Bushwhacking in the Catskills
I’ve been on many hikes, but last weekend I did something I’ve never done before: bushwhack to a mountain summit.
Why, exactly, did I do this? After all, it’s not as if I have anything against trails. They make hiking, which is already difficult enough, easier. But the Catskill Mountain range is home to a number of trailless peaks, and if you want to hike all 35 mountains with an elevation of at least 3,500 feet, you must climb them. On Sunday my boyfriend and I set off for North Dome, a trailless peak in Greene County.
The first part of the hike was pretty easy: We followed a well-tended and well-trod trail for about a mile-and-a-half. Much of this path ran parallel to a river, which was very pleasant. When the trail turned away from the river, we got out our compasses, which we’d set at 270 degrees, and marched into the woods. I had never used a compass in this fashion before, but my boyfriend taught me how to take and follow bearings. We made our way through the woods slowly, pausing regularly to hold up our compasses and wait for the magnetic needle to align with 270 degrees. Then we would pick out an object about 20 to 50 feet in the distance, such as a tree or a rock, and make our way toward it, upon which we would stop and take another reading. This was a much more time-consuming process than simply walking along a trail, especially because we were clambering over brush, pushing our way through fallen trees and pulling ourselves up steep slopes and over large boulders. Our guidebook had advised us that the ascent could be “steep in parts,” and it wasn’t kidding. Whenever we came to an especially sharp scramble, we would mutter “Could be steep in parts” before tackling it.
Bushwhacking is hard. But what made this particular bushwhack hard were the pernicious species of plants we encountered. At first, they appeared to be some kind of thornbush, but I soon noticed that instead of thorns they had sharp hairs. And these hairs did more than prick us: They caused painful and intense itching that was reminiscent of a bad case of chicken pox. We had no idea what these horrible plants were, but they were everywhere. Eventually I could take no more and put on pants to protect my legs. When we got off the mountain I hopped online and discovered that the Catskills are full of stinging nettles, and that this was the plant that had caused us so much discomfort. Apparently the hairs of the stinging nettle are similar to a hypodermic needle, and they inject a painful mix of chemicals, including histamine, when touched.
I wouldn’t say that the stinging nettles ruined the hike — the hike was actually extremely rewarding, which I’ll get to — but they did serve as a reminder of the value of trails. One thing you can say about trails — they are usually cleared of toxic plants that make you feel like you’re going to break out in hives.
Our bushwhack was only about three-quarters of a mile, but I think it’s safe to say that it was one of the longest three-quarters of a mile I’ve ever hiked. By the time we arrived at the summit I felt exhausted, which is why I became somewhat irate when we didn’t immediately locate the orange canisters that hikers are supposed to sign to prove that they made it to the top of the trailless peak. “The canister should be easier to find,” I complained, as we roamed around the overgrown summit in search of the orange canister. “My father and I once spent 45 minutes looking for a canister,” my boyfriend informed. I decided that I wasn’t in the mood to continue the hunt, and found a comfortable place to eat some cheese and crackers. Consuming food revitalized me, and when we were done with our snack we decided to resume our search for the canister.
We soon located a trail, which we suspected had been created by hikers looking for the canister. “This is a good sign,” my boyfriend said. “Every time I’ve ever found a canister, it’s been near a tramped down area like this.” We followed the trail through the woods and up several bumps, and eventually it deposited us at a tree with a shelf nailed to it about six feet above the ground. We pulled the canister off the shelf, and wrote our names in the notebook contained inside. Though I had made my peace with the fact that we might not find the canister, finding it made me very happy.
I’ve done longer and more strenuous hikes, but few have given me a greater sense of accomplishment. I wouldn’t want all of my hikes to involve bushwhacking, using a compass and searching high and low for orange canisters. As I said earlier, I don’t have any objection to trails. But I’m looking forward to trying another trailless peak. North Dome was hard, but worth it. Minus the stinging nettles, of course.
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