Friday, June 26, 2015

From the Falls to the Gorge

Niagara Falls 
After 3 long days of slackpacking....oh did I mention my father came to join me at the falls to help me with one of the Conservation Trail's most challenging aspects - finding someplace to sleep during the long road walks...I reached Niagara Falls. It was just as majestic as I had envisioned it to be even with the plethora of people running around snapping selfies. No. I mean it really was grand. Can we really grumble that 1000's of people, from all nations and walks of life, want to come marvel at this natural wonder? I'm just glad this many people still care to see such a spectacle of nature.

However, it was bit like the Niagara Amusement Park with all the attractions that one could participate in or attend. We did almost all of them...and in one marathon afternoon.

We were sure to take a ride upon the Maid of the Mist which literally takes you down to the base of the Falls in all the Niagara River spray, hence the complimentary blue ponchos

My father at Cave of the Winds - I thought this was by far the best of all the attractions. This boardwalk you see is rebuilt every single year and winds around the base of the Falls far more than this photo can show. On this "ride" you not only get a poncho but a pair of sandals as you literally stand in the falls. It felt epic to have those falls splashing down my face.

A view from the base of the Falls - all the little white specks you see are the 20,000 birds that visit the rocky shores of Niagara daily, to the right is a view of the Canadian border 
Another high point of my visit to Niagara was completing the 180 mile Conservation Trail (60 miles of which run along with the main FLT). We were a lil nervous we were going to cross over into Canada on accident and not be able to get back over as there is nothing more than an open gate for a visitor to pass through however, to get back into the States is a whole other story, especially with my not having a passport!

Me at the Canadian border - northern terminus for the Conservation Trail
I like to say a big thank you to my father, trail name House the Cat, for his help in making these last miles on the Conservation Trail fun instead of logistically stressful. Thank you!

I would also like to say thank you to Dick's Bicycle Shop, the Grandfather of Bicycles himself had a new water bladder overnighted to me when my other one got snagged on a blackberry bramble some miles back. And I had just happened to pass by his shop in Tonawanda while on trail one morning.
The Boyce Hill Lean-to - complete with handmade bench and stout fire pit. This is the first fire I have lit on the trail as I am normally too tired at the end of the day. However at this shelter I found a stack of dry kindling and logs piled inside as well as a firestarter, not to mention a can of heavy-duty bug spray and a candle to read by.  A nice return indeed.

After this side-trip adventure, I headed back to the main FLT. Oh sweet main trail. It felt so good to return to my eastwardly direction and the well-maintained, easy to follow trail. I have had the pleasure of staying in a number of lovely lean-to's along my route since such as the one you see above. I've also had the pleasure of staying with and meeting some new awesome and integral figures to the Finger Lakes Trail...
Dick Hubbard and I at the Camp Rd access point on the FLT
Dick Hubbard, executive director of the Finger Lakes Trail, and his wife Mary-Jo were kind enough to invite me into their home for the evening...and during a Father's Day dinner party to boot! The whole fam was incredibly fun and I had the opportunity to talk trail with the man who orchestrates for, strategizes about, and gets his hands dirty maintaining the trail. Dick and I will be setting up some good outlets to spread the word about the trail as well as my upcoming book over the course of the hike. Thank you Dick and family for your hospitality and support!
The day after my stay with Dick I began my journey on my second branch trail of the FLT, the Letchworth Trail. This trail travels 26 miles through Letchworth State Park, coined the Grand Canyon of the East. Irene Szabo, an FLT and North Country Trail volunteer and editor for both newsletters that these conferences issue to members, picked me up at the trail junction and drove me to the northern terminus where I would hike south back to the main trail. Besides shuttling me, Irene and her 15 1/2 year old dog, Sandy, were excellent company and I enjoyed not only trail talk with Irene who has also completed the trail but a walk at the county park with Sandy. Irene has also been helpful via email in answering a good number of my questions regarding the trail. Thank you, Irene!

A view from just one of the many lookouts along the northern portion of the Letchworth Trail

Mount Morris Dam at the Genesee River in Letchworth State Park

The Letchworth Trail follows along the rim of the gorge that is the pathway for the Genesee River, so powerful and wide that for many years, along with heavy rains, caused major flooding downstream. The Mount Morris Dam, built in 1954, now regulates how much water is allowed through at once. The FLT headquarters is located just across the parking lot from the dam as well, so if you come out to Letchworth, be sure to stop in and say hi to Dick and crew. The Letchworth Trail has thus far, been one of my most favorite portions of the trail - to walk alongside this gorge for miles is incredible, and then to duck into the woods for many miles more on pristine trail with more creeks tumbling over flat shale rock than roads to cross, a treat in and of itself.

