Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Harriman - South Lakes Loop

Southern Harriman SP
What a great Thanksgiving week - I was able to get out backpacking two weekends in a row.  I took the entire week off from work with the initial intent of heading up to Harriman the weekend before Thanksgiving (read about that trip here); but, when my sister-in-law came up for the holiday and kept my wife busy, I was able to get out again.

So, I made it another 2-night trip to Harriman.  I thought about heading up to the Catskills; but, with it still in the heart of hunting season, I thought Harriman would be more prudent (and closer) for a solo outing.  Like the previous weekend, I figured that I would focus on the southern half of the park - and since I started in the southeast corner of the park previously, I decided to head to the southwest corner this week.  

Dutch Doctor Shelter
Black Friday - I slept in a bit, since I packed the night before and only planned a short hike for the first day.  I didn't end up leaving home until about 11:30; but surprising enough, I didn't hit any traffic on my ride north.  At 1:30 I was parked in the cul-de-sac at Johnsontown Road, and ready to hit the trail.  My original plan was to just hike north along the White Bar Trail up to the Dutch Doctor shelter and relax there for the night.  This was my first trip starting from Johnsontown Rd  and I was a little disappointed by the start of the trail.  From the cul-de-sac, the trail starts off as a communication line utility path for maintenance of a buried fiber optic line.  After about a half mile, the trail veers away from the utility line, but it remains a wide, monotonous, fairly flat jeep trail that continues a little more than 3/4 mile up to the shelter, which sits right off the dirt road.  There was no one at the Dutch Doctor when I arrived after less than an hour's hike; but because it seemed so accessible and was still early, I decided that I would push on to the next shelter and then re-plan my route for the next day.

Lake Sebago

Just north of the Dutch Doctor, the White Bar trail meets the yellow-blazed Triangle trail.  From here, the hike started to get much more interesting.  The Triangle trail is a narrow, winding path that weaves through a jungle of rhododendron - some of the only shrubbery still holding its leaves in late November.  Less than a half-mile from the White Bar, the Triangle trail skirts the western edge of Lake Sebago - the first of the many lakes that I would circumnavigate during the weekend.  The thought was already forming in my head, that by pushing on to Tom Jones shelter on this first night, I could conceivably circle the majority of southern Harriman and it's many lakes over the next two days.

Lake Skenonta
From Lake Sebago, it's just a hop and a skip over to the southern end of Lake Skenonta (the last spot for water before Tom Jones Mt); and from there the trail begins it's ascent from the dell beside the lakes.  Following the yellow blazes, the trail becomes more and more steep over the next 3/4 mile as it climbs through the notch of Parker Cabin Mt, to a final steep scramble up to Ramapo-Dunderburg (RD) trail at the top of the ridge.  There was more storm damage from Hurricane Sandy in this section of the park than I had seen elsewhere, with a multitude of downed trees across the trail, and even a snapped utility pole at the crossing just north of Lake Skenonta - so watch out.

On top of Parker Cabin Mt
The view from the top of Parker Cabin Mt is fantastic, and a great place to take a short rest while you catch your breath from the climb, before following the RD trail along the ridgeline to the north-northeast.  It is only a short picturesque hike from the Triangle trail down the north slope of Parker Cabin, then up the west side of Tom Jones Mt (about a half mile) - to find the shelter sitting on a ledge overlooking the valley below.  I arrived at the shelter sometime between 4:00 and 4:30, having made good time.  This shelter is less than a half-mile from the parking area along Rt 106, so it can see a lot of visitors; and its location and view are stupendous; so, it was lucky for me that no one was there to have to share the mountain with.   

Tom Jones Shelter
In the fading light of day, I set up my tent in the clearing behind the shelter and collected some wood provided by the recent hurricane to get a nice fire going.  After warming up and devouring some supper, I turned the radio on low and relaxed by the fire as the stars came out and the wind picked up.  The temperature was a mild 40-degrees F, and the wind was not biting, so I stayed up under the stars until some clouds rolled in and brought intermittent light drizzle around 10:00.  I listened to a little more jazz on the radio - a tribute to Teddy Wilson on 89.9 FM - until my eyes started to get heavy.

