To climb in elevation is equivalent, at least in terms of the plants, animals and even the weather one is likely to encounter, to going north. So we decided to visit Sam’s Point, at 2,255 feet in elevation the highest point in the northern Shawangunks, not to greet spring, which had teased us with signs of its arrival only to hide from us again, but for another “last” look at winter. After a snowfall that had only just dusted the Wallkill valley, the high plateau was wintry-looking indeed.
The path we took from the Nature Conservancy’s Conservation Center followed the loop road and then the trail leading to Verkeerder Kill Falls. The two inches or so of fine snow that covered, in many places, a layer of sheer ice on the ground, making walking (without crampons) a bit tricky, clearly showed the tracks of that mountain cousin of the Eastern cottontail rabbit, the snowshoe or varying hare. Like squirrels, members of the rabbit family plant their forefeet first and then swing their hind feet in front of them when they hop. This leaves a track pattern of four prints bunched together, with the longer hind prints forward. Except that in the case of squirrels, the four prints form a more or less symmetrical pattern and rabbit tracks take the shape of the letter “Y,” with the two forefeet one behind the other, not side by side. So these were definitely rabbit tracks. What distinguished them as snowshoe hare was the wider prints left by the hind feet. Some of these hind prints showed the toes spread out, giving the feet more surface area, like snowshoes, for which the animal is named.
Leaving the loop road, the trail to the falls climbs a bit, bringing us out onto the high plain of white Shawangunk conglomerate and Sam’s Point, where a curiously sinuous retaining wall encircles a large glacial erratic, perched near the cliff edge. What impressed us as much as the sweeping vista we enjoyed from this point was the unique character of the vegetation here. The word unique is perhaps as overused, and abused, as any in the language these days (“His home is one of most unique in the neighborhood.”). But it truly applies to the landscape of Sam’s Point: this forest of dwarf (less than 16 feet tall) pitch pine, with a dense understory of huckleberry, blueberry, sheep laurel, and red berry wintergreen, is “one of a kind.” According to the New York Natural Heritage Program, Sam’s Point plateau has the only known occurrence of “dwarf pine ridges” in the world!
The pitch pine is familiar to hikers in the Shawangunks, its dark-green, bristly profile, branches studded with stubby cones, so typical of the ridge. In other places, like Near Trapps, however, the pitch pines are larger, though still stunted by the elements, and sparser, not forming a dense forest as they do at Sam’s Point. Pitch pine cones persist for years, unlike those of other pines, without opening. They are serotinous, sealed shut with resin, until the heat of a fire opens them, releasing their seeds to germinate in the ashes. This adaptation, along with its ability, unique among conifers, to sprout new growth from its trunk, helps the pitch pine survive fires that kill off most other trees. In fact, the greatest threat to the survival of pitch pine-dominated communities in our area is the long-term suppression of all fires. That’s why Mohonk Preserve and the Nature Conservancy are working to preserve the fire-adapted communities of the ridge by developing the practice of controlled burning.
We had the feeling, making our way towards the falls on this still icy and snow-covered path, that we were on a kind of “sky island,” as Rebecca put it. High, remote and desolate, this plain felt like a place apart, where a natural community like no other has taken root and held on stubbornly against the plant and animal invasions that have beset most ecosystems in this region. What makes this dwarf pitch pine forest so compelling to me is that isolation didn’t provide it with a sheltered nook to grow in, but rather a harsh and forbidding environment. Wind-lashed and fire-scorched, in thin, sterile soil, these gnarled pines are true survivors, thriving where other plants can’t. It could be said that the elements themselves have pruned them, so their dwarf shapes result from a kind of wild bonsai. They are among the hardy pioneers of the plant world, and we felt privileged to walk in their midst. We didn’t reach the falls that day, running out of the time we had allotted for our walk, but we were not really disappointed. We were continually fascinated by our surroundings, as if they were truly exotic. We felt as Darwin might have felt encountering the plant and animal rarities of the Galapagos, except that we were so close to home.