Hiking High in the Catskills

 Catskills Mountains Credit Wikipedia

Catskills Mountains Credit Wikipedia

The ancient Catskill Mountains remain refreshingly wild even though they are but a two-hour drive from New York City. Two summits (Slide and Hunter) rise above four thousand feet, and scores of peaks crest at thirty-five hundred feet and higher, high enough to be fringed with a Canadian balsam zone above densely forested slopes of maple, oak, aspen, birch, and ash. October frosts tinge these woodlands with an array of colors from purple to scarlets and yellows and leave them looking like an artist’s palette.

But perhaps springtime is an even better season than autumn in the Catskill Mountains. You would think it was October with all those swollen red buds, except that thoughts of colder days with snow dissolve amid a chorus of spring pippers in the low-lying marshes. The lightness of air, the smells of earth, and the sound of ice-free waterfalls rejuvenate the spirit in ways no other season can. On just such a day I made the first of
my three ascents of Slide Mountain.

During the month of May I had read John Burroughs’s Riverby (1894), containing an exciting account of his climb of Slide Mountain, at 4,203 feet, the highest in the Catskills. I had seen these mountains in the misty distance, and they always appeared as alluring as the landscapes in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” The end of the month found me dashing along the Slide Mountain trail from Big Indian Valley, the Catskills rising around me like dreamy watercolorings with the slightest tinge of green in grayness.

Myriad blossoms of white beam (sorbus aria) set the dense undergrowth of the maple-beech forest aglow with a silent but colrful aria. I crossed ancient riverbeds of faded maroon-colored stones and bounded upward into the ferney forest, where the dead leaves of autumn betrayed the delicate footfalls of chipmunks. Thrushes and vireos chirped in the hollow aisles of the forest.

After being somewhat spoiled by a level section of trail, I began a long and gradual ascent at an angle of about forty-five degrees, following piles of those pale maroon boulders until I reached a thirty-five hundred-foot-elevation marker in a more sensitive environmental life zone. . Here the trees had only begun to bud; I had returned to April. Instead of lush fern fronds, I saw only fiddleheads barely breaking through the ground. The sorbus aria’s veiny, heart-shaped leaves were much smaller, though rings of white blossoms had already come out. Yellow birches appeared stark and nude against the sky, as did all other species save balsam firs.

Echoes from a woodpecker rose up from the lower vales. Some three hundred vertical feet higher, the trees began to show signs of dwarfing. A few wild cherry trees looked as gaunt as desert vegetation. Northern birds like longspurs chirped away in the treetops; perhaps they would remain here for another few weeks before their departure to arctic Canada. I caught my first glimpse of the hazy, almost milky, valleys below through the branches of a cool forest. At thirty-nine hundred feet, I entered a distinct Laurentian forest zone dominated by rich and fragrant balsam fir that reminded me of coastal trails on Monhegan Island, Maine.

At last I stood on the summit atop a rock slide, well over four thousand feet above sea level. Panther, Wittenberg, Cornell, and Peekamoose mountains spread beyond in misty space. The lead-gray Shokan Reservoir appeared more like sky than water. Was it the mystical entrance to some lower world? I was reminded of what John Burroughs, naturalist of the Catskills, wrote about Slide Mountain’s summit: “All was mountain and forest on every hand. Civilization seemed to have done little more than to have scratched this rough, shaggy surface of the earth here and there. In any such view, the wild, the aboriginal, the geographical greatly predominate. The works of man dwindle, and the original features of the huge globe come out.”

I sat back to enjoy the notes of the white-throated sparrows and Swainson’s thrushes: those bird songs erased the years, Ah tee tee tee tee came from one perch, and from another, the whirling sound of a thrush: a myrtle, a turtle, a ehirtle, a myrtle. Was I still a boy in the Maine woods? No wonder Rip Van Winkle lost twenty years here in the Catskills! I, too, lingered almost wishing to stay overnight, but slowly retraced my steps back down to the “civilized” valleys below where I would always dream just a bit about the cool and bracing summit of Slide Mountain.

This is a modified version of my longer introduction to John Burroughs’s Deep Woods, 1998 and available through Syracuse University Press.

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