On August 31, I ambled my way to the highest point in Rhode Island: Jerimoth Hill, accessible via a 1/10 mile trail that ascends a whopping ten total vertical feet. (Friends of mine joked – “Surely Federal Hill is the highest point in the state.” Natch.) Having both Mount Mansfield in Vermont and 31 miles of the AT in the previous two weeks, it was a trifle – I was there to tick a box in the list of New England’s highest points.
But it turned out to be a bit more emotional than I anticipated. I sat on the little rock, festooned with a helpful cairn, and snapped the first of what would end up being three self-portraits over the next month. There was a trail book in a steel strongbox on the rock as well, and in it I wrote: “We are not crushed by mountains, but suffocated by tiny hills.”
Today I’m thinking of Carol and another recently deceased seminary friend, the redoubtable Bill Bradford. Bill was known by many as “the badass chaplain,” and he did indeed completely own his chosen vocation. Bill had depths of compassion that most of us will never begin to reach. He often quoted Paul Tillich: “The first duty of love is to listen,” and he was above all else a man who knew how be present to the sick, the poor, the oppressed. He will be missed.
My portraits: grieving, waiting, pushing back – against the tiny hills.
Three days into the AT, around Lime Rock springs in a crushing 92F heat, I sat down on a rock while my companion went to filter water and wrote these words: “There are places that scrape against the sky, where cold, clear water trickles from the earth, and the spirits of forbearing history reveal their timeless secrets in rustling needles, slow grumbles of thunder, and speechless boulders. It’s hard, hard work to reach these places. But they are necessary, and worth every aching step, bruised tendon, and startling challenge to our egos and self-assumptions that come with getting to them.”
All told, I spent an incredible four days on the Appalachian Trail. The goal was to complete the 51 miles of the Connecticut portion, but ultimately we managed 32 – slowed, alas, by the soaring temperatures. Heat dents the reserves of even a seasoned hiker, and with the thermometer cruising well toward triple digits we lost much time to stopping to rest and filter water.
We spent our first night at Sages Ravine, then made our way up the formidable north side of Bear Mountain. From there, we made our way to Lion’s Head and another spectacular summit. Our second night was spent at Limestone Spring, an isolated AT campsite that involved descending a sheer rock wall to reach! From there, we returned to the AT and made our way up Prospect Mountain, then along the Housatonic River and through the fields and farms of Falls Village as the solar eclipse peaked, and at last reached the summit of Mount Sharon, where we made camp. Just as darkness fell, a massive thunder storm rolled in – we covered the tent quickly and mostly stayed dry, thanks to my partner’s ingenuity with her backpack’s rain fly. (The group of Yale students nearby weren’t as clever.) From Mount Sharon, we descended into the environs of West Cornwall and then ascended Mount Easter, then traveled along the ridge line, then up again to the lofty and breathtaking Pine Knob. At the edge of the Housatonic State Forest, we hooked up with a very kind Ranger who drove us back to Kent. (Thanks, Judy.)
I was sorely tired and yet even now I miss it dearly. I find myself longing for my feet on the trails again, a feeling that’s with me daily. Since then I’ve only had time to summit Mount Greylock in Massachusetts – the final peak of New England’s tallest in each state, save Katahdin which I will ascend next year.
Highlights – drinking from cold mountain springs, the strange and varied sounds of wildlife at night, the breeze along the back of the mountains, making do where cell phones don’t work, mystical and glorious stone stairways that summon Tolkien, and even – just a very little – outdoor privies. Also, there’s a real spirit among AT hikers, an easy friendliness and willingness to share food and stories, and – with through hikers – an almost solemn focus to their work. As for the remaining 20 miles, I intend to finish those up in October.
Six peaks and some 32 miles in three days. Hard, hard work – and the best work ever.
