September 24, 2010
My original intention for today’s foray into the woods was to do it with my best friend Rich D’Ambrosio. In all the time I’ve known Rich, I had only run trails with him once (a couple of years ago in the Black Rock Forest), so I thought we were quite overdue. I mentioned to him that I would be returning from New York City on Friday afternoon, and that perhaps he could meet me off the train and we could do a “short” (relative term) run on the trail. The run I had in mind would probably warrant putting one car at the end, and then driving back to the starting point upon finishing. As it turned out, Rich needed to travel to the city on this day, so I decided to do this run alone as a point-to-point rather than pick a new route. It would mean a two-mile run along the road after finishing up the trail segment, but with all the running I had done over the past two months, these two miles seemed almost inconsequential.
I had had the foresight to leave my trail run clothes and ancillary supplies (Hydrapak, Powerade, etc.) in the car, so there was no need for me to go back home first. And so, after arriving at the Harriman train station, I hopped into Maxine (my pet name for my 2006 White Nissan Maxima) and headed straight to Elk Pen. Elk Pen is a short but interesting story in itself. Back in 1919, Major William Welch – a notable engineer/architect who helped develop much of the park’s beauty and appeal, decided to bring in 75 elk from Yellowstone Park, and they would be caged in a broad swath of land located between the hamlets of Arden and Southfields. The elk roamed pleasurably here for years, but were eventually taken out in 1942. Ever afterward, this area remains known as Elk Pen.
Arriving in the Elk Pen parking lot, I saw only a few cars, which was to be expected this late in the afternoon, and especially on a weekday, no less. It was hot, but I hadn’t realized just how hot until I got warmed up. The run began as a slow trot across the meadow grass of the Elk Pen, which eventually brought me into the woods, and to the beginning of the Stahahe Brook Trail. Its northern half is a flat woods trail, and the going was easy and carefree. No rises to climb or cumbersome rocks and roots to have to be careful not to trip over. But once I crossed the brook itself, I began to ascend the northern side of Green Pond Mountain. The footing was still fairly non-technical at this point, but the climb was somewhat steep, and it called my attention to the heat almost immediately. I can tell you that I was certainly glad that I’d filled my Hydrapak to the 50 oz. mark, as I realized only now that I would probably need all of it!
After just a short while longer, I reached the terminus of the Stahahe Brook Trail, and made a turn east onto the Nurian Trail. I love the name of this trail. It has an almost regal, Roman sound to it, and in a weird sort of way, I felt a sense of pride running this trail for what would be the second and final time. The trail brought me over the Stahahe Brook once again, this time via a somewhat ramshackle bridge that had a downed tree lying over the top of it. Beyond the bridge, I began the next portion of this three-part climb today. The trail became a long series of switchbacks, just as one would see in the mountains of the western U.S. As I knew full well, switchbacks are the hallmark of a steep climb, so I knew I had a challenging stretch ahead of me! According to my trail map, it appeared that I was on my way up the eastern ridge of Stahahe High Peak. I had climbed this mountain from the other side a couple of weeks earlier with my two boys, and we had had a very enjoyable acorn war that day.
Which brings to mind something that I had been experiencing more of in recent trail runs. Acorns have been dropping from the trees in very large numbers, especially in the past two weeks. It has been a constant stream, so much so that I have sometimes felt as though I was under fire in a war zone. LOL! And in addition to the rocks and roots that I have been navigating, there is a veritable minefield of acorns on the ground, and if you’re not careful, a cluster of them could take you down on your ass the same way a patch of ice might on a frozen winter road.
Nearing the top of the mountain I traversed the Valley of the Boulders. As advertised, this area was strewn with many rocks, some small, some large, and some even larger! On the scale of a glacier that once covered thousands upon thousands of square miles in this part of the country during the last Ice Age, these rocks were but a few specks of celestial dust. But to a 5′ 7″ man here in Harriman, NY, these were some pretty good sized fellas.
Upon cresting the mountain, I descended softly into a small clove before finally reaching the junction of the Dunning Trail. Knowing that I would be visiting this section of the Dunning Trail a short while later, I barely gave it a glance. Continuing on the Nurian Trail now, I passed through an area of tall growth (almost head high), which I thought a bit unusual for a mountaintop here in the park. The trail twisted and turned amid this high ground cover – reminding me of a Formula One racing course – before finally meeting with the junction of the White Bar Trail. The White Bar was familiar ground, as it’s one of the trails that I have already completed end-to-end, but I had conveniently forgotten that this section of trail was mainly uphill. It didn’t sit well with me as I felt my body temperature continue to rise in this 80+ degree heat, but after briefly exclaiming “Oh, come ON!” I trudged on.
I jumped over a gorge and had passed the turn for the Dunning Trail before I realized that I was seeing both yellow AND white trail blazes, so I backtracked, found the Dunning Trail junction, and began the trip back toward civilization. Following the Dunning Trail back was essentially just the reverse of what the Nurian Trail had been going out in terms of the terrain, with two exceptions. First, the trail took me past an old iron mine called the Boston Mine. I had passed a number of mines on the trails of the park, but this one was more notable (and stunning) than most.
The other thing that was different about the return trek was that the Dunning Trail took me along the edge of a beautiful pond called Green Pond. But to be sure, this was no pond-side nature walk. This was a half mile of some of the most rugged running I had encountered during the project. In other words, this sh*t was not on the map!! Finally making my way around the pond and back to the Nurian Trail, I made the long descent down Green Pond Mountain. Through the Valley of the Boulders, and back and forth over all the switchbacks I went. After crossing the Stahahe Brook bridge again and reaching the junction of the Stahahe Brook Trail, I remained on the Nurian Trail at this point and followed it toward Southfields.
Most of the last mile or so to the bottom of the mountain was little more than a grassy woods road. I began hearing highway traffic, and before long, I was running parallel to the NY State Thruway. Eventually I reached the Southfields pedestrian bridge, where I scaled the steps and made my way over the top of 6 lanes of 75 mph traffic. What struck me here was that I found this experience more scary than anything I had encountered in the mountains. With no tall fence here to protect me, I nervously imagined myself falling off the bridge and directly into an oncoming semi. I would have wanted to take a picture of the traffic spectacle beneath me, but was too nervous to stand there any longer than I had to, so I quickly scooted to the other side, and into the final stretch of the run. Phew!!
After a few hundred yards of running in some high grass, I emerged onto the tracks of the Metro North rail line. I had been on these tracks several thousand times over the years, but never on foot, and it seemed a bit surreal to be standing here, listening for an oncoming train. But trying not to get hung up in the moment, I swiftly made my way out to Route 17, where I would have the aforementioned two-mile road run ahead of me to get back to my car.
With the sun having now gone behind the mountains of Sterling Forest on the other side of the road, I had a shady run back, which I was quite grateful for. But it had been a hot run, and I walked intermittently along the way. It felt good to see Maxine again (you remember her, right?), and after a quick change into dry clothes – making sure there was no one around to offend in the process – I headed for home to have a cold one and recount a beautiful run.