a conversation with the earth guidebooks + guided hiking

Posts categorized “Hiking/Trekking North America”.

Ruedi National Park

By Craig Copeland, originally published in Explore Magazine

RuediRuedi Beglinger rarely sits still long, so we knew we had his full attention when lightning was blasting the surrounding peaks, rattling the foundations of his Durrand Glacier Chalet, eliciting startled yelps from the room full of guests finishing dinner, and his eyes didn’t waver from ours.

Yet our conversation wasn’t about climbing, skiing or mountaineering. Ruedi’s mastery of these pursuits is internationally revered. It’s the basis of the successful guiding business he founded 25 years ago. It’s the fulcrum on which his unique life balances high in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. It’s what all his clients would humbly sit at his feet to hear him expound upon.

But no, our topic was one most people would consider mundane but Ruedi suggested—with solemn demeanor and carefully chosen words—is profound.

We spoke of walking.

“High adrenaline sports are thrilling, but they require intense concentration and focus,” he said in his lilting Swiss-German accent. “They don’t let you go deep into yourself. You can’t hear your subconscious mind.

“Walking is better for your soul. It calms you. It helps you find clarity. If I were a psychologist, I would tell my patients to walk at least an hour every day. If world leaders spent time walking in nature, we would have fewer problems, more solutions.”

The majority of Ruedi’s clients are skiers, so they don’t see his devotion to walking. But it’s obvious in summer, after Durrand’s ponderous snowpack has melted, because emanating from the chalet are 75 kilometres of Swiss-quality hiking trails he designed and keeps impeccably maintained. They fan out across his 83-square-kilometre leasehold, linking flowery meadows, glaciated basins, verdant ridges, and panoramic summits.

While hiking at Durrand last summer with my wife, Kathy, we agreed it was an ingenious, elegant trail network—the equal of any we’d experienced in our 50,000-kilometre career as guidebook writers. I called it “alpine art, like Christo’s environmental installations only functional and lasting.” She pronounced it “orgasmic.”

As for beauty, Durrand is so varied and dramatic within such a compact area, its scenic wattage rivals that of the most iconic settings in the Canadian Rockies: Lake O’Hara, Mt. Edith Cavell, even Lake Louise. But those destinations are accessible by vehicle, thus frequently mobbed. Ruedi National Park, as we began referring to it, is inaccessible on foot, which means its scores a perfect “10” for tranquility.

Meltwater from Durrand Glacier trickles over bedrock, funnels into a roaring double waterfall, then rips through a steep, bushy, rocky gorge to Lake Revelstoke. Perhaps a baboon could ascend it, but the last people who tried failed: two burly foresters who were spent after clambering only 4 kilometres in eight hours.

Woolsey Creek, the other approach to this remote enclave, is equally daunting. A tortuous road once pierced the lower reaches of the drainage, and a labourious trail continued through prime grizzly habitat into the alpine zone. But the road has been impassable and the trail indiscernible for nearly two decades.

And that’s it for hiker access, because Durrand is otherwise walled off by intimidating, bodyguard peaks and the crazily-crevassed ice of neighbouring glaciers. To hike Durrand you must first fly there by helicopter from just north of Revelstoke. The cost of the flight is included in the $945 to $1800 you’ll pay for three days to a full week at Durrand Glacier Chalet July through September.

The day we flew in, our gaze was fixed on the horizon, where rock and ice clawed at a shatterproof blue sky. Suddenly we were hovering over the 1939-metre subalpine knoll crowned by the barn-red Durrand Glacier Chalet. Moments later we met the extraordinary family who lives there, inspiring awe, envy and gratitude in all who visit them.

Ruedi, the man of the chalet and the high priest of the realm, was born in Glarus, Switzerland in 1954. He was roaming the Alps before most kids his age could navigate the local tot lot. His father, a policeman who once chased a fleeing criminal across treacherous glaciers in zero-visibility weather for three days (and caught him), took Ruedi on his first summer mountaineering trip at age 4 and his first ski-mountaineering trip at age 6.

Ruedi completed his Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagne certification—the gold standard for mountaineering and skiing guides—at the astonishingly young age of 22. Three years later he immigrated to Canada and was soon guiding for a Revelstoke-based heli-ski company.

But heli-skiing lacked the challenge Ruedi thrives on. He was uncomfortable with how a noisy chopper constantly buzzing a peak harasses wildlife. Plus he resented the effect it had on him and his clients.

