Fastpacking Big Indian Wilderness
It was sixty four degrees when we stepped out of the car, having left the city three hours prior, the sun high and tilting to the west. Tall maples stretched toward the sky, surrounding the small parking lot, trapping the slowly accumulating humidity from the morning rain.
Two years ago, during a trip to visit my parents in Palm Springs, California, I found myself sitting in the backyard reading, the desert sun beating down on me, drawing out my last day before flying back home. My dad came out and asked what I wanted to do for the day. “Nothing comes to mind,” I said without looking up from my book. “I’m happy to sit here all day with you guys.” He took the book from my hands, handed me a t-shirt and said, “let’s go for a run,” something I hadn’t done in over ten years and had no plans of doing again. I gave in not out of pressure but from the sheer look of trust on his face.
We set out along the Bob Hope trail, gaining over thirteen-hundred feet in three kilometers, in one hundred degree heat, fresh blood pumping through my legs. Together we ran fifteen kilometers that day. By the end of it, leaning over my knees pulling gulps of air, I stood up and high-fived my dad, something so out of character it surprised us both.
Something during that run struck a nerve. On the red-eye back to New York later that night I started planning places I wanted to run and camp. Perhaps it was the searing sunlight reflected off the desert as we went out too hard on the climb, or the purple and green cacti protecting the trail, though I reckon it was the freedom of taking off on my feet, open to the moment.
Upstate New York is one big outdoor playground. It has endless options for running, cycling, and hiking, and given its proximity to Manhattan, was at the top of my list to explore as a runner.
Big Indian Wilderness—where my friend Ben and I decided to test our legs on a little fastpacking adventure—sits one hundred and forty miles from New York City. It’s tucked between places named Neversink and Phoenicia, small towns left mostly untouched by those who decided that moving to the Catskills was more attractive than paying exorbitant rents in Brooklyn and Manhattan. As you approach the preserve from the south you follow the west branch of the Neversink River along Frost Valley Road, a winding two-lane passageway that splits Big Indian to the west and Slide Mountain to the east. You cross several picturesque bridges and pass a large YMCA camp before finding the signs for Biscuit Brook, the main starting point leading to the wilderness.
At the parking lot near the trailhead, where a single red porta-potty stood in contrast to the rich green forest, I met a park ranger coming down the mountain and asked him about the conditions. He said the trial was wet and muddy in places but overall it was dry, and no one was at the first lean to—approximately six kilometers up trail. I inquired about the other shelter near the summit and was told no camping was allowed above 3,500 feet this time of year, so we’d better stick with the first one.
Before he turned to leave, having glanced quickly at our packs, short shorts, and what obviously weren’t proper hiking boots, he asked what we were doing. “We’re going to run the trails and camp out tonight, then do it again tomorrow,” I said, shoving food and gear into my pack. “Well” he said and paused, half amused, “should be good for that. Watch the steep sections though. They’re rocky and tend to sneak up on you.” We exchanged goodbyes and I watched as he loaded into his truck and pulled away, waving, leaving us alone with only the sound of birds and wind sailing through the trees.
We started climbing immediately. The terrain twisted and wandered through densely wooded forests before leveling out a few kilometers later. While hiking a steep section where path and mountain were nearly indistinguishable, we turned north and were rewarded with a tunnel of trees stretching into the distance. A leaf covered trail followed below. Sandwiched on either side by ferns and moss growing with abandon, we picked up the pace as the trail began to widen. We pushed a little harder, savoring the feeling of our car-cramped legs opening up on the inclines. Tucked around a sharp bend in the trail we came to a bridge overlooking a waterfall. Crossing slowly I watched as a tree bathed in evening light sent shadows rippling off the water below my feet. I looked ahead as Ben raced on, his footsteps muffled by the soft forest floor. An airplane hummed somewhere in the distance, the only other sign of the outside world. I stayed there listening, waiting for something, lured by the sensation that we had the entire forest to ourselves, a solitude seldom granted.
Higher up the slope it was ten degrees cooler. I heard a rustling to my right and stopped as a furry little creature jostled across the trail, its tiny rear wiggling into the ferns, concealing it from view but doing little to hide its direction. I caught up to Ben at a fork in the trail, where two signs nailed to a tree suggesting we follow blazes or take a left toward the lean to. 6:00 on the watch and a fading sun. We took the path to the left.
Toward the shelter, dropping down and away from the main trail, we followed a section of the river that opened, revealing giant pools bubbling between deep-red shale and vibrant hues of green moss. Taken in by the beauty of the river we stopped for a swim. I watched Ben discard his clothing as he plunged into the freezing water, gasping, head bobbing like a buoy in the sea. I laughed as he staggered out of the water, shivering as he reached for his clothes. Looking back, I regret not going in myself. Not often does one get to skinny dip in the middle of the woods on a warm summer day.
We stayed along the river a while before setting up some preliminary measures at camp. At quarter to seven the sky was still bright and a gentle breeze picked up through the trees. We estimated forty five minutes to an hour before the peaks of the Catskills swallowed the sun. We headed out along the bank and onto the trail, turning north and upward.
