The mission was to climb Balsam and Eagle as part of the Catskills Grid, which is a project that entails ascending each of the thirty-five High Peaks in each month of the year. I didn’t realize it until I returned and checked the spreadsheet, but this was the 12th time I’ve climbed these two mountains, which means that with respect to the Grid, they’re done. (Although I will surely return in the future just for fun.) In terms of overall progress, I’ve now completed 350 out of the required 420 peak-month ascents, leaving 70 to go. And while there’s no time limit to complete the Grid, for such an important project I feel a sense of urgency to finish it this year.
The plan for this climb was simple: camp out at the McKenley Hollow lean-to and then hike in along the trails first to Balsam and then Eagle and finish up with a shortcut back to the parking area through the woods.
A secondary goal was to spot new birds, and I walked in with binoculars around the neck and at the ready. And I certainly did hear a lot of birds! On the way to the lean-to, the strange metallic cascading calls of veery thrushes rang out in the dusk. The next day I heard hermit thrushes, black-throated blue warblers, oven birds, juncos, jays, a raven, and endless red-eyed vireos, but even when they were calling out from trees right next to the trail, there was nothing to be seen. There were unfamiliar calls, too (something went “cheep, cheep, cheep, chee-deep”), but nothing revealed itself. The binoculars hung across my neck unused the whole time, except when I discovered that I’d left them behind at Balsam’s summit and had to run back a mile to recover them.
I spent a few minutes hanging out at Balsam’s summit, but it was uncharacteristically still, the only sounds being the buzzing of flies as they darted around and the incessant whine of some other kind of insect. On the subject of insect life, a crane fly took an interest in me while on Balsam and poked about all over my trousers on its stilt-like legs, and coal-colored gnats swarmed me during the afternoon — so thoroughly black they might’ve been soot sprites — but I escaped these encounters without bites.
Overall, a cloudy, cool spring day. I was surprised at one point in the morning to see my shadow. By the afternoon, however, it was beginning to clear, and I was able to orient by following my shadow on the final bushwhack descent.
If the birds wouldn’t cooperate, at least the spring vegetation was easier to spot: abundant Canada Mayflower, Star Flowers, and Yellow Clintonias. Trilliums and False Hellebores dying back, while Trout Lillies and Spring Beauties are now gone. Burdock and Tall Meadow Rue starting to pop out, but just leaves, not yet flowers. A few discoveries as noted in the pictures below:
If you venture into the Catskills, be advised that the stinging nettles are out and spreading. At the lean-to, I groped my way over to the stream to refill a water bottle and had to edge carefully past a robust, waist-high specimen. Hiking along the trail the next morning, the nettles were closing in from both sides. On the final bushwhack down Eagle’s eastern shoulder, roughly half-way down but still with a long way to go, I found myself caught in a large nettle field — an ocean of nettles it seemed — can you imagine the anxiety without shoes? (They were tied to my pack, of course, but it’s a point of honor not to give in so quick.) Like any otherwise sensible Catskill hiker, I was wearing long pants, but ankles and tops of feet were unprotected and quickly began to tingle.
What to do? Glancing around, I spotted a fern glade off to the right and beyond it what appeared to be thick forest. Giving up on the compass heading, I made my way in that direction, trying to step between the shorter plants and steer clear of the monsters.
The fern glade was a good call, as various types (hay-scented, intermediate wood fern, sensitive fern, and Christmas fern) seemed to have beaten back the nettles. Additionally, here was a patch of Jewelweed, and rubbing crushed leaves against skin provided some relief against the stings. Nettles need water and light, so getting under the tall trees was the next move. Looking down the slope, I started aiming for brown spots, that is where the forest floor was covered in leaf litter and mostly bare of vegetation. It was steep in places and slippery, but I slowly made my way down the ridge without incurring any more stings and eventually popped out of the forest across a small stream from my car.
Eight more peaks for June…
Running the Long Path is available on Amazon – click on the image to check it out: