Tag Archives: Hiking

Escape the Urban: Soak Up Fall

5 Nov

I’ve said it before: autumn is my favorite time of year. This season is proving it true again, with enviable temperatures, brilliant deep blue skies, and fully hued trees that seemingly refuse to give up their leaves. Three months in and it hasn’t let up yet.

Day after day, my wife stands in front of the large picture window at our house and soaks up the sun like a dog following warming beams to slumber in. She just stares into our forested back yard, watching waves of orange leaves flutter to the ground like paper snowflakes. I cast a questioning look at her.

“I’m forming a mental picture picture in my head. I’m absorbing as much sun and color and life as possible while I can. It’ll sustain me through grey February.”

Not a bad solution to survive our overcast and monochrome winters.

I’ve posted this article a day early to help you plan your weekend (the last nice weekend, finally?), to absorb as much fall as you can. But where to go? Let me make the following suggestions, from my Escape the Urban archives, in case you missed any key installments:

Go paddle to Strawberry and Motor Islands

Take the apple picking tour of the Lake Ontario shoreline in Niagara County

Hike Zoar Valley

Hike the east rim of Letchworth

Bike the Chatauqua Rail Trail (BTW, shameless plug, pick up a copy of this months Buffalo Spree for a guide to the Pat McGee Trail too)

Rediscover the Buffalo Lighthouse

Bike from Delaware Park to the Inner Harbor

Drop down into Devil’s Hole

Hike to the Eternal Flame at Chestnut Ridge

Escape the Urban: Eternal Flame Falls at Chestnut Ridge

16 Oct

Am I the last person in Western New York to visit the Eternal Flame?

One would assume so based upon the foot traffic last Monday, a bright and warm Columbus Day that saw plenty of exasperated parents looking for an active outlet for their energetic children. The trailhead along Seufert Road was packed with cars when we arrived, and overflowed onto adjoining streets by the time we left. On the path itself families and day care groups stood nearly elbow to elbow, a continuous string from roadside trail launch to slate bottom terminus. Most were friendly, a few of the children obnoxious, and only one overweight man hadn’t gotten the memo and smoked cigarettes the entire time. I literally have never seen a trail in Western New York so busy; you can escape the urban here, but not humanity, on a pleasant fall day.

I feel a little silly posting a map to the trailhead, if I am really the only one in town not in the know, but the truth is I had to look up the hike in a trail guide myself, and the Erie County Parks website does little to advertise or direct you to the right location. Once on scene, the attraction of the place is evident: the total distance to hike must be less than two miles, and very little of it is vertically challenging. There are plenty of terrain features to draw the eye the length of the trek. You get to walk along and in the stream bed on the slate bottom itself for the last third. And let’s face it – a perpetually lit flame from a natural gas pocket behind a veil of falling water is just cool. 

But if my description of crowded popularity is too off-putting (there are outdoor hipsters, I’m just not sure what the proper term is), I still recommend you give Eternal Flame Falls a try, especially at the potentially least-busy time. Very early morning. Drenching rain. I want to go back in early spring, when the rushing thaw should produce a torrent over the falls sure to soak the unprepared hiker to the icy miserable bone.  Because the trail is remarkably clean, the narrow water-carved ravine is intimate in its proportions and exquisite in its chiseled detail, and even without the flame-behind-water-curtain effect, the final grotto is genuinely inspiring. Like a setting from an Indian Jones movie transplanted to Western New York, the water drips and cascades around you on three sides, the shark-toothed slate wall rises above, and set in its sanctum, the ethereal flame endures.  

Escape the Urban: Return to Zoar Valley

2 Oct

The rain and color have both arrived, hand in hand, sweet autumn sisters that somehow both soothe and tempt. The trees are flushing into the heart of their fall brilliance. The rain is re-swelling creeks and streams. Yesterday I river guided in Letchworth, back in rafts again as the dry summer passes and the Genny fills with runoff, rapids reforming in chutes and rock bars where only bare longing existed two weeks before.

