Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bennett Hill: Spring

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
                    -- Robert Frost

I am inspired by Jackie Donnelly, a friend and author of the blog
Jackie describes trip after trip to Moreau State Park, near her home in Saratoga, chronicling changes that she sees as she enjoys one of her favorite places in all seasons.

My current favorite is Bennett Hill, just southwest of Albany.  It's a place to share with friends and family, but is even more special when I go alone. With only 3 miles of trail and 400 feet of elevation gain, it works well for a stroll, rather than a workout; an opportunity to soak in quiet beauty, and return home refreshed.

This blog post is my first in a year of seasons at Bennett Hill.  I hope to share this little oasis with you, beginning now with Spring.

I have a couple of appointments in the morning, but have my hiking boots and my camera with me, under the presumption that I will also visit Bennett Hill on this perfect spring day.  My appointments run late, and I debate whether I should stick with my plan.  I have other things to do, including considerable computer work, and an evening meeting. But the sun beckons and I am eager to begin my story of this Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy location today.

The trail begins on an old road.  To the right are farms; to the left, woods.  Walking alongside pastureland, with cows nearby, is a treat.  Hikes in the forest rarely begin like this.

The trail rises, narrows, and becomes enclosed in hardwood forest.  I hear only the distant lowing of cows, bird calls, the hammering of a woodpecker on a hollow tree, and the whir of farm machinery far away.  This is as close to silence as I desire.

Bennett Hill is not wilderness.  A tub in the middle of the trail usually shocks the first-time hiker.  Rusty and lined with rotting leaves, it provides a frame for spring water.  The spring comes out of limestone and shale, flows through the pipe, and makes a continuous cascade into the tub and out a hole at the other end.  Nothing is higher than this spring on the hill, so I assume that the water is pure.  I scoop a few handfuls for a cold drink.

The path breaks off into a loop that will encircle the summit plateau.  A sprawling oak tree, with a horizontal branch, is perfect for sitting.  One time a young couple asked me to take their picture as they sat on it side-by-side.  It is the largest tree in this young forest.

The hardwoods turn to soft, as the trail enters a stand of pines.  Needles cover the ground.  At 68 degrees, the day is warm for mid-April, but welcome.  Still, the sun's intensity is always a surprise in early spring, when leaves on the trees are tiny or scarce. The pines offer a cooling shade.

I ramble, slow and deliberate, taking in the sounds and silence, and eventually reach the summit of Bennett Hill.

An opening in the trees provides a view of Meadowbrook Farm, which sells milk to our local co-op in glass bottles.  I buy the lowfat version, although still rich and creamy.

A second opening looks across to the Helderbergs with tiny Clarksville below.  Most of Albany County is very rural.  I'm glad that I can leave my urban neighborhood and be here in just 20 minutes.

Spanning the view of Clarksville, I am impressed with how the land flattens to the Hudson Valley. I find a stump to stand on and can see east as far as the Empire State Plaza and beyond.  The atmosphere is very clear.  How could I have considered not coming here this afternoon?

Walking through the young growth on the plateau is one of my favorite parts of this hike.  The ground covers are still mostly brown, but I know they will frame the path with lush green in a month or two.

In the meantime, I can appreciate the stark white birches and the yellow green of moss.  I remember that Jackie always writes about plant-life in her blog.  Just this week, she pictured wild flowers opening with these few warm days.  I haven't seen any wildflowers, but I do like this carpet of moss.

I decide that I should look for wildflowers. They must be here.  I spend more time studying the ground, but my eyes gravitate upward.  I am drawn to the views of the ridge, that would not be visible once leaves are on the trees; and the way the path hugs the side of the hill pleases me.

I am disappointed, however, to see what has happened to a little gathering of stones that I had once called a woodland altar.  A few years before, someone carefully arranged a half-dozen little stones, a plank of bark, and bits of leaves and moss.

