The heat in my apartment was stifling. Even though the thermostat was down to the lowest setting, about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, I was uncomfortable in my own skin. This Saturday had been flying by as the weekends do and besides sleeping I wasn’t getting much done despite my best intentions. After bringing the dog out for a bathroom break I came in feeling refreshed from the cool air that filled my lungs. The weather was nice enough and I decided this might be a fine day to make a visit to the Ornithology lab and Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary to explore some of the trails in that area.
The gear for this ultra-light excursion was minimal. The dog would not come with me as her small stature was meant more for pleasing my wife’s eyes then taking walks in snowy woods. I put her in the bathroom with water, food and toys then bid her a fond “fare-thee-well” and was rewarded with those sad puppy dog eyes that so many speak of. I then made sure I had a sharpened pencil and a small pocket-sized note pad. I put on gloves, sweater, jackets, wool socks and boots. I decided this hike probably wouldn’t require water or food of any sort so left the Nalgene bottle and backpack. I jumped into my small pickup truck, took it out of four-wheel-drive and headed for the Sanctuary.
It was a short trip. Maybe two miles down Warren Road, take a left onto route thirteen, and a right at the signs for Sapsucker Woods roughly a half mile later. I knew the route well having worked for the Macaulay Library during my last semester at Cornell and over winter break. My job consisted mostly of editing video that was sent in from around the world. A large project was underway to put video of birds and all things associated within easy access for all those that would learn of them. I had been on the trail once before but only on a small section during a lunch break with my boss and co-workers. This time I wanted a more extensive overview of what these trails had to offer. I parked my truck in the usual spot for employees. Being Saturday the parking lot was nearly empty affording me easy access to the trailhead. I exited my truck to a strong gust of wind and walked up to the visitor’s entrance of the Lab, also known as the “
Once I figured out my route I started off. Before crossing the boardwalk I stopped just past the blind to gander at the geese. The pond is set with some kind of device, maybe a pump, that keeps water flowing in this particular area; you could hear the bubble and trickle of water. This prevents ice from forming leaving open water for birds. Several Canada Geese were browsing and making use of the open water. In a small island at the center of the pond some deer had somehow made their way and were browsing on the lush woody vegetation. The wind was picking up and because I had been working on my route rather then walking my hands and ears were getting cold so I decided to move on. Crossing the boardwalk I immediately became confused. To my left there were footprints and cross-country ski tracks. To my right, past a sign that begged “Please Stay On The Trail” more footprints passed toward the pond. I vaguely remembered walking closer to the pond and so followed the footprints first. A rock was here with a plaque that honored Agustus Allen PhD. I realized that the human tracks with deer tracks mixed in were not leading anywhere but into and toward the water so after a moment I cut back. I came out of the woods to the curiosity of a young couple that was behind me; wondering, I’m sure, why I had disobeyed the sign and strayed from the path. I realized then the correct route was along the way of the cross-country skiers and started to make some progress. I increased the distance between myself and the couple over the Podell Boardwalk. I enjoy hiking alone in peace and know I am bound to see more wildlife if there is less talking and quieter walking. The snow was fresh and at the most depth it had been all year. The boardwalk, covered in snow, sounded hollow and muffled my footsteps as I plodded along. I found it a little odd that in all this fresh snow, fresh as of three days ago, there were so few animal tracks. I made a mental note to be aware of the point at which more tracks occurred. Finally I came to the first intersection and veered onto Les and Vail Severinghaus Trail leaving the couple behind on the
I was having a tough time getting purchase with my old boots. The Gore-Tex was still working like a charm but the tread had long since lost its bite. I decided to break my own rule and walk along the cross-country tracks unless I came to spots that were wide enough where I could avoid disturbing them. Although my ears were cold I wanted to be able to hear and see well in the event some animal should show itself. That’s when the first one did. I was trotting at a good pace when I noticed a very slim tree off the path that had a huge bulge. At first I thought it might be some sort of strange knot of wood, maybe a reaction to an infection of some sort. Then it moved. I was delighted to see that I had caught a gray squirrel in mid-climb and it had frozen hoping to hide from me. Realizing that I was laughing at his pitiful choice of a tree (really a young sapling) to hide behind he took off, dropping into the snow and then running up another tree. I continued my walk noting all the bird houses scattered around with small rounded hats of snow upon them. I then came to my second major intersection on the loop. Here I double-checked my route on the convenient trail map posted within a small structure to keep it dry and accessible to all. I bore right and continued along.