The Catt is filling again in Zoar as well. Commercial rafting has long since ended for the year, but if you have your own whitewater kayak now is the time to grab some late season action while you can. If not, there are still trails enough to enjoy, as the chill-induced leaf change comes to some of the oldest and tallest trees in New York State. Julie Broyles, who runs zoarvalley.org, has told me many times that the Zoar is special because it is a place you keep wanting to go back to. Those who enjoy it at the peak fullness of summer have a way of finding themselves returning for autumn color and winter’s icy fastness.

May I recommend the following articles to help you plan your own Zoar visit. The first I wrote for WNYMedia this summer, and describes the many trails and sights at The Nature Conservancy’s Deer Lick Preserve.

The second is my article for the September issue of Buffalo Spree, recently available on their website. Besides covering the trails in the New York State Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, it details the serendipitous history of this odd pocket of WNY, and includes an interview with Mr. Herb Darling Jr, the most remarkable Western New Yorker you’ve never heard off.

Mr. Darling’s father donated the land that we know as Zoar Valley today. Following in his father’s philanthropic footsteps, the son is the past President of the Buffalo Science Museum and current President of the NY Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. Hidden in Zoar is a plantation of experimental chestnut trees where Mr. Darling is leading the effort to save the species. Learn more in my interview, and enjoy your fall retreat to Zoar.

Escape the Urban: Royalton Ravine

25 Sep

What do we do with Royalton Ravine?

Don’t let any writer tell you they don’t have an agenda. Stringing words together isn’t so lucrative or stress free that one takes up the profession for purely superficial reasons. Storytellers, bloggers, traditional journalists and sports beat writers all have their motivations, from love of the game to a drive to shine light on political corruption. If you write restaurant reviews and don’t love food, your readers will notice and you don’t last long.

The outdoor writer’s agendas are similarly layered: get people out into nature, build a constituency for environmental protection, help promote related businesses, brag about your own exploits, expose the curious to something you love. I get great satisfaction from readers telling me they tried a trail, a paddle, a spot I recommended, and were changed for it. What better feedback could a writer receive in a craft that often involves many lonely hours in front of a computer at home.

Such motivations, unconscious as they might be, lead to some subtle topical choices. Should I overlook a flaw in this park so people will still want to visit? Do I gloss it over? Leave it unmentioned, like it doesn’t exist? Can I be honest and still accomplish my agenda, left unspoken and unstated as it often is? The reader must trust the writer – blow sunshine and your integrity, reputation and livelihood are simultaneously lost. At the same time, I had a local food writer tell me once that the key to writing a good review is picking the right restaurant in the first place. There are four hundred red sauce houses in Western New York; if you don’t want to write a negative article, don’t go to them.

Which brings us back to Royalton Ravine. On a recent weekend I took my family on a hike in this out-of-the-way park located east of Lockport. I enjoy hiking, and I need to collect data for articles, and the two purposes usually nicely coincide. So let me be clear: when I pull into the parking lot and unload my sons for our mini-adventure, I am predisposed to positivity. I’m not looking for trouble. I want to like the trail.  But I did not, and now I don’t know what to do.

Can a trek be virtually unknown and still be over-hyped? While certainly popular among the local residents of the town of Royalton, for the rest of us this Niagara County Park is a bit off the beaten path and not prominent on most radar. It appears in only two lesser known guidebooks (Rich and Sue Freedman’s local waterfall guide and Randi Minetor’s Falcon guide) which is how I found it on Trails.com. The route descriptions talked up a cable stayed bridge over the creek and old settlement ruins, good hooks to lure the curious. Western New York is gorge country – Niagara, Letchworth, and Zoar Valley being only the most prominent, as every little creek and waterway eventually cuts a path in our receptive geology – and I was hoping this spot would be a nice hidden gem to add.

Instead, I found real potential marred by abuse and neglect. The path itself is a mud pit, made the worse by ruts and gashes, the product of obviously frequent churning of wheeled vehicles, be they town maintenance trucks or unauthorized ATVs. Littering the path is every sort of refuse, from alcohol and energy drink cans to discarded panties. Roughly a third of the trees along the trail bear the permanent graffiti of knife carvings. One online guide I found later recommended calling ahead to ensure the cable bridge is in place, as it is often the target of vandalism and destruction. Never mind that the bridge itself is three feet above the creek and perfectly ordinary, not the marvel described in an over-excited guidebook.

