Into The Woods
Pete Boyle comes for the solitude of Backcountry Patrol, but stays for the companionship
By Christopher J. Yates
Photos by Christopher J. Yates
Up above me, pausing on a pebbled rock slab, stands Pete Boyle, the Backcountry Patrol Volunteer Coordinator for Mohonk Preserve. Pete will have to wait patiently a while longer. I am heaving my way vertically toward Bonticou Crag, both of us headed up there the hard way, via the rock scramble.
Pete, taking in the view, looks perfectly poised. He is perhaps two decades my senior — and I am rudely out of breath.
If you’re not familiar with Bonticou Crag rock scramble, picture a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, a vast patchwork of rocky slabs and boulders that steeple skyward. To “solve” the puzzle you have to make your way to the top of the crag. And while red blazes have been painted on the rocks to helpfully suggest the easiest way to achieve this, there remains another difficult challenge, namely how to get one’s limbs successfully from rock to rock. It is hard and often inelegant work.
Soon after I catch up, Pete takes off again, opting not to follow the red painted blazes, preferring to find his own more interesting (i.e., harder) route. I look to him for clues as to how to improve my rock scrambling, his hands seldom touching the rocks, Pete preferring to use his long legs and an unerring sense of balance. But I can learn nothing from his impressive technique, as my desperate mitts hug, clench or claw at a nearby rock.
While Pete and his volunteers cover many Backcountry routes, bushwacking off trail to monitor remote areas of the Preserve, they also incorporate popular destinations into their patrols. Bonticou Crag is one of the main beats Pete likes to pound, offering help to nervous scramblers or pointing them toward the easier path to the rocky peak. Sometimes his job can get a tad hairier, like when a hiker violates Preserve rules by hauling in beer bottles, getting drunk and then refusing to clear up the mess. When that happened a few years ago the man in question started to advance, but his friends intervened and Pete cleared away the glass himself. Just as he clears away plastic bags and bottles — and, more recently, discarded masks, the garbage piling higher with the rush of pandemic visitors to the Preserve.
While this might sound like a thankless task, his volunteer work is not without reward. “I’ve been to the Grand Canyon,” Pete told me, “and it’s lovely country of course, but to me this is one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
Up ahead of me, Pete has now conquered the crag, finally bouncing up a particularly difficult cluster of fang-like rocks. Fortunately, to spare my blushes, I am not the only person left trailing in Pete’s wake. We are also in the company of his daughter, Jaime, who frequently joins Pete on his backcountry patrols. Jaime lives in Port Ewen while Pete’s home is over in Dutchess County, so the Preserve just happens to be the perfect halfway meeting spot. And Jaime, a nurse who works long nights, enjoys the soothing, medicinal qualities of a peaceful hike, as well as getting to hang out with her exuberant father. (The exercise and mountain air also help Jaime to nap soundly before another long nightshift.)
At the top of the crag, realizing that I have been considerably out-scrambled by Pete (incidentally, I consider myself an advanced hiker), it occurs to me that it might be my journalistic duty to report Pete’s age, but I pose the question sheepishly, for fear of offending.
Pete simply shrugs at my question.
“I don’t mind telling you my age,” he replies. “I’m proud of it. 66 years old.”
Ah, so Pete is just 17 years my senior. My ego is assuaged.
We met an hour earlier at Mohonk Preserve’s Spring Farm trailhead. It is one of those shape-shifting spring days that might see several outfit changes — scarf then shorts then sweater, all in the space of ten hours. We pause to take photos at the place near the parking lot known as Million Dollar View — but on a day like today that seems like a serious undervaluation. The light is like the pale blue glass of antique bottles, the Catskills huddling for warmth on the horizon, while button mushroom clouds lean into their slow ramble across the sky.
As we start to hike, Pete tells me about his 44 years working for ConEd, filling every spot from lineman to office manager. Like his daughter now, there were times when Pete worked tough shifts and needed something to relieve the boredom of time off during the week. “Then I found this place and I never looked back.”
Now Pete Boyle has been volunteering for fifteen years. Or is it thirteen? He can’t quite remember. And I completely understand his inability to put a date on finding “this place.” I have the exact same experience, knowing only that there was an era that should be known as “Before Shawangunks” (or B.S.) and that ever since discovering our beautiful mountain ridge both my spare time and mental health have been immeasurably improved.
When Pete started volunteering, he worked both bike and backcountry patrols, but quickly realized there was no shortage of volunteer cyclists to cover the bike routes, while the backcountry was wildly underpopulated. (Today, however, Pete counts 61 names to the Backcountry Patrol Group.)
Sometimes he takes out groups of six or seven new volunteers to show them the ropes. Pete also patrols solo much of the time, and as he told me, “A day of solitude in nature has very positive healing powers.”
