With 8 to 10 inches of fresh, powdery snow underfoot and clear, sunny skies overhead, a group of seven hikers set out behind the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society’s Rick Whalen to explore Hither Woods last Saturday.This was Rick’s 25th annual New Year’s hike through the Hither Woods Preserve, an area unique on Long Island for the fact that you can hike all day and not cross a single road or come within view of a house. The 3,000-acre preserve is sandwiched between Montauk Highway and Block Island Sound, and boasts more than 40 miles of hiking trails.
I had heard stories of Rick’s annual trek from many trail members who are more likely to do one of the many two-hour jaunts that the local trail groups offer. All-day hikes are unheard of here on Long Island, while a two-hour hike in the Catskills or Adirondacks wouldn’t get you close to the summit of even the lower mountains. But, still, I was surprised that all but one of the hikers who showed up on Saturday was a first-timer. And the repeat customer? His wife, Janice!
It was a perfect day to be outdoors, and Rick’s knowledge of the trails and history of Hither Woods can’t be topped. As we set off from the Hither Hills overlook and turned north onto Serpent’s Back Trail, I had only one reservation about the outing: we should be on skis, I thought.
We climbed and descended a number of low ridges for which Serpent’s Back Trail is named. These are “push moraine” features created by the receding glacier as it stopped long enough in one place to allow a pile of glacial till to build up at its leading edge. This till would have settled out from the sand-, gravel-, stone- and boulder-riddled melting ice.
The light, fluffy snow was deep enough to hide ruts, boulders and logs on the trail. That made the footing a bit tricky and, over the hours, made for some sore muscles. Skis would have floated with ease over those objects!
Turning east on the wide trail called Flaggy Hole Road, we encountered a set of cross country ski tracks. Opting not to trash the nice set of tracks, we turned north on the Powerline Trail, following another set of tracks. These were the tracks of a red fox, a male from the look of the way it stopped to urinate on small shrubs along its route.
Most of us could discern the skunky fox scent as we walked by. This is the mating season for the red fox, and fox tracks were by far the most numerous we came across during our 8-mile-long hike. Of course, it’s possible that we were crisscrossing the tracks of a single fox, as we covered an area of less than two square miles.
Crossing the Long Island Rail Road tracks, we made our way eastward on the Old North Road and through a small grove of hop hornbeam (aka ironwood) trees. Here, the hop-like fruits were scattered over the snow’s surface, attracting a small flock of songbirds that left foot and wing prints in the snow.
Continuing along the Coastal Trail, we enjoyed spectacular views from the edge of the high bluffs overlooking Block Island Sound, with Plum Island, Gardiners Island and Connecticut clearly visible in the distance.
The return trip was via the eastern section of Stephen Talkhouse Path. I was delighted to see the sign informing hikers about this legendary Montaukett and long-distance hiker at what is believed to be the site of Stephen Talkhouse’s home near Flaggy Hole.
At the east end of Fresh Pond, we left the Talkhouse Path and headed eastward on Fresh Pond Landing Road. With the sun low in the west, we decided to strike out directly for our cars at the overlook, breaking off the trail for an easy bushwhack through the oak forest. En route, just before climbing Petticoat Hill, we came across a nice surprise: an old, overgrown woods road that Rick Whalen was not aware of.
It was a good day in the field.