Thursday, August 15, 2013

Windham High Peak, 2013-08-11

Sunday, August 11, 2013, Kevin and Catherine decided to hike Windham High Peak, the northeasternmost of the Catskill high peaks. With this hike being mostly on the Escarpment Trail, it's all about the magnificent sweeping views.

View north from Burnt Knob
(Do feel free to click through any of the pictures; there are bigger versions on Flickr, and many of them have notes attached.)

Since Kevin and Cathy had two cars available, they decided to do a hike that requires shuttling cars: from the end of Peck Road in Maplecrest, the trailhead of the Elm Ridge trail, to the dead end of County Road 56, where the Black Dome Range Trail crosses the Batavia Kill.

Starting from Peck Road, the trail climbs gradually about 300 feet in the first mile, passing a piped spring. At about the one-mile point, it reaches a junction with the Escarpment Trail (about a mile from the Escarpment Trail's northern terminus on State Highway 26).
Elm Ridge trail junction
(Since posting this message, Kevin has learnt that the Elm Ridge trail now continues, unsigned, south and west on the ridge to additional viewpoints. A good hike for another time, perhaps combined with exploring the mountain bike trails in the Elm Ridge Wild Forest.)

Near the junction stands the Elm Ridge lean-to, which provided a good place to sit for a few minutes and grab a quick drink of water.
Elm Ridge lean-to
Behind the lean-to, a family had set up an astonishingly large tent and were barbecuing something at a fire ring at their tent site. Kevin and Cathy decided not to invade their lunch.

After the quick sit-down, it was time to shoulder packs again and head on up the Escarpment Trail, which continued a mostly-gradual ascent eastward onto Windham High Peak.  The trail traverses a large grove of Norway spruces, planted during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a reforestation project. (Surely such a project, if attempted today, would use native species, rather than imports!) Where the ridge forms saddles, the trail gets quite wet, and the fragile soil and vegetation are protected by bog bridges.

On the way up, Kevin has an interesting encounter with a butterfly. The details of the story are in another post.  
Hoary Comma butterfly, Polygonia Gracilis

The party also encounters a group of Tibetan Buddhists (with little bronze prayer bells jingling on their backpacks!) and the obligatory pack of Korean tourists.

Before long, the trees afford tantalizing hints of the viewpoints to come. (Kevin notes that this ought to be a great hike on snowshoes: there will be even more expansive views with the leaves off the trees!)
Obstructed view from Windham High Peak

About three miles from the starting point, the trail reaches the flat summit of Windham High Peak. From the summit, short side trails lead to three overlooks. Kevin and Cathy sit down at the first of these to have lunch. It has a good view of the Blackheads, with tiny glimpses to the left of Stoppel Point and Stissing Mountain, the latter far to the south and on the far side of the Hudson.
Blackhead Range from Windham High Peak

While eating, they watch the sometimes dramatic clouds roll by.
Blackhead Range from Windham High Peak

The other overlooks, of course, are not to be missed. The second looks north toward Albany and the Adirondacks.
 North viewpoint from Windham High Peak

While Cathy is paying attention to photography, Kevin chats a while with a Russian father and son who are backpacking a Blackhead Range-Windham High Peak loop, and then notices that there is a visitor appearing on the rock slab. (Some more boisterous hikers had frightened him into the vegetation as we were arriving, but he came back).
 Look who's here!

Not only did he come out to sunbathe,
Garter snake

but he also brought along several of his friends.
Why does it always have to be snakes?

After watching the serpents for a bit, Kevin and Cathy walk on to the true summit (which is viewless). They grab a "we were here" picture of their boots
We made it!
at the Geodetic Survey benchmark.
Triangulation station, Windham High Peak

Just past the summit is another fine view looking east over the Hudson Valley, with the mountains of northern New England beyond.
View east from Windham High Peak

Now the Escarpment Trail begins to show its true colors. The portions toward the northern and southern termini consists of gentle ascents, but the middle twenty miles or so is considerably more rugged. Kevin and Cathy were already aware of this. In fact, at the last overlook, they'd had a conversation with a pair of visitors from New Jersey, father and son, and the father had commented, "the guidebook said that the trip up to here was an easy three-mile hike!"

