Postcards from the Catskills

Hiking along Mary's Glen Trail

I. I’m always a bit amazed—though I shouldn’t be—at the amount of stuff needed for a camping trip. Tent. Check. Sleeping bags. Check. Blow-up bed and sleeping pad. Of course. And then there’s food, a bright compact lantern, the new stainless steel camp pots, rain gear, hiking shoes, sandals for shower and shore, heavy jackets for cold mountain nights, an electric tea kettle, bathing suits and beach toys, and our camping dishes and utensils.

After the car is filled, leaving room only for me to drive and Grace in the back seat, I mount the bike rack, secure our bikes—one blue adult hybrid and one small pink bike with a horn. We pull away from the house singing Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”.

II. Mornings I am awakened by a cacophony of birds–chirping, whistling, chortling–surrounding our small tent with sound. The sun has not yet risen above the pines and birches that ring the rocky hard-packed dirt of the campsite, but once I emerge, stiffly, into the day, I see that the sky is flawless, the air hinting of warmth, and light infused green everywhere.

III. New this year: when I check into the campground, the park ranger asks me to sign a piece of paper acknowledging the rules relating to bears. Black bears share this forest land with campers and hikers and the number one rule is: “Under no circumstances, feed the bears.” I tell the ranger, “Under no circumstances would I feed the bears”. She informs me that there have been no bear incidents this season, leaving me wondering “what exactly is an incident?”

I am half in, half out of the tent when a man stops at the edge of our campsite and tells my friend Amy Jo that a bear is heading our way. A small bear, he notes, but since we have children he wanted to let us know. “Is it a cub?” I ask. I know a thing or two about bears. One is that you can’t outrun or out climb them. The second is that bears generally won’t bother humans unless they are looking for food left out by careless campers, or if their cub is threatened.

With a mix of fear and curiosity, all four of us—two eight-year olds and their moms—peer around the corner of our site. Indeed, there is a not quite grown black bear lumbering down the road in our direction. I order the kids into the car. Grace and I are safely in ours, no she scrambles out—she wants to be with her friend Maya. Just get in the car! Then we wait. After a few minutes, I begin to feel foolish. How long should we stay locked up? The bear seems to have disappeared into the woods. We all climb out, glance nervously into the trees and resume our day.

Later, I report the sighting to the ranger at the front gate. She gives me a half smile and says simply “I’m not surprised.” I ask her for the second time if a bear happened to be nosing around our tents at night, would it be best to lie quietly terrified in our sleeping bags or make a lot of noise. For the second time, she tells me that as long as we lock all food, garbage and scented toiletries in the car, the bears will leave us alone. Although I am somewhat reassured, I keep the remote car alarm nearby as I sleep that night.

IV. To Grace’s delight, I am not bugging her about showering this weekend. So she is happily dirty, wild-haired and wearing the same baggy rainbow striped leggings with the hole in the knee, day in and day out, regardless of the weather.

V. Even in a fully equiped kitchen, cooking is not my forte. However, I’m game, with Amy Jo’s help, to put together a three-course meal over a campfire. Thanks to the kindness of the previous campers who left a pile of kindling behind, and several days without rain, we easily manage a respectable fire. I wrap potatoes in aluminum foil and place them in the fire. We place corn on the cob, still in their husks, on the grill. Each of us spears our hotdogs and cooks them like marshmallows over the flames. The aluminum foil falls away in the heat, leaving the potatoes ashy and burnt around the edges. The corn is not completely cooked and the hot dogs not quite hot. Nevertheless, it’s not bad, and washed down with some red wine (grown-ups only!), it tastes like a real meal.

VI. The long weekend slips away in languorous days spent hiking, bicycling and lounging at the edge of the lake. The afternoons are hot, the water cold and refreshing, as mountain lakes should be. The nights are cool, though there is no need for jackets. We crush hot marshmallows between graham crackers and chocolate, lick our sticky fingers, add more wood to the fire. We marvel at a perfect sky, studded with a thousand stars. We don’t want to leave.

North-South Lake (http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/24487.html) is located in Haines Falls, NY, about 3 hours north of the Rivertowns. It is a popular state campground and tends to be crowded during holiday weekends. For any weekend, plan to make your reservation as far in advance as possible.

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