Another New England summer has passed into history, and with it the prime hiking season for observing the full diversity of our region’s flora and fauna. This year, the state of the forests is all about water – or the lack of it. Droughts have become typical for Connecticut, as in many other states, and as of September 9, 2016 Connecticut remains in a state of Drought Alert, with most of the state in a moderate drought condition and some areas (the northeast region from Windsor Locks to Putnam) in extreme drought conditions. The combination of high temperatures and very low precipitation has both immediate and long-term effects on our ecosystem.
Tree health is compromised when dry conditions weaken or destroy the newer, non-woody roots, and water circulation to the higher parts of the tree is diminished. Poorly watered trees are more susceptible to infectious fungi, root rot, and insect invaders. The ash-borer, an invasive species that kills tens of millions of trees each year, thrives when trees are already compromised by drought. Of course, the big (bad) insect of 2016 was surely the ubiquitous gypsy moth caterpillar (Lymantria dispar), which devoured hundreds of acres of forest canopy across New England. Gypsy moth outbreaks are not uncommon in our region, but this year’s was the worst in some three decades because the species thrives when – you guessed it – precipitation is abnormally low. Trees already compromised by drought, then, experienced additional hardship when their canopy disappeared into the mandibles of thousands of hungry caterpillars. The outbreak was finally brought under control by the fungus Entomophagia maimagia, which normally controls gypsy moth populations but requires a wetter spring season to do so.
With this array of environmental concerns for trees, we should expect a “blink and you’ll miss it” autumn foliage event this year. The good news is that trees are hardy by and large, and it takes more than a year or two of drought conditions to cause lasting damage on forest health. However, given the reality of climate change and the expectation that drought conditions will occur more frequently in the coming years, tree health and forest mortality is a serious concern going forward.
The drought also affected river, stream, and wetland health. If you’ve been out at all this summer, you’ve no doubt noticed the very low waterlines of many of our streams and rivers. Connecticut was forced to ban fishing in several areas due to the very low water levels of rivers and streams, where salmon and trout numbers are reduced. Diminished flow not only affects fish and other aquatic life, but also causes concentration of environmental pollutants like heavy metals and agricultural runoff, leading to decreased water quality. Algal blooms (particularly of cyanobacteria) can deposit toxins in the water, increase surface acidity, and choke out competing plants and fish in the surrounding environments. Waterfowl and aquatic insects have fewer options for nesting and feeding, and plants that thrive in standing water or along river banks die off.
Mosquitoes, however, are more complicated: some species, like the Culex variety, thrive in drought conditions because they lay eggs in stagnant, warm water and in the muddy areas that remain when streams and rivers dry up. Across much of New England, however, the overall mosquito population was reduced this year.
Thankfully, Connecticut has a number of private organizations picking up the slack. The Connecticut Forest and Park Association continues to play a vital role in protecting and supporting our woodlands. Without them, we simply would not have many of the trails that we do, nor would they be as well cared-for as they are. The Last Green Valley also helps protect the woods and wildlife of Eastern Connecticut, with programs like their RBV stream monitoring program doing what the DEEP no longer has the personnel to do. Finally, smaller organizations like the Friends of the Goodwin forest provide a tremendous service engaging the public with free educational programs and forest/park maintenance. If you can, support these organizations by donating or volunteering.
If all this seems like a glut of bad news, the hiking season this year was nevertheless a wonderful one. Of course, nature is a web of relationship, and often a curse for one species is a boon for another. As a hiker, I observedfewer mosquitoes and deer ticks and more of certain species – the shore at Black Spruce Pond, for example, was rife with frogs, which drew magnificent herons and cormorants to observe, too. Snakes traveling afar afforded me the opportunity to see four of Connecticut’s fourteen species in the wild, including the eastern black racer whose numbers have been drastically reduced in recent years. As of today, I have done 67 hikes totaling 345.7 miles, including all of the Natchaug and Nipmuck trails.
Our forests and parks continue to be a jewel to our state, and if you haven’t been hiking this year, I urge you to do so while the weather is still accommodating. Above all, take action to protect the future of our wild lands and the species that inhabit them.
