It felt good to step off at the start of our six mile hike. We chose Manorville Hills County Park just east of Route 111, the core of the NYS Pine Barrens Forest Reserve. We have 35,000 acres of trails, hills, forest, and meadow to explore.
Mark, John, and I have hiked before. Mark named us the Armageddon Hikers Club because two of our previous hikes occurred after natural disasters, the big forest fire last spring, and super storm Sandy. Today, we stretched the mission. The only disaster in these hills is the erosive “destruction” due to ATV’s and dirt bikes. We met in the parking lot in the morning. John suggested bright red clothing…it is hunting season. We had a sunny, mild day.
Mark is a reporter and John a screen writer and photographer. John intended to carry 25 pounds of weight in his backpack. He does this frequently in these hills for exercise and strength training. He has been coming here since 1970 to photograph. His intimate knowledge helped us find our way. Some trails are marked. The county has blazed trees for horseback riders, bicycle riders, and hikers. We started off bushwacking. “I want to get lost” I said. “Not for very long” John said. We could hear traffic on two major highways, The L.I.Expressway, and Route 111. We soon found the remains of a white tailed deer. The skull was sawed in half, proof that this was a buck. Vertebrae, jaw bones, a femur, and, the pelvis were all that remained. I guessed that it carcass was dumped here two plus years ago by a hunter who had hoisted the body by one of the legs, gutted it and stripped meat. A blue cord was tied to the femur.
We were in the largest track of undeveloped forest left on Long Island, a hiker’s paradise. Suffolk County has taken steps to curtail illegal off road machines. Overlapped split rail fencing along trails helps. We saw tread prints but heard no bikers. We were hiking above the biggest purest fresh water reservoir on the Island. The water table holds millions of gallons of water to supply residents far into the future. It felt like we were walking on water, a miracle that this place hasn’t become subdivided, parking lotted, paved, and polluted.
We reached Sperry Hill, elevation 280feet. The Sperry Rand Corporation used this site for radio transmission. John showed us a concrete slab where a building held equipment. “I could climb to the second floor and get a grand view of the ridges to the south and west.’”
The trees have grown since then and some development on one of the ridges had wiped out a virgin viewscape. Still, we caught sight of the golden tan stalks of little bluestem grass, common to meadows all over Long Island.
We decided to follow trails and end our bushwhacking. Mack tagged behind Mark, and was having trouble navigating low bush blueberry shrubs. We soon found a trail and headed along a ridge called “God’s Knuckles” they are four mounds in a line all about the same height.
Pitch Pines are the dominant tree. As we walked, we had to climb over or around many blow downs. Sandy helped us making it almost impossible to build up speed on motor bikes. Tom called them “Speed bumps” in the woods.
Eventually we came upon a large, gray boulder off the trail in the woods. Here was a delightful change in the landscape. Aside from pine trees and the ups and downs, the scenery doesn’t change much so something different is an attraction. It looked like an elephant halfway buried. It is granite with joints that have widened into cracks. It had patched of lichens growing directly on the stone. I found a small seedling pitch pine tree growing from a crack that had some soil…decayed pitch pine needles. I sketched it while John and Mark waited on the trail. I heard Mark comment “I taste oxygen” “What does that mean? “I asked myself.
John mentioned another larger boulder about an hour walk from the first. We decided to head toward that one. We passed kettle holes and could see quite far through the woods to get a sense of the terrain. Occasionally I found deflated Mylar balloons that had floated over and fallen.
It is amazing that we saw only one person during the four hours we spent. A hunter sat on a trailside bank resting. There are several cooperative stations where hunters can park and with a permit, try for a deer. We heard no gunshots.
We found the trail to the big rock in the northeast section of the park between two north south emergency rescue roads. These were existing roads for use by fire trucks or if someone was lost of stranded, help could reach them. I noticed lots of sheep laurel bushes along both sides of the trail. The long, narrow leaves drooped like those of rhododendrons in response to freezing weather. The weather in the in barrens is always colder than the surroundings. The land in the barrens releases daytime heat faster than land closer to sea water. Morning temperatures can be ten degrees lower than areas near the bay or ocean.
First sight of the rock is exciting. It is about twenty feet high. After the repetitive scenery we passed, this was a welcome sight. It is a magnificent monolith in the woods. Mark climbed to the tip and John took photos. One face is almost vertical. I lifted Mack onto the rock and he slowly climbed up to Mark. “He is a cairn, a Scottish breed, which climbs rocks. “Indeed. We decided to name the rock “Mack’s Rock”.
We turned back hiking up and down ridges and hills, all with erosion, some ruts up to 8 feet deep. As we proceeded we talked. Each hike has created a stronger bond among us. I announced…”let’s make these hikes a monthly routine.” They agreed. John suggested the Walking Dunes in Hither Hills State Park. We agreed. We were starting a tradition.
The final hills is special to me. I donated a hand-made red cedar bench which I placed here three years ago. One can sit and enjoy nice views 360 degrees. We descend on a hairpin turn trail. This design was implemented by long time HJiking advocate Ken Kindler who reasoned that rather than creating a trail straight up a hill, make it straddle and loop thereby lessening erosion. I’ll name this hill “Ken’s Hill”.
As we near the end, we pass through a delightful dense, dark pine plantation, a welcome peaceful change. Mark photographs the dapple of afternoon sunlight. We pass a meadow and finally arrive at the parking lot. Recalling Mark’s phrase “I taste oxygen”, I offer a haiku to summarize the experience…
Up in the Manorville Hills
We taste oxygen
He has published two books; THE NISSEQUOGUE RIVER: A JOURNEY and HIDDEN AGENDA; A POETRY JOURNEY.He has also published many essays and poems in such journals as the Long Island Forum and The Long Islander.
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