I was supposed to join a hike in Harriman but discovered at the last minute that Odie the Labradoodle wouldn’t be welcome. It wasn’t personal: some groups have developed policies, out of respect to certain members, that limit who can accompany a group hike. So Odie and I headed north instead, for our first spring hike in the Catskills.
We arrived at the Devil’s Tombstone Campground around 8:30 AM. The sun was already high enough in the sky to light up the narrow valley between Plateau and Southwest Hunter mountains, and for the first time in months, the lower slopes were awash in sunshine and free of snow. But the morning air was still cool, and our breath hung in the air.
I toiled upwards feeling sluggish and after a quarter mile took off my sandals. Thanks to a thick cover of dried leaves, going barefoot wasn’t too bad, although the pace was slow.
Reaching a stand of hemlocks halfway up the slope, I looked around for nuthatches, small white and gray birds that I’d seen in the Catskill forest many times before, sometimes touching down on a tree within a few feet of me. I’d stare in fascination as they’d climb along a branch, sometimes in a head-down orientation, tapping the bark with their beaks while casting sidelong glances in my direction as if curious about me — and then flutter off in a whir of wing-beats. A distinctive nasal call rang out in the woods, and I looked around for the small birds. But after a moment, I realized these were the calls of chickadees, not nuthatches. A short time later, a black-capped chickadee appeared on a nearby branch, gave me a quick and disapproving look, and disapppeared. For the rest of the day I heard chickadees calling back and forth high up in the trees, but they kept their distance. Maybe it was Odie.
By the time we reached an elevation of 3,200 feet, there were patches of snow on the trail. Needless to say, Odie has no problem walking barefoot on the snow, but as for me, after a few steps my feet started to feel uncomfortably cold. By 3,400 feet, the snow was virtually continuous, and so I put my sandals back on (a sensible barefooter knows that “numb is dumb”).
The sun sparkled in the sky and splashed across the snow-covered slopes, the birch and beech trees still leafless at this point in the season. Passing the Devils’ Acres lean-to, we turned off onto the well-trodden herd path that leads to the summit of Southwest Hunter. I put my sweater back on, knowing that this trails passes through the shade of a thick fir forest on the north side of the mountain. The sandals kept my feet insulated from the surface, but with each step a little snow got kicked up from the trail and landed on my toes, which were soon stinging. My backpack contained shoes and socks, but instead of stopping and messing with footgear, I rushed down the trail and charged up the short slope to the summit, trying to generate enough body heat to offset the snow on my toes. Once at the summit I wiped the snow from my toes and stomped up and down, trying to warm up my feet.
From Southwest Hunter, Odie and I moved back along the herd path and then onto the trail to Hunter Mountain. We were back in the sun, and the day was warming up, and now I felt fine in sandals, while Odie was delighted to be romping through the great outdoors. We encountered a hiker dressed in boots and spikes. There was no-one at the summit, but I noticed a gray bird flitting through the trees.
On the way back down, we encountered a section of the trail at around 3,600 feet where the snow had melted, and I decided to take off sandals once again, recognizing I’d have to put them back on shortly. But once back on the snow, I found it no longer chilled my feet. Somewhat tentatively at first, I continued barefoot on the snow for somewhere between a quarter and a half mile. It was early afternoon, sunny, and calm, and the air temperature must have been in the 50s. The snow was no longer chilling my feet, actually it felt refreshing.
We passed a pair of hikers coming up the mountain, and they must have thought it odd to encounter someone walking barefoot through the snow. One called me “hardcore,” but I replied to the contrary: depending on the temperature, walking on snow can be painful or pleasant; it’s not a question of mental fortitude unless you want to risk injury.
As Odie and I passed through the hemlocks again, I heard noises in the brush. We paused. I pulled out binoculars and scanned the terrain. There were three or four of the same gray-colored birds I’d seen up top, pecking about on the ground. I have not been able to identify the species.
We’d covered almost nine miles at a leisurely pace. Once back at home, I scanned the backyard with my binoculars and discovered a Tufted Titmouse, while Odie took a nap.