Before the day’s last light the forest seemed to glow, as if all the living things sensed darkness and brightened, fighting off the night. After making it halfway to the peak, leaving barely enough daylight to make it back to camp, we went about the task of building a fire and setting up sleeping arrangements. I walked the perimeter of camp and gathered what firewood was dry enough to burn while Ben worked our modified bear sling into a nearby tree. I washed some fruit and made a trip to filter fresh water at the river before setting out to make a fire.
I love the simplicity of laying out your bedding or shelter at the end of the day. The vulnerability inherent in sleeping outdoors exposed as you crawl into a three walled shelter, every sound foreign and new. As day quickly slipped into night, we built a small fire before making our meals. We sat together, still, spellbound by the fire, eating dehydrated risotto and sharing a flask of whiskey. We stayed that way long enough to witness the waxing moon set behind a nearby mountain revealing a smooth dark sky with millions of stars as sparkling points of light. At times we spoke in short, excited bursts, weaving in and out of silence, remnants of earlier conversations creeping back. Later, waiting for sleep, I watched as the last scraps of fuel burned from the fire—it’s flicker slowing—until moments before darkness enveloped the world a new spark caught and grew into flame, prolonging the day, lighting the world a little while longer.
Broken dreams filled my sleep, moving through me like clouds, at first briefly recognizable, comically real, before morphing into shapeless forms that vanished like smoke. I rolled over to cascading light and cold air biting at my neck. Ben came over with our bags from the tree. He was more annoyed than angry when I asked how he slept. “I’ve been up jogging and doing squats to stay warm,” he said. “I can’t feel my bones.” I knew the feeling well. One summer night, on an overnight bike camping trip with my girlfriend, we huddled together trying to stay warm beside a lake in Harriman State Park. I always forget, no matter how much I prepare, that the heat of the mountains is never the same as the heat of the flats, which stay warm all night. Sleeping in a tent or hammock is tolerable at best, and camping outdoors in the cold is never as romantic or easy as you imagine it to be. I turned to Ben and asked what time it was. “5:15,” he said opening his pack to find something warm. “I haven’t been up this early in months” I said, yawning. “Coffee?”
Every morning, whether camping or not, the first order of business is preparing coffee. Lighting the stove as the heaviness of sleep washed away, we spoke in broken, tired ramblings between slow sips from our cups as we set a plan for the day. From the top of a tall maple, the hurried song of a chickadee rang out. I took my filter down to the edge of the river and knelt on a slippery red rock, splashing myself awake. It’s hard to feel better than after you’ve warmed from a cold sleep and the brightness of morning fills you. Back at camp I made a breakfast of sliced mango, PB&J, and dried meat.
As we climbed up from the river, we found a scattering of spring flowers, thick bunches of false hellebore, as well as maples, hemlock, and bloodroot. By 7:00 we were a few kilometers in, climbing at a good clip, breathing heavy into thinning air. I was hiking slowly, winded by the climb and a few weeks off after my knee took a beating in a recent race. It was cool in the wind as we hit 3,500 feet. Above the crest of the mountain the world was nothing but a thinning canopy of trees, obscuring any view we hoped to find at the top. After we reconciled to the fact that all we were going to see was a continuing array of evergreens and a disturbing number of gnats, I turned to Ben and said, “I guess this is as good as it’s going to get,” and headed back.
Picking up speed we descended, legs strong and light after a few flat sections encouraged a faster pace. I felt the trail move with me as my body anticipated changes in contours and adjusted itself in space. When I first started running everything felt halted and unnatural, my feet forcing the ground to move instead of gently pushing off it. As I followed Ben I tried to match his footsteps, where he landed, perpetuating the line. The sun moved further west casting new light through the treetops, raising the temperature from fifty eight to sixty six degrees. The wind blew on toward the north, and the gentle rustling of leaves filled the space around us. I found myself in that familiar headspace, legs and body in sync, feeling as if I could run forever.
Running at its best is a transformational experience. At worst it’s a mental black hole where pain and frustration easily consume. When you find a rhythm and give in your legs almost disappear from under you. When something doesn’t work the way it should, nothing feels worse. Down past the summit and out of the wind I found solace in discomfort, my knee forcing a slower pace, my stride foreign and locked out. Ten kilometers into our day and the long descent back—usually a welcomed reprieve—became an awkward lesson in the art of hiking downhill.
There is a tendency to rush when you know the end of something is near. When I catch myself hastily edging toward an outcome instead of allowing it to happen on its own, I know it’s time to pull back. Somewhere on the way down to the car I found myself drifting away from the place we had come to enjoy. I stopped at a water crossing to fill my bottles and caught my reflection. Looking through the ripples of the stream I said to myself, “there is nowhere else you need to be right now”, and inhaled deeply, taking a moment's rest. Further down the trail, coming towards us in resolute form, a man out on a day hike smiled, his posture tall and steady as he passed. We exchanged remarks about the beautiful morning weather before he carried on—whistling to no one in particular—up into the mountain.
Later that night, after the long drive back home where Ben’s snoring filled the car while I listened to Jimmy Hendrix wail, I felt a pinch of desire for several more days on the trail. "The more you spend time outdoors the more you need it” I once heard someone say. Unpacking my gear in an explosion of things, I was drawn back to the campsite—a specific moment in time—our faces alight in front of the fire as the moon came into view between a small clearing in the trees. Then I thought of my dad, back home in Canada sitting by the beach, looking across the Strait of Georgia, his gaze turned east toward me.