To celebrate opening day of hunting season, we went on a bushwhack through some of the more remote reaches of the Catskill Mountains. The peaks around there are trail-less. Once upon a time they all had names, but no map could hold onto them. Our intention was to stay out of the line of fire and do some climbing, perhaps obtain a view. Anything could happen. We chose a lonesome ridge and proceeded up the slope in early morning light.
The way was not without difficulties. A wet carpet of beech, birch, and sugar maple leaves ensured unsure footing. Around our feet fluttered innumerable nondescript moths, the souls of summers past. Above three thousand feet, the ground was glazed with a few inches of tired snow. We wandered through imbricate obscurities of pristine forest. By noon we had arrived at a nameless summit. It was shrouded in boreal gloom, no views to speak of. The day, already short, was getting shorter. We pressed on.
Next came a steep descent. It was ledge after ledge of Devonian sandstone punctuated by thickets of barbed shrubs. They hurt. We muttered obscenities. At one point we startled a grouse. Then another. And another. Deer were stamping in the glades. A bear asleep in his den had his dreams disrupted by our rude passage. On a boggy saddle between mountains, we became ensnared in a stand of ancient red spruce. After that, it was a steep climb up an antediluvian rockslide. The light was waning. Our feet were wet. We pressed on.
The ascent was taking longer than expected. The sun was getting lower on the horizon. We had no destination. Instead we became a couple of needles-in-a-haystack nobody was looking for. We feared the worst: a cold bleak bivvy in peat moss and hoot-owl dark. That’s when we spotted footprints in the snow. Fellow human beings! We followed their tracks up the mountainside. The slope leveled out. Thick woods gave way to thicker shadows. Dusk descended. An eerie silence fell upon us like a bad angel just tossed from heaven. We heard the snap of a twig. Or was it a small bone? We did not press on.
We froze. We shivered. We regretted the string of decisions that landed us here. Then it was one more bony snap in the murk—and BOOM! Twin blazes of orange erupted from the forest floor, rising up like a pair of angry squash noggins seeking their headless horsemen! Our doom appeared fixed!
But lo, the dark was merely playing tricks. We had flushed from their camp a couple of thwarted hunters, father and son. They had been out in these woods since dawn. Nothing had appeared in their sights. For them, this was opening day, now drawing to a close, and we the only luck they had had. Ours was a bit better. They knew the way back and gave us good directions. We broke out our headlamps and headed toward home. We made it before the lights gave out.