Carol's NY to MA AT Trip Report

TRIP REPORT: Appalachian Trail from Bear Mountain, NY to Dalton, MA 5/10-5/24/14

Tom Kloster, Dave Green and Carol Christensen (Parker) managed to complete this relatively easy stretch of the AT in mostly cool spring weather, avoiding rain on several nights by staying in motels. We had a bit of rain while hiking only on the first two days and on day 5.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of this trip was finding the endpoint where we would leave our cars. Becket MA is a crazy Bermuda Triangle where the GPS goes haywire, directing us to turn into dense roadless forests or over cliffs. Adding to the confusion are the bizarre street signs here; for example, we were stunned to arrive at the four-way intersection of Pleasant Ridge Rd and Pleasant Ridge Rd. Dave surmised that the city fathers just stuck up old surplus signs wherever a street sign might look good regardless of the name on it. After many false leads, we finally left our cars at the Cookie Lady’s farm in Becket and drove back to our start at Bear Mountain. There we began our hike, which took us through the Bear Mt. Zoo, passing by an imprisoned bear, woodchucks, foxes and porcupines, on our way to our first night’s stop, our campsite on the ballfield at the Graymoor Spiritual Center. These were luxurious digs, with a nearby sink, pavilion, and cold shower. As night approached, we were lulled to sleep in our tents by church bells chiming the hours and familiar hymns.

Day 2 was a 14.3 mile hike with 3300 feet of gain, to Fahnstock State Park (7:55-5:45). There are no shelters in this part of the AT over about a 35-mile stretch, so state park and private facilities serve as campsites. The park had not yet officially opened for the season, so it was ours alone. We emerged from the woods onto a deserted sandy beach on the shores of man-made Lake Canopis, lovely on a gray misty late afternoon, its placid waters surrounded by forests on all sides, and here we took a short break. Our campsite was less charming. Although free to AT hikers, it overlooked the Taconic Parkway, with the roar of giant semis rushing by in the night. Our tents were brightly lit by a glaring street light that added to the ambience. On the plus side, the hot shower hut was open, so we were able to maintain our cleanliness for another day, washing our clothes full of sweat from this one unusually warm day of our trip. Here during dinner we made the uncomfortable discovery that our fuel canister seemed unnaturally light and therefore was low on butane.

Day 3 was a 15 ½ mile walk to Morgan Stewart Shelter, with 3190 feet of gain. (7:55—3:45). The temperature had dropped overnight, so we walked in cool 60 degree sun with a light wind that was to continue for most of our trip. Climbing was more graded, the trails less rocky, as we left the tough climbs around Bear Mt., crossing many major highways on overpasses or underpasses. We passed the well-known RPG Shelter, which is unusually well constructed, with a front door, unwalled back (opening onto a broad covered porch for cooking), and a large spacious interior with bunk beds and table. The maintainer Ralph was working on the roof as we arrived, and Dave chatted with him. For 35 years he has maintained this shelter and the surrounding miles of trail, which we all agreed are better kept up than the NY segments to the west. Continuing on, we had lunch atop Shenandoah Mountain, with views down into a green valley dotted with large houses and a few dairy farms. Dave, following a long-standing pattern, got lost after he lingered behind eating lunch and wound up having to bushwhack to a point further up the trail. This is yet another spot that he will have to “go back to later.” Arriving at the shelter, we met a large group of backpackers on a reunion hike; they had all met as thru-hikers six years ago. We also talked to a pair of women who were section hiking, and one of them let Carol try her Hennessey hammock, which she had outfitted with additional insulation to keep warm at night. Although windy and cold, this site was plagued by black flies, and we had to wear our headnets during dinner. The water source was a rusty pump, from which one was supposed to fill water bottles by pumping the water into a plastic bucket stored at the shelter. However the bucket was cracked and leaked, so this became a tricky operation. On the plus side, one of the reunion hikers gave us an extra butane canister, so we no longer had to worry about running out of fuel.