It often pays to take a detour on to unmarked or previously unexplored trails (but not into the forest itself, please). Yesterday, I discovered an entire new wilderness preserve purely by chance. I was heading north on the Nipmuck trail, planning to go just past Gurleyville road and turn around. Right around the site of the old Chaffeeville Silk Mill, I noticed a white-blazed trail exiting on the road, and through trees I spied a Town of Mansfield sign announcing the “Coney Rock Preserve.” The sign warned of a “steep” ascent leading to a grand view of the Fenton River. I calculated the total distance of the trails (I wanted at least six miles of hiking that day) and headed up the hill.
The choice to deviate from my planned hike was well rewarded, as I found myself at first in an extensive hemlock grove and then breezy, silent deciduous forest appointed with a gorgeous understory. Along the hike, I laid eyes on two barred owls in the canopy and discovered one of the oldest white oak trees I’ve ever seen (see photo at left). From about 1830-1850, deforestation for agriculture was at its peak in New England, with some 60-80% of all native forests obliterated by human activity. Connecticut forest, thus, are fairly young, and it’s a wonderful thing to find a tree as old as this grand old lady, who clearly predates the most frenetic period of deforestation. (A sad note: after a dramatic falling off in the early to mid twentieth century, deforestation in New England has been steadily rising in recent decades.)
I took the most circuitous route possible and made my way along the Olsen, Woodland Road, and Mullane trails to eventually return to the Chapin trail, where the park’s eponymous rock is located. The parks and rec information kiosk hadn’t exaggerated the view; it really is quite a magnificent west/southwest view of Scotland Connecticut. Unfortunately, the remnants of tropical storm Hermine have been cluttering our skies with low, grey clouds these last few days; I’m sure the view would be even better on a sunnier day.
As I left Coney Rock I took a photo of this gaudy mushroom – the Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as the “sulfur shelf” and “chicken of the woods.” August and September are great months for mycologists as many of our native species appear during this period; the Laetiporusis one such example. They grow in large fan-like clusters called rosettes at the base of oak and beech trees (but typically not conifers) and have a pleasant aroma. As you can see from the photo (below), they also have a shocking salmon hue, very bright and hard to miss if you see one. I don’t generally eat mushrooms, but those who do report that the edible Laetiporushas a lemony flavor and tastes a lot like, well, chicken. (N.b., while that links to a recipe for cooking the chicken of the woods, always consult an EXPERT mycologist on the proper identification of mushrooms you find in the wild. Many species are toxic and possibly fatal if ingested!)
The shocking, orange/salmon colored “chicken of the woods” growing at the base of an oak tree.
The free photo of the day is found as the featured photo for this article. That’s Chaffeeville road passing over the Fenton River, just at the ruins of the silk mill site.
Let me tell you, it’s spring at long last here in the Last Green Valley, and hikers are out in droves. (Which, in hiking, means meeting two people on a typical hike instead of one.) As usual, I’m seeing the usual mix of seasoned trail explorers and neophytes, and remembering my first forays into the forests some years ago. When you’re just getting starting with hiking, it’s common to make choices that seem smart from a ‘common sense’ view, but are actually harmful to your hiking efforts. Today, I’m going to cover some of the mistakes that newbie hikers make, and highlight some quick and easy tips that will help you hike better – and enjoy your time on the trails much more.
For this post, I’ll be joined by my amazing friend Haley, who is a dietary aid and nutrition major at the University of Connecticut. Haley knows her stuff when it comes to health and diet, and she’s a great cook too – check out her blog for diet tips, recipes, and more. It’s right here.
Tip One: Take Care of Your Feet
Wearing running or training sneakers on the trails is a rookie mistake I observe all too often. These types of shoes are best suited for level to moderately-sloped surfaces, and they don’t offer the type of arch and ankle support you need on rocky trails or steep ascents. If you’re waking up the day after a good hike complaining of sore feet, chances are you’ve got the wrong footwear for the job. Be smart and get some hiking boots, paying special attention to ankle support. Distressing the muscles around your ankle can lead to sore feet and even knees and serious injuries down the line.
