A walk in the woods — or four
My week off from work coincided with my daughter’s return from a seven-week summer ballet intensive and my son’s return from one week at Scout camp.
We had it all: the whole family back together, beautiful weather and nothing to do but enjoy summer.
The boy has missed his sister during her first year away from home, and demonstrated his welcome by talking her ear off. The girl loves city life, but was more than ready for weeks back home in the country.
I know there’s something out there called nature deficit disorder, when children spend all their time indoors watching TV or computer screens, are unfamiliar with plants and animals and unable to climb trees or occupy unstructured time.
“The statistics are alarming: In a typical week, only 6 percent of children ages 9 to 13 play outside on their own and kids 8 to 18 spend an overwhelming 53 hours a week using entertainment media,” according to The Nature Conservancy.
I suffer from something like that while I’m at work, but my kids — even the city one — don’t. And playing outdoors is about all we did on vacation.
We went hiking every other day, swam in lakes, spent time with our animals and worked together in the gardens, picking, weeding and eating. If the daughter, in her eagerness to help, accidently pulled out a couple of pepper plants while weeding in the corn, at least she replanted them. If the boy talked more than he picked, at least we got caught up on his adventures at camp.
Camp week coincides with the boy’s birthday every year, a great sorrow for him. We tried to make it up by taking his traditional birthday hike up Hadley Mountain, a few days late. Some friends joined us for cupcakes on the top, and we were rewarded with an abundant crop of wild blueberries to pick.
Last year, the early bloom and late frost made it the worst berry year I’ve ever seen, and we didn’t pick any. This year there are plenty for eating, freezing for winter and for all the grouse, bear and other wild creatures that had to change their diets last year from berries to acorns.
Gathering wild food is one of the special pleasures of summer. Combing woods for raspberries and blackberries, filling backpacks with blueberries, gathering wild apples, grapes and chokecherries for jelly helps us connect the wild outdoors with our domestic lives, and reminds us that we are all a part of the natural world. We spent an extra hour on Hadley, picking.
Midweek we went north to do a couple of Adirondack high peaks, Street and Nye mountains, with a friend who is an aspiring 46er. We had heard from several people that Street and Nye wasn’t a great hike — no views, they said — but for us hiking is the journey and not just the peak.
“What could possibly be bad about walking up a mountain?” is how my daughter put it, and that’s the way I felt. I just like walking in the woods, and the hike offered that and more: a walk part-way around a lake, magnificent moss-covered boulders, lots of toads, a rocky brook to travel along and a rockier river to cross, deep woods of pine and balsam.
And best of all, solitude. A hike that so many consider subpar means you can have a whole mountain almost to yourself.
We took some berry bags just in case, but in the thick woods few berries grow.
So two days later, my daughter and I climbed a mountain whose top we know to be covered in wild blueberry bushes.
It’s a magical mountain, with an unmarked, steep and twisting trail that’s easy to lose. But if you just keep heading up, ledge after ledge, you can’t really get lost and you will get to the top.
Wild blueberries are the lowbush variety, more a ground cover than a proper bush. The berries are tiny, perfect for baking, and I freeze them in one-cup portions for making muffins and pancakes in the winter. This year, because of all the rain, they are much bigger than usual, which still makes them about half the size of their highbush cousin. That’s the kind that produces the bigger blueberry you’ll find in the market or at blueberry farms.
Because wild blueberries are so small, picking takes a long time, and when you’re on top of a mountain, with a breeze blowing off a nearby lake and bees buzzing around as you bend and pick, it’s easy to lose track of time. I think we spent two hours on top picking, but maybe it was longer. Certainly it was long enough to send my husband into a state of panic, especially since he had no clear idea of how long the hiking part of the adventure would take.
I was measuring time by berries, and after we filled the bags we had brought, we filled our water bottles. We put 14 one-cup bags in the freezer from that hike, and had several pints in the fridge for fresh eating and a few to give to friends.
The mountaintop, and several of its ledges were blue with berries, so I suggested a return trip. My son has limited patience for picking and opted to go biking with a friend.
My daughter, still recovering from mountain deficit disorder from her year away from home, agreed at once.
This time we gave my husband plenty of warning about how long we might take and limited our picking time to one hour. It was another beautiful day, and we watched clouds form and drift over the lake, felt the hot sun and the fresh breezes, and tried to name the mountains in the distance.
We got lots of berries, only met two people and lost the trail on the way down instead of the way up.
No matter. What could possibly be bad about walking down a mountain?
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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