Family Outing


(This 1171st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 1, 2013.)


The McConnells at the Stony Creek Lean-to


With his permission I offer an excerpted hike report by Terry McConnell of Pompey, New York:


With my daughter Erin heading off to college in the fall, it is a bittersweet time, but I have a brainstorm. Why not combine the traditional summer family vacation with a hike of the Allegany State Park section of the Finger Lakes Trail, one of the harder ones by reputation?


My wife Patti and Erin graciously agree and we head for the Stone Mountain Chalets near Ellicottville. As expected, our least-expensive chalet turns out to be basic, but it is clean, well-equipped, and the couple who manage it are helpful and friendly to hikers.


The FLT begins at the Pennsylvania-New York border, but it can be accessed only by a 1.1 mile section that starts on a Pennsylvania highway. Then at 21.1 miles, the section we will hike is a bit on the long side, and there is a lot of up and down. The main problem is inaccessibility and logistics. The lean-tos are spaced about seven miles apart, meaning either a long day followed by a short one, or a short day followed by a long one. I'm the sort who likes to get the hard work over with early, so we plan to hike 13.6 miles with heavy packs the first day; eat, drink, be merry, and burn fuel like mad at the Stony Brook lean-to; then carry the (somewhat) lightened packs the remaining 7.5 miles on day two.


Unfortunately, I have neglected three considerations: (1) I'm out of shape, especially for carrying a heavy
pack 13 miles. (2) This is a family vacation, and on family vacations you want to have fun. Consequently, we had packed lots of unnecessary stuff - wine, extra fuel, pillows (!), too much food, a drop cloth that turned out to be an extra tent I didn't even know I owned, board games, a shovel, clothing for all possible types of weather, too heavy sleeping bags. (3) My daughter and wife - both incredibly fit distance runners - are not hikers, much less used to carrying heavy backpacks.


I find myself three quarters of a mile up the seemingly endless slow climb from our start with both abductors already killing me from my absurdly heavy and ill-balanced load. The silence behind me tells me there is dissension in the ranks. We're not even at the start of the FLT and already I feel like quitting! But grimly, we press on.


Near mile three Patti, no whiner, complains that her feet are really hurting. A bit later, on the steep switch-backed descent to the first lean-to, she slips and lands with both hands in a patch of nettles. Her hands are blistered and red. I begin to sense there is no lean-to big enough for the three of us.


By the time we reach that first lean-to I am really concerned about Patti's feet but she discovers she has packed some Advil and feels better after taking some. It dawns on me that there is no real need to carry the packs to the car on day two. We can drop them at the park road to be retrieved later. Thus encouraged, we suck it up and continue, arriving completely knackered at the Stony Creek lean-to around 6 p.m.


It is a beautiful place, and we have it to ourselves. The dried meals and wine taste wonderful after the hard day's hike. It is cold, crisp, windless, and I snuggle in the sleeping bag with no load at all on my shoulders. The dense skein of stars against the coal-black sky makes my throat ache. The silence is broken only by the subtle trickle of a spring near the bivouac area. Could life get any better?


In the morning we are sore, but after we reach the road we have no load to carry and the remaining miles fly by. We finish well ahead of schedule.


Since we had dropped our gear, we must retrieve it. Unfortunately, the entry attendant enforces the park use fee, so I pay $7 not to carry a pack.


In the end it is the kind of family bonding experience through shared adversity that one comes to treasure.-- Gerry Rising