"Yeah, it's about three miles, and it is easy by Catskill standards. There was no rock climbing anywhere. It gets harder east of here, but there are a couple of viewpoints even better than these. If you want to come with us, I'll be happy to drive you back to Route 23 to pick up your car. We're only going another three-and-a-half miles or so."

"No thanks, if it's harder than this, I don't think we can handle it!"

"Suit yourself. Have a nice hike back! At least it's all downhill."

Kevin and Cathy plunge forward down a steep downgrade (requiring the use of hands to descend in a few places) to the col between Windham High Peak and Burnt Knob. The ascent onto Burnt Knob from the col offers a wonderful view back to the west over Big Hollow, the valley of the Batavia Kill, taking in the western Devil's Path, the Lexington ridge, and many lesser peaks, along with the farms that surround the village of Maplecrest.
View west from Burnt Knob
(If you want the peaks identified, click through to the Flickr version of the photo.)

On the way across, Cathy and Kevin are able to grab a quick snack of huckleberries; there's a large meadow of them in the saddle.

Having made the descent, the trail circles an unnamed knoll and makes an equally steep (but mercifully much shorter!) climb to Burnt Knob, which offers views even more superb than Windham High Peak. To the north can be seen the entire Mohawk Valley from Albany to Schoharie, with the Green Mountains and Adirondacks beyond
View north from Burnt Knob
while the south has a view of the Blackheads and some of the rest of the Escarpment (Acra Point and Stoppel Point).
View south from Burnt Knob

Just east of the overlooks, the Escarpment Trail joins up with the Black Dome Range Trail. Cathy and Kevin turn south onto the Black Dome Range Trail, and make a mile-long gradual descent, crossing and recrossing a fast-flowing tributary of the Batavia Kill, down to the second car. On the way, Cathy snaps a picture of some pretty berries. (Neither of us knows what they are: can any reader make an identification?)
Pretty berries

What went right: Practically everything. Perfect weather, good company, a nice moderate hike with lots of interesting stuff to see.

What went wrong: Cathy was limping around the next day on a very sore ankle. Poor kid, she's been living in the flatlands for the past year and isn't used to mountain hiking any more. At least she was game to try - and succeed in bagging a peak.

Lessons learnt: Butterfly sex has a fascinating aspect to it. Cathy needs her own set of trekking poles. Kevin needs to remember to let the slowest hiker lead. (What? Kevin isn't the slowest hiker? He's overtaken others on the last few trips. How'd that happen?)


Monday, August 12, 2013

Hiker sweat, alkali metals, and butterfly sex

Yesterday, Sunday, August 11, Kevin and Cathy went hiking on a day trip to Windham High Peak and Burnt Knob in the northeastern Catskill Mountains. Up near the summit of the peak, we got an intriguing lesson in ethology from Mother Nature herself.

Hoary Comma butterfly, Polygonia Gracilis
Hoary Comma butterfly, Polygonia gracilis, alighting on Kevin's arm

While coming up over the last ledge, an insect started fluttering close around the two of us. Catherine startled, and Kevin said, "Don't worry, it's just a butterfly." The creature started flying very close—somewhat annoyingly, actually—until it finally came to rest on Kevin's arm. It proceeded to extend its proboscis and start licking his arm. It's a rather strange sensation for a butterfly to be holding onto you with its sticky feet and probing you with its proboscis!

Hoary Comma butterfly, underside
Underside of the butterfly. Note the extended proboscis licking Kevin's skin.

It turns out that this behaviour is well known among butterflies. The food that caterpillars eat (leaves, mostly) is very poor in sodium and rich in potassium. Similarly, the flower nectar that sustains adult butterflies is also sodium-poor. Throughout their lifecycle, butterflies therefore must struggle to maintain their electrolyte balance, eliminating K+ and accumulating Na+. Many species share a common adaptation to this problem, which is integrated in their sexual behavior.

The males will fly to some wet source of sodium: ones that are frequently seen include carrion, piles of scat, wet soil where a large animal has urinated, and puddles on the sides of roads (where road salt accumulates). There, they will process large quantities of water, absorbing sodium. (Some male butterflies and moths can drink and void several dozen times their body weight in a few hours, extracting the sodium as the water passes through.) The male then presents the sodium as a gift to the female during the mating, and the female's body passes most of the sodium on in the eggs to the offspring. The caterpillars thus start their lives with a reserve of sodium that can see them through their early development.

