The Frostbite Overnight began much like all the rest. I spend the morning hurriedly packing, making the typical anxiety-producing decisions characteristic of this early spring trip as I wait for the rest of the crew to arrive so we can hit the road. This year, as two years before, the crew consists of only my friend Dave, the founder of this annual early spring trip, usually set the three days before Easter.
Although it begins similarly, in many ways this Frostbite is quite different from the many before it. My wait takes place on a Friday morning, rather than the traditional Thursday, the trip shortening initiated by Dave to allow an extra day for his recovery from a bad head cold. I am sure the 40+ inches of snow still on the ground in some places of the Catskills probably has nothing to do with his decision to cut the trip short.
Given the shorter trip, the long haul to Catskills remains less practical, so for only the second time in its long run, the Frostbite’s destination is somewhere other than usual. Dave selected Hoxie Gorge State Forest, south of Cortland, as a substitute for this shorter trip.
View Trip route in a larger map
We set out on our trip soon after Dave arrives at my apartment. Before continuing down to Hoxie Gorge, we stop at the Columbus Bakery to buy some flat bread from the trip, another one of our many traditions. Usually, this task lands on my shoulders, as my place is where we all meet-up in the morning before hitting the road. Since it is in our general direction this time, and our trip is much shorter than normal, we decide to stop on the way south.
The trip goes by without a hitch for the most part, except for a single wrong turn near Hoxie Gorge. After doubling back and taking the correct road, we arrive at the small parking lot just before noon. The trailhead parking is located at the edge of a large clearing with scattered shrubbery, at the beginning of the McDermott Nature Trail, part of the Hoxie Gorge Campus of SUNY Cortland. The State Forest lies adjacent to the SUNY property, with our lean-to campsite for the night residing near the border between the two properties.
Within this area, two long distant trails meander through Hoxie Gorge State Forest. The Finger Lakes Trail (FLT), a regional trail system, runs from the Pennsylvania-New York border in the Allegheny State Park through the southern tier of New York State to the Long Path in the Catskills State Park. The North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) runs concurrently with the Finger Lakes Trail for much of its length. This national trail runs from Lake Sakakawea State Park in central North Dakota to Crown Point in eastern New York, and is the longest of the eleven National Scenic Trails authorized by the U.S. Congress.
The road up to the trailhead looks terribly familiar. The déjà vu becomes increasingly profound upon seeing the McDermott Trail signs, so much so that I am nearly certain. For the life of me, I cannot remember when or why I had been here before. Could it have been during my master’s thesis field work? Data collection for a study of the effects of roads on amphibians? Field work for the New York State Herp Atlas?
We hit the trail just before noon, the earliest time of any of the past Frostbites in which I ever participated. The North Country/Finger Lakes Trail starts slightly down the street, but we quickly find the trail just makes its way back toward the parking lot where we shortly left the vehicle. A short connecting trail from the parking lot to the main trail would have cut off a little distance, but since the entire day’s hike is less than two miles, it really mattered little.
The trail follows along the edge of the clearing adjacent to the parking lot. It is muddy in spots, although some rudimentary plank bridges save us from the worst of it. Patches of snow remain along the trail; apparently, just enough shade from the sun’s rays has allowed them to hang on for a little while longer.
We continue to follow the trail as it descends downslope through a mature forest, leaving the ecotone around the clearing behind. The snow is thicker and more persistent here; luckily, the air temperature is high enough that the snow is soft and allows for excellent traction. Dave’s Kahtoola microspikes appear to be overkill, at least thus far, while my Asolo TPS 520 hiking boots do just fine.
After descending a short distance, the trail turns and follows a large stream, complete with alternating pools and small cascading waterfalls. Although one might think this is Hoxie Gorge, it is not. That gorge lies to the north, on privately owned lands, which is strange given the gorge does not even occur within the state forest bearing its name. In fact, according to my Finger Lakes Trail map (sheet M20), we will only reach the actual State Forest boundary around the lean-to.
The main trail appears to head north back along the clearing and out of the mature forest, while another trail continues along the wide stream. We decide to continue along the stream, following the white paint slashes on the trees, which mark the North Country Trail. This trail does not appear to follow my map, which indicates the trail continues north along the edge of the clearing.
Many blown down eastern hemlock trees lie in the stream along the trail. These hemlocks appear to have fallen in clumps, perhaps from a recent storm. The eroded stream bank most likely contributing to these trees’ demise.
