Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Return to the Catskill Forest Preserve

Trail through the Catskill Forest Preserve 

It had been nearly a year since I had laid my body down on a hard lean-to floor in the blackness of the night after a day of hiking with dreams of feet upon trail yet again the next day. Everyday life has a way of making that kind of time pass without even realizing it is passing. I'm sure I'd know it if I awoke one day and realized I had spent an entire year on the trail. I suppose writing a book and falling in love also has that effect...the rest of the world falls away.  Speaking of love...my partner and I also hadn't yet had the opportunity to take on an overnight trek together although we had been talking about it since nearly the day we met, also one year ago.

I searched for several days for the perfect route. The Appalachian Trail...too crowded. Nearby favorite trails....sure to be accompanied by other campers enjoying the primo spots on a summer night.  My mind naturally went to the Finger Lakes Trail, remembering my 60 nights of solitude last summer...but wouldn't it be nice to go somewhere I hadn't yet explored? My last week on the Finger Lakes Trail included some of the most beautiful terrain I had encountered along the entire trail. I remember reaching the end of the trail in Claryville and although I was tired, still wishing that I could walk just another day's worth of miles further in the Catskill Forest Preserve.

Blaze on a Birch

That was it. I would make a return to the Catskill Forest Preserve but to explore a section of trail neither of us had yet traveled. I unearthed a map that had been gifted to me by my childhood dentist, dated 1989, along with a yellowing New York Walk Book from the same year and planned a route. Of course I did make a point to check online to confirm that the trail hadn't been consumed by the woods over the last 20years.

Our route through the Catskill Forest Preserve 

Much to my delight, this route would not only include two days in the Catskill Forest Preserve but a taste of the Long Path, New York's other long-distance trail of 357 miles. Our plan was to hike a 4 mile route to Batavia Kill Lean-to, summitting Blackhead Mountain along the way. That plan - like most hiking plans - was stymied after driving 2 hours under bright blue skies only to arrive at the trailhead in a deluge. Luckily our black cloud lasted for only an hour which we waited out in the truck. With less time to hike, we hiked 1.5 miles straight to the lean-to where we dropped packs and headed for a nearby vista which was reportedly more picturesque than the wooded summit of Blackhead anyway.

Looking back towards lean-to while en route to vista (trail descends straight down at the end of that green tunnel)

The short hike to the vista was strenuous, going straight-up even if it was only 400 feet. The view was rather overgrown but at least it got our blood pumping. At the top the temps cooled dramatically and the wind picked up, spraying light mist over our bare arms and legs....when the black cloud threatened to return so we scrambled back down to the lean-to. I spent nearly two months hiking in the rain last summer...I would avoid it at all costs on this foray.

Batavia Kill lean-to 

It rained for all of an hour and the black cloud retreated for the night, leaving sunset colored pink and orange fog in its wake and a cool night free of bugs. By the time the night stole the light, the clouds cleared revealing a sky so filled with stars it was dizzying to the senses. Lightning bugs joined in the golden flickering revelery as did two tiny eyes of a mouse that appeared now and again to see if we had dropped any crumbs. That night we laid down in the blackness of the night to a forest so quiet I am convinced that all the crickets and toads must have left for a party on the other side of Blackhead Mountain. Remarkably...just a few hours on the trail and an evening in a lean-to with my love had left my mind equally unoccupied.

The next morning was reminiscent of fall and mind you this was a day when the downtown temps of Hunter, New York were 88 degrees. The sky was brillant blue and air was crisp for the first time in weeks. We wore long shirt-sleeves while sipping morning coffee and marveled at how it hinted of autumn to come, reminding us to soak up the summer, hazy heat and all, because before we know it, the leaves will be falling. It was a perfect day for hiking.

View from a vista

On this day we did a 3 mile route, following the Long Path over Acra Point. Although we climbed up on our way, it was gradual for the Catskills, and the trail was pristine. Paper Birches (Betula papyrifera), Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum), Striped Maple (Acer pennsylvanica), and Balsam-firs (Abies balsamea) lined the trail. Large boulders covered in rock tripe dotted the woods and mounds of soft green moss carpeted the trailside. The Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) had evidently just bloomed, the Asters (Aster acuminatus) were growing tall adding whorls of leaves onto their stems, and the Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) were just beginning to ripen. It was high summer here in these mountains.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)


Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.)
Cherries (Prunus spp.)

Common Wood Sorrel leaves (Oxalis montana)
Reaching Acra point was by far the pinnacle of the hike. We had stopped to lunch at another vista believing it to be the summit, atop a large rock with a view of the valley below. It had been lovely...but paled in comparison to this view.

View from Acra Point

Another view from Acra Point
The large flat rock was perfect for laying atop in the noon-day sun. We lazed about nibbling ripe blueberries and gazing out at the layers of green mountains. I hadn't seen a view this remarkable since I had been in Asheville. The woods surrounding Acra Point offered a stark contrast of darkness to the clarified light of Acra Point's silver-grey flat rock. The forest floor was a carpet of rusty colored evergreen needles and moss of every color. We rested here and drank up the beauty of this mountain, filling our reserves before walking the last 1.5 miles back to where we began in the parking lot.

As we descended, the trail leveled out following Batavia Kill Stream and the temps rose even in the shade of the woods. Tiny flies and mosquitoes returned happy for a taste of our newly christened hiker skin. It was as if we were descending from somewhere far further away than a mere 1000 feet.

Batavia Kill Creek

Driving home that late afternoon, we marveled at how the rest of the world looked renewed. Sights we had passed along the drive that we had failed to notice in our haste to get to the trail now caught our attention...tiny backyard farms, crumbling barns and dilapidated country inns, snaking gravel country roads that led to yet more places unknown to us....and that night we even noticed the sound of the crickets through the thick walls of our bedroom when we turned off the air conditioner, our skin already acclimated to the balmy summer air. That is indeed the magic of a good hike...it doesn't end when you leave the trail but rather accompanies you home, affecting all of your perceptions and coloring them with the beauty of where you have been.

Scott and me at Acra Point

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