Wednesday, September 9, 2009
CAMPING IN CONTRASTS
September 10, 2009
Summer in the Northeast this year wasn't summer. June and July were the rainiest on record, and the coolest. The highs in July never once hit 90, a first for usually sweltering New York City. Crops in urban gardens were slow to grow, and the summer honey production from my beehives has been dismal; it rained so much that the bees had to stay inside just when the flowerings were at their peak. August turned typical, hot and insufferably humid, with almost-daily thunderstorms, but last week, the first one of September, was at long last perfect: dry and warm, with the pastel sunlight of approaching fall.
I try to go tent-camping in regional parks every summer, and here was my first real window of opportunity all season long. I chose the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, over 4,000 acres of woodland, meadow, and rocky promontories in northeast Westchester County, just 45 miles from the teeming Bronx.
It's a remarkable place. Once a farming and lumbering area, the land for the park was acquired by the county piecemeal from 1926 through 1938. In an act of astounding foresight, long-time local Republican boss William L. Ward persuaded the politicians to trump developers who'd planned to bulldoze the site for housing tracts. The various parcels were bought up for a final total of $400,000. Led by a group of ecologists long before that word was invented, the parks department began a carefully- considered restoration and reforestation project. In 1933, they found a fortuitous ally in the Civilian Conservation Corps, Franklin Roosevelt's youth-employment program. For five years, hundreds of gung-ho young workers cleared land, tore down abandoned houses and barns, and planted half a million native trees. They forged hiking trails on the old wagon roads, carved out picnic grounds, and constructed 24 three-sided camping shelters out of local stone, topped with sturdy lumber roofs. The foundations of the CCC base camp, which once housed 200, are still visible today.
The shelters are a camper's dream. They're not just protection — any old wooden lean-to will do that. They're your own miniature castle, complete with fireplace and chimney. They're a wonder in the afternoon thunderstorms that regularly sweep through the area in summer. You watch the drama of wind and rain and lightning-flash from your dry and cozy fortress, your private theater. None of the misery of the soggy tent here.
The hiking ranges from easy to challenging, made the better because each trail has a fascinating natural or historical objective. Near the park entrance is the old cemetery of the town of Pound Ridge, with grave markers dating from the mid-1700's. Further on are the stone walls of a once-bustling grist and cider mill and its water-race off the Cross River. Deep in the forest is the Bear Rock petroglyph, the clear image of a reclining bear etched by the Lenape or Delaware Indians possibly as early as 2500 B.C.
Surely the most intriguing to the imagination is the Leatherman's Cave, one of the many dwellings of a mysterious mute hermit who appeared in the locality in 1860 and walked a precise circuit of 300 miles around Connecticut and New York, round and round for almost 30 years, dressed in a hand-sewn leather coat and breeches and begging food at farmhouses. His route was so exacting that farmers' wives would mark his upcoming arrival on their calendars and have a nice hot meal waiting for him when he appeared. Legend has it that he was a French or French-Canadian leatherworker who was jilted by his employer's daughter and went mad, fleeing to New York to walk off his grief. Sounds like a legend, doesn't it?
The curious thing about this park is that during the week, even in summer, it is practically deserted. You'd think that of the tens of millions of people in the metropolis, there'd be more than enough to keep the place full. But there aren't, and that's fine enough for me.
Pound Ridge is hardly in a wilderness. Just outside the reservation is a nice shopping center with a big supermarket for stocking up your cooler. A few miles on either side are the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., and the Katonah Museum in tony Katonah, N.Y., where Martha Stewart has a country home. Also nearby is Caramoor, an expansive Mediterranean-style estate from the 1930's that now hosts an impressive array of musical performances in its outdoor amphitheater from May through November.
With the chill of autumn closing in, a few days at Pound Ridge puts a beautiful seal on the summer.