Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Nachusa Grasslands

Last week I made a family visit to the lil town of Princeton, Illinois. To a mountain girl I must say this town, although quaint and peaceful, seems mighty flat, surrounded by cornfields on all sides complemented by tall shade trees here and there. However ever since visiting a protected patch of prairie at Hennepin and Hopper Lakes with Uncle Rick some years ago ( I have known that there is far more to the Midwest than just corn even if it may appear that way at first glance, or second, or third. This landscape used to be tall grasses and wildflowers, roaming buffalo and insects endemic to the prairie flora and soil. The Nature Conservancy is working to restore a 3500 acre plot of farmland, now called the Nachusa Grasslands, to its once wild state. Lucky for me they were holding their annual Autumn on the Prairie event, a day of plant walks and bison tours, while I happened to be in town!

Bernie Buchholz identifying native prairie plants
I had the opportunity to take a walk with Bernie Buchholz. He claimed to be relatively new to the prairie ecosystem, however his last 10 years volunteering at the Nachusa Grasslands have served him well, as he was able to identify not only the flowering plants but the seedstalks and curling leaves of nearly every plant that surrounded us.

Hairy Aster (Aster pilosus)

Gentian (Gentiana spp.)

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.) gone to seed

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

 Marbleseed Plant (Onosmodium spp.)

As we crunched our way through the drying stems and stalks of summer's flowers we noticed the disproportionate ratio of flowers to grasses. This is because the grasses take longer to establish themselves than the wildflowers do. However, as walked further into the rolling landscape, the grasses became more plentiful as we then stood in a patch that had been managed and allowed to proliferate.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Restoring Nachusa is no small feat but rather one of autumnal seed gathering from the prairie, plantings in the spring and periodic burns. How the gathering and planting of seeds encourages growth is clear, whereas burning the very vegetation you wish to nurture may seem self-defeating. But, prescribed burns are quite the opposite. Burning portions of the prairie on a rotating schedule helps to stimulate microbial activity in the soil and therefore increase nutrient availability, suppresses non-native plants (in particular shrubs that can easily take over), and even extends the growing season for warm weather plants. The bison herd that was recently introduced here even plays a role in the maturation of the prairie by "tilling" up soil with their horns and hooves, inadvertently aerating the soil and planting seeds. On a well established prairie filled with grasses, they are also apt to eat grass as opposed to flowers, maintaining a healthy balance between the two.

Unfortunately I was not able to capture any photos of the bison herd as the line for the shuttles to that particular portion was easily 100 people deep. Now if the flowers could only get that much attention!

Trail through Nachusa Grasslands
After the guided plant walk I returned by shuttle, mind you this was a pick-up truck's tailgate packed with 10 other plant enthusiasts (this in all seriousness added greatly to the fun) to the main entrance of the Grasslands. Here I found a self-guided loop trail that one could walk with a number of prairie plants conveniently labeled for identification. Therefore any plants of which I had failed to scribble down the names as Bernie had rattled them off, I was able to gather here.

Prairie Thistle (Cersium canescens)

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Not only is Nachusa home to native prairie plants and bison, but it also provides a home for some of the 1700 prairie dependent insects....perhaps these are a couple here....any insect experts reading?

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seedpods along with crawlies
Along this prairie loop the grasses also easily reached over my was once said that these grasses stood so tall, a man on horseback could stand amidst them and barely be seen, apparently the same could apply to an herbalist...

Me and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) overhead
I  walked this loop, and then a trail that wandered further out into the prairie without any signs or posts or tags, in the golden sun and under an exquisitely blue sky, and found myself wanting to savor this place, a lil of the past in the present. I walked amidst the oranges and reds of the changing wildflower leaves and stalks, the cottony tufts of thistle seed heads and brown button-tops of dead standing coneflower. It was me and the flowers in a sea of Big Bluestem and others of which I hadn't yet learned the names. I stretched out my arms to feel the grasses on my fingertips, to be a part of this meadow for a moment. To commit its beauty to memory.

Yes...lucky me.

Thank you Nachusa Grasslands for nurturing this place and providing me with an opportunity to experience some true Illinois landscape, a glimpse into the past and a hidden gem amongst all that corn. I will surely be returning.

To learn more about Nachusa, visit, or volunteer, you can check out their website:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Gatherings Galore!

