When the Niskayuna High School Outing Club was hit with pandemic restrictions, they had no choice but to stay inside.
“What are we going to do if we can’t get together?” said Tom Caffrey, a Niskayuna High School Latin teacher and one of two advisers to the outing club.
The club had done a couple of hikes last school year before the pandemic shut their outdoor excursions down. But Caffrey, his co-adviser Jeff Ormsbee and some of the club’s students wanted to find a project to keep them connected to one another and their passion for hiking.
“A lot of people felt trapped inside, cooped up,” junior Alex Gallo said last week as she and a small group set for a rainy hike in the over 100-acre nature sanctuary tucked into a Niskayuna neighborhood behind the former home of famous Adirondack conservationist Paul Schaefer, now managed by Union College as a special library.
The group, which also included Gallo’s younger sister, Gianna Gallo, a Niskayuna ninth grader, junior Michael Puccioni and both Ormsbee and Caffrey, was about to tackle the nearly 1.5-mile-long loop through the Henry G. Reist Wildlife Sanctuary on St. Davids Lane, which by early May was flush green with new growth and signs of life emerging from dormancy.
“After being stuck at home for so long it’s almost surreal,” Puccioni said of returning to group hiking with the club, which he joined this year. “It’s actually quite refreshing.”
During its period of forced hibernation, the outing club developed a new hiking challenge, the Niskayuna 9, to encourage families and kids to get out and explore the trails. Complete with a patch designed by Alex Gallo — red and silver, Niskayuna colors, on a background of mountains — the nine-hike challenge targets families and aims to serve as a nearby pathway to a passion for hiking and exploring nature. It’s also an idea of some places to shake off those quarantine aches.
“It’s a great way to get kids out of the house locally to enjoy the outdoors right in our backyard,” said Alex Gallo, who has taken more of a leadership role in the club this year.
The students, who are also working to develop more materials to promote the challenge and have volunteered time this spring on trail maintenance projects in the area, said developing the new hiking challenge helped them discover some places in their hometown they hadn’t known before.
“I always knew there were some, but I didn’t know there were so many,” Gallo said of the local hikes.
At one point, they had a list of about a dozen local hikes, but preferred a challenge name with a little alliteration. The hikes selected offer a range of options for hikers of different experience levels, with a focus on options for families with kids. The mix of hikes offer opportunities to explore local creeks and kills and pockets of wild tucked into the countless neighborhoods and subdivisions. (There is some overlap with another Schenectady County-based hiking challenge but both offer their own variety.)
“You can do whatever you feel like doing,” Caffrey said. “Get out there and see the trails.”
The challenge includes hikes at nine local spots (with descriptions from the outing club’s guide to the challenge):
- Fox Preserve in Colonie, home to just over one mile of trails;
- Henry Gerber Reist Sanctuary in Niskayuna, a 1.4-mile loop through a preserve off St. Davids Lane;
- Indian Kill Nature Preserve in Glenville, a 2.6-mile loop featuring a waterfall;
- Indian Meadows in Glenville, a 1.5-mile loop with the option to connect to Andersen Park;
- Lisha Kill Preserve in Niskayuna, a 2.2-mile loop, featuring views of the kills and small waterfalls;
- Mohawk River State Park, includes the 7.5-mile John Brown Hiking Trail;
- Moccasin Kill Sanctuary, includes a 1-mile loop trail;
- Mohawk-Hudson Bike/Hike Trail, provides access to over 30 miles of paved trails (any portion satisfies the requirements of the hiking challenge), and;
- Plotter Kill Preserve, home to over 6 miles of trails and two significant waterfalls.
The outing club students also volunteered to take on a trail maintenance project at Indian Meadows in Glenville. The students reached out to Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle to offer their help and have been working to repurpose a washed-out bridge as a path through a difficult-to-cross wetlands area on the park’s trail.
Last month they rolled out a completion form and officially opened the hiking challenge, putting in the first run of patches too. But even the students were still working through their lists.
“I’ve been to almost all of them,” said Gianna Gallo. “This will be the fifth,” she said.
Some high school classes have also gotten in on the action of the new challenge, the club advisers said. A child psychology class at the high school is working on developing a child-friendly guide to the hikes, which could include places for kids to draw pictures of the flora and fauna they observe on the trails. A human geography class is working on trail maps.
Ormsbee and Caffrey formed the outing club about a decade ago.
“The whole idea of the club is to introduce kids to the outside, to start on that path,” said Ormsbee, a biology teacher at the high school. “To know places to go, to feel confident, comfortable and prepared.”
Caffrey said he already knows of some families that have started ticking off the hikes, including some of their teacher colleagues.
“People are looking for things to do that are safe and local,” Caffrey said.
Family No. 1
When prospective Adirondack 46ers submit their completion forms, they await official approval and their completion number, now well into the five figures. It turns out there exists more than a little envy for those hikers who can claim low numbers.
The honor of “number 1” for the new Niskayuna 9 goes to the Laser family. The family, which moved to the area about five years ago and have been exploring local trails ever since, was already familiar with all of the Niskayuna 9 hikes and were quickly able to complete the challenge.
“That’s like my biggest thing: to try and get them outside all of the time,” said Adriana Laser, who completed the challenge with her three kids, ages 3, 8 and 10. “I was so excited because we normally never have something to work toward, a goal or a patch.”
She said the formalized challenge was a good incentive to bolster the not-always-easy task of encouraging the kids outside for another hike and offers a central source of information about the trail options.
“It was still nice to see someone collate it and acknowledge it and put it together and make it fun,” she said.
The two oldest kids, Zachary, 10, and Madelyn, 8, in a recent phone interview said they have had fun on the hikes and recalled walking on ice and snow as they explored Plotter Kill and other areas.
“You guys really liked Plotter Kill, that’s the one with the really long waterfall,” Adriana said, reminding them of the different places they visited.
Just as she got to the reminder about the large waterfalls at Plotter Kill, Madelyn remembered something else about that particular outing.
“That was like five miles more than it’s supposed to be,” Madelyn said, a not uncommon refrain from hikers who explore the lower reaches of the preserve.
“Madelyn is usually the one that gives a groan,” Adriana said. “Then I remind her every time we go out there, we have a good time.”
What’s Zachary’s favorite part of the outdoor adventures?
“The nature, probably,” he said. “It was really pretty with all of the ice.”