Notes from Recent Catskill Hikes

Half-way through July, and I’ve completed just over half of the Catskill high peaks, many at night due to limited windows of opportunity during the day, but the rest of the month is tighter, and time is running out.  The Grid has become a burden, and I feel a little like Sisyphus, doomed to push a rock up the mountain only to see it rolling back down again.  But without burdens, life would be unbearably light, which is why Camus wrote that one must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Without enough time to write full articles on each climb, here are some notes from recent hikes, mostly for my own purposes in keeping track of the Grid Experience:

“Minimalist” Bushwhack of Fir, Big Indian, and Doubletop

  • Goal was to move through nature with the minimum of technology:  no GPS, no maps, no compass, no food, no water, no shirt, no shoes…and no insect repellent
  • Made it up to within a few feet of the summit of Fir without navigational aids, just following the edge of a ravine and then continuing uphill until I found a social trail near the summit.  It was a pleasant barefoot walk through soft leaf litter on a moderate slope until social trails began to emerge near the top.  Upon arriving at the top, however, I didn’t see the canister, and not wanting to lose time (with a long ways to go), I stole a peak at the GPS, only to discover the summit was but 50 feet away.  Old hands in the Catskills know that following an upward grade will eventually take you to the summit, but heading downhill is a different matter.
  • From the summit of Fir, the next leg was a 1/4 mile downhill and then a left turn onto the shoulder of a ridge that leads to the saddle between Fir and Big Indian.  The vegetation got very thick, pushing through Indian Hellebores and fir thickets, and the social trail disappeared.  It was back to GPS and compass, with frequent checks.  I’ve read of people who’ve hiked the bushwhacks without navigational aids.  The key to their success was extensive preparation.  I will need to do a lot more work before I join their ranks.
  • During the winter, I’d bushwhacked this route with a friend and been amazed at the shape of the ridge, which hangs between Fir and Big Indian like a suspension bridge.  But today, with the vegetation thick, the shape was obscured.  I stumbled downhill slowly, making sure with compass and GPS to stay on the ridge crest, and then walked slowly up the far side to Big Indian.
  • The bushwhack to Doubletop is a mile and a half, but it seems longer, with three small hills along the way, and the ridge is cloaked in fir thickets interspersed with beech suckers, which makes for slow going.  On the summit of Doubletop I stepped through peat moss and searched for ghost antler and other rare lichen species.  According to my friend John Franklin, I may have found a rare lichen, Gray Spiny Horse Hair, but I didn’t do a good job keeping track of where I saw it.
  • It was after dark before I’d returned from Doubletop and made it back to the trail, and around 9 am I put my shirt back on and took my first drink of water for the day, thinking that the last two miles of trail would require extra concentration to avoid stumbling in the dark.  I made it back to the Biscuit Brook lean-to and went to sleep without eating my freeze-dried dinner, instead getting breakfast the next morning on the way home for a twenty-four hour fast on top of 12 miles of barefoot bushwhacking — a day well spent.
  • I suffered one mosquito bite during this adventure.  I carry insect repellent but rarely need it in the Catskills.
Ghost Antler Lichen (Pseudevernia cladonia)

Peekamoose, Table, and Lone

  • Peekamoose was the first Catskill peaked I’d climbed barefoot (this was in late summer 2015) and that time I’d worn sandals on the way down.  I climbed it barefoot again in the fall of 2016 and changed into Vibram Five Fingers for the bushwhack to Lone and return to the trailhead.  This time I decided to do the whole trip barefoot.
  • I’d recently suffered a disappointment, losing control of a business venture to partners who had not behaved in line with my expectations.  As I hiked up the trail, I complained to myself about the turn of events and rehearsed all the negative, biting comments I wanted to make (but knew better) to the people involved and anyone who might ask about what had happened.  Thoreau complained that sometimes on a walk he couldn’t shake the business of the village:  “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations, and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
  • I headed up to Peekamoose, and down and up to Table, and then out to Lone and back, and then all the way back down, and all the time my mind was whirring through what had happened and why and speculating about what might happen next and what I could do to reverse the disappointment and restore my honor.
  • Eastern philosophers advise learning to still the mind.  But does the mind really have a neutral gear?  If it must obsess with something, then you might as well let it do so, it doesn’t stop the feet from taking one step after another.  Thoreau wrote, “you must walk like a camel which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking” — and so I spent the day ruminating — and on my next hike up Peekamoose, I’ll spend more energy on observing. For example, the Purple-flowering Raspberry growing along the trail with bright pink flowers and oddly-Maple-shaped floppy leaves.
Purple-flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus)