Recently, the arrangement changed into a cairn, with stones set at angles and balanced in different sizes.  Although I missed the altar, the cairn was okay, but what was this?  A pile of rocks and a teepee of wood as if ready for a bonfire? 

From here, I begin the descent.  Now, I am searching in earnest for wildflowers.  Against current tick-prevention wisdom, I go off the trail, follow a tiny stream through a ravine and see no flowers.  I do hear the pounding of woodpecker creating lots of noise in a very dead tree.  Once again I look up. I hope to spy the tell-tale red of a pileated woodpecker.  My eyes and ears scan the branches following the loud hollow sound.  And then I see it, a little downy woodpecker making all that noise. 

I walk back to the trail.  Although I have not worn my gaiters, which are infused with tick repellent, I did spray the bottom of my pant legs with a mixture of essential oils made specifically to ward off the insects.  I stray off the trail again, and what do I see? Trout lilies in yellow clusters!  My first wildflowers of the day!

As I get closer to the bottom of the hill, I walk through leaves and open woods for a better look at a group of heifers enjoying the new grass and sunshine.

In the brown leaves at my feet, I am greeted by the pure white petals of bloodroot.  Two different wildflowers on this day!  I'm convinced that I have not missed others.  Maybe a naturalist like Jackie, with her eagle eye, would have found found more, but I'm satisfied.

To finish off my adventure, a spring azure butterfly flits across the trail in front of me.  This butterfly is often mistaken for the famous Karner Blue that is protected in the Albany Pine Bush.  Without celebrity status, the spring azure is a picture of blue brilliance against the still-brown ground.

And what about that waa-waa racket I hear above?  Have I finally found my pileated woodpecker? A red head peers out of a hole in the tree, just below a fungus roof.

To the sound of mooing cows, I reach my car.  I have not seen anyone all afternoon.  I am aware, though, that I have not been cautious enough about ticks. When I volunteered at the Pine Bush, I picked up three or four ticks every time I walked there.  I would drive the few miles to my house and see one walking up my pants leg, or crawling out from the cuff on my shirt onto my wrist.  I learned to strip before I got in the car.

Now, I use my car as shield to potential passers-by, and take my shirt off.  Turning it inside out, I look closely for ticks.  Then I turn it right side out and do the same thing, checking my skin as well.  After putting it back on, I repeat the exercise with my pants and socks.  It's a pesky ritual, but lyme disease is worse.

I find no ticks, am fully dressed, and drive home through Clarksville, past forsythia in full bloom and the babbling Onesquethaw Creek.  I will be back to soak up the quiet and beauty of Bennett Hill on another perfect day.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Windham High Peak in Winter

As I write this, snow is falling hard and fast.  Deep powder covers everything.  But last week, brown grass was visible on half of our Albany yard.  I felt desperate to get outdoors, really get away for some exercise, someplace different but not too far away, and with beautiful white snow.  I mulled over possible options in the course of the day. Windham High Peak in the Northern Catskills came to mind.

(Linda begins the hike by crossing the pretty Windham Kill, in lightly falling snow.)

At 6 miles, and 1500 feet of elevation gain, Windham High Peak is a perfect B-level hike.  The mountain's total elevation of 3524 feet puts it at number 34 on the list of the 35 Catskill peaks over 3500 feet.  As such, Windham High Peak is considered the gateway to the other peaks -- a rewarding beginning that will entice hikers to do more.

(The sun came out as we continued on an old farm road.)

My friend, Linda, and I had set aside the day without having made formal plans.  She considered my idea with some hesitancy. Both of us had a variety of reasons for questioning our abilities on this day.  Still, a chance to get outside! Someplace beautiful!  Not far from home!  How could we be indecisive?

As the good friend she is, Linda gave in to my sense of desperation.  She picked me up just after 8:00 a.m., and we took off.

(The trail has excellent signage.)

At just over an hour, the drive to the trailhead is very manageable.  Not only that, route 32 is pretty, through rolling Albany County farmland.  We crossed into Greene County just before turning up route 23 into the Catskill Park. 

