What does one make of a hike that begins at a graveyard? Only that the human lives, and deaths, that transpired here cannot be disentangled from the life of the place we enjoy on a perfect spring day, with the forest awakening around us. The graveyard is a small family plot, surrounded by hand-laid stone walls, bearing witness to the tenure of the Enderly family, who homesteaded and farmed this rocky outpost along the banks of the Coxing Kill, where they operated a water-powered sawmill for a little more than a century, beginning in 1801. Starting at Mohonk Preserve’s Coxing Entry, I began and ended a recent walk there, on the High Peters Kill trail, passing through a forested landscape that yielded a stubborn living to generations of people before becoming a preserve for the wildlife it supports, and the hikers and rock climbers for whom it is now a refuge from the pressures of modern life.
Leaving the parking lot, and passing the Enderly burial plot, I noticed the fresh green of unfurling fern fiddleheads and a tapestry of club mosses, ground pine and cedar, springing up from the forest floor on either side of the trail, along with the leaves of Canada mayflower, glowing in the sunlight like green candle flames. This rich ground cover, composed largely of plants whose lineage stretches back to the tree fern forests of the Coal Age, is a sign that the forest is healing itself after many decades of hard and sometimes destructive use by humans. Farther along the trail enters a different kind of forest, dominated by dark green hemlocks, the descendants of giant hemlock trees that were felled here as in many other valleys of the Shawangunks and Catskills to supply the tanning industry that boomed in the 19th century. As is typical of hemlock forests, the dense shade that prevails here makes ground cover very sparse, providing little forage for wildlife, though I heard the song of a black-throated green warbler as I passed through. This yellow-cheeked warbler, with it’s “trees, trees, murmuring trees” song, is a bird I’ve come to associate with hemlock woods at this time of year.
I traversed the narrow plank boardwalk through a pocket wetland, crossed a brook on a newly constructed footbridge and followed the blue-blazed trail to an old woods road, Kings Lane, once used for hauling loads of conglomerate to be made into grindstones, that now serves as a path for rock climbers to reach the cliffs of “Lost City.” Here the High Peters Kill trail turns south, paralleling an old stone fence. I paused to admire the newly opened white blossoms of wood anemone, and the jewel-like fringed polygala, or “gaywings.” The latter, with its two flaring petals, surprised me with its intense burst of magenta among the brown oak leaves, looking like an impossibly colorful winged insect in flight. It seemed fitting that I heard my first wood thrush song of the season fluting from the woods beyond as I stooped to savor these exquisite flower-gems.
The trail began to climb, steadily at first, then more steeply, through mountain laurel thickets up a series of stone steps to the rock ledges of Dickie Barre, the ridge that forms part of the divide between the watersheds of the Coxing Kill and the Peters Kill. A side trail along the cliff edge opened out to a sweeping vista of the Trapps and Skytop. On top, surrounded by pitch pine barrens, with a dense growth of flowering blueberry, I began to get good view of the Catskills to the north and west. In places the bare rock ledges are polished smooth by glacial scouring, and bear marks of the last Ice Age, striations and crescent-shaped chatter marks. Here the traces of human industry seem to yield to the shaping of the land by primal elements, tectonic forces and the freezing and thawing of water over vast reaches of geologic time.
I was glad to descend from bright sun and bare rock to the cool hemlock shade of the Peters Kill, which cascaded in rapids and falls and gathered in tea-brown pools where the geometric shadows of water striders shadowed the bottom. My return route from the Peters Kill parking area of Minneswaska State Park was by way of the white-blazed Bull Wheel trail, beginning near the base of an old ski trail, and climbing up to a heath-like plateau where blueberry flower-bells dangled above reindeer lichen encrusting the bedrock outcrops, while brown rock tripe lichen stuccoes the boulders and cliff faces. The park has placed signs here advising hikers to stay on the trail, due to the ecologically sensitive nature of the terrain. Like the Enderlys and other early settlers in this area, the lichens that grow here are pioneers, the first to colonize the obdurate surface of bare conglomerate. These primitive plants, both fungus and algae, are symbols of life’s tenacity and toughness, growing where nothing else can. Yet their foothold is fragile as well, so we who pass among them must tread lightly and with care, or we risk scarring this land with our hiking boots as those who came before us did with their stone boats, grazing animals and crosscut saws.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.