Tip Two: Stagger Your Fluid Intake
Keeping hydrated during exercise is obvious. But don’t guzzle twelve ounces of water at the start of your hike, and then down another twelve or more at the end. You want to ration your H20, sipping 2-4 ounces about every 10-15 minutes. Chugging a bottle of water is going to place extra strain on your already hard-working heart, because the sudden influx of fluids will raise your blood pressure (which is partially a function of fluid/blood volume). Your kidneys will also work extra hard balancing the alternating states of hydration and dehydration. Keep your metabolism running efficiently with a consistent fluid intake. Oh, and don’t forget the electrolytes – these are critical to proper fluid balance in your body. Just don’t grab Gatorade or any of the sugary beverages…
Tip Three: Throw Away the Refined Sugars
Your pack should always have a few snacks in it for extended hikes. Exercise of less than sixty minutes’ duration won’t place enough of a demand on your body for extra calories, so if you’re just out for a quick hike, you can consume some lean protein about 20 minutes before and after for muscle recovery. But while it’s tempting to grab a trail mix with M&Ms or sugar-coated raisins, these processed sugars are used least efficiently by your body, and can actually slow you down when your glucose levels drop. “Most people know this as the ‘sugar crash’or ‘crashing,'” Haley explains, “and it happens when your insulin levels are too high.”
Your best snacks contain natural sugars. Bring some strawberries, cherries, blueberries or another low-glycemic load fruit with you. Nuts like pecans, cashews, pistachios, and almonds are another great source of energy that also contain healthy fats and a good dose of protein, too. Granola bars and oat-based products are fine, but check labels – refined sugars are often found in excessive amounts in many of these foods.
For sustained activity, Haley recommends complex carbs. “Complex carbs, like oats or whole grains, are important for hiking and sustaining the body for a long period of time,” she says. A bag of potato chips, on the other hand, will kill your energy levels, and the high sodium content will make you thirsty even when your body is adequately hydrated.
Tip Four: Be a Smart Packer
Bringing a lightly packed day pack on any hike is a great idea. However, don’t overdo it. Many new hikers are giddy with the prospect of taking photos, reading a book, or trying out new hobbies like rock-collecting when they hit the trails. Just remember how much harder your body (and back) have to work with a heavy load. If you must bring a book, pick a slim, softcover one – but to be honest, most people find the forest itself stimulating enough, and never crack a book to begin with. Photography equipment is great, but plan ahead and select just the lenses and tools you know you’ll likely need. With equipment, don’t fall into the trap of buying tons of gadgets and gizmos in the outdoor section of the store. You won’t need a portable shovel on a hike. Really. A compass, a whistle, a map (all of which, to be honest, you have on your smart phone), a poncho, a little food, and water and extra clothes (see below) are really your only necessities. If you’re going out in the evening, add a headlamp and bug spray to that list. Cooking equipment or utensils are only necessary for extended hikes, and if you need to cook, get a “pocket rocket” collapsible stove – they typically weight just a few ounces.
Extended hikes require even more frugal packing, especially if you’re trying to make good time. Liz Thomas, an exceptional distance hiker who recently completed the Pacific Crest Trail, carried a pack with her that weighed just seven pounds for the 80-day journey. (She hiked into nearby towns for food and water.) That’s on the low end, but certainly a day hiker can carry everything he or she needs in 15 pounds or less.
