November is an understated month, its grays and browns predominant in the forest now that the trees have mostly shed their brilliant autumnal foliage. It is also perhaps the least appreciated month among hikers. And Illinois Mountain, in the Town of Lloyd close to the Hamlet of Highland, is a lesser-known destination in the Hudson Valley, with a trail system developed and maintained by Scenic Hudson that is still a work in progress. So it didn’t come as a surprise to me when, on a walk I took there recently, I had the trails entirely to myself.
Illinois Mountain’s trails are reached from Berean Park, a town facility that offers a small lake for swimming, a playground and picnic areas. I parked near a gate bearing an “American Tower” sign (the steel towers atop Illinois mountain are conspicuous throughout our area). I paused here to contemplate an older, wooden sign, announcing that this was Highland Water District property (the Highland water plant buildings are close by), and listing prohibited activities. To wit, “NO HUNTING, NO FISHING, NO HIKING, NO BIKING, NO DIRT BIKING, NO TRESPASSING.” Not an especially welcoming invitation to explore the area, l must admit, but I was encouraged by Scenic Hudson’s small sign on the other side of the gate, with its aerial photograph showing the red, white, and blue walking trails that lead away from the winding dirt road that climbs the mountain, passing a series of impoundments on its way to the towers. The rattle of a belted kingfisher from the lake reminded me that “NO BIRD WATCHING” had been left off the water district’s sign. Properly admonished, but nonetheless intrigued, I walked around the gate and followed the road till I found three white discs on a tree, designating the start of the white trail, 0.82 miles long.
Along the roadside near the gate, I found the winter rosettes of the common mullein, whose fuzzy leaves feel like thick flannel. Native people used these soft leaves as moccasin-liners, and they are about the right size and shape for that purpose. Examine a leaf carefully, and you will see that its woolly surface is covered by thousands of tiny branched spines, that glisten in sunlight like frost crystals. Quaker girls, not allowed to use makeup, are said to have reddened their cheeks by rubbing them with mullein leaves, hence the plant’s folkloric name, “Quaker rouge.” This practice, since it involved the breaking of many tiny blood vessels under the skin, sometimes also produced dark bruises on the girls’ cheeks the next day.
The downy, antler like branches of staghorn sumac, backlit by the low sun, look like glowing wires. There is a stand of invasive Japanese knotweed along the road here as well, its leaves browned by frost, with jointed, hollow stems and wiry seed stalks that branch like a form of coral. Japanese knotweed, though a noxious weed that usurps habitat from native plant species in some places, has a long history of edible and medicinal use in Japan. The roots contain resveratrol, a substance also found in red wine that is known to be beneficial to the cardiovascular system. It is now being tried by some as a treatment for Lyme disease (carried by another invasive species, the deer tick, that thrives in similar habitats) with encouraging results.
I took the tower road uphill to a sharp bend, just past an impoundment, and turned into the woods on the white-blazed trail that began there. This trail followed the grain of the landscape, snaking back and forth between long ridges whose ledge rock is 450 million year old grey shale and siltstone, partly metamorphosed by heat and pressure so that it has a hard, slaty character in places. Much of the pleasure in walking the November woods here is the way bare trees allow the eye to rove between things near at hand and in the distance. Intimate views of the forest floor, with its wood ferns dark green against the brown litter of oak leaves and mats of delicate fern-leaf moss carpeting rotting logs, alternate with sweeping vistas of the lake below, and the Hamlet of Highland and banks of the Hudson further off. A series of vernal ponds in the foreground that invites exploration now would have been hidden from view in the summer.
There are an unusual number of ironwood or hop hornbeam trees in these woods, easily recognized by their distinctive thin-shredded bark. They are usually a minor player in our forests, but here they are almost a dominant species. American beech trees in this forest are almost all dead or dying from beech bark disease, brought on by an exotic scale insect in combination with a fungus. Why are these beeches so affected, and those near Duck pond at Mohonk Preserve hardly at all? I can only guess what invisible environmental stresses make trees less resistant to disease in one place than in another.
I returned to the lake area by way of the red trail, which branches off from the white trail. As I rounded the shore at the swim beach, I admired a fine stand of aspen trees, their greenish-white trunks gleaming on the opposite shore, where the sun was setting. Since aspen bark is the favorite food of beavers, I wondered why there is no sign of them here, with such perfect habitat. Could I have missed a line on that sign? Did it also say, “NO BEAVERS?”
Illinois Mountain trails are reached from Berean Park, on Reservoir Road, off Route 44-55 (Vineyard Avenue), about one-half mile west from Route 9W in the Hamlet of Highland.