Morning on Tom Jones Mt
I was back awake by 6:00 the next morning; and the cold front had dropped the temperature down to about the freezing mark.  I have definitely worked out the ideal venting on my cold weather tent - having found no condensation on the fly.  Also, my new EMS Solstice 20-degree bag kept me toasty all night, too.  After a quick bite to eat and breaking camp, I was back on the trail at 7:15.  I had worked out my planned route for the day and was being ambitious - 5.5 miles before lunch, and 9.5 mile total for the day.

View southwest from Black Rock
North along RD trail
Bald Rocks Shelter
After the short crossing of Tom Jones Mt, it was down the north slope to Rt 106, then an immediate climb up Black Rock Mt on the other side - through the notch and then a zig-zaging scramble to the top of the ridge.  The overnight cold front brought some very blustery conditions on Saturday, with some strong wind gusts (up to 45 mph) and intermittent flurries all day.  The Black Rock ridge offers incredible views in all directions; but provides no protection from the wind - a few gusts felt like they would bowl me over.  The RD trail continues north along the exposed rock crest of the ridge, past the Bald Rocks shelter.  I passed some campers just waking up near the shelter, and a couple of more backpackers as I made the turn, east, onto Dunning trail, which is a mostly downhill stroll that winds its way for almost a mile past a number of old surface iron mines on the way to the Long Path.  

This section of the green-blazed Long Path trail proved to be very popular this morning - the 3/4 mile stretch, southeast, winds its way through the dale to the north of Lake Kanawauke, then wraps around the north side of Lake Skannatati before turning south through the neck between that lake and Lake Askoti directly to the north.  In this relatively short run of the trail, I passed no less than 20 day hikers coming the other way, from the direction of the parking area on Seven Lakes Drive between the two lakes.  These hikers appeared to be in the same party, although they were spread out across a good half-mile of trail based on their hiking pace.  The interesting thing was that they were all asian hikers (men and women) - not one of which could have been a day under 60 years of age, and few that looked to be in their 80s.  I only hope that I can still get out and hike at that age - very inspirational.

Lake Skannatati
It was about 9:45 when I passed Seven Lakes Drive, heading south along the Long Path.  From here, after seeing so many people, it was a stark contrast to not see another individual for the next two and a quarter hours, as I traveled the next 2-3/4 miles southeast to Big Hill shelter where I would stop for lunch.  This stretch of trail, while not super strenuous, is still quite a workout, as it crosses over three ridges - including Pole Brook Mt, the north end of High Hill, and around the north end of Cranberry Mt and up the northwest side of Big Hill.  Hurricane Sandy also threw a great number of downed trees across this section of trail, which slowed down progress as I had to work my way over or around the obstacles and keep double checking for the blaze trail markers, because the leaf litter obscured the trail in many locations.  It kept me on my toes.

Big Hill Shelter
The day had not warmed up any by noon when I reached Big Hill shelter, and the flurries continued to dance through the air every now and again.  By now, I was ready for a hot meal, so I broke out my Svea stove to heat up some hot and sour, ramen soup with tuna.  There was a family with two young girls holed up in  the shelter having a picnic, so I plopped myself down on a cliff ledge to the south, overlooking the valley below while I cooked.  This was the same spot where I had camped out the previous Sunday night - a really great view, and I watched an eagle circle the valley at eye height not far off - what an amazing wing span.  The only problem with this spot was the wind that seemed to be getting stronger as the day progressed.  The wind made it take forever to get my water to boil, then as soon as I lifted my pot...Wooosh, off flew my aluminum windscreen - never to be seen again (I think I heard the family chuckle)...