Tip Five: Be Prepared for Weather Changes
Checking the weather before you go out to hike is smart, but weather conditions can change unexpectedly and accidents do happen. Many a new hiker has gone out in shorts and a tee shirt in the morning, only to find themselves shivering in cold, wet weather later on. Get a cheap plastic poncho for rain, and keep some extra layers of clothing in your pack. An extra pair of socks, a light jacket or sweatshirt, and a hat and gloves in the spring are strongly advised. (By the way, those extra socks will come in handy if you should be crossing a river or stream and slip, too.) A savvy hiker dresses in easy to remove layers. As weather conditions change, or as your body’s internal temperature rises, you’ll want to be able to remove outer clothing as needed. And even in sub-zero temperatures, avoid absorbent fabrics like wool. They may feel toasty and dry at first, but after you’ve started sweating, you’ll be drenched and uncomfortable. Choose fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin instead.
Tip Six: Let Someone Know Where You Are
The standard wisdom for hiking is “Never hike alone.” I routinely flaunt that convention, and to be honest it’s just not realistic for many of us, anyway. So instead, just give someone advance notice about your plans in the event something should happen. Let them know where you’re going, and about what time you expect to be back. It’s extremely unlikely that any catastrophe will befall you on the trails, especially if you plan ahead. But just in case you should experience an injury, it’s wise to have someone in the know about your location.
Tip Seven: Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude
We all want to reap the physical and spiritual rewards of a good hike, but remember: this hike isn’t just about you. Be mindful of the forest and its inhabitants by adhering to the rules of the park. Stay on the trails, pack out your trash. Most professional hikers cultivate a sense of respect and gratitude for the earth, reminding themselves that they are guests in the woods. As your time spent hiking increases, your sense of connection and respect for nature is sure to increase. Notice that feeling and cultivate it.
Tip Eight: Take a Break (But Not For Too Long)
If you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle mass, you probably want to push yourself to the limit. While you definitely want to keep your heart rate high and keep burning calories, your body will manage both more efficiently with brief breaks to rebound. Break every thirty to sixty minutes, but only for three to five minutes at a time. Resist the urge to punish yourself; your body knows what it can do and when it needs a break. Haley explains that resting is “about listening to your body and taking a break when you need to. If you get fatigued, you may not be able to work a, hard or continue going as strong as you would if you took a short rest.”
Tip Nine: Hiking is the Best Training for Hiking
If you’re planning to hike for a weekend, or thru hike a major trail, consider working hiking into your daily routine beforehand. Many pro hikers carry their gear with them any time they leave their house in order to adjust their bodies to constantly carrying a load. Wear your hiking boots to the grocery store, and use stairs to mimic steep ascents and declines. Getting your body used to the strains of hiking will decrease the adjustment time once you’re on the trails. And, it’s helpful to take a hiking “mentality” too – focus on your steps and where you plant your feet, be mindful of balance and posture, and practice moving at a pace that works for you. One way of looking at hiking is “mindful walking.”
Tip Ten: Show Courtesy to Your Fellow Hikers
Hiking is a pretty lonely sport, to be sure. Most days I don’t encounter any other people when I hike. But when you do run into someone else, be friendly and say hello. If someone hiking behind you catches up and wants to pass, step to the right so they can pass on your left. Offer some trail mix or a little water if you can spare it. You’ll find hikers are a special type of people, with great stories to tell and knowledge to give to anyone who’ll listen. Most of them are there for the same reasons that you are: to test themselves and their limits, to find a deeper connection with the world, to uncover new truths or wrestle with hard questions. Hikers are wanderers and seekers, and they will welcome kindred spirits.
Oh, and many hikers have “trail names” that serve as shorthand in the same way that CB radio call signs do. Mine, you may have guessed, is “Factotum!”
I’ve been working on a chapter in Eastern Connecticut from the Trails that considers some prolegomena (“first words”; the Greeks used it to mean “prologue” or “introduction”) for a new philosophy of hiking. In its formal presentation, it considers the big questions of philosophy but specifically geared toward hiking. For example, what is a hike? Is it the distance? The location? What makes a hike distinguishable from, say, a particularly long walk to the store? And, what do we learn from hiking (epistemology)?