A view from the front door of Bossard's Cabin - a privately owned hunting cabin (with four walls!) along the trail which the landowner opens up to thru-hikers. It literally abutts a cow pasture, one of which named Dylan, was particularly friendly, reaching over the fence for a lick whenever he had the chance. Thank you for Bossard's Cabin - without the tree canopy, this was first place I was able to see the moon and stars while on this trail!
Now with the Letchworth Trail complete, I am now back on the main FLT at least for a few more days, after which I'll be embarking upon the 54 Bristol Hills Trail. I have been enjoying sunny, yet cool, weather, and gorgeous trail. The mountains and climbs seem to be getting steeper, the terrain rockier bringing with it the piling of rock walls, and the streams clearing rather than running brown, rich with tannins and seems I'm getting closer to the Catskills.

Before I go... I have a few more to which I'd like to express my gratitude...thank you to Greg and Karen Lovejoy who graciously offered me the use of their power outlets at their house up the road when I was denied (for the first time ever) by the owner of convenience store to charge my phone. Thank you also to Gary, a driver for Maplevale Farms, whom I met at the Sierra Inn in Swain, for the friendly conservation, helping me fill my water bottles, and handing off a slice of pizza to me at the end of my long day. And thank you to my fellow thru-hikers, Shepherd and Star Left who have been a true delight to cross paths with every day and who were so incredibly generous as to offer their vehicle this morning for town resupply while they finished their miles. They too are keeping a trail journal of their adventure from Niagara to the Gulf which can be found here: or at Lastly thank you to Wally Wood, first president of the board for the Finger Lakes Trail, for dreaming up this skin-shredding, muscle-building, heart-lifting beautiful trail!

Monument to Wally Wood, first president of the board for the Finger Lakes Trail and to have the idea to build a trail across New York State - this can be found near the Hesse Lean-to. 
With a full hiker belly, I am also happy to share that I have been eating well out here. The wild edibles have been plentiful and I am enjoying not only some of my faves from the Mountains to Sea Trail, but a host of newbies as well. Stay tuned for a post, filled with lots of pics, about wild edible backpacking treats!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trail Angels and...Hikers of the FLT!

Joe Daley of Ithaca, New York
Over the last week and a half, I have crossed paths with only a handful of folks, but each and every one has been quality - among them trail runners, long-distance hikers, landowners, and even trail angels.

Joe Daley was the first other trail user I met. I had hiked just 5 miles outside of Ellicottville and was camped at a designated site that looked like it hadn't been used in a loooonnng  you can imagine my surprise when Joe came running full speed through the trees as I sat at the grown-over fire ring cooking my dinner on my lil alcohol stove. I just about leaped out of my skin! Turns out Joe has been running the Finger Lakes Trail for 10 years and after realizing just how much he had done, decided he may as well make a point to complete it! Over the last month he has been running 2-3 days a week, about 10 miles each day....and I was the first person he had seen as well. It was so nice to meet you, Joe. I'll be sure to connect with you in Ithaca!

Laura's Ellicottville Country Store and Diner at the intersection of Route 240 and 242
When I found myself suddenly walking miles of road due to a reroute on the trail I had the pleasure of walking right by this country store located at the intersection of 240 and 242 just outside of Ellicottville. Laura, owner of the Ellicottville Country Store and Diner offered me water and place to sit while I'll took a short break. Her store is a collection of handmade crafts, antiques, and delicious treats. Attached to the store is a diner, open Thursday through Sunday for breakfast and lunch that regularly receives a full house. Thank you Laura! And when my next book comes out you can expect to find it here!

I experienced good fortune again when losing track of the trail off of Warner Gulf Road, and after walking several miles up a trail that proved not to be the Conservation Trail, I walked for another mile and half by road to arrive in the center of the town of Holland. It was pouring rain and I dashed into the local pharmacy for assistance with my directions and again, some water. I never got the name of the nice girl who worked behind the counter there but she never batted an eye at my bedraggled self and was helpful as could be...thank you awesome pharmacy person!

In this same town, a nice man named Chad who worked for the town pulled over and offered me a ride one mile up the hill to the next access point on Vermont Road. It was still raining and I was exhausted. Thank you, Chad!

Just some days ago, I ended up going longer mileage than expected due to poor water along the roads that I had thought I would depend upon for hauling to camp. At 7:00pm and 17 miles for the day, when faced with going another 2 miles to a possible water source, Tim on Bear Road came through with filling up my water bottles and friendly conversation. Thank you, Tim!