Day 4, from Morgan Stewart Shelter to Ten Mile Shelter, was 19 miles, with 3400 feet of gain (8:20-7:20). We decided to hike an extra four miles, moving beyond our planned stopping point, after meeting some young guys who were planning to “PARTAY!” at that site with friends. We are too old for that sort of thing…. Anyway, it was a long day but enlivened by constantly changing scenery, as we walked over bog bridges and lengthy boardwalks where we saw red-winged blackbirds, through forests and swamps of cattails and skunk cabbage. We came to the railroad crossing in Pawling NY where the train stops for AT hikers once weekly, and Dave was crestfallen to discover that the hotdog cart mentioned in his trail guide was not there, it being too early in the season. Although we did some gentle climbing to rocky outcrops, most of the afternoon found us on soft pine-needle-floored trails meandering through second growth forest and along the edges of farm pastures dotted with dandelions and violets. En route, we encountered the signed Dover Oak, over 3 feet in diameter, as well as the anxiety-producing Nuclear Lake. Although it looked innocuous, it was apparently once the site of some sort of nuclear facility. As we passed by, Tom joked, “I feel warmer on the side facing the lake,” and we all laughed to imagine that camping here, there would be no need to light up our Jetboil, instead just throwing the food bag in the lake to cook. Ha ha, we like to amuse ourselves with witty banter en route! In the afternoon we crossed the border into CT. Our night’s camping spot, Ten Mile Shelter, was one of the most idyllic we have encountered. The log lean-to, which sleeps 6, looks out on a large rectangular field surrounded on three sides by forest blurred by fog, with a charming low dry stone wall running along the left side of the field. All was misty perfection, since we had left the black flies behind and had the shelter to ourselves. It was lovely to eat our dinners on the low bench outside the lean-to while looking out on the peaceful scene as night fell.

Day 5 from Ten Mile River into Kent, CT( for resupply) was 10 miles with 2350 feet of gain (8:10-1:30). On this pleasantly short day, we walked through intermittent light rain. This resulted in the appearance of numerous red efts, which craven reptile-murderer Tom could not seem to avoid squashing until Carol annoyingly began to point out every single one on the trail in advance of his tread. We climbed up and over mist-enshrouded Schaticoke Mountain and crossed Ten Mile River where it meets the Housatonic on a wide metal bridge. Here both rivers are broad and rocky, with lots of rapids; both looked pristine, though further down the Housatonic is quite polluted. We walked through lovely yellow-green forests of birch, aspen and oak just coming into leaf, with a ground cover of mossy green rocks, tiny bluets and wood geraniums, and we heard the calls of tufted titmice and towhees as we walked. Coming out of the woods on the outskirts of Kent, we passed the impressive buildings of the Kent School, a boarding school for affluent teens established in 1906. The town of Kent is quite obviously wealthy, and we were doubtful that we would find a coin-operated laudromat in such a place. But since we needed to do laundry, we asked around and finally located one, in an unsigned brick building hidden away from the more attractive colonial storefronts on Main Street. Since the dollar-to-quarter machine was broken, Carol was forced to walk into the local bank in her somewhat bedraggled hiking clothing. The bank is staffed by extremely chic, well dressed tellers, who said as soon as she entered,” You need quarters for the Laundromat, right?” Carol wasn’t sure if she looked like a trailer-park tenant or a penniless trail bum, so she tried to sound educated and affluent as she confirmed her need for quarters. If only she could have found a way to insert into the conversation her status as senior conservator at the National Gallery of Art! At any rate, laundry eventually done, our party enjoyed a dinner of pizza and beer at a local eatery and afterward a great night’s sleep in soft beds.

Day 6 was forecast to have torrential rain during the night, so, wimps that we are, we changed our itinerary, hiking 12 miles to Cornwall Bridge, CT (2600 feet of gain), to stay at the weird Hitching Post Motel, where the Indian owner would accept only cash and lent Carol his car to drive around town. Part of our hike on this day was rather strenuous, since it involved a very steep descent over the St. John’s Ledges, agony on Carol’s left knee. But it also involved a long 4-mile flat walk along the bank of the now placid Housatonic River that was a pleasant change from the Ledges. Just before lunch we encountered a guy in a sleeping bag and tarp set up under a fallen log right in the middle of the trail. We didn’t disturb him, concluding that if he were asleep we didn’t want to interrupt him and if he were dead, we could do nothing for him. Later in our hike we met his trail companion, who said “That sounds like something he would do.” This thru-hiker was a recent university graduate from Germany taking a break before his new job in Berlin starts. During our hike we saw the first of many white trilliums and a pink lady slipper.

Day 7 was a chore, 19 miles with 4540 feet of gain, from Cornwall Bridge to campsites above Limestone Spring Shelter (7:35-5:30). It was made longer by the fact that due to the torrential overnight rains, a wide stream not far from the beginning of our hike was uncrossable, so we had to retrace our steps and take a detour, adding a mile to an already long day. Although the weather was great, cool and sunny, there was a lot of climbing over 300-500-foot bumps, with poor trail markings, turn-blazes going in the wrong direction, unmarked turnoffs for shelters, and so on. We had walked only 7.5 miles by lunch, which we ate on top of the viewless Mt. Easter. We made better time in the afternoon along a flat stretch next to the Housatonic. Beginning to ascend, we passed an enormous wide and raging waterfall that turned out to be the overflow from the rains the night before; this impressive falls does not normally exist but was channeling run-off from the dam above. Here began a long climb through cow pastures toward Mt. Everett’s broad summit. Our destination shelter was ½ mile off the AT, but when we discovered it required climbing down a long and very steep drop-off, we stealth-camped off-trail in the sloping woods above the drop-off.

Day 8 found us moving northwest 13.3 miles, with 3030 feet of gain, to Laurel Spring Camp (8:20-3:50). We started our day emerging from the woods to Rand’s View, a picture-postcard scene encompassing red barns ,rolling pastureland, smalls copses of trees, and far distant hills. Although we were told by passing hikers that this is the best view on the AT, we disagreed, having already been on Franconia Ridge, McAfee Knob, the Roan Highlands, and in other scenic spots. We noted periodic boxes along the trail allegedly filled with trail maps, but upon opening several, Carol found only ants in one, and in the other a cryptic note “I am a potato.” We also crossed an old iron bridge with car barricades, upon which a Lord of the Rings lover had graffiti’d Gandalf’s warning to the Balrog, ” Thou Shalt Not Pass!” Skirting Salisbury, Ct, we began a climb toward one of the most scenic spots in Connecticut, Lion’s Head, with its gorgeous views down into the Housatonic Valley in all directions, revealing the sparkling Twin Lakes, and beyond them farmland and patches of forest. We were not finished ascending however, because after crossing a col, we climbed to Bear Mt (2316’), described on a plaque as the highest point in CT as of 1896 (Dave says this is in error, since he has been to the CT highpoint and this is not it). It was nevertheless a scenic spot, topped with a 7-foot cairn that was broad enough for several people to sit on (it was incorporated into a rocky ledge on the summit). There we encountered lots of dayhikers, one group with a black lab who insisted on bringing Carol large slobbery stones to play fetch with. After doing this for awhile, Carol had to pull out the hand sanitizer, while Dave sought to get as far away from the dog as possible. Next we descended a ¼ mile of steep rock, reaching Sage’s Ravine, a scenic gorge with a wild rushing brook dotted with deep pools that would be perfect for swimming on a warmer day. Here we crossed the border into Massachusetts. The trail ran along a high bank of the ravine, then ascended to Laurel Ridge, a crummy campsite where it was a challenge to make our tents fit inside the itsy-bitsy tent pads on a narrow rocky terrace above the AT trail reached by stone steps. Here we again encountered cooking problems, as Tom’s Jetboil began to flame out in an alarming manner. We resorted to our backup system, consisting of Carol’s Pocket Rocket and Dave’s pot.