Full Moon on Twin and Indian Head

  • The goal was to hike under the light of the full moon, without using headlamps.  The idea was inspired by a winter run down Bearpen Mountain, where I found the half-moon cast enough illumination on the snow-packed trail to render lights unnecessary.
  • Thinking this would be a memorable hike, I invited several friends, but everyone had conflicts.
  • Upon arrival at the trailhead, the sky was clear, and the full moon beamed down from the eastern horizon.  But I quickly discovered that the forest was too thick to permit hiking without lights:  the footpath was all shadow.
  • Upon reaching the eastern summit of Twin Mountain, I did walk ten steps with headlamp switched off, but then it was back into the forest, and the headlamp was needed
  • I sat down for a few minutes on Twin’s western summit.  The moon shone down in a clear black sky, and in the distance, long ridges stretched along the horizon, just silhouettes, dark gray against the black sky but the gray was subtly luminescent in the moonglow.  Abstract spectral shapes in what might as well have been a darkened desert landscape.  Part of my mind eyed them with idle curiosity, estimating the lay of the land.  As I sat on the ledge, the night wind shook a fir tree, brushed my face, subsided.
  • The path reaches Twin’s western summit and makes a sharp v-shaped turn, which means if you’re not careful, you take the wrong way down, which is what I did, and it wasn’t the first time.  You typically recognize this mistake when you reach an overhanging rock shelf that forms a natural shelter about 1/4 mile down Twin’s western slope.
  • Returned to the saddle between Twin and Indian Head and made the short climb up to Indian Head, which was rocky and steep, and on the way back took a long time to descend, wearing sandals, straps biting into feet.


Balsam and Eagle

  • Pulled in at night to the McKenley Hollow trailhead for an early start the next morning, but with the lean-to occupied, pitched my small tent in the woods to the side. The next morning scraped a slug off the tent fabric and headed off feeling sluggish myself, not bothering even to fill my water bottle at the nearby stream.
  • Another day, another pair of peaks, and I was back to ruminating on the business-related issues noted above, but what of it, I was happy enough in one part of my mind sauntering up the trail, no matter the frustrations running through other parts of my mind.
  • Upon reaching Balsam’s summit, I found a group of college kids camped out, and I made sure to point out to them that camping above 3,500 feet is illegal.  They looked embarrassed.  I wished them a beautiful day.
  • I sauntered along the 2-mile stretch of trail, ruminating, enjoying the day, walking.
  • On the return from Eagle, found the spot with Knights Plume moss growing along the side of the trail, a distinctive moss and one of my favorites.
  • Saw the kids again, learned they hailed from Binghampton and one from New Hampshire, new to the Catskills, and they seemed like a decent crew.
  • At some point on this hike, or maybe it was a different one, or maybe it was all of these early July hikes, discovered Red Elderberry and Tall Meadow-Rue whose flowers interestingly have no petals.
Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)
Tall Meadow-Rue (Thalictrum polygamum)