The crew on the Abbot Loop Hike at the Finger Lakes Trail Campout and North Country Trail Rendezvous over the weekend
I am excited to share that I will be giving a number of presentations this October. The first two will be at the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association 34th Annual Gathering at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, PA, held the weekend of October 9-11th. This gathering costs just $20 to attend and will be a weekend full of trail talk thanks to the many hikers that will be presenting on a slew of topics from stories of hiking long distance trails throughout the country to the nitty gritty details of how to plan for a long distance hike. Cost is only $20 for the whole weekend including camping (meals are extra but reasonably priced). This is not an event to pass up! Below is a description of my two presentations, one will be held Saturday morning, the other Sunday afternoon, exact times to be decided:

Thru-hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail:
Join me for a slideshow and discussion on North Carolina's 1200 mile Mountains to Sea Trail, including information about some of the most easily prepared wild edible plants she that found along the way. I will be comparing and contrasting my experience of hiking the MST with that of hiking the AT as well for those of who have already hiked this monster of a trail or are interested in perhaps doing a lesser known (and less populated!) trail. Question and Answer will follow.
Thru-hiking the Finger Lakes Trail:
Join me for a virtual trek along New York State's nearly 1000 mile Finger Lakes Trail. I'll be sharing tales from the trail to provide a better understanding of what it is like to hike this wilderness path as well as some of the edible and medicinal plants you can expect to encounter along the way. Lots of compare and contrast to AT as well. Question and Answer will follow.

Hiker Fair
Throughout the Gathering weekend I will be set up with a host of other outdoors vendors, selling my book, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail. Be sure to stop by, grab a signed copy and talk trail!
To Register and for more info on the ALDHA Gathering please visit:
My third presentation will be at the local library here in Milford, PA on October 27th at 6:30pm. This talk will be information packed so be sure to bring a pen and paper...or perhaps your tablet or iphone...whatever you take notes on nowadays so you don't miss a plant! Below is full description of class:
Eat Local: Identifying the Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants in Your Own Backyard
Pike County Library, Milford Community Room
Join me for a walk through your own backyard, a trek in our nearby woods, and a stroll down our small town streets. Local wild food is abundant and delicious and can be found nearly anywhere you go! I will help you learn how to identify these wild edible morsels and useful medicinal plants as well as share some tales from the trail. There will be plenty of time for question and answer about all things wild!
To register for this event, please call the library at (570) 296-8211 or sign up at the circulation desk.

Taking a break at the Dunham Lean-to during Paul Warrender's hike inside the Finger Lakes National Forest with Peter Fleszar  of the Mid-State Trail) and Larry Blumberg  of the Tri-Cities Hiking Club
I'd like to close this blog with gratitude. I had a leg-aching, food-scarfing, heart-lifting time at the Finger Lakes Trail Campout and North Country Trail Rendezvous this past weekend. I enjoyed the company of familiar faces from my good to see you again!...had the pleasure of finally meeting some loyal blog followers...what a treat!...and had the chance to learn from North Country Trail hikers and volunteers just what that 4000 + mile trail is all about. The North Country Trail shares 400 miles with the Finger Lakes I've already got a lil chunk done! I also devoured lots of delicious food, served just the way hikers like it, at a buffet that is, and attended two incredible hikes, hiking a total of 18 miles in a little over 24 hours. I left feeling both exhausted and filled up, grateful to be a part of this hiker community.
If I didn't see you there, I hope to see you in the spring at the Finger Lakes Trail Campout...or perhaps even sooner at the ALDHA Gathering in Shippensburg!

Fellow hikers on the Abbot Loop Hike - this hill contributed to the leg-achin' part!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Late Summer Savory and Sweet

As much as I'd like to pretend that the summer is not nearing it's end...evidence of the changing seasons is everywhere I look. Walking the woods, splotches of scarlet are bleeding through the green canopy overhead and yellow streaks by on my periphery when out for a run. Yarrow flowers are browning dried stalks and Wild Carrot's flat-topped doilies are now cupped bird's nests. However....good thing is...there's still a number of summer plants that we can continue to savor and a host of late summer/early fall plants making their appearance. Today I walked no further than my backyard and found enough to keep me busy in the kitchen for a good while....

