Taking a Hike – The Winter Giant

The Mill River, Sleeping Giant State Park

The Mill River, Sleeping Giant State Park

It was summer the last time I hiked the Sleeping Giant. If you live in the US northeast, you might be idealizing summer right now. Here are some things I remember from that July hike – stickiness, bugs, bug bites, sweat, still air, and a daughter saying “it’s too hot”.

I went back to the Giant at the end of last month, all alone this time. Clammy? Of course not. Bugs? What are they? Instead I found blue skies, brilliant ice, pristine snow, tree shadows, and sharp-focus views. Let’s not damn winter just because it has stayed with us a little too long this year – again!

“Taking a Hike”, my monthly newspaper column, is this month about the winter hike from the Giant’s head to his foot, and back to his noggin again. The column was published this week in both The Hour (A perfect day at Sleeping Giant) and at Hersam-Acorn Arts & Leisure (Sleeping Giant in Winter).

Valley of the Macedonia Brook, looking north.

Valley of the Macedonia Brook, looking north.

December 2014’s “Taking a Hike” – more snow, this time at Thanksgiving at Macedonia Brook in Kent, CT – is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2014: “Dec – Macedonia Brook” – or by clicking here).

Hiking Read – In the Abode of the Gods

Kawa Karpo - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and  Jan Reurink

Kawa Karpo – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Jan Reurink

I hope this post will be the first of many about good hiking reads. I’d like to share what I have enjoyed, and perhaps get ideas in return. I’ve been prodded into this new territory by a gift.

Last month, for my birthday, my eldest daughter gave me the 2014 edition of The Best American Travel Writing. I had read none of the previous 13 editions, but was inspired to get stuck into this one because its editor was Paul Theroux, author of The Great Railway Bazaar and my favorite travel writer. I flipped through the contents, looking for an essay to read first, and settled for In the Abode of the Gods by Jeffrey Tayler. Mr. Tayler’s name did not ring a bell, but his first paragraphs promised a hike, the best mode of travel, railways notwithstanding.

Tayler’s hike is a 15-day pilgrimage around Kawa Karpo, a mountain on the border between the Chinese province of Yunnan and Tibet that is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. The hike starts on the upper reaches of the Mekong River. You can read In the Abode of the Gods free of charge at World Hum, so I won’t précis it here. I’ll just mention a few things I liked:

  • Tayler’s occasionally poetic prose (“Downward we strode, our mules’ bells ringing.”)
  • Background information – what makes Tibetan Buddhism “Tibetan”; the relations between the Chinese government and the Tibetan inhabitants of the region …
  • Glimpses into the lives of Tayler’s local husband-and-wife guides.
  • That Tayler explains why he is on the trek (“long enamored of Buddhism”) but is otherwise quite self-effacing.

Because I enjoyed In the Abode of the Gods, I googled Tayler to find out more about him. Only then did I realize I had read him before, a book called River of No Reprieve about a boat journey down the Lena River in Siberia. I enjoyed that too, and no doubt will reread it soon, even though it is not about a hike.

Day Hike Notes – The Frozen Giant

When I drive up Route 15 and I-91 toward Hartford (and with daughters at UConn, I do this quite often), I don’t think of the landscape I pass through as holding much in the way of interest. Mostly the windshield shows a movie of trees, unspectacular hills, and suburbia.

Looking east / southeast from the Sleeping Giant tower.

Looking east / southeast from the Sleeping Giant tower.

But on Friday, from the top of the stone tower that sits on the Sleeping Giant, I looked out on this same landscape, and it was full of feature! To the east, far beyond the knolls of the Giant itself, ran a long ridge, its escarpment looking like sheer cliff in places. It was impressive, and I decided later it was the eastern line of the Metacomet Ridge (the Giant forming part of the western line). To the north of the Giant, rose two smooth, wooded humps, side by side. Were these the Hanging Hills, another manifestation of the Metacomet Ridge?

Hikes have a habit of suggesting other hikes, and now I wanted to explore the Metacomet Ridge. Fortunately, there are trails that will help me – the Mattabesett and Metacomet trails (part of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association blue-blazed system) lead from Durham’s Pistapaug Mountain in the south to Meriden’s Hanging Hills, and indeed right up into Massachusetts if I so choose. One day. In the meantime, next time I drive to UConn, I will appreciate tunneling under the Metacomet at West Rock and passing through a gap in it beneath Higby Mountain east of Meriden.

