 2001. Beckler, who holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Cellular Biology, gave up his career as a Research and Development Director for a biotech company so he could work full time at his childhood home.
Natural Stone Bridge and Caves is one of the oldest attractions in the Adirondacks.
Rocks and caves last a long time, so the majority of the attraction is still in place decades after the business opened. The stone bridge, which looks like the crater left by a meteor strike, is the calling card of the park.
However, there’s much more to do than just marvel at the bridge. A visit to the park includes a 20 stop self-guided tour that leads guests to a wide variety of caverns and other geological phenomena.
The tour follows a jagged, three quarters of a mile loop around the park. It begins in the courtyard just outside of the gift shop and rock shop. The first stop explains some basic Adirondack geology and the second touches on “spectacular petrified wood.”
The trail winds toward Trout Brook, a sometimes raging, sometimes meandering mountain stream that runs under the bridge and eventually into the Schroon River. Boulders are strewn about the stream like a spilled package of candy, with a solitary island standing in the middle. When you lean over the fence and stare at the brook the shouts of excited children and parents trying to reel them in are drowned out by the rushing sound of water. Adirondack bliss.
The Becklers work hard to preserve the distinctly Adirondack feel. Trailways crisscross over and under one another, rambling around towering trees and over giant boulders stuck in the earth. Stone steps carved into the trail seem almost natural, as if they were placed there by the mountains for the park’s convenience. Wooden fencing guides visitors into safe spots to snap photos of beautiful views. The trail is traversable, but no one is there to keep you from tripping. Maintaining safety while delivering a rugged Adirondack trail experience is a key part of the park’s charm.
According to Beckler, “we do keep it safe, but it is rugged… we don’t have many slips and falls because you have to go slow.”
Worn walking sticks that look like fire pokers are available at the beginning of the tour for those who are concerned about staying on their feet during the hike.
The twists and turns of the self-guided tour bring visitors to several geological oddities around the park. The Becklers have used every nook and cranny of the property to build a full experience. There’s Giant’s Slide, a dark hole in the ground that leads to the deeper cave system, fenced off and guarded by a menacing looking giant with a club.
Noisy Cave is another spot that has been given a spark of personality by the park. A sloping entrance leads into a tight grotto where mist covers every inch of bared skin. Multi-colored lights illuminate the sweeping water which fills the cavern with an enveloping din. Peter Pan’s Peephole, home to the resident bats, is another tight hollow that provides a top-down view into Noisy Cave.
The potholes, dug out by roiling water and sand, are deep cavities in the rock that serve as natural swimming pools for snapping turtles and tadpoles. Arch Rock is a short passage chipped out of the solid rock. Visitors need to duck through the arch to stay on the trail. Any unusual formation is named and its geological properties noted.
Beckler does not claim to be a geologist, but he is an accomplished caver.
He’s done a lot of scuba diving in the park and explored all of the underwater caverns, from Noisy Cave to the whirlpool to Echo Cave and beyond. During one memorable scuba diving exploration, he was left in deep, impenetrable blackness. His brand new flashlight died in the middle of the dive.
“That got my heart going,” Beckler said.
Eventually, he got the flashlight working and made it out. His old scuba gear from that dive is still on display in the corner of the museum on the property.
While the park is mostly tame with a vivid splash of adventure, some harrowing events have taken place over the years. Beckler tells of two kayakers braving Trout Brook in the 70s. The men didn’t know the brook they were paddling flowed directly into the cave system. Realizing their mistake, one of the men paddled to shore and was able to throw a rope to the other stranded kayaker. No one was injured.
“They saved their lives, barely,” he recalled.
One of the kayaks was ripped into the waiting mouth of the cave. Beckler embarked on a scuba diving mission into the cave and recovered the yellow kayak. It was on display until a few Augusts ago when a sudden rainstorm and flood brought water levels up so high that the kayak was swept away.
Beckler has plans to put the battered boat back on display eventually, but as he says about projects in the park, “there’s always a list. I can never catch up.”
Guests can’t kayak Trout Brook in high water or dive into the deepest caverns, but they can go on an Adventure Tour. Offered in July and August by appointment only, the tour lets brave cavers explore additional caves under the direction of a guide. These are not for the faint of heart. The Adventure Tour requires that guests get soaked and filthy while squeezing into some tight spaces. It ends with a cave float which sends adventurers drifting through a narrow tunnel. The claustrophobic need not apply.