“Being rushed by a loud machine is bad for you” Ruedi says. “You can’t reflect. If you can’t reflect, you can’t fully appreciate nature and the mountain experience.”

So Ruedi began independently guiding ski-mountaineering tours in the Selkirks, which required him to frequently examine topo maps, and that’s when Durrand Glacier snared his attention.

“Looking at the map, I knew it was the perfect place,” he said. “I applied for the lease immediately, in ’83. I didn’t actually see it until I skied there in the spring of ’85. I got the building permit that summer and started immediately.”

Ruedi Read the book, “How to Build a Timber Frame Cabin,” masterfully constructed the chalet himself, then welcomed his first guests that winter. Word quickly spread that Ruedi and Durrand were the Zeus and Mt. Olympus of backcountry skiing. Clients began queuing up to glide behind the ski god atop the 24 meters of snow that blankets his mountain kingdom each winter. Among them was an athletic beauty named Nicoline and whose last name, three years later, was Beglinger.

“When I went home after that first week at Durrand, my father rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, of course,’ he said, “they always fall in love with the guide.’ But I knew. I knew the minute I met Ruedi.”

Nicoline became Ruedi’s partner in every respect. A business-school graduate, she was soon running the Durrand operation. For a decade she did all the cooking for guests. She still bakes the delectable afternoon snacks: Engadina nut torts, Lindzer torts, Swiss zucher torts, Swiss apple flan. The chalet’s relaxed, homey atmosphere is clearly the result of her influence. And while she’s not the blackbelt alpinist Ruedi is, her mastery of climbing, skiing and mountaineering is impressive, especially given her flat-lander childhood.

“I grew up on a Fraser Valley farm,” says Nicoline. “Mountains were nice to look at—from the sun deck. I didn’t climb a ladder without someone holding it for me. I could barely look down from the top of a silo.”

Falling in love with Ruedi meant falling in love with the mountains, which she did, completely. It’s an experience that, to a tiny degree, most of his clients have shared. They don’t fall in love with him precisely, but they do fall under his powerful influence and begin seeing the mountains and themselves through his eyes. Having spent a day summitting a peak with Ruedi, I can attest to this.

Though Kath and I are strong hikers, we’re merely capable scramblers, and the mountain Ruedi chose for our day together—2768-metre Tumbledown Mountain—was definitely a scramble we wouldn’t have ventured alone. The route follows a long, serrated-knife ridge, poses a sense of exposure, and crosses the upper edge of two glaciers.

We set out well before other guests gathered for breakfast. Keeping a determined pace, we talked little. Midway up the summit ridge, I realized Kath and I were moving much faster and more confidently on this vertical terrain than we would have on our own. Yet Ruedi was ahead and did not appear to be scrutinizing us. How did he know we were up to this when we hadn’t known it ourselves?

The art of guiding is the art of assessing clients’ limits and abilities—mental as well as physical—and Ruedi had assessed ours instantly, with x-ray accuracy. He’d done it so subtly we hadn’t noticed. A few glimpses. That’s all he needed.

“Well, hey, if the über-guide believes we can dance up mountains like this, then of course we can,” I thought. And we did. It was liberating to punch through our obviously self-imposed limitations as if they were wet tissue. Our appreciation for Ruedi’s expertise soared along with our self-assurance.

At the summit, Ruedi checked on his other guides via radio. They were leading less advanced groups on gentle hikes. Most of his guests should be and prefer to be guided. But if he deems them competent, he allows experienced hikers to explore Durrand on their own, as long as they carry radios and frequently notify the chalet of their whereabouts. That’s what we’d done prior to our day on Tumbledown.

Descending off the summit, Kath and I slowed at a dicey step between craggy ridgecrest and steep ice. But Ruedi had anticipated our hesitation and, instead of continuing to lead, was awaiting our arrival. Calmly, succinctly, firmly, he corrected our technique. “Keep your hands off the rock. Stay upright. Trust your feet.”

Ruedi’s superhuman prescience is understandable once you’ve seen his resume—a weighty document brimming with the names of the world’s most fearsome peaks, and littered with the word “first.” For example, in addition to dozens of climbing and ski-mountaineering accomplishments that rival the significance of an Olympic gold medal, Ruedi has led 159 clients on first ascents in Europe and Canada.

Yet here he was, with a couple of lowly hikers in what amounted to his back yard, on a minor mountain he’d traversed countless times, obviously enjoying the experience. At one point, while crossing a meadow, he marvelled at a flush of psychedelic wildflowers, plopped down on his back, and excitedly began photographing them against the sky.

