By Ann Roberti
After only 2 hours sleep for me, and just a little bit more for my friend and fellow intrepid hiker, Edie Mesick, the two of us started our hike up Balsam Lake Mountain in the Town of Hardenburgh, in Ulster County at 2:50 Saturday morning. We were embarking on our first participation in the annual survey of the Northeast’s high-elevation songbirds for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Several of the birds we were hoping to count are threatened species and getting an idea of their population might be critical to their survival.
Even though I was a bit groggy and it was sooooo dark, we agreed we totally loved the hiking. We had hoped for some help from the moon, but it was nowhere to be seen, thanks to heavy cloud cover. At least it wasn’t raining like the three other days we had planned to do this, and had to postpone.
I have never hiked in the middle of the night before, and found the experience magical. There was not a sound in the forest besides us. We did not hear a rustle from a deer, chipmunk, bird…. didn’t hear a frog or bug….not a sound.
The trail up Balsam Lake Mountain is quite wide and clear all the way up, so there was no danger of losing it, something I was a little nervous about. I didn’t think the trail markers would be visible, but they were if you shined the flashlight on them. If you were lost, they could be pretty hard to find.
We had allowed 2 hours for the 3-mile hike thinking we would take longer in the dark, but we managed to do it in the same time we did it previously in daylight. We came up the mountain on the opposite end of the designated observation sites — at Point 5 instead of Point 1, and had to continue past all of them to get to our Point 1. When we got to the top of Balsam Lake Mountain, we found the ranger vehicle at the cabin. We stopped at the picnic table there to organize ourselves, getting out our siting spot directions, and re-reading the instructions, still with flashlights. How surprised that ranger would be if he heard us! I’m sure he would never expect people up there at 4:30 in the morning.
After the fire tower, the trail is narrow, with evergreens tight around it, another great experience to hike through in the dark. And the balsam fragrance is wonderful!
There still was hardly a sound, but on our way to Point 1 (the fire tower and shack are almost in the middle of the 5 points we had to survey) we heard our first bird, a hermit thrush, singing loudly near us. The birds finally seemed to be waking up: at 4:47 am.
I heard two Bicknell’s Thrushes, the main target of our counting. As it started to get lighter out, the woods took on another wonderful feel, and we just were so happy to be out there experiencing it.
We were a little disappointed to be hearing fewer and fewer birds as we progressed, but we figured that they were just mostly hanging out on the other side of the mountain. Even the Hermit Thrushes that were plentiful at Point 1 were heard less and less as we progressed to Point 5.
Once we were done with our survey, we were very anxious to get down the mountain to see how our dogs fared in the cars while we hiked. After our 6+ mile hike, Edie and I found our dogs to be completely fine in the cars and so happy to see us. They bounded to greet us. We then hiked another 2.5 miles with the dogs on the trail in the opposite direction of our morning hike and enjoyed ourselves tremendously. At 10 am, we were back in Margaretville, having already hiked about 9 miles. We totally loved the day and would do it again, but not too often — we are too old for 2 hours sleep. ~