Little peak has it all
By Gretel H. Schueller
Forget those forty-six peaks. While the lower peaks in New York’s central Champlain Valley may be more nublike in comparison, there are few places that offer such a rich and connected tapestry of forests, farms, and historic hamlets—and most important, grand views that tie it all together.
One of those is the Wildway Overlook Trail that gently climbs South Boquet Mountain. The trail is my steady go-to when visitors come, offering an easy introduction to the Champlain Valley with magnificent views. And for my young son, it’s an ideal kid’s hike with many wildlife rewards.
After the record rains and floods last spring, I felt, like many, an inescapable sogginess. I was desperate for sun and green, and I had family visiting. On one of spring’s first true balmy days, we took off for the Wildway Overlook Trail. The round trip through young forest is just over two miles—perfect for the two four-year-olds in the group.
At the trailhead along Brookfield Road grow mostly white pine and sumac, signs of a young forest. As we walk, the trail is mostly silent with flickering, intermittent bird song. Of course, with two four-year-olds ripping their way along the trail, you really can’t expect the opportunity for real wildlife encounters. But it turns out we would be surprised.
The animals might be staying clear of us, but we know they’re around. The trail is a “poo-poo highway,” as my son puts it. Coyotes, rabbits, and grouse had all left their mark. Maybe because Easter is in a couple days and the Easter bunny is on their minds, the kids are fascinated by the rabbit scat. They crumble up the green-tinted pebbles in their fingers, hoping to find something more than just digested grass.
As we walk, we hear what sounds like a Harley revving its motor. It’s loud and seems out of place—the love songs of the ruffed grouse. The male birds attract females by drumming, beating their wings loudly, often while on a fallen log. Their muffled thumps accelerate in tempo into a loud and rapid wup wup wup wup wup. It’s such a deep sound that you feel it vibrate right through you. The peak of the mating season is late April, so we’ve stumbled right into the middle of the lovefest.
No matter the season, we always encounter some wildlife. During a recent September hike, my son and I practically walked right into a porcupine snuffling along the trail. The prickly creature was oblivious to us, as we quietly watched him munch on tender shoots.
Just before coming to the overlook, the trail passes through a forest dominated by oak, hickory, and hornbeam trees growing on dry, limestone soils. Biologists call this an “open forest,” which means the trees are more widely spaced, thereby allowing more sunlight to reach the ground and a greater variety of grasses and flowers to grow. This forest community is one of the most biologically rich forest types in New York State. In the spring, the best time for exploring woodland flowers, we find clumps of spring beauties. With pale pink petals, this fragile flower is one of the earlier spring arrivals—and a sure sign that spring is here to stay. Like the flowers, we soak in the sun, recharging our batteries.
In the early fall, blue curls, a delicate plant with sticky blue flowers, are usually growing in the patches of sunlight. Even long after the flowers are gone, there’s still a balmy feel in the air. Unlike interior Adirondack peaks, winter arrives later here in the valley—a lake-effect benefit. For this reason, it’s a great late-fall outing.
The trail is just one of thirteen that winds through the central Champlain Valley. That number continues to grow thanks to Champlain Area Trails (CATS), a non-profit organization whose purpose is to develop and maintain trails that link local communities, connect people to nature, promote economic vitality, and protect habitat and scenic vistas. The trails cross public and private land. The organization’s immediate goal is the creation of a thirty-mile loop connecting Westport and Essex.
For little effort, the top of South Boquet offers a sweeping view of the Champlain Valley. Vermont’s Green Mountains are spread out before us, with Camel’s Hump clearly identifiable. In the foreground rests Lake Champlain. Looking to the southeast, you can see the Split Rock Wildway, an important wildlife corridor connecting Lake Champlain to the Adirondack Mountains. Farther south is Coon Mountain, another climb that offers great views for little effort. Facing southwest, you can just get a glimpse of the Adirondack foothills before trees obscure the view.
On the sun-warmed summit, an outcropping of ancient bedrock polished smooth by glaciers and now dappled with lichen, we spread our blanket and unpack our goods. We had stopped at the Dogwood Bakery in Wadhams before leaving and picked up freshly made sandwiches on homemade bread. The bakery makes a wide range of organic breads, such as sourdough, seven-grain, walnut-scallion, cranberry-pecan, and kalamata olive—all baked in a wood-fired oven. Of course, we couldn’t resist buying a half-dozen of their perfectly chewy-moist oatmeal-raisin cookies as well. The bakery has grown into a focal point for the hamlet of Wadhams: Friday night pizza nights are the social event.
Now, however, our social calendar includes some live entertainment. Swooping directly at eye-level in front of us are four turkey vultures, riding the thermal currents—rising columns of warm air—like joyriding teenagers. Because of their light weight, turkey vultures can virtually float in the sky using the thermals to get around. This technique uses so little energy that the vultures rarely need to flap their wings.
Turkey vultures have been reported by aircraft pilots to rise as high as twenty thousand feet—fortunately for us, on this day, they’ve chosen the top of South Boquet as their flight altitude, which is about 1,200 feet. It’s a front-row seat to the birds. I wonder if they can smell the bacon in my sandwich. Turkey vultures have an extraordinary sense of smell and can detect carrion from more than a mile away.
This solid mountain is rooted to the history that surrounds it. In the 1800s, the patchwork of farm fields and meadows below us were full of grazing merino sheep. Many stonewalls remain from those former pastures. In the distance, lies the Octagonal Schoolhouse, perched on a small knoll along Route 22 in the hamlet of Boquet. In the early nineteenth century, octagonal schoolhouses were popular. However, most of the surviving examples are in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Built in 1826, the Boquet example is the oldest octagonal schoolhouse in New York and operated as a school until 1952.
A straight shot down the eastern slope, the view blocked by trees and a rocky overhang, sits the farm where much of my food comes from: Full and By Farm, run by the energetic team of James Graves and Sara Kurak. It’s a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation: members pay for a share in the farm at the beginning of the year in exchange for a selection of seasonal produce each week. Members reap both the risks and rewards of the farm and provide the farmers with some financial stability. Once the Bigelow family owned the land. In fact, in the early 1900s, their farm encompassed the land we’re sitting on right now. Back then there were more sugar maples on the eastern slopes, and the Bigelows made good use of them.
Although the maple trees available for tapping are no longer as plentiful—in part due to heavy logging several decades ago—there’s still plenty of syrup to be had. Sara and James have made great strides in the once-abandoned sugarbush, clearing an old trail, tapping trees, and collecting their first run in March 2011. In these days of plastic tubing and four-wheelers, they still collect the sap by bucket, with the help of two horses and a hand-built sled. Drive by the farm in mid- to late March and you’ll see clouds of sticky-sweet steam. The contraption built by James is probably not much different than what the Bigelow family used a hundred years ago. After a cold winter, it’s a spa-like experience to stand above the boiling sap and let that aromatic vapor warm you to the core.
Our sunny hike and picnic have been equally restorative. And the view is a quiet reminder of the deeply entwined connection between nature and history in this special valley.
DIRECTIONS: From Northway Exit 32, take Jersey Street from the off-ramp east about 5 miles to Brookfield Road. Bear right and go 0.7 miles. There is no formal parking area, so look carefully on the left for the green and white CATS sign nailed to trees.