Shepherd, Star Left, and Mike

And....on this same day that Tim graciously assisted me with fresh water, I met Sheperd near dusk hiking the opposite direction along the Conservation Trail. I was hiking quickly to beat the setting sun, thinking only of where to get my next H20 and lay my tent for the night when Shepherd emerged from the brush and declared, "So there is someone else hiking this trail," in quiet awe. "Well, my God, there is." I answered. We spoke only briefly as the mosquitoes had found us and we both had miles to do but in that short time he told me of he and his partner's, Star Left, mission and of a man named Mike who lived on Bailey Road who, by random meeting, was hosting them for the night. He said that he was sure Mike would be happy to have me too and they were as eager to talk to another hiker as I was.

Shepherd and Star Left are hiking, in one continuous trek, from Niagara Falls to the Gulf of Mexico by linking the Conservation Trail to the Finger Lakes Trail to the Crystal Hills Branch to the Great Eastern Trail, and then by Shepherd's path that he has traced himself by smaller trails and connecting roads. They expect to be to their destination by November.

Unfortunately, I did not make it to Bailey Road that night and thought perhaps I had missed my one and only chance to chat with my fellow thru-hiker peeps. But the next morning as I was just a few steps into my hike for the day I met Star Left who was out doing her miles for the day. We talked excitedly and she decided she'd turn around and walk back to Mike's on Bailey Road with me so that we could all compare notes.

The gourmet meal cooked up by Mike - pancakes with fresh bananas, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cheese, and Field Garlic (Allium vineale), and grapefruit.
Compare notes we did, but that was not all that went down. Mike was incredibly gracious and cooked up this incredible meal you see above on just one burner in a small trailer that he's calling home while he renovates his childhood home on the same land. We shared the space with chickens and kittens and a goat and dined outside at a makeshift table using what we could find about the property. We ate and chatted and laughed and swapped stories and honestly the whole experience was timeless. I could have been anywhere at all and it mattered not. Thank you Mike for sharing your space and your food and your company. Thank you Shepherd and Star Left for your company and pointers and for bringing me to Mike's and hopefully I will see you further down the Finger Lakes Trail!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Conservation Trail

Grinnin' at the start of the Conservation Trail just outside of Ellicottville
Last week when I set off from my hotel in Ellicottville, within just 12.5 miles I was marched onto my first branch trail of the Finger Lakes Trail. If you recall from my other posts, the Finger Lakes Trail is approximately 560 miles long, however also possesses six side trails which comprise about another 300 miles for a total of 860 miles. The Conservation Trail (CT) is by far the longest of all these branch trails, stretching out for 119 miles to Niagara Falls and the Canadian border.

Now I must be honest...I was damn happy to see this branch trail as the main Finger Lakes Trail had put me through the wringer, giving me a taste of all the challenging aspects of this trail (all that I know of at this point at least). I had lost track of the trail for a short period of time and had to double back, I had dodged some loggers when I realized I was on closed trail and then had to reroute myself down miles of country road to get to the next access point to the trail, I had clawed through waist high weeds in lumpy rolling farm hills, and above all I had slogged, sloshed, and slid my way through mud, mud, and more mud.

However....what I didn't realize upon boarding the ride that the Conservation Trail has proven to be was that I was leaving the round-top mountainous region of the western New York and entering the northwestern lowland....where the mud only got deeper...especially when it rained.

The last round-top mountains I saw on the main FLT
A typical sight while walking along the tractor trails through farm land
A particularly wet part of the trail walking below the powerlines
As a result, the Conservation Trail has not had the steep up and downs with which the main FLT was regularly putting along my path, but it has had all of the other challenges, only greater. The CT travels through a great deal of private property and so is regularly being rerouted as landowners dictate - they may need the land for logging, hunting, or simply wish to not have hikers going through their backyard. As a result, the trail winds and squiggles through the woods and with many of these properties being closed from October through May for hunting season as well as the small foot traffic this trail seems to see, these woods paths have grown up. The blazing is excellent thanks to the diligent work of volunteers like the Foothills Trail Club and FLTC trail crews in the area, but one cannot help the vegetation that naturally takes over. In many places there is essentially no footpath and so one must tromp on keeping a close lookout for trees bearing orange paint. Much of the land is evergreen and mixed hardwood forest, marshy grassy swaths and freshly tilled or fallow farmland.
But then there are considerable stretches of pristine trail that makes one realize how much work it takes to actually make a trail and what an incredible pleasurable experience it is to set your body to cruise control and just take in the sights.
Hunter's Creek Park - boardwalk completed by the FLTC Alley Cat Crew 2011

