Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Pyramid Mountain Hike. Boonton, New Jersey. A Grand Tour. Aching Knees, Ankles, and Poles.

After nearly a two-year hiatus from the club, I rejoined the NJ/PA/NY Hiking Group for a group hike on Pyramid Mountain. The last hike in which I participated took me through the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Morris County. Flat and not exceeding two miles in length, the trail posed no difficulty at all. For the most part, we remained on a boardwalk until the group arrived at a life-sized recreation of an early Native-American settlement. The "swamp thing" was, quite frankly, anemic unless bogs, reeds, and tidal pools captivate your imagination. Pardon me for a bit of being unfairness and insensitivity. The hike, after all, was advertised as a trek through the swamp. There was truth in advertising, you might say. Disappointing or not, the hike served as a warm-up for those who do not hike in the cold months; we went early in the Spring. Good thing, trudging through the Jersey swamps in the hot months would be like offering yourself as a smorgasbord for the bugs.

Mea culpa before I go any further. I have been violating one of the cardinal rules of safe hiking which is to always hike with a companion. A companion increases the probability of your rescue from trouble. If you can get one, then why not? But if I were to hold off on my hikes until a companion showed up, my activity level would almost come to a standstill. I don't have many friends to begin with, and the numbers fall dramatically when it comes to trustworthy friends. So, giving up some added safety for expediency, I trek through the woods with just a hydration system and hiking poles for companions. Just two things to remember: don't fall into a crevasse, and don't give the snakes a chance to practice their spit.

Located in Boonton, New Jersey, Pyramid Mountain offers a circuitous and undulating network of trails in varying degrees of difficulty. There are three entrances to the park with space for public parking. The Visitors Center is located at Mars Court. If in the future Pyramid Mountain will no longer suffice, Turkey Mountain lies across the street like a mirror image. 

From the trail map given out at the visitor center of Pyramid Mountain Natural Historic Area (PMNHA), our route isn't too difficult to follow. We began with the Blue Trail at the trail head located at the parking lot. At the wooden bridge over the Stony Brook, we turned right to follow the Yellow Trail which was easy-going for a short while until we began to gain some elevation at the junction of the Yellow and Orange Trails. The trail got narrower and more rocky. Getting a good foothold before planting your other foot forward was imperative. At one point, even with two hiking poles assisting my climb, I slipped and bruised my knee. You can see this rise on the trail map which came replete with topographical lines. The push to the top ended only after the trail rejoined the Blue Trail. Once on top, we followed the Blue Trail up to Tripod Rock where we had our first rest stop and photo opportunity. 

Doubling back South and downhill on the Blue Trail approximately 300 feet, we turned right into Lucy's Lookout. Finding an advantageous spot on this rocky promontory shouldn't be a problem for the solitary hiker, but you must jockey your way if you are part of a large group. Everyone wanted to have an unobstructed view of the hills to the West, but there were no wide spaces, no viewing decks typical of scenic overlooks. Just tiptoe your way from rock to rock, and hope you don't go crashing down the ravine. 

We picked up the Yellow Trail once more and go downhill and West to Bear Rock. This mammoth rock was, obvious to those with a little knowledge of geologic science, dragged there, ferried you might say, by an even more powerful force known to us--- a glacier from millions of years ago. Bear Rock, actually, is a good example of a Glacial Erratic

Erratics are rocks whose geologic characteristics are dissimilar to the rocks in the local area. Thus, it becomes obvious that they are different in origin, and dropped off there by some powerful force of Nature. Erratics are often found to be in rather ungainly positions, causing people of modern times to gawk at them.  

 We headed North from Bear Rock, on generally level ground, on the Blue Trail, passing Bear Swamp on our right. And then, we turned East on the RS Trail. The RS Trail, represented by a blaze of Red with White Stripes, led us to one of the two toughest parts of the entire trail system at Pyramid Mountain. I loved the way our group leader kept up the conversation with the latter part of the group, those trailing behind, as if to divert our attention away from the near vertical climb ahead. In single file, the more gung-ho among us have gone ahead, and nearing the crest. Bringing up the mid-section, I followed the exact footholds of those ahead of me, and kept up with the pace so a jam didn't form behind me. I swear, at some point, if one stood upright, he would fall over backwards and tumble down the hill. 

