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Hunter, Southwest Hunter, West Kill September 19, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, peakbagging.
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Bob looks worried instead of victorious

Fellow Smokies explorers, you would probably sneer at the notion of bushwhacking in the Catskills. Sneer not! The Catskills are the most misunderstood, overlooked, underestimated, and oversimplified mountain range in the U.S. I have many fond memories of my adventures working on the Catskill 3500s—all 35 of them, of which 16 are bushwhack peaks.

Since I have only been able to do local hikes lately (mainly MST sections near Asheville), I am going to time-travel back to May 29, 1996, when Bob and I knocked off three mighty Catskill peaks.

Our first goal was Hunter (4040′), the second highest in the Catskills and one of two that surpass 4000′. We drove into the lovely green Spruceton valley with its old, sometimes rundown, but always interesting farmhouses and cottages. Think of screened porches with rocking chairs, assorted lawn statuary, and carpenters’ ornamentation along the gables.

One of the things I like about the area is that its heyday as a vacation spot dates back to the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s. Therefore it has largely escaped the cookie-cutter construction and aesthetic cliches of many more recently developed vacation spots.

Hunter is also a ski resort. Its summit can be reached from several different directions by trail or even by walking up the ski slope itself. We followed the wide, rubbly Spruceton trail to its summit, climbing 2000′ in 2.7 miles. We reached the grassy clearing and rested. Unfortunately, since we were there during the single 10-year period that the fire tower was closed to the public in its 102-year history, we could not climb it. The tower was closed in 1989 and nearly demolished, but a movement sprang up to save it, and it was repaired and reopened in 2000.

Hunter Mountain fire tower (Wikipedia photo)

Now it was time to tackle the real challenge of the day, Southwest Hunter (3740′)—a bushwhack peak.  The difficulty lies in finding the right spot to leave the Devil’s Path and plunge into the spruce-fir forest, and then locating the actual high point along a wide, densely overgrown, nearly flat summit plateau. Some people describe SW Hunter as one of the most difficult bushwhacks on the peakbagging list.

We did beautifully. It was pure map-and-compass work. We followed a disciplined line through the thick evergreens, kept going…going…going…and walked right up to the summit canister! I’ve always enjoyed finding these canisters, whether on Catskill peaks, New Hampshire 100 Highest, or anywhere else. It’s a bit like doing an Easter egg hunt. You get to open up the canister (unless it’s winter and it’s frozen shut) and sign in with any comments you feel like making, and of course you skim through everyone else’s comments (“Getting attacked by gnats…went up wrong branch of the stream…lost map,” etc.)

As he always did with the Catskill registers, Bob drew a picture of a space ship and wrote, “You have been invaded by aliens from Massachusetts! Beware!” (A reference to the fact that no one from eastern Mass. went to the Catskills—except us.) I took the picture at top. When looking at Bob’s facial expression, bear in mind that his sole intent is to throw you off.

We then dropped off the northwest side into the valley of the West Kill, a beautiful stream. It made for delightful rockhopping.

Jenny on West Kill (the stream)

We maneuvered easily down its flat-topped rocks and eventually reached Diamond Notch. There we left the stream and picked up the Devil’s Path once again to climb 1300 vertical feet up to West Kill (3880′). It has a wonderful wide, smooth ledge near the summit with a commanding view to the southeast. The luminous green of spring had flooded the valleys and was marching its way up the slopes.

Bob on West Kill (the mountain)

The East Branch of the Neversink February 10, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking.
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Slide Mountain in earlier days

This is about a certain stream valley in the Catskills, the most misunderstood mountains in the United States.

The East Branch of the Neversink is cherished by two groups of people: trout fishermen and bushwhackers. Peakbaggers going after the 35 summits of the Catskill summits over 3500′ sometimes venture into this valley, although most of the peaks that ring it can be reached by easier directions, either by trail or by shorter bushwhacking routes.  The headwaters of the East Branch drain the following mountains: Table, Lone, Rocky, Balsam Cap, Friday, Cornell, and Slide.  (That is the sequence going counterclockwise around the valley.)  Of those, all can be reached by trail except for Lone, Rocky, Balsam Cap, and Friday.

Bushwhackers who want to explore the East Branch valley can do all kinds of variations.  You can pick off each of those peaks separately by going up the  tributaries, for instance going up the left fork of Donovan Brook to get to Lone, or you can do combinations of the peaks by connecting ridge sections between them.  You can do a peakbagging extravaganza including all of the mountains mentioned above by making a grand circle around the stream valley.  That is strenuous.

It was Bob who introduced me to the Catskills.  As hikers who lived in eastern Massachusetts, we weren’t really “supposed” to get interested in the Catskills.  We had the White Mountains, the Maine ranges, the Green Mountains, and the Berkshires closer at hand.  And if we wanted to venture into New York state, we would most certainly bypass the Catskills for the more glamorous Adirondacks—wouldn’t we?

But Bob believed in the Catskills.  It all went back to a camping trip he’d done when he was about 10 years old with his family at North Lake.  The place had cast a spell on him, even though his family had also camped in many other beautiful places in the northeast.  (It got to be kind of a joke with me.  We’d be driving along somewhere, just about anywhere, and Bob would point to a campground and say, “My family camped here.”)

Bob lured a lot of people into the web of the Catskills.  Mike, Margie, Adam, Meg, Lars, Steve… and me.  Some of the expeditions were for trout fishing and tubing.  Before I ever met Bob, he had already cracked a kneecap going tubing down the Esopus River.  What he and I did was mainly hiking, though I tagged along on some fishing excursions.

We did the Catskill 3500, and our bible was the guidebook by Lee McAllister and Myron Ochman, first published 1989 and I believe now out of print.  Bob and I had duplicate copies into which we each entered our list of bagged peaks.  I loved that book.  The writing was enthusiastic, even poetic at times.  And it had the most peculiar little black-and-white photos.  On p. 60 there is a photo of two damp, grubby cotton socks drying out on sticks in the ground.

There is a lot that could be said about our many adventures in the Catskills, and I plan to put in a post here and there about the best ones.  (When I get my boxes of photos out of storage next month, I’ll be able to scan some old pictures.)  But for now, here is something I wrote a few years ago.

Brook trout

East Branch of the Neversink

We crossed Deer Shanty Brook, stayed east, kept on

along the stream, searched out faint paths that ran

through groves of birch

and hemlock.  Footprints led through clearings where

thick sun-warmed tawny grasses grew like fur,

soft to the touch.

The stream was dark and clear with orange-red leaves

that drifted slowly over deep black pools

where one could catch

a trout.  Three worlds: the fish dives down, the leaf

glides past, the person idly wonders if

the leaf will reach

the sea.  So following the stream we found

the valley closing in, its sides inclined

at a steep pitch,

small spruces clinging tight to high moss walls.

The stream kept leading us toward its source.

We had to watch

the side streams, had to take a certain one,

follow it up to some dark green unknown.

We had to touch

a certain mountain.  As we went the streams

turned into secret pathways like long dreams

of breathless search.

# # #

"Autumn in the Catskills" by Thomas Cole