On the way, we passed Acra, a tiny village just beneath the Blackhead Range of mountains, where Bill and I lived for the first year that we were married.  Some nostalgia goes with this trip, and I tried not to inflict too much of it on Linda.

(A smaller but characteristic version of the famous Catskill escarpment.)

The forecast had indicated that the day would be cloudy, with snow showers in the late afternoon.  As we drove towards the trailhead, we hit a snow squall, a foreshadowing of the changeable conditions we would encounter throughout the day. 

(Mounds of white snow lead to a lean-to on the crest of the rock formation.)

We put on our backpacks, and chose microspikes for our boots. We guessed that the snow was only six inches deep, and wouldn't require snowshoes.  Nevertheless, we hung the snowshoes on the backs of our packs with cords, in case the snow deepened closer to the summit.  We knew to be extra cautious in winter.

Minutes into the woods, we encountered two young men jogging down the trail toward us.  By this time of only 9:45 a.m., they had already run to the summit and back!  Did we ever have the stamina for this kind of winter mountain run?  Not that we could remember....  These guys were the only people we met all day.

(Linda, at the southern summit overlook, in snow flurries and a cloud.)

Before long, the sun came out, making lovely shadows across the white snow.  From here on, the day fit the phrase attributed to Mark Twain: "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes."

Catching glimpses of mountains through the hardwood forest, we stopped often to take a breath, or to take a picture.  The trail ascending Windham High Peak has switchbacks which offer relief on the upgrades, and it levels out between the steeper sections -- respites are conveniently built in.  We visited when the going was easy, and kept silent when we needed all of our breath for the trail.

(The Blackhead Range in a snow storm.)

Still, we took the last half-mile at a slow plod, in that meditative motion of putting one foot in the front of the other that often comes when the summit is within reach, but still requires effort to attain.

Snow showers swirled around us, and we reached the first overlook in windy gusts.  Linda had never been on this mountain, and I was disappointed not to be able to show her crisper views of the Blackhead Range to the south.

(Sun shines on this northern summit view.)

We continued to the next overlook, facing north.  Here the sun came and went.  We hadn't had to "wait five minutes" for the weather to change.  We just had to cross to the other side! Farms spread out for miles.  On really clear days, Albany is visible in the distance.

(Virginia finds a tree seat at the northern viewpoint.)

I hoped that the snow would have passed off the Blackhead Range's triad of Blackhead, Black Dome, and Thomas Cole mountains, when we returned to the southern overlook for lunch, but poor visibility persisted.  So it is in the mountains....  No matter, we ate our lunches with gusto, while our fingers started to chill. 

(Snowshoes are a necessary safety item in winter, even if you end up backpacking them.)

Linda began the descent at a brisk clip.  "I'm going to go fast so I can warm up," she said.  I stayed a short distance behind her, taking more pictures.

When we reached the spot where mountain views peeked through the trees, I called to her, "Look!  The view is in the sunshine!"  The mountains shone deep blue beyond.  We joked about hiking back up, which we did not consider doing, but knew clouds might come in again at any moment.

(The southern view comes into the sunshine now??)

On the trail, the sun felt great.  We stopped a few times to stand in its warmth and revel in the beauty all around us.

(I ran ahead of Linda to photograph her coming down the trail at the back of this woodland scene.)

And when we reached the parking lot and Linda's car, what was the weather doing?  You guessed it -- we started the drive back home in a snow shower!


As I contemplated Linda's and my ambivalence in taking on a hike that was easier than many we have done, but seemed like a challenge on this day, I remembered a poem that I associate with my grandfather.  Thinking, by Walter D. Wintle, was published in 1905.  It is old-fashioned and sexist, but has an appealing simplicity from a time when moral rhyme for the common man was popular.

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don't,
If you like to win, but you think you can't
It is almost certain you won't.

If you think you'll lose, you're lost
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow's will
It's all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are
You've got to think high to rise,
You've got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life's battles don't always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins