We live in the Canadian Rockies. The elevation of our Canmore home is 4,640 ft (1415 m). Our view extends across the Bow Valley to a long, craggy, 8,000 ft (2440 m) ridge. Out our back door is a forest where cougars and grizzly bears roam. Above the forest are peaks rising 3,000 ft (915 m). Just north of our home, at Lake Louise, the peaks of the Great Divide exceed 10,000 ft (3,050 m).
So it’s understandable why we’ve long believed any North American who truly loves hiking, mountaineering or climbing would have found a way to join our northern Rockies tribe. Whenever we’ve met hikers from the eastern provinces or states, we’ve been incredulous: “Why do you stay there?”
Their answers are unconvincing, because they always cite “family,” which reveals they have no pioneer spirit, and because these conversations occur among our soaring, glacier-mantled peaks-scenery so overwhelming it no doubt weakens their resolve, undermining their ability to explain their motives.
But we understand them better now that we’ve traveled and hiked in the Maritimes and New England. At the moment, we’re the artists in residence at Platte Clove, in the Catskill Mountains, near Woodstock, New York. We’re living in a tiny, 19th century cabin beside a waterfall, above a plummeting, forested gorge. The “kill” (Dutch for “stream”) that created this “clove” (V- or cloven-shaped ravine) remains soothingly audible to us, even when the fire in our woodstove is popping and crackling. We’re devoting our time here to an ambitious writing project unlike any we’ve previously attempted. But we’re also hiking, visiting nearby towns, and reading about the area.
Suddenly our allegiance to spectacular topography seems excessive. We find ourselves admiring, even envious of, the rich artistic and intellectual culture here. These mountains aren’t mountainous enough for us, but they’re beautiful, especially now, attired in their autumn coat of many colours. And we realize we’re indebted to the families who, rather than migrate westward, deepened their roots. Among them were the nation’s first conservationists.
Catskill Park and Adirondack Park were designated State Forest Preserves in 1885, guaranteeing they would remain wild and ensuring public access. These were the first wild areas in the U.S. to be fully protected by law. Though Yosemite Valley was preserved in 1864, and Yellowstone became America’s first national park in 1872, both continued suffering industrial abuse for many years. A national forest system was not established until 1905. So New York is this country’s cradle of conservation.
It was never a tree-huggin’ love-in, however. New Yorkers were pragmatic. Though they cared about recreation, their overriding concern was protecting the watersheds that feed the Hudson River and ultimately sustain New York City. It was visionary. Today 75% of the state’s population resides within a two-hour drive of the Catskills. That’s why Catskill Park, which totals 705,000 acres of public and private land, has 300,000 acres of forest reserve where resource extraction is verboten. That’s also why, from 1907 to 1914, Ashokan Reservoir was built at the foot of the Catskills. We recently saw much of the reservoir’s 21-mi (34-km) length from the summit of Overlook Mountain. That evening, while walking atop the dam, we learned it provides 40% of New York City’s drinking water.
Urban-rural give-and-take is intrinsic to Catskill Park. This is not untracked, inviolable wilderness. It’s 60% private property, houses and business, 40% public land. It’s as much a mosaic as the red, scarlet, orange, gold, and mustard leaves now fluttering and flying around our Platte Clove cabin. This is a “park” in the broad, European sense of the word. It includes villages, working farms, old roads.
We see an advantage to this kind of park: The numerous access points disperse visitors widely. In the Canadian Rockies, Waterton National Park has just one entry/exit. Kootenay National Park has two. Jasper National Park has three. Catskill Park has dozens. We also appreciate that Catskill Park has no dominant, sprawling, crass, commercial goiter like Estes Park, Colorado, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. However you approach Catskill Park, it’s through a sprinkling of quaint hamlets harbouring historic homes, modest B&Bs, and unique eateries. It feels comfortable because you’re obviously very welcome. By comparison, approaching a national-park guard station where you’re stopped by a ranger indistinguishable from a police officer is irksome because it’s intimidating.
A disadvantage of a loosely-defined park, however, is that tranquility is much less pervasive. Yesterday we hiked the High Peterskill trail in the Shawangunks, which guidebooks claim is the optimal place for hikers to appreciate this famous climbing area. Every step of the way, passing vehicles were audible on a nearby highway. In the Catskills, the vistas we’ve attained from ridges and summits have never been without evidence of humanity. A sense of wilderness is attainable here, but not easily, and not for long.
These Arcadian Mountains, once a cloud-raking 20,000 ft high, have eroded during the past 375 million years to their present, modest stature. Today, Catskill Park comprises 98 “peaks” reaching 3,000 ft. Adirondack Park, which is larger than Massachusetts, comprises 46 “peaks” reaching 4,000 ft.
So what startled us as we drove south from Montreal, through the eastern Adirondacks, wasn’t the mountains. It was the trees. We’re still marvelling at them. The Catskill forests are vast and flourishing. They roll over the rounded summits beyond the horizon. We’d always thought of New England as settled, developed, cultivated, without room to lose or find yourself. But that’s not so. Actually it’s much easier to get lost in the gently curvaceous, densely forested Catskills than in the vertical, skeletal, Canadian Rockies.
And many of these trees are immense. It’s a testament to nature’s resilience, given that beginning in the late 1700s the Catskills were so extensively logged, quarried and farmed that only the forests bordering communities and on inaccessibly steep slopes were spared the saw. What’s regrown is a beautiful melange of fir, hemlock, maple and birch that makes the monoculture lodgepole pine forests prevalent in western mountain ranges look like an ill-conceived science experiment gone berserk.
If you’ve read any of our hiking guidebooks, you know our preference is to surmount forest and attain views as quickly as possible. But hiking in the Catskills among all these trees has not been oppressive. That’s partly because we knew we’d be creatures of the forest while here, and partly because witnessing these fall colours is an enchanting, kaleidoscopic experience.
Some 300 miles of trails wind through the Catskills. Singular sights and unobstructed views are rare and brief. So we point our boots toward the waterfalls that inspired the 19th century Hudson River School painters, and toward the edges of escarpments where famous “mountain houses” once provided luxurious, summer lodging to New York’s wealthy elite during the 1800s.
We’ll continue exploring the Catskills next week. If we discover more that might interest to you, we’ll let you know. Already we can honestly say our snobbery has been tempered.
May the forest be with you.