Most frustrating was the state of the old homestead crumbling near the top of the obscured falls. A pile of forgotten stones, tagged by spray paint and now home to a fire pit and assorted beer cans, this modest ruin has a place in history. If a number of local guides are to be believed, is the birthplace and early childhood home of Belva Ann Lockwood, leader of the women’s suffrage movement. She was the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and the first woman to run for President, doing so in 1884 and 1888. One would not know that from looking; the disrepair of this site indicates worthlessness, and there is no sign or marker to convince you otherwise.

Maybe I should go back in the spring, where less view-blocking foliage and more water would great a dramatic enough falls to make me forget the other issues. Maybe I should be happy there is a county park “protecting” the watershed at all. Maybe I should call Royalton Ravine a red sauce restaurant, ignore it and move on.

But we don’t have four hundred parks in WNY, and red sauce houses don’t get managed with public tax dollars. At a minimum the trail should be maintained, the graffiti eliminated, the trash picked up, and the area patrolled (if necessary) to keep it from coming back. If the homestead ruins are what local guides say, they should be cleaned, stabilized, marked, and (in a perfect world) restored.

There is potential at Royalton Ravine, not for a national park-like masterpiece, but for a quality combination of natural and social history. An ice age remnant gorge, a shale bottom creek, stands of old timber, a sixty foot waterfall, and intertwined a story of our region’s first settlers and political pioneers. It is a potential currently masked and neglected. What do we do about it?

Escape the Urban: Greenway Project Update [UPDATED]

20 Jun

This is the latest in a series of articles on the Niagara River Greenway Commission – here are the previous entries on the history of the group, an analysis of their systemic challenges, delays in spending money, and last October’s project tracker.

With construction season finally upon us in earnest, it’s time to check in on some local, outdoor-related work. When last we looked in on the Niagara River Greenway Commission and their annual $9 Million pot of money, I picked out three projects to follow, geographically separate and indicative of the spirit with which the effort was organized. To briefly review, the Commission was formed in 2004 to write a unifying restoration and public recreation plan for the Niagara River corridor, from Buffalo to Fort Niagara. After the NYPA relicensing agreement of 2007, it was given general oversight responsibility to implement its plan but few enforcement tools, including the actual spending of money. That is left to four Standing Committees, that have various levels of competence and gusto. In four years, far less than the $36 Million available has been spent, but instead of trying to untangle the dizzying array of issues on every project, let’s look at the three I chose, and how they succinctly epitomize the overall effort:

Grand Island: Fisherman’s Landing – $400,000

The reclamation and redevelopment of land is fundamental to any restorative work. In the case of Fisherman’s Landing, immediately to the west of the South Grand Island Bridge, the biggest news relates not to what is being constructed, but what is no longer there.

This small spit of waterfront used to be home to a closed and graffitied water treatment station, walled off and crumbling concrete. Pieces of that relic are now being torn out daily, and according to Town Councilwoman Mary Cooke (R), Fisherman’s Landing will be open this season.

While everyone is excited to see the excavator bucket finally in the ground, the road to this point was overly long. Fisherman’s Landing was one of the first projects submitted to the Greenway Commission in 2007, but the town made the hard-to-anticipate mistake of submitting the work to the Buffalo and Erie County Standing Committee. That board took three years to simply meet, agree to open a bank account and hire the Community Foundation to write the checks and keep the books. Once the money flowed in 2010, the project underwent a series of redesigns, as the state decided to no longer require Grand Island to use this area as a last minute chlorination discharge point. Removal of that redundant and out-dated infrastructure yields a cleaner and smoother space, but it also delayed construction past the 2010 season. A $400,000 clean up three years behind schedule is an apt symbol of much of the Greenway work. In this case, at least we are only a couple months from completion.

Shoreline Trail Signage – $205,000

In addition to acre by acre environmental restoration, the Greenway Commission was charged with unifying the space in a coherent fashion, and enabling and encouraging citizen use. Little does more to solidify the concept of a trail in a users mind than consistent and comely signs.

