Saturday started out balmy and clear, but on the drive north a line of dark clouds appeared above the horizon, looking like a coven of ravens frozen in mid-flight. By the time I reached the Thacher Park Visitor Center outside Albany, the temperature had fallen into the 40s, a cold wind was whipping out of the north, and banks of gray clouds were massing overhead…
The Visitor Center is situated on the edge of the Helderberg Escarpment, a line of sandstone cliffs that overlooks Albany, the Adirondacks, and the mountains of Vermont. My purpose here was to deliver a talk about my experiences on the Long Path, and following this a small group of us sauntered out into the park. Strolling along the rim we encountered a cold torrent pouring over the edge, and next to it a little tree standing watch, and then we noticed its branches were coated with frozen mist.
The hike over, it was time for me to head back south to the Catskills for the next hike in April’s Grid. From a couple of points on the drive, the northernmost escarpment was visible, an imposing mountain wall under a lowering sky. I’ve seen these peaks countless times from the south or west, and I’ve often stood on top and peered out this way. But this was the first time I’ve gotten a clear view from the north.
- The forecast for tomorrow is mid-30s and rain, but it’s still in the 40s later that evening as I hike in to the McKenley Hollow lean-to deep in the southern Catskills. Shoes come off to cross a small stream, and the leaf litter on the far side feels pleasantly dry underfoot and still a little bit warm. The lean-to is empty. I unroll my sleeping bag and go to sleep listening to the nearby creek.
- The next morning it’s noticeably colder. I feel chilled in the sleeping bag, despite the fact that it’s rated to -20 F and despite wearing both long underwear and fleece.
- Breakfast is a cup of tea, and off into the gray light I go.
- Instead of following the trail, it’s straight into the woods and up a slope which will lead eventually to the summit of Balsam Mountain. The grade is very steep, and I’m grabbing tree branches to pull myself up, or in some places on all fours, growling with displeasure at the shifty rocks and cold earth.
- In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn is described as “the first boy to take off his shoes in the spring and the last to resume the leather in the fall.” A little bit older, nonetheless I, too, am going shoeless on this cool April morning, almost three weeks since Spring’s official start. To make up for the cold ground, I’ve got on long underwear and fleece layers top and bottom, a goretex jacket, and a knit hat. No gloves, though (it wouldn’t seem fair). After a little while I’ve warmed up, and the ground feels tolerable, even though the leaves are stiff and crinkly with frost. When I feel a little too warm, I take off the knit hat for a minute or two. When I feel a little too cool, the hat goes back on, and if necessary the jacket hood on top, and sometimes hands find their way into pockets.
- After scrambling up the steep slope and gaining the crest of the ridge, it’s a more moderate uphill march. Now I notice a strange phenomenon: short white threads hanging from branches. I imagine the local spiders were just getting started on their webs when the temperature suddenly dropped. They must have retreated to their burrows while freezing fog blew through the forest and coated their work with rime ice. No doubt they will resume their labors once it’s warm again. As I brush past a tree, frozen threads fall to the ground with a ghostly rustle.
- Around 3,400 feet in elevation (a little more than 1,000 feet above the lean-to), patches of snow begin to appear. It’s back into the domain of winter. The rime ice has spread from the spiders’ threads onto beech and birch branches and engulfed the needles of spruce and fir. By the time I reach the summit, I’m walking across unbroken snow, stepping as lightly as possible to avoid breaking through.
- The climb to Balsam followed a southerly slope, which is why there wasn’t much snow until near the top. After Balsam, the trail to Eagle Mountain swings around to the south, which means it gets sunlight from the north. At first there are just a few patches of snow, but after a little while, the trail is covered in a thick crust of hardened snow full of frozen footsteps, as the soft slushy surface froze solid during the cold night.
