January 11, 2017

North Country Trail: Cheningo Day Use Area

This hike did not go as planned.  I had intended to hike east from the Cheningo Day Use Area parking lot for 2.5 miles or so, turning back at Cheningo Solon Pond Road, for a roundtrip out-and-back of more than 5 miles with almost 1,200 feet elevation gain.  This section of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) follows the Finger Lake Trail (FLT) across Taylor Valley State Forest, and I've never been there before.  I was excited to be out exploring a new trail on such a warm, sunny day.  Unfortunately, even though it was gorgeous outside, I was unprepared for the conditions and had to turn back well before my planned turnaround point.  This rarely happens and I was none too pleased with myself for being so ill-equipped, but it was the right decision under the circumstances.

What happened is this: we had an ice storm yesterday afternoon and evening.  Temperatures warmed overnight to almost 40 degrees overnight, and the local roads were fine, no school delays or closures.  The snow at our house had disintegrated in the rain to a mere crust with grass sticking through.  I dropped Frankie off at school and drove toward the trailhead.  The further south I got, the worse the road conditions were.  My speed slowed to 40 mph, and then when I crossed into Cortland County, 30 mph.  It ended up taking over an hour to get to the trailhead, and then I discovered the parking lot wasn't even plowed.  This is a really remote area with no traffic and long-range visibility, so I decided to risk parking on the side of road.  I got two tires into the snow and set off, immediately concerned whether I'd be able to get back out of the snow after my hike. 

Conditions were obviously quite different than at my house.  There were several inches of snow beneath a crust of ice.  Every step had me sinking ankle deep.  Not ideal, but no big deal, right?  Wrong.  I proceeded slowly up the ridge, cursing myself for not bringing my snowshoes.  The higher I climbed, the deeper the snow got.  Soon I was sinking into drifts up to my knees.  And with no gaiters, snow was getting into my boots.  It took me an hour to go 1 mile, climbing 600 feet.  According to my plan, I would have climbed another 100-150 feet up the ridge, then dropped off the other side.  When I reached my turnaround point, I would have to re-climb the ridge from the other side, putting me at risk for missing school pick up at this snail's pace.  I was post-holing the trail, creating dangerous conditions for other hikers.  My ankles were cold from being mired in snow, and I was damp all over from the melting ice dripping down from above (I had a rain coat and pants in my backpack, but wasn't wearing them because I was overheated and sweating like crazy).  There was zero cell phone reception or data coverage, and according to the trail register, no one had been here in a month.  I could have been in very real danger if I got hurt.  So I sucked it up and turned around.

When I got safely back to the road, I decided to cross over and follow the trail west for 0.2 mile to Cheningo Creek.  I wanted to check out the crossing, which I had read could be difficult in times of high water, since there is no bridge.  There are several large boulders that hikers hop across, but with the beaver activity in the area, it is apparently becoming more difficult.  I definitely would not want to attempt the crossing today with this ice!  I will plan on hiking that section on a day when Erwin can accompany me so I'm not solo for a dicey water crossing.  If we take two cars, we can leave one at the Cheningo Day Use Area, and have just the 0.2-mile distance back to a car with dry gear, in case we get wet.

This would have been a very different hike had I been wearing my snowshoes and gaiters.  However, the day wasn't a total bust.  I gained some useful knowledge from my scouting of the crossing, and I got my car out of the snowbank (after a few tries, eek).  I ended up hiking 2.4 miles on a beautiful, new-to-me trail in gorgeous sunny weather.  And there is a LOT for me to learn from this experience: 
  • Snow conditions at home are not representative of snow conditions at the trailhead!!  
  • Bring snowshoes and gaiters on all winter hikes!!  
  • Snow depth increases with elevation, not just in the mountains, but on little baby ridges, too!!  The elevation where I turned around was only about 1,800 feet.  
  • Make sure the trailhead parking is plowed/accessible!! 

I will definitely return in the spring for a re-do on this hike. 

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