Many thanks to Tom Dearing and Rachel Chrostowski in the Erie County Planning Dept for info and graphics

Compared to other Greenway projects, this one has been relatively smooth and straight forward thus far. The logo and interpretive element design has been arduous (six years of tweaking, as I reported last time), but since the last public meeting in October, the signs have been finalized and are currently in production. They will be installed in the pilot section, from Scajaquada Creek to the Tonawandas, in August and September, only a month or two behind the timeline presented last year. In future years (2013 at the earliest for Greenway funds, per Tom Dearing), additional sections of the trail can be marked.

At this point, however, the Greenway FAIL begins to creep in. This project was funded by the Buffalo and Erie County Standing Committee, and so has binding authority for Greenway trails in Erie County to look a certain way. In addition, since it was the county that applied, they have more power to mandate logo and sign usage, even if they use other (state, county, DOT) funds. But no such influence expressly exists across the border in Niagara County. The Greenway Commission itself can recommend but not mandate, and Erie County has less influence than that. In practical terms, this means that the signs that tell you that you are on the Greenway could change in design once you cross the border, undermining any effort at unification and branding.

Trail from Devil’s Hole to Lewiston – $2 Million ($210,000 of Greenway funds)

At least the trail exists in the Tonawandas, however, to have varied signage. I have no picture for this project because nothing has happened. The gap remains between the Village of Lewiston and Devil’s Hole, the essential bit along the escarpment that would connect large trail systems above and below. For bikers wishing to be able to travel from the Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo to Fort Niagara via safe, dedicated path, there is only this section standing in the way. The ability to travel by foot or bike the entire length of the Greenway seems to me the most basic and fundamental requirement possible.

I contacted Supervisor Reiter of the Town of Lewiston several times for this piece, as he was quoted extensively in a Niagara Gazette article on the subject last September. I only received a brief “the state is holding us up” comment via cell phone after several calls and emails to his office. This wouldn’t be the first delay – Congresswoman Slaughter first secured funding for the project ten years ago. More to come, hopefully during this brief construction season.

UPDATE: Jerry Zrmeski has an article in today’s Buffalo News on the stalled, FAILed Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission. Halfway through its charter it has barely met, much less begun work on a plan to “lay out ways to promote the area’s natural and historic assets, from the Falls to Fort Niagara, as a unified and nationally significant destination.” An astute watcher of WNY may ask themselves: 1) isn’t the Niagara River Greenway Commission already supposed to be doing that, 2) why do we need another dusty, forgotten, or competing plan, and 3) (as a commenter at the Buff News website asks) if Niagara Falls was in Higgin’s district and not Slaughter’s, would the work be funded already?

Escape the Urban: Zoar Valley Secrets

12 Jun

To all but the regular locals, Zoar Valley remains an enigma. Most Western New Yorkers have heard of it, but only in the vaguest sort of way, and would have trouble placing it on a map.

“It’s that twisty road south of here, right? The place where someone dies every year? They drown or fall off a cliff? Yeah, I think I pass it on the way to go skiing.”

Well, kinda.


Old Growth along the South Branch of the Catt

Zoar Valley sits just outside of the direct consciousness of the avid outdoorsman as well. Hikers drive by it on their way to poorer trips in Letchworth or Allegany. It appears in few guidebooks, and then the trail names and landscape features presented are often contradictory or wrong. As fantasy writer David Eddings (a favorite of mine in my youth, before he phoned it in the last 15 years – well, he’s dead now anyway, but I digress) might say, its like the place itself is trying not to be found.

Spend a few minutes in Zoar, let the hallowed feeling of the place envelop you, and such a quasi-magical sense may not seem too far off. Finding a trailhead and parking area itself can take on the feel of a quest. Once on the footpath, blazes appear and recede, “Trespassing” signs guard a confusing mix of private land and nature sanctuary, and its still easy to get yourself (accidently) to a place where it feels like you shouldn’t be.

However, face and overcome these perils, and you are rewarded with not only some of the best hiking I’ve done in New York State (yes, including the ‘Dacks), but also some of the best preserved ecology on the East Coast. To be sure you are in a safe area to hike with the best available blazes, on public-accessible land, and will be rewarded with great terrain, go to The Nature Conservancy’s Deer Lick Preserve.

