Published in The Hour – September 2013.
Every summer until the 1960s, berry pickers camped at Sam’s Point to gather wild fruit for sale in New York City. Then prosperity and farmed blueberries combined to end the migration. I had a hunch just who might have found a use for all the unpicked huckleberries in the half-century since. But I didn’t count on seeing him, certainly not so soon.
I had hardly shut off my engine when something stirring in the trees at the edge of the empty parking area made me look up — and reach for my camera. By the time I opened the door to perch on the running board, the bear was up on his hind legs, sniffing things out. I took one picture, and then my camera died. The bear dropped to all fours, swaggered into the parking lot, and turned side-on. His fur was sleek black, but by the time my new AAs were loaded, he had started to trot back to the woods. This bear was not out picking huckleberries. The staff who were opening the preserve for the day said bears had got into their dumpsters. My bear had stood perhaps five feet tall, and was trim by ursine standards. But there was a papa about too the employees said, and he was about 500lb.
Sam’s Point Preserve covers 5,400 acres of the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster County. Much of the preserve sits on a 2,000-foot-plus plateau, making for mostly level hiking. The Point itself – 2,230 feet up – is a short climb from the parking lot. The path starts in grown-up woods and ends on barrens of stunted pitch pine and birch. This morning there was a cap-stealing north wind up top. Legend says that the Point is named for a frontiersman who used its crags to watch for approaching Indians. It certainly commands vast views. But the forest below is so complete and dense, even today, that an army of elephants could have approached and Sam would surely have been none the wiser. Now his point is built for crowds, its clefted cliffs tamed by manmade walls, paths and steps.
This feeling of almost-nature persisted on the Loop Road and High Point Carriageway. Although closed to vehicles, they are wide and well-graveled. And Lake Maratanza had looked sublime in online photos that hid the radio towers just to its north. But it still felt good to be up in the wind under a big sky that was getting steadily bluer. The side trail to Indian Rock – a half-mile each way – was a real trail, a thin tunnel through the dwarf forest. The huffing of the wind and the crunching of my boots on gravel ceased in unison, leaving me feeling alone on this walk to the edge. At the edge was Indian Rock – a fractured boulder, precariously balanced on a ledge among gnarled pines and red berries.
Back on the “carriageway”, grass gradually overwhelmed the gravel and the radio towers shrank behind me. There was a short, steep climb where the High Point Trail began, and here a crow guffawed at my exertion. It wasn’t obvious exactly where High Point lay, so I chose an expanse of rock with 360-degree views, all of them quite adequate. But my gaze alternated between the smooth curves of the Catskills 20 miles north and a closer, tilted escarpment. I lay back, fleece for pillow, and presently heard a couple pass behind me. One said to the other “This is the life. Maybe we shouldn’t go back to school”.
Another couple came by too. They said they’d seen a thick rattler sunning itself on the carriageway. I set off for Verkeerder Kill Falls watchfully. It was a tough trail, which I made tougher. The afternoon grew warm. The dwarfs offered little shade. Somewhere on a chalk-white ledge I noticed that the red trail blazes had vanished. I turned back, found them again, and made a right. I marched briskly for 15 minutes or so, and then ran into the rattlesnake couple.
“We decided to head for the falls after all,” they said.
“Wonderful, but why are we meeting here?”
Then I realized I should have made a left.
It was a relief to reach the Verkeerder Kill, the end of three miles of down-steps and clambers through undeniably beautiful country. There were voices coming from the side of the falls. I bypassed them to lunch by the stream just before it tumbled off the precipice. But I’d come too far to skip the main attraction, and walked back to the voices and an ample reward. Even in low spate, they were stunning – 180 feet of thin spray like, well, a bridal veil. All the scene lacked was a bear.
If you go …
|PARKING||End of Sam’s Point Road, Cragsmoor NY. $10 fee. 84 miles from Norwalk Green.|
|DURATION||About 6 hours, including wrong turning.|
|MAP AND ROUTE||Download map from TNC website or pick up at parking area. Route took Loop Road anticlockwise, High point Carriageway, Indian Rock side trail, High Point Trail and Verkeerder Kill Falls Trail back to Loop Road.|
|WHAT TO TAKE||Strong boots. At least a quart of water. Snacks. Sunscreen. Your leashed dog.|