One of the more, shall we say contentious, subjects with which I’m grappling is the question of why we hike. Unfortunately, my reflections have drawn me to the conclusion that almost all hikers are motivated by internal stimuli: the desire to be fit, the hope of finding solitude, inner peace, a great view. Some hike as amateur scientists: for bird watching, identifying rare or beautiful plants, collecting rocks. But the relationship with nature, too often, is one-sided. We benefit from hiking, but the natural world receives nothing from our presence. Indeed, as the seemingly endless parade of trash on the trails indicates, the forests and wildlife are worse for our interference.
There’s nothing wrong with going out for exercise, spiritual nourishment, or a glimpse of nature’s secret majesty. Every hike I’ve ever done has been compelled by some degree and combination of those aims. If there’s a philosophy of hiking, however, there’s also an ethics that entails from the truths that philosophy proffers. What ethical duty do we have as hikers to ourselves, do others, and to nature?
A full treatment of the ethical dimension of hiking is a bit much for a blog post. But here are some thoughts to get the ball rolling.
For a start, don’t litter the trails. I don’t wish to sound like priggish, so let me underscore that I make it a point to be very generous in my estimation of other people. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. To harp on the folly and ignorance of other people too often is a prescription for a miserable life. But I would gently suggest that, in the ethics of hiking, there’s an obligation to anyone who sets out on the trails to “do no harm,” as the Buddhists say. And I would encourage anyone thinking of hiking to conduct a little self-analysis and honestly assess if they can meet that minimal goal or not.
Let’s imagine a person who simply can’t get behind the wheel of a car and obey the laws that keep the roads safe. They run red lights. They drive at twice the posted speed limit – in a school zone. They frequently drive drunk. Would it be controversial to eventually say this person, who is unwilling to alter their errant ways for the good of the whole, “Perhaps you should just stay off the roads?” And, would it not be responsible and laudable if that person said, “Yes, indeed, I should stay off the roads until I can adhere to the standards that keep our roads safe?”
I think the same situational ethics apply to the trails. If a person cannot hike without casting beer bottles and soiled diapers into the dirt, if the woods are merely a convenient place to have sex and leave used condoms for the rest of us, if they simply must destroy a tree to declare their love “4 ever” for their partner, if they find leash laws and prohibitions against fires, motorized vehicles, and leaving pet excrement on beaches and foot paths too encumbering, then I think it’s quite fair to say: stay home. The trails are not for you quite yet, but we’d love to see you when you can engage in a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors.
This, I believe, points to the one axiom (a statement that is necessarily true, accepted as fact) I’ve discovered in hiking: nature itself has value beyond what it can do for us. The forests, the flora and fauna in their diversity, the ecosystems – all have an intrinsic worth that’s separate and immutable – unlike the value of meat, timber, ore, and other “products” we harvest from nature.
So beyond doing no harm, perhaps we can also aim to help. A small example – I carry a garbage bag, a mere 5 gallon one, in my pack when I hike. When I see a bit of rubbish on the trail, I pick it up and pack it out with me. It’s what I consider a basic courtesy to the natural world and to other hikers and our park systems, too. We can volunteer our time maintaining the trails. We can donate to our cash-strapped Forestry, Parks and Recreation, and Environmental Protection agencies (all of whom rely increasingly on volunteers and outside organizations with each round of budget cuts and layoffs).
But perhaps most importantly, seek out greater knowledge and peace in yourself and in your dealings with nature. Learn the names of the trees, rocks, and animals around you. I am convinced that intimate contact with the forest abolishes all delusions of a self apart from nature; that as our understanding of the intricacy and diversity of the Earth’s geology and biology increases, our feelings of emptiness and disunity decrease. Meditate on these bare but astonishing realities. Hike, but stop and sit in the sunlit field, close your eyes, and listen to the music that was once your home.
What is hiking to you? What does your ‘philosophy’ of hiking include? Comment below!