Day 9 greeted us with perfect spring weather, as we hiked to our resupply destination, the Village Inn at S. Egremont MA (9.2 miles, 2100 feet of gain, 3600 feet of descent, 8:15-2:30). At first light we were glad to emerge from our tents, in which we all had rolled sideways throughout the night due to the slope of the tent pads. More gorgeous views were in store for us as we climbed steadily over a series of sideways striated rock outcrops to the summit of Race Mt. There we looked into the same valley that was visible from Lion’s Head, but from a different angle. Then after a drop into the saddle we climbed about 700 feet to the underwhelming Mt. Everett, which contained the foundations of a fire tower that operated from 1915 to 2002. Descending off the viewless summit, we came out onto a road a few miles from our inn. A kindly Obamaphile pulled over in her car and offered us a ride to the inn where we had reservations and where coincidentally, her son worked as a bartender. He was the cool and good-looking Darden whom we had met when dropping off our resupply packages before our hike began. The Obama-loving Penny Pitts was a lovely person, had hiked 400 miles of the trail after a calamitous divorce a few years before, and now often helped to shuttle hikers to and from the trailhead. She offered to pick us up a few hours later and drive us into Great Barrington, 5 miles away, where we had dinner in a Thai restaurant recommended by our inn hostess. In view of our need to eat dinner, Tom wisely refrained from embarking on a spirited defense of conservative values during our drive. Our inn hostess was also an interesting character, a former opera singer whose late husband was the conductor and later director of the NYC Opera. While Dave and Tom hung out with beers playing pool in the inn’s billiard room, she brought Carol into the music room and played several arias from La Boheme on the piano.

Day 10 was a 15.3 mile day, 3440 feet of gain, from South Egremont, MA to the Mt. Wilcox South Shelter. On this day Tom discarded his dysfunctional Jetboil. The inn owner drove us to the trailhead, where we began a hike that covered a broad spectrum of terrain, first walking along and then crossing the Housatonic, and later ascending East Mt. (no views). En route we passed a stone monument to Shay’s Rebellion, put down in 1787. Late in the afternoon we crossed Ice Gulch, so named on the map but which we couldn’t discern as a gulch. Tom commented that the design objective of the trail work and trail marking in this part of MA seems to be “better than nothing.” Lots of boggy areas were a mess and the signage was poor. In late afternoon we arrived at Mt. Wilcox South. It contains two shelters, one old and decrepit, and the other a new deluxe version with a second storey loft. Unfortunately the black flies returned on this night, so we decided to tent on the sites near the shelters rather than sleep in the leanto, where we would get bitten. Carol built a fire, allowed in shelters in this area, and this got rid of the black flies during dinner. Here we chatted with a young British section hiker, who plans to return next year to “run the AT unsupported”. We pointed out that this might not be easy while carrying a full pack, but his plan was to go off the trail each day for breakfast and dinner (!). Dave observed that there is no place to get daily meals while trekking through Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness, but he cheerfully explained that he would run the whole Wilderness in a single day, so he could get out in time for dinner. We surmised that he has not yet seen Maine . . .

One of the differences between the north and south segments of the AT is that the privies in the south have much more interesting graffiti, however Mt. Wilcox was the exception. Here an inscription in the privy read: “Make no covenant with evil – Isaiah. P.S – No psych issues after extensive evaluation.” Heh heh, so you say.

Day 11 was a long day of 17.3 miles, 3440 feet of gain, ending at MA Rte 20 and the Berkshire Mountain Lodge. The black flies had now come out in force and were annoying on this 70 degree day. This day’s hike included crossing a very long boardwalk over a swamp, as well as many sections of open woods of birch, beech and maple, alternating with huge stands of not-yet-blooming mountain laurel. Our last miles skirted the edge of Upper Goose Pond, a large long body of water owned by the AMC and looking more like a lake than a pond to us Virginians. We crossed I-90 on an immense overbuilt overpass only for AT hikers – you could drive a Hummer on this overpass. Once again there was a forecast of rain, so we hoofed it to a motel .1 mile off the trail where we cooked dinner on the cement veranda in front of our motel room.

Day 12, 9.4 miles to Becket MA (2000 feet of ascent). Anxious to get off the trail, Carol and Tom left the motel at 6:15 AM and made it to their cars by 11:45. Dave, intent on doing another 90 miles solo, headed out at a faster pace and reached the cars much earlier, since he had to get shuttled to Manchester VT and do 10 additional miles later that day. The trail was unremarkable, with many small ups and downs and many boggy sections. We were glad to arrive at the Cookie Lady’s farm, the end point, from which Carol and Tom drove back to the start at Bear Mt., where Tom’s car was parked. We felt a sense of accomplishment at having finished the whole 155 mile section with few mishaps, unlike a few previous backpacks. Now onward into Vermont!