Sunday, February 26, 2012

XC Skiing in Bear Swamp State Forest

I had to wait until almost the end of February, but I finally got a good day of skiing in during the "winter" of 2011-2012. It snowed about 4 inches in Cortland yesterday, which usually wouldn't be enough to get me excited, but given my desperate, snow-starved state, I figured it was worth heading up to Bear Swamp to check things out. I was pleasantly surprised and very happy I made the trip.

Bear Swamp State Forest is located on a heavily wooded plateau just to the west of the southern end of Skaneateles Lake. Topographically, the area consists of two broad north-south ridges, separated by the valley of Bear Swamp Creek. Covering this terrain is a 13-mile system of cross-country ski trails, plus some forest roads that serve as snowmobile trails in the winter. It is far enough north to catch a decent amount of lake effect snow and high enough (around 1800 feet) to hang on to it, so the snow conditions tend to be very good (in real winters, at least).

Bear Swamp ski trails (follow this link for larger PDF)

There are three trailheads serving three subsections of trails, all of which are interconnected: the Yellow trails in the southeastern section, Blue trails in the north, and Red trails in the west. I parked at the trailhead on Bear Swamp Road, the access point for the Yellow trails. Once on the snow, I was immediately surprised by the quality of the conditions. There must have been somewhat of a base underneath to cover up the wet spots, and the new snow was just enough to provide a packed powder surface. With the sun out and temperatures in the upper 20's, it was an ideal day for skiing- about freaking time!

I headed north on Y1 (Y = yellow; the DEC doesn't get too creative with trail names), took a left on Y7, and then a right on Y6. This trail goes north along the eastern edge of the plateau, offering views through the trees across one of the more impressive glacial valleys in the region and eventually of the southern tip of Skaneateles Lake. After about a mile, Y6 reaches Ridge Road, an unplowed forest road/snowmobile route. I am usually ambivalent at best about skiing on snowmobile trails, but today the glide was fantastic so I decided to give it a go.

Ridge Road runs along the edge of the plateau for several more miles before swinging west and intersecting Bear Swamp Road, forming a 9-mile loop. The skiing was flat and fast, though not particularly exciting, and the snow remained excellent, except for a few sections passing through open fields, where most of it was blown off. After cruising around most of the loop, I came to where Bear Swamp Road meets some more ski trails and decided to follow these rather than the road back to the trailhead.

Ridge Road - Bear Swamp Road loop

Near the junction of Bear Swamp and Hartnett Roads, I turned left on trail B3, which makes a gradual climb back up the ridge. Someone had made some nice powder turns on the way down, making the alpine skier in me jealous- I wouldn't be making any turns on my skinny sticks. At the top of the hill, I turned right on Y3, which winds through open woods with little ups and downs (mostly downs in the direction I was heading) before ending a short way from the trailhead.

All in all, it was an excellent day of skiing in an otherwise pathetic excuse for a winter. I wish I could say that this is when it really turned around, but temperatures are supposed to be back up in the 40's tomorrow. Good thing I never put away my trail running shoes.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Niagara Gorge and Whirlpool Rapids

A 10-hour day of driving this week took me across the Niagara Gorge, so I figured it would be nice to stop, stretch the legs, and check out the sights. Since the falls are a zoo, I opted for a run starting at Whirlpool State Park, a few miles to the north. The route took me down into the gorge to the Whirlpool and Whirlpool Rapids, some of the most impressive whitewater in North America.

Aerial shot of a section of the Whirlpool Rapids (from

The weather could not have been more atrocious, a wind driven snow/sleet/rain mix that left a thick rime of slushy ice on the windward side of my car by the time I returned from the run. I started running north along the rim of the gorge with the blue-green Niagara River far below on my left. Soon I came to a stone stairway built by the CCC that descended a break in the cliff band that forms the top of the gorge. The trail then made its way down to the river, passing giant boulders broken off from the cliffs above.

I followed the trail upriver toward the Whirlpool and rapids. The setting was fantastic, with constant views of the river and steep slopes of the Canadian side of the gorge and a surprisingly wild feel for such a heavily developed area. The running was also great, alternating between cruising on flat, packed trail and scrambling through boulder fields- a nice mix.

Eventually, I approached the show I'd come here to see: the Whirlpool Rapids. Here, all the water draining from the entire Great Lakes basin gets funneled through a chute less than 100 m wide, resulting in a series of incredibly powerful rapids and huge standing waves. The trail provided amazing access to this spectacle- no fences, no guard rails, just flat bedrock, interspersed with boulders, right down to the water's edge. I stood practically at water level, a few feet away from the rushing, heaving current. The waves in the center of the river, enormous masses of exploding water, were actually above eye level. Watching the movement of the water was mesmerizing- and scary.

I could have spent hours walking along the riverbank and looking at the rapids, and I can think of no better place to sit and eat a packed lunch on a nice day. But it was anything but a nice day, I was getting cold and soaked, and I had several hours of driving to do, so I returned to the trail and ran back to my car, still feeling a contact buzz from being so close to something so powerful.

This place doesn't seem to get a lot of attention, but I think it's arguably one of the most unique and spectacular places in eastern North America. Not bad for a quick break and stretch of the legs.