Monday, October 29, 2007

The Timp

Way back in the spring, my youngest daughter Sarah began asking me when we were going to make our annual trek to "The Timp". It was about ten years ago that I had first taken her and her siblings to this place which for me (and evidently her as well) has special memories attached to it. It has since become a tradition for us to make a yearly visit to Harriman State Park near the NJ / NY border and backpack up the steep three mile trail to the top of this modest 1000 foot high "mountain" and camp. Events conspired to prevent us from making the trip earlier this year, and then the heat of summer was upon us, but once the weather turned cooler again, she (bless her heart) resumed her prompting. The trip was finally scheduled for the last weekend in October, weather permitting. We put the news out to a few other people we thought would enjoy accompanying us on the hike, and they made plans to join us.

After several consecutive weekends of absolutely perfect weather, I guess you could say we were due for a bad one. Sure enough, a frontal system stalled over our area ju
st in time to cast doubt as to whether we would have to cancel the trip. Every day last week I flipped through half a dozen weather websites looking for any encouraging prediction but found none. On Wednesday the forecast was calling for rain on both Saturday and Sunday. On Thursday night my wife and I were at the grocery store picking up some last minute items for the trip just in case something changed. By coincidence we bumped into a friend who was one of the few we had invited to come along and he informed us that he and his wife had decided to cancel. I couldn't blame him... who in their right mind would leave the comfort of their home to spend two days and a night in the cold, wet woods? On the other hand, this trip had already been postponed several times, and with the end of the 2007 camping season near, I was inclined to cancel this trip only if it looked like a total washout. Unfortunately, that was the way it would be if the people who make their living predicting the weather were correct.

Science had been my favorite subject in school. It was one of the few classes that had my full attention and where I actually learned anything that I considered useful. Not surprisingly then, I have always found meteorology very interesting
. Understanding how the whole hydrologic cycle works can give one a better appreciation for the intricacies of our planet, at least in my opinion. Anyway, I had to remind myself that the purpose of this trip was to have fun, not to study the different types of air masses and how they interact with one another. If it rained the whole time, it would NOT be fun for anyone (with one possible exception). On the other hand, if it cleared up right around the time we got to the top of the mountain, THAT had the potential to be spectacular and maybe even enhance the adventure.

Not surprisingly, the night before our scheduled departure people were calling to find out if the trip was still on. After accessing the detailed data on the government's NOAA website and making my own analysis, I came to the somewhat optimistic conclusion that it was a good bet the precipitation would end right around the time we planned to begin walking (2pm) and it might even dry out before we reached the top. I suspect that everyone had their doubts about the accuracy of my un-edjumacated opinion. I know I did. Luckily for me and my pride this is exactly how the day played out.

We assembled around mid morning on Saturday and ran through the last minute checklists. It was raining heavily as the eight of us threw our loaded packs in the vehicles and drove north toward the park. Around 1pm we stopped for lunch along the way. It was still raining hard with no signs of letting up any time soon. Around 2pm we pulled into the parking lot near the trailhead. It was STILL raining, although the sky had begun to lighten up. We strapped on our packs, put our ponchos on, and began our ascent, becoming more confident with each step that this three-day-long deluge might finally be coming to an end. It was hardly five minutes up the hill that people began removing their rain gear. Shortly after that, the jackets and sweatshirts came off. As it turned out, all the extra clothes we brought to make sure we had something dry to wear were reduced to unnecessary cargo. We plodded up the steep incline and made our way ever higher. Even with several rest stops, the miles seemed to go by faster than expected. As we neared the top, blue sky patches appeared through the canopy of trees. By the time we finally reached the rocky summit, the sun had emerged! We dropped our packs and stood on the highest point to enjoy the incredible view. To the west and overhead was now clear, while the dark mass of clouds that had dropped over three inches of rain was being ushered quickly eastward by a stiff wind. As the trip planner, I could now breathe a sigh of relief that I had not dragged everyone up here only to spend a miserable wet night in the woods. Don't forget you can click on the pictures to see the full-screen version.


five minutes later

the top of the timp

Pepper's sixth (and possibly last) Timp trip

looks dangerous, donit?

We savored the view for awhile, then our group reassembled just below the peak to select suitable tent sites. Everyone took part in this process and since most of us had been through this routine before, it went without a hitch. Next, a few of us went off to seek the driest firewood available, while others went off to filter water. Camp chores done, we then made the short 100 foot walk back to the top to watch the beautiful sunset. I think everyone was glad that we hadn't called the whole trip off.

a view even a dog can appreciate

the water gathering ritual

Angela inspects the picture she just took

looking west from camp just after sunset

The wind was blowing something fierce. It doesn't take long for a gale to strip heat from one's body, so after watching the orb dip below the horizon, we once again retreated to the somewhat protected hollow where we had established camp. We prepared and ate our meal, cleaned up some of the dishes, then I summoned everyone back to the top of the mountain to view an an event which was about to take place in the sky over our heads. As I said, I am something of a science buff, so while surfing the net recently I stumbled upon a website where I discovered something called "iridium flares". Intrigued, I learned that there are at present 66 active communication satellites whose highly polished antennae reflect sunlight like giant mirrors in space and because of their fixed axis in relation to the earth's surface, it can also be predicted when and where this reflection can be observed and what level of magnitude (brightness) you can expect at any location on the globe. The flares first appear like a dim star that quickly becomes very bright, then just as quickly fades back to invisibility. The whole thing lasts only about 20 or 30 seconds so unless you are looking for it, chances are you will never notice one. While the trip was still in it's planning stage, I used google earth to determine the geographical coordinates of "The Timp", then plugged this information into the website that maintains the schedule for the flares. Fortunately, I found there was going to be not only one but TWO of them visible from our campsite on the Saturday night we would be there, spaced only four minutes apart! From our vantage point I knew we would have an unobstructed view of the sky as long as there was no cloud cover. So there we were, all eight of us casting our gaze to the north-northeast and focused on an area in the heavens between the star Polaris and the constellation Cassiopeia at precisely 7:44:52pm. As promised, the flares did indeed occur and we all got our first-ever viewing of this phenomenon, along with a little astronomy lesson.

