Men talk glibly enough about moonshine, as if they knew its qualities very well, and despised them; as owls might talk of sunshine.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Night and Moonlight,” 1883
- Met Alan and Amy for dinner in Phoenicia, and then the three of us proceeded to the Woodland Valley Campground. It was 8:15 and pitch black, with rain in the forecast, which at elevation might well manifest itself as heavy sleet driven by gale-force winds, and accordingly I’d warned Alan and Amy to prepare for the worst — but they are experienced hikers and were totally unfazed. After gearing up, we headed out on the trail in high spirits.
- After about a mile, a dogleg in the trail marked the departure point for our bushwhack (off-trail) ascent of Panther Mountain. On went snowshoes, as the forest floor was covered in about a foot of soft snow. Alan took point and led us up a steep slope. This was hard work: even with snowshoes, each step sank three or four inches into soft soggy snow; it felt like two steps forward and one back. In a couple of spots our passage was blocked by steep rock ledges, but after groping around in the darkness, we managed to find gaps between the slabs and continued inching upwards until we reached the crest of a long narrow ridge.
- And what a pretty ridge! So narrow that even in the limited play of our headlamps the slope could be seen dropping away steeply on either side, as if we were walking atop a castle wall. When you’re used to feeling your way through thick tangled forests, it’s such a magical feeling when you get an occasional glimpse of the mountain’s topology and can understand the shape of what you’re walking on. The ridge was also relatively level, a nice break from the steep slope. It was as if the mountain, ever mercurial, had for a moment stopped throwing obstacles in our way, and now was waving us along. We passed through a grove of first-growth hemlocks (tall, stout trees that’d never been touched by loggers), stepped through untracked snow, peered into the mist.
- Then a surprise: snowshoe tracks! I hadn’t expected other people to bushwhack up Panther since there’s a popular trail that takes you straight to the summit. Alan and I tried to determine whether one or two persons had left these tracks, and which way they were going. After a little while we got our answers: the tracks described a circle, as evidently a single person had come out this far, and then turned around and followed his own tracks back.
- After about a mile of steady progress, the ridge broadened out, and the slope got steeper once again. It was back to work, two steps forward in the soft snow, one back, but we had found our rhythm and moved steadily upwards. I realized that the mist had cleared, and now stars appeared through gaps in the leafless branches, hanging above the mountain’s spine. Nearing the top, we emerged from the forest and passed through a small clearing where the snow gleamed in the starlight — such a surprise after thick brush — and once again it seemed that the mountain was working some kind of magic, revealing strange pockets of openess as a reward for our perseverance.
- We finally stumbled across the trail, and a quarter-mile later reached the summit. It was a little before midnight. Standing on a rock ledge that overlooks Woodland Valley, we peered out into darkness but there was nothing to see, not a single light.
Is not the midnight like Central Africa to most of us? Are we not tempted to explore it, — to penetrate to the shores of its lake Tchad, and discover the source of its Nile, perchance the Mountains of the Moon? Who knows what fertility and beauty, moral and natural, are there to be found? In the Mountains of the Moon, in the Central Africa of the night, there is where all Niles have their hidden heads. The expeditions up the Nile as yet extend but to the Cataracts, or perchance to the mouth of the White Nile; but it is the Black Nile that concerns us.
— Henry David Thoreau
- From Panther, we followed the trail back down the mountain, rising up and over Giant’s Ledge, and then descending to an intersection with the Phoenicia East Branch Trail. The trail was frozen hard in some places, and soft in others, and full of postholes from people without snowshoes.
- The intersection was marked by a wooden sign, and next to it someone had built a tiny snowman with a stick for a nose. Our next objective was Slide Mountain, but once again we would bushwhack directly through the woods, rather than taking the trail.
- Out came compass and the heading took us up and over a small nob. Amidst the many rabbit and squirrel prints dotting the snow, there were snowshoe tracks once again. Evidently I wasn’t the first to dream up this bushwhack route.
