Monday, March 19, 2012

20 Miles in The Buffer

A week away from the NJ Ultra Festival and my first 50k.

Needless to say the anxious nerves have begun to fire. If I'm going to be an Ultra runner I should be comfortable doing long runs. That includes the weekend before the event,a  completely different mentality than traditional marathon training where I would be tapering in preparation for the big event.

The NJ Ultra Festival is scheduled to take place on a 10 mile loop on a reasonably flat rail trail at the NJ State Fairgrounds.

Many of my recent runs have been scramble/trail runs with thousands of feet of elevation gain. Early in the work week I had decided that I wanted to do 20 miles. But the question was where. The weather report for the upcoming weekend was suppose to be splendid and I had been fearing that my regular set of runs would be populated with folks shedding their cloches of cabin fever and heading for the outdoors.

So where should I go? Where can I get in 20 miles without the population that one would normally find on the bike paths on the weekend that the trees are budding and the peepers are out cheering on the warming days?
Weed Road Trail Head

Then it struck me that I could go to Stewart State Forest. Often referred to as The Buffer because it's the surrounding wetlands of Stewart International Airport. I had visited The Buffer back in December when I was still dipping my toes into the world of trail running. I had run for nearly 8 miles without seeing anyone. Granted it was December and The Buffer is known for it's seasonal hunting and as a mecca for mountain bikers.

I figured this was as good a place as any to be far from the maddening crowd and run 20 miles where I wouldn't be cresting any peaks and the terrain would likely be fairly close to the rail-bed of the NJ Ultra Festival.

When I arrived, I was the only car in the parking lot. I started my run from The Weed Road parking lot at Stewart State Forrest at 8:30AM. The morning was foggy and moist with a slow start, promising to burn off to a nice morning. It was quiet and there was a smile on my face.

For the first several miles I followed the route that I had taken back in December.
Whalenberg Pond

I meandered along a now thawed path, often spotted with puddles and patches of mud. I proceed through a series fields and meadows divided by patches of woodlands to Buchanan Hill, the highest point in the park.

The route turned north and descended amongst a grove of the fragile white birch and down to the peaceful Whalenberg Pond.

The Great Swamp
The single-track  trail emerged on Maple Avenue, a gravel road that runs north/south. I turned right and headed north.

After about a mile of gradual incline the road begins an easy down and turn to pavement as it approaches Interstate Route 84 and rounds The Great Swamp.

The paved road continues to to a northern parking lot/Trail-head. Here there were a few parked cars and the most recent arrivals were still checking the trail map.

I turned onto the Scofield Trail heading south along some gently undulating single-track. The thawed path was softer than last time I was here and the recent horse and mountain bike traffic had created soupy conditions in the moister depressions. The length of the trail runs just 2 miles but runs through a wide variety of surroundings.
Bench on Ridge Road

Emerging on Ridge Road, another gravel road, I headed north, deviating from my December route to extend the miles for today.

I was feeling fine and in a kind of mental zone, probably brought on by the peaceful morning when the first mountain biker of the day approached from the rear. "On your right" he called and I nearly jumped out of my shoes.

He normally wouldn't have scared me so, but I was nearly 8 miles into this morning's run and this was the first person I had seen.

Another half mile or so down the road I turned west and rounded another stunning and yet incredibly serene morning view of the wetlands.

My course changed from a gravel road to a meadow path. It turned south on what appeared to be a little used pathway. It led me to a very swampy area with a rather tricky crossing. I climbed a rock wall and hugged old trees as I tried not to sink into the soupy mix below.

After a slow crossing I emerged on the other side. The temperature seemed to have dropped a few degrees and the lesser used path was still covered in leaves from last fall.

I rolled my sleeves down and continued, anxious to reach another point that I could find on the map. The last mile or so (and that last crossing) were kind of a leap of faith. As I stopped to check my bearings against the map of the buffer I had printed, a large chunky owl few from left to right crossing just ahead of me.

At this point, the map didn't tell me much. I would have to continue till I reached a landmark or intersection and relate those to the map.

I plodded along without too much worry and after several interesting changes in terrain I emerged from the isolated trail onto Barron Road. I would follow this south for a short distance before heading west around a short loop that would add a little more distance to the run.

The intersection that I was turn turn at was the home of an old dilapidated factory building that kind of gave me the creeps. I had no interest in investigating it and proceed past it.

I started one way and then another not sure where the path was suppose to be. The choice I made led me into the woods on a path winding it's way along and old stone wall, till the wall turned and crossed the path and yellow signs posted on the other side read no trespassing and violators would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, blah, blah, blah.

The trail seemed to continue, but it didn't seem like it was worth risking, so I turned around and traced my path back to the factory.

I decided to continue across back to Barron Road and to head south. I eventually saw the path I was hoping to emerge, but that was not to be, at least not today.

South Barron Road
At the intersection of Barron Road and Lindsay Road I stopped for few minutes to check the map. After the last couple of experiences I was starting to doubt the accuracy of the map.

I decided to continue southwest on Barron Road (rather than take the shorter route). The road followed a gentle down grade and along corn fields and duck ponds that I would never have imagined were back here.