So, what we're seeing in these pictures is a horny male butterfly stocking up on gifts for the ladies before going out on the town, in hopes of getting the opportunity to pass on his genes. He sees a sweaty hiker as a fine source of sodium!


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Indian Head Mountain, 2013-08-03

Saturday, August 3, 2013, Kevin managed to convince himself that Mary Ann was sufficiently recovered that he could absent himself for a day, even out of communication range and several hours' hike from a road. So he decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to hike Indian Head Mountain in the Catskills (bagging another peak). Since nobody was available for travel on such short notice, Kevin decided to climb solo.

Solo climbing is not as foolish as one might believe; the peak is popular enough that on a summer weekend, there is bound to be another hiker along in an hour or two. Kevin's been working on overcoming his training that always said, "Never Hike Alone!" - the actual rule is more like "Never get into a situation where nobody knows where you are." (Look at the "Never Hike Alone" pundits - they all appear either to be non-hikers or else they do not practice what they preach.)

Anyway, the start was a bit late, just because of messing around with things at home (and not having had the pack organized on Friday night). Anyway, armed with the usual gear, Kevin got on the trail about one o'clock in the afternoon, looking forward to an approximately six-hour hike. The aptly-named Devil's Path starts from the parking lot at the end of Prediger Road, which was very full that day with the cars of people who wanted the bragging rights of climbing Indian Head.

The first couple of miles have the nature of an "approach trail" - not at all like the rest of the Devil's Path. They climb only a couple of hundred feet, gradually, with a couple of crossings of the mighty Schoharie River,
Schoharie Creek
one of which traverses a magnificent stone arch:
Schoharie Creek bridge
(All right, I'm being silly. The Schoharie is indeed a substantial river,  but you wouldn't know it here at its headwaters!) On the way in, Kevin meets an old lady with two ancient Labrador retrievers, who turned back after the old dogs proved unable to make the climb. (This is not a hike for most dogs!)

At a trail junction with a signpost that leans drunkenly,
Overlook Turnpike trail junction
the Devil's Path turns off the old Overlook Mountain Turnpike and begins to show its true colors as it ascends the east face of Indian Head. At no point in the ascent is it anything other than "steep" - unless you want at some points to replace "steep" with "precipitous." The treadway consists of rocks and roots, with the occasional deep mud thrown in for good measure. The mud was sloppy enough that Kevin regretted not having brought his gaiters - but who would imagine that a high-elevation trail would be that wet in August?

About a mile (filled with numerous rock scrambles) later, the trail makes it up to the "chin" of Indian Head. Just before the last scramble, the dense vegetation opens up just enough that a hiker can get a view of Kaaterskill High Peak to the north:
Kaaterskill High Peak
and by stepping right to the cliff edge and craning the neck, just barely glimpse the Bruderhof religious community at its base:
Kaaterskill High Peak and the Bruderhof

Another scramble leads up to a rock that presents a sweeping view of the Hudson Valley (and on into Vermont and even New Hampshire) to the northeast,
and a tantalizing glimpse of the lower Hudson past Plattekill Mountain.
Here on the ledge Kevin overtakes a group of nine university students out for the day, is overtaken by two ladies also climbing the peak, and is invited to an impromptu party by three gentlemen who are running a camp stove. Kevin observes, "A hot lunch! Traveling in style!"

"Want some coffee?" asks one of them. "No, thanks, I'm overheated already."

"Want some rye?" asks another, pulling out a bottle of the amber nectar with a very prestigious label. "No thanks," Kevin says again with some regret (believing that alcohol and solo rock climbing would be a bad combination). The ladies take him up on his offer.

"How about a hit on the hookah?" volunteers the first, to laughter all around. (There is no hookah in evidence.) Kevin asks to step forward and block the view for a few minutes (permission is warmly granted!) and gets a panorama of the view past Plattekill Mountain.

