Jan – Winter Hiking

Published in The Hour – January 2014.

Sinking sun on the Hiltebeitel Trail, Devil's DenIt was 30 degrees below freezing, not counting wind chill. A moaning north wind was making the top branches of the woods dance against a gray sky. I climbed over boulders covered in four inches of fresh snow, trying not to step into the now hidden gaps between them. I looked up to the top of the outcrop and saw snow being lifted from it and swept south. My hands and ears stung. Icy snow pricked my eyes. I took refuge behind a boulder, above where there was a fox den and a big fallen oak. Here I pulled on a balaclava, and a wooly hat on top of it, and another layer of gloves. I thought about goggles, too. All this warmed me up soon enough. But this was still the tail end of a blizzard. Could I be in trouble? Then I thought, nah!, not here in my backyard, in sight of the play tower with the pink bucket and spade in it. I could always cower there on the 50-yard walk back to my garage.

I didn’t write this just to annoy you with epic anticlimax. I went onto the rocks in my yard during Winter Storm Hercules for a serious purpose. I want to get more adventurous with my winter hikes, get up into the frigid Catskills and Taconics more often. But to do that you must be equipped to protect every inch of your skin from the bite of frost and wind. So, on New Year’s Eve, I had gone out and bought a “clava” with a face mask; new glove liners; and a pair of goggles. I took them to the Devil’s Den when we were waiting for Hercules to hit. It was 20 degrees when I set off down the Pent Trail at 1 p.m. There had been a dusting of snow, just enough to make the forest floor look like a badly iced cake. The woods, sky and water were all whites and grays. Only the evergreens, and autumn leaves left sparsely on a sapling here or there, provided any color at all. On the Donahue Trail, stopped momentarily at a frozen pool, I heard the growl of an approaching gust, and the rattle of the copper leaves on the little beeches when it arrived. The timber about creaked and snapped.

A few minutes later I had to use my teeth to break up ice in my reservoir mouthpiece to get at the water. Then, eating lunch in a bleak clearing, flecks of icy snow crackled off my jacket. I reached the Great Ledge by the long, western route at about 3 o’clock. The wind was picking up, and now my whole reservoir tube was frozen hard. But I was warm as toast in my balaclava, and the new goggles stayed in my pack. In truth this hike had not been a test for my new gear, nor had the Den looked very beautiful. So, as I followed the only other bootprints in the thin snow back toward my car, I had the idea of getting out early tomorrow to catch the end of Hercules in my yard. Then I’d come back to the Den too if the sun came out.

It did come out. And what a difference a day had made. Gray was gone from the scene, replaced by shining blue and white. Even the tree trunks shone. Hercules’ wind had dropped, but it was much colder than the day before. A few people had beaten me out, evidenced by ski and snowshoe tracks, and plain old boots like mine. The snow wasn’t deep, and was light as dust. Walking was only a little harder than usual. My aim was to get up on the Hiltebeitel Trail for sunset. It’s a magic time of day on the ridge when skies are clear. I turned onto Sap Brook Trail and walked now in virgin snow. It didn’t make me Amundsen, but felt good even so. Deer and wee scampering creatures had marked the snow here and there, but then I came to different tracks, tracks with pads and claws. There was a groove in the snow along their line as if part of the animal’s body had not cleared the surface. A few yards farther on, there were more, and going in the same direction. Foxes, I fancied, tails dragging. What a sight they would have been, rusty red on brilliant white. Better even than the sunset awaiting me.

If you go …
PARKING Devil’s Den parking area, Pent Road, Weston.
DISTANCE Hike 1: Great Ledge via western trails, 7.5 mi approx.

Hike 2: ”Sunset on Hiltebeitel”, 3.25 mi approx.

DURATION Hike 1: 3 hours

Hike 2: 1.5 hours (in snow)

MAP AND ROUTE Trail maps available at parking area, and on TNC website. TNC HIGHLY RECOMMENDS THAT HIKERS CARRY A MAP. Hike(1) followed the Pent, Saugatuck, Ambler, Donahue, Moller, Cedar Cliff, Bruzelius, and Deer Run trails out; and the Dayton, Godfrey, Sap Brook, Hiltebeitel, and Deer Knoll trails home. Hike (2) followed posts 21,22,27,30,36,39,38,20,29,5,4, and 3.
WHAT TO TAKE My winter adaptations were: long johns; overpants; four top layers; glove liners; and a balaclava (goggles will be saved for the mountains). PETS ARE NOT PERMITTED IN THE DEN.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s