The North-South Lake area in the eastern Catskills is packed with gawkers in the summer months. The road leading to Kaaterskill Falls, the jewel of the area (and by ‘jewel,’ I mean ‘most easily accessible’) is crammed with pedestrians giving motorists heart attacks as they wander along the twisting mountain lane from their cars to the trail’s entrance.
If you want to experience North-South Lake in a more pristine form, the solution is to go there in the winter months, when the area is devoid of people wise enough to stay indoors when it’s 20 degrees out.
Or, in my case, 14 degrees, which is what the thermometer in my Nissan read as I parked at the Scutt Road Parking area in preparation for ascending North Point, the only vehicle in the normally brimming lot.
I was layered up, wearing snow boots, a fur hat, a t-shirt, a thermal, the warmest hoodie in all creation, and an L.L. Bean coat fabricated from some space-age material that was the thickness of a windbreaker, yet still kept the gelid air at bay.
The only parts of me that were cold during the trek were my nose and my crotchal region. I would suggest layering up ‘down below’ if you attempt such a journey, or else you’ll be like me, wondering the whole time if you’re getting penile frostbite.
I was not the first person to attempt the North Point hike since the Catskill’s Christmas Eve snowstorm: there were about six sets of tracks (plus one dog) laid out in the snow as I entered the Mary’s Glen trail. Mice, squirrels and deer had skittered across the trail to their holes and hovels to escape the steel-solid cold, leaving evidence of their rushings across the snow.
As well as wanting to not freeze to death, I took the trail at a brutal pace because I had to be back for a shift at 5 p.m. I failed to take into consideration the fact that it’s much tougher to hike with six inches of snow on the ground: with each step, I had to squash the snow down with my boot until it was compact enough for me to push off. I increased my pace further when I realized this, until I was panting up Mary’s Glen.
The brick-ass temperatures led to some interesting phenomenon along the trail. Hoarfrost spread its crystalline tendrils across patches of ice, and the air was frozen to the point you could hear birds call from a half-mile distant.
My gloves were soaked through with perspiration half-way up Mary’s Glen, and they instantly froze to any rock I grabbed for purchase, then had to be peeled off like hand-shaped stickers.
During the final ascent, the snow suddenly became deeper, maxing out at about 10 inches. I read the remaining set of human tracks ahead of me, seeing where the person had slipped, or had stepped between hidden rocks, trying to avoid their mistakes and the twisted ankle that could doom me to freeze silently in the wilderness.
The brutality of the hike paid off at North Point, the acme of the journey. The air was frozen clear, and Mt. Everett and Mt. Washington were etched in the sky 30 miles to the east, seemingly only the mid-ground of the spectacularly long view.
A lone raven amused himself by doing tricks in the still air above me as I snapped photos, the only human for miles in any direction. A snow squall pushed through the Kaaterskill Valley as I prepared to leave, the multitudinous wave of crystals catching the light of the waning sun.
The snow actually helped on the way down, packing the crevices and fissures of the rocks, smoothing the trail until I could slide down it stride-by-stride like a cross-country skier.
By the time I reached my car, my throat was raw from desperately panting the super-cooled air, and I jacked the heat up as I drove from the Scutt Road Parking Lot, leaving it totally empty once again.