- I persevere barefoot, and it’s not as bad as it might seem, because I’m stepping on a hard surface (not sinking through), and the skin of my soles is reasonably tough. After two miles of this, however, my feet are starting to get cold, so on the final climb to Eagle I pick up the pace to generate some body heat, breaking into an uphill run in a few spots, dancing from one frozen hole to the next, arms waving to keep balance.
- Hard-crusted snow and ice is an unforgiving surface, and by the time I reach the summit, I’ve got a couple of small cuts, and my feet are starting to object to this abuse. Trail running shoes and wool socks come out of the pack, and their warmth, protection, and traction are much appreciated.
- Rather than returning along the trail, the plan is to head into the woods and descend the backside of Eagle, which is a more direct route back to the lean-to. At first the snow is a little aggravating: on every third or fourth step I break through the crust and sink down about ankle-deep. No big deal, except I can’t get into any kind of rhythm: I try stepping lightly, but on those steps which punch through, I lose my balance, the rear leg comes rushing forward and then it, too, punches through, and all of a sudden I’m dancing around and wasting a lot of energy. So I shift gears and start kicking my heels forcefully into the snow: this works fine until my heel slams into a firm spot, which jars ankle and knee and rattles teeth. After following a moderate ledge for a while, I turn into a grove of spindly hemlocks and drop down a steeper slope — and in one spot my heel breaks through a half-inch of crusty snow and throws me off balance, and when my rear foot tries to swing forward the toe gets caught on the point of a branch lying on the ground. It’s an awkward feeling to be interrupted like this in mid-stride. Nothing catastrophic results, it’s just aggravating, one example of the infinite variety of missteps that goes with the practice of bushwhacking. I have a few choice words for the offending branch, then I untangle my foot and proceed warily.
- My feet have warmed up by now, and with full sensitivity restored, they let me know about all the newfound nicks and scratches suffered running on hard snow and ice. I think their feelings are hurt more than anything else, but nonetheless, the pace slows a little further to accommodate these new complaints.
- The downward course takes me past the carcass of a huge hemlock lying on the ground, branches radiating in all directions, looking like the ribcage of some fossilized beast. What’s particularly strange is that the trunk was shattered about fifteen feet above the ground, as if it were cloven by a bolt of lightning (or knocked off by a large dinosaur swinging its tail!).
- A little further on, I step over a log covered in a Speckleback lichen (Punctelia rudecta). After taking a picture, I try to climb over the log, and losing my balance, step right on the lichen, which is embarrassing, but it doesn’t seem to sustain any damage. Lichens are tough little creatures, with some species lasting for thousands of years. Because of their ability to propagate vegetatively, some researchers have described them as nearly immortal.
- Navigating downhill is typically trickier than going up, but between checking the compass, occasional glances at the map on my phone, and watching the lay of the land, I manage to arrive at the base of the stream directly below the lean-to.
- Crossing the stream is a little bit of an adventure. The innocent-looking trickle of water has cut deeply into the earth and thrown up large piles of loose rocks. Large trees have been toppled all over the place, and this at least gives me several crossing options, but with sunlight reaching the forest floor, the ground is full of sharp little stems poking up, a mix of saplings, briars, and bushes. All this is evidence of the violence these waters are capable of, when the flow is strong enough, or put differently, this little kitten roared. And not so long ago, either, judging from the fact that every rock I step on tilts or shifts underfoot.
- I’d left sleeping bag and other items at the lean-to, and grabbing them up, I stroll out toward the trailhead, happy not to have encountered the cold rain that was forecast.
- The woods are brown and gray, but here and there a few signs of spring poke out: buds on a young red maple and the first plants just starting to lift their heads above the leaf litter.
- The rain catches up with me on the drive home. Back at home, the water taps against the windows all night, and by morning it’s become an oppressive roar, punctuated by bursts of thunder. Then the rain pauses, and the wind whips around, shaking the windows in their frames. A moment later, the sun comes out. I step outside and feel a breeze that’s so warm and moist it seems almost tropical.
Running the Long Path is available on Amazon (Click on the image to check it out)