Short climb up Stissing Mountain

by Sonja Stark on December 31, 2014

You need to keep moving in the winter or risk cabin fever! Try this one on for size: Stissing Mountain – a short climb (elevation 1402 feet) to a super tall fire tower. If you can stomach the swaying, lurching motion of a 90′ steel structure, the views are amazing.

George and I made friends with Sandy, a quick and nimble hiker from Lagrangeville who could have easily sprinted up the mountain if I didn’t talk her ear off. Sandy was prepared but several others paraded up and down the rocky, wet trail without concern. No hiking shoes, no walking sticks, no water-proof clothing, no water or lunch and starting late in the day; Are the unprepared seriously looking for their 15-minutes of fame on the local evening news? Leave the ultra-light climbing to the pro’s.

Finding the beginning of the trail can be a little confusing. In Pine Plains, NY, go south on Route 82 for about 1.5 miles until you see the parking lot on the right. The trailhead is across the road on the left. There is no sign that reads “Stissing Mountain.” Rather you’ll see two signs, each that read Thomas Pond Nature Preserve. It’s the second twin sign (about 100 feet from the first) that you need. The steep, rocky climb is immediate, no warm-up here.

At 90' feet, this fire tower absorbs some really strong winds.

At 90′ feet, this fire tower absorbs some really strong winds.

The Tower provides vistas east to Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont; Southwest to Pennsylvania and New Jersey; and North to the Empire State Plaza in Albany.

The Tower provides vistas east to Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont; Southwest to Pennsylvania and New Jersey; and North to the Empire State Plaza in Albany.

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Hiking Spruce Mountain; a study in land overuse

by Sonja Stark on December 30, 2014

A wide, open snowmobile trail helped us return to our car without incident.

A wide, open snowmobile trail helped us return to our car without incident.

Saratoga Plan trail

Snake in SnowThere’s something very wrong about hiking to the top of a mountain and finding a road. The satisfaction in hiking is knowing your foot can do something a tire can’t.

Crossing bridge-less rivers, skirting around rocky overpasses, hauling yourself up steep terrain – these are human efforts made in the wild that produce an overwhelming sense of liberation and euphoria.

But, on Friday, I was actually relieved to return to my car on a gated service road, traversable only by snowmobiles at this time of year. The rest of my party were equally delighted.

Spruce Mountain can be best described as part bushwhack, part tree-stump graveyard and part ankle-twisting rock. I picked it because Mutti prefers the small stuff and Nola needed to tick off another fire tower climb in the winter. The print-out instructions we carried did not help.

The land on Spruce Mountain has taken a serious beating. Parts of the hike cut through a field of paraplegic stumps that reminds me of a bloody war zone. Extensive clear-cutting has led to land erosion and the destruction of bio-diverse natural habitats. I found a dead snake frozen in the snow… perhaps a victim of the destruction?

The red, yellow and blue paint markings on trees are actually property and forestry boundaries and not to be used as directional aids. We saw dozens of yellow POSTED signs but not one red DEC disc. The old abandoned logging road is now more of a deer herding path. Little black droppings litter parts of the trail with better foliage. Like a series of mini-geysers, water leaked and gushed from every crevice of the ground. Mutti’s feet were soaked.

There is hope for the area, though. I learned online that a local land conservation group known as Saratoga P.L.A.N. purchased parts of the mountain with the goal of restoring it. We didn’t see any of their white trail signs until we were half-way to the top.

At the summit is a 73-foot tall fire tower, dilapidated, but undergoing serious repair. All but the first landing of the tower has been outfitted with new steps and platforms. It shouldn’t be long before it’s open to the public. There are also a number of radio towers. Without the fire tower though, there are no views.

Spruce Mountain Fire Tower

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Visit North Bennington, Vermont

by Sonja Stark on December 28, 2014

The Park-McCullough House is one of the finest, most significant, and best preserved Victorian Mansions in New England.

The Park-McCullough House is one of the finest, most significant, and best preserved Victorian Mansions in New England.

