Take a Hike in the Ramapo Mountain State Forrest

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It is a blisteringly cold, but sunny January Monday afternoon and the call of the wild speaks to Hershey. The wind carries the whisper of his forbearers hunting through the wood and plains. The scent of snow and squirrels wafts like dead leaves upon the air. Bundling up in galoshes and a fleece line coat, Hershey and I (also in winter clothes) head up our street where a hidden path joins the trail system of the state forrest. 

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Living next to a state forest certainly has its merits. Life within walking distance of a park means a healthy amount of sun, fresh air, and increasingly so, bears. In fact state rangers closed the park in October due to a hostile bear, though we only learned of this today and likely hiked during its occupation. In fact, we either ran into it or its bear buddy nose to nose in the fall. 

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We walk to the end of our street and past the water tower that marks the trail head. The descent down a rocky slope is treacherous with ice covering the rocks, but Hershey skips over it without issue. Over a small creek and through the wood, we continue along the unblazened trail until it joins the Wanaque Ridge trail. We once ventured along this trail, but lost the blazes, eventually finding someone’s back yard with an alarming number of no trespassing signs. 

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Today, we take the trail across a thinly crusted iced over pond. Hershey is first terrified, then amused by the breaking ice. While I pause to take pictures in the amazing sun light, Hershey finds a stick to occupy himself.

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As the trail continues, it crosses a small stream glittering in the sun. Hershey takes a running leap straight across it, feet barely skimming the surface as he prances. “Good boy!” I congratulate him on not getting dirty, just before he turns and wades directly into the middle of the stream.

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With ice forming on paws and water bottles, we trek along the trail which joins another of the ridge system and enters a cut through the forest. On the left is a hill up to the Van Slyke castle, a mansion built by the misfortunate (or black widow) wife of multiple industrial entrepreneurs around the turn of the century. A fire left only the foundations and stone walls standing along with a pool. Last time, we ran into a film crew doing something resembling Game of Thrones with a zombie and a knight, complete with a trampoline for getting that elusive slow motion explosion shot. Before that, an Incan flute band was playing while sitting in the remains of the pool. We aren’t ready for this weirdness today, so we head right to the path which connects to the lake.

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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Now following the Canonball trail, so named as it was the path used by American revolutionaries to transport cannon balls from the nearby Ringwood iron forges to George Washington’s army in New Jersey, we turn off just before hitting the lake. This short trail connects over to the path coming down from the castle and is often under a good deal of standing water. Hershey forgets this and barrels across, sinking to his belly in icy water before hopping back out and giving the ice a dirty look. Instead, we skirt the water and surmount a small ridge of boulders along the side of the trail.

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The trails leads down to the lake, the park forest’s most prominent feature. For the first time in recent memory, no boats are out on the lake. Temperatures have not been consistently cold enough to freeze the lake, though a thin layer of ice coats parts of the surface. Thankfully Hershey doesn’t try to walk across though I think he gets the idea to try once or twice before being called back. 

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The lake is about 3 miles around, following a tight trail right on the banks for the majority. Several stone bridges cross streams feeding into it, and at the southern tip, a large concrete dam stems the flow, creating the lake. 

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The path around the lake is typically filled with families, runners, bikers, and dogs, but today we see no signs of life beyond some squirrels until nearly around the lake. The squirrels must know Hershey is on the loose as they don’t even scurry enough to get him to chase or try to run up a tree. 

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The quiet would be alarming on a less sunny, picturesque day. With the sun glaring and wind whipping, the park is tranquil and at peace.

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Nearly around the lake, a shout of “on your right!” wakens me from my reflection on the beauty of the park. A mountain biker comes rolling past. Hershey, normally terrified of bikes and most people, ignores the biker as he rolls up. After he passes, Hershey tears off after him in full deer chasing mode. I worry that if the biker sees him, he’ll startle and flips the bike or veer into Hershey. Thankfully after chasing the biker over a crest in the trail, Hershey stops, putting on his proudest face, as if to ask “did you see what I did?” I think he believes he successfully saved me from the bike. I let him have his moment in the sun.

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We circle the lake, encountering not even a bird on the trail. As we near the path back the way we began, we pass the small waterfall that feeds the lake as well. It’s rage even feels subdued on this lovely gift of a day.

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As the wind picks back up, trees sway and the surface of the lake shifts. We pass the most tangible sign of recent weather yet in a huge downed tree across the path. Hershey gives it a tentative glance before leaping over. I require a more gingerly ascent over the branches.

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At the head of the path back, we pass a large boulder that, beside a broken fishing bob, shows no sign of the busy life it leads during the summer when there are always fishers perched on it. Today, Hershey hops up, probably because we almost always make him jump up to pose on it. He strikes a regal pose and waits for me, then runs up the trail.

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Heading back, the temperature begins to drop a little, and even the strenuous climb up the rock slide does little to warm us. We briefly huddle next to a large rock outcropping to break the wind before making fast tracks back along the path.

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Legend has it that this rock guards the entrance to the White Lodge, a spiritual realm beyond the perception of the living. Those who enter it must be entirely pure of heart, or they will be consumed by the spirits and returned to the earth as near dead husks of soul-less automatons. No, actually that was a plot point of Twin Peaks, not local legend. Sorry. It was still enough to scare Hershey and send him running though.

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Along the way back, Hershey picks up a second wind, and tears up and down the side paths and trails along side of me. Perhaps he is trying to warm up. Perhaps he knows we are heading back and wants to extend his mileage. Perhaps he’s in a vicious battle for Fitbit steps with the neighbor’s dog. Or perhaps he thinks everything smells like squirrel and has to investigate. After all, we saw the first fox ever in the area a mere two days ago.

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We furiously hike back along our trail, splashing across the stream so that the headless horseman can no longer follow. No pumpkins thrown from horseback follow. I wouldn’t mind getting the horseman’s recipe for Hessian dopplebock though.

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As we ascend the rocky path up a slope, we catch sight of the water tower that marks the end of our hike. 

We often see deer around here, and once, a coyote, but like the entire hike, it is quiet and empty today. We don’t even see any neighbors on our walk down to the house, though that is not atypical of our quiet street. A cardinal and bluebird fly out of the woods as we pass, both showing signs of color and life, and a mere hint of spring on this less than colorful day. Hershey remembers the endless winter of last year and sighs. He knows this one can not be as bleak and long as last. Or can it?