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Nature Calls

By Tina Traster

July 27, 2006 -- It was a perfect day for a hike, my husband, 4-year-old daughter and I decided. So we stuffed the knapsack with water, fruit and binoculars, laced up our hiking boots and set out for the mountains. A 15-minute drive later, we were at Lake Tiorati at Harriman State Park in Rockland County.

The visitor’s booth didn’t have trail maps, but a volunteer drew us a circular route through the woods after I explained my daughter could handle a 90-minute hike on flat terrain. We set off uphill a quarter-mile and turned right onto what we thought was the Appalachian Trail.

After several uphill scrambles, there were no blazes. I whipped out my cell and called the visitor’s hut. We got directions, found the “AT” and headed into the forest. 

My daughter has hiked with us on easy trails, but two hours is her max. Ninety minutes in I knew we were way off-course.

Our hand-drawn map was useless; we never found the trail that was supposed to loop us back to the parking lot, and I had lost cell service. The water supply was dwindling, three apples remained, and my tired daughter was increasingly stumbling over tree stumps and rocks because her she could no longer concentrate.

“How the hell are we going to get out of this paradise,” I wondered.  

Just then, a lone hiker – the first person we’d seen all day on the trail – appeared.

We borrowed his map to plot our way back, a journey that took an additional three hours. We finally made it back to the car, drenched with sweat, hunger and thirsty.

Still, I couldn’t help smiling on the drive home to our place in Valley Cottage. I was proud of tackling a 5-mile hike, but also thankful that this gorgeous wilderness is in our backyard.

When it came time to relocate from Manhattan a year ago, we hankered for the country life. Commuting and job realities made us choose Rockland County, less than 20 miles from New York City, just the other side of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Turns out the state’s littlest county, hemmed in by the Ramapo Mountains and the Palisades, has 32,000 acres of parkland with trails for hiking and biking, lakes for boating, swimming and fishing, woods for camping and birding-watching.

A New York City girl, I certainly didn’t grow up surrounded by nature. My earliest childhood summers in Canarsie, Brooklyn were spent at the Seaview Swim Club, a concrete oasis with a swimming pool, poker tables and a sea of chaise lounges decorated with dedicated browning sunbathers. This little nirvana was situated near a murky trickle dubbed Fresh Creek, and a mountainous landfill.

On steamy evenings, we’d sit on stoops and plastic deck chairs, barbequing and playing kickball with kids on the block. And on weekends, we went to Rockaway Beach.

After I grew up and started working in Manhattan, I had to settle for weekend escapes. I took summer shares on Fire Island when I was single, rented a farmhouse in the Massachusetts Berkshires when I got married, and shacked up in a tumble-down lake house in Ellenville, New York when the family expanded to include a toddler and three cats.

This lakeside cottage, on an obscure Catskills country road lined with Ukrainian summer bungalow colonies, had leaky faucets, a violently-banging washing machine, frequent power outages. There was also a hungry nocturnal bear. But I loved the place.

This year, our first summer in the suburbs, we will not return to the lake house. Why? Because most of what we did up there, we can do at our new home,

Here, we will canoe along the Sparkhill Creek in the Piermont Marsh in Tallman State Park. We will rent a rowboat on Rockland Lake after work and bring a dinner picnic. We have great town pools, but we’ll also swim at Lake Nanuet Park. We are going to buy my daughter a bicycle with training wheels to ride along the Hudson River path at Nyack Beach State Park.

Throughout the summer, we’ll buy fresh produce at farm markets and pick fruit at Concklin’s Orchards in Pomona and at Davies Farm on Route 9W. We will eat on our porch and watch blue jays, northern cardinals, chickadees and titmice peck away at seed-stuffed birdhouses strung from our trees.

And we’ll return to the 52,000-acre Harriman State Park, but better prepared. We may even bring a tent and sleeping bags because it’s been way too long since I’ve slept under the stars.

In the morning, we’ll be happy to know it’s just a 15-minute ride back to our front door.

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