Balsam Lake and Graham in the Dark

  • How to carve more time out of the calendar?  Decided to work from home, and with cellphone and laptop was perfectly productive, and right at 5:00 PM out the door I went and off to the Catskills.  Balsam Lake trailhead is pretty far west, and after stopping for dinner, I don’t think I got there ’til after dark.
  • Decided to wear shoes and go a little faster, and headed out at quite a vigorous pace, despite the sore ankle that has kept me from running for almost two months now.
  • Tall grass was growing along the trail, as well common blackberry, jewel weed, nettles, meadow rue, hobblebush.  It had rained and now was cool and misty.  In recent hikes, the smell of wet vegetation had at first seemed alien and possibly toxic, but now the strange scents were becoming familiar and something to relish
  • The last 0.75 miles to Balsam Lake’s summit must go up 500 feet, there are several steep climbs.  At the summit I climbed half-way up Balsam Lake Firetower and to the west saw the lights of Margaretville, and to the east the lights of homes along Route 28, and to the north fog.
  • Almost two miles to Graham, first down into a saddle, then back up.  I stopped on the summit for a few minutes and stared at the dark, overcast sky.  The clouds seemed to be moving off to the south, but there was no movement in the north, while above me a great wheel of clouds was turning counter-clockwise like a vortex.  Or so it seemed, but I thought maybe my eyes were still seeing the flashlight’s cone of light bouncing along the trail, but the wheel kept turning….and then it was a horse’s head.  A breeze fluttered around on the summit with no clear direction.
  • I had been moving at a vigorous pace, and the sore ankle started to twinge, especially on the steep uphills, and by the time I made it back to the trailhead, it was aching steadily.  This gets marked in my training log in red; the goal is to get green entries back up very close to 100% before resuming running.
  • I was tired during the drive back home, which I reached around 5am, but after a few hours of sleep and a cup of espresso was perfectly productive the next day…although overnight hiking during the work week will remain something I do rather infrequently.

Rainy Climb up Sugar Loaf

  • Friday night, we made it upstate from the city in good time, and there was a chance to sneak in a quick peak.  A friend considered coming but then backed out as rain was in the forecast.  As I passed through Tannersville, there was a break in the clouds and shining blue sky beyond.
  • But as I pulled into the trailhead, the fog had rolled back in.  I wasn’t feeling confident about scrambling up steep wet rocks in the dark, so I put on sandals.
  • The climb was difficult.  I’d forgotten how much of a scramble is Sugarloaf’s western flank, although I did remember a steep spot from a winter hike, which sheets of ice had turned into a chute.  This time I scrambled up the rocks, grabbing roots and hoisting myself up one ledge at a time.
  • There’s no view at the summit itself, although a vantage point lies nearby, but there was nothing to see there but gray fog.
  • On the way down I paused under an overhang, turned off my light, and listened to the rain pattering in the forest, while the white lichen splashed across the rocks glowed in the ambient starlight.  Even with thick cloud cover, the sky is lighter than the forest, and I could see my hand in front of my face, but just barely.  Distant ancestors must have waited out the rain, I reflected, unless they had pressing business taking them out into the wet forest.  Robert MacFarlane writes about how we discover certain aspects of ourselves when out in the mountains, and as I thought about this, it seemed that when you peeled away all the complexities and obligations of modern life, my inner self was nothing more than a wisp of patience, willing to wait out the rain.  After a while, I got up and continued the descent.

Foggy Sunset on Black Dome and Cole

  • A trip to Albany and on the way back, a stop in the Catskills, and I pulled in to the trailhead at 5 PM.  It had been a beautiful afternoon, warm and sunny, with long rows of cumulus clouds moving across the sky like units in a vast fleet.
  • Clouds always grab my attention — maybe because they offer clues to the weather, and a long time ago, when clothing, shelter, and energy were not sure things, the weather really mattered — and thus part of me is always keeping an eye on the sky and clouds.
  • I head out barefoot, as I know this trail well, and up on the ridge it’s soft dirt and fir needles.  There is, however, a mile of washed out rocks on the way to the saddle, and this takes time and patience.
  • Reaching the shoulder of Black Dome, where there’s a short scramble, I look back at Blackhead and purple fog flowing in now across its summit.
  • There’s a section of the scramble that’s cut out like a cabinet and the walls splashed with the characteristic white lichen that’s so common on Catskill sandstone, but I haven’t been able to identify its species.
  • Dark eyed junco’s clucked and flitted about among the fir trees and I must have surprised one, it seemed to practically fall out of the tree in front of me.
  • On the way back all was mist and gathering darkness, and rustling sounds in the trees, but through a break in the canopy I caught a sight of color tinging some distant clouds as the sun finally went down.




Notes from Recent Catskill Hikes

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Connecting to %s