Common Burdock (Arctium minus)
Burdock (Arctium lappa and Arctium minus) is easily identified by its enormous leaves that can grow up to 2 feet long. Leaf margins are curly and the long leafstalks will be solid with a single deep groove if you have Great Burdock (A. lappa) or hollow if you're holding Common Burdock (A. minus). Leaves are smooth and pale green above but covered in a thin wool on their undersides at any age. Burdock begins as a basal rosette in it's first year, and by midsummer of its second year has begun to form a tall, leafy flowering stalk. Flowers are purple and bristley, larger and long-stalked on Great Burdock, smaller and short-stalked on Common Burdock.

Burdock (Arctium) root
But enough about what's above ground, let's get to the root of the matter. Burdock roots are edible anytime during their first year's growth or during the beginning of their second year, or in other words, before it has sent up its flowering stalk. The roots are simple to prepare but not so simple to harvest. When Burdock is very young (leaves just 6-8"), the roots will be slender and skinny and easier to dig up, however you'd have to dig a lot of these to get enough for even a side dish. The larger leaved plants will possess very large roots, several feet long in fact, but good luck with digging up that entire root...especially in the rocky soil of the northeast! I managed to dig up some good hunks using a shovel and a sharp trowel, although a digging knife would have served even better.
Sauteed Burdock with minced garlic and olive oil
Burdock roots initally look like a dirty, knobby, woody mess, but dirt easily washes off under running water and the not-so-attractive outer skin yields to your average vegetable peeler. Once cleaned and peeled, I sliced roots on the diagonal into disks, simmered them for a few minutes on the stove top, and then sauteed for a few more minutes with some olive oil and minced garlic. If you do the same, be sure to save the water after simmering for a medicinal tea, beneficial as a liver tonic. These burdock morsels would make an excellent side dish with any protein, taking the place of a starch, or a nice addition to a veggie stir-fry. However, I simply savored them as is, enjoying their nutty, subtly sweet, flavor. One of Burdock's greatest nutritive properties, is its inulin, a fructooligiosaccharide that feeds healthy gut flora (think of it as probiotics for your probiotics, essentially a prebiotic) and helpful in leveling blood sugar.
Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)
Speaking of teas...this is a prime time to be harvesting the abundance of Goldenrod that can be found flowering in dry meadows, along woods edges, and roadside, in fact very likely near Burdock and the following plant to be featured. What you see here is Rough-Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidage rugosa), however this is just one of many species that can be found in our region, and all are medicinal. When its flowers are vital and healthy looking, simply snip the stem at the base of the plant to harvest the above-ground-parts (stems, leaves, flowers), chop coarsely, and add to piping hot water. Allow the plant parts to infuse for 10 minutes, keeping the lid on the pot. Use one loose handful of plant to 16 oz of water. I added the portion you see above to a 1 1/2 quarts of water and it made a strong tea.

Tea will be yellow in color and bland tasting with a hint of astringency. Adding honey can brighten up the flavor some if you find it lacking. However, I enjoy drinking it alone for its ability to support kidney function. It can be consumed as a tonic, in this case meaning in moderation and regularly, to alleviate bloating, edema, as a preventative against UTI's, and even to assist in alleviating chronic environmental allergies. This is a gentle medicine that also has the capacity to resolve major issues, especially when used in conjuntion with other herbs. Leaves and stems may also be dried and saved for use throughout the year.
Berries of Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
Last on today's menu was something sweet....Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) berries. As you can see from the photo, these are just beginning to ripen so get 'em while the gettin' is good! The birds will be quick to pluck these berries from their silvery stems although if you're lucky to find them after a frost, they are even tastier then. Autumn Olive berries has an unsual confluence of flavors, being both sweet, tart, and astringent, and it is one that I adore. 

Underside of Autum Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) leaf
Autumn Olive is a large shrub, widely branching, with not only silver speckled berries, shimmery twigs, but also green leaves that bear irridescent undersides. It may be a non-native invasive, escaping from landscaped lots or gamelands where it is planted to attract wildlife, but it is a pretty escapee nonetheless. Berries contain two fibrous seeds that are edible but can be some work to chew. If you prefer your berries seedless, this fruit makes a delicious spread or fruit leather. Simmer the berries, stirring and crushing, strain out seeds, add sugar, and you have a tasty Autumn Olive mash.

With all these wild edible delicacies, how can I not embrace the coming autumn, not to mention those scarlets and yellows will soon mingle with oranges and tans and every earthy color inbetween.

And for those of you attending the Finger Lakes Trail Fall Campout and North Country Trail Rendezvous tomorrow in Cortland, NY, I am so looking forward to seeing you there!! Unfortunately, I can only attend Friday and Saturday but I intend to make the most of those two days.

