On the trail: Retreat and the edge effect

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

I finally turned back.

Perhaps my plan was ill advised from the start. To run and hike in two feet of snow without the aid of snow shoes or skis. Or even boots. Just La Sportive Wildcat trail shoes and a plastic bag I had slipped over each of my feet before I put my shoes on. But I really thought the snow would have been tamped down already by other hikers with their snow shoes or cross country skis or boots.

Apparently very few people had been out and the trail was covered with thick pillowy snow, softening in the warming temperatures. But on I ran, counting on my Kahtoola Microspikes to grab the ice and hard packed snow and prevent slipping. They were no match for today’s conditions. In some cases I crashed through the top layer of hard packed snow. But in other spots I post holed, my foot slipping into a cauldron of cold. After thirty minutes I finally accepted that I was neither trail running nor hiking, but rather slowly and inefficiently slogging my way uncomfortably through a forest blanketed in snow.

It was time to retreat, that moment when hope collides with reality.

Mountaineers must deal with the quandary of retreat. If a mountaineer advances to a summit when the odds are against her, she risks her life. Yet if she retreats she will have spent thousand of dollars and weeks or months on an unsuccessful expedition. Successful climbers, however, succeed in part because they know when to advance and when to retreat.

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

American mountaineer Ed Visteurs, the first U.S. climber to ascend all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters (and without the use of supplemental oxygen), offered realistic advice about success in mountain climbing. “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory”, he said. Each person who sets out on an adventure, be it large or small, must respect his own limits, his own edge of ability.

During my retreat I noticed that snow that had settled around the edge of the base of the trees was now melting away from those same trunks, leaving a ring of snow. And that ring forms a thin edge. The snow was disappearing gradually from around the trunks. The edge where the two had coexisted was the first spot to melt away.

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Snow always begins its retreat at the edges, where it abuts a fencepost, or sidewalk or stone wall. The edge is a fragile place. Retreat for humans also occurs at the edge, the edge of ability or mental discipline. And when retreat comes, it starts with just one foot step, one step back. But that one step may be the difference between adventure and misadventure.  When you are standing on the edge, knowing whether to walk forward or back is one of life’s great challenges. But do not mistake turning back for defeat. Retreat is simply an opportunity to try another day.

Howard E. Friedman

Tenacity on the Trail

Catskill Waterfall, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), at Yale Museum of Art

Catskill Waterfall, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), at Yale Museum of Art

Humans aim to thrive.  Yet nature is oft satisfied with merely surviving. And at times, merely surviving is good enough. For example, some trees survive rooted only in a thin crevice of rock. And hikers and trail runners pushing through their day should take inspiration.

Gardeners strive to plant seeds and plants in the most fertile soil, and may even enrich the earth with compost or other fertilizer. And maple trees drop their seeds on the forest floor, rich with years of accumulated soil and decomposed leaf litter. Both gardener and maple tree aim to plant in a nutrient dense environment. Soil is the accumulation of lichens, mosses, fungi, animal and insect waste, decomposed leaves, twigs and fallen branches, a rich mix of nutrients ready to nourish the next seed that settles in its midst.

So it is shocking then to see that some trees are able to sprout from a rock without the benefit of a rich bed of soil. As the seed degrades and germinates, it must leach any and all available nourishment trapped alongside it in its rocky lair. And it must soak up precious drops of rainwater that find their way down the sides of the cold rock walls. Furthermore it must sprout with only the minimal amount of sunlight that makes its way deep into the dark crevasse.

Surprisingly, the sight of a tree emerging from a rock entombment is not so unusual in the forest. ‘Catskill Waterfall’, by Hudson River landscape painter John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), seen above hanging in the Yale Art Museum, depicts a white birch seemingly emanating from a granite block, at the far right of his painting. And even today when driving through rocky terrain, one can often see saplings and trees growing almost magically right out of the crags that line our highways.

treeinrockTo a hiker or trail runner struggling on a hike or run, seeing a sapling or even a full grown tree swaying above its rocky foundation should give encouragement: to see life that has grown and persevered in adverse conditions. True, the tree growing out from a crack in a granite boulder may not be the tallest tree in the forest, but the tree has survived, and can help propagate its species. The tree can be a home to birds’ nests and provide refuge to insects galore which can burrow under its bark. But the tallest or the biggest tree it likely will never be.

The act of survival in the outdoors plays itself out again and again. Witness any of the birds resident through the winter. On a recent winter walk I was surprised to find myself within feet of a golden crowned kinglet, feeding among fir branches. This species, weighing less than a third of an ounce, is known to be able to survive even at temperatures of -40 F. The kinglet need not thrive on the coldest winter days, merely survive, to live so it can breed again in the spring. And so it is with the song sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, bluejays and downy woodpeckers one sees foraging, relentlessly, for their day’s nourishment throughout the winter.

Survive another day.

Such a lesson, while extreme for a recreational hiker or trail runner, is nevertheless a good one. The next mile which might seem to be insurmountable need not be covered in style. Breathlessness is okay. Sore muscles are okay. Walking and stopping are okay. Even thirst, at least for a short while, is okay. Know your limits, but persevere if possible.

The life force to survive is tenacious.

Thriving, however, may have to wait for another day.

Howard E. Friedman