The NCMC traveled to the Catskill Mountains in New York’s Greene County the weekend of September 29-30, 2001 for some hiking and car camping. Bob, Kasey, Mary, Mike, Jan and Tom met at North-South Lake campground near Haines Falls on a crisp Saturday. Surprisingly, the Gogers were the first to arrive at the campground, while Jan and Tom brought up the rear. The Gogers had driven to the mountains in their Accord, as they save their four-wheel drive Subaru wagon with its ample cargo space for Montclair errands.
At the campground’s registration booth, the NCMC selected two adjacent wooded campsites, and gave the campground attendants the names of every member of the party and the license plates of all the cars. The Department of Environmental Conservation does not want people to sneak into the campground so they can sleep on the ground in the cold. Mike was unsuccessful in his attempt to secure a discount as a senior citizen or a law enforcement officer. He also noted that there was not a single New Yorker in the party, although he, Tom, Kasey and Mary are New York natives.
The party then located their campsites, found them upon close inspection to be satisfactory, and set up tents before having lunch. They then booted up and walked from their base camp to the trailhead for North Point. North Point is at an elevation of 3,000 feet, about 500 feet above the campground, which sits on an escarpment with great views to the east of the Hudson River Valley.
The hike up to North Point required moderate exertion. There were plenty of roots and slippery rocks to negotiate, along with some steep stretches that required grabbing a tree or a rock with one’s hand. Furthermore, Mike set a brisk, no-nonsense pace. On the way up the NCMC encountered a large hiking party of mature Brits who were on a foliage trip of the Northeast. All of them had hiking staffs, while only Mike among the NCMC had brought along ski poles to help navigate the path. They also ran into some residents of Long Island who had accents as interesting as the Brits’.
At the top of North Point, the NCMC was rewarded with fine views of the campgrounds’ lakes, the Hudson River Valley, and Albany to the North. North Point is supposed to offer views of five states on a clear day. Those states must be New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey, but the NCMC does not claim to have seen them all. North Point lies on a 24-mile escarpment trail that would produce a good two-day backpacking trip if a car could be left at the end of the trail in Windham.
The NCMC encountered a number of hikers on North Point as they rested, snacked and took in the views. Many of them spoke the lingo of the various boroughs of New York City, There was some color in the hills, but the foliage looked to be 10 days or so from peaking.
Leaving North Point, the NCMC took a slightly different path back to their camp. This alternate route took them past Badman’s Cave, although no bad men were present at the time.
Back in camp, the NCMCers unwound with cheese and crackers and beer and wine. Mike started a fire and a number of NCMCers stood as close to it as they could without getting singed as evening brought cooler weather. A fine lantern-lit dinner featured a variety of tortellini, fresh bread and salad. During dinner, the Gogers recounted their summer trip to Mt. Rainer National Park. At one point they had encountered a mother black bear with not one, not two, but three cubs. The cubs quickly climbed up trees when the Gogers and their companions were noticed by the bruins, while mother kept a close watch and demonstrated speed and agility.
Tom had brought his trusty minimum-maximum thermometer and a contest was conceived to predict how low the mercury would descend overnight. The guesses ranged from a low of 36 to a high of 42 or 44. Tom’s prediction was 39, while Kasey predicted 41. Tom secreted the thermometer in a secure place so there would be no tampering, as the winner was promised to have his or her photo featured on the NCMC web site while wearing a NCMC t-shirt.
The club members then retreated to their tents for a well-earned sleep. The night silence was broken at one point by the hooting of a barred owl. Mike, who had been the only NCMCer with trekking poles on the day’s hike, was now the only club member with the foresight to use earplugs and therefore enjoy undisturbed sleep.
Waking early, Tom rushed to check the thermometer, being extremely careful to keep it perfectly horizontal lest the minimum temperature indicator (a black band that floats within the red mercury) be jostled and slide from the precise low point to which it had settled overnight. He was well aware that even the slightest deviation of the thermometer from the horizontal could move the black band a degree or two from its resting place. Although his heart was pounding, his hand remained steady as he inspected the instrument and saw and that the night’s minimum temperature had been EXACTLY 39 degrees. Go figure!
A Latter-Day Leatherstocking
As other NCMCers began to stir and stretch in their tents, he informed the campers of the low temperature for the night. Bob, who rarely employs sarcasm, said that it was not as if Tom, the winner of the contest, wasn’t already prominently featured among the various documents on the NCMC web page. Tom replied evenly that it was because of woodcraft such as this that his exploits found their way onto the web page so often (As the Editor of the web page, I can back Tom up on this. Merit alone is the test for mention in the chronicles of the NCMC, which I have been entrusted to record objectively these many years. I will add that it has always been a pleasure to hear Tom relate his notable adventures to me in his unvarnished, matter-of-fact, Natty Bumppo way. Furthermore, he always concludes them with a heartfelt plea that I minimize them in favor of featuring what other club members did on an outing in the way of selfless chores, sage woodland judgments, bearing of burdens, and outdoor athletic feats. Bob, on the other hand, is more likely to gain mention for a sprained ankle than for inspirational achievement!)
The morning was cool, and Bob started a fire (using the fatwood firestarter sticks that Tom had thoughtfully brought). It must be acknowledged that Bob is an excellent camp cook, and he made the morning’s sausage and blueberry buckwheat pancakes on a griddle over the woodfire. Coffee and hot chocolate warmed the campers.
The Cradle of the Hudson River School
After breakfast, the group broke camp and headed for the campground’s lakes, which were near a short trail leading to the escarpment and the former site of the Catskill Mountain House, a large hotel dating from 1823 that was the destination decades ago of city folk who came to the mountains in search of those natural vistas that inspired the artists of the Hudson River School. Here is how one visitor to the Mountain House in 1826 described the view:
“I rose the next morning at day break to see the prospect. It was a clear cold morning, and the minute points of a view within a radius of 50 miles were distinctly visible. The magnificent prospect from this mountain has been often described, and is too familiar to be repeated. It is indeed magnificent – and he who could look upon such a scene and not turn from it a better man, must truly have forgotten his better elements. An area wide enough for the territory of a nation lies beneath you like a picture, with the Hudson winding through like an inlaid vein of silver. The steamboats were just visible, and I cannot give you a better idea of them than is given in the ludicrous remark of someone, that ‘they looked like shoes with cigar’s stuck in them.’ The sun rose, and excuse me if I say much to my comfort; for although wrapped in my cloak, I was chilled through. The first beams which streamed across the landscape, looked like sprinklings of white; for at my elevation the hills all sunk to a level, and I puzzled myself to account for the long shadows. They soon diminished however, as the sun rose higher, and the beauty of the scene became transcendent. The rich colours of the ‘garniture of the earth’ stole out and the hundred towns within the range of the eye glittered like studded gems over the scene. It looked like a distant Eden flooded with light.”
Mike, for his part, noted that the view of the Hudson Valley from the Mountain House was very similar to the prospect offered the day before from North Point, which stood 500 vertical feet above them. Implicit in Mike’s comment was the question of why one would hike to North Point when the same view could be had from this far more accessible point on the escarpment. Why indeed? For now, ‘because it is there’ will have to suffice. Anyway, how less enriching the weekend would have been without an encounter with those charming Brits and a look at the foreboding Badman’s Cave.
It was decided to hike a bit on the escarpment toward the south, and the group walked along the escarpment on a path leading away from the clearing where the Mountain House had stood. They proceeded along a narrow walkway bounded on their right-hand side by sheer rocky walls that occasionally overhung their path. After a while, they realized that the true escarpment trail was above them, and that they were making their way along a less-traveled path that nevertheless at times offered a fine view of the Hudson River Valley below. After exploring a bit, they returned the way they had come and emerged back at the clearing. Jan and Mary volunteered to make the short walk to the vehicles and bring up snacks. While the rest of the team took in the view, Mike noticed that a large fire had ignited down on the valley floor on their side of the river. Thick, white smoke billowed up. What was burning could not be ascertained, however. They also spent some time trying to figure out what large institution was nestled in the valley below almost due east of them on their side of the river. Since state prisons are a major industry of that section of New, there was some speculation that it was a correctional facility. It appears, however, that they were looking from above at the Friar Tuck Inn.
There was also a discussion about what exactly an escarpment is and the derivation of the word. The best definition the NCMC Editor found is the following: “a steep slope or long cliff resulting from erosion or faulting and separating two relatively level areas of differing elevations.” This definition fairly describes what the NCMC encountered. The relatively level area below them was the Hudson River Valley, and the campground and surrounding area on which they stood was the higher relatively level area. Between the two was the sheer and steep wall of the eastern front of the Catskills. The word comes from the Italian scarpa, which means slope. An escarpment is also the inside wall of a moat or trench dug around a fortification.
A Gracious Deception
After a long, long, long time, Jan and Mary returned with the victuals. Some mention was made of the long, long, long time they had taken, but no explanation was offered. It was only later, as the entire group returned to the parking lot, that Jan and Mary revealed that they had taken a wrong turn on the way back to the cars, and had hiked a while in the wrong direction, and would have still been hiking had they not reached a terminus. They had been too embarrassed previously to ‘fess up, and hoped that, by acknowledging their error at the fork in the trail where they had erred, their mistake would appear understandable. That was not the case, but, to make them feel better, Tom pretended that he, too, would have gone astray at the same point. The relief and gratitude they exhibited assured him that his ploy was undetected.
“That’s the deal,” as Mike would say, and they headed off from North-South Lake to either Montclair, N.J. or Guilford, Conn. Since the campground is open through the weekend after Columbus Day, the NCMC could return again in a future year to catch the foliage at its peak without necessarily encountering a holiday crowd.
Gallery: Catskill Idyll 2001