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 a a 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.