Now it was time to set about the work of getting a fire going. As you might guess, this was no small task. Fortunately, Dave had the brilliant idea to grab a newspaper at lunchtime for the purpose of helping us to get the wet wood burning. It took longer than usual and a lot of coaxing, but eventually man prevailed over the elements and got the thing lit. We then sat for hours bathing in its radiant heat... talking, telling stories, sipping hot chocolate, and joking with one another. Eventually we used up all the wood and it was time to crawl into our sleeping bags for the night.

even drenched wood burns with enough coaxing

Normally my wife and I would prefer to sleep out under the stars on the summit since this was a clear, bugless night. However, the strong wind buffeting the treetops had not relented at all, and if anything, had increased. The tents were nestled in an area among trees and were surrounded on all sides by a twenty foot high ridge. The wind was so intense that even in this protected space it was causing the tent walls to flap noisily. This racket got progressively worse after midnight and peaked sometime around 3am. I know this because the tarp covering my hammock was making the most noise of all and woke me up repeatedly during the night. I am sure that there were gusts approaching 50mph at times. This was the trial run for my new shelter which I hoped would prove to be a good replacement for a tent. Except for the noisy fabric (which was only a factor because of the extreme wind conditions), the hammock passed the test with flying colors. Not only was I much more comfortable suspended above the hard ground, but I was also very warm ensconced in this cleverly designed cocoon. I would also bet that if I had tightened the guy lines that secure the tarp, I could have alleviated some of the snapping.

We awoke to a 40 degree sunny morning. The wind had subsided to about 15mph by daybreak. One by one we mustered the courage to slip out of our bags and brave the chilly air. We found a quiet spot in the lee of some rocks to boil water for our oatmeal breakfast. After that we broke camp and prepared for our return voyage to the parking lot. Before heading off, I whipped out my GPS device and sent the teenagers on a quest to find a geocache that someone else had hidden somewhere near the top of the mountain. For the uninitiated, "geocaching" is a hobby of sorts where people hide small containers and then place information about the stash on the internet. There is a website where you can find information about these hidden containers. You just put in the coordinates of any location and it gives you the latitude and longitude numbers for each nearby cache, who hid them, and a host of other interesting facts. It took the kids about ten minutes, but they located the one I had printed out for them to find. As is the custom, we were allowed to take one item from the box as long as we left one in exchange. Patrick claimed the red bandanna and offered a stick of gum as his swap. Not a fair trade in my opinion but who am I to judge? :-)

a crisp, clear, 40 degree Sunday morning

unquestionably the most colorful member of our group

leaving no trace

Finally underway just after noon, we followed the red-dot blazes that would lead us back down to the road by a different route. This trail took us over Bald Mountain where we paused for lunch around 1:30pm. The temperature had warmed up to around 60 by then, but the breeze made it feel much cooler, especially whenever the sun was blocked by a cumulus cloud, which seemed to be most of the time. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our break on a slab of rock which had actually become warm to the touch from absorbing the sun's rays all morning.


We cleaned up so as to leave no trace of our presence there and continued along. Just a few minutes farther down the trail we came to a dramatic view from the edge of a cliff. Actually, only Dave and myself got to see the incredible sight because the others who were all ahead of us either didn't notice or opted to skip the little side trail that led to it. We had a awesome view of Bear Mountain Bridge and the upsteam waters of the Hudson for miles above it. Although some in our group were now complaining about the added distance back to the bottom, others among us were thoroughly enjoying this very scenic trail. There were many fine views to the east that are not afforded along the trail we came up on the day before.

my new wallpaper

our animule

Dave finally accepts that (pack) size DOES matter

pepper acting as chaperone

the ubiquitous cell phone: we had at least 7 among us

When we were about a mile and a half from the bottom, Dave and I were again lingering at a viewpoint when we were approached by a young woman who turned out to be a "trail angel". For those who have never heard of trail angels, they are people you meet along the way that offer some unexpected help. I don't think giving directions counts, but more tangible assistance like food or equipment would certainly qualify. In our case, we were coming down the mountain to a different spot along the road than where our vehicles were parked. This meant that at least one of us had to walk or jog along the road for about a mile to retrieve a car or truck. I had volunteered to do this since I was the one who had suggested this alternate route down. But now, as we neared the end of our journey, we were offered a ride by this friendly stranger. This would save our group about 30 minutes of waiting time. Multiplied by the number of our group (not including the dog) and this cumulatively saved us over four hours! Anyway, assisted by this angel I was able to shuttle my van back to the new parking lot before any of the others even got to the end of the trail, so there was no lost time at all.

All in all, it was another successful trip. As far as I could tell, everyone enjoyed themselves. Not only did we maintain a family tradition... but we also learned new things, tried out some new equipment, walked some new trails, and established some new relationships. My wife and I wish to thank all those who contributed to making this adventure what it was.

back down, safe and sound

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