Four Seasons, Four States, Four Pictures

I asked a friend recently if he’d been getting out much. I meant, of course, getting out to hike. He replied, with a hint of surprise that I wasn’t familiar with his routine, “every day!”.

I think I would like to take a long hike every day, but for now I can’t. This is not a complaint. Other things that I (mostly) want to do take up time. So, when I look back on 2016, hiking has been a frequent pleasure, not – as it could easily become – a way of life.

Mainly on account of those other things, my hiking this year was “confined” to the US Northeast (though it’s a crazy idea that New England could confine any hiker). The big event was discovering the central part of my home state on the 111 miles of the New England Trail that run through Connecticut. Another big event was hiking the whole year without the knee trouble that plagued me in the second half of 2015. I am very grateful for that.

Resolutions for 2017: backpack more; get out west again, or overseas; get into a routine of leading AMC hikes locally.

As I have done for a couple of years now, here is a hiking highlight for each season of the year that is now coming to an end. Happy Holidays and the best of trails in 2017!

WINTER: Just the right amount of snow in Fahnestock State Park (New York, February).

The path to the Appalachian Trail, Fahnestock SP

Short path to the Appalachian Trail

SPRING: Hitting the heights of the Bigelow Range (Maine, June 1st).

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Avery Peak from West Peak

SUMMER: A steamy day on the Metacomet Ridge (Connecticut, July)

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The Hanging Hills in the distance

FALL: About to be rained on at the lower of the Greeley ponds, White Mountains (New Hampshire, October).

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Mad River Notch and a spur of Mount Osceola

Wittenberg Mountain, December

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Wittenberg Mountain Summit

I remember planning this hike at work. Back then, I commuted three or four days a week into Union Square, New York. I traveled a lot too; not for a quick meeting in Chicago, but 15-hours-on-your-butt-each-way trips. Then there were the pre-dawn and late-night telephone conferences. The feeling of being trapped and sapped by all this gave my hike-planning urgency. I needed to get outdoors.

I bought leggings and liner gloves at Paragon Sports on Broadway, and – if my photo timestamps are to be believed – took Friday December 10th 2010 as a day off. Since I had major cobwebs to blow away, I headed not for my local woods and hills, but to the Catskill Mountains. I had good memories – one in particular – of hiking the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide Trail before, but that had been in late May.

I don’t recall much of the 3.4-mile, 2,500-foot climb from valley to peak. I do remember that it was cold in the valley, but with little or no snow. As I climbed, ice lay underfoot, and I did not own microspikes back then. Higher up, snow covered the trail, but not so much as to impede progress. On Wittenberg summit, it was – leggings and two layers of gloves notwithstanding – far too cold to linger long.

I did something on this hike that I have never done on a day-hike before or since – I carried a stove, and with it a 1-pound can of soup, probably Beef Barley. I started down from the summit with a pretty good idea of where to set up kitchen.

[Flashback to the spring hike, and the particularly good memory: I am hiking the side trail to Terrace Mountain when I hear movement in the trailside brush. I look ahead and see a sleek black bear, too busy grazing to pay much attention to me. I shout and clap, and the bear retreats a few yards and resumes its grazing. I clap harder. The bear runs into the trees. Sometime after this encounter, the adrenalin only slowly wearing off, I find an open, rocky area where campers have built rock-slab seats and a rough hearth. I rest and eat, alert for any movement coming from the surrounding woods.]

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Soup and tortillas on Terrace Mountain

Coming down Wittenberg Mountain, warming up a little, I headed for Terrace Mountain, which is really just a spur of the Wittenberg ridge. I thought how the bear would be hibernating by now. But when I reached the place where I judged the encounter took place, there were clawed tracks  in the snow, and pale blood smeared among them! I was even less expert at reading tracks then than now, and could not be sure what happened here. Maybe my bear was involved, or maybe a raccoon caught a squirrel. But as I heated my soup at the rough hearth in the rocky area, I was  again hyper-alert to any sound in the surrounding woods.

I would like to say that on Monday, December 13th 2010, I returned to Union Square restored, but I do not remember. Hikes do restore, but alas even the drive home is sometimes enough to undo the good work.

Bears on the Brain at Jacques Lake

Looking north from Jacques Lake outflow

Looking north from Jacques Lake outflow

Jacques Lake is in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. It is not a big lake, but it sits in the spruce forest beneath massive, bare-rock peaks. There is a primitive campground at the lake’s northern end, 7.5 trail miles from the park road. When we told the warden (as Canadians call rangers) in Jasper town that we were thinking of spending a night at the campground, he said something like “A group encountered a nuisance bear up there a few days ago. They ended up taking refuge in the warden cabin. There’ve been no reports since, so you should be OK.”

So when my middle daughter (nearly 14 back then) and I set off for Jacques Lake the next day, bears were on our mind. It was a rainy day. We’d covered our packs in blue trash bags, and Caroline, a photograph reminds me, had on a red poncho. We had hardly walked any distance at all when Caroline said “Dad, it’s a bear!”.