The snow was deeper here for whatever reason and I started walking toe-heel to dig my foot in and get more purchase as I walked. I vaguely remembered someone citing this as being the preferred method of the Native Americans for walking: Something else to research at another time. I stopped dead in my tracks at one point as I heard what could only be described as “laughter” but from some sort of animal and most probably a bird. Being a poor birder I had no idea of the species and so waited with hope that it might show itself. Ten minutes or so later I continued on. After only four or five steps there was movement to my left. Another gray squirrel was hanging onto a branch rather tentatively. Finding my eye upon him, he immediately tried to jump, missed the branch oh but just barely, and went somersaulting into the snow with a light “foof!”. I grabbed my sides and burst into laughter. They always seem so graceful bounding through the trees. This one left in a hurry. I’m sure he didn’t want me to see the red-face that accompanied his graceless embarrassment. Once the show had ended I walked on looking for deer and other tracks while scanning with my ears. I decided to give a try at my Barred Owl call. A couple of unsuccessful attempts later I finally came out with a good recreation for a human. I continued trying every ten minutes or so to see if I could get a response. Crossing the Dayhoff Boardwalk I found my way to West Trail and was discouraged to see a massive development through the trees. I had noted a fence and heard dogs barking in the distance earlier but hadn’t thought I would come up on human encroachment so very soon. Walking along they became bigger and more pronounced. They were painted a god-awful brown and tan color and looked like large lumbering monsters through the trees. The tiny fence I had noted earlier came back and separated me from the road directly opposite of the path I walked on. I call it a road but it was more or less a parking lot on some sort of loop. It really did bother me. Going on walks in the woods is almost a religious experience most of the time. It helps me get away from the noise and stress of everyday life. And it was so noisy here. I hadn’t really noticed before but the buzz that I thought was the wind was becoming louder. It was the traffic from route thirteen and the adjacent airport. Whatever hope I had of a peaceful walk in the woods was slowly dissolving.
After walking past the housing development I had warmed up enough to take off my gloves and continued on West Trail until I came to another intersection. Taking a left would lead me to a gate. Right would lead me to the Lab as I could see it through the woods and across the opening that Sapsucker Woods Pond made. Although the sun was starting to come down I didn’t feel like there was any chance of getting lost and turned away from the Lab to go through the gate. A little sign on the woven metal gate and fence asked politely to treat the gate gently and I opened and closed it with great care replacing the metal horseshoe latch. On the other side was a very clean and crisp path created by cross-country skis heading toward the development. Straight ahead was little or nothing. I could see that at least one person on skis had been this way but the snow had covered it up and left only a very light indent of the tracks. That was my path. As I walked along I noted two things. The pink flagging present along the well-traveled path was no longer here. There were also a hell of a lot more animal tracks and I had trouble identifying several of them. The wind had picked up and I could hear the crack and pop of trees around me as they strained against the wind and cold. Sirens blared in the distance but it was forgotten quickly as I was walking west into the sunset, wind biting at my face, eyes locked on something beautiful. The sky was a brilliant blue and toward the bottom, where I could see through the trees, the color turned an orange-pink color that reminded me of orange-crème popsicles I used to eat when I was younger. Walking a little farther I came to a hunter-orange fire hydrant on an unplowed portion of road. I could only guess that this place was earmarked for more development in the not too distant future. It made me a bit sad and I honestly wondered how many people would appreciate, as I did, being right here, right now, with a beautiful sky and wind howling through young trees that brushed together, sometimes violently, making strange rubbing sounds and sometimes clicking loudly in the canopy.
I backtracked to the gate and headed east toward the Lab. To my left on this portion of the West Trail was a dying stand of conifers; probably water-logged in the wetlands that encompassed this area. Several hardwoods had been knocked down by the wind exposing their root structures in a shallow pan that usually indicated the roots were not exploring too deep for moisture. I came to the intersection of
The remainder of my walk was rather uneventful. I stopped at the first pull-off of the trail where a bench stood along with a post whose sign was obviously missing. I looked out again over the opening that this swampy area along with the pond afforded and moved on. There were many more deer tracks now, some out into the wetlands and around the Larch or Tamarack that dotted the landscape. Sparrows flew in and out of the shrubbery and brush upon the border of the water. I came along the path following the cross-country ski tracks, boot tracks, and snow-shoe tracks and walked out onto the Sherwood Observation Platform. Here someone had plopped down on the snow covered bench without wiping it down leaving a perfect butt-print. A smile crept onto my face as I noted it and looked out onto the windows reflecting the sunset, now a deep pink, on the western face of the lab. A small plaque was nailed here. “Dedicated to the Joy of Birdwatching. In Honor of John Sherwood. 1929-1997”. I wondered if I would ever do something that warranted my name on a bench somewhere some day after I was long dead. Strange thought.
There was little more until the parking lot. I came to the head of the Owens Observation Platform but didn’t go onto it as the only view was Kips Barn across the way. There was posted a info-sign that interested me and a strange camouflage tube I had seen in the woods up near the middle of West Trail. It stated that these PVC pipes were Black-Capped Chickadee snags to entice nesting in the area. Apparently they like to hollow out rotten standing wood for their nesting sites. The PVC tubes have a hole drilled in the top and are filled with sawdust for the Chickadee to excavate on its own accord. Interesting. The last bit of curiosity was a final “Please Stay on Trails” sign. Here there were footprints out past the sign and off the trail into the nearby pond and through the ice. I shook my head thinking how accurately this defined the human condition. You may make your own inference as to what that condition is.
Happy with my walk I took back toward my truck and over the last couple of unnamed boardwalks. But before leaving I went back to where I started to complete the circle of the day and also to search for any pamphlets and literature on the trails. I felt foolish for not looking before the walk but thought I would still like to know what was available for future walks. Near the door for visitor access I found the literature and took a few pieces home with me. Finally I jumped in my truck and felt the buzz of civilization as I turned the key. Driving down thirteen toward
The walk was, in general, good for me. I did enjoy it. But I was disappointed in the encroaching development and all the noise. And besides the required deer there was little variety in animals from the tracks I observed. I come from a much smaller state: