Saturday, March 28, 2015

Where is the Source of the Hudson?

Dan on descent on Skylight July '09Last week I was doing a little research for a book project when a web search returned an interesting line from a Wikipedia entry on the Hudson River. It piqued my curiosity, going as it did against conventional wisdom. Wikipedia being Wikipedia I wasn’t about to take it as gospel, but it provoked me to start digging around just for fun. After all, if one learns anything in research and the sciences it is that conventional wisdom or historical tradition are no sure bets.

In this case, both conventional wisdom and historical tradition say that Lake Tear of the Clouds, nestled between Mounts Marcy and Skylight in the Adirondack High Peaks, is the source of the Hudson River. Thus has it been generally accepted ever since Verplanck Colvin determined it to be so, on his second visit to Lake Tear in August of 1873. For generations of hikers Lake Tear has been a special destination, an upward trek to the ultimate source of one of America’s greatest rivers.  But is it?

I’ll be the first to admit that this question is little more than idle speculation on my part. Even if opinions differ on the Hudson’s source – and they do – there is no reason I can see to dethrone Lake Tear from its exalted status. Nevertheless, if we take the formally accepted definition of a river’s source, there is strong argument to be made that Lake Tear isn’t actually it.

It may be hard for the average person familiar with GPS and smart phones and Google Maps to believe that there could be any such uncertainty left for a major feature in the Adirondacks. But for an eye-opening example of how wrong that thinking is, doubters can take a shot at looking up Lake Tear’s elevation. I started with that, since it seemed an important datum in my quest. Hours later I threw in the towel.

Your average cartographer can tell you far better than I why this can possibly be so hard (Teresa DeSantis where are you?) but it is due to a combination of factors.

For one thing, it proves to be extremely difficult to dislodge historical measurements that have entered canon. Many sources, even DEC’s web site, reference Lake Tear’s elevation as 4,322 feet.   This measurement was made by Colvin’s vaunted assistant Mills Blake in 1875, using a rod and level calculation from Marcy’s summit. Since then it has spread far and wide into Adirondack literature. It was an excellent measurement for the time, arduously won, but it is inaccurate, off by as much as eight yards.

For another thing, varied topography can be quite hard to measure accurately, partly because the way it looks can be deceiving. Stand on the summit of Skylight on a clear day. Look toward Redfield and you will see tiny Moss Pond, as lonely and withered a location as can be found in the Adirondacks. Look at its position as compared to Lake Tear and you’ll swear it’s higher in elevation. I certainly did the first time I saw it; when I got home I traced a map to see why it wasn’t listed as the Hudson’s highest source. Colvin himself wasn’t sure either. His first visit to Lake Tear in 1872, the famous “discovery” which is reprinted in the Adirondack Reader, was, despite Colvin’s flowery rhetoric, not definitive for him. It took a second visit in 1873, during which he deliberately measured Lake Tear’s height in comparison to Moss Pond, to convince him he had been right. Moss Pond, according to his measurements, was about 14 feet lower.

Modern measurements most typically available on-line put Lake Tear’s elevation at either 4,293 or 4,295 feet. Which is right? I have no idea, especially since yet other sources disagree. Query Lake Tear on the worldwide geographical site and it returns 4,324 feet, almost in line with Colvin.

Having become obsessed with getting the definitive answer I turned to what I assumed would be the definitive source: the USGS National Elevation Dataset (NED). After trying to figure out how to query it for the better part of an hour, I found a usable front-end tool, plugged in a precise latitude and longitude and got an answer. Then I moved to another point on the lake and got a different answer. I ended up with a variety of answers spanning several feet depending upon which part of Lake Tear’s surface I chose. Now it is true that the effects of gravity, hydrogen bonds and the Earth’s curvature would give minute variations in the surface elevation readings, but by fractions of an inch, not feet. So this was discomfiting. Going as close the lake’s center as I could got me an elevation of 4,319.084 feet. That must be about right… so says me.

Why the variation? A professional should answer that, but I do know that the dataset uses measurements that are not as accurate as one might think, nor as complete. Data then gets interpolated to fill in the gaps, which is a useful mathematical estimating technique but hardly precise.

Ultimately I decided that a range for Lake Tear of between 4,293 feet and 4,324 feet would have to do. That’s quite a range. Still it was pretty clear that the low end of the range was likely to be most accurate and the low end still puts Lake Tear higher than Moss Pond. So it was not dethroned yet.

However the real challenge to Lake Tear’s status is not caught up in the minutia of accurate elevations. The real challenge lies with the definition of “source” in the first place. For whatever reason – perhaps the enthusiasm of finding lofty places, exemplified in the Adirondacks by Colvin – the definition of the Hudson’s true source has been based upon its highest source. Lake Tear may be that (that’s still in question, which we’ll get to in a moment) but the accepted definition for the source of a river in geography is not the highest source. It’s the furthest source. For obvious reasons these two things often coincide, but not always. In the case of Lake Tear, the furthest source is not Lake Tear – it’s the headwaters of the Opalescent River, high on the shoulder of Little Marcy. These headwaters are more than a mile further by river course than Lake Tear.