Soon the NCT starts to climb out of the streambed, crossing a wide trail right next to a stone bridge over a large culvert. The wide trail appears as if it were once a road; a snowmobile track follows along its length, disappearing over a hill to the east. On the other side of the bridge lies another stream, smaller than the one we were previously following.
Adjacent to the culvert and bridge, along the smaller stream, lies a nice campsite, complete with a fire ring and a few stone benches. We tarry here briefly before continuing along the trail. My sense of déjà vu is more intense than ever, there is no doubt I have been here before, but in warmer weather.
The trail continues along the smaller stream briefly, before drifting up and along a slope to the west. After continuing the climb along the slope, the trail turns and it becomes much steeper. The snow-covered trail becomes increasingly more slippery, the stream falling behind us it its ravine.
Finally, we reach the top where a flat plateau awaits us. The main trail continues to follow the top of the slope heading east. A more subtle side trail leads off to the west through the forest. The smell of wood smoke hangs in the air, suggesting the shelter may not be available, and thus incorporating an interesting wrinkle into our plans. I just hope Dave brought a shelter, because I did not.
We assume trail to the west continues on to the lean-to, so we follow it. As we continue, a clearing, apparently the same where we parked the car earlier, becomes clear in the distance through the mature hardwood forest. The clearing distracts us from the lean-to, which lies under the forest canopy about halfway between our location and the edge of the clearing. The large lean-to faces toward the clearing, with its back facing us, so we are unable to discern its current occupancy.
I take the lead as we gingerly approach the lean-to, fearing with each step to see or hear definitive proof of an occupied lean-to. So as I turn the corner around to the front of the lean-to, the wisps of smoke spiraling over the large fire ring and up into the cloudy skies captures my attention for a short period, seemingly proving my worst fears made real.
Then something outrageous happens.
Two chickens rush out of the lean-to, darting out into the forest. Chickens!?! In a lean-to?. How can this be?
Not just two chickens, but one hen chicken and a rooster to be precise. Soon another two hens join them; apparently, they were lurking around on the far side of the lean-to.
The rooster is a Plymouth Barred Rock as is a single hen, while the other two are Rhode Island Red. They all appear healthy, with beautiful plumage, although many of their claws are worn, whether from age or frequent fighting, one cannot say. How they got here, it is impossible to tell. Apparently, they must have come from nearby, potentially one of the homes along the road up to the parking lot. They cannot have adopted the lean-to as their home for long as the floor remains devoid of droppings.
Despite our occupying the lean-to, the chickens hover nearby, scratching at the leaves where the snow melted away. Although they are often visible, frequently we lose sight of them, whether because they are hiding or move out of sight remains unknown. Later, we count another Rhode Island Red hen for a total of five; the extra one remains shy as it keeps its distance throughout our short stay at the lean-to.
The lean-to site is a disaster area. The smoldering fire not only contains half-burned logs, but a shovel head, a crushed pan and a metal folding chair. Whether the chair collapsed at the fire’s edge and made its way into the fire ring or if it was being used as a frying pan, remains a mystery.
Multiple vehicle tracks along two different wide trails from the nearby clearing lead into the site, apparently the revelers were too lazy to walk all the way from the road, which according to the maps is just a short distance north along the clearing’s edge. Hopefully, they will not return later today, or it could get a little crowded here.
Party detritus lies scattered all about the area, a typical symptom of motor vehicle access. Beer and soda cans are plentiful, as is a nearly full plastic bottle of ketchup. Some father is going to be pissed when he looks for his favorite condiment for his hamburger this evening. Several tent poles, a gas can (probably used to start the fire), a dip container and a soda bottle full of brown spittle are more evidence of a recent good time at this location.
There are some even weirder items around. Behind the lean-to, and back toward the ravine’s edge is a tire swing; used for entertainment purposes, no doubt. Along one of the trails to the clearing is a Coleman stove mounted on a stand, while lying in the snow is the bumper of an automobile. Even closer to the clearing is an old green water pump, one typically found at an old farm homestead.
That must have been one hell of a party!
Unfortunately, the lean-to is only slightly more orderly than the surrounding vicinity. A couple gallon water jugs are on the floor, while in one back corner is a pile of broken glass. The cluttered shelf on the back wall has all sorts of debris on it, including a yellow McDermott trail sign and a completely non-functional umbrella.
Chickens, a dip bottle, a bumper, a Coleman grill and a tire swing. It is like something out of Deliverance, which Dave constantly reminds me is his favorite outdoor movie.
Cue creepy banjo music.
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