Monday, October 13, 2014

The Trail of 10,000 Acorns

The Trail of 10,000 Acorns

The six-day retreat that I made in August was more like half a retreat, what with the work that needed to be done during it, covering two religious profession ceremonies, assisting with the Salesian Lay Missioners’ orientation and covering their commissioning Mass, and (against my own preferences) editing and proofreading the regular weekly issue of the province newsletter.

After the retreat ended on August 16, I worked non-stop to finish the proofing of an issue of the Salesian Bulletin, get out assorted press releases (the professions, the SLMs, the province celebration of jubilees on Sept. 20) to the province newsletter and individual diocesan newspapers.

Section of the AT north and east of Anthony's Nose
So for about 3 weeks I was telling myself and others that I need to get out and spend a little time in the woods.  On Sept. 28 that opportunity finally came—3 days of vacation-retreat on the Appalachian Trail, hiking northward from just beyond the Bear Mountain Bridge in the town of Philipstown, Putnam County, to Fahnestock State Park in Putnam Valley.

For the 1st 2 days of the hike, the most consistent sound of the hike, over a distance of about 12 miles and thru 2 nites, was that of acorns hitting the ground. The forest along that stretch of the AT, from the bridge to Highland Road, is all hardwoods, and evidently there are lots and lots of oaks amid the maples (plenty of those) and birches and whatever else.  It was strangely quiet on the 3d day, from Highland Road into Fahnestock, with only a few acorns to be heard.  I guess there were a lot more ash or hickory; there were more beeches, and beyond Sunken Mine Road a lot of hemlocks.

The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference does a fantastic job blazing the trails, keeping them reasonably free of obstacles (especially fallen trees), and otherwise maintaining them.

Trail turns are usually indicated by just a pair of blazes, one over the other!
Sunday, Sept. 28, was sunny and unseasonably warm.  I packed my last couple of items into my pack —hot dogs and eggs—then delayed my departure while waiting for our Internet to be restored (because I still had press releases on the jubilarians to dispatch!); when the Net didn’t look like it would be ready before noon, at best, we headed off.

“We” was Fr. Mike Leschinsky and me.  He’d return the car home and on Wednesday come and fetch me.  I’d invited Fr. Mike to join me for a day hike, but he opted not to.  Around 11:00 a.m. we got to the point on Rte. 9D where the AT starts to climb the mountain behind Anthony’s Nose, and off I went with my 30-lb. pack, canteen, and camera.

I met 9 hikers coming down the trail, all day hikers who’d already been to the Nose.  I figured once I was heading away from the junction with the Camp Smith Trail (toward the Nose), I wouldn’t see many hikers.  That proved not to be so.  1st, I met a party of 5 or 6 people, young and old, with 5 dogs, who told me I looked like I knew where I was going and asked for directions to the Nose; apparently they’d kept going on the AT after climbing the mountain and missing the right turn of the CST.  Then, when I’d stopped to eat lunch at the Hemlock Springs camp site, a party of about 6 older hikers came by, heading northward.  Lunch was peanut butter on Ritz crackers, a granola bar, and water. Around the time I was finishing, the hikers returned.  “Déjà vu!” I exclaimed.  One of them answered, “Maine wasn’t that interesting, and we decided to come back.”

Hemlock Springs campsite
I crossed South Mountain Pass Road and started up Canada Hill, stopping several time to catch my breath.  Once I reached the ridge at the top, the hiking was easy, and the sun was quite warm.  At occasional spots where the trees thinned out a little, I thought maybe I should put on some sunscreen (as per the dermatologist), but it wasn’t worth it to take off my backpack and rummage thru it to find the bag with the medicals.

The trail running easily along the ridge of Canada Hill
No other hikers along this entire stretch.  Once I was past the Osborn Loop, I was in new territory for me.  I’d hiked from the bridge to South Mountain Pass Road a couple of times, and thence around the Osborn Loop once.  My legs were moaning about the exercise, my shoulders seriously painful from the weight of my pack (no matter how many times I cinched up my hip belt); the strap across the my chest popped off the left shoulder strap twice, so there wasn’t anything to be done about tightening that to reduce the shoulder strain.

I was also getting a little low on water, having brought only a canteen-full (a quart).  But Annsville Creek was a disappointment—easy to cross on a very rickety boardwalk (photo below), but not a drop to water to be seen across the whole morass of reeds and mud.  If I’d been desperate for water, I could’ve gone into the deli at the NY 403-US 9 intersection, but I knew Graymoor wasn’t far ahead (altho it was quite a bit farther than I thought).  A kind driver waved me across 403, but I had to wait for a light change to cross 9 and enter Graymoor’s property.  It was still half a mile (of agony) before I actually got to the friary.