“I’m glad you’re not bored today,” I told him. He responded with a glance that said, “Impossible.”

“When I first started guiding in Switzerland,” he explained, “I just wanted to climb mountains. My deep passion for mountaineering was everything. But that changes as you mature. You begin to appreciate sharing the route with your client, sharing the beauty of the entire experience of being in the mountains.

“With age, you get more perceptive,” he elaborated. “You start to notice special little details, maybe how the water specifically jumps over the rock before falling. Sometimes guests don’t see things. You have to point them out. ‘Look at the beauty of this flower, or this crack, or this skyline.’ When you’re a young guide, you don’t notice these either, much less share them.

“When you’re 20, and you have to guide an easy route, you think, ‘Oh, I have to do this?’ But you’ll never last as a guide if it’s always about you: ‘If I guide, I get to ski. If I guide, I get to hike.’ Selfish guides become ex-guides.”

“The only way you can keep guiding, is if you have a passion for sharing with your guests. Today I’m just as happy guiding an easy route as a hard one. It doesn’t matter if I ski or climb or hike. A thousand times a day I’ll say, ‘Wow! Look at this. It’s amazing!’ I’m still saying that, every time I go out.”

And boy, does Ruedi go out often. He guides 280 days a year. Each winter, he breaks more than a million vertical feet of trail for some 400 skiers. In summer, he prowls the backcountry constantly—one day hiking with clients like us, the next perhaps leading a seventeen-pitch, 5.12b, alpine rock-route.

His feats of endurance are legendary. “Rest days?” he asks. “Not necessary for me.” By all accounts, he’s inexhaustible. Indestructible, too. Despite pounding up and down mountains his entire life, he and chronic knee pain are strangers. On the rare occasion he’s bothered by a sore muscle, he just forges back into the wilds. Perpetual, vigourous motion restores him, he says. It’s the only therapy he ever needs.

Just looking at Ruedi, however, you’d have no idea you’re in the presence of an alpine Tarzan. Neither his stature nor demeanor are the least bit intimidating. He appears to be a typical, if reasonably fit, 54 year old. He’s five feet eight inches tall, with curly, thinning hair and crow’s feet. One of his guests described him as having “the approximate physique of a stick figure.”

But if you watch Ruedi walk, even on smooth ground, you’ll detect a rhythmic, loping gate and a barely-contained athleticism. It’s as if a single, resolute stride could propel him to the nearest rooftop, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Engage him in conversation and you’ll notice that, although he’s smiling, completely at ease, his eyes are hyper-alert. It appears he could catch flies with chopsticks, like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.

Actually, Ruedi’s bearing is quite Miyagi-esque. He’s unflappable. Beatific. Humble. He speaks of his achievements only when prodded to do so, and even then, only briefly and matter-of-factly. He’s more interested in doing than talking. And what he mostly does is help others tap newfound depths of strength and courage by constantly demonstrating those virtues himself. He did that for us while descending from Tumbledown, though we weren’t aware of it until later.

Traversing the skirt of the mountain, we were startled to come upon a grand cairn. A four-metre-tall stone monument draped with Tibetan prayer flags, it was obviously much more than a mere route marker. Who built it? For what purpose? We had no idea. Nor did we ask, because while approaching it we noticed a subtle mood shift in Ruedi—from loose and affable to detached and pensive—which nudged us to quietly observe rather than question.

We took photographs while Ruedi tended the cairn. He carefully restacked rocks and patiently pulled the prayer flags taut. Finally he looked up and tilted his head in our direction of travel as if to ask, “Shall we continue?” Off we went, soon chatting again. We assumed the cairn was a shrine to Durrand, that Ruedi had built it out of reverence for his alpine sanctum. We thought no more of it.

But that evening at the chalet, Ruedi joined us for dinner, the conversation turned to walking, and suddenly the significance of the cairn pierced our awareness like the lightning that had begun assaulting nearby summits, illuminating the dusky sky, and alarming other guests.

The cairn, we learned, was known as Seven Ravens. He’d built it as a monument to the four Canadians and three Americans who died in a Class 3 avalanche at Durrand. The catastrophe occurred January 20, 2003, at 10:45 a.m., while Ruedi was guiding 20 skiers on the 33-degree west couloir of a 2560-metre peak named La Traviata.

