Submitted by guest blogger Troy Thomas
Champlain Area Trails, or CATS, clearly states their mission on the website, which is simple and beautiful — saving land, making trails.
Here in Elizabethtown, a scenic, 30-minute drive from the Lake Champlain to the east or Lake Placid to the north, you'll find the the Blueberry Hill Trail system. This is a lovely wooded network of interconnected trails, for every member of your family to enjoy year round.
If this parking area had not been plowed out from our recent snows, alternate parking would be located further up Lord Road to Roscoe Road and Bronson Way, where you can park at multiple trailheads connected to this one. Do not take any chances.
Even with my four-wheel drive vehicle, I take precautions such as going to the CATS website and planning alternate hiking trails nearby just in case. Getting your vehicle stuck in deep snow or having it sticking out on the road is unsafe and can lead to an annoying day instead of a healthy, fun experience.
Repeat after me: "Sign in, sign out." A lead pencil is customarily available in the register box. I’ve lived here most of my adult life and always leave word with someone about my plans, including when, where, and why. My main contact is usually my sister, since I jokingly tell her she’s obligated to miss me and look out for me. When I travel, I tell the front desk where I'm going, or I'll leave word with family or friends on social media. Bring your cell phone.This is a very large nature preserve with 30 interconnecting trails and two easily accessible summits interspersed with views along the way, so plan, take precautions, and you're guaranteed to have a fabulous time.
Here, at the head of the trail, while I'm still close to my vehicle, I take note of the weather. It’s 10 degrees, but dry and comfortable with no winds. I examine the terrain and conditions such as snow depth, and snow feel; is it wet, dry, powdery, crunchy? I decided to bring my traction cleats which can slip over my hiking shoes quite easily. I also put my snowshoes in my backpack in case of deepening snow conditions. If you have children or a small dog, a plastic sled is very useful to haul family and supplies and gear — and snacks! This can also help you comply with "pack it in, pack it out." I ask myself, "Will I stay dry and warm enough for up to one hour?" Extra dry socks in my backpack is my thing, how about you? "Suit up and gear up" is my outdoor recreation credo.
I studied the maps online a few days earlier on the CATS website. Parking and conditions here today allow me to stick to the plan, but I did have an alternate plan as well. Today I will be following the color-coded and numbered trails: #1, the Col. Holst Trail (0.7 miles) and #2, the Blueberry Hill Trail (0.5 miles). Combined I calculate it to be 1.2 miles and a full loop. This should be enough distance to reduce the guilt of any upcoming holiday indulgences. Take a hike here and work off the mulled wine, the chocolate covered cashews, the sea salt chocolate-covered caramels, and the Danish butter cookies.
Choose your path
Study the map, decide, and take a picture with a cellphone, or take advantage of the printable trail maps available online. Wherever you see a capital "P" on the map it designates parking and a trailhead, and all locations will be displayed on GPS. Do note, with the images on the map, this trail system allows snowmobiles, horseback in season, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and fat tire biking.
So keep in mind this is an all-purpose trail and you should make sure to keep an ear out. Or, as I have taught my son, there are a few military terms that are helpful in staying safe such as “check your six,” meaning look behind you periodically, or “head on a swivel,” a.k.a. checking all around you periodically. This is not hard to do because there are many beautiful things to see in nature. I find myself doing that naturally.
If you plan on running the trail with earbuds, which I admit, the right music can be both fun and motivational, keep these safety precautions in the front of your mind. When absent the sense of hearing, one must be even more vigilant.
Decision time. Either way my loop will lead me right back here, but straight ahead #1 is the Col. Holst trail — it's level and very appealing, to the right is #2 the Blueberry Hill Trail — it's very steep, and not very appealing at all. After careful consideration, with my holiday indulgences nagging me, it's time to eat a steep hill and feel the burn. So my loop, #2 to #1, will lead me back to this very spot as long as I keep making a series of left turns, or picture a counter-clockwise passage.
Halfway up this steep hill I realize if I were cross-country skiing, I would be carrying them for this portion of the hike. Only if you are skilled would I suggest cross-country skis here, because coming down this hill you will get a lot of momentum going for sure. I'd probably snowplow my skis all the way down.
Depending on your skillset, think carefully what gear you select to bring along. Again, it's skillset, conditions, and personal preference, but always be thinking a fair dose of safety and precaution along with lots of fun.
Whether it’s the name of the trail system or my holiday cravings rearing their ugly head, I can’t stop looking for blueberry bushes.
To the left, a trail marker tacked to a tree shows me the way: down and to the right takes me away from my counter-clockwise loop and deeper into the woods if I so choose, but not today. That’s where a picture of the map on my cell phone comes in handy to reassure and remind.
Ready for seconds
The arrow points me to another continuous left turn to stay in my loop and stay on track.
I think, only for a moment, about adding this to my fine rock collection at home, but I think better of it — this time!
Off of Blueberry Hill Trail where it levels off, there is a new foot trail called Lean-to. It is a 0.3-mile trail that winds steeply upward into a dense, attractive forest, ideal if you want to add in a little more climbing and improve your view. It’s up to you, it will tack on no more than an additional 15 minutes to your hike.
The trail is steeper than the above photograph can convey, the sun is warming the snow on the trail, and I find myself starting to slip, so I err on the side of caution and take the time to slip on my traction cleats. Still, to my personal preference, the snow is not deep enough for my snowshoes. If you're adept at cross-country skiing, this would be your time to coast all the way down to the parking area — what fun!
In only 45 minutes, I’ve dropped a couple of pounds and I didn’t fall down once — a win for me. I feel good and regret not adding the extra 15 minutes to my hike and ascending the new Lean-to trail and mounting the summit to take in the view, but maybe you can?