Technically, the East and West Branches are not part of the Mohawk River.
According to the United States Geologic Survey, the Mohawk River officially begins where the East and West Branches meet.
It is hard for me to understand a river without exploring its headwaters. This why I have spent the last several days wading, swimming, tubing, sliding, slogging, tumbling, and falling down the East and West Branches.
These are thin, fast-moving streams that swell into torrents during spring melts and fall downpours.
The West branch is born where two streams meet in a scrubby forest. It dashes downhill over rocks and gravel, and then spreads out over sand and mud as it cuts through farm fields.
The West Branch oozes through a small settlement and then picks up speed again as it ducks back into the woods to meet the East Branch.
The East Branch trickles out of an impoundment in the Town of Ava. It burbles down a bony riverbed that slices through agricultural land for a couple of miles. Then, just below the East Ava Road bridge, the East Branch drops into wilderness. For three miles, it twists and roars through a riverbed carved into countless layers of sedimentary rock. Evergreens perched on impossible footholds lean toward the river.
I slide over waterfalls peppered with fallen beech leaves. The force of some of the drops buries me in foaming pools, and the impact rips my gear away from me and fires it downstream.
Closer to the confluence with the West Branch, the stream slows. Armies of invasive Japanese knotweed crowd out ferns and willow scrub on both banks, and dry flood channels--wide as highways and paved with river rocks--cut across the apex of every turn in the river's course.