Nobody blamed Ruedi for the deaths. The RCMP and independent avalanche investigators absolved him. Survivors of the tragedy as well as families of the victims were unanimously and emphatically supportive of Ruedi rather than derisive or litigious. All agreed the avalanche was an unpredictable fluke of nature. They felt sympathy for Ruedi and grief for the deceased in equal measure.

Yet the crushing weight of the avalanche remained on Ruedi, threatening to smother him and all he had built at Durrand. He sought help. He visited a reputable psychologist. After just two sessions he decided it would do him no good.

“I knew what I needed,” Ruedi explained. “I needed to go deep into myself, on my own. To do that, I needed to walk.

“Skiing and climbing demand all your awareness. You’re not free to listen to your soul. So I started walking again, not just skiing and climbing.

“While walking I face myself. I become more philosophical. The more I walked, the more I could recapture images of the avalanche and put the pieces together.

“I was on the ridge again, looking down as the slide occurred. I came to see, to know, that I had made the right decisions, that it was impossible to calculate an avalanche would be triggered.

“You’re walkers,” he said to Kath and me. “Have you noticed that if you spot something, maybe a mountain goat, you’re plucked from the subconscious to the conscious, and you lose the deeper connection?”

“Yes, of course” we agreed.

“Well,” he said, “the big, important answers are in the subconscious. But you can gain that deeper connection again quickly, if you just keep walking.”

“So,” he concluded, “I kept walking.”

The next day, our last at Durrand, Kath and I hiked alone. We topped out high on a moraine overlooking the area’s namesake glacier, the chalet, and the surrounding alplands. We could see the trails we’d walked previously. We spotted others we hadn’t walked and now wished we had. And we realized the trails in Ruedi National Park are much longer than we’d imagined possible. They lead all the way from anguish to redemption.


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Backpacking Washington State’s Inland Fiord

The Chelan Lakeshore Trail

On a recent trip to Washington State, we allowed a couple extra days for what we believe is one of the world’s premier backpack trips: the Chelan Lakeshore Trail. You’ll find a complete description of it in our book Hiking from Here to WOW: North Cascades. We hope the following field report will nudge you to pick up a copy.

Last winter left a deep snowpack in the mountain ranges of western North America. Trails that would typically be hikeable by late May remained snowbound this year. Lake Chelan, however, though wedged between lofty mountains, had been snow-free for several weeks prior to our arrival. And while unusually cool, rainy weather continued badgering western states and provinces, the conditions at Lake Chelan were ideal when we arrived: sunshine, blue sky, daytime highs of 25°C (82°F).

So Lake Chelan earns The Opinionated Hikers’ Seal of Approval for early-season availability. Yet there’s another, even more compelling reason to hike here: four-star scenery.

For the two or three days you’ll follow this trail—among stately pines, over exposed rock, past exuberant wildflowers*, in and out of lush drainages—the lake is constantly visible. So are the North Cascades rising abruptly from the far shore. Sometimes you’ll drop to lake level. Occasionally you’ll contour steep cliffs. Often you’ll rise over headlands granting a godly perspective of this 55-mi (88.5-km) long, inland fiord.

We’re continually surprised to discover Lake Chelan is not as well known as it deserves to be. On our way there, we stayed with friends in Kelowna, B.C., who’d never heard of it. After leaving Chelan, we stayed with friends in Seattle who’d never heard of it. “Where’s Lake Chelan?” they asked. It’s on the east side of the North Cascades, off Hwy 97, about 45 minutes north of Wenatchee.

The elevation of Lake Chelan is 1098 ft (335 m), which explains why it’s reliably snow free in early season. The peaks directly above rise to 5000 ft (1524 m). The water is 1486 ft (453 m) deep, plunging 388 ft (118 m) below sea level. Measured from the lake bottom to the height of land, it’s a deeper abyss than the Grand Canyon.

From the town of Chelan, drive to Fields Point Landing, on the lake’s west shore. Leave your vehicle in the spacious, secure (locked nightly) parking lot. Board the Lady of the Lake II, a tour boat that departs daily at 9:45 a.m. Disembark at Prince Creek, on the east shore. From there, follow the trail north 18 mi (29 km) to the hamlet of Stehekin (lodge, campground, store, cafe, bakery). Then catch the Lady at 2 p.m., returning down-lake to Fields Point. The round-trip boat fare is $40 per person.