Trail just outside of the tiny town of Holland - notice the orange blaze on tree and stairs to right placed by FLTC Alley Cat Crew 2008-2010
Now all of this technically difficult and messy hiking may not sound all that appealing but there are perks, believe me. Such as the sound of rain falling on the tin roof of a shelter in Darien Lakes State Park while lightening bugs flicker around your head and the woods suddenly brighten and go black as lightening flashes...or the whirring of nighttime insects and croaking of toads in the marshy streams that flow slowly past nearly every place you sleep and the raindrops that seem to cling to each white petal of a blackberry flower whose brambles you had cursed moments before and sit carefully poised atop each leaf of a Jewelweed plant, and you are reminded of just how it got its name. Oh and the wild flower snacks of the common waste place weeds like Dame's Rocket and Yellow Wood Sorrel and Field Garlic bulblets....and let's not forget the wildlife and farm animals and fun signs too...
Jewelweed (Impatiens spp.) - This plant when young can be eaten as a potherb after boiled in several changes of water. Also, when crushed, the fresh juice from this plant may be applied topically to any place one may have come in contact with poison ivy. I  don't normally suffer from this allergy but just in case, I did just this after walking through an abundance of it the other day - no bumps to date! 
Dame's Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) - a member of the Mustard family (Brassicaeae) - it's leaves may be eaten raw or cooked and taste just a cultivated mustard green would taste but more bitter; it's flowers may also be plucked and eaten raw for a wild invasive trailside treat. Be sure to not confuse Dame's Rocket with Phlox (Phlox spp.) which has opposite leaves and flowers with five petals.
What hike through the countryside is complete without a herd of cows clumsily galloping over the hills to follow you on your way - luckily this eager crew were behind a fence unlike some other encounters I can recall along the MST.
Apparently in Erie County you should be on your awares for cowgirls riding tractors
Last but not least, I have  also had the help  and company of some incredible folks...this trail may be one of solitude but the few I have encountered have been quality. I want to showcase these folks in their own post to follow this one, so please do check that one out as well!
Also, I'll be posting more pics regularly to my facebook page: The Botanical Hiker, so if you want some more insight to what plant life is out here as well as what's it's like to be out here on this trek, be sure to click on the link to the left of this page or click on this link to follow me:

Monday, June 8, 2015

Little Rock City

Trail  through the rock maze Little Rock City State Forest
The past 3 days have been a mix of every kind of terrain imaginable. I've walked easy goin' country roads passing front-yard farms and horse pastures, huffed and puffed up steep seemingly endless forest roads, and slogged through muddy trail and 12 inch deep muddy logging paths.

Trail along an active logging road
And these are just the roads! About which I'd like to make a quick note - I was curious if the northerners living around the FLT would be as willing and open towards a stranger as the southerners were along the MST - this is no knock against the northerners, I express this concern from my own personal experience and northern perspective, we do tend to be a little more leery. the first five miles of my roadwalk 2 days ago, I had 2 cars pull over and offer me help, food, water, and even a cold beer, not to mention a lady holler from her front porch to me, "Have a good day!" If these folks are any indication, I'd say I should be well received in these lil New York towns...ya know...maybe we aren't all that different after all. Well, except for maybe our dogs - they all seemed to be leashed.

Trail through a tornado devastated area-this area was thick with trees except for a wide grassy corridor in this saddle

I've climbed steep leafy trails, and descended through thick woods with barely a path beneath me and only blazes marking the way, strolled through open fields and forests of tall Hemlock and Spruce over soft beds of needles.

Oh and over gas pipelines, and ski slopes, across railroad tracks and past cell towers.

Railroad through the tiny town of Salamanca

But Little Rock City was by far the highlight. I hiked for a long ways along dirt forest road through the park, catching glimpses of what was to come by the seemingly random giant boulders that sat shrouded in the woods by tall trees, ferns, and blackberry brambles. But after a long uphill climb I reached this enchanted place.

Entrance to the rock maze of Little Rock City State Forest
Here the trail wound me through a literal maze of boulders the size of two-story houses. The corridors therein trapped cool moist air and smelled of moss and dirt and stone. At my feet were bright green mosses, large Trillium (Trillium) leaves (the flowers already past), Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), Common Wood Sorrel (Oxalis montana), Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), and Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum).

Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum)

 Atop these giant rocks were forests as well, where these same mosses and wildflowers had made their home as well as Yellow Birch Trees (Betula alleghaniensis) that had found just enough soil to survive as saplings and then when they needed more nutrients inched their roots down the rock faces to the earth below.
Roots of Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

And Ferns. All around me, above, below, beside me - Christmas Fern (Polystitcum arostichoides), Common Polypody (Polypodium virginianum), Sensitive Fern(Onoclea sensibis), New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis), and perhaps more.

Reproductive spores on a Common Polypody (Polypodium virginianum)
I awoke to heavy rain this morning where I was camped at an old Civil Conservation Corps campsite in the state forest...lucky for me it was a town day. Even better...a town with a hotel. It is predicted to rain throughout the night and tomorrow morning, so I am happily staying the night in Ellicotville. I also have a whole lot of prep to do as I am branching off and following the Conservation Trail tomorrow or the next day (haven't decided on mileage yet). This trail has less resupply and trickier camping....but I say it's worth it to see Niagara Falls!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

First Days on the Finger Lakes Trail

On the border of PA and NY, 1.1 miles along the Finger Lakes Trail
My father, Douglas Houskeeper, at 1.1 miles along the Finger Lakes Trail
The journey has begun! In fact, I am on day 3 of the hike and it has been an absolute dream thus far. My father and I have been graced with the most beautiful weather for hiking - cool mornings and evenings and no warmer than the high seventies during the day, as well as blue skies - the plants have been PLENTIFUL, so many I seem to stop every few feet to take a photo or examine a new species, the insects have been kept at bay thanks to the cool temps, the trail has been a series of mostly moderate ups and downs, but above all it has been a gift to be hiking in my familiar woods again. Sure, I've never been through this particular part of the state before, but as I walk I am keenly aware of how at home I feel amongst these trees, these flowers, these modest round-top mountains, and treading atop the rocky black dirt of the northeast. I am grateful that I get to spend the next two months at home in these woods.

A portion of the trail through Allegany State Park that followed an old railroad bed - we found just one piece of rusted iron from the track, all other traces were long gone
Wild Geranium - Geranium maculatum
English Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
Blue Star Grass (Sisyrinchium spp.)
As my father and I made the drive on Tuesday, I was very aware of how after we passed the traffic of Scranton and then nearby Binghampton, the exits for nearby towns seemed to be fewer and further between. Past an exit for Ithaca and then through Elmira, highway 86 then became bumpy and rutted and shared the road with only the occasional Mack Truck. We drove through a narrow valley made up of green rounded ridges on either side and sparkling rivers - the Susquehanna, Cohocton, and Genesee. This landscape was spacious. I recognized town names on the passing signs from my maps, and realized that we were indeed following (at times) the same route that the trail would. Yes this trail would be different from the frequent civilization of the Mountains to Sea Trail, however similar in that there would be few to no hikers.

Thus far, I have been right. We saw just one couple that was hiking together roll into the first shelter we stayed at, Willis Creek, and the next day, a father and son out foraging for Chaga. Oh...and our awesome shuttle person, Gene Cornelius!

I reached out to Gene, a member of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference and FLT trail crew leader, who lives in the area to see if he could help with shuttling us to the beginning of the trail. Well Gene not only helped us out with a ride but made a point to cruise by where the trail would exit the woods near Salamanca, the town we'd be walking into on our third day. As we did, and saw little sign of the trail, he suspected there may be a reroute. Although there was little to no cell service, he said he would try and give us a ring throughout the day with more information. Gene did more than give us a ring...he walked the trail from a road crossing and appeared at the Willis Creek Lean-to later that evening with a sketched map of the reroute and point by point instructions. He was concerned we'd get turned out trying to find our way back to town. Trail people are some of the most thoughtful folks I've ever met. Thank you, Gene!

Part of the reroute that Gene informed us of - we walked this ATV trail along the power lines for 1.5 miles.
As you can see from the photo above, this trail is still expected to have its bits and pieces of civilized turf connecting the wilderness portions and lemme tell was a just a lil strange after being in the silence of the woods with nothing more than owl hoot, birdsong, and snapping of twigs for over 2 days, to walk this path with the hum of I-86 just behind the trees. And then, after literally hopping, splashing, and sinking through a mud swamp at the end of these lines due to construction, to glimpse the golden arches of McDonalds above the treetops and then, the massive structure that is the Seneca Casino here in Salamanca.

Signs such as these have been frequent, regularly reminding me of just how far I'm going
And now I hike on! I figure I should be in Ellicottville within the next 3 days. This will be the first leg of the trek on my own without the security of knowing I have a vehicle and hotel waiting for me once I reach town. A wee daunting. But also so awesome to be on a trail completely unknown to me with the chance of beauty hidden just over each ascent, descent, or around the bend.