The ladies and the students hike on, "Maybe I'll see you further up! If not, have a great hike!" and soon Kevin follows. The trail turns around the south side of the rock, passes a cave shelter that is fairly obviously inhabited (there's bear scat everywhere!)
Bear's den
and a brief but lovely overlook of the Ashokan and Esopus valleys, with the Kittatinny ridge in New Jersey visible in the far background. (It's just barely possible that the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania are visible beyond it. If so, that would make seven States that can be seen from Indian Head.)
View south from Sherman's Lookout

Having climbed the "chin" of Indian Head, the trail makes its bumpy way across his "lips." Dodgy spots where the trail skirts hundred-foot dropoffs alternate with more level (and muddy!) patches. Kevin meets the obligatory party of twenty Korean tourists (who smile and wave but haven't much English), an elderly Polish (?) lady (ditto), and a couple of young men finishing an eastbound traverse of the Devil's Path.

Kevin decides to skip the dried fruit he's brought for an afternoon snack because there's fresh fruit available instead: blueberries!
And the bears have left some for hikers!
More blueberries!
Having satisfied his sweet tooth, Kevin ambles on, rapidly coming to the cliff under the "nose" of Indian Head. This stretch involves the most punishing scrambling of the entire hike, including a 50-foot near-vertical section up wet sandstone.
Rock scramble
At the top of that scramble lie a couple of rock chutes, including the infamous Corkscrew Chimney. Kevin is much to occupied with climbing to take pictures, but this one from the New York Times gives the idea.

(Source: Kristen Luce, The New York Times)

The rock has water trickling over it, and is covered with algae, leading Kevin to observe that the Indian Head needs to wipe his nose, it's really snotty!

After a bit of head-scratching, Kevin works out the hand and foot positions needed to get up that crack, and comes out on the top. There's a bit more sketchy footwork on a narrow ledge over a steep drop, a little bit more scrambling, and the trail comes out at the tip of Indian Head's nose, which offers even further views of New England:
of the lower Hudson Valley,
and of the Ashokan reservoir.

The university students are here taking a rest break (several appear to be sound asleep, no doubt worn out by the climb). One of the students offers to take Kevin's picture, to show he's won through to the nearest viewpoint to the actual summit of Indian Head.
Kevin at east lookout of Indian Head

From here, the Devil relents for a few moments in his trail design, and the trail offers a pleasant walk through the heavenly perfume of the balsam forest. The walk is marred only by one spot where a huge cloud of buzzing flies is attacking the leftovers of a coyote pack's latest kill - some small creature, possibly an opossum (they really didn't leave enough to recognize). The actual summit is hard to locate - Indian Head, like all the Catskill peaks, is flat-topped, but eventually the trail emerges to another fleeting overlook on the Indian's "forehead" that sees Overlook Mountain,
Overlook Mountain
with its firetower,
Overlook Mountain fire tower
and television transmitting station,
Overlook Mountain communications tower
and another obscured view of the Ashokan.

Ashokan from east side of Indian Head

The balsam forest supports astonishing biodiversity, including a strange toadstool with brilliant yellow cap and orange stem:
Colorful toadstools
and a tangled understory of perennial plants. (The subalpine growing season is too short to support annuals.)

Just below the overlook, the trail passes the 3500 foot marker,
3500 foot marker
and begins to descend steeply, with a quick glimpse of Twin Mountain (the Devil's Path's next stop)
East Twin Mountain
and a hint of vistas beyond.
View past East Twin

There's a second 3500-foot marker about 100 feet in elevation below the first one, making up for the fact that Kevin didn't spot one on the way up.
3500 foot marker

Below that is another hanging ledge, which looks as if it would make a nice lunch spot on a rainy day. There's no sign of a bear living under this one.
Cave Shelter

It drops - not quite as precipitously as on the east side - down to the col between Indian Head and Twin, where Kevin meets a party of three backpackers accompanied by an enthusiastic Yorkshire terrier. "At least that dog looks small enough that you can carry him up the steep bits!" "We haven't needed to; he just scampers up ahead of us!"

Coming out of the col, Kevin turns north on the Jimmy Dolan Notch trail, which drops another 400 feet or so of one scramble after another, and then continues at a much more gradual decline for a couple of miles along the Schoharie back to where the car is parked.

What went right: Just about everything. Bluebird-perfect weather. Challenging mountain, but not too challenging to complete. Kevin was hiking strongly - if he'd had a two-hour earlier start, he'd have felt up to adding Twin Mountain to the itinerary.

What went wrong: Kevin should have brought gaiters. No big deal, just dirty pants, socks and boots.

Lessons learnt: "Never hike alone!" is far overstated. With all the other hikers on the trail that day, Kevin felt no less safe than if a companion were along.