We hike down from Bonticou Crag and take the Northeast Trail. Pete offers some newcomers a few hiking hot-spot tips. We spy a black rat snake basking lavishly on the humped branch of a fallen tree. A porcupine shivers its way through the undergrowth twenty feet away.
Pete shows me a secret spot concealed by arching rocks where he likes to hang out alone. To get there we have to boulder-hop, and again Pete leaves me lagging cautiously behind. Once more I admire his balance as he bounces from rock to rock despite a drop that feels dizzying. And then something clicks. Pete used to fix electrical wires in his job at ConEd, a high-wire act, of sorts. He must be supremely comfortable with heights. “Yep,” he tells me, “I did that stuff for 20 years. Went up in cherry pickers or climbed the poles in gaffs [climbing spikes]. Some guys got scared but I told them, just concentrate on the job!”
And isn’t that, after all, one of the beautiful aspects of rock scrambling? You simply concentrate on the job and all the mental strains of the non-lithic world melt away.
Later, Pete shows me a social trail that fellow volunteers have covered up. (Social trails or “herd paths,” often started by animals and widened by misled humans, are unauthorized sidetracks patrolled by Backcountry volunteers and Preserve staff.) Also while out on patrol, Pete will reorient lost hikers, remove fire rings (which aren’t allowed on Preserve lands), explain to dog owners that a porcupine quill can prove harmful to their unleashed pet, discourage photographers from getting too close to a baby bear, and generally act as an extra pair of eyes and ears for the Preserve’s rangers.
Turning back toward the trailhead, Pete chooses the snakier Table Rocks Path rather than the meadow-winding Farm Road. He prefers thinner, woodsier trails to open ground and carriage roads, a natural backcountry patroller, perhaps. But then Pete turns to me and says: “You know, when I was offered the [volunteer coordinator] job I second guessed whether I really wanted to do it. But you know what? It was worth it for the people alone. And that’s why I think I’ll keep on doing it till I drop. Because of all the great people I’ve met.”
Ah, I quickly realize, I was missing half the point. Pete’s volunteering is not only about the solitude. One of the keys to a happy life, or so it seems to me, is to find the right balance of opposing forces.
And then a thought occurs to me. Perhaps it could make a great motto for Pete’s branch of voluntary work: Backcountry Patrol, Come for the solitude, stay for the companionship.
Christopher J. Yates is an avid hiker and the author of two novels, “Black Chalk” and “Grist Mill Road,” which is set in the Gunks. Special thanks to Yassy Okamoto for her reporting for this piece.
If you are interested in volunteering with Backcountry Patrol, please contact Andy Reynolds, Mohonk Preserve Volunteer Programs Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 845-255-0919, ext. 1269.
Shooting for the Sky
Susan Lehrer’s work as a volunteer photographer for the Preserve reveals its most precious moments.
By Larry Feldman
Though she grew up in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, Susan Lehrer later moved to a 150-year-old farmhouse in New Paltz, where she is happy to wander through nature and photograph it, in all sorts of weather, all year long. In the early 2000s, when Susan saw the Mohonk Preserve was looking for volunteers to join a photography group, she jumped at the chance. At the time, she was a professor at SUNY New Paltz in Sociology and Women’s Studies, and she had just upgraded to an early digital SLR camera — a Canon Sure Shot — and wanted to broaden her passion.
“I’ve always loved photography, capturing a particular time and place, making time stand still,” she said.
At one early auction for the Preserve, she worked as an assistant to veteran Mohonk Preserve Volunteer Photographer John Hayes and learned a lot watching him set up the shots of guests, who for $20 each could be captured holding a falcon on their gloved hand. Susan then brought the images to MPVP and former Preserve Board Member Greg Switlik, who printed the images on-site. Soon after, the Preserve invited her to take more photos, which have since been used in promotional materials like posters and invitations, and can also be seen adorning the conference room at the Visitor’s Center.
“Doing photography for Mohonk Preserve has made me look closely at things I might not have noticed,” Susan said. “I’ve been in on special events, camera in hand. I hope that, through photography, I’ve contributed to the awareness of the beauty and heritage of the Shawangunk Ridge and the Preserve lands.”
In fall of 2006 at Duck Pond, she took her first promotional photo, which was later included in the book, “Watchable Wildlife New York,” published by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. It was the first time she used a digital camera, which she prefers over film. Today, she uses a Canon EOS 70D, though she says, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” She also likes to use zoom and telephoto lenses, to bring things in closer, and even dares to take to the skies in an Ultralight plane to get the bigger picture.
“I had to overcome some trepidation to go up in an experimental light plane,” she admitted. “The camera gave me motivation and distracted me from my fear. The takeoff, that rush of acceleration, to look down on the treetops is exciting, and the excitement overcame the anxiety.”
But Susan’s favorite way to catch a precious moment in the Preserve is usually in a quiet place, alone, when she is least likely to disturb or frighten an animal subject.
Even so, a few moments have escaped her camera’s eye, like the time an adult bear happened to be walking across the Millbrook Carriage Road near the Trapps Bridge, 40 to 50 feet away from her. Before she could grab a shot, the bear ran off. “He was really booking it,” she noted. Another time two bear cubs quickly scampered up a tree before she could react.
And finally, she shared “one winter, some years back, I was going to Duck Pond. It was snowy and amid the snow there were bright orange fungi going up a dead tree trunk. It was beautiful. I didn’t have a camera with me and when I went back with one there was no sign of it. I still look for where it might have been.”
Here, she reveals her four favorite photos from over the years, which “remind me of where I’ve been, who with, and what’s lost also.”
Mountain Rest Road Bridge, 8-10-2011: “I was lucky to have been able to document this amazing project for the Preserve, replacing Cedar Drive bridge over Mountain Rest Road. The main road was closed both ways for these two sections of the new bridge to be hoisted up and lowered into place.”
Aerial view of valley, Ridge, with Catskills visible, 8-7-2015: “It was taken from an Ultralight plane, before drones, with a friend who’d fly low enough for me to shoot many aerial images of this area I know well from the ground.”
Dragonfly near Duck Pond, 7-5-2015: “Taking these quiet shots for the Preserve makes me look more closely at things around me that I could have missed.”
Lady’s Slipper on Bonticou Crag trail, 5-17-2017: “I took this photo out with the Preserve’s Wednesday hikers. Our hike leader, June Finer, timed that hike for these amazing flowers to be in bloom on the back side of the Crag. Spring — the signs of spring, the ice melting, the delicate green colors — it’s what I love about the Northeast.”
If you are interested in volunteering with Mohonk Preserve’s Volunteer Photographers, please contact Andy Reynolds, Volunteer Programs Manager, at email@example.com or 845-255-0919, ext. 1269.
Studying nature’s tiniest details allows Preserve volunteers to truly appreciate the Great Outdoors
By Michael Cohen
Photos by Carol Rietsma
There are no shortages of iconic wonders at Mohonk Preserve. Visitors come to gaze upon Skytop Tower, to pass through the Testimonial Gateway and stroll the Pin Oak Allee or to hike to Duck Pond. But there are also many small wonders at the Preserve. Phenology — the observation and recording of natural events, such as the flowering of a dogwood tree or the croaking of a bullfrog — teaches volunteers like me to understand their beauty.
“I think many people take nature for granted,” said Carol Rietsma, a retired associate professor of biology at SUNY New Paltz, who is now the Volunteer Phenology Coordinator at the Preserve. “I don’t think they know the stages that a plant, or even a Monarch butterfly, passes through. That’s the beauty of it for me, seeing all the details. The more you look, the more you see.”
Happily, many of the small wonders of phenology are obvious. The Preserve’s group of 20 phenology volunteers — including me — conducts field sessions either on our own or in a group led by Rietsma or Natalie Feldsine, the Preserve’s Research Collection and Citizen Science Coordinator. On a recent field session, we compared two similarly sized Red Maples near each other and marveled at the differences between them. One was bare, the other was covered with pastel-colored blooms. The male tends to flower and produce its fruit earlier than the female and thereby provides an easy way to distinguish between the sexes of the trees. But Red Maples’ distinctions can also be caused by their relative exposures to the sun or any other number of factors, such as the depth of their roots or the presence of fungi or insect infestation. Rietsma uses the phrase “pulse of nature” to refer to how flora respond to their particular environments. Ralph Durham, a longtime phenology volunteer, told me he tracks Red Maples as a natural gauge of when spring arrives, monitoring their breaking leaf buds and then seeing “everything explode” after the first few really warm days as the beautiful red colors tell him the season has truly come.
Over the course of a year, the Preserve’s phenology volunteers carefully note the lifecycle changes of ten specific plants and trees: New England Aster, Eastern Red Cedar, Highbush Blueberry, Common Winterberry, Red Maple, Common Milkweed, Flowering Dogwood, Sugar Maple, Jack-In-The-Pulpit and Trout Lily. These floras are identified with tags and grow along a phenology trail located alongside the Pin Oak Allee, mostly near the Testimonial Gateway. We make observations once or twice a month and then use an app called Nature’s Notebook to upload our data into the National Phenological Network, where scientists can track climate change all over the country.
It’s critical that phenology volunteers across the US are specific and detailed with our data, and not just because we’re helping scientists with their research. Our information can also help farmers make decisions on which varieties of crops to plant, based on anticipated temperature changes or future availability of water supplies. And we can also help track the rise or fall of a species.
Right now, the Monarch butterfly is under threat, which is why the Common Milkweed is so important to observe. While this plant is toxic to most insects, the Monarch has found a way to feed on it, and the poisons make this butterfly distasteful to predators, too. The Monarch’s orange and black colors serve as a warning to others: “Eat me at your own risk.”
Although its name suggests that it may not be particularly interesting, the Common Milkweed is beautiful to observe, especially for how it seems to act in concert with the New England Aster. As the milkweed is winding down its lifecycle, the aster is in full swing and the Monarchs move from one plant to the other to maintain a constant source of nutrition before they leave for their annual migration.
One of the more exotic sounding flowers we follow is the Jack-In-The-Pulpit, an herbaceous perennial with one or two large glossy leaves and tiny flowers embedded in a fleshy column, called the Jack. As the plant grows, flowers emerge that initially only produce pollen, but then larger flowers bloom, revealing several smallish red colored berries.
We also observe the Trout Lily, a small early spring wildflower that grows on the ground and delights with its spotted lance-shaped leaves containing infinite subtle shades of green (It gets its name because the shading of its leaves resembles the coloring of a brook trout.) The Trout Lily blooms in the spring before the trees around it develop their leaves and block out the light. Its nodding yellow flowers close at night and open during the day as the temperatures rise.
One unintended benefit of serving as phenology volunteers is that we can apply our training to the animal populations found in Mohonk. With very few exceptions, each time we go to the Preserve to note the flora, we also notice what is happening with birds, frogs or turtles. On a recent field session, we paused to listen for the croaking of the frogs to determine whether or not they had yet appeared.
Not that hearing them is absolute proof of their existence. Spring peepers, a tiny frog about an inch in diameter and an inch long, are particularly shy. “They have a high-pitched beep. They are a harbinger of spring — it’s like seeing a Red Maple flower,” Rietsma said. “But as soon as they perceive you in the vicinity, they go quiet.”
As always, patience is required in phenology. It’s a skill you learn as a volunteer, and it yields wonderful benefits. In fact, studying the flora on the phenology trail has made me more aware of the plants, trees and shrubs in my own yard. Even though I don’t know all the species that grow on my property or their various lifecycle phases, I have become trained to observe and appreciate the changes as they appear. It serves as a reminder that the small wonders of nature can be seen almost everywhere.
If you are interested in volunteering with the Phenology Project, please contact Andy Reynolds, Mohonk Preserve Volunteer Programs Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 845-255-0919, ext. 1269.
My Favorite View: Seclusion Amidst the Trapps
By Laura Miller
Mohonk Preserve trail keeper Mike Siudy captured this vista in the fall of 2019, from a secret little spot he discovered off the Humpty Dumpty Path. The view sits just above Giants Workshop looking back at the Trapps. “It is quiet, even on the busiest days,” Mike said. “I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere, even though I’m only 200 feet from a carriage road.”
A New Paltz resident, Mike first came to the area for college. He holds a BS in Geology and a Masters of Arts in Teaching, both from SUNY New Paltz, and works as an earth science teacher at Poughkeepsie High School. Given this background, it’s not surprising Mike also appreciates the geological aspect of his favorite view.
“The Trapps are just spread out in front of you. It’s a unique perspective, providing a longitudinal view. You see the face of the cliff on one side and how it slopes back on the other side. I see the dipping back of the rocks and I visualize how all the pieces fit together up there.”
Mike’s tenure as a trail keeper began before he even knew such a role existed. He’s a competitive trail runner with the fastest known times for different routes in the Catskills, including summiting all 35 high peaks over 3,500 feet. Often, Mike found himself training on Mohonk Preserve trails and would naturally pay close attention to trail grooming, pitching in as needed. In 2017, a ranger suggested he could perform this role as a Preserve volunteer.
Mike started as the trail keeper for the Rock Rift Trail, a somewhat less-traveled route sitting just below Mohonk Mountain House land. Last summer, he switched to the Bonticou Crag Loop. He carries various tools, including a folding saw, when he goes out in this capacity — about 2-3 times a year. Winter months, especially, bring down a lot of branches. If Mike sees an area in need of significant intervention, he is able to enter photos and an exact location into a trail assessment system called Survey123. It generates a report for the rangers, who can then tackle larger maintenance issues.
When Mike spends time in this spot, he feels an extreme sense of solitude. While he is letting us all in on his secret, you may need to ask him nicely for exact directions.
Are you a Preserve volunteer with a favorite view you’d like to share with Volunteer Voice? Contact Laura Miller at email@example.com.
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