Stay tuned for an update on the classes and presentations I'll be giving in the month of October. The details are all worked out, but there is not enough space in this post to share them!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Articles and Upcoming Events

Chicory (Chicorium intybus)
I've had the opportunity to share my experience hiking the Finger Lakes Trail with a couple of excellent journalists since returning home. It's been nice to talk about the trail not only because talking trail is one of my most favorite things to do but because I find I stumble upon new insights about my experience once I've had some distance from it.

This link is to the Times Herald Record based in Orange County, New York - this paper serves my hometown and Port Jervis where I lived while writing my first book. Pauline Liu and I chatted the day after I finished in Claryville.

These next two links are from the Buffalo News' Refresh writer Scott Scanlon. Scott and I chatted for over an hour on the phone, so there's lots to read here! The first link is to the "In the Field" article printed in the Buffalo News Paper (8/22), which shines a nice light on the Conservation Trail, as this is the FLT's branch trail that travels through the Buffalo region.  The second link is to the Refresh Blog and offers an in depth look at my process of planning for a long distance hike, my research along the trail, and a look at some of my personal feelings/thoughts about long distance hiking.

As for upcoming events...I am thrilled to be attending the Finger Lakes Trail Fall Campout and North Country Trail Rendezvous that is being held September 10 - 13 at Hope Lake Lodge near Cortland and Ithaca, New York. There are a slew of incredible group hikes being offered by incredibly knowledgeable folks in the FLT community and there will also be lots of time for swapping trail stories while enjoying meals and drinks with fellow hikers from both the FLT and NCT community. I can't wait to see y'all again! For more info, visit this link:

A second exciting event to mark on your calendar is the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association's Gathering held on October 9-11 at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, PA. I will be giving two presentations over the weekend, one on Saturday (10/10) and one on Sunday (10/11), in which I'll be sharing my experiences hiking both the Finger Lakes Trail and the Mountains to Sea Trail. There will be plenty of time for question and answer and my book, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail, will be available for purchase as well throughout the weekend. Below is a link to the ALDHA website with more information. More details to come regarding presentation times and full schedule of events!

I look forward to seeing you there!!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Stumbling along the Sawkill

The Sawkill Stream off of Schocopee Rd - rushing more heavily than usual after a storm the night before

It has now been over two weeks since I stepped off the Finger Lakes Trail and back into the everyday world of eating whatever I please, sleeping in a bed and showering daily. However upon entering a convenience store I still immediately start scanning the countertops for their selection of condiment packages and the walls for possible outlets. There was also the night that I leapt into the center of my bed and swatted my poor cat in the face thinking she was some furry creature coming to get me in a lean-to. Ah... the transition. However, the most difficult transition....trail running just 3 miles a day and then sitting most of the rest of my hours. I miss the physical exertion. That and the literal tug on my heart that I feel on a warm day touched with a cool breeze or the view from my car of the early morning clouds hugging a mountain top or the sound of crickets chirping at night outside my window. I want to be out there...or rather in it...a part of my environment again rather than periodic visitor. I've been trying to ease the transition by getting out as much as possible and so I've been spending hours out under the stars at night and meandering through the woods here and there on some short hikes. However on a recent perfectly beautiful afternoon I finally had the opportunity to revisit my most beloved woods, those on Schocopee Road in Milford, PA, for the entire afternoon...
Bridge over the Sawkill Stream

There's many trails, both cleared by man and trod by deer, that can lead you into these woods, owned partially by Peter Pinchot and the rest designated as the Delaware State Forest. However one of my preferred trails here is that one carved by the waters of the Sawkill Stream. Along Schocopee Rd there are two one-lane bridges that cross over this stream, making for perfect access points. I chose the first of these two and traveled upstream, walking the edges of the water through the ever-so-Pennsylvania rocky woods. Now that I am not thru-hiking I have the luxury of bringing with me as many field guides as I please, so I carried a guide to the ferns of the northeast, a guide to the mosses of the northeast, Newcomb's Wildflower guide, and a guide to the trees of the eastern United States. I was out not to do miles but to take my time with these woodland botanicals.

The peeling bark of Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

These woods are largely Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), Black Birch (Betula lenta), various Oaks (Quercus spp.) and Maples (Acer spp.). Streamside you are apt to find Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) with its branches bending ever closer to the water as well as Spice Bush (Lindera benzoin) with its fragrant leaves and red berries come fall. Basswood (Tilia spp.) is another likely friend sitting along the Sawkill, most readily identified by its large papery leaves with uneven leaf bases. However it is still the common Yellow Birch that repeatedly catches my eye, especially in northeastern woods. It's bark is silvery and peeling, many times providing a home to various mosses or fungi. Against the matte gray rock faces, it appears yellowish-silver or bronze and will often find a home growing in a shallow bowl of decomposing matter atop a giant boulder, snaking its roots to the forest floor below.

Roots of Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

If you snap of a small twig of Yellow Birch and scrape the outer bark you will notice a strong wintergreen scent. Although Black Birch (Betula lenta) is often considered more aromatic, I have at times found just the opposite to be true. This wintergreen quality is due to the methyl salicylates found in its bark which besides tasting good, also offer relief for muscular pains. Simply harvest a small branch and using a sharp knife, peel the bark until reaching the woody core. These peelings can then be used in making a medicinal decoction (a strong tea made of woody parts). Simply add 1 loose handful of bark to 16 oz of water and simmer for 20 minutes, keeping on the pot's lid cracked just enough to allow steam to release.

Leaves of Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
 Its leaves are simple, alternate, sharply and many toothed, and often appear to grow in pairs from a mutual spur. These are also medicinal with anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties, however lacking in the strong wintergreen flavor. You can make an infusion (a strong tea made of vegetative parts) of the leaves by adding a handful to 16 oz hot water and allowing to steep for 10 minutes.

Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare)
 Another boulder inhabitant is Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare). I repeatedly find this fern in cool dark places whether that be in shaded rocky woods sitting amidst mosses, streamside, or growing from the crevices of glacially deposited boulders. Rock, water, shade. It is a relatively small fern, growing no longer than 12 inches and usually lesser. I think it bears a resemblance to Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) however with a brighter green color and with leaflets that are completely attached to the center stalk rather than stocking shaped. Besides Common Polypody I also found Interrupted Fern (Osmunda calytoniana), Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Hay-Scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula), New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum), and Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), and nearly everyone already bearing spores.

Spores of Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare)

Growing alongside the Yellow Birch and Common Polypody were three members of the Nettle family (Urticaceae), Clearweed (Pilea pumila), Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis), and False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrical), each easily distinguished from one another. It was a treat to have the opportunity to examine each of these plants literally side by side.

Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) in flower
Wood Nettle is the only one traditionally deemed edible of the these three Nettles.  Wood Nettle is one of my most frequently used wild edibles and if you've been following this blog for sometime you know that I encountered enormous patches of it along the Finger Lakes Trail. Because I've covered this plant a good amount in other posts ( I'll simply sum it up here by telling you that this is the nettle we all know well thanks to its stinging hairs and mistakenly refer to as the less common and non-native Stinging Nettle. The leaves of Wood Nettle are delicious when sautéed, steamed, baked or boiled. Contact with heat disarms its stinging hairs and leaves you with a tasty green high in Vitamins A and C. I particularly enjoy them in noodle dishes along the trail or pureed in a hummus when working with a full kitchen.
Clearweed (Pilea pumila) in flower - notice translucent stems
Clearweed bears its common name because of its stems that become increasingly translucent with age. Unlike Wood Nettle, but similar to False Nettle, it does not bear any stinging hairs. Its leaves are also overall more rounded in shape with rounded teeth along their margins and bright green in color with 2 veins prominently visible running parallel to the midrib (center vein). This nettle can remain very small growing carpet-like in moist woods or reach 1 foot high, but never the height of Wood Nettle or False Nettle. I have read in numerous sources that this nettle is edible but unpalatable so I have always passed on the same information to my students. However, I decided I'd try it for myself! I chowed an entire mature leaf and found that its taste was not really all that unpleasant. I can't say that it was delicious, but if anything it was merely lacking in flavor. Something to bear in mind when considering wild foods for survival.

Flower clusters of False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)
False Nettle is most easily discerned from these first two nettles by its button shaped clusters of green flowers located in axils and along leaf stalks. Its leaves are nearly identical in all characteristics to those of Wood Nettle except that they are opposite. This entire plant is lacking in stinging hairs. I have done some research on this plant and cannot find any information regarding its edibility except that it is not considered a plant with edible parts. However I also did not find anything stating that it was toxic or poisonous. If any of my readers have any further information about this plant's edibility I'd be thrilled to receive it!

