I don’t want to limit myself to road walking to increase the distance I can walk comfortably. Just as important will be the ability to climb steep inclines, of which there will be many in the latter stages of the West Highland Way. So it was time to get away from the road, get into the woods and out onto the hills. Each of the last two Saturdays I ventured out with the hiking group I belong to, going on two very satisfying hikes, particularly this past weekend’s which, at 11.5 miles long, was terrific training for the WHW.
But first, the previous week’s hike, a loop around Sterling Lake in New York’s Sterling Forest, just 8 miles long but estimated to be 4 hours in duration. I felt that was a good amount of time to spend on the trail, and although the distance was relatively short, it would present some steeper climbs.
On starting out, a chilly mist enveloped the forest. Any personal chill was soon gone on the climb to a ridge which, on a clear day, would have given excellent views of the lake. This morning, though, the lake’s outline was barely discernible.
On our descent to the lake, the mist began to dissipate. Blue sky could be seen breaking through the clouds. After the gloom of the mist, the bright silvery light surrounding and reflecting off the water gave the landscape a magical uplifting quality.
This was my first visit to Sterling Forest and I was surprised and delighted at the expansiveness and beauty of Sterling Lake. As the clouds gave way to blue skies, the view across the lake took on an even more charming and pleasing aspect.
On an outcrop at the foot of the lake we had our lunch, a perfect spot to take in the lovely surroundings. I sat alone not wishing to be caught up in conversation, preferring to be lost in my own thoughts as I contemplated the view.
I may have mentioned before the variety of personalities encountered on these group hikes. They range from the extremely reclusive to the untiringly talkative. Occasionally, as was the case today, there’s someone who prefers walking in a bubble of isolation. This guy appeared to be a serious hiker with enough gear for the Alaskan backwoods. He walked map in hand as if he was venturing out into the unknown, except here there were blazes marking the trail and a leader to show us the way.
Then there are those who talk, and loudly offer opinions from the beginning of the trail to the end. Sometimes it’s interesting to listen in, but also depending on where you are in the walking line, you’re forced to listen whether or not you want to. Today I found it more irritating than interesting. One guy is banging on about the importance of taking your own snorkeling equipment on a snorkeling trip because the rental equipment is infested with germs. As we walked I increased my stride to separate myself from the talkers, finding a position among the more circumspect.
Usually I don’t initiate conversations myself. I’m quite content to be moving along taking in the surroundings, but I do try to maintain a friendly, approachable manner. When someone starts a conversation with me I’m more than willing to engage, letting it take its natural course. And as it happened, today several of those easy conversations developed, with the talk touching on my West Highland Way walk, which did attract a fair amount of interest. One woman, a highly experienced hiker, made the comment that our itinerary seemed “ambitious.” I’m choosing to use that as further motivation to do all I can to be physically prepared.
All told, the hike was a good workout. When it was over my energy levels were still high and I was feeling as fresh as the proverbial daisy. Could it be my training is beginning to pay off? Well I got to put it to the test a week later on the second hike. The hiking group web site billed it as, “One of New Jersey’s most difficult hikes. NOT for beginners!” The route was around Splitrock Reservoir which is just north of the town of Boonton. As mentioned, it was an 11.5 mile loop, an ideal distance for my training, but what made it especially challenging was the relentless elevation changes. It took in part of the Four Birds trail, a 19.4 mile rugged path running through the New Jersey Highlands.
I can honestly say this was one of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve been on with the group. It was a true roller-coaster route with continually shifting elevations. Rarely did you walk on level ground. While there were few spectacular views, the variable landscape ensured it was never monotonous. A criticism I have of many hikes in this part of the US is that they run through swathes of forested land where nothing is seen but trees. I prefer the treeless open spaces of Scotland, where you’re never closed in and wonderful views surround you. Although most of the hike was through the woods, the reservoir often came into view, to be seen from a variety of perspectives, and when the trees enclosed us the changing contours of the land somehow presented a captivating picture. Some sections of the trail skirted plunging rocky cliffs, strangely altering perception of the forest.
There was a nice mix of people in the group, with a noticeable absence of overbearing talkers. People seemed to interchange and interact organically as the hike progressed. Although the usual familiar faces were there, a good number of new people took part also.
This was my first hike led by the guy who was the leader of the day. I had been on other hikes with him when he was just a follower like myself, and he seemed to be just your average weekend walker. So I was quite surprised when, right out of the starting gate, he set an extremely brisk pace, and maintained it throughout the length of the hike. Not only did we walk a challenging route, we did it at, what for many, was a breakneck speed. For the first time I saw a couple of the more experienced guys fall behind, and heard a few other regulars saying this hike was “kicking their ass!”
As for me, I’m delighted to say I took it in my stride, so to speak. There were a few occasions when I was aware of my heavy breathing and elevated heart rate, but not once did I feel exhausted, or have any need to stop and rest. Often, when I’ve reached the final mile or so of a trek, I get to a fatigued point where I just want it to be over. But not on this day. I felt like I still had several more miles in me. Judging from the condition of some others at the end, it did look like we had completed one of New Jersey’s most difficult hikes, but for me personally it just seemed like just another day on the trail. It really did feel like my training was actually paying off!
I can’t allow complacency to creep in though. With the looming specter of the West Highland Way’s 20 mile stretch between Rowardennan and Crianlarich, over perhaps tougher terrain, the hard work must be maintained. And besides, any smugness I may have acquired from the Splitrock hike, was completely dispelled the following morning when I awoke with some very sore muscles and stiff joints…