The write-up that I’d seen about the trail was accurate:  it was yet another half mile of hiking (on a blue-marked trail) from the AT to the ball field where the friars make hikers welcome.  I stopped at a picnic area sooner, hoping there’d be a place to pitch a tent (and shorten my hike), but there wasn’t.  The pain in my shoulders gave me a chance to identify with the Savior carrying his cross to Calvary.

I paused at the friars’ cemetery to pray for the dead.  Then there was a long downhill to the ball field.  The hospitality there was all that an AT hiker could want unless he got carried away and demanded HOT water.  There’s a lot of flat, open space (it IS a ball field) to pitch tents.  There are lots of picnic tables and benches.  There’s a pavilion (which was being used for a large family picnic when I arrived).  There’s a water spigot.  There’s a shower room for one, cold water only.  There are 2 clean port-a-johns.

It was about 4:00 p.m., and 6 miles of hiking from my start, when I set my pack down on a table and picked out a shaded spot to pitch my tent.  I filled my canteen and 3 water bottles.  I gathered some small branches for firewood, made a small fire pit, and got a little blaze going easily, then prayed Daytime Prayer.  (I’d photocopied all the parts of the Office that I’d need—no lugging around a 2,200-page book!)  When the fire was down to embers, I put my 2 foil-wrapped hot dogs on them, and in 10 minutes supper was ready.  The menu wasn’t much—just the dogs and buns with mustard, followed by an orange and washed down with Crystal Lite.

I prayed Evening Prayer and read from a back issue of America.  The family picnic concluded, and the family left.  After maybe half an hour, a couple of hikers walked in and settled in the pavilion.  Eventually (after they settled and phoned out a pizza order for supper), they came over and introduced themselves as John and Henry; they were hiking just the New York portion of the AT, southward.  I gave them some tips, particularly about water (or the lack of it) and the shelters in Harriman State Park, and they advised me about the lack of water on the northward trail (which I’d already suspected).

I continued reading in my tent for a while, but by 8:30 I was done for the nite.  The nite was punctuated till at least 10 by the bells of the friary, by the hooting of an owl from time to time—and by falling acorns.

First light woke me from whatever sleep I was able to get, and I rose at 6:45, offered Mass on a picnic table for the feast of St. Michael—discovering that somehow I’d managed not to bring the stole that I always have with the rest of the backpacking Mass supplies.  Then breakfast of scrambled eggs (I forgot to bring salt and pepper) and trail mix and a good cup of coffee (instant).  I prayed the Office (Readings, Morning Prayer), then broke down the tent and packed up.  There’d been some dew overnite, but the tent fly wasn’t very damp by that time.

It was 9:15 when I hit the trail (ahead of my short-time buddies in the pavilion).  Even with my full load of water this time, about 3 quarts, the hiking was considerably easier.  There weren’t any really steep climbs, and I guess my legs had adjusted.  Even my shoulders felt a little better.

The woods of this section of the AT (between South Mountain Pass Road and Fahnestock)
are full of old stone walls, some still pretty well maintained.
The trail climbed gradually, and after setting my pack down by the trail, I took the little side trail to Little Fort Hill, which holds the ruins of something—it looked like it might have been a gazebo, but a wooden sign off to the side reading in Spanish “Missionary Virgin, Mother of the Immigrants” suggests that maybe there was a little shrine.  And there was a picnic table!  Did someone take the trouble to lug that thru the woods?  Or were the pieces brought and assembled up there?  The view wasn’t much, but once the leaves are off the trees, it probably will be a good one.  The area is flat and open, but pretty hard; it wouldn’t be easy to pitch a tent there, but otherwise it’d be a nice camping spot.

Looking up at Little Fort Hill from the AT

Missionary Virgin sign
Top of Little Fort Hill
I passed by the side trail that goes up Denning Hill.  At Fort Defiance Hill there was finally a fine vista to look at—and then a wicked descent almost all the way to the Old Albany Post Road.  I stopped there a little before noon, sat on a rock, and ate my lunch (sardines on Ritz crackers, a granola bar, and water; dummy forgot that he also had cup-o-soup with him).  There was quite a bit of traffic, locals going in and out Chapman Road, a FedEx truck, and a couple of guys going by so fast that they raised big clouds of dust (the post road being unpaved)—not very pleasant to me, sitting less than 10 feet away.  One local stopped and inquired whether everything was OK, was pleased that I was just having lunch, and asked whether I needed anything.  I replied, “Stamina!” to which he laughed, and said, “We all need that.”

