Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hiking the Gorges of Western New York: Niagara Gorge and Zoar Valley

After feeling a little sick for the last two weeks, I haven't been out hiking too much at all.  Finally though, I am feeling a little better and decided to hit up some of Western New York's gorges in the last couple days.  It felt good to return to the trails and experience the beauty of our region. 

Friday, February 17th, Niagara Gorge: I jut needed a quick walk, something to get my blood pumping and feel the invigoration that the outdoors offers.  It wasn't going to be a long walk, maybe just a few miles - it was just what I needed.

I parked at Whirlpool, grabbed my pack with "The Ten Essentials" and headed down the rim trail toward the stairs to the gorge.  It was overcast, nothing uncommon for winter in the Buffalo area. Albeit the temperatures, today around 33 degrees, have been all too warm this winter.  I can't remember a winter with this little snow.  The trails were a little icy though so I slipped my kahtoola microspikes on for traction.

I reached the bottom of the gorge and started to turn right toward Devil's Hole to come up that set of stairs, when I thought it may be a nice day to chill out by the Whirlpool.  I turned left.

The water was that cool aqua-sea-green color, a color which has no match and can't be captured in photographs.  Though as I reached the churning of the Whirlpool and the channel of rapids that leads into it, the choppy water took on hues of pure white and shimmers of blue.

I pulled out my closed-cell sit pad, put on an extra layer, and sat by the water for some time.  I'm always amazed, given the visitors to Niagara Falls, that there aren't more visitors down in the gorge.  With the exception of a Canadian fisherman across the way, I was the only one down there.  I did however, see fisherman along the trail as I headed out.

When I reached the Whirlpool stairs to go back up, I was feeling pretty good and headed down toward my original departure point at Devil's Hole.  Though the trail was a little washed out in places, everything is surely passable and easy to follow.

Though I was a little apprehensive about the stairs, given a couple of weeks of inactivity, I had no problem bounding up them.  Sure, I was a little more winded than usual, but I refused to take a break until I reached the top.

For maps for a great  Niagara gorge hike, check out "A Short Hiking Trail into the Scenic Niagara Falls Gorge: Devil's Hole

Saturday February 18th, Zoar Valley:  Our search and rescue team had mountaineering training at Zoar Valley a natural gorge of Cattaraugus Creek.  Zoar Valley is one of those wild places and a popular destination for fisherman, white water kayakers, hikers, and hunters.  One of our team's first calls was concerning Zoar, so we have to be prepared to get down there in any conditions.

Our team parked near the access point on Forty Road, divided up climbing equipment, and split into three and four person teams.  We found the rough unmarked trail and headed toward the Knife Edge. 

Many of us had been to the access point before, so we had the edge waypointed in our GPS units.  The trails back there are a twisted mixture of old jeep roads, game trails, and attempted bushwhacks.  The last time our team went back here, the trail we were following dead-ended in a tangled mess of honeysuckle and multiflora rose.  I think I still have scars from that one.  I won't tell you that I was leading the way either...

After demonstrating the technique for our ascent and descent, we walked down the precarious knife edge.  Though I do higher angels than this unroped, as a team we have to make sure we can get down and up safely.  Also, the soft shale of Zoar is eroding and undercutting many of the steeper sections; you never know when the ground will give out beneath your feet.  It's nice to know that someone has your back. 

We did a little training at the bottom of the gorge, discussing patient packaging and field improvisation techniques.  Of course, we had a little lunch and passed around a bag of delicious Hudson Bay Bread and venison sausage. 

The walk up wasn't bad and I switched from tail end of the rope (the mule of the team) to lead position (the person that chooses route and employs anchors). 

About half-way out of the gorge, it began to actually snow and blow pretty good. I kind of felt like I was up in the Adirondacks for a little bit.  Odd as it may sound, the blowing snow felt great.  A great opportunity for training in one of those hidden gems of Western New York. 

Photo by Manon Paquet

The following Sunday was indeed a day of "rest," though I used it for packing for my upcoming move.  Had I not been so busy, I would have driven over to Letchworth for a quick hike.  To hike all three in three days would be the triple crown of Western New York gorge hiking.  

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