The trail was swinging left, and Caroline was walking on my right, so she saw the animal before I did. I had a split second to imagine an enormous grizzly before the fluffy little black bear came into my view. I would not have been surprised to see stuffing falling out of a torn seam behind its ear.

On the trail to Jacques Lake

On the trail to Jacques Lake

But it was close, perhaps 20 yards ahead; and it showed no fear of us, even edging a little closer. Spraying this cub would have felt about as good as kicking a puppy, but even so I unholstered my pepper spray. Mama had to be around. Then cub ran into the undergrowth, from which we continued to hear its movements for a while as we pressed on for the Lake.

The rain eased off as we walked through the afternoon, and angular gray peaks sticking out of forest and cloud did their best to distract us from bear-thoughts. We sang as we hiked though (at least, I did; it was hard to get Caroline to join in the sing-song).

The campground was indeed of backcountry standard. A rough-hewn table and a pulley system for hanging food are the facilities I remember. There was no privy, for sure. On the hike in, I had kept the warden cabin in mind for insurance against nuisance bears. We wandered over to it before supper, but found it unoccupied and locked. We were on our own.

Fresh mid-August snow above Jacques Lake

Fresh mid-August snow above Jacques Lake

The night passed wet and cold, but undisturbed by wildlife. In the morning, there was fresh, mid-August snow on the peaks. Caroline was looking at the scene while I fiddled with gear at the rough-hewn table. Suddenly she said “Look, Dad!”. This time, I thought, it will be that enormous grizzly. I looked up, toward the outflow of Jacques Lake, and saw a large cow moose standing in the rain and the river, ducking for food. Relief and excitement at once.

(I am still grounded from hiking by a bum knee. Reliving old hikes is the next best thing.)

Lost in the Adirondacks

Morning on Brooktrout Lake, West Canada Lake Wilderness

Morning on Brooktrout Lake, West Canada Lake Wilderness

I have badly neglected the Hike List part of this site. In fact, I’m not sure that the list as it is currently conceived and structured is particularly interesting or useful. I am going to have to rethink it. But, in the meantime, I have added (under New York) notes for a 2010 backpack in the Dacks. It was in the company of my youngest daughter, then 10 years old. I don’t think she will ever forget it. I know I won’t.

It was the second afternoon of a three-day trek in the West Canada Lake Wilderness (nearest hamlet, Inlet). We had camped the previous night beside Brooktrout Lake, six miles into the wilderness from a trailhead at the end of miles of dirt road. That second day, we had hiked about ten miles and were on the Cedar Lakes Trail toward – most appropriately – Lost Pond. It was not a good trail, not wide or well-defined. In particular, its blazes were faded and erratic. There were blowdowns, fallen trunks that I suspect had taken blazes with them. We lost the trail once or twice, but soon found it again. This happens a lot when you hike in the woods, even in familiar places. Then, a few hours before sunset, we lost the trail and didn’t find it again.

A doomed young hiker, near Cedar Lakes before we were lost

A doomed young hiker, near Cedar Lakes before we were lost

Using the amount of time we had been hiking on Cedar Lakes Trail, I calculated we were on a particular half-mile section of it. If we bushwhacked north, we would – said the map – run into either Lost Pond or Otter Brook in no more than a quarter-mile, and from either of those features the Lost Pond spur trail would be easily found. Everything is simple on maps.

We followed the red needle of our compass into the woods. It was no easy procession even for a grown-up. The forest was a jumble of spiky blowdowns, ankle-snaring brush, and face-smacking twigs; but we did reach, and cross barefoot, a stream I took to be Otter Brook. The spur trail had to be just a short way ahead. When it didn’t show in the dusk, I was not too worried. We found a space in the forest’s clutter and made camp. We had planned to overnight at Lost Pond anyway. Snug in my sleeping bag, I studied the map by flashlight and fell asleep confident that we would find the trail quickly in the morning by walking north, uphill.

But the trail didn’t show in the morning either. We tried re-crossing the brook to search the south side again. We thought we saw blazes on trees, only to find they were natural stains. We crossed back to the north side, this time not bothering to take our boots off for Otter Brook. I did not fear for our lives. We had food, and shelter from the rain that was starting to fall. My wife knew our route and would raise the alarm when we did not call her that afternoon. But I did fear we would need help to get out, and for the first time in my life I blew my whistle and hollered. No answer. I knew I had to stay calm if I wanted Marjorie to do the same, and to her immense credit she held together, breaking down only once, and briefly, when she slipped on a streamside rock and hurt her tush.

Trail found!

Trail found!

Then, suddenly, it was over. Trying a northerly search again, we saw a vaguely linear thinning of the forest, and wondered if it might prove a trail. We followed it west, hoping. Its trail attributes grew – width, continuity, and eventually a rusty marker tacked to a tree. Four or five hours later, we were bombing down 1-90, and, boy, did it look good.