The Adventure Tours grew out of one of the attraction’s signature spectacles from the 1970s: mermaid shows. The mermaids were actually humans, of course. Beckler’s wife, Dee, was one of the performers, as were his sisters and mother. Clad in bathing suits, they would recite a mermaid’s tale underneath the stone bridge to the amusement of the crowd. They would dive through a hidden tunnel Echo Cave and surface in a natural swimming pool on the other side.
While scouting the caverns is the main appeal of the park, the Becklers strive to make a day at the caves a complete experience for both kids and adults. Beckler considers himself an educator as much as an entertainer.
He can lecture on for hours about the geology of the park and how the caves and stone bridge were formed. He also likes to talk about dinosaurs.
“Jurassic World got it totally, totally wrong with the raptors,” he quipped, referring to the recent film. “They should have feathers! Cool, bright, colorful feathers.”
“So did we when we bought that one,” he readily admitted as he pointed at a dully-colored raptor displayed outside of the rock shop.
Some of the park’s activities have little to do with caves. There’s an 18-hole Disc Golf course, an accessible game similar to golf that is played with a Frisbee. The Caveman Challenge and the CaveKid Challenge Bouldering Walls gives all ages a safe rock climbing experience. Kids can dig for dino bones, explore the Gold Rush Mine, and go on a Crystal Mine Quest. Built into all of these activities is a measure of education.
Beckler and his family see themselves as stewards of the park.
They seek to preserve and enhance the land so that anyone, now or in the future, can take pleasure in it. That pride began with Beckler’s grandmother and was passed down the line as family members embraced their roles.
“We’re all proud of the stewardship that we do,” he noted.
Part of the Beckler’s stewardship is ensuring that not only out-of-towners, but those native to the North Country can enjoy the property. They want the locals to know about their own backyard and believe the community is vital to their business. Beckler knows there are community members that have passed the mountainous gray sign with white lettering on the corner of Route 9 and Stone Bridge Road hundreds of times and never continued the 2.5 miles to the caves.
So every spring the Becklers hold a free community day at the park where Warren and Essex County residents are invited to explore the grounds for the day.
“We’ve been doing that every year forever,” said Beckler.
The event began for just the town of Pottersville. Community Day expanded when the Pottersville and Chestertown school districts merged to become the North Warren school district. Now they even do a free Community Day every winter so locals can explore the park’s snowshoe trails.
“A few years back I just made it easier,” Beckler said. Anyone living in either Essex or Warren County was invited out for the community day, which was advertised only by a Facebook campaign.
“We had almost 1,000 people on Saturday. It was huge,” Beckler laughed. “We couldn’t take many more people. And it’s free.”
The Becklers are also involved with the Chester Challenge, a hiking challenge based around Chestertown. Thousands of people hike the trails every year. Hikers who complete 6 of the 11 trails earn the Chester Challenge pin. Green Hill and Catamount Mountain are two trails accessible only through the park. Hikers or snowshoers can spend one to four hours climbing or snowshoeing through winding trails. The summit offers views of the distant high peaks.
At the end of the day, though, it’s all about family for Beckler.
These paths and trails, caves, boulders, and potholes, are a constant family project. The Becklers always have a job or innovation on the list.
“We all have different views of how it should go. And that’s always a challenge with a family-run business.”
Ideas are bounced around regularly. Philosophies on the direction of the park differ, but Beckler is always inviting new ideas.
“We’ve done a good job of being open with each other, allowing different philosophies to merge and trying some things.”
Recently, they’ve jumped into the wedding scene. The park has a wedding pavilion overlooking Trout Brook and enough seating for up to 200 people. There are a few rental cabins on the property. They put a ton of work into the ice cream stand that sits below the towering Natural Stone Bridge and Caves sign. Beckler’s son is a glass blower on the side, and both of his daughters work in health care. Everyone in the family comes from a different perspective, and that makes running the park both demanding and rewarding for Beckler. As far as second careers go, people have had worse situations.
It seems like Greg Beckler was born to be the steward of this Adirondack treasure. The park is pristine, rustic, and perpetually changing, just like its namesake caves. The stone bridge is as breathtaking today as it was when Beckler’s uncle Jim was charging folks a nickel to see what they could see. In the end, Beckler chose the caves, Trout Brook, the ice cream stand, the maintenance, and his family, always close by. He said it best himself.
“I’ll just be a cave man.”
Eric can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org