On day one, we hiked 11.5 mi (18.5 km) to Moore Point. (That distance includes the 0.5 mi / 0.8 km spur down to the campground.) The total elevation gain on this undulating leg is about 1000 ft (305 m). It’s also possible to hike just 8 mi (12.9 km) and camp at Cascade Creek. From Moore Point, on the morning of day two, we hiked 0.5 mi (0.8 km) up to the lakeshore trail, then 7 mi (11.3 km) north to Stehekin.

It’s possible to catch the first boat, which departs Stehekin at noon. But why? We spent the morning doing lazy yoga on the old wharf at Moore Point. We reached Stehekin in time to slowly pick apart a locally baked cinnamon bun big as a frisbee. We caught the Lady at 2 p.m. We were back at Fields Point, loading our packs into our car, shortly after 5 p.m. A few minutes later, we pitched our tent and took hot showers at nearby Chelan State Park.

For more details about the Chelan Lakeshore trail (and other trails up-valley from Stehekin that afford several more days of fruitful exploration), purchase our book Hiking from Here to WOW: North Cascades. You’ll find it at Mountain Equipment Co-op, REI, Indigo/Chapters, Amazon.com, and right here at hikingcamping.com.

*The wildflowers we saw in early June, 2011, included lupine (purple), columbine (orange and yellow), penstemon (lavender), paintbrush (red), and Goat’s beard (yellow).

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Hiking The Literally White Mountains

From New York, we drove through Vermont’s rolling hills and pretty forests to the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. After spending two weeks in the sedate Catskills, we were eager to hike bigger mountains.

We expected the Presidential Range — biggest in New  England — to impress us. We considered hiking up Mt. Washington, highest in the range, until we learned there’s a road to the 6288-ft (1917-m) summit. So we chose Franconia Ridge, which includes the summits of Mounts Lincoln and Lafayette. At 5260 ft (1604 m), Lafayette is the 7th highest peak in New England. The Franconia Ridge loop is 9 mi (14.5 km) long and entails a 4,000-ft (1219-m) ascent/descent but grants a 1.8-mi (3-km) cruise along the alpine ridgecrest. Apparently this is a scenic bargain here in the tree-clad eastern half of the country.

Approaching the trailhead, we drove through a couple “notches” (passes) and were encouraged to see exposed, rock cliffs. “Ah! Real mountains!” we thought.

Midway up the bouldery, aggressively steep trail, the weather turned grim. Though we were swift, we were in full-on winter conditions by the time we surmounted the ridge. We peered north along the crest into a frigid, windy, snowy, whiteout. The region is notorious for these sudden onslaughts. We considered turning back but were sufficiently equipped that proceeding cautiously did not
seem foolishly risky. We stayed hyper alert about avoiding injury and staying on course.

Losing your way on Franconia Ridge would normally be all but impossible, because the route is occasionally cairned and frequently lined with stones. Many of these markers, however, were buried in snowdrifts that sometimes reached our thighs. So we simply followed the crest of the narrow ridge and kept pushing northward. The temperature was -9°C (about 16° F) not counting wind chill. Conditions rapidly deteriorated into a blizzard. We did, however, glimpse our surroundings a couple times when the clouds briefly parted. Forested valleys and gentle, rolling mountains extended in every direction.

By the time we summitted Lafayette, even the intensity of our effort was not keeping us warm, so we were glad to begin the descent. We were even happier to discover the Greenleaf hut, part way down the descent route, was still open. We gratefully stopped there to refuel.

Resuming the loop, the route steepens markedly below the hut, and we encountered long stretches of treacherous ice. Deliberate foot- and pole-work was necessary to prevent a bone-breaking tumble. Very slow and frustrating.

Lessons learned? The stature of a mountain range and the quality of its trails don’t necessarily correspond. Even a “good” trail in the Whites can be rough. The Canadian Rockies are enormous, yet the trails tend to be gentler under foot, often allowing you to stride. Rockies’ trails also ascend more gradually. And to surmount treeline in the Whites you must, on average, endure twice the ascent necessary in the Rockies.

One hike is not a fair sampling, we know. And visibility during our Franconia outing was poor. Still, we concluded it’s not worthwhile for hikers from the West to devote precious hiking time in the East. A severe shortage of alpine terrain in the East prevents adequate scenic compensation.

In the Canadian Rockies, the North Cascades, or either Canada’s or America’s Glacier National Park, you can spend hours on end traversing glorious, see-forever, alpine slopes and ridges. Even Franconia Ridge, fringed with krummholz, barely qualifies as “alpine.” If it’s constant views you seek, Utah canyon country is unbeatable. If you want to marvel at trees, the grand, ancient, cathedral forests of the North Cascades easily dwarf the oldest, loveliest eastern groves.

