Catskills

(This column was first published in the September 2, 1996 Buffalo News.)

The screeching started as darkness fell. The angry, high-pitched sound apparently issued from a spruce grove that reached down the mountainside to within a few yards of our campsite. The noise continued for only about a half minute, but the session was repeated every hour or so through the entire night. I awoke to the screams at dawn.

During the night Jim DeWan and I made separate forays into the woods searching for our off-key songster, but neither of us found anything. Our flashlight beams picked out dead branches and swollen galls among the needles, but they also intensified the shadows and made the forest itself menacing.

I am reasonably certain that our screamer was a bobcat, and that was quite appropriate because, after all, we were in the midst of the Catskills. Kill in that Old Dutch country means stream or creek. We hiked, for example, for many miles up Beaver Kill, a stream that flows into the East Branch of the Delaware River. Thus Catskill means cat's creek. Our nighttime serenader was simply introducing us to its domain.

Well, perhaps. More likely it sought to attract a mate. Bobcats usually breed in springtime, but they are known to pair up at any time of year. Although they are felines like house cats, bobcats are twice their size. They have distinctive facial ruffs and barring on their bobbed tails. Not just found in the Catskills, they are widely distributed across the United States, southern Canada and Mexico. However, much of the Niagara Frontier is in an area where they are rare that extends south of the Great Lakes all the way to eastern South Dakota.

Five of us were hiking the 63 mile Catskill section of the Finger Lakes Trail. DeWan and Ed Sidote served as both our guides and our support team. Both are "end-to-enders'', which means they have walked the entire 548 mile trail. Ed was among the first to accomplish this feat. Jim made his trek more recently in a single 46 day hike. They and my fellow hikers made what was for me a challenge at the very limit of my ability into a wonderful outing.

We were a diverse group, four men and one woman, Mary Years of Newark, New York. Mary has six children, 14 grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren and now us four pseudo-kids. Hardly more than five feet tall, she matched us six footers with her two paces to our one. And no wonder. Mary took up hiking after her children had grown up, but she did so with a vengeance, backpacking the entire 2100 mile Appalachian Trail. On a whim she then entered the state seniors' power walking competition and won first the silver medal and the next year the gold. She was scheduled for the nationals when serious illness and major surgery forced her out of the walking. Next year she plans to compete again when her age group will be over 75.

The Catskills don't have bald tops like the Adirondacks, but they present plenty of ups and downs. Our trails took us through deep forests, past lovely ponds, down narrow valleys along swiftly flowing streams and occasionally around hollows -- pronounced hollers there -- with beaver-created marshes.

Although the woods in daytime were generally quiet, we found grouse, ravens and a few migrating warblers. Bear sign was everywhere, but we saw none. We did see many deer, the usual chipmunks and squirrels, and dozens of tiny salamanders, red efts. A feisty skunk, red eyes shining in the dark, visited another of our campsites.

And early on our final morning a barred owl hooted its farewell.