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.
Last Saturday, I climbed Sherrill Mountain, the final peak in my quest to complete all 35 of the Catskills’ highest mountains barefoot. It was also one of the most difficult, with briars, nettles, and steep slopes cloaked in dense thickets. But discovering new spring flowers made up for some of the strain.
After parking on Spruceton Road, the first challenge was crossing an open field with lumpy grass hummocks interspersed with briars. Then it was into the forest, where the briars gave way to the spring’s first growth of stinging nettles. I was wearing sensible long pants, but as for the feet, there was nothing to do but step thoughtfully.
I steered to the right of a little stream and began to climb straight uphill until eventually the nettles were left behind and I emerged into a grove of hemlocks. The last time I’d climbed Sherrill, I’d learned an important lesson, that it’s much better to turn and head up along top of a ridge, even if it means a little longer distance than following a straight line to the summit. On the prior visit, I’d stuck to the azimuth until I found myself cutting laterally across the face of a steep slope, where the slanted footing was slow and treacherous. I vowed not to make that mistake again.
Now I glanced at the map on my phone and realized that in my haste to head uphill, I had turned too early and was climbing the wrong ridge. To get back on course, I’d have to cut laterally across the face of a steep slope until I rejoined and then crossed that little stream. In my effort to avoid the mistake I made last time, I’d ended up making the same mistake.
After patiently picking my way along the slope, I hopped across the stream and headed up slope, now back on track. This was a difficult climb, as the slope was not only steep, but also carpeted with an extremely dense thicket of young beech and birch saplings, with plenty of hobble-bush thrown in for extra vexation. The only explanation for such thick young growth was that the hillside had burned in recent years, and it did seem that here and there a charred stump or log was visible poking up through leaves.
After a long time, I made it onto the ridge and turned left to head towards the summit. I reached a clearing and saw the summit up ahead after a short rise. But after climbing the rise, I saw higher ground further on. Along the way, I noticed familiar wild flowers, including Purple and Painted Trilliums, as well as unfamiliar species. Looking down, I saw a strange-looking plant with tiny white flowers shaped like pantaloons — but I didn’t have time to stop and examine it. Instead, I kept moving until I reached another clearing on a shoulder of the mountain, but upon checking the map, there was still one last rise in front of me.
I did eventually reach the summit and signed in at the canister. The trip had taken 2.5 miles, which was about double what I’d estimated from a quick glance at the map before heading out. That plus almost 2,000 feet in elevation gain made Sherrill one of the more difficult bushwhacks I’ve completed, with or without shoes.
The return trip took almost as long, even with sandals, but with the mission complete, I took the time to photograph some of the spring flowers. Crossing the open field, with the car finally in sight, I snagged a toe on a briar, necessitating a band-aid. No major harm done, although sensible people will likely continue to prefer shoes when bushwhacking in the Catskills. Upon returning home, I submitted a inquiry to the Catskill 3500 club, asking if they would award a certificate for completing all 35 of the highest peaks barefoot, but have yet to hear a response.
With inclement weather in the forecast, another barefoot hike in the mountains might’ve seemed a questionable proposition. But I had become determined to conquer all 35 of the Catskills’ highest peaks — and with six down so far, I had set my sights this weekend on completing four more — and then growing ambitious and impatient, imagined climbing six or even eight. But upon reaching the trailhead on a very grey afternoon, the car’s thermometer read 45 F, and it was raining. For a system still acclimatized to summer, this would be a shock.
Emboldened by success climbing to the Piz Boe Alpine Lodge barefoot, I resolved to tackle a mountain in the Catskills, despite the notoriously steep, rugged terrain and rocky trails. Hesitant to take on this adventure alone, I recruited another barefoot runner to join me, namely Odie the Labradoodle.
Our destination would be the summit of Peekamoose Mountain, a 3,843-foot peak, which stands like a sentinel along the Catskills’ southern ramparts. We left bright and early, having heard stories of congestion in the area. One of America’s “best swimming holes” is situated on the Rondout Creek, whose source lies on the mountain’s shoulder. This was once a local secret, but the word’s gotten out, and now on nice weekends crowds of visitors converge on the narrow road that leads to the Peekamoose trailhead.
We arrived around 8:30 AM and secured a parking spot, just a few seconds ahead of three carloads of visitors who were evidently bound for the swimming hole. We didn’t hang around, but immediately headed up the steep trail, stepping over a couple bags of trash that hadn’t made it into a dumpster stationed nearby. But after a few yards, all signs of civilization were left behind.
And now it was time for the sandals to come off — and for me to discover whether climbing a rocky mountain trail barefoot was really such a great idea.
If you stray off the beaten path, you might encounter a wall of Hobble-bush (viburnum lantanoides). Where the branches touch the ground, they send down roots and grow new stems. Soon there is a thicket eager to hobble the unwary hiker — hence the plant’s popular name. Continue reading “Hobbling Through the Woods”→