On Friday, the Sleeping Giant itself served up a fine hike and scenery. Notes and photos:

On Hezekiah's Knob, Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden CT

On Hezekiah’s Knob, Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden CT

DATE: Friday, February 27th.
START & FINISH: Sleeping Giant State Park Mt Carmel Ave entrance (off Route 10 in Hamden, CT).
ROUTE: Out – Violet trail all the way to Chestnut Lane. Back – White to Hezekiah’s Knob; Blue to stone tower; tower path to beneath Giant’s chin; Blue again over chin and head.
DISTANCE: About 7 miles.
TIME: Just under 5 hours (9:10-2:00).
TERRAIN: Packed-snow trails (deep, loose snow on some little-trafficked stretches of Blue east of the tower). Gentle ups and downs (Violet); steeper ups and downs (White, Blue); butt-scramble (descent from Giant’s head).
MAP: Color map from SG Park Association.

WEATHER: Sunny, calm, cold (20s).
WILDLIFE: Two turkey vultures took off (briefly) from a south-facing cliff face just beneath me. I think I disturbed their sunbathing.

PHOTOS: Here.

BREAKFAST: Shef’s Bagels, Cheshire
LUNCH: A burger at Five Guys, New Haven, on the drive home.
UPS: The views from the stone tower, particularly east-ish, toward what I took to be the Metacomet Ridge.
DOWNS: None whatsoever.
KIT: I suspect my microspikes were essential to my enjoyment (even safety for the descent from the Giant’s head).
COMPANY: None on the way out, a few hikers on the way back, especially on the tower path.

Taking a Hike – January in Scotland

Loch Lomond from the Ben Lomond path

Loch Lomond from the Ben Lomond path

Southern Upland Way looking toward the Lowther Hills

Southern Upland Way looking toward the Lowther Hills

You would not choose to travel to Scotland in January to hike. Winter hiking, I suspect, is everywhere a local’s thing. Best to have years of experience of the terrain and weather, best to be able to head out at short notice when conditions are most favorable. I have hiked plenty in Scotland, but in the mild, light seasons.

Last month a family funeral took me to Glasgow – not as cold as the US Northeast, but windier, darker, and icy enough. “Taking a Hike”, my monthly newspaper column, is this month about some hiking I did after the funeral and family visits. The column was published this week in both The Hour (Winter hikes in Scotland) and at Hersam-Acorn Arts & Leisure (Winter in Scotland has its rewards).

The Wildcat River, New Hampshire, after rain

The Wildcat River, New Hampshire, after rain

November’s “Taking a Hike” – New Hampshire’s Wild River Wilderness – is now available in full on this site (via the Taking a Hike tab – 2014: “Nov – Wild River Wilderness” – or by clicking here).

Coming to Terms with Snowshoes

Meadow, Brinckerhoff Preserve, Redding CT

Meadow, Brinckerhoff Preserve, Redding CT

“Snowshoes don’t allow you to magically skim across the surface like a water strider on a summer pond,” advised an article I read recently. Well, that is just too bad, because I really wish they did precisely that. When I set out from Redding’s Brinckerhoff Preserve yesterday afternoon, I thought I might hike over to the ledges on the far side of the Devil’s Den, a round-trip of 6 or 7 miles. I had brought microspikes and snowshoes, but it was soon obvious that it was the snowshoes I’d be wearing; and equally obvious, as I crossed the big meadow near the Preserve entrance, that big feet would not stop me sinking plenty into the powder.

Ensor's Trace trail, NW corner of the Devil's Den, Weston CT

Ensor’s Trace trail, NW corner of the Devil’s Den, Weston CT

It was a beautiful afternoon to be out, cold but cloudless. The bright, white woods were a joy to see – but a pain to walk through. I still sank 6 inches into the snow with every step, and my big clown feet increased the physical and mental effort expended. I moved forward too slowly for my liking, but sweated to do so. Winter hikers should avoid sweat, as wet layers will chill soon enough; but I baulked at the bother of stripping off and stowing my jacket. Not far over the line into the Devil’s Den – a line that is also the Redding-Weston boundary – I knew the ledges would be beyond me.

Ravine and hidden brook, Ensor's Trace, Devil's Den

Ravine and hidden brook, Ensor’s Trace, Devil’s Den

After covering perhaps a mile and a half in an hour, helped here and there where deer had trampled down the snow, I stopped where the trail called Ensor’s Trace meets the Donahue Trail and a brook. Although this spot is less than half a mile from people’s homes, it felt that it could have been deep in big woods. No one had come this way since the last snowfall. Apart from a solitary trail marker sticking out of the snow, there were no human sights or sounds. I had hoped to look out from high ledges, but this patch of woods would do just fine.

Brinckerhoff meadow again, 2 hours later

Brinckerhoff meadow again, 2 hours later

I have owned snowshoes for a while, but have not used them frequently. I might need to improve my technique, or at least manage my expectations. By the time I was back at the big meadow, I felt like I’d had a good workout. This morning I got an e-mail from a hiking buddy talking about his new snowshoes. “They are a remarkable improvement over boots alone in deeper snow,” he says. I guess that is the point. You don’t magically skim over the surface, but at least you are out in the snow.

