By Tim Rowland
Like George Carlin, I don’t have “pet peeves,” I have Major Bleeping Psychotic Hatreds.
And none more so than for outdoor-gear’s battery of straps, zippers, buckles, clasps, snaps, drawstrings, cords, hasps, clips, pins, hooks, ties, harnesses, ratchets and sundry fasteners that appear to have been engineered for the sole purpose of driving users insane.
In the back of my closet, unused and unlamented, is a raincoat with so many “technical features” — including three zippers up front, the purpose of two of which are unknown, and so many vent holes that it is impossible to put your arm in a sleeve on the first or second try without it popping out into mid-air — that instead of wearing it properly I would just drape it over my dome in a shawl-like way that earned me < 0 respect in the greater outdoor community.
So while I enjoy winter I am tortured by winter gear, and when the resplendent white snows give way to dull mousy browns and ash grays, I feel not regret but relief at the prospect of an unencumbered and strap-free American tomorrow.
For an early taste of terra firma, we headed to the Champlain Valley, where there is bare ground to be found on some of the Champlain Area Trails. In the town of Willsboro, 2.2 miles north of the hamlet of Essex is the Ancient Oaks Trail, which has recently been expanded and, if you’re just coming out of hibernation, makes for a fine opportunity to stretch the legs in an interesting hardwood forest.
The marked trailhead, with ample parking for three cars, is across Route 22 from Lake Champlain. With a storm front moving in, the lake was all dark and no-nonsense, with waves crashing into the stony shoreline from the south.
After a quick jaunt through the woods, the trail opens up into an expansive hayfield, where it skirts some wetlands and a pond before re-entering the forest a half-mile into the hike. This was once a turkey farm, and some of the original turkey barns are visible from the trail.
Here, re-entering the woods, was our first encounter with an Ancient Oak, a good four feet in diameter with a flush of mighty limbs reaching to the sky in a rather show-offy way that humbled neighboring hardwoods.
This would be the first of many A.O.s, although there were maybe even more ancient and equally impressive shagbark hickory specimens and some towering ash as well. At seven-tenths of a mile the trail arrives at a junction, which is the beginning of a loop, so either branch will bring you back to this point.
We went right, encountering more sizable specimens and eventually the fringe of a cattailed swamp. A few birds were starting to stir, and it won’t be long before the marsh will be alive with a symphony of peepers.
On the opposite side from the swamp some rock formations begin to appear, along with the last remnants of a stone foundation and multiple rusting artifacts from a time gone by. Whether this was an old dump or simply homestead chattel remaining from a long-gone cabin is hard to say.
At the mile-and-a-quarter mark is another junction. The original trail turns to the left and completes the loop. But a new trail to the right — not yet appearing on CATS maps — beckoned, and, well, we figured it had to go somewhere.
CATS director Chris Maron later confirmed that this is a new addition to the organization’s trail network, on property owned by Dick and Leanna DeNeale, who have graciously granted access to the public. Dick named it the Omkring Sumpen (Norwegian for “around the swamp) trail, which in my view makes it the best-named trail in all the Park.
An unexpected trail is like finding candy, and my brother and I put our full faith in it, trusting that it wouldn’t come out in Albany or someplace.
It omkring sumpened its way back to the original trail over the course of six-tenths of a mile. Wanting to catch the second half of the original loop (this will make sense when you’re there, honest) we retraced our route and completed the hike, meaning we had completed all trails with minimal backtracking.
All told, we walked 3.6 miles over ground that was flat as a pancake; the GPS said we had a total elevation gain of 49 feet, but even that wasn’t readily apparent.
On the way home it started to snow, and by the time I arrived the dingy brown fields were bathed in a gleaming blanket of white. Darn.