We met several hikers in the the Atlantic states and Maritime provinces who said, “Oh, there are lots of great places to hike here.” Some said, “The Adirondacks are much better than the Catskills.” Others said, “Forget the Adirondacks, hike the Whites.” In Quebec, atop the third and final summit of the sentier l’acropoles, in the hautes gorges de la rivière Malbaie dans Charlevoix, we met a hiker from Montreal who said, “This is very nice, but the best hiking in Quebec is in the Chic Chocs, in Parc de le Gaspesie.”

We listened attentively to all of them. We even took notes. But we were too kind to speak our minds…

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you’d ever hiked out west. One good day in the Rockies, the Cascades, or Utah canyon country and you’ll experience a paradigm shift of tectonic-plate proportions.”

The Whites afforded us a vigorous challenge, a strong feeling of accomplishment, and a sense of wilderness. We enjoyed it. We’re very glad we’ve hiked in the East. If we had to live there, we’d still be happy, mountain freaks. But we’d head west at every opportunity.

If you live in eastern Canada or the U.S., we urge you to come west for a hiking vacation. “Awesome” is a threadbare cliche, but where we live, you’ll be hard pressed to think of a more apt adjective to describe the mountain scenery.

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Urban Hiking in Manhattan

We just spent three days in Manhattan, where we walked everywhere and were constantly in a state of wonder. Total on-foot distance: 20 miles, more than half of which was at night. Our basecamp was the apartment of friends who live uptown, in Washington Heights.

We’d previously urban hiked in London, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco. All were exhilarating. But New York? It never appealed to us because, we now realize, our preconceptions were laughably distant from reality.

Driving into the city we were slightly on edge. Intending to walk extensively, we wondered how best to avoid getting mugged. That’s ridiculous. Common sense and basic street smarts were all we needed to feel and remain absolutely safe. On day two, our friends were pleased to hear us announce that “Affection has evicted trepidation.”

Aggressive, abrasive New Yorkers? We met none. They didn’t ride their car horns in traffic. Never did they bulldoze us off the sidewalk. None of our fellow subway passengers was pushy or intimidating. Whenever we engaged anyone, they were kind and helpful. Most were bright, open, willing to interact with us longer than courtesy dictated. Often we were touched by their warmth. Civility and civic pride are pervasive in NYC.

By the time we left, we agreed we wouldn’t have lived fully had we not explored this magnificent city. And that’s coming from a couple of wilderness zealots. It seems we’ll be feeling the impact of our visit for a long time. Having just left, here’s what we see when we close our eyes:

The Chrysler Building, whose celestial spire is utterly distinct among NYC’s dozens of astounding towers. From a distance, this sublime skyscraper looks like it links earth and heaven, as if it might be the conduit through which virtuous souls ascend to the pearly gates. It’s 319-m (1047-ft) high — a statistic that’s especially meaningful if you’re a hiker. And the lobby? Wow. An art-deco temple. Marble, onyx, amber, and gold leaf. Egyptian pharaohs adorn the elevator doors. Many contemporary architects think this is NYC’s most impressive tower. We agree, but we think the world’s most impressive building is…

The New York Public Library, at 5th Avenue at 42nd Street. It’s a shrine to books, to reading, to learning. When it opened in 1911, it housed more than a million volumes on 121 km (75 mi) of shelves. The Beaux-Arts structure is stunning inside and out. We find it more rousing than the monumental buildings of Europe, in part because it’s not merely a monument. It’s a functioning, public building. You can actually check out a book. Or settle into a magnificent chair at a grand table in the main reading room (the size of a football field) and concentrate in an inspiring atmosphere where literature is sacred. Among the library’s many startling features are the ceiling murals. Tilt your
head back, and you’re not assaulted by ridiculous cherubs or guilt-inducing biblical characters. Instead you gaze into a blue sky adorned with billowing white clouds, suggesting the unlimited possibilities available to an open, inquisitive mind.

Whatever your appetite, NYC will satisfy it. After several hours of walking, we were ravenous. But we continued passing alluring restaurants until arriving at the 2nd Avenue Deli, at 162 East 33rd Street, between Lexington and 3rd avenues. It was worth the hike. Our kosher pastrami-on-rye sandwiches were so thick, the top slices of bread were nearly vertical. Though utterly unadorned, they were delectable. Still, every couple bites we varied the taste by adding a spoonful of fresh, tangy mustard. Everything about the experience — the collegial staff, historic atmosphere, pickled green tomatoes — felt like we were participating in a venerable tradition. If we lived in NYC, you’d find us seated at the 2nd Avenue Deli’s marble counter at least once a week.