Can you make out NYC on the horizon?
Anyway, I slurped down my soup as I kicked myself over my stupidity; then, repacked my mess kit for the next leg of the day's journey.  At 1:00 I was on my way - and for the next 2-3/4 miles I re-traced my steps from the previous Monday morning, when I traveled south from Big Hill along the Suffern-Bear Mountain Trail, past Third Reservoir and over Ladentown Mt and Panther Mt to the junction with Pine Meadow Trail (which leads to the Ramapo Equestrian Center - you can read the post here).  Today however, I continued past the Pine Meadow Trail and on for another mile - crossing Catamount Mt to the Stone Memorial Shelter, like I did at the start of my trip the previous weekend.  The sky was more clear on this afternoon than the previous weekend, despite the cold and flurries - and the NYC skyline could just be made out on the horizon.  So, eight long, hard hiking hours after I started that morning, I reached my destination of Stone Memorial shelter.    

The Stone memorial shelter is also located on a ridge overlook, and is not shielded from the wind which continued to build throughout the day and into the evening.  As the sun went down, the wind got sharp and chilled to the bone.  I set up tent behind the shelter where I could find enough soil cover on the stone ridge to anchor my guy lines against the strong gusts.  I had to cook dinner in the shelter since my windscreen was sacrificed earlier in the day - and I recounted my day's adventure to two cousins from Long Island who were hunkered down in the shelter against the wind for the night.  The wind direction seemed to keep changing, and would occasionally gust into the shelter - which would make it a real chore for the guys to keep warm using the small fireplace in the shelter.  After scarfing down my meal of tuna and stuffing with cranberries, I retired to my tent for the evening.  I was surprised at how well it blocked all the wind, even when vented.  Without the windchill, I was snug in the tent and sleeping bag - only, I had to turn the radio up to hear it over the near constant whistle outside.  I was pooped after the long day's hike, so I passed out at 8:00.

I slept like a log for 6 hours, which must have been all I need, because then I was wide awake.  It was just after 2:00 a.m. - way early; but, I just wasn't very tired.  While I would have liked to just rest for a few more hours anyway, it was just too loud. The wind was gusting in strong bursts - a big blow, followed by a short rest, and then you could hear the next blast coming through the distant trees - before BLAM, the whole tent would shake.  Not much flapping (my guy lines were holding well), but the whole tent would shudder and feel like it wanted to lift off the ground.  Well enough of this, I thought - I stuffed some trail mix in my mouth for an early morning breakfast, packed everything except the tent while I was still inside, then broke the tent down quickly and started my way down the ridge to get out of the gale force blow.  It was only 3:00 a.m., but I felt refreshed, and the moon was shining bright - so, between that and my headlight, I could pick my way easily along the trail.

I headed west along Conklins Crossing trail to the north coast of Pine Meadow Lake.  The light reflecting off the lake showed that the wind was kicking up waves all along the surface, and they could be heard breaking on the shore.  Once on the west side of the lake, I followed the red-blazed PineMeadow Trail south along Pine Meadow Brook, where it then turned west again to join the white-blazed Kakiat trail.  It was right around 4:30 when the moon set for the night.  I could still see clearly by my headlamp, but my field of vision was much reduced, and it seemed eerie.  The trail blazes were well marked and closely spaced, which made navigating pretty easy; but as the trail continued to follow the brook, the stream dropped into a tight, narrow, incised channel beside the trail.  The roaring of the water was almost deafaning at times, and peering into the channel you could make out the whitewater and foaming of numerous falls and rushing water - very cool, but a bit unnerving in the dark.  I will have to come back to this section of trail by daylight to get a better look, and take some photos.

Unfortunately, the final bridge where the Kakiat trail crosses the brook (after it merges with Stony Brook) is washed out, so I had to detour back down the Pine Meadow trail to the parking area at the visitor center on Seven Lake Drive, and then road-walk north for a half mile to where I could cross back to the White Bar trail and the cul-de-sac where I was parked.  Dawn was just about to break as I doffed my pack at 6:00 - a nice 3 hour night hike.  And of course, just then the wind decided to die down.

That was definitely a strange trip - but it was fun, and I was really impressed with my gear.  We'll see how much tougher the weather gets this winter.  I'm ready.

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