A New Hike Arrives in the Mail

Vue du Mont-Blanc depuis les chalets de Varan, au dessus de Passy

Mont-Blanc from the chalets of Varan — courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and “TL”

Nine months ago I reconnected with a friend. I probably don’t need to add that this happened on Facebook. The last time this friend and I actually met was so long ago that I cannot place it. We first got acquainted in 1986, when we were part of a group of trainees that joined Reuters news agency at the same time. That was in London, but few of us stayed in London for very long, our friendships interrupted by overseas postings.

What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with hiking? I am getting there. When Seetha and I reconnected, we caught up on the big stuff – where we are each living, number and age of kids, what we are working at …  Then, a few weeks ago, Seetha said in a message that she wanted to send me a package. What was my home address? I was intrigued, but soon forgot about the matter when I became embroiled in an unexpected trip.

Well, last week a package arrived for me. It contained a thick paperback called The Bible of Mont-Blanc Hiking. I must have mentioned to Seetha that I liked to hike, and to write about it afterwards. Flipping through the Bible, I noticed the tables of information for each hike – 107 of them! I noticed the rough maps full of unfamiliar but exciting names – Col du Bonhomme, Gorge de la Veudale, Torrent de Miage …  There were photos of glaciers, jaggedy peaks, and mountain “refuges” that appeared to put the Appalachian Mountain Club’s rough huts to shame. Then I noticed that the book was signed by its author, Robert Quan, and Robert wished me happy trails.

I was, of course, very touched that Seetha would go to the trouble of sending me a book by a man she knew through a writers’ group in Geneva. But receiving the book also made me think that we should act on this kind of serendipity. I had not really thought about hiking in the Alps (my wilder thoughts recently have turned to Greenland or the Spanish Pyrenees if I should ever have the chance). But at the end of Robert’s book is a section on The International Tour of Mont-Blanc, a 10-day circuit of the mountain through France, Italy, and Switzerland. I’ve made a mental note of the Tour for an autumn adventure one day – an adventure with a tent; Robert says that those swanky-looking refuges mostly close in mid-September.

The Bible of Mont-Blanc Hiking by Robert Quan

The Bible of Mont-Blanc Hiking

Day Hike Notes – Pine Mountain via Bennett’s Pond

Bennett Ponds from Pine Mountain, Ridgefield CT

Bennett Ponds from Pine Mountain, Ridgefield CT

I have been thinking it’s about time I led another Appalachian Mountain Club group hike. The last one was back at Halloween. But where? The Devil’s Den again? I’ll never get tired of the Den, but after my New Year strolls at Bennett’s Pond, I had a hankering to try the trails that lead out of the state park into Ridgefield open spaces – Pine Mountain and Hemlock Hills. But you shouldn’t lead a hike you haven’t done yourself, so on Friday afternoon I set out for Pine Mountain all alone. I had hoped to do so over the weekend, but snow was forecast for Saturday, and Friday’s perfect weather was excuse enough to leave my desk early.

DATE: Friday, January 23rd.
START & FINISH: Bennett’s Pond State Park entrance, Bennetts Farm Rd, Ridgefield CT.
ROUTE: Green trail anticlockwise to meet White trail, then White to Red, and Red to Yellow. Anticlockwise circuit of Pine Mountain on Yellow, then back to Green on Red and White. Return to starting point on Green, anticlockwise.
DISTANCE: My guess, a little under 5 miles.
TIME: 2.5 hours.
TERRAIN: Gentle gradients on Green and White trails, although extensive ice (often hidden sneakily under a dusting of snow) made the going treacherous on many stretches. The south-facing Red trail into Pine Mountain open space was ice-free, but steep. Pine Mountain circuit is up and down, with one seat-of-the-pants descent made necessary by the slippery conditions.
MAPS: Two – Bennett’s Pond State Park and Pine Mountain open space.

WEATHER: Perfect blue skies, temperature about freezing.
WILDLIFE: Nothing much that I recall.

PHOTOS: Here.

Near Summit of Pine Mountain

Near Summit of Pine Mountain

LUNCH: Second half of a store-bought wrap, eaten on the move.
UPS:
– I am still delighted with Bennett Ponds, a place I discovered only at the very end of last year. They were frozen and white for this hike.
DOWNS:
– Feeling under time pressure can kill a hike, and I felt short of time on this one (things to get done at home before going out to the movies with my wife and youngest in the evening).
KIT: I should have brought my boot chains for the icy stretches.
COMPANY: None at all.