The morning haze was staring to burn off and blue skies were showing through, the signs of the new day were helping me regain my confidence and encouraged me to continue.

Lost Markers
Several more miles passed and I negotiated the map without incident when I emerged from a smaller trail at the edge of an enormous filed.

I recognized the field. I've ridden past here many time on my road bike, but I've never been on this side of it.

Again I assumed I had done something wrong and traced my steps back and had noticed an intersection with another small trail.

I followed that and found myself winding around the woods on banked turns in semi-concentric rings only to find myself right back where I started.

From the looks of things my guess was to bear left and follow the edge of the field. As I proceeded I saw trail markers back in the woods, I scrambled my way back into the woods to realize this was a complete bushwhack. There was no path in the woods and I was just following red markers on the trees with no path beneath. I retreated back to the relative comfort of the field and followed the perimeter.

I reached an intersection of what appeared to be a couple of paths and a gate on one. From a distance I was relieved to see a small red trail marker on the post beside the gate.

Swan on Kelly's Pond
As the sun began to come out for what seemed like a permanent arrival I skirted the closed gate and proceed around  the picturesque Kelly's Pond with a white swan in the distance.

As I rounded the waters edge, I noted the ponds beauty and the activity of the birds darting to and fro in playful climbs and spiraling descents.

More Wetlands
Proceeding eastward I was relieved to find what felt like the proper path. I relaxed and enjoyed the run. The day was now significantly warmer as I shuffled my way along a hard dirt packed farm road, unprotected from the shade of the trees I had emerged from earlier.

I was astounded by the tranquility and the beauty of the numerous wetlands. At the far end of one of these small bodies was another intersection. I had hi-lighted a route that went south and wrapped around again accumulating mileage before I ran out of real-estate. The larger trail and probably the more obvious choice went left, I went right.

The yellow trail markings swept south and wound it's way through the woods that would make for good fun if I were on a bike and hadn't already run 16 miles. The meandering and doubling back and forth was frustrating but not nearly as frustrating as when I came out of the woods at the 150 foot wide utility right of way.

The trail markers just disappeared. I searched 3 possible directions to no avail. Why wouldn't there be a visible marker for where the trails went? I was wasting time and energy on this search. I had spent about a half hour looking for a single trail marker when I decided I should stop and call my wife and let her know I would be later than I had anticipated.

The frustration was boiling over, I knew where I was but I was lost. I knew at the top of the hill I cold exit the park on Forrester and I could hear the voices from the residents enjoying the early spring sunshine.

No visible markers
I got off the phone and started down again thinking I should just double back when i saw a possibility. Yes, it was a red trail marker. I was so excited to pass under the power lines and over an old stone wall.

I entered a field happy to have found my way, when once more I was presented with the same challenge I had just overcome.

A wide open field with no sign of trail markers. I couldn't believe it! I trotted out to the middle of the field in complete frustration looking for any sign of a path. Nothing, nada, zilch... This was just ridiculous!

Last Red Marker
Based on my earlier lost markings/field experience I decided I would back track to where I entered the field and circumnavigate the edges of the field in the hopes of picking up the markings along the boundaries of the field. I stopped once more to check my map without much luck when I just happened to see marking about 15 feet into the woods.

With another round of excitement I started into the woods and once again found myself bushwhacking a non-existent path. There were markings on the trees (for awhile) but they were not aligned with any sort of ground trail. I went as far as I could and when I couldn't see/find the next marking I decided to double back and follow the Utility right of way back.

I started along the right of way westward in the direction of the parking lot and I was halted by an in-passable swamp.

Trapped One Way
Again I decided that maybe I should double back and just follow that winding trail back out of here, so I turned around to make my way back to where I first lost the red trail and I was again stopped by swamp water.

Trapped the Other Way
My only choice was to head into the woods and find the original path I came in on, but to do so I had to work my way through the water that had seemingly surrounded me. I found a straight stick and used it to steady myself as I did a balancing act on two old logs lying in murky water that was about a foot deep.

I found a path and knowingly followed it about 100 yards in the wrong direction so that I could confirm that this was in fact the trail I had come in on.

A Great White Oak
I reached the point that I knew and turned around and headed back the way I had come, winding my way through the woods and back to the spot I had made my decision to go right instead of left.

After more than an hour of lost time and seemingly junk miles I was heading back on New Road which turns into Weed Road.

I followed Weed Road past the ranger station and up a relentless hill back to the start of today's journey.

Today I ran/meandered a total of 19.83 miles in 5hrs and 46 minutes, much of which was wasted trying to find the red and yellow trails on the DEC map.

You can see the double back at the private property sign at the top left of the map and my inefficient mileage in the lower left hand corner of the map below.

The Route
Elevation Profile

1 comment:

  1. Good run, Jim. It's frustrating to get lost - I know - but finding your way without the assistance of anyone else is always a joy, and a confidence builder. I have never run the Buffer Zone, and I suppose it's because I am just too hooked on the mountains. Which reminds me, I need to do a run on Schunemunk Ridge soon. I miss it..