We were awed by Central Park, of course, but NYC is rife with parks: islands of nature punctuating the manmade environment. Some are tiny yet gorgeous, like the one sequestered near the U.N. building. Others are unique, for example High Line Park (www.thehighline.org). Built on an elevated 1930s railway, it was completed this summer. Tall, native grasses now sway in the breeze where trains once whooshed across Manhattan. Views are constant: over the Hudson River, toward Jersey City, and into an industrial district of historic, brick buildings. Most people enjoy the park as a promenade, but it also has wooden chaise lounges where you can relax.

From High Line Park, we began a long, rambling, evening stroll into West Greenwich Village. We were entranced by charming cafes, intriguing boutiques, and our fellow strollers. After staring up at skyscrapers all day, we were soothed by the human-scale village. The streets are narrow, leafy, and the brick buildings rarely exceed four stories. It reminded us of Amsterdam. We later learned this was indeed where the Dutch originally settled.

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Metropolitan Museum, the International Center for Photography, Times Square — each was engaging. For us, however, one experience surpassed them all: walking the Brooklyn Bridge.

Our first morning in the city, we began our tour by riding the subway to Brooklyn Heights and admiring the city across the East River while sauntering along the Esplanade (yes, we do occasionally, briefly slow down), then picking up the pace and entering the melee on foot via the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has a broad, pedestrian walkway above the vehicle lanes, allowing you to enjoy the wondrous view in relative peace and security. The Statue of Liberty is far left. Wall Street is left. Ahead is the Woolworth Building. Right is the Empire State Building. And that’s but a fraction of what’s in view.

Our last night in the city, we walked from Central Park back to the Brooklyn Bridge and crossed it again, this time in the opposite direction, turning frequently to admire the illuminated cityscape. It was wondrous. We felt like time-travelling savages who’d wandered into the 21st century’s most vital metropolis. We were awed, reluctant to leave, yet compelled to return to our distant home in the wilderness.

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Hiking the Catskills: May the Forest be with You

We live in the Canadian Rockies. The elevation of our Canmore home is 4,640 ft (1415 m). Our view extends across the Bow Valley to a long, craggy, 8,000 ft (2440 m) ridge. Out our back door is a forest where cougars and grizzly bears roam. Above the forest are peaks rising 3,000 ft (915 m). Just north of our home, at Lake Louise, the peaks of the Great Divide exceed 10,000 ft (3,050 m).

So it’s understandable why we’ve long believed any North American who truly loves hiking, mountaineering or climbing would have found a way to join our northern Rockies tribe. Whenever we’ve met hikers from the eastern provinces or states, we’ve been incredulous: “Why do you stay there?”

Their answers are unconvincing, because they always cite “family,” which reveals they have no pioneer spirit, and because these conversations occur among our soaring, glacier-mantled peaks-scenery so overwhelming it no doubt weakens their resolve, undermining their ability to explain their motives.

But we understand them better now that we’ve traveled and hiked in the Maritimes and New England. At the moment, we’re the artists in residence at Platte Clove, in the Catskill Mountains, near Woodstock, New York. We’re living in a tiny, 19th century cabin beside a waterfall, above a plummeting, forested gorge. The “kill” (Dutch for “stream”) that created this “clove” (V- or cloven-shaped ravine) remains soothingly audible to us, even when the fire in our woodstove is popping and crackling. We’re devoting our time here to an ambitious writing project unlike any we’ve previously attempted. But we’re also hiking, visiting nearby towns, and reading about the area.

Suddenly our allegiance to spectacular topography seems excessive. We find ourselves admiring, even envious of, the rich artistic and intellectual culture here. These mountains aren’t mountainous enough for us, but they’re beautiful, especially now, attired in their autumn coat of many colours. And we realize we’re indebted to the families who, rather than migrate westward, deepened their roots. Among them were the nation’s first conservationists.

Catskill Park and Adirondack Park were designated State Forest Preserves in 1885, guaranteeing they would remain wild and ensuring public access. These were the first wild areas in the U.S. to be fully protected by law. Though Yosemite Valley was preserved in 1864, and Yellowstone became America’s first national park in 1872, both continued suffering industrial abuse for many years. A national forest system was not established until 1905. So New York is this country’s cradle of conservation.

