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Cobbs Hill diaries 

Getting personal with Rochester's hilltop oasis

I hit the snooze button on an early spring morning, prop myself up on one elbow, and dial 974-1616 on the bedside phone: "The time is... five... forty... nine... A.... M. The local temperature is... forty... five... degrees."

            As I rise, it's still dark. I'm on my way to keep an appointment with Rochester's hilltop oasis: Cobbs Hill reservoir.

            The reservoir is a man-made lake atop a hill on the city's eastern edge. A service road climbs from the surrounding neighborhood and undulates through mature pines as it makes its way around the water. It's a perfect three-quarter-mile trail for walking out of traffic's way.

            Cobbs Hill is the highest point in Rochester accessible to the general public, outshone in altitude only by nearby, privatized Pinnacle Hill. The view is never a disappointment.

            On a clear day, the entire northern horizon is a striking blue ribbon --- Lake Ontario. Surely the Iroquois stood here two centuries ago and beheld this panorama in its natural state. These days, two smoke stacks jut into the blue ribbon, their pure white output indicating the wind direction like a giant weathervane.

            Below the horizon, cutting distinctive silhouettes against a sea of green foliage, stand recognizable Rochester landmarks: to the north, miles away, Rochester General Hospital; and closer, the distinctive steeple of Asbury Methodist Church; to the northwest, the neo-fortress architecture of the former East Main Street Armory; and further west, downtown itself and the midtown cluster: the Xerox, Chase, and HSBC towers. They dwarf the Kodak Office Building, which seems smaller as it peeks from behind, downhill and downstream on the Genesee. In seven years of walking up here, I've seen this cityscape used as a backdrop for newscasts, television commercials, political campaign ads, and wedding photos.

            To the west, the view is all trees: the maples, locusts, and evergreens of the Park and Monroe neighborhoods, and the southwest neighborhoods beyond the river.

            To the south, the 590 expressway merges with 390. The cars are tiny sparkling dots reflecting the sun. To the southeast, Winton Road rises over the Erie Canal by Winton Place. Thirty miles beyond, the mountains of Bristol form the horizon.

            Not visible from Cobbs Hill, but essential to the reservoir's existence, is the Canadice and Hemlock Lake watershed, 25 miles to the south. Canadice and Hemlock are uninhabited, pristine lakes. The hills around them are filled with evergreens and mature hardwoods. A pair of eagles has nested and fished there for decades. In the late 19th century, Rochester city planners anticipated the need for a greater municipal water supply and acquired these two lakes and thousands of acres around them.

            From Canadice and Hemlock travel two pipes --- each big enough for a child to walk through --- side-by-side, underground, toward Rochester. They pass beneath the towns of Hemlock, Livonia, West Bloomfield, Lima, Honeoye Falls, Mendon, Rush, Henrietta, and Brighton, then, finally, under Monroe Avenue, and up into the reservoir at Cobbs Hill. Since the lakes sit higher than the reservoir, the water is carried all that way by gravity alone.

The Cobbs Hill reservoir is hardly my discovery. Hundreds of regulars from the city and suburbs come here to run, rollerblade, cycle, push their babies in strollers, ski, walk their dogs, or, like me, simply walk. They come alone, or as couples, families, or groups. They practice Tai Chi, play hacky sack, bird watch, and engage in impromptu jam sessions with guitars and an ever-increasing assortment of Third World percussion and woodwind instruments.

            Ben's from the Ukraine. He walks here religiously, wearing headphones. His heavy Eastern European accent and his squirrel-tail eyebrows render his simplest utterance profound.

            Here he comes on a beautiful day, smiling. Sweeping his hand, he says, "Zees sky. I order eet for you. Zat vill be feeefty centz, pleez!"

            I wonder what he listens to day after day. Russian classics?

            There's Mary, a mom from Webster who works in one of the big automotive-parts plants in the city. She keeps surviving the layoffs, but she's gone back to graduate school.

            Jesse, a retired businessman, still worries --- at 88 --- about the social services agency that bought his office building. "That's an 1880s building. That second-floor loft was never meant to hold all those offices and people. I'm afraid it's all going to fall through the floor."

            Georgianna, too, has gone back to college. She lives in Corn Hill and makes time to come here between her job as a teacher's aide, her own schoolwork, and singing in a gospel choir.

            There's Ralph, the retired Rochester City School District vice principal, who helped me free a trapped raccoon from one of the trashcans up here.

