This weekend my husband steered us toward a new spot to hike, a little park which, on the map, had the long, skinny promising shape of a gorge trail. After a couple of wrong turns, we found the spot, which had an inauspicious trailhead, complete with a muddy turnaround and a basketball court, plus a number of hikers with dogs. Of course, at this time of year, without snow, most places don't look pretty. We ate our sandwiches and started up the trail.
It started flat, and windy. Old burdock plants next to the trail kept us on course where mud might have otherwise pushed us toward the edge. But of course, after a few minutes - yes, even in January - the kids were splashing through the stream. They each believed inside that they could do this without getting soaked. We like our kids to be intrepid. I was amused to watch my husband telling them not to get wet but simultaneously climbing all over the place with them, jumping rock to rock.
I'm no forester, and I don't know what most of the trees here were. My husband recognized a hop hornbeam; a lovely sumac was laying across the trail in one place, seemingly felled by the elements. The tree I couldn't miss was an Ailanthus, which had broken also across the trail (such is the nature of trails at the bottom of narrow, steep, sides - the trees always fall to the trail). Its branches, which I broke off to clear the trail a bit, gave off their characteristic rotten-peanut-butter odor. This in an invasive tree - the one featured in the old NYC novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - and known for its ability to tolerate pollution, and its ability to spread and grow quickly into disturbed areas.
We lived for years in Ithaca, NY. This park reminded us more of Ithaca than any other we've found here: stream, cliffs, waterfall... but I have to wonder why Ailanthus seems more abundant in woodlands, like this one, where broken lawn chairs hang from the hillsides and the stream has a dead look to it, suggesting that urban runoff of various sorts has destroyed whatever might have lived there. This was a nature area, clearly saved for its beauty, but not *quite* well enough appreciated to be really first-rate. We'll go back, but each time, the girls will come home and take a bath. Not, of course, because of Ailanthus. But I have to wonder what the park, and the water, might have been like without Ailanthus, and lawn chairs, and trash, and broken concrete streambed interspersed with the lovely flaky, black shale.
And, even hiking in January, the girls needed a bath when we got home. Hazel first stepped in the stream with a misplaced foot, and bravely continued uphill after I wrung out her sock. But Emily's fall, taken as she followed Daddy in a rock-to-rock jump across a narrow part of the stream, soaked her from hip to toe. We were at the top, though not at the end of the trail, and it was a good place to quit. We hurried down. The way down took perhaps half the time as the way up, because we stopped dawdling and hopping around. We got in the car, turned on the heater, and hurried home to give the girls a hot bath.