Monday, November 06, 2006

Travels in Upstate New York








I spent yesterday in New York's Black River Valley, collecting trilobites with a friend from upstate New York. These bugs, like those in the Burgess Shale, have preserved soft body parts, like antennae and legs. There are only five or six places in the world where the preservation's that good.
It was fun to watch the fighters flying in and out of Ft. Drum airforce base, but we were, through the day, in danger from the local black bear population, and, perhaps more frightening, the army of deer hunters. There were hunters sitting in blinds as we walked along one trail, hunters in trucks, and hunters traipsing through fields. There were also goose hunters in the corn fields (something you don't see here), but certainly no shortage of waterfowl, as the Black River valley is a major duck and geese flyway.
(If Ottawa's deer problem can be solved by hunting, we're going to need a lot more hunters around here. Even with a six-week season and a lot of hunters, the valley is infested with deer. I saw deer in the woods, deer along the roads, deer in the fields. In seven hours, I must have seen fifteen deer, more than I saw last summer in four days on Texada Island, in the Straits of Georgia, where residents are alarmed about a deer problem.)
The two things that most impress me about that part of New York: the huge windmill farm, several square miles south of Watertown with hundreds of 300-ft. windmills that, according to my American friend, produce five per cent of New York's electricity; and the physical decay of the old small towns, where many big, beautiful wooden houses are in dire need of infusions of cash.
The average house price in Watertown, New York, is $130,000. Three years ago (the last stats available), the average rent was $400. And average family incomes are about $30,000. If the Ft. Drum base didn't exist, the towns would be dead. Unlike the small towns in Ontario where I lived, there's no influx of money from city people. Upstate New York, at least that part, is too far from a big city for that kind of gentrification.
People in that corner of New York state think Canadians are rich. Most people I talked to had visited Ottawa and Toronto, but even towns like Kingston (80 kilometres from Watertown)are quite proserous by upstate New York standards.
Which brings us back, I suppose, to the windmills. The farmers who have them on their land get a rent from the power utility. And the poorest farmland just happens to be the high ground, where the winds are strongest. The money is making a difference to the local economy, enough so, according to my hosts, that once the cash started to flow, WalMart built a great big store in the small town of Lowville.

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