The Old Albany Post Road brought me to a section of the AT that I’d been on before with Troop 40 for a Four Rivers District trek-o-ree; it must have been in the fall of 2004.  I don’t remember much in the way of the trail but do remember the hike itself because we had a couple of the moms with us part of the way and some Scouts doing their 1st hike.  Before long I was left behind with the slowest lads (not that I was slow, but it fell to me to be their shepherd), and eventually we finished at Dennytown Road, whence we were shuttled back to what was then still called Clear Lake Scout Reservation.  More famously, our Scoutmaster, an Assistant Scoutmaster, and the latter’s son got lost and wound up at the park office in Fahnestock instead of back at Scout camp.

That’s another story, of course.  A short distance beyond the road I met a couple from the NY-NJ TC (with their dog) who were out doing maintenance work (the gent’s power saw had been audible all the way up on Ft. Defiance Hill) and boundary-checking.  They tried to cajole me into joining the Trail Conference.

Colors on Canopus Hill
The hike up Canopus Hill wasn’t bad, but I still had to pause for breath a couple of times.  Once up, the hiking was pretty easy.  The only water that I found all day was in the creek below Canopus Hill Road, where I topped off my containers, using my filter.

The creek below Canopus Hill Road--
the only water between Graymoor and Dennytown Road
on this hike
From there it was a fairly short trek to Highland Road, and I was already looking for a camp site, having come about 6 miles from Graymoor.  It was only about 3:00 p.m., too early to stop hiking (and physically I could have continued); but of course I didn’t know what kind of sites I might find ahead.  About a quarter mile beyond the road, up a slight rise and still within sight of a rooftop, I found an existing camp site—with enuf room for 1 tent near a fire ring and lots and lots of fallen wood in the area.  So I decided that was the end of the day’s hiking.

I pitched the tent, gathered firewood, sat on a too-low rock, the only flat one anywhere in the area, and prayed and read for a quite some time.  Not a single soul came by.  In fact, the only people I saw on the trail all day were the NY-NJ TC couple.  I made a supper of freeze-dried chicken teriyaki, which was tasty and filling, and another orange.  (Those oranges certainly added to the weight in my pack, but they were worth it.)  Like last nite, there were a few mosquitoes, but not too many for my repellant to take care of.  I made a nice little fire and sat by it, and then by its glowing embers, till about 8:00 p.m., doing a little reading, a little praying.  Once the embers were down to only a glow, I retired to the tent.  No church bells tonite, nor hoot owls; but still lots of acorns.

Tuesday dawned, if you can say that, with fog.  It didn’t look like a promising day even tho rain wasn’t forecast (as of Sunday a.m.) till possibly in the afternoon.  I got up at 6:30, said Mass on the little flat rock, had oatmeal, trail mix, and coffee for breakfast, prayed the Office, and broke camp.  This time at Mass I discovered something else missing:  the weekday Scripture readings.  How did I manage that?  Fortunately, there were 1 NT reading and 1 Gospel with the proper Masses for St. Jerome (Sept. 30) and St. Therese (Oct. 1), so I used those, twice.

At 9:05 a.m. I was on the trail, aiming perhaps to get all the way to Fahnestock’s campground, or certainly close to Rte. 301.  About a mile along, up on a ridgetop, I came to a really nice camp site.  Too bad I hadn’t known of it on Monday afternoon!  It was about a quarter mile before the intersection with the Three Lakes Trail.

After last nite’s supper and clean-up, this morning’s breakfast and clean-up, and several hand-washings, I was down to about 1 pint of water, which I had to nurse for more than 2 hours till I got to Dennytown Road.  I’d totally forgotten that there’s a water spigot there, and hadn’t noticed the “W” on my map either, so I went right past the road and the clearing and looked for water to pump from a runlet or the swamp.  Just as I was about to settle for a little puddle in a runlet, a young couple came down the trail from the north and informed me (on the basis of their reading) that there was a spigot back at the road.  They went on as I was collecting my bottles, and then a 2d young couple came down the trail.  I hiked back a quarter mile with them, leaving my pack and even my camera by the side of the trail.  This couple was from South Carolina and had started the AT in Maine on July 15 and were just taking their time going south as far as they could before it got too cold or they got tired; then they’d bus home.  We caught up with the 1st couple at the water spigot, where we all filled up.  This couple had hiked from Georgia to Harper’s Ferry, then flown to Maine and were making their way back to Harper’s Ferry; I didn’t ask where they were from.  I gave them water and camping info about the trail ahead and wished them well, and from them I picked up a useful piece of information about a trail marking in Fahnestock.

