For a sense of wildness in nature, in the spirit of adventure, one can travel far while hardly leaving home. There has been a human presence in forests, and on even the most rugged crags in the Hudson valley since the last Ice Age over ten thousand years ago. In the past few centuries, European cultures have displaced native people in our area, and have shaped the landscape to suit their purposes to a far greater extent than the Lenape, or the Paleo-Indian hunters before them, ever did. So we don’t have vast reaches of wilderness to get lost in here, but patches and pockets of wildness, where the dominion of our species seems a bit more tenuous, remain. One such wild patch is a fairly recent acquisition of Mohonk Preserve totaling 142.5 acres in the Town of Rosendale, known locally as Giant’s Ledges.
I had made a few forays into this tract on my own, but Miriam Patton, a veteran Mohonk Preserve school program volunteer, hike leader and longtime Rosendale resident, offered to show me some of the paths and byways she has been exploring for years. There is no substitute for local knowledge, so I gladly accepted her kind offer. On the morning of our walk we were joined by two of Miriam’s friends, Ann and Susan. We started walking south on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail from the newly restored, not-yet-open-to-foot-traffic bridge over the Rondout Creek. We veered off onto an unmarked trail to the right where a sign referred to New York’s role in protecting the land by means of the NYS Environmental Benefit Fund. We passed through hardwood forest, largely red and sugar maple, with the songs of scarlet tanagers ringing through the canopy. The scarlet tanager’s rough-edged voice, “like a robin with a sore throat” as one of my birding mentors used to say, is always a hopeful sound to my ears, as its penchant for unbroken stretches of forest suggests a greater degree of wildness wherever it is heard.
Continuing on, we left the deciduous woods to enter a stand of conifers, mostly tall pitch pines, unlike the scraggly, weather beaten specimens I’m used to seeing on the Shawangunks’ exposed ridges. The ground felt soft underfoot, as if carpeted, which indeed it was, by decades of shed pine needles. Where the trail we were following began to climb more steeply, a less distinct path diverged to the left. I followed Miriam that way, while Ann and Susan headed straight uphill on the main trail. An unusual oak, whose roots straddled a cleft conglomerate boulder, marked this junction. It grappled the rock in a kind of muscular clench, splitting and holding it together at the same time. The forest floor was damp and mossy along our path, and I stepped over a bright orange salamander. This was a red eft, the immature, land-dwelling form of the aquatic Eastern red-spotted newt, whose conspicuous hue is “warning coloration,” like that of the Monarch butterfly, announcing the toxicity of the animal’s skin to would-be predators. This forest’s understory was mostly witch hazel, many of whose leaves bore cone-shaped swellings, called “galls.” Witch hazel galls are caused by aphids, and suggest the pointed hats of witches in children’s books. And the place did feel remote and somehow enchanted, if not actually bewitched.
After leaving the path for a view to the east of the Marlboro mountains, we turned uphill, rejoining Miriam’s friends at the bare rock outcrop that gives the place its name, “Giant’s Ledges” (not to be confused with Giant Ledge in the Catskills, near Slide Mountain). We were greeted there by the cries of two red-shouldered hawks, who wheeled over our heads and took turns diving at each other in an aerial ballet that I thought must be either about breeding (though nesting for hawks is well underway by now) or territory, or both. While the hawks soared above us, 50-foot chasms gaped in the bedrock at our feet, and a massive, but oddly balanced, group of glacial erratics poised on the outcrop like a piece of rock sculpture. This assemblage enhanced the mythic quality of the place, as though it had been inhabited by a race of giants, like those who battled Zeus in Greek mythology, piling gigantic stones up as they tried to reach Olympus. The fractured and glacially-polished outcrop evoked titanic forces within the earth’s crust and the grinding of the continental ice sheet, and its deep fissures spoke of millennia of freeze and thaw that had wedged the stones apart. But the pitch pine, mountain laurel and blueberry barrens colonizing the expanse of rock showed how tenacious life must be to persist here, and how fragile its foothold in a place like this.
We are graced with many fine preserves in our region, with good, easy to follow trails, and I am grateful for all of them. But I’m also grateful for unmarked and unmapped retreats, hinterlands where one has to find, or make, one’s own way through the woods, and where there is room for further exploration. Such places are scarce, and getting scarcer, in our well-traveled part of the world, and I can only hope that the signs and trail blazes that will inevitably come to this one do not rob it of all of its mystery and magic, or of its essential wildness. I saw no humans at Giant’s Ledges on my last visit there, but wondered whether the unseen eyes of a bobcat might be watching me from a hidden den among the rocks as I made my way down them.
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. ++
Into the woods
This week’s featured outings at the Mohonk Preserve, Minnewaska State Park and beyond. Seek out, discover and learn about local trails and other recreational activities located right in your own backyard.
Lake Minnewaska beach opens for season
The swimming beach at Lake Minnewaska will open on Saturday, June 15. The small beach, which is located along the northwestern shore of Lake Minnewaska, will be open seven days per week until Labor Day, staff and weather permitting. For additional information, call 255-0752.
Lake Awosting beach opens for weekend
The swimming beach at Lake Awosting will be open on Saturday, June 15 and Sunday, June 16 from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The swimming season will open seven days per week through Labor Day starting on June 22. This beach, which is located approximately four miles by foot or bike from the Wildmere parking area, features a smooth rock slab beach on Lake Awosting. For additional information, call 255-0752.
Mountain laurel walk in the Peter’s Kill area
On Saturday, June 15 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., join a park naturalist for a walk down to the cool edges of the Peter’s Kill stream to look for blooming mountain laurel. This one-and-a-half-mile loop trail does include a steep hill to climb and also a scenic view over the Rondout Valley and the Catskill Mountains. This outing meets at the Peter’s Kill parking area. Pre-registration is required and can be made by calling 255-0752.
Mountain laurel hike on Beacon Hill
It’s the traditional time for the mountain laurel bushes to bloom, so join environmental educator Laura Conner on Sunday, June 16 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for a one-and-a-half-mile long loop hike to view the expected burst of blooms. This modest hike follows along a combination of carriage roads and a hiking trail and should offer both scenic views and glorious pink and white flowers. Pre-registration is required and can be made by calling 255-0752.
Early morning birders
Birding enthusiasts are invited to meet on Tuesday, June 18 at 7 a.m. for an outing led by experienced birding volunteers and park naturalists. Participants will meet at the Minnewaska main entrance and should come prepared with binoculars. Outing destinations will be determined the day of the program.