Monday, August 30, 2010

Backpacking in Harriman

Backpacking in Harriman

Joined by two of our employees at Salesian Missions, Adam Rudin and Matt Welsh, I took off mid-afternoon last Friday (Aug. 27) for Harriman State Park for a weekend of backpacking and camping.

We parked at the visitor center at Reeves Meadow, not far from the western end of Seven Lakes Drive (at Rte. 17 in Sloatsburg), around 4:45 p.m. We got another hiker to take our "before" photo.
Then we took off on the Pine Meadow Trail, which climbs steadily at a mostly easy grade up to Pine Meadow Lake, some 2.4 miles east of the parking lot. The lake is a lovely spot that attracts a lot of day hikers, and we passed a lot of them making their return walk, plus a couple still on the little peninsula near the west end of the lake.
There are a couple of good camping spots on that peninsula, in addition to numerous other spots where folks have set up fire rings. We set up our tents in a little glen that I'd noted on previous hikes.
It was dark by the time we'd finished eating supper (and chicken sandwich, half a pack of Ramen noodles, some frozen green beans, some sugar-free fudge, and a small Gatorade for me) and putting up our bear bag. Yes, there are bears in Harriman, altho in truth the raccoons are a greater concern re: your food. And at dusk we heard coyotes howling pretty nearby.

Despite all the fire rings around, we didn't even think of starting a fire. We certainly didn't need one for warmth. It was a calm, cool, starry nite, well lit after 8:45 p.m. by a nearly full moon (I didn't have a good camera to shoot that).

After conversation, moon-watching, and stargazing, we retired to our tents shortly after 9:00 p.m. There were some distant coyotes now and then, and a loud, strange bird nearby once in the middle of the nite and often just before dawn. Otherwise, we were undisturbed and slept as well as one can do on a thin pad (or 2) on the ground.

I rose at 6:00 and freshened up, prayed Readings and Morning Prayer, and broke down my tent. By then Adam and Matt were getting up. We celebrated Mass, then made our breakfast (oatmeal, an orange, and instant coffee for me); by the time day we'd eaten, hikers were already arriving--at least 5 before we pulled out a little after 9:00 a.m.

I'd been on the Pine Meadow Trail 3 times previously. But the rest of this trip would be new ground for me.
We went south on the woods road that skirts the west end of the lake, until we came to the very short connector trail called the Poached Egg (blazed with a yellow circle on a white circle). It ran zig-zag uphill over a very rocky path for maybe a quarter mile--it's too short to be covered in Harriman Trails, but it does get 2 brief mentions.
Poached Egg brought us to the Raccoon Brook Hills Trail, which had the blessing of being well shaded on a warm, tho dry, day.
Much of the RBH also was rocky, but it had some easy, almost level spots too. More noteworthy, however, were some straight-down drops (I wasn't disappointed that we were descending, rather than ascending!). One at least had a ladder--dedicated to a former trail maintainer named Tom Dunn, which gets our SDB attention of course. A couple of hilltops gave us some nice vistas--from one of which we espied the Manhattan skyline afar off.Too bad I didn't have my good camera. So you may have to take my word that the skyline is really in the center of this shot. But I was carrying quite enuf gear already, plus nearly a gallon of water after leaving the lake. Our planned route didn't promise any fresh water.

What does one tote on a 2-day backpacking trip in Harriman, besides water? A tent if you don't want to sleep under the stars, and maybe amid the mosquitoes. Sleeping bag and pad (or 2, in my feeble case). A small folding stool if your back doesn't take kindly to sitting on the ground and you can't count on a handy log or rock. First aid kit. Cooking set and eating utensils. Stove and fuel ("Pocket Rocket" by MSR and propane-butane canister). Food. Water filter or purification drops/tablets. Poncho. Change of underwear and socks. Hatchet. (I did without a folding saw on this trip.) Paperback book. Compass. Map. Flashlight. Spare batteries. Pocket knife. Comfy footwear for camp. Small towel. Soap. Insect repellent. Medicine. Plastic spade (for digging a cat hole when nature calls). TP. Duck (duct) tape. Clothes line and twine (on a day hike about 3 years ago, a boot started to come apart, and I had to tie the sole to the upper for the last 3 or 4 miles; when I got home and took off the twine, the sole just dropped off). In my case, a really basic Mass kit and photocopied Divine Office.

Off and on we were meeting day hikers coming the other way. Usually we just exchanged greetings, sometimes a query or 2. When we asked a couple of husky 30-ish guys how they were doing, one answered, "Still alive!"

Moments later we came to the 2d tremendous drop-off--this one without a ladder. Those 2, and others we'd already passed (one of whom had told us the RBH was his favorite trail!), had come up this 100' cliff that was for us a great trouble to descend, especially with full packs. In a couple of spots one had to turn and face the cliff, stepping down gingerly. In a couple of spots, one had to sit (not easy with a backpack on) and ease himself down to a foothold. My walking stick came in very handy (not only here, but in general, for maintaining balance or thrusting or steadying with arm power in addition to leg power).

If you look closely at this shot, which is the cliff in question, in the middle you'll see a couple of hikers picking their way down, which will give you a faint idea of its height and perpendicular-ity.

According to the trail guide (which we didn't have with us), at the bottom of this scarp, if you look up you see an outcrop called "the Pulpit" (which is marked on the trail map). Matt and Adam had sort of insisted that we had to come this way (we could have cut south on the Hillburn-Torne-Sebago Trail), but we didn't know what we were looking for, and so missed it.

