Monday, May 14, 2012

Still Hikin' at 88

Here I am on Balm of Gilead in North River, NY, with my father.  I have taken him on "birthday hikes" for many years, but who would have thought we'd still be hiking as he turned 88?!

I became my father's "hikin' buddy" back in 1971 when I was 14 and he took me up Mt. Marcy, my first Adirondack High Peak.  I thought I was going to die as we sweated our way up the trail, but it was worth it, when, besides the view, we found a patch of leftover snow.  I rubbed a handful across the back of my neck under my long braid.  Breezes cooled us, too. My favorite blue wool sweater felt great.

Now when I look back, I wonder how we carried full packs over the peaks.  Here's my father in 1972 when he was 48.  He never wanted to descend the way we had gone up so we carried all of our gear over the peaks, camping on the other side to make a loop.

(this Adirondack-style bridge is new since we were here last year)
Over the decades we've covered a lot of trails, making a tradition of annual spring and fall day hikes, often fitting them in between many other commitments. This year we chose the one-mile hike up Balm of Gilead.  With 400 feet elevation gain, this rocky outcropping offers a fabulous view over Thirteenth Lake and surrounding mountains.

These days, my father's pace is understandably slow. Sometimes, now, I take my camera; regular intervals for pictures give my father an easy excuse to stop for breath without making him feel like he's holding me back.

Let me tell you about our day as we walk a Spring path through a woodland garden.
(Red Trillium)
This year, Bill joined us for the outing.  I told him, "Sometimes we stop on the way up north for coffee, and we stop on the way back for ice cream."  Even though I had packed a lunch tailor-made for my father including a roast beef and provolone sandwich with lettuce and tomato on rye, chips, an apple, and a brownie, extra treats were part of the fun.
(Trout Lily)
As predicted, we pulled into North Creek for our 10:30 a.m. stop at Marsha's Family Restaurant.  Marsha's is an Adirondack classic with a busy local clientele.  No "new American cuisine" here, just good old-fashioned diner options for a low price.  Coffee is $1.25, and we each had a muffin, also $1.25.  We didn't need a more substantial meal, having had breakfast at home, but plate after plate of eggs, bacon, and homefries came out of the kitchen for hungry patrons.  From North Creek, the Balm of Gilead trailhead at the Garnet Hill Ski Center parking lot is just a short distance away.

(a toad or a modern version of stegosaurus??)
Three years ago, at the age of 85, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. At times he seems fine, but he is increasingly mixed up, and life at home is a trial of confusion over tasks that used to seem like nothing. What is particularly sad is that he knows what he is losing. Frustration is high and depression is frequent. 

(Bill and my father contemplate the huge pileated woodpecker holes in this downed tree)

But when he is out in the woods, he is very lucid.  He repeats sentences now and then, but his mind is sharp. I think nature is just working her magic.  My mother thinks his improved mental clarity outdoors is due to him having only one thing to focus on, exercise in a place he loves.  Either way, I see him at his best and am grateful for moments like this.

(fallen logs and glacial rock don't hold us back for long)

This day, my mother, just shy of her 87th birthday, chose not to join us.  She also is in excellent physical shape and could have hiked Balm of Gilead, but she needed some time for herself, knowing that my father was in good hands with us.

(my father loves "gear chat"--he and Bill discuss trekking poles)

My father talked of previous hikes here, such as during outings with his retired hiking group, the Crooked Canes. Looking down on Thirteenth Lake, he remembered days kayaking with the Canes on the cool clear mountain water.  He spoke of trips here with me in the past, when we saw turkey vultures flying below us as we sat on the rocks soaking up the Spring sun just as we were today.

(the view across Thirteenth Lake to Peaked Mt. shows us that Spring still has a ways to go)

Looking past the lake to Peaked Mountain beyond, he thought about the pristine wilderness ponds along that trail and how beautiful they are in the fall.  He was pleased with his ability to come here again.  "We've hiked to a lot of nice places, haven't we? When I'm gone, you can remember all the places you went with your old Pop," he said to me.  I was already remembering.
(with binoculars, we were able to see a few canoes and kayaks on the lake)
Having Bill along gave my father a fresh audience for old tales. "What do you think, Bill," he said, "pretty nice up here, isn't it?"  Bill and I had snowshoed Balm of Gilead a couple of years ago when the temperature barely reached zero. Being here on a 60 degree day was a treat.

(Painted Trillium)

Eventually, we had to start back down the trail.  A few black flies were out and circled our heads. In another week or two, they would become a formidable force.

(Dutchman's Breeches)
We made pretty good time going downhill.  "It's a trade-off," my father said.  "On the way up, it's hard to breathe, and on the way down the legs get a little shaky."  Bill helped him over logs and downed branches.  There seemed to be a lot of blow-down which we attributed to Hurricane Irene.

(Spring beauties next to rough tree bark)
About a quarter of a mile from the car, where the trail leveled out, he stopped a couple of times.  "My legs are talking back to me," he said.  I took a few pictures.  We all marveled at the Trout Lilies that we had seen in the morning, now standing tall with their petals curled back in the sunshine.  Going slowly had its benefits.

(Butterflies like this one flitted nearby all afternoon)
We reached the car and opened the windows.  The mountain breeze felt good as we drove on dirt roads back to route 28.  Tucked in the woods were a few beautiful log homes, reminding my father of his visits to a friend's vacation home nearby.  Then he rambled on a bit about the hunting camp on the Indian River where he spent many deer seasons over five decades.  We discussed how the camp could be remodeled for a summer house, since the younger generation had little interest in hunting.  The Adirondacks are full of good memories.
(Fiddlehead Ferns just peaking out of the leaves)

And we never skip Stewart's.  To our surprise, the new shop in Warrensburg already had 2012's seasonal flavors.  Stewart's Ice Cream comes out every summer with a few creative new flavors named for local places and traditions such as Kayadeross Cream,  Adirondack Bear Paw, Happy Camper, or the horse racing favorite Chocolate Trifecta, voted #1 dark chocolate ice cream in the world at the World Dairy Expo 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin.

(Yellow Violets)
I had a cone (to me the best way to consume ice cream), while Bill and my father each had double scoops in a dish.  We needed that boost to help us get back down the Northway and home.  When we reached my parents' house in Saratoga, my father's legs were no longer "talkin' back," and he regaled my mother with details of the view, the roast beef sandwich, and our great day on the trail.  Not a bad way to ring in an 88th birthday!

(lack of foliage on this May day allowed for lots of sun on the trail)