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.
Time is short and so in lieu of writing up a narrative, here are some notes and images from a recent traverse of Graham, Balsam Lake, Hunter, East Rusk, Rusk, and SW Hunter — 27 miles that left me tired and hungry, but which contained several memorable moments, thanks to glorious February sunshine, dramatic winds, and the unavoidable adventures associated with nighttime bushwhacking.
The pleasure and value of every walk or journey we take may be doubled to us by carefully noting down the impression it makes upon us….It was not till after I got home that I really went to Maine, or to the Adirondacks, or to Canada. Out of the chaotic and nebulous impressions which these expeditions gave me, I evolved the real experience. There is hardly anything that does not become much more in the telling than in the thinking or in the feeling.
Driving up to the Catskills early one morning, it was another dim day, with overcast skies smothering the light and fresh snow blotting out the wintry landscape’s subtle colors. The Shawangunk Mountains slid by in the rear view mirror, slate gray and dusky taupe beneath a patchy sky, and when I finally glimpsed them, the Catskills’ southern escarpment looked no more distinct than a layer of fog. The scene lacked contrast and energy, but this doesn’t matter when there are mountains to climb….
Slide Mountain is the Catskills’ highest peak, and one I’ve climbed many times, including both summer and winter, day and night — but always following the trail from Big Indian Valley. One day I was rereading “In the Heart of the Southern Catskills,” John Burroughs’ account of his first ascent of Slide Mountain in 1885. Burroughs had long been intrigued by Slide, but he wasn’t going to take a trail. Rather, he chose the more remote Woodland Valley as his starting point and then made his way to the summit through unmarked forest. Moving off trail like this is today called “bushwhacking,” and depending on the terrain, it can be exhilarating — or extremely challenging.
I put down the essay and thought for a moment. As a member of the Catskill 3500 Club, I had climbed the 35 highest peaks in the Catskills, of which a dozen or so require bushwhacking because there is no trail. But it had never occurred to me to seek a bushwhack route when an established trail was available. Why would you do that?
Then a light bulb went off: because it would be a totally new experience.
Pulling out the map, I measured a straight shot from the Woodland Valley Campground to Slide’s summit, about 2.5 miles in distance and 2,000 feet in elevation gain. Towards the top, the grade got steep, I noticed, exceeding 40% in places.
Two weeks later, a little before 9:00 AM, I was pulling into the parking area at Woodland Valley Campground to meet my friend Alan. Our goal: to reenact Burroughs’ bushwhack ascent of 1885 …
Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 essay, “Autumnal Tints,” contains colorful descriptions of New England’s fall foliage, including sugar maple and northern red oak, as well as more humble plants like bearded grass and pokeweed. Of special interest to me was Thoreau’s commentary on the red maple (Acer rubrum): he’d noticed that as early as the 25th of September a small red maple on the edge of a meadow had already turned a “far brighter red than the blossoms of any tree in summer” and that the tree was all the “more conspicuous” in contrast with the rest of the forest, which was still green:
Some single trees, wholly bright scarlet, seen against others of their kind still freshly green, or against evergreens, are more memorable than whole groves will be by-and-by. How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun!
— Henry David Thoreau, Autumnal Tints
In recent weeks I’d spotted solitary maple leaves dotting the trail, splashes of scarlet among the prevailing greens and browns of the forest floor. This Sunday would be the 25th of September — and based on Thoreau’s essay it seemed precisely the right time to go scouting for the season’s first red maples to have fully changed their color. My friend Steve Aaron was looking for a mountain to climb, so I invited him to join me and Odie the Labradoodle for an attempt on Fir Mountain, one of several pathless peaks that rise above the headwaters of the Esopus Creek.
East coast naturalist John Burroughs once wrote, “To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday.” With this thought in mind, I returned recently to Peekamoose Mountain, one of my favorites in the Catskills, and a peak whose trail I’ve taken many times. On this occasion, the plan was to survey the bushwhack from Peekamoose to Lone Mountain, so that I can improve my time when I next attempt the Catskill 35, as well as experience the sights and sounds of a beautiful late summer day.
The goal was to thru-hike all 35 of the Catskill Mountains’ high peaks, i.e., those at least 3500 feet in elevation, and if possible set a new fastest known time. The records were:
2 days 15 hours held by Ted “Cave Dog” Keizer on a supported basis
4 days 13 hours held by Jan Wellford and Cory Delavine on an unsupported basis
Based on data from Keizer’s website, the route is 133 miles long starting from the top of Peekamoose (or 137 from the base) and includes 37,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain (39,000 feet if you count the hike up Peekamoose).
I had heard about Keizer’s record two years ago. Ever since then, I’d been training for an attempt on the 35 thru-hike, and finally I felt ready to give it a go.
Smiley’s taxi of Tannersville, NY dropped me off at the Peekamoose trailhead at approximately 8 AM on Tuesday, August 23, 2016. Two and one-half days later, around midnight on Thursday, August 25, 2016, I ended the attempt, having completed 23 of the 35 high peaks.