If we take the standard definition for a river’s source, it seems we have to go with the Opalescent headwaters, not Lake Tear: they’re further. But are they also higher? The Wikipedia entry says yes. My review of topographical maps say no. But who knows where the headwaters first emerge as a streamlet? I’ve never bushwhacked there, nor have I uncovered any sort of recorded measurement that gives a precise location for the beginning of these headwaters. So as far as I know that answer is undetermined (I’m sure it has been determined by someone, I just haven’t been able to find it). Consequently, I’m itching to go there myself. After all, if this is truly the source of the Hudson, it’s worth a pilgrimage just as surely as is Lake Tear, albeit a nasty bushwhacking version of a pilgrimage.

A barely discernible streamlet situated in limb-scratching scrub far from any trail seems to me to make for a far less pleasing source for the Hudson than a little jewel named Lake Tear of the Clouds. So I suspect few will buy the idea that we should think any differently about it than we do now.  I’m good with that. But I love the idea that something as celebrated as the source the Empire State’s greatest water course, the mighty Hudson River, can still be indeterminate in the twenty-first century. How marvelous that such a thing can still be hidden by the Adirondack Wilderness, there to call explorers and those who wonder.

Photo: heading toward Lake Tear of the Clouds from the Skylight trail

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

27 Responses

  1. George L says:

    What is the source of Henderson Lake?

    Isn’t the source of Henderson also a source of the Hudson?

  2. […] The Hudson, Data, and Certainty […]

  3. Jim S. says:

    What is the source of Lake Tear of the Clouds?

  4. Phil Terrie says:

    Isn’t Round Pond, in the Town of Long Lake, northeastern corner of Hamilton County the “furthest source”? Looks that way to me after an unscientific examination of the Adk map on my wall.

  5. Dave Gibson says:

    Pete, I love your concluding lines a lot. How marvelous indeed. Thank you !

  6. Bill Ingersoll says:

    I wasn’t aware that “conventional wisdom” made any such claims about Lake Tear. Colvin described it as “the loftiest lake spring of our haughty river,” and modern maps have labeled it as the “highest pond source of the Hudson.” Both terms basically say what anyone can see on a topographic map: Lake Tear is the highest named pond in the Hudson watershed. This is not the same as calling it the source of the river–i.e., the point where the river officially begins.

    Technically, Lake Tear is only the source of Feldspar Brook, a tributary of the Opalescent River, which in turn is a tributary to the Hudson.

    The official source of the Hudson–the point where running water first takes on the name “Hudson” according to USGS maps–is the dam at Henderson Lake.

  7. M.P.Heller says:

    Bill is right. This entire piece hinges on the idea that Lake Tear is the source of the Hudson. An idea which has been created through modern legend type tales. A cursory examination of the materials available on the topic by even the most novice of researchers would bear the conclusion that ‘highest pond source’ is most likely an accurate claim. Other notions such as furthest, best, or ‘where it bubbles from the earth’ were never part of any claim that Colvin made regarding his thoughts on Lake Tear and it’s relationship to the Hudson.

    As for the proper elevation of Lake Tear, my data puts it at 4303′. That’s higher than Moss Pond (I’ve been there too) by a full 31 feet.

    Sometimes these types of ideas come about from romanticism. Actually living it instead of speculating sometimes changes perspectives, though rarely, because you cannot ordinarily take the idealist too far from the imagined.

    Maybe this one will come around when the Wisconsin or Ohio, or whatever it is goes away. Otherwise we just got ourselves another know it all. Just what we needed and wanted……..

    • J Hart says:

      Come on folks, lighten up! You don’t have to agree with this post or even read it. Personal attacks on the author make you look small.

  8. Hillel B says:

    Interesting conundrum! Thanks for sharing!

  9. I am speaking only as a layman and Adirondack enthusiast here, so no expert knowledge claimed.

    In all my years talking about this subject with whoever wanted to, we all always accepted that Lake Tear was the highest ‘Lake Source’ of the Hudson and a streamlet near the height of land in Avalanche Pass was the ‘northernmost’ source. The Preston Ponds were the northwesternmost source, etc. And, wherever the opalescent source was was probably the most true source, if one is looking for the first trickle.

    Great stuff!

  10. E.Williams says:

    Come on, folks, Pete wrote an interesting column that clearly has various of us thinking about several related topics. That’s all to the good, so thanks for writing it.

  11. Tim-Brunswick says:

    This must be what stilt walkers do when they’re on the ground. Unbelievable philosophical rambling with no clear objective and/or conclusion. Guess Pete just like to write ??

  12. Curt Austin says:

    I’m happy to see this brought up. The semantic issues are not worth much discussion – they never are. But for each definition, the result is interesting. If detection of “openly flowing water” is an element, you’ll have irreducible and unsatisfying uncertainty, which one can argue makes for a poor operational definition. I’ll add one not discussed: the point where natural flow begins. That would be Lock #1 near Troy. I vaguely recall that this is the definition used for the Missouri, perhaps only locally applied.