            I recognize and nod hello to dozens more: the stockbroker who conducts his business by cell phone from a lawn chair while his car radio plays sports updates. There's the ex-Marine who waxes his car up here five days a week; it's a wonder there's still paint on it.

            Hundreds come here as tourists to see the Rochester cityscape. Busloads of women --- almost always women --- come from Canada.

            Lovers meet here. One couple has come here for two years, she in a white Pontiac, he in a burgundy Honda. Now he has a brand new black Honda. They're here every morning; when the days are shorter, they have their headlights on. This late May morning, they --- and I --- are already wearing sunglasses.

A man pulls up in an Acura. He's well-tanned for mid-June, in his 50s, with perfectly trimmed hair. He looks like someone accustomed to giving orders, eating prime rib, and playing golf. He seems surprised at the number of people here.

            The reservoir is buzzing with activity. It's Saturday. The regulars are here in force, walking, jogging, and playing African and Caribbean music on the grass. There is also a crowd of spectators. The morning paper said jets from an air show would circle the city, so close to 300 people have walked or driven here and are standing by the sledding hill, facing the direction of the airport, hoping to catch a glimpse.

            The jets come screaming right past the hill once, then again, leaving a pronounced silence in their final wake. The crowd slowly leaves. The well-tanned man goes over to his Acura, opens the trunk, looks around, then pulls out a big bongo drum and goes over to the grass, where he sits down and joins the young, jamming musicians.

I sit in my pickup finishing my coffee, listening to Sammy Hagar doing a live version of "There's Only One Way to Rock." My senses are focused on the guitar solo and the chemistry of the fresh coffee. I'm barely cognizant of the people walking around the reservoir.

            Overhead, an anonymous flock of pigeons fills a portion of my view. I would not have noticed the pigeons --- now directly over the heads of three women walking and talking --- if it weren't for a sudden, incongruous movement among the birds.

            A peregrine falcon flashes among the pigeons like an out-of-control model airplane. Fast as he strikes, the targeted pigeon veers out of harm's way.

            The falcon arches up in the air doing a tight loop-de-loop, then down again, taking another swipe into the flock, missing a second time.

            By this time the pigeons are well past the feathered predator who, at the peak of his second loop-de-loop, pauses, as if stomping his foot in anger. He turns his back on the flock --- fuming, I imagine --- and coasts over to the radio tower, where he perches.

            I relate to that falcon through the whole drama; I know what it's like to recognize an opportunity too late. I empathize with his futile attempt, his disappointment. He must have known he was too late. But he made a dash for it anyway. It's in his blood.

            I do not share the pigeons' relief.

Crows don't have to move fast because they eat garbage. They're survivors. I've noticed that the crows around the reservoir have been getting closer to the people here with the passage of time. When I first started coming here, they were in the background, scavenging for food. Now there are more of them, and they get closer and more aggressive in their foraging. By last year, I could walk right under a crow perched on a lamppost and he'd remain there, six feet above me, flying away only if I stopped. This year, I can stop under the lamp and the crow will stay put.

            The crows ferret out edibles from the trashcans. If they can't get to the food because it's buried too deep, they wait for the squirrels to dig it out, then dive-bomb the squirrels and take it.

            One morning, I saw an empty french-fries container, and next to it, several ketchup packets, each with a hole poked through it by a crow's beak.

            I can imagine crows outlasting us as a species --- thriving on the garbage of their human competitors. Crows are the Keith Richards of avifauna.

Today is September 22 --- Autumn Eve. Along the row of trees overlooking downtown, every variation of green can be seen: the bluish-green of the silver maples, whitish-green of the Russian olives, yellowish-green of the Norway maples, reddish-green of the sumac, the deep shining green of a mulberry tree, and the soft bluish-green of the pines. A slight breeze comes and exposes the lighter undersides of each leaf, revealing yet another dimension of color.

It's October and they're draining the oasis. Public workers do this about once every 10 years. They transform the sparkling lake into an empty concrete canyon, then, using a big crane, plunk two pickup trucks with snowplows onto the reservoir's muddy floor.

            The pickups slide through the mud as they plow the sludge toward the center of the reservoir. The drivers are going 40 damned miles an hour. The plow on the first truck is throwing mud 20 feet in the air, up over its roof, and down onto the truck following right behind it.

            The daily paper publishes the results of the draining and cleaning. There's a list of items the workers pulled from the mud, including 40-some dollars in change and a gym bag full of pornographic videos.

As another October day breaks, a perfect cigar-shaped cloud hangs over Lake Ontario; the air temperature must have dropped below the water temperature last night. Gulls come in from the lake to take their positions on the fountain in the middle of the reservoir. They sail over the fence, their white underbellies glowing orange from the rising sun low in the east.

            The reservoir is high this morning. It's been filling all night.

            The October morning air is so invigorating I'm seduced into doing 12 laps instead of my usual eight. This takes two hours and 45 minutes, during which the reservoir drops two feet. That's a lot of showers, flushes, and toothbrushing. The gulls think this is a real lake, but I know the truth.

It's November. The sun has gone down, but the sky is still faintly light. I walk the circle around the reservoir, surrounded by an outer circle of treetops. Hundreds of crows are flying from the trees, dark against the sky. They're headed for the city, where they'll converge with thousands of other crows from around town and roost in the beech and oak trees in Mt. Hope Cemetery and Washington Square Park.

            Large snowflakes are falling --- white dots against the dark trees. Dark crows against the light sky, light snowflakes against the dark flora: a living, breathing Escher drawing suggesting the connection and continuity of all things.

I roll out of bed this December morning and call time-temperature to see how I should dress.

            "Fifty... three... degrees," the monotone male voice tells me. We're close personal friends by now, so I'm a little hurt when I find out, a few minutes later, that he didn't give me a hint of what's to come.

            I dress lightly and walk outside. By the time I reach the Hill, the wind has picked up. Within one lap, it's blowing a horizontal sleet storm. At the crest of the hill, where the stately granite, pillared pump house sits, the wind is blowing so hard I can lean into it and not even fall.

            The sleet turns to snow. Thirty minutes ago it was mild and calm. Now I am not only leaving footprints in the snow, but they are filled up as I come around again.

Looking back

When I was a biology major at SUNY Geneseo, I found a state wildlife report published in the early 20th century that included a naturalist's journal of a day spent at Cobbs Hill before the reservoir was built. It read like a Disney dreamland script, listing animal and bird species. Some, like the bald eagle and passenger pigeon, are now rare or extinct.

            Remembering this report, and thinking I'd write a piece on "The Cobbs Hill of 100 Years Ago," I contacted the school, miraculously finding someone in the biology department who remembered that storeroom full of old books. I was informed the books had all been given away or thrown out. I felt bad about this, as though the wildlife of the Cobbs Hill of 1900 was now doubly gone. Then something happened that significantly improved my outlook.

            It was Sunday afternoon, October 6. The wind was brisk, the sun was bright, the sky was deep blue, and the clouds were splattered across it without pattern, like samplings on an artist's palette. A pair of red-tailed hawks hung almost motionless, like kites, over the north face of Cobbs Hill, catching the updrafts. Gulls flew in and out of the reservoir in every direction. An out-of-season dragonfly careened past me. In the lower tree branches, the tiny cheep-cheeps of the chipping sparrows were now mixed with those of the slate-colored juncos, recently arrived from the north. I felt the bigness of nature and an almost fluid connection to it.

            I was walking up the service road toward the sledding hill that faces Monroe Avenue when I first spotted it, to the south: a large raptor coming toward me, moving with strong, deep wing beats. The raptor pushed steadily into the headwind and passed over my head toward the reservoir. I scrambled up the steep hillside, slipping on loose pine needles, grabbing tufts of grass. When I reached the top, panting, I saw him circling the reservoir. He gave it a cursory inspection, and, recognizing there were no fish here, allowed the wind to carry him upward, where he was joined by a second mysterious raptor.

            They continued rising, circling each other, then playfully charged each other with talons out, striking each other feet-first and bouncing away like clashing cymbals. They were a quarter-mile up now and moving eastward. They rolled in somersaults between their soaring and flapping, as if there were no gravity, no up or down.

            The raptors were half a mile up now and half a mile east. With a gracefulness that belied their power and speed, they disappeared into the firmament, which they owned.

            This all took perhaps 90 seconds. I stood there turning in circles, looking around me for someone --- those birdwatchers --- anyone, to tell. But the path and the road were deserted.

            I don't know if I saw mottled immature bald eagles or a light phase of some large hawk species. Whatever they were, hopes of seeing them again will keep me coming back here, walking above the city in quiet solitude, with a view of the horizon in three directions, of water, trees, and mountains.

Oh, and I found out about Ben. I recently passed him and finally asked, "What are you listening to?"

            "Legends," he said. His heavy accent lent an air of profundity to that word. He saw I didn't understand and held up the CD player/radio. I took off my sunglasses to read the LED display: "990 AM."

            "Legends of rock and roll."

Speaking of Cobbs Hill


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