When our group leader finally addressed the situation, he implored us to establish a firm footing, to plan every step, and not to rush. These seem like obvious precautions. But in reality, there is a tendency to hurry and be done with it particularly when the top is in sight. Fight or Flight? The correct choice is to pick your spots and ascend cautiously. If only our ankles could speak to us, they'd tell us so.

Over the top, we came upon another Glacial Erratic called, Whale's Head. It seems more precariously balanced than the Tripod Rock, but the erosive effects of rain, wind, and snow over millennium have not toppled this giant. Even the frivolous antics of humans who mimicked Hercules or Sisyphus, pushed and heaved at the rock, proved futile. No kidding, I wouldn't want to be the one to finally roll it off the mountainside, and face the unappeasable wrath of the park authorities. I can already imagine them scrambling their way up the hill in their Olive-Green uniforms and Smokey-the-Bear hats. And with arms akimbo declare, " Who the Hell did that!? " 

We paused at Whale's Head long enough to have lunch au natural. Just choose a rock on which to rest your derriere, a tree to lean on, and refuel. Liquid propellant should always be water. On the cool day, like 65-68F, I would bring approximately 2 pints minimum for a 4-hr hike. The hotter the day, the more water you'll need. Soda is not acceptable. It's sugar content will make you thirstier. As for food, people brought all sorts of high energy snacks; one had a green salad. I packed a double-decker Muenster cheese with mayonnaise and lettuce on white bread. If that sounds stark to you, it is because I am on a low potassium diet. More on that in later posts.

From here, we trekked along the RS Trail which linked up with the White Trail and then finally the Orange Trail. As in most trails, the way took baby turns in many, seemingly opposite directions, but the general direction was East and downhill. We entered the Orange Trail at its northernmost point, stopping to take in a sweeping view of the highlands to the East. That is Turkey Mountain on the far side. I found the view here more edifying than at Lucy's Overlook where high tension wires spangled the landscape. What a shame.

On the Orange Trail, we were finally on the home stretch. The trail ran on a North-South axis for nearly a mile, closely followed the shore of the Taylortown Reservoir which lay to our left (East). Here, we met many casual hikers and their dogs. The area is also known for its boundless opportunities for bird-watching. 

The Orange Trail is probably the trail of choice for those who just want an easy and pleasant walk in the woods. High, leafy branches formed a canopy above our heads while the reservoir huffed a cool breeze over the ground. One got the feeling that he was inside a well-vented dome tent. 

For those who are aroused by gargantuan proportions, massive and wrinkled rock formations lined the route, surely as old as the Earth herself, muted witnesses to the almost unfathomable geologic history of our planet. They reminded me of how fleeting and relatively insignificant the human lifespan is, a mere micro bleep in the cosmic timeline, while these rocks sit unperturbed through all the political and climate changes, despots and starry-eyed messiahs come and go, much older than the pyramids, probably a match for time itself.

The Orange led to the Yellow which, in turn, joined the Blue where it all began. In conclusion, this 4-hour hike turned out to be more challenging than I expected. The group leader expanded the route to include almost all the sites in the trail system, and so it wasn't the boilerplate tour listed on the club's website. I was dead on my feet, for sure. 


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ramapo Reservation. Mahwah, New Jersey. A Great Place for a Family Outing.

Last Saturday, I drove up to Suffern, New York expecting to be part of a group hike in an area known as the Ramapo Highlands. Instructions sent to me via email in the days prior stipulated that I wait at the junction of Route 59 and Route 202. 

Arrived early, and waited for an hour. By 12 noon, my enthusiasm petered out. I came to the conclusion that the hike had somehow been cancelled without notice, or that I was at the wrong place. There was no mistaking the corner of Routes 202 and 59, and so it must be the former. Pretty shabby performance, I thought, considering that the New York - North Jersey Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) organized the hike. Could they be so nonchalant about dropping a group hike that was advertised on their website? Incredible.

Days later, upon inquiry, I found out that the group met a block away where the bus from NYC stopped. Alright, that seemed like one of those insider information thingies. The regulars might find it quite obvious, but it wasn't so clear to this newcomer. I did see some people at the bus stop, but none of the usual tell-tale signs--- hiking boots, hats, knapsacks and poles. I assumed they were commuters. And so the opportunity slipped away. Fortunately, I had a Plan B.

I drove South on Route 202, passed Ramapo College on the left, and came to what is known as the Ramapo Reservation. This place came to my attention when I was searching online for places to camp without driving more than two hours from home. Supposedly, there are a few tent sites at the reservation, but I didn't see any during my meanderings at the place. 