Panorama of Mist – A Highland Hike Remembered

Falls of Glasallt above Loch Muick, trail to LochnagarSomewhere up here was what the book called an “amazing panorama of mountains and glens”. Too bad all we could see was a few yards of rocky plateau disappearing into dense mist. Somewhere up here too was the chance of losing our bearings, and sheer drops if we did. My companion was my youngest daughter, 11 years old then. I wanted her to reach 12, so turning back was the wise choice.

We were on a mountain in Scotland called Lochnagar. It’s an odd name for a mountain, as if Mt Washington were called Lakes of the Clouds instead. Lochnagar (pronounced Loch-na-GAR) comes from Gaelic, and means something like “noisy lake”. It’s a small loch in a cirque of the mountain, but has come to mean the mountain itself.

I posted last year about a hike in the Orkney Islands in July 2011. Lochnagar was on the same trip. We stopped in the Cairngorm Mountains – of which Lochnagar is loosely one – on our journey north. We set out from Spittal of Glenmuick (nothing to do with spittle or muck), and followed the shore of Loch Muick. (“Muick” comes from the Gaelic for pig, so I guess I lied about the muck.) There were foxgloves in the fresh bracken as we climbed above the loch to the Falls of Glasallt (pictured above).

From there it was a steady climb across bare uplands. There was a good track. But the mountains ahead were smothered in thick gray cloud. We weren’t optimistic about that amazing panorama, but pushed on until we too were smothered. Somewhere ahead was the edge of the bowl that holds the noisy lake. There was always a chance the mist would dissolve to reveal everything. But it looked determined to stay put, so it was us who disappeared off the mountain.

Trail to Lochnagar above Loch MuickI don’t usually post pictures of my kids, but here’s Marjorie above Loch Muick. No one would recognize her now anyway.

Back to the Gunks

Verkeerder Kill Falls, Sam's PointAs I have said before, several times I fear, reliving hikes is as much fun as taking them in the first place. I guess other people like to relive other things – sweet deals; old victories; hot dates; great goals, hits or putts. But for hikers it’s hikes, and I realized last week that I wanted to experience again the one I took in the “Gunks” in early September. It began with a bear, moved on to magnificent views, and ended at the prettiest waterfall I have seen in a long time. So here goes. As winter in the Northeast prepares to bite hard (zero degrees F / -17 C forecast for Friday night in this part of CT), click here to escape to the late-summer Gunks. And Happy New Year!

The Old Man of Hoy

Mountains of Hoy from Stromness, OrkneyMy most recent trail time was all about trail building. My impending escapes are all about trail maintenance. Mostly I have had my head down in front of a computer. Now, working a bow saw and loppers, even typing words, is just fine, but I have a strong desire for a long, mind-clearing, limb-stretching hike. I’ve decided to take it in the Orkney Islands.

I can’t go to Orkney, of course, not physically. It is 3,000 miles away – planes, trains, automobiles, days and bucks away. But I can go in memory. What use are memories if we can’t call on them when we need them? To help me along I have an Ordnance Survey map and not as many photos as I should have.

Stromness, Orkney IslandsThe hike took place in mid-July 2011. It was just me and my youngest daughter. Since she was born with the millennium, she was 11 years old then – just. Our trip to Scotland had brought us to Stromness, the second biggest town of the Orkney Islands. The islands are 10 miles north of the far-north coast of the mainland. Stromness was a beautiful place to leave from – a lively harbor town of winding streets and alleys. We could see the mountains of Hoy from our campground on the edge of town, across placid Hoy Sound.

We got to Hoy on an open passenger ferry. I realized on board that I’d left our camera in Stromness, I hoped in the trunk of the car. We planned to do a circuit of the northwest of Hoy, camping overnight at the hamlet of Rackwick. This divided our hike into two unequal parts – a long moor and cliff walk, and a shorter glen walk. I asked Marjorie which she wanted to do first. She chose the wild side. I think that summed up her approach to the hike. She was positive, but also had a let’s-get-this-over-with determination.

The things I remember most:

  • Sweating up the steep, midge-infested hill called Cuilags.
  • Being dive-bombed by “Bonxies” (Great Skuas) between Cuilags and the cliffs.
  • The mist coming down before we reached the cliff edge, and being left with palpable but invisible chasm just to the right of our steps.
  • Descending from the mist to see the Old Man.
  • The fantastic place-names of this once-Norwegian isle – Lounders Fea, Tuaks of the Boy, Geo of Hellia, Aikel of Flett.

The Old Man of Hoy, Hoy, OrkneyThere, hiking has served its purpose again – renewal, and in this instance second time around. I’ll have to do the limb-stretching later. Oh, and in case there is any doubt, the Old man is the sea stack in the picture to the left (taken from the ferry back to mainland Scotland two days later).