It was never a tree-huggin’ love-in, however. New Yorkers were pragmatic. Though they cared about recreation, their overriding concern was protecting the watersheds that feed the Hudson River and ultimately sustain New York City. It was visionary. Today 75% of the state’s population resides within a two-hour drive of the Catskills. That’s why Catskill Park, which totals 705,000 acres of public and private land, has 300,000 acres of forest reserve where resource extraction is verboten. That’s also why, from 1907 to 1914, Ashokan Reservoir was built at the foot of the Catskills. We recently saw much of the reservoir’s 21-mi (34-km) length from the summit of Overlook Mountain. That evening, while walking atop the dam, we learned it provides 40% of New York City’s drinking water.

Urban-rural give-and-take is intrinsic to Catskill Park. This is not untracked, inviolable wilderness. It’s 60% private property, houses and business, 40% public land. It’s as much a mosaic as the red, scarlet, orange, gold, and mustard leaves now fluttering and flying around our Platte Clove cabin. This is a “park” in the broad, European sense of the word. It includes villages, working farms, old roads.

We see an advantage to this kind of park: The numerous access points disperse visitors widely. In the Canadian Rockies, Waterton National Park has just one entry/exit. Kootenay National Park has two. Jasper National Park has three. Catskill Park has dozens. We also appreciate that Catskill Park has no dominant, sprawling, crass, commercial goiter like Estes Park, Colorado, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. However you approach Catskill Park, it’s through a sprinkling of quaint hamlets harbouring historic homes, modest B&Bs, and unique eateries. It feels comfortable because you’re obviously very welcome. By comparison, approaching a national-park guard station where you’re stopped by a ranger indistinguishable from a police officer is irksome because it’s intimidating.

A disadvantage of a loosely-defined park, however, is that tranquility is much less pervasive. Yesterday we hiked the High Peterskill trail in the Shawangunks, which guidebooks claim is the optimal place for hikers to appreciate this famous climbing area. Every step of the way, passing vehicles were audible on a nearby highway. In the Catskills, the vistas we’ve attained from ridges and summits have never been without evidence of humanity. A sense of wilderness is attainable here, but not easily, and not for long.

These Arcadian Mountains, once a cloud-raking 20,000 ft high, have eroded during the past 375 million years to their present, modest stature. Today, Catskill Park comprises 98 “peaks” reaching 3,000 ft. Adirondack Park, which is larger than Massachusetts, comprises 46 “peaks” reaching 4,000 ft.

So what startled us as we drove south from Montreal, through the eastern Adirondacks, wasn’t the mountains. It was the trees. We’re still marvelling at them. The Catskill forests are vast and flourishing. They roll over the rounded summits beyond the horizon. We’d always thought of New England as settled, developed, cultivated, without room to lose or find yourself. But that’s not so. Actually it’s much easier to get lost in the gently curvaceous, densely forested Catskills than in the vertical, skeletal, Canadian Rockies.

And many of these trees are immense. It’s a testament to nature’s resilience, given that beginning in the late 1700s the Catskills were so extensively logged, quarried and farmed that only the forests bordering communities and on inaccessibly steep slopes were spared the saw. What’s regrown is a beautiful melange of fir, hemlock, maple and birch that makes the monoculture lodgepole pine forests prevalent in western mountain ranges look like an ill-conceived science experiment gone berserk.

If you’ve read any of our hiking guidebooks, you know our preference is to surmount forest and attain views as quickly as possible. But hiking in the Catskills among all these trees has not been oppressive. That’s partly because we knew we’d be creatures of the forest while here, and partly because witnessing these fall colours is an enchanting, kaleidoscopic experience.

Some 300 miles of trails wind through the Catskills. Singular sights and unobstructed views are rare and brief. So we point our boots toward the waterfalls that inspired the 19th century Hudson River School painters, and toward the edges of escarpments where famous “mountain houses” once provided luxurious, summer lodging to New York’s wealthy elite during the 1800s.

We’ll continue exploring the Catskills next week. If we discover more that might interest to you, we’ll let you know. Already we can honestly say our snobbery has been tempered.

May the forest be with you.

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Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

Never hike alone. Before setting out, check the weather forecast and current trail conditions; adjust your plans accordingly. Always carry a map and compass, a first-aid kit, extra clothing, a personal locator beacon, plus enough food and water to survive an emergency.

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