A waterfall along the Sawkill and home to all the aforementioned plants

I followed the Sawkill further, passing numerous waterfalls and plant communities similar to those I've describe above. Further from the water, amongst the damp leaf matter and thick ferns I passed White Snakeroot (Eupatorium maculatum), Cinquefoil (Potentilla spp.), White Wood Aster (Aster divaricatus), and Rough Bedstraw (Galium asprellum) as well as a host of Violet (Viola) leaves.

White Snakeroot (Eupatorium maculatum)
White Wood Aster (Aster divaricatus)

And after sometime the landscape began to change. The understory vegetation became thicker and more difficult to navigate while at the same time the trees thinned. I was reaching the swamp located at a sharp bend in the stream. Beavers, which have now been removed from the area, changed an entire ecosystem, creating a beautiful expanse of marshland but also killing a host of trees and inadvertently encouraging the growth of understory bushes such as Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina), Highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum) and Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), and ferns galore.

Swamp along the Sawkill Stream
Growing in the tall grasses and shrubbery of the swamps edge I came upon the flowers of Rough Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) just beginning, clearly a later flowering species than that of Sweet Goldenrod (Solidago odora) or Grass Leaved Goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia). And near the deepest waters, I spied Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) peeking its many red faces from the thick tufts of marsh grass.

Rough Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)

Hairy stems of Rough Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
With the sun now at 5:00 in the sky it was time to turn it around. It had taken me 3 hours to walk what was very likely about 1.5 miles. To follow the same route back, although I'd move faster I'd still have to walk its rocky embankments, stepping stones here and there as necessary and climbing its sometimes steep sloping sides. I didn't have the time or the energy for that, so instead I decided to wade across the stream where it zig-zagged through the marsh and it was no more than knee-deep. Once on the other side, I picked up a trail that has been recently cut in the last year and provides for easy terrain. After about another mile through these sun-dappled woods, I reached the road that would lead me back to the bridge where I'd entered the woods earlier in the day. With the breeze now even cooler and the sun quickly turning an early evening golden, I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sky as I walked...filled with a deep down happy to have once again returned home.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Reflections and Looking Forward

Looking out from the Balsam Mountain Firetower
Nearly 900 miles along the main Finger Lakes Trail and its six branch trails gives you some time to think. I have a B.A. in philosophy and so I always joke that I do indeed use my degree as I think deep thoughts while hiking the trail. So here's some of those for ya...

I've had a lot of people ask me what it is that keeps drawing me back into the woods and onto long trails for months at a time. I enjoy sharing these thoughts in particular because I think that there is something in there for others to learn and just may make them curious enough to venture out and do the same.
Trail somewhere between Bossard's Cabin and Hornell along main FLT
I am drawn to the simplicity of hiking a long distance trail. Don't get me wrong, the logistical efforts are many and the act of literally hurling yourself up and over mountains day after day sometimes through less than ideal conditions is not simple...but the fact that being out here doing just this sure is. My focus is pure and my purpose is clear. Each day I wake up and I hike. There is no question what I'll be doing for the day. While I hike I observe the plants, I consider where I'll stop for my next break, where I'll fill my next water bottle, where I'll get shelter if a rainstorm rolls in, and where I'll sleep for the night. I fulfill my goals for the day, more or less, then build camp, compile my notes, spend the evening writing, make sure I'm secure for the night whether that be hanging a food bag or rigging up  a bugnet, and drift off to sleep. Through the repetition of these acts, the trivial begins to drift further and further from the forefront of my mind, until finally it nearly falls away. Those things that really matter become readily apparent and are in stark contrast to those that really do not.

Hiking near Seneca Highlands Road at dusk
To some to desire to experience life in this way may seem unrealistic or even selfish...but to me this is what I call experiencing raw reality. With the trivial at a distance, the smallest of acts such a kind word or someone feeding you a meal or offering you a ride that doesn't know what it is you're doing becomes incredibly significant. The goodness that people are capable of offering is incredible and you feel this through and through. And damn it, that's real.

Star Left, Shepherd, and the trail magic of Mike on Bailey Road
The smallest of luxuries such as a shower, a giant bowl of Chinese takeout, a good book to read, a favorite song that you haven't heard in months, become heaven on earth. I mean there is really nothing better than sitting on the gritty curb of a nowhere gas station and enjoying an ice cream cone on a hot day. Everything feels better, tastes better, sounds better, and again...that's what those things really are. I think in our everyday life these sensations and perceptions simply become muted as we interact with and take in so much sensory experience that we can't possibly process it all.