House

The Mansard roof, the wrap-around porch, the long cathedral windows – this is what a doll house looks like but in 1865, Vermont Governor John McCullough and his father-in-law, Trenor Park lived here. 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of this beautiful Victorian mansion. The house was designed by Henry Dudley, a prolific New York architect known for his Gothic Revival churches.

Today was spent in North Bennington, a charming New England hamlet cradled in the arms of the Vermont Green Mountains. We’ve all been to Old Bennington and downtown Bennington dozens of times but this well-kept secret has never been on my radar. Having ordered countless times from PortaBrace (the famous blue bags used for television cameras), you’d think I would have been curious to find their headquarters, only minutes before you enter the little village.

The Park McCullough House estate extends past a historic carriage barn, around several agricultural fields dotted with horses, and into the woods joined by a network of trails. Some of the property is privately-owned, but following a stone wall along West Street helps orient hikers where to begin.

The emerald ash borer (EAB) beetle has killed millions of ash trees in North America and Vermont is no exception. During our walk on the “Mile Around Trail,” we saw the results of the infestation: millions of exit holes in the branches and trunks of trees. Posters help to inform and educate the public how to stop the destruction.

During our walk, we found plenty of benches to enjoy a lunch of brown-bagged sandwiches and hot tea. One such spot overlooks the duck pond of the Taraden Bed and Breakfast, once part of the Park-McCullough Estate.

Here’s a few glimpses of other scenic treasures about town:

North Bennington Train Depot

North Bennington Train Depot

The waterfalls at Mill Pond in North Bennington.

The waterfalls at Mill Pond in North Bennington.

The Henry Bridge spans the Wallomsac River. It located just off Route 67A- turn left on Murphy Road.

The Henry Bridge spans
the Wallomsac River. It’s located just off Route 67A- turn left on Murphy Road.

Bennington College is a private, nonsectarian liberal arts college located in Bennington, Vermont, USA. The college was founded in 1932 as a women's college and became co-educational in 1969.

Bennington College is a private, nonsectarian liberal arts college located in Bennington, Vermont, USA. The college was founded in 1932 as a women’s college and became co-educational in 1969.

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Travel luggage: tips for flying with bags

by Sonja Stark on December 24, 2014

LuggageI’m on Christmas luggage patrol this week. My boyfriend’s daughter needs a suitcase for a trip to Italy. The lucky college student is spending the remainder of her junior year in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe: Milan. An opportunity of a lifetime! My, how things have changed since I went to college.

The optimum luggage needs to be durable, space-efficient, easy to manage and long-lasting. The brand and color shouldn’t matter. Price is important but it shouldn’t be too cheap or too expensive.

Hard vs Soft
She wants a hard-side (or hard-shell) but I’m not a fan of polycarbonate. Yes, they have their good points: they protect belongings better, are lighter and can withstand extreme temperatures. If you’re traveling with chocolate and bottles of wine (wrapped tightly in clothes, of course), have no fear, a hard-shell will do the trick.

However, and here’s the defining criticism that trumps wine and chocolate: the compartments inside are equal, a 50/50 top lid opening. This means that when you need to open it (at the airport or the hotel) everything falls out willy nilly. When you prop it against a wall, especially resting atop a luggage stand, it doesn’t stay. The weight of the top is too heavy to stay propped. Other cons (for most models) include no outside pocket, scuffs easily and has unprotected wheels that pop off.

Briggs & Riley makes a 27″ Torq International hardside that finally eliminates all these issues but, with tax, it’s nearly $600. Then again, it’s guaranteed for life, so maybe it’s worth it.

Size and Weight Matters
Carry-on luggage is another ball of sticky wax. Airline dimensions (width/height) for carry-ons vary according to the airline. I play it safe and count the handles and wheels (spinners) in my measurement. A carry-on within 22″ (height) will fit nicely in the overhead space with the top end facing out. However, not all bins are created equal and super small regional aircraft will ask that you check it at the gate. Soft-shell are far more forgiving as they bend and flex.

