Wading Across New York

(This column was first published in the June 5, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    It has been some time since I have written about hikes along the Finger Lakes Trail. The reason is simple -- I have been on the trail very little the past two years. I hope to change that record and may even complete the trail this year. I have only a hundred miles to go.

    The Finger Lakes Trail runs from the Pennsylvania-New York border in Allegany State Park across New York's Southern Tier to the Catskill Mountains. There it meets the Long Path at the foot of Slide Mountain. The Long Path extends from the west end of the George Washington Bridge joining New York City to New Jersey north to John Boyd Thatcher Park near Albany. To further complicate matters, sections of the Finger Lakes Trail are being incorporated into the 4000 mile North Country Trail that begins in North Dakota and ends in northeastern New York.

    The main Finger Lakes Trail is just over 550 miles long and as I continue to age that designation is rapidly reversing to become long miles. I have hiked the Bruce Trail in Canada and sections of the Appalachian Trail and the Northville-Placid Trail, and I find the Finger Lakes Trail a tougher challenge than any of those others. Unfortunately for Finger Lakes Trail hikers the glaciers carved out north-south valleys and a cross-section picture of this trail would look like a roller-coaster. One of the ways that trail designers attack steep hills is by means of what are called switchbacks, paths that zigzag up hills in order to make the angle of attack less formidable. There are few of those on the Finger Lakes Trail.

    Forgetting those obstacles, I joined Rod Carpenter of Livonia for three days hiking sections of the trail between Ithaca and Cortland last week. It was not easy going. What made this hike an additional challenge was the condition of the footpath. While I am pleased that our two year drought has been broken, I was not happy to have had all that needed rain arrive just before and during our walk.

    Fellow hikers know how you attack inundated trails. At first you carefully pick your way from rock to rock or, where no such islands are available, you dance along the edge of the trail around the vast puddles and the temporary streams that treat the path as a riverbed. However, slowly but surely your boots fill with water, some of it draining down from your pants, sopped from the trailside foliage, and some of it coming in over your boot tops when you miss those islands.

    Soon you feel your feet sloshing inside your boots and eventually you find yourself walking in heavy buckets of water. Then your delicate approach is no longer of any avail and you simply slog along through the water. I long ago learned that there is little use in stopping to dump out your boots and wring out your socks. Relief is brief -- in minutes you are back in the same condition.

    Add to this the gnats hovering around my face and landing on my nose and ears and I found myself asking, What am I doing here? I promised myself never again to hike this wretched trail.

    But then I looked around. The woods were full of fresh ferns -- sensitive, Christmas, and New York ferns, evergreen woodferns and bracken. The forest floor was dotted with flowers like jack-in-the-pulpit and wild lily-of-the-valley. Birds called from treetops. And the vistas from hilltops were grand.

    It wasn't so bad after all and I was happy to slog on.-- Gerry Rising

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