At the cliff's bottom was a runlet where Matt refilled his water bottle. We hadn't counted on that, and he was very glad. Across the runlet was a grassy hillside with some rocks on it where we decided to lunch; it was just after noon. Numerous hikers passed us in both directions as we sat there eating our Ramen noodles or whatever.

It turned out that the Reeves Brook Trail was right there, 30 feet above us, as well. So after some photo-taking,
Adam headed homeward on the Reeves--he had to be at Maryknoll in the evening for the 35th anniversary celebration of their lay missioner program, at which Abp. Tim Dolan presided.
Matt and I continued on the RBH Trail till it ended at the Seven Hills Trail. The post-lunch leg of it wasn't nearly as bad. But all told, I'd say the RBH was the nastiest trail I've done in Harriman--not that I've done them all; and several have their individual nasty spots.

We continued to meet day hikers, tho less frequently by this point. We went south on the Seven Hills and were aghast when it brought us to Torne View, staring at us with a long, steep climb. We made a long pause to sip some water and work up our courage. The climb took us quite a while but brought some fine views.
When I shot this eastward view from Torne View, I thought it might be "the Pulpit," or one of the other heights we'd come across in the morning. There was a similar height also to the south, which we'd certainly come over. Later (as I was 1st composing this post) I thought it might be the Russian Bear, which wasn't our destination but would be where we wound up for the nite. After further review (as the refs say), I suspect it's the Pulpit.

We were heading for Ramapo Torne. But when we started down from Torne View and hit the Hillburn-Torne-Sebago Trail, we went east when we should have gone west (didn't consult the map properly). We came soon to a grassy area that looked like it had camping possibilities, and that became attractive when a swamp with running water (under a bridge, no less) appeared. We paused quite a while, while Matt re-watered and then scouted around for a camp site. He found a couple that might have done if we were desperate; tho weary, we weren't desperate. We climbed a bit, rounded a bend, and (without a proper trail blaze directing us to turn) found a set of carefully laid steps ascending the height of what turned out to be the Russian Bear. We were huffing a little when we got up there, but we liked the view. A quick look to the west disillusioned us that we were at Ramapo Torne, because that was over to the west, between us and the Thruway.

Right at the top, tho, we found a likely camping spot. I was certainly for calling it a day--it was about 3:30 p.m., and I was tuckered out. Matt looked around a bit and found a spot well off the trail that he liked. So I pitched here, and he pitched there. We celebrated the Sunday vigil Mass a bit after 4:00, then made supper preparations: the rest of the green beans for both of us, Ramen noodles with tuna for Matt, freeze-dried lasagna for me, with Crystal Lite to drink.
As we were finishing supper, at 6:30 a lone day hiker ambled by, heading back toward Reeves Meadow. We thought he was out rather late, but he did have 90 minutes of daylight left and, unemcumbered by a heavy pack, should have arrived with time to spare.
I was having a stomach problem that necessitated 3 trips to a cat hole between 3:45 and 9:15. I found an antacid in the first aid kit, but that didn't do much good. I wondered if the filtered lake water was the problem, but more probably it was related to dehydration; I was pretty thirsty, despite all the water I'd toted and been consuming; I had saved just enuf for breakfast. I was wishing I had another bottle of Gatorade. (Actually both Matt and I had wished out loud for a cold beer.) But by bedtime I was feeling a little better.

In the meantime, we hung our bear bag, then gathered firewood, of which there was an abundance, and plenty dry. We made a little fire, purely for the atmosphere. As the sun set (screened by trees on the ridge to the west), the lights of Manhattan and even Brooklyn became visible over a ridge in the distance--beautiful. I think I also discerned the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge.

A light breeze drove off any insects that might have bothered us. The crickets chirped away all nite, and that was the only sound (except the inevitable hum of traffic on the Thruway and Rte. 17). It made for a very pleasant evening. I didn't even put the rainfly on my tent, but enjoyed the fresh, open air thru the tent screening. Not that I slept well. I'd pitched on a slight slope, and I kept sliding just a little bit to one side of the tent. Not serious enuf to make me get up and move, tho.

On Sunday morn, I awoke at 6:30. Yes, I did sleep a little. By the time I'd broken down my tent, prayed the Office, and brought down the bear bag, Matt showed up. We had our breakfasts (oatmeal, an orange, and coffee again for me; bagel and granola bar for him). Once I'd packed up, we hit the trail at 8:35 a.m.

It turned out that we'd made a good decision on camping where we did; there wasn't another spot the whole way back north on the HTS. When we crossed the RBH, where the 3 of us had passed around 11:30 on Saturday, we realized that we 2 had messed up on our route at Torne View and weren't at all where we'd thought we were. So much for my mapreading skills! At least we had a mostly easy, almost entirely downhill run back to Reeves Meadow, tho a long one of well over a mile on the HTS to the Pine Meadow, and then 1.2 miles on that.

We heard voices at the RBH crossing, so evidently there were some early hikers out. We didn't meet our first day hikers until about 9:00. They wanted to know whether they were near the top (Russian Bear?). We said simply, "No," and went on. Along the Pine Meadow Trail we met more than a dozen hikers heading outward in various bunches. We got back to the car around 9:30.
The visitor center was open, so--after unburdening myself of the backpack of course--I went in and inquired about the new edition of Harriman Trails. The ranger acknowledged that they were waiting for it eagerly because it's a best-seller (naturally), but the publication date keeps being pushed back. I guess I can understand how that happens! (Ask me about The Educational Philosophy of St. John Bosco.)

Despite sore shoulders and tired legs and back, it was a delightful weekend. The weather was ideal, the companionship fine, and God's nature thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring.

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