Now this means that pain is heightened as well. Walking on an open blister for miles or being so tired that you don't want to lift your foot for another step, or so hot that your vision starts to blur or so cold that you think you won't possibly make it through the night seems like the hell on earth. But then guess what? You keep hiking until your feet go numb or stumble upon a cold stream or the sun warms your bones the next morning and you realize that for as intense as that all made it through and you always do. Pain is passing and really so is the elation of hearing a beautiful song. But that's part of the wonder and excitement of not only the trail but of life, you never know what is next. I thrive on this unknown. Not a whole lotta point in running from it, may as well embrace it.

Standing on trail, yes that's right, on trail, through the Catskill Forest Preserve
The one continual fountain of support or the greatest luxury I should say you experience on the trail is the beauty. Living life simplified also allows space for the beauty to come into clarity and fill you up. I have mentioned before that the Finger Lakes Trail is not a trail of daily summits and rewarding views...but it is grand in its simple everyday beauty that continues for miles. Hiking through a landscape that changes but is repeated over and over again, gives you the chance to pick up on different aspects of a similar place each time you pass through it. The tenth pond you've seen in the last week suddenly is no longer a pond but a body of water nourishing a host of algae and Pond Lilies and Milkweed and Cat Tail and home to dragon flies, toads, humming cicadas, and that beaver that has built his pile of sticks along its edge. The dead trees standing in the center and green mountainside in its reflection and sun bouncing off its surface is the most beautiful thing you've ever laid your eyes on. Although you aren't aware of it, you stockpile these experiences. After days, weeks, months of this, they fill you with a quiet contentment and deep down happy that although it may not always be at your surface, you may always draw upon it.

A pond along the FLT outside of Ellicotville
I suppose I could say in a nutshell that thru-hiking above all keeps you present and provides you with the resources to deal with the intensity of the present.

This is what keep me hiking. I'd be curious to hear what draws y'all to the trail...keeps you hiking. Comment on this thread either by blogger or facebook and let me know. I'm curious.

And what now?

I'll be continuing to blog for certain. Expect posts particularly about the plant life that I encountered as I start to pour over my notes and begin the process of writing the guide to the edible and medicinal plants of the Finger Lakes Trail. I will also be posting about other local adventures on trails in the northeast and upcoming events in the area. I may very likely be speaking about the Finger Lakes Trail at the upcoming Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association Gathering and will be the guest speaker at the FLT Spring Campout this coming June.

Depending upon the post, these may or may not be posted to the Finger Lakes Trail or Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association Facebook pages, so please do take a minute to like my page: on Facebook and/or become a member of the blog (you can do this by entering your email in the space provided to the right of the present post) so that you will continue to receive regular updates.

I will be remaining in the northeast, primarily in Milford, Pennsylvania for the next couple of months. During this time I would thrilled to offer some plant walks and talks about my experience, so if you have an idea or a group that would be interested, do drop me a line! I will be returning to Asheville, North Carolina for the winter to continue working on the upcoming book and promoting my already published, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail, about NC's 1200 mile long distance trail. Come late spring, I will be returning to the northeast and planning to relocate to New York state so that I can offer educational classes, workshops, and plant walks about the flora of the local area and the logistics of long distance backpacking.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
This trail was primarily a wilderness trail like the Appalachian Trail and a notable shift from the oftentimes civilized aspects of the Mountains to Sea Trail, however even greater than this latter trail in its solitude. I went days without seeing or talking to people, encountering dayhikers only in the Ithaca and Catskill portions of the trail. Above all, I adored it, and am missing it already. My heart aches at the rhythm of crickets chirping outside my bedroom window at night and my legs yearn to hike miles. If you are considering a day, a week, or a full on thru-hike of the Finger Lakes all means do it. It is an opportunity of a lifetime!

Thank you to all who supported me along the way. It's true I was a solo hiker and hiking without a support team, however thanks to the FLT community as well as folks who lived along the trail, it hardly felt like a solitary endeavor. I rarely felt lonely given the number of people who reached out to me via Facebook and my blog. Remarkable. All of you made this journey so much more meaningful. Beauty really is greater when shared with others.