- We climbed up another ridge and then skirted around private property, marked with blazed trees. The snow shoe tracks we’d seen earlier were gone. We were on our own now.
- From this point, the ridge was flat and broad, dropping slightly into an indistinct saddle before we would climb to the next level. I find it’s much easier to make navigational mistakes when heading downhill, so I measured a new azimuth on my cellphone map app and kept to it closely.
- Now we were moving through a thicket of fir saplings, young trees only an inch or two in diameter, and growing so close together the branches interweaved. Our pace slowed nearly to a halt, in fact, we were moving too slowly for my GPS watch to register any pace at all. There’s an art to moving through these thickets: in some cases you pull the saplings apart so you can step between, in other cases you reach out and snap off dead branches, but what’s most important is patience. These thickets never last forever. But here, the thicket went on and on.
- We were surprised to discover fresh snowshoe tracks. Then we realized they were ours. We’d gone in a circle. It was my fault: I’d inadvertantly lined up the black arrow (south) on my compass, instead of the red arrow (north). I began stopping and checking our location on my cellphone GPS map more frequently.
- The fir thicket kept going on and on. Looking down we saw large tracks in the snow that seemed a day or two old. At first we wondered if it was a person without snowshoes, but the holes were round, not boot-shaped, and there were unmistakable claw marks. A little while later, we saw similar tracks, but these were fresh.
- As the slope began to rise toward the summit, the fir saplings thinned out and the trees became thicker and were spaced further apart. We struggled uphill through soft snow, counting down the remaining altitude 100 feet at a time — but Alan and I had set our watches on low GPS accuracy to conserve battery life, and the readings were inconsistent. There was only 200 feet to go, and then after 200 feet, there were still 200 feet to go.
- Eventually we reached the trail and arrived a hundred yards later at the summit.
- In the east a line of dull red light marked the horizon, the color spilling out between darkened landscape and a low ceiling. As we watched, ghostly vapors wafted up from the valleys and blew over distant ridges, momentarily veiling the red glow.
- It was time for a council of war. The plan had been to descend Slide into the Neversink Valley and then climb additional peaks. But after battling with snowy slopes, rough trails, and the interminable fir thicket, none of us was game for this. Instead, we determined to return to Woodland Valley along the trail.
- The descent from Slide was awkward. Snowshoes twisted around as we scooted clumsily over large rocks and then stumbled down ladders buried in thick snow. We began to encounter ice. It started to drizzle. To the east, mist was blowing across the summits of Cornell and Wittenberg, while the red line along the horizon had expanded, lightened, and spread across the cloudy sky.
How insupportable would be the days, if the night with its dews and darkness did not come to restore the drooping world. As the shades begin to gather around us, our primeval instincts are aroused, and we steal forth from our lairs, like the inhabitants of the jungle, in search of those silent and brooding thoughts which are the natural prey of the intellect.
— Henry David Thoreau
- The trail leveled out, but it was difficult going. In some places the snow had been compacted and supported our weight, but a wrong step meant sinking to the ankle — no rhythm was possible.
- Alan took the lead, while Amy fell behind to deal with a snowshoe strap that kept coming unfastened. I struggled along in between.
- The rain intensified. Downed trees and boulders were varnished with a thin glaze of ice, as was Alan’s pack, and then I noticed so was mine. Arriving at Wittenberg, spruce and birch branches drooped with a coating of rime ice, rain splattered on the open rock face, and the view was of featureless gray.
- On the final descent to Woodland valley, the trail got even worse: it was chewed up from people in boots who had left deep holes. Our snowshoes stuck on ice, sunk in snow, twisted unpredictably, straining ankles. We took them off and slipped and slid the rest of the way down We arrived back at Woodland Valley Campground around 11:00 AM.
There are nights in this climate of such serene and majestic beauty, so medicinal and fertilizing to the spirit, that methinks a sensitive nature would not devote them to oblivion, and perhaps there is no man but would be better and wiser for spending them out of doors, though he should sleep all the next day to pay for it
— Henry David Thoreau
Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon. Click on the image for more info