By Matthew Young
The bass notes of the bullfrogs set the rhythm section of the wildlife orchestra that crescendos on warm nights. The katydids and peepers repeat a swelling chorus that echoes off the Shawangunk ridge. Though far from the city, the sounds of summer at the Bashakill wetlands rival New York’s busy streets.
The Bashakill sits between an ancient ridge in southeastern New York. The land seems to store memories in the mud that holds cattails and lily pads and gurgles when it reforms its shape after a deep footprint. It is the largest wetlands in the southeastern section of the state, and only four miles from my home town on the border of Orange and Sullivan County. In the summer, the aquatic plants completely cover the area causing the water to look like an endless field. In late august the watery fields turn violet in a final bloom.
The air feels heavier and leaves an earthy taste in your mouth. Only a small narrow channel remains clear of plant life as it winds its way through the valley floor. Great Blue Herons wade through the shallow, mostly stagnant water on either side of the channel. As a child I would ride my bike to the one bridge that spans the kill, just so I could watch them fish. Bald eagles are common and kingfishers wait on the telephone lines keeping an eye out for movement beneath the waters surface.
The Bashakill has always been an escape for me. I can smell the mud, the smell of all the decaying remnants from the past October and even the October before that. Fishermen sometimes neglect their catches and leave the fish along the roadside. Even in winter when only that single channel remains unfrozen and all the green has given way to brown and gray, I can still feel how alive it must be under the ice.
On the northwestern side of the Bashakill, what was once used as tow path for the famed D&H Canal (Delaware & Hudson), extends for miles along the historic route. On the opposite side of the Kill is the slightly raised railroad bed, on which the Ontario and Western trains used to barrel through the now peaceful forests. Dating back to 1868, the railroad officially closed in 1957. The D&H canal can trace its history back even further, with construction beginning in 1825.
If you are looking for a leisurely hike that offers outstanding views of the wetlands, I suggest the O&W trail. It is just a small portion of the much longer seventy-one mile Shawangunk Ridge Trail, which extends from High Point, NJ, to Mohonk Preserve near Minnewaska State Park.
There are a few entrances to this trail. The two most popular are accessible from the South Road, just outside of the village of Wurtsboro, NY. Once you have driven approximately four miles on the South Road, you’ll make a sharp right turn for Haven Road. When you reach the bottom of a short but steep hill, you will notice the path on either side of the pavement. There is a parking area down the rough gravel road to the right, or if you continue on Haven Road over the bridge, you will come to a more easily accessible parking area that also has access to several unnamed hiking trails that wind through the beauty of the Bashakill’s forests. This parking area is also accessible from Route 209.
Another popular access point, especially for boaters and kayakers is further down the South Road. Instead of turning right onto Haven Rd. continue straight for a couple miles. Across from the Bashakill Vineyards is a pull-off. The trail extends on both sides of the parking area. Here you are able to drive down to the waters edge. It offers an excellent boat launch site with unobstructed views. (Only non-motorized watercraft are allowed)
The trail is almost completely flat, which makes it different from many of the other hikes I’ve covered. It is less of a strenuous journey, and more of a leisurely nature walk, allowing you enjoy the surroundings while being fully present in the moment. Though it can get somewhat buggy in the summer (pack some bug spray), this is a perfect hike for families with younger kids. With no true beginning or end-point, you can simply hike until you’ve had your fill. Deer, frogs, and turtles are abundant along the trail. Being parallel to the water makes for great views whether you decide to walk the entire length of the trail or just a small portion.
Further down the South Road is another hidden gem of the Shawangunk Ridge. Located just over the border of Orange county is a serene waterfall, tucked back within the trees, just off the road.
Though there is no clear trail to the top of the falls, you can usually make your way towards the steep summit using tree limbs as handholds. Simply taking in the view from the base of the falls is just as impressive and rewarding as the hike to the top. For those who do make the trek, continuing upstream will lead you to the opening of a small cave. Though the entrance is now gated-off to the public, you can still feel the cool breeze blowing outwards from deep within the mountain. Though I have never personally explored the cave system, I have heard that once through the narrow passage way, spelunkers are rewarded with grand underground caverns. However, this type of exploration requires expert knowledge, and should never be attempted by the inexperienced. The cave is also a natural habitat for the areas bat population, and should be treated with respect.
No matter what activity you choose to do at the Bashakill, the natural beauty, and solitude of the area will last a lifetime. The beauty changes with the seasons, each one bringing its own unique touch. There is no bad time to visit. The autumn brings a fiery hue to the mountains. Spring brings about a fresh coat of green and new sense of life to the biodiverse region. Even on snow-covered winter days, the beauty of the frozen water and snowy silence are undeniable.
The Bashakill can easily be a day trip from New York City, reachable by car in under two hours. The primitive wilderness of New York is out there, just waiting to be explored.
Stop by Hatchet Supply for more information or for any outdoor needs.
77 Atlantic Ave. Brooklyn, NY