Leap year — ideas for an extra day
Guest Blogger: Gail Testa
Whenever I have some free time on my hands, there are two things I think of doing: Taking a bike ride or hiking a trail somewhere in this beautiful place we live in. Since it’s currently winter and riding a bike on icy roads or in temperatures below freezing are not very enticing, my choice for what to do with my leap day was to take a walk in the woods.
Being somewhat of an introvert, I enjoy solitary activities like cycling or taking quiet walks in the woods. In the 40 years since I’ve lived in the Adirondacks or have been visiting the area I thought I had hiked, climbed, and explored most of the area. Five years ago I heard about the organization Champlain Area Trails (CATS) and discovered an entirely unexplored (at least by me) part of the region.
Short hikes, easy terrain
In the interest of full disclosure, I must start by telling you that I now happily work for CATS and have for a little over three years. My husband, Ron, and I moved to the Adirondacks full time 10 years ago, and after a few years of hiking the High Peaks trails I found my knees were no longer allowing me to traverse those steep inclines. Well, actually, I could hike up the mountains without too much effort, but I couldn’t get back down as easily, and getting back down a mountain is a very important part of the overall hike. The CATS trails, however, are located in the Lake Champlain Region, where the trails are known to be short hikes on easy terrain. Perfect!
CATS has a map that lists all of the trails in the Lake Champlain Region. Being a person who loves to make to-do lists, and then check things off the list once they are accomplished, I quickly decided I would hike all of the CATS trails, checking them off as I did them. I had, at one time, decided to hike all the High Peaks, but sadly never got completely through that list. But this was one list I knew I'd be able to complete.
My first CATS trail was probably one of the prettiest and most popular of their trails, the Wildway Overlook. It was a gentle grade up to a beautiful overlook of Lake Champlain, the Champlain Valley, and Vermont’s Green Mountains. I sat on a rock at the top, ate my snack, and absorbed the beauty of a part of the Adirondacks I had never seen before. It only took me about 30 minutes to walk to the top and it was easy on my knees coming back down. I felt so good after completing that hike I decided to check out another of their trails that, according to the map, was only a short distance away.
The Brookfield Headwaters Trail is a short loop with a view of a different kind. For me, hiking was always about the reward at the end. I persevered through the heat or the cold, the climb, and the achy knees to get to the top of that mountain to enjoy the reward — the magnificent view. As I took my time and walked along the Brookfield Headwaters Trail I found mushrooms growing along the path, clusters of beautiful ferns I’d never seen before, an intricately constructed beaver pond, and many beautiful birds. What a view, and wow! I was able to check two trails off of my list in one day!
One of the things that first interested me about the CATS trails was the idea of hamlet-to-hamlet hiking. I first heard about hiking from town to town while reading a book about a woman’s adventures as she hiked the trails in England, stopping for a night or two at country inns and bed and breakfasts along the way. I dreamed about taking such a vacation someday. I was excited to hear that CATS was making it possible for people to do that right here in and around the Adirondack Coast! So when CATS had their first organized hamlet-to-hamlet hike, walking from the town of Wadhams to Essex in Sept. 2012, I was there.
Hiking that first hamlet-to-hamlet hike made it possible for me to check several more of the CATS trails off of my list. We began by taking the Field and Forest Trail to the Beaver Flow Trail, with its beautiful moss covered rock ledges. Then we followed the Bobcat and Beaver Flow Trails to the Homestead Trail, then we were on to the Boquet Mountain Trail, and finally to the beautiful, but sometimes difficult, hike through the aptly named Rocky Ledges Trail.
I first walked the Black Kettle Farm Trail during a sunny summer day. It led through the woods to a very large and very old-but-beautiful tree I later learned the children at the nearby school referred to as the grandfather tree. It continued through a field with a lovely view. About a year later, I hiked it again at night on an Owl Prowl with my grandchildren, where we all listened to our guide as he taught us about the many different owls that live in the forest.
I took a longer hike on the Coon Mountain Trail with a friend. We sat on the top, looking out over the Champlain Valley toward the High Peaks in silence as we ate our lunch. One of CATS' shorter trails, the Lee Park Trail, is in the center of Westport, which allows me to get out of the office and stretch my legs during the workday. The Hidden Quarry Trail is another short, easy trail I often enjoy. It has the remains of an old rock quarry and cliffs overlooking a pond and is great for snowshoeing in the winter.
When my two grandsons came for a visit, we followed behind them as they almost ran the entire Cheney Mountain Trail to the top of the mountain, where three scenic views awaited: the High Peaks, the Champlain Valley, and Lake Champlain and the beautiful new Champlain Bridge and the Crown Point Historic Site, located at the base of the bridge.
During a recent visit with our son, his wife, and our two youngest grandchildren, we hiked the Art Farm Trail, which took us through fields loaded with sculptures by local artist Ted Cornell before entering the woods. The children also enjoyed a hike on the DaCy Meadow Farm Trail in Westport. We began the hike by walking the trail as it wound through the meadow and forest before going through fields, where the children could see farm animals.
Over the years I’ve been able to check other trails off of my list, including most of the trails in the Blueberry Trail network in my hometown of Elizabethtown. There's also the lovely little interpretive Footbridge Trail, which goes right behind my house. It's where I walk my dog Max almost daily. I particularly love it when I see groups of children walking on that trail with their parents or, while sitting on my back porch in the summer, I can hear the children beating the drum or ringing the bells as they walk along the trail.
So how did Ron and I decide to spend our extra day this year? We spent it hiking the Wildway Passage Trail.
It was quite cold for this year’s leap-day hike. Ron and I bundled up, brought along water and snacks, and after signing in at the trailhead we started our hike. There wasn’t enough snow to wear snowshoes, but we did wear crampons to give us a little extra stability on the icy spots along the path.
The Wildway Passage Trail is one of the newer CATS trails. It's located on property owned and protected by the organization. The trail loops through a peaceful forest, passes some interesting rock outcrops, crosses over a little stream several times, and has an overlook where hikers can look out over the Split Rock Wild Forest.
As we began our walk across the field and into the woods, I was immediately struck by the diversity of the forest. There were several different varieties of trees and many green ferns still visible along the trail, even in the middle of winter. Wherever the trail crossed the stream, a rustic bridge allowed us to cross without getting our feet wet. Ron and I took our time, walking and talking as we hiked the mile-and-a-half trail, passing a partially frozen waterfall glistening in the sunlight and an area that had been previously logged in preparation for a cluster of houses that will now not be built. It was interesting to see how quickly new growth had taken over that area. Soon, it will be difficult to tell where the area was cleared.
We climbed up onto a small rock outcrop where we sat, drank some water, and ate some fruit as we looked out onto Split Rock Wild Forest. It was a very cold day so we snuggled close, enjoying our time together and feeling grateful that we were able to live in such a beautiful place and that, in our mid 60s and 70s, we could still spend the day together, hiking and enjoying the outdoors. After a brief rest we continued on, winding up and down a few moderate hills before returning to our car just under two hours from when we started.
So, how did you spend your leap day? I definitely suggest spending it by hiking a CATS trail! Check it off of your to-do list! After your hike, why not go out to eat, go shopping, or visit one of the many attractions in the Champlain Valley?