In my experience, domestic flights carry little about the weight of a carry-on but it’s just the opposite on international flights. On my recent trip to Russia, Aeroflot Airlines enforced the rules. When they discovered my carry-on exceeded the 22-pound limit, they told me to step aside and remove five pounds. I lost my place in line and inconvenienced my traveling companions with extra weight. Not cool. Of course, the return trip from Moscow to JFK was a different story. Aeroflot reps didn’t bother to check the weight of my carry-on and barely batted an eye at one of the student’s luggage that weighed in at 55-pounds (50 is the limit). When I got home I immediately bought a luggage scale.

Decorate your Bag
Earlier I mentioned that color doesn’t matter. It’s true. Go ahead and buy black just remember to decorate it like a Christmas tree so you can recognize it coming down the luggage carousel. A flashy bag is also more thief-resistant than a generic looking bag. Tie one or more of the following to your luggage to personalize the look: colorful tags, ribbons, bandanas, neck ties, scarves, belts or shredded t-shirt. Apply colored duct tape with big writing on it. If you have a hardshell, affix iron-on patches or a variety of stickers to it.

Okay, that’s all the advice I have time for now. Time to shop at a local discount retailer for the gift. If you have any tips you’d like to share, feel free to comment. Happy traveling.

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Where we went in 2014

by Sonja Stark on December 22, 2014

Hiking Living Room Trail

My GoNomad editor, Max Hartshorne just posted a “Where We Went in 2014” summary. Read about travel writers like Cindy Bigras, Janis Turk, Jean M. Spoljaric, Steve Hartshorne, Cathie Arquila and Paul Shoul as they share their experiences from all over the world.

Where do you want to go in 2015? Wherever it might be, there’s a writer at GoNomad who can help.

With relations between the U.S. and Cuba beginning to normalize, maybe the forbidden country is your next destination? The easing of tourism regulations is bound to bring a surge of visitors to Havana. Here are a few articles penned by GoNomad travel writers, including a Cuba mini-guide, that offer insight and advice:

CUBA, the Forbidden Country

CUBA, Musicians Share the Night

CUBA, Havana on $50/day

CUBA, Lost in Space

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Climbing Kane Mountain near Caroga Lake

by Sonja Stark on December 20, 2014

George takes a bite out of winter while hiking up Kane Mountain in the Southern Adirondacks.  Dec. 20, 2014

George takes a bite out of winter while hiking up Kane Mountain in the Southern Adirondacks. Dec. 20, 2014

Don’t let cabin fever take over you this winter. There are hundreds of trails in every direction of Albany and all offer beautiful scenery, diverse terrain and an opportunity to photograph incredible views. It might take a slip or two, a mouthful of obscenities and a frozen nose, but sooner or later, you too (like my boyfriend seen above) will come to appreciate hiking in colder climates.

The half-mile loop at Kane Mountain, with it’s steel-frame lookout tower, is the ideal climb to start the season. Located near Caroga Lake in the Southern Adirondacks, George and I explored the plentiful lake region with no more than a pair of warm hiking boots and a backpack full of peanut butter sandwiches. One blamed the other for not remembering the Microspikes, but the hike was so short and gradual (we even saw teens racing up without gloves) that we quickly resigned ourselves to embrace this carefree moment.

A hiker that we met coming down while we were climbing up, described how she tried to face her fear of heights by climbing to the top of the 60-foot tall observation station. She couldn’t do it. The steps were coated with slippery ice and that alone was enough to scare her.

When we got to the summit, we gripped the handrails tightly and crept up slowly. Crystal-like icicles looking like small jagged teeth coated the perch, circa 1925. Views of surrounding lakes and ponds and undulating valleys and hills is breathtaking.

At ground-level, we propped ourselves against the open window frame of an abandoned lookout station for lunch. Sadly, graffiti and vandalism litter what is left of an important part of the daily life of staffed observers who worked hard on fire prevention and detection. Based on the scribbling, the carvings were probably left by defiant adolescents. It’s not often that I see so much defacing done to wonderful wooden relics of the past.

At the parking lot off Green Lake Road, we discovered that the trail was actually a loop. We could have come down a different way that was even prettier. Definitely, a reason to return in early Spring.

Fire tower at Kane Mountain

Stinging icicles

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