From Dennytown Road north I was on somewhat familiar terrain again, having hiked that section out of Durland Scout Reservation in April 2013.  About a mile up the trail I came to a nice spot to stop for lunch, shortly before noon.  By now the sun was out brightly too.  Just as I was setting up my stove to boil water for that cup-o-soup, a guy popped over the rocks, said hello, and asked whether he could stop in.  His name was Mike also, and his trail name was Obi-won.  I assume that he was another Maine-starter.  Again we shared some trail information.  He didn’t eat; just chatted.  And he was on his way again before I finished eating my peanut butter and crackers.

Lunch stop north of Dennytown Road
From there it didn’t seem to take very long to reach Sunken Mine Road.  My legs were doing OK, but my shoulders were bothering me again, and from here on I was having to stop every 15 minutes or so to sit and rest.  The trail beyond SMR was new to me, and apart from the ascent just beyond SMR wasn’t particularly challenging altho it did climb quite a bit.  After descending a lot and crossing some wetlands (amid which there’s a decent camp site), and after crossing the Three Lakes Trail again, one comes to an old rail bed that’s now converted into AT.  That brings you almost right up to NY Rte. 301, which I was very happy to reach, a little before 3:00 p.m.

On north side of Sunken Mine Road is a swamp. The AT passes on its east side,
and a creek flows from it, which the trail crosses and which even at this time of year has water.
Between the ridge north of Sunken Mine Road and Rte 301, much of the AT looks like this.
The old rail bed with the AT running over it.
At 301 were 2 signs advising hikers to avoid the highway and continue north on the AT for 1.5 miles, then take the green trail to the beach and concession stand.  (My young friends back at Dennytown Road had complained that the sign said “green,” but the blazes actually are blue.)  My gut told me just to walk up the highway, but the shoulder on the left side going east (toward the park office) was really narrow).  I figured the office is probably close to the beach and concession stand.

NOT!  Big mistake.  I called home to get word to Fr. Mike that he could pick me up in the campground on Wednesday morning, then started this 1.5-mile trek, which was the worst section of the trail that I did in the 3 days—lots of climbing and descending, and of course my shoulders were really moaning now, and my legs weren’t so happy either.  And the sky had clouded over again, causing me to fret about rain.  It took me an hour and a half to get to the beach, which was deserted, and so was the large complex of concession stand, bath house, first aid station, etc.  There was another hike up to the highway, which I finally reached about 4:45.  I was relieved to see a sign reading “Campground” directly across the highway.

Canopus Lake
A hundred yards or so in, there’s a small registration office.  It was deserted, with a sign directing campers to go back to the highway and proceed a quarter mile to the park office.  Not with my pack, I wasn’t!  Besides, I was confident that the office closed at 5:00 (as per our Scoutmaster’s experience), so it would be pointless anyway.

I went looking for a camp site, not right on the road just in case my presence might be challenged by either a park ranger or someone who’d actually registered for the site.  I came shortly to the bathroom, showers, and water spigot, and I found a decent site off the road not far away.  I dumped everything on the picnic table, routed out my soap and backpacking towel, changed down to gym shorts, and went up and enjoyed a warm shower.

I prepared a supper of cup-o-soup, freeze-dried turkey breast and mashed potatoes, and my 3d orange.  The turkey was pretty dry, the potatoes pretty tasty.  Then I prayed, did some reading, and finally pitched my tent.  I’d waited for that in case of what I called a challenge, above.  By 8:00 I was in the tent; no reading this time, except for Night Prayer.

I usually don’t sleep well when I camp, and this 3d nite was the most sleepless of my 3 nites.  There weren’t any acorns to keep me awake, and traffic on the highway, while audible, wasn’t excessive.  The screen door of the bathroom banged fairly regularly for a while.

In the wee hours, there was a rain shower, not a surprise.  Fortunately, it didn’t last long.  I was glad that I’d covered my backpack with my poncho (my tent being barely large enuf for me).  At 1st light, before 6:30, I got up, figuring I’d better break camp before any serious rain might come along.  I celebrated Mass on the picnic table, packed my gear in a light drizzle, and hiked up to the registration office, which has a little roofed porch.  I settled down there to cook my breakfast (oatmeal, trail mix, coffee again), pray, and read until Fr. Mike came.  A pretty steady drizzle began to fall.  A park ranger stopped by at one point to check on me and invite me to let them know if I needed anything.

Set up for Mass on the picnic table at Fahnestock
Fr. Mike arrived around 9:30 a.m., and my little vacation-retreat was over.  By 10:50 I was back in my office, sending out press releases about SDB jubilarians.

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