I might have been stood up by the AMC but that turned out to be serendipitous. I found a great place to hike, bucolic but not remote, easily accessible by car, but quiet. Believe it or not, dogs are allowed. The last of the good guys, you might say. And dogs galore it was! I highly recommend it to dog owners. If you don't have a dog in tow at the reservation, you're the odd man out.

First up, on your left, as you enter the reservation from the parking lot, is this stream which is stocked with fish. There were several fly fishermen at work at that time and if you look closely at my photograph below you'd see one in a blue vest just beyond the beach on the right (Click on the photo to enlarge it).

I mentioned the fisherman only as a matter of composition. I am, in no way, advocating fly fishing. As an animal rights advocate, I am against all forms of animal hunting. All animals, including fishes, value their existence. They may not express it in the same way we do, but they will fight for their lives if needed.

Diagonally across this stream lies the Scarlet Oak Pond. I didn't carefully investigate the area if Scarlet Oak actually grew around the pond, but that's the name they gave it. Usually, it follows. That's why I avoid the Rattlesnake Swamp Trail in Warren County, New Jersey. Get it? You can hike around the Scarlet Oak Pond on an easy-going trail under an hour. No sweat.

It was a beautiful Spring day when I went to the reservation. You can see it from the photographs. The main trail that led to the McMillan Reservoir was wide and smooth, like a carriage road. People packed the reservation including a large group shepherded by a rather boisterous old fart. Some hikers took this hike too seriously. They donned wide-brimmed hats, carried full knapsacks, hiking boots and poles. Some don't prepare enough; some are overkillers. If you stay on the main trail, pictured below, it will take you uphill and the reservoir lies at the very end. You can't miss it.

MacMillan Reservoir. It's not a small body of water, as you can see from the photograph below. One can hike around it, or hang out by the narrow beach. If you happen to be born a Labrador, then you've arrived at Valhalla. I saw several Labs dove into the water and paddled around with only their heads sticking out. I don't know, folks. I derive a lot of pleasure in seeing dogs have a great time. But humans? They're noisy and annoying.

There is a rocky promontory to the right of the camera position that provides a sweeping view of the entire reservoir. I crawled my way up and picked a spot to have lunch, a sandwich with some water. Take it from an experienced hiker, always check your surroundings before you sit anywhere in the wild. Snakes love to sunbath on flat, sun-drenched rocks, or get cozy in the crevices. Often, they look like fallen branches until they move. I make heavy footsteps or tap my poles on the rocks to announce my coming. 

By the way, there are no trash bins in the reservation. So it is, more often than not, a take-in and take-out place. You bring in trash; you take it out. 

For dessert, I am posting a Black and White photograph of MacMillan Reservoir. It may look like the preceding photograph, but they are slightly different. Notice that I included more of the rocky beach in the foreground, providing more contrasting shades of gray plus maintaining a perspective that is most natural to the viewer if he was on the beach himself. Do you think I could have given Ansel Adams a run for his money?


All photographs are copyrighted to Anastacio Teodoro. You'll need my permission to use any of them.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Photography, Gadgeteering, and Keeping a Record

How to name this blog? That was harder than I expected since I didn't want people to expect a blog dedicated to photographic technique, gadgetry, and industry gossip. I am not a photography wonk. I wouldn't want to discuss how many leaves there are on the diaphragm of a lens, what they mean for depth of field, or what to do if they get stuck. I have no interest in minutiae of that sort. 

Whatever interest I have in Photography, I make sure it is about manipulating light, framing a shot, setting the mood, contrasting images, perspective, and capturing the moment. I have a healthy disdain for people who are consumed by gadgetry. They talk nothing but zoom lenses, motor drives, tripods, and camera bags. They spend tons of money on equipment, but no time on the principles of photography. They mistake gadgeteering with photography---one reason why I have not joined a camera club.

I look at my surroundings, and I can see beauty in even the most mundane objects. Nature is beautiful and everything is Nature. Dust storms, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions are not calamities in themselves, but made so by humankind who seem to insinuate itself in Nature's path all the time. For me, a tree is not just something in my way, but an organism that has a unique purpose and inherent  beauty. And when my eye senses overt or covert beauty, I must capture it. Thus, the images become part of a visual record.

That, I decided, would be the central purpose of this blog. It will be a scrumptious mix, I pray, of my peregrinations and the beauty I encountered along the way---with some philosophical ruminations, of course.