Regular readers will remember that I am a big fan of TNC overall, and volunteer at their Counterfeiter’s Ledge sanctuary near Akron. While that parcel is smaller and closed to the general public, Deer Lick is open, well marked, and has maps available at the kiosk in the parking area. As an offhand introduction to the wonders you will see, adjacent to that same gravel parking lot is a tulip tree taller than anything you will find in Buffalo outside of a couple gems in Delaware Park and the Buffalo Zoo.


Blooming tulips

To find sites in Zoar, Julie Broyles’ website is invaluable. To get to Deer Lick, follow her directions out of Gowanda to the parking area on Point Peter Road:

From Buffalo, find your way to Route 62 south to Gowanda. At the traffic light by the McDonald’s, make a left onto Buffalo Street, following it .6 miles until it curves to the right onto E. Main Street. Right away you cross the bridge over the Cattaraugus and come to a light. Turn left at the light onto S. Water Street. Follow this for .5 miles and turn right onto Broadway (second turn after crossing the railroad tracks). Follow this .9 miles until you come to a left turn onto Pt. Peter Road, right after the old red-brick schoolhouse on the right. Stay on Pt. Peter Road for 1.7 miles until you come to the fork in the road, stay to the right through the fork. Follow Pt. Peter Road another .5 miles until you reach the Deer Lick Preserve area on the left. 

Before we begin, a word of warning. Surrounding Deer Lick on all accessible sides (i.e. the non-canyon portion) is private land. Don’t trespass – you just ruin it for the rest of us. Likewise, hiking out along canyon walls is dangerous and foolhardy – stay on the path, and when it ends, don’t make your own way.

Inside Deer Lick are many miles of trails that you can combine to do trips of 1.5 to 6 miles. I combined the White and Orange trails for a perfect 5 mile loop, much of which I was able to jog with the aid of my Vasque trailrunners. But running through Old Growth seemed sacrilegious, once I got into the heart of ancient stands of hemlock and maple. This isn’t “almost Old Growth,” or “Pretty Old Second Growth.” This is the real thing; never logged, never trampled, never torn. The land looks and feels different under the multi-layered canopy. Beyond old; primeval.


Deer Lick Creek

As Western New York was thoroughly clear-cut, most forest here has a certain look. A near mono-culture of maple, or ash, or occasionally pine, every tree maxes out at a certain height and a fairly consistent age of 60 years. Old Growth has no such limits – a dozen species of every age appear in a glance. Its hard to avoid superlatives when talking about Zoar’s trees. 46 species confirmed. 18 species with specimens over a hundred feet tall. The largest Basswood tree in the world (126 feet). The second largest tree in New York State (156 foot tall tulip). But before this turns into an advertisement for the Largest Pile of Burlap Bags, know that the statistics fade quickly in the open ancient glades, sunlight dancing and twinkling off pollen and dust, the tree trunks three arm spans around, leaves indiscernible from their great height, and you, standing in the middle of it, a time-traveling ghost on the breeze.

Escape the Urban: What To Do Memorial Day Weekend

22 May

The rain and chill in the air may indicate otherwise, but summer is right around the corner. Next weekend is already Memorial Day, leaving you precious time to make plans for a long holiday outdoor adventure. Don’t have a clue what to do with your time off? Never fear – Escape the Urban will hook you up:

Go for a bike ride: For a close trip, do the classic trek from Delaware Park to the Erie Basin Marina via Scajaquada Creek, or ride along the Niagara River to get a new appreciation of Niagara Falls. If you want to venture further out, try the Chautauqua Rail Trail, from the shores of Lake Erie up the bluff to Mayville and beyond. Or, for more ideas, pick up a newsstand copy of Buffalo Spree (*cough* shameless plug *cough*) where I offer a couple more biking options, including one along the Niagara Wine Trail.

Take a hike: Drop down into the Niagara Gorge at Devil’s Hole, a great little hike for kids too. You can also drive out to Letchworth, and skip the well trodden western side of the park to enjoy the solitude and fresh perspective from the wilder eastern rim. Or, if you are in the mood to escape further, make a weekend of it by camping in Allegheny State Park, or brave the black flies at secluded Good Luck Lake in the Adirondacks.

