by Chris Clemens
Upstate New York has no shortage of waterfalls and the tremendous little day hikes that approach them. The one located in the ravine at the base of Canandaigua Lake has been on my ‘Upstate Bucket List’ for years now after reading about the Seneca folklore that accompanies the spot. I finally took the opportunity to walk back and see where a fairly unknown legend tells the story of how the world began, right in Clark Gully.
South Hill is a towering moraine created by glacial movements back some 15,000 years ago in the High Tor Wildlife Management Area at the south end of Canandaigua Lake in Naples. A ravine descending from the hill hosts a creek that ultimately feeds the lake and has been cutting through the deep shale for centuries while creating a cascading set of small, tranquil waterfalls. It’s a classic Finger Lakes scene that most of us who have spent any time in the region have seen time and again, though it never ceases to be beautiful in any season.
While the Senecas who once called the area home believed all things in nature to be sacred, Clark Gully held somewhat of a particularly important place in their storytelling. The Senecas referred to themselves as Onodowaga, which translates to “people of the great hill”. That hill they were referring to was South Hill, though the word they used for it was Nundawao.
Legend tells the story of how their origin began in the very spot that today we call Clark Gully. The Senecas believed at Kanandague, which translates to ‘the chosen spot’, the earth opened on Nundawao and their founders emerged to populate the land. Kanandague might sound familiar if you try and pronounce it, because today we call it Canandaigua.
There is a small dirt parking area at the base of the trail to the gully, and a larger DEC lot right where Sunnyside Street turns in to West Ave. A trail runs each side of the stream, though the one of the left side is much clearer. A few signs and yellow paint markers on trees will point the way, but basically you will follow the stream and at some points will need to walk right in the creek bed until you reach the base of the first waterfall.
The walk to the base of the first waterfall is mostly straightforward and easy, though some rocky terrain and meandering trails over some stone areas I would say would put the path overall at ‘medium’ difficulty, but it’s still not much of an uphill climb. Once you reach the base of the falls, the climb gets to ‘difficult’ almost immediately. On each waterfall, someone has tied a rope to the base of a tree so that anyone wanting to scale the falls can use it as a guide. Against my better judgement, I snagged the end of each rope and scaled all three waterfalls. A few locals were providing tips and guidance, one of which was that it was ‘easy’. It’s not the hardest thing I’ve climbed in my life, but I think ‘easy’ was glossing over a bit of the truth.
I will say though, that both the view and being able to stand in the precise spot were some believed the world began, totally made the uneasy climb worth it. Calming pools of water at the base of a trickling falls couldn’t possibly have been more serene and inspiring. With a little burning of some ceremonial tobacco as an offering to the gods for a safe trek back to the bottom, it was easy to imagine why the first humans to walk the Earth would have chosen that very spot to ascend on the world.
Resources and Additional Reading
Lower Clark’s Gully on NYFalls
Clarks Gully on GoWaterFalling.com
Seneca Indian Fact Sheet on BigOrrin.com
Sacred Clarks Gully on JubileeInitiative.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens