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Monday, September 20, 2021

Hiking to the Mt. Tremper Fire Tower

The Mount Tremper Fire Tower is a 47 foot-tall steel frame lookout tower erected in 1917.  Historically, a jeep trail extended from the base of the mountain to a point below its summit where the fire tower sits.  Today, that jeep trail forms most of the hiking trail used to reach the tower.

Tremper was one of only two Catskills fire towers we have not hiked to, so we decided to climb to it today.  Here we are at the trailhead:

The trail started dramatically enough, with a simple wooden bridge crossing a small cascade, then the trail working its way steeply up the side of a hill toward the main trail:

At the main trail, the jeep road that originally led to the summit, we found a trail register, where we signed in.  As we started our climb up the main trail, we found that this section also forms part of the Long Path, a 357-mile long-distance hiking trail beginning in New York City, at the West 175th Street subway station near the George Washington Bridge and ending at Altamont, New York, in the Albany area. While not yet a continuous trail, relying on road walks in some areas, it nevertheless takes in many of the popular hiking attractions west of the Hudson River, such as the New Jersey Palisades, Harriman State Park, the Shawangunk Ridge and the Catskill Mountains.

In several places along the trail, we found small cascades flowing across our path:

Check out this video of one of them.

Our cat Ruby would have loved this trail, because the forest on either side boasted innumerable chipmunks, some of whom sat silently, watching us pass --

-- while other sat safely in tree branches, chirping at us to warn of invaders.  In several places along the trail, we spotted trees and fallen logs serving as chipmunk condos:

Some of the fallen logs have been drafted to serve as bases for trail markers, as Kathy shows in the photo below:

The sandstone ledges we have noted throughout our stay in the Catskills made themselves evident all along the trail.  This slab cohabits with an old tree, and we wondered whether it had fallen to this place on the slope, or whether it had been here since it was formed, with the surrounding ground eroded around it:

We found a number of large boulders that glowed white.  We could not determine whether the white was deposited as vegetative material or minerals, or whether the white material was inherent in the sandstone:

Like the Catskills as a whole, a dissected plateau, Tremper was formed not through the upthrust of rock layers but by the gradual erosion of stream valleys in an uplifted region about 350 million years ago. Its rock layers and bedrock are primarily Devonian and Silurian shale and sandstone. Bluestone is present in enough quantity that a quarry was once located on the south side of the mountain at an elevation of 1,495 feet, about 1.5 miles up the hike. Its remains are still visible today from the trail.

At about 2 miles into the 3 mile climb, we passed the Baldwin Memorial Lean-To, which commemorates one of the longest serving fire observers associated with Mt. Tremper.

Further up the trail, near the top, we encountered a second-lean-to, which appears to be more frequently used than the Baldwin Lean-to:

It was convenient in more than one way, as it was near the fire tower and the summit of our climb, and also had a formal privy nearby for our convenience.

Reaching the top, we took time to hydrate and peruse the trail signs to learn where we could hike from this junction should we be so inclined.  We were mainly inclined to hike back down the way we came.

The fire tower itself rises dramatically from the trail summit:

From the tower cabin, we got spectacular 360 degree views of the region, including this view of the Ashokan Reservoir to the east --

-- this view to the north, perhaps to North-South Lake where we paddled the other day --

-- and this view to the southwest toward Wittenberg Mountain, the glaciated peak pointing left in the photo below, and Slide Mountain, its neighbor, the slightly taller peak in the center of the photo:

As we noted in a prior blog entry, we backpacked those peaks about 20 years ago.  We have also tramped all over the mountains of this part of the Catskills with Appalachian Mountain Club groups led by our friends Lennie and Bill Steinmetz in January and February of each year.  In some years, our outings were hikes; in other years they were snowshoe treks.  But every year, they were convivial adventures with people who have become lifelong friends.

But enough with waxing nostalgic.  Back we hiked down the mountain.  While we had seen no one on our climb, we encountered three couples as we made our way down:  one young couple from Pennsylvania, another young couple from Brooklyn, a couple from France who could barely understand our English, and a local couple who were thinking of camping overnight in the fire tower cabin itself!  Well, we don't know if that is legally permitted, but we think it would be a great adventure in this beautiful early Fall weather, and we wished them well.

On down we hiked, returning to a fun guy we had met on the hike up.  But, this time, we found that he had two friends nearby, all quite impressive and colorful in earthly tones on this sunny day:

The hike was 6 miles, but was a stiff uphill and downhill climb, making it more strenuous than the mere mileage might suggest.  Most of the trail was loose stone, and some lengthy sections of it were effectively streambed.  Since it has not rained in some days, most of the trail was not slippery, but we had to be careful in the wet sections.

All in all, this was a satisfying, energetic hike, and the fire tower was a suitable reward for our efforts.  Only one more Catskill fire tower to conquer:  Balsam Lake Mountain!  Maybe on our next visit.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Testing Our Paddle Skills in Kaaterskill

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Hi Blog!

We are enjoying our stay in the Rip Van Winkle Campground near Saugerties, in spite of the acorns that keep clattering on our roof. We were curious about all the the references to Rip Van Winkle everywhere. In addition to our campground, there is the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, the Rip Van Winkle Motor Lodge, Rip Van Winkle Ranch, the Rip Van Winkle Country Club and the Rip Van Winkle Brewing Company.

This area was the setting for Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, which, since its introduction in 1820, has become synonymous with the Catskill Mountains. The book conjures up images of high, shadowy mountains and darkened, mysterious cloves, or mountain passes, such as seem unique to the Kaaterskill area of the Catskills. This area is also known as the Catskill Escarpment, because the mountains rise very abruptly from the Hudson Valley to summits above 3,000 feet. The Escarpment was the first area of the Catskills to attract the interest of European settlers. 

We awoke Sunday morning to a beautiful late summer day. There was a zero chance for rain and the winds in our area were predicted to be light, around 5 miles per hour. We decided it would be a great day to paddle. We began to look around the Kaaterskill area to see if there were paddling opportunities. We discovered North/South Lake in Haines Falls. One of the locals greeted us as we began our paddle on the North Lake of North/South Lake.

At North/South Lake, the escarpment rises 1700 feet across a distance of 1.5 miles. We were impressed by the peaks around us. We were even more impressed by the gale force winds that were whipping across the lake. So much for weather predictions for light winds!

Not to be deterred, we launched our kayaks and began our tour of North/South Lake. This area has been a recreation destination since 1823 with the construction of several resort hotels, the most famous of which was the Catskill Mountain House. Catskill tourism declined during World War II and the Catskill Mountain House deteriorated. In 1962, the State of New York took over the property which included North/South Lake. Today, there is a large campground around the lake, as well as a Day Use Area.

In an effort to get out of the wind, we paddled behind a small island and discovered not one, but two beaver lodges.

There was once a dam between North Lake and South Lake. Once the dam was removed, the lake became known as North/South Lake. We paddled through the narrows and worked our way over to the South Lake Beach and Boat Rental. Here visitors can rent kayaks, canoes and row boats. They even have an ADA canoe/kayak ramp, which allows folks with disabilities to launch from an adaptive ramp.  This is something we admit we've never seen before!

We decided to stop for lunch at the South Lake Beach.

This area was a favorite subject of painters in the Hudson River School. The Hudson River School was a mid-19th century American art movement embodied by a group of landscape painters whose aesthetic vision was influenced by Romanticism. The paintings typically depict the Hudson River Valley and the surrounding area, including the Catskill Mountains. With views like this, how could you not want to paint it!

Sometimes you come across a natural scene that is difficult to describe. It just draws your attention. There is light, color, movement and depth. When words fail, you just have to let the picture do the talking.

The dam at the far end of South Lake has a very unique spillway.

As we worked our way around the lake, we came across a family of geese. In just a few weeks, they will be winging their way south, just like a number of RV snowbirds that we know.

We are still a couple weeks away from peak fall color, but we are seeing the beginning of the show.

The warm sun brought out a family of turtles.

As we made our way back around to North Lake, we had a chance to poke around in a couple of shallow bays.

We saw these culverts and couldn't resist trying to paddle our way through.

While we couldn't make our way out the other end, it did make for a really cool image. We are calling this Eye of the Culvert.

The wind was kind to us on our return to the launch site.  We had a chance to see some of the lakefront camp sites. We even got to watch a father and son launch their canoe. The best part was when the young son shifted his weight and sent his dad flying out of the boat and into the lake! To his credit, Dad just laughed and jumped back in. He didn't even bother to change out of his wet clothes.

Just another day in the lift of Dave and Kathy, Intrepid RV Explorers. Time to get back to camp in time to Skype with our grandson, walk the cats and enjoy a crockpot full of traditional Chinese lotus root soup.  Happy Sunday!

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Biking the Ashokan Rail Trail

Some of the bearings that permit the handlebars of David's bike to turn fell out when the "head set" holding them broke.  This happened on a prior bike ride in the Bloomingdale Bog, and it became nearly impossible to turn the handlebars.  When we got to our campground in Saugerties, New York, we found a local bike repair shop that was able to replace the missing bearings and repair the head set.  We were so excited that we looked around for a trail to pedal and found the Ashokan Rail Trail, only a few miles away.  It is named after the Ashokan Reservoir, along whose northern shore it runs.  "Ashokan" means “place of fish” in the language of the Esopus people, a local indigenous group associated with the larger Lenape population that lived in the region.

The Ashokan Rail Trail was designed and constructed by New York's Ulster County. It was partially opened to the public in late 2019. It is wide for a rail trail -- 12 feet -- with a compacted crushed stone surface.  It is 11.5 miles long, running east-west between West Hurley and Boiceville. Proposed in 2012 by Ulster County, the Trail was designed as a world-class public recreational trail providing unique public access to the incredibly scenic northern shores of the Ashokan Reservoir, the first without special permit since Ashokan Reservoir was constructed more than a century ago.  It was constructed along the former Ulster & Delaware (“U&D”) Railroad Corridor, which was abandoned in 1977.

We found the eastern end of the trail, which starts, almost as an afterthought, at the end of a railroad bridge.  The sign on the gate says, appropriately enough, "End of the Ashokan Rail Trail."  However, for us it was just the beginning.

Before reaching Ashokan Reservoir itself, the trail runs above and through a beautiful wetland:

Posted along the trail are mile markers which, we understand, were markers for the original line of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad.  Even though the tracks in the bed of the trail have been removed, some tracks of spurs and sidetracks still remain:

The U&D was often advertised as "The Only All-Rail Route to the Catskill Mountains." At its greatest extent, the U&D extended 107 miles from Kingston Point on the Hudson River through the Catskill Mountains to its western terminus at Oneonta.  The U&D's peak year came in 1913, with 676,000 passengers carried up into the Catskills plus substantial amounts of freight. By the 1929 Depression, most of the passenger traffic had been lost to private cars, and trucks had taken most of the freight business.  It was acquired by the New York Central Railroad in 1932. In the early 1950s, it ran one morning train a day except Sundays, westward from Kingston to Phoenicia and Oneonta, and one afternoon train in the east-bound direction from Oneonta back to Kingston. Passenger service on the route ended in 1954.

Within a couple miles, we started out across Glenford Dike, which was completed in 1912 as part of the Ashokan Reservoir project.  It is 2,850 feet long, 36 feet wide and 60 feet high, and extends 30 feet underground to bedrock.  Before the U&D ceased operations, its tracks ran along this dike where the bike path presently lies, those tracks having been relocated from the Ashokan Valley when the Reservoir was built.

The Ashokan Reservoir is one of several in the region created to provide the City of New York with water. It is the city's deepest reservoir at 190 feet, and was completed in 1915 by impounding Esopus Creek.  The impoundment covered 12 communities located in a valley where farming, logging, and quarrying prevailed. Approximately 2,000 residents, along with roads, homes, shops, farms, churches, and mills, were either moved or abandoned, but most of them were torn down.  Some relocated communities survive along the reservoir's banks, such as West Shokan, Olivebridge, Ashokan and Shokan. Most, however, such as Brown's Station, are remembered in historical markers along routes 28 and 28A.

At full capacity, the reservoir can hold 122.9 billion gallons of water, and has a 255-square-mile drainage basin, while occupying 8,315 acres itself.  Because boats and other recreational activities are strictly limited or completely prohibited on the reservoir lake, and development is not permitted on its shores, it has a pristine look and has been slowly maturing into a complete, wild ecosystem.  Today, it had a serene beauty as we looked out over it from the dike:

Once we crossed the dike, we entered a long, green tunnel, shaded from the warm summer sun and hence cooler and friendlier to us as we pedaled.  Already, though, Autumn leaves and colors are creeping in.  We tried to imagine how breathtaking the colors will be in a couple weeks, and we're sorry we will miss the show:

The trail cuts through (literally, because the construction of the railroad had to blast and cut through these Devonian ledges):

The sandstone ledges and cliffs are soft enough to erode and crack.  Plants, including trees, have found openings and appear to spring directly from the rock itself:

In constructing the rail trail, the planners needed to replace several railroad trestles that had been washed away or otherwise failed or were in danger of failing.  The newly constructed bridges, primarily of wood, attractively complement the setting of the trail:

One tunnel cuts under Reservoir Road, which crosses the reservoir near its mid-section from Highway 28 on the northern shore to Highway 28A on the southern shore.  Follow Reservoir Road south, and you will reach the Ashokan Center (more on that later).  Here, Kathy stops in the tunnel to inspect the new construction:

A sign at the tunnel enjoins cyclists and hikers from yelling in the tunnel because it disturbs local residents.  We must confess that we didn't think of yelling (there is a magnificent echo in the tunnel) until we read the sign.  We did, however, note, in very loud, echo-y voices, that we would never think of yelling in the tunnel.

Shortly after crossing under Reservoir Road, we crossed Butternut Creek:

In this location, a concrete culvert carried the U&D Railroad over Butternut Creek. The structure collapsed in the 1980s. As part of the Ashokan Rail Trail project, a new truss bridge was built over the creek. Removal of the culvert “daylighted” the natural stream bed, restoring habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms. Rainbow and brown trout move between Ashokan Reservoir and creeks that feed it.

At the western end, where we turned around, we were treated to a grand view of the Catskills to the south and west.  We could make out Mounts Wittenberg, Cornell and Slide, where we had backpacked perhaps 20 years ago:

Turning our bikes eastward and back toward our trailhead 10 miles away, we couldn't help thinking that we would miss this place.  And that made us think of the beautiful tune by Jay Ungar, "Ashokan Farewell," which was adopted as the theme song to Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War.  Ungar wrote the piece in 1982, long before the documentary was filmed, to serve as a goodnight or farewell waltz at the annual Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps run by Ungar and his wife Molly Mason, who gave the tune its name, at what is now the Ashokan Center located south of the Ashokan Reservoir.  Ungar described the song as coming out of "a sense of loss and longing" after the annual Ashokan Music & Dance Camps ended; but, to us, it also called to mind the loss of so many communities, such as Ashokan, which were flooded when the Reservoir was constructed.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Red Hill Fire Tower in the Catskills

Friday, September 17, 2021

Hi Blog!

We woke this morning to another misty, moisty day in the Catskills. While the rain chances were low, so were the clouds. But since it wasn't actually raining, we decided to hit the trail. Because of the iffy weather, we settled on a short trail in the Sundown Wild Forest. The Red Hill Fire Tower is only 1.4 miles from the trailhead. After a beautiful drive along Rondout Creek, we donned our slickers and started up Red Hill.

The 30,100-acre Sundown Wild Forest covers a large swath of the southeast Catskills, including several ridges and 10 mountains over 2,000 feet. Sundown features an impressive mix of natural features - mountains, waterfalls, valleys and rivers - rich with trout streams, hiking destinations, hunting opportunities and snowmobile trails. The hike to the Red Hill Fire Tower offers unsurpassed views of the Catskill high peaks and the Rondout Reservoir -- assuming there are no low clouds or fog obscuring it. 

Kathy signs us in:

The trail circles the mountain, gaining elevation along the way. With all the recent rain, we passed a number of small waterfalls.

This part of the trail was just recently completed and opened to the public in February 2021. As Dave points out, the trail is well marked.

The Catskills began existence as a river delta 350 million years ago. Streams flowing off the then-mighty Acadian Mountains deposited sediment where the river met a sea. Eventually the mountains eroded and the waters dried up, leaving a mostly flat plain. Two hundred million years ago, as continental drift pushed up the Appalachians, the delta region rose almost uniformly into a plateau rather than breaking up into smaller mountains. Streams that formed over time eroded gaps and valleys, leaving today's Catskill "mountains." 

The trail took us along several exposed ledges. These rocks were once at the bottom of the sea.

Hiking on top of one of the ledges, is almost flat.

Time to climb up to the next ledge. Dave stops under an overhang. Water seeping under the top layer has created a hanging garden under the rocks.

We reached the top of Red Hill and first encountered a cabin.  Built in 1931, the Red Hill Observer's Cabin is one of the oldest remaining observer's cabins in New York, a rare intact example of the earlier style used by the then-state Conservation Commission. The tower and cabin are old enough to be considered contributing resources to the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the last state towers built, in 1920, the Red Hill Fire Tower filled a missing link in the Catskills' forest fire detection network. Observers working for the state conservation agencies manned the tower through 1990, making it the last fire tower closed in the Catskills. It was slated to be torn down in accordance with state policy prohibiting nonessential structures on Forest Preserve land. Preservationists and forest historians campaigned to save and restore it and four other Catskill fire towers, and they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

We climbed the nine flights of stairs to the base of the observation platform. The platform was locked, so we couldn't reach the very top. The Catskill Center runs a volunteer program from May through October. Starting Memorial Day weekend in May, volunteers open the top cabin on weekends and holidays, and answer questions about the Catskill Park. 

While we couldn't get in, we could still peer out from the tower.  We peeked over the edge to see the picnic table below.

While the cloud ceiling had lifted, it hadn't lifted high enough. The surrounding mountains were lost in the mist.

We truly had our heads in the clouds! It made for some really spooky photos.

When out in nature, we rarely document our "nature calls." However, this privy deserves honorable mention. Not only did it have a motion-controlled solar light, beautiful nature photos, quilted toilet paper, an air freshener and hand sanitizer, it was completely devoid of musty odor.  We thought it unusual enough to merit special kudos, both in this blog and in the trail register when we returned to our trailhead!

We ate lunch on the porch of the Observers Cabin in a relatively dry patch. Another foggy band began to creep over the mountain. This little spider web caught tiny drops of water as the fog passed by.

After lunch, we began our descent back to the trailhead. We stopped at side trail which was marked as "Spring." Neither the trail map or the GPS noted a spring, so we were unsure how far off trail we would end up hiking before reaching the spring. Since our hike was relatively short, we decided to risk the extra yardage.

We didn't have to hike far before we heard the sound of water tumbling over rocks. Not only was water coming out of the pipe, but it was springing forth from various cracks and crevices in the rock wall.

Kathy didn't waste any time skipping over the rocks to the spring. The water coming from the pipe was ice cold. Scooping handfuls and pouring the water over her head, Kathy thoroughly enjoyed a refreshing cool down after a hot and muggy hike.

We only met two other sets of hikers all day. While we didn't get the big views, we really enjoyed having the trail to ourselves. The mist kept the bugs down, made everything really green and filled the woods with the sounds of babbling brooks and raindrops on leaves. There is a saying that there is no such thing as bad weather -- just bad clothing choices. Fear not the fog!