Break out the kayak: The northern ‘Dacks are a bit flooded right now, so you may want to skip a flatwater weekend out there. In that case, go rent an open topped rig from BFLO Harbor Kayak and explore the Buffalo River and downtown’s canals and harbors. Memorial Day weekend marks the start of Jason Schwinger’s third season at the Commercial Slip.

Go whitewater rafting: The season on Cattaraugus Creek is almost done, but great rafting will remain for some time on the Genesee. Call up Adventure Calls Outfitters (*cough* second shameless plug *cough*) quick to make reservations while you still can.

Read a Book: If we get rained out, or you’re too tired to do much other than relax on the couch, try one of these outdoor reads. Aldo Leopold’s classic Sand County Almanac provides witty insights for each season, including drizzly springs. It may look like light reading, but each phrase packs a wallop of thought. If you’d rather dream of adventures further afield, cross Europe via mountain range in Clear Waters Rising, or join Shackleton and Scott on their expeditions to the South Pole in one of these offerings. Beach reading need not always be the latest mass market paperback.

I will be doing several of these myself next weekend, and since I expect most readers of this column will be out and about, and not huddling next to their computers, I’m taking the time off from writing. Enjoy the start of summer, and see you on the other side.

Biking along the Niagara River on Squaw Island

Escape the Urban: To Be a Boy in the Woods

24 Apr

I have four sons, aged 13,8, 5 and 2. I could follow strict impartial and impersonal journalistic guidelines and pretend they didn’t exist, that I travel from one outdoor adventure to the next free and clear of responsibilities or constraints. But in truth, they impact every trip and event I undertake. Day care and school schedules, not the weather, dictate outings, so I find myself playing dad on sunny days and biking in the rain and cold. Similarly, when planning a recon to Allegany State Park to scout a July-issue piece for a print publication, not only must I time-travel to imagine the height of warm summer green while enduring April sleet on unbudded brown, I lug four boys along, stir-crazy on their Easter break, while Mom stayed home in a warm quiet house and toiled under her own end-of-the-semester deadlines.

In deference to that same mother, I rented us a cabin in the southern Quaker Area of Allegany, choosing an isolated spot that, according to the meager map, was near a creek and out of the way. I normally like to hike in away from roads and noise and tent camp, bringing only what I can fit in my ample backpack. This approach works well with adults, and I have taken one son at a time (once they are hold enough to at least carry water and a change of clothes) on such trips, but it would fall apart quickly with four boys, one still in diapers. So my initial plan was to set up a tent next to our Swagger Wagon, enduring the back ache of a blowup mattress while still having sippy cups and plenty of food and wipes handy. This idea fell apart when Mom checked the weather forecast, however, and declared that her children would require significantly more shelter if I insisted on subjecting them to polar conditions. The cabin was a compromise that ended with me promising that no lips would ever turn blue, nor any shiver be endured at night.

As it was, I should not have worried for the crowds. I was expecting lighter traffic during a shoulder season. What I got was post-apocalyptic desolation. It is a bit unnerving, The Road style, to be the only vehicle and only family not in the wilderness, but in an expansive multi-road camping area with public restrooms and infrastructure for hundreds in the summer. The grey sky pressed down from overhead, sparse bits of freezing rain fell, and an ill wind blew as we played alone at the jungle-gym at the nearby public park, and then walked down the center of the wide asphalt street back to our cabin. Fortunately, two more vans arrived the next night, and we exited the Stephen King novel before the zombies attacked.

My eight year old son described our rented cabin as a wooden tent. This ungenerous description was not wholly accurate. While only one room, it had a wide porch over looking a swollen rushing stream, and contained four cots, a table and two benches, and two stoves: a wood-fired one for heat and a capable propane fueled kitchen stove for cooking. The box stove, a Vogelzang Model BX26E (Vogelzang of Holland, MI- Since 1927, approximately when the our stove was manufactured), seemed to make no dent in the chill until I went back outside into the dank night. The sleeping cots were metal frames with thin prison mattresses, of a type I was well acquainted with from years deployed in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Despite no electricity or insulation of any kind, overall the cabin felt surprisingly livable and spacious with four boisterous souls eating Spaghetti O’s and Dinty Moore, playing endless rounds of Uno, and giggling in sleeping bags long into the night while I snuck out to the van to catch the updated score of the Sabres game.

Over the course of our trip, my boys survived all of the plagues of the childhood camping experience, in sufficient quantity and amplitude so that they will inflict the same on their own children. Those trials, in no particular order, are universal and well known: eating dinner out of a can, enduring the farts and snoring of an older brother in the cot next to yours, sleeping with a knit hat on, throwing up in a plastic bag in the back of the van while driving on twisting mountain roads, constipation from refusal to poop in a smelly public park bathroom, falling out of bed disorientated onto a cold strange floor in total darkness in the middle of the night. I am proud to report my four sons met each hardship, and persevered.

In truth, however, our three days at Allegany consisted of more than avoiding a grisly horror-flick fate and cabin fever, or enduring childhood rites of passage. We hiked hills and wooded dells. We explored bear caves and snake holes, and mistook one for the other. We laughed at the funny faces on the stuffed beavers and bears in the small natural history museum at the main administration lodge in the Red House area. We climbed rocks at least as tall as ourselves. We skipped stones on a flat lake. We fell asleep to the sound of nothing but a running brook and wind in the nearby branches. And for the greatest treat of all, we pee-ed on a tree, or (gasp), directly into the creek outside our cabin door, making bubbles we could watch flowing downstream, over a small waterfall, and out of sight around a bend.

Escape the Urban: Unexpected Discoveries

27 Mar

I have a bias towards novelty. Given the chance to forge a new trail or return to an old friend, I chose the unknown. And while this makes me not unlike most Americans (humans?), it does mean I miss some delightful surprises when an old dog shows new tricks, as Counterfeiter’s Ledge reminded me earlier this month.

As a review, Counterfeiter’s Ledge is a Nature Conservancy property east of Akron where I volunteer at preserve steward. That fancy title means I keep an eye on the place and stick my nose into as much ecology and restoration work as I am allowed, being an enthusiastic amateur naturalist (really, the only kind). On a recent weekend Ethan (Community Beer Works mogul) and I did an end-of-winter visit, dodging half-frozen puddles instead of snow drifts to see how the landscaped fared over the long dark cold. We noted freshly downed trees brought low by ice and wind, evidence of hungry bear ravaging a dead tree stump to eat the termites inside, and piles and piles of deer pellets, signs of a significant herd. We also found a sheer cliff that stopped us dead in our tracks. I literally had no idea it was there.

Now I was well aware that a ledge existed, the name “Counterfeiter’s Ledge” referring to the craggy limestone exposed during the last Ice Age. When Lake Ontario (not to be confused with Ontario Lacus) was known as Lake Iroquois, and drained out the Mohawk and Hudson rather than the ice-dammed St. Lawrence, the shoreline extended much further to the south. As the ice shelf retreated and the lake drained, it created a series of shorelines, digging out the loose material through wave action at each successive point. Each of these shorelines became a different escarpment, the most famous of which produces Niagara Falls. But there are a series of smaller escarpments south of the main ridge, one of which produces Counterfeiter’s Ledge and Akron Falls.

So while the ledge was not unexpected, the size and impassability were. In other locations the ridge is an annoyance but not a transit deal breaker. This was not scrabbling and bouldering terrain – slick with ice and a vertical wall, Ethan and I walked to the edge of the dark precipice slightly dumbfounded, our scouting of the east perimeter suddenly cut short. We weren’t going any further that way that day. As we were forced to retrace our steps I was reminded that even well-worn and oft-trodden lands have new secrets to share.

Escape the Urban: Soggy Dreams

6 Mar

We’re in the thick of it now. Western New Yorkers must endure about six weeks each year of absolute outdoor misery, as the calendar of seasons turns from Winter to Mud. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing is now out as the snow is too slushy, a jell-o mold of barely solidified water, waiting for your foot to break the surface tension and soak you above your ankle. Likewise, the trails are too soggy for bikes and hikes, 33 degree mud pits that swallow your boots whole. Runs are still cold, and my jogging routes are a mix of pot holes and strewn garbage recently unearthed in the melting banks. This shoulder season is no fun for anyone – what do you do?

I dig in my basement for my pack and camping gear, and dream of brighter, sunnier, warmer, firmer days to come. Videos like this help. It’s the AT in less than five minutes – enjoy.