    Someone needs to check where the “North Hudson” begins, aka the Schroon River.

    An easy source of variation in the altitude of Lake Tear is how high the beaver dam is, if present. Last time I was there, no beavers and not much lake. Not in its best jewel-like phase, frankly; let me know when they return. I’ll speculate that its elevation is 4295 with beavers, 4293 without.

  13. Christine says:

    Wikipedia research… An April First joke, right?

    Very funny,

    Happy Easter,


  14. Bruce says:

    Pete, you pose an interesting question. If you should find the streamlet I suspect it will be emanating from a spring. Then you’ll have to discover it that is the highest and or furthest spring feeding that trickle of water.

    I used to be into geocaching, and discovered even the latest topo maps aren’t really that accurate. Having said that, while perusing topo maps from the 1890’s and early 1900’s I was surprised at their relative accuracy considering the methods used to gather and measure the information on them.

    FYI…I discovered a wealth of historic Adirondack maps freely available at the Library of the University of New Hampshire.

    Most are free to use for any purpose as they are government documents. They print out very well

    • Dave Olbert says:

      Bill, I do not think it’s appropriate to be so nasty towards Peter for just starting conversation on a debatable topic. This has always been an interesting topic for me.I guess it really just depends on what definition you prefer to embrace. I have seen some very old Stoddard maps in which the Opalescent was called the East Branch of the Hudson. The North Branch was the flow from Calamity Brook and Fishing Brook was referred to as the East Branch. All of the natural flow from Flowed Land is down the Opalescent except for the time it was dammed up by David Henderson to divert water to Calamity for the Iron Works. All of the water from the Preston Ponds flow to the Cold River then the Raquette River. On all other maps produced after that Stoddard the Hudson first takes its name after Calamity merges with the outlet of the Hudson. Not sure if you should consider it starting at the base of the dam on Henderson, but it would be unnamed if you didn’t, so why not.

  15. Curt Austin says:

    Research into the “literature” always requires critical evaluation. Even fully peer-reviewed papers are often very poor sources of information – reviewers are too sympathetic to the publish-or-perish imperative, too busy to get into the details, or dismissed from the reviewer’s club if they take it too seriously (as I think I was).

    (I’m at risk here for genuinely taking things too seriously, I’m afraid, but I shall continue nevertheless.)

    My point is that Wikipedia is useful to a critical reader, as Pete surely is. Only a non-critical reader will slam his fist on the bar to express an overly strong opinion based solely on Wikipedia. It is also inappropriate to scatter beer glasses while denouncing Wikipedia when it contains a contrary view to one’s own, which should also be subject to continuous critical review.

    In any case [BAM!] the true source of the Hudson is in North River, where it suddenly appears along Route 28, obviously from some otherworldly source judging by passing aliens in tubular shaped vessels, with protuberant chests of colors not found in nature.

  16. Blaikie Worth says:

    Great post from an inquiring mind!

  17. Charlie Herr says:

    Great article. The comments resulting have revolved not only about whether it is the source, but also definitions of “conventional wisdom” and how “source” is defined, two terms not necessarily separate according to the remarks above..

    I work at the Adirondack Museum, mostly in the gallery building that has the large interactive, push-button, well-loved map of the park from 1960. The question on the map I get most of the lake in question, after where is Blue Mountain Lake because there’s no button [it’s blue light is always lit], is:

    Is Lake Tear of the Clouds pronounced “teer” or “tare”?

    It’s also interesting how many visitors, especially New Yorkers, aren’t aware that the Hudson begins in the Adirondacks, and that’s why I love the map so I can show them.

    And it’s another reason we should never stop having a discussion of the Source of Hudson’s River.

  18. Kate Lewis says:

    How do you get any work done?

  19. Jon says:

    What a great read. Really appreciate your time and effort Pete!

  20. Phil Brown says:

    I missed this article when it was first posted. For what it’s worth, when Clarence Petty did the river studies for the APA back in the day, his study of the Hudson began at Henderson Lake. That seems to be most logical candidate for the source of the Hudson as Calamity Brook and the Opalescent both flow into the river that starts at the lake. I do wonder what this stretch of the river was like before the dam was built. Another argument in its favor is that the Opalescent River (which is fed by Lake Tear) enters the Hudson several miles from Henderson Lake. I think it’s accepted that the river north of the Opalescent confluence (whatever its ultimate source) is the Hudson. This would not be logical if Lake Tear were the source of the Hudson. One could argue that Lake Tear’s waters also feed Calamity Brook and the Hudson thus begins at the confluence with the brook, but this seems like a stretch and leaves open the question of what we would call the water upriver from this confluence. Henderson Lake wins out by virtue of logic and simplicity. Occam’s Razor at work. I agree with others that Lake Tear is better described as the highest ponded source of the Hudson.

  21. Pete Nelson says:


    All good points. Ultimately it’s an idle question for all but die-hards and geographers, but I thought it was fun. And it’s not a clearly settled question – at least not in the public record as I was able to see it. The closest it seems to get to official is as you described above, namely that it is the Hudson below Henderson Lake

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