Exploring Huckleberry Shacks in the Shawangunks

Huckleberry Shacks in the ShawangunksThe Sam’s Point area of the Shawangunk Mountains in Ulster County flooded with huckleberry pickers each summer from the mid-1800s until the early 1960s.

Mostly hardscrabble locals, they built hundreds of seasonal shacks to be closer to their wild crop, selling the sweet berries in Newburgh, Middletown, New Jersey, and to local Ulster County distributors.

As someone who often writes about both abandoned things and shacks, I jumped on the idea when my friend Lili told me about it mid-winter.

We decided to wait for more temperate conditions to explore, but this being the winter that never came, those conditions appeared in the beginning of March, with temperatures climbing into the 70s.

I’d actually gone berry-picking years ago at Sam’s Point, but it was during a time in my life I had neither a car nor a license, so just kind of hopped in a vehicle one day when someone said “fresh berries” and ended up in a massive berry field without knowing where it was.

The bushes seemed to stretch for miles. There was a couple dozen people there, but they hadn’t even made a dent in the manna.

I remember the whole mission being pretty clandestine – we parked on the side of the road and snuck through the forest to get there – and always thought of the field as some well-kept Ulster County secret.

So I was surprised when Lili’s directions ended and I found us in the very official-looking Sam’s Point parking lot.

Lili, my friend Marisa (who does spell her name that way) and I started along the Sam’s Point Loop Road and came upon some of the huckleberry shacks within ten minutes.

Huckleberry Shacks in the Shawangunks

Huckleberry Shacks in the Shawangunks

Huckleberry Shacks in the Shawangunks

Berry-picking was “big commerce” since at least 1862, but people most likely started traveling up to Sam’s Point for this purpose since the late 1700s, according to Marc B. Friend’s “The Huckleberry Pickers: A Raucous History of the Shawangunk Mountains.”

In the 1800s, the Shawangunks were mined for their bounty: cordwood, timber, millstones, lead, zinc, and hemlock bark for the tanning of hides, a practice that denuded a large chunk of the nearby Catskills. By the 1900s, these industries had declined, but berry picking continued.

Most berries were picked around Sam’s Point early on, but the construction of Smiley Road – named after the family that still owns the nearby Mohonk Mountain House and built the road – allowed better access to areas deeper in the Shawangunks, according to the book.

Summer communities anarchically sprung up along Smiley Road, one large enough to have two general stores. The pickers used their hands to pluck the berries – berry-rakes harmed the fruit – and dropped them into tin pails until they overflowed. They poured the pails into large wooden boxes and lugged them to the seasonal communities, where they were sold to wholesalers, according to the book.

We continued on the loop road under the robin’s egg-and-azure umbra of the sun-soaked sky as it ran along a quartz composite cliff. When the road eventually rose up to the cliff’s lip, we saw Lake Maratanza sitting in the middle of a basin ringed with the cliffs.

Lake Maratanza, a “sky lake,” lapped so close to the basin’s edges it looked like an infinity pool poised to overflow during the next big storm.

A fire in April 2016 burned nearly three square miles of the seven-square-mile preserve, according to the Times-Herald Record. The loop road seemed to have halted the fire’s advance – denuded pitch pine and birch stretched out from the loop’s exterior, but there was no damage within.

Photo by Lili Sanchez

After nearing the loop’s origin, we started down the Verkeerderkill Falls trail. It opened up almost immediately to panoramic views revealing the next ridge of the Shawangunks ahead, with the southern Taconics bordering the northeastern skyline like battlements.

The Verkeerderkill Falls trail wandered downhill at a slight grade. We hiked the two-and-a-half miles at a slow pace, skipping about the rock-studded trail.

The Verkeerder Kill cut a verdant gully though the dry rock, pooling and gurgling until it threw itself off the 180-foot falls.

The trek back was actually quicker, since the rocky trail made for a technical descent but was sloped gently enough for the ascent to be moderate.

The hike from the Sam’s Point around the loop road, down to Verkeerderkill Falls and back amounted to a little less than 8 miles.

I wrote an article at the end of last summer laying out the 10 Best Hikes in the Hudson Valley and Catskills. I’m planning to update it at the end of this summer, and this hike might be towards the top.

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