Orcas Island Trail Festival

Let’s start at the very beginning. Flashback to December, 2016. I’m at the Trail Running Film Festival in Brooklyn.  An indie film, the Orcas Island 100, stole my attention away from anything I had watched prior to and after the film that night. The people in the film reminded me of the trail community in Pennsylvania.  A good community of salt of the earth folk. I left that night with a fire in my belly. Upon arriving home I started looking up everything that I could find on the web.  Within a week, I signed up for the Orcas Island Trail Festival.  I had no idea how to get there, how long it would take, where I would stay, or if I would know anyone else running.  The only thing that mattered was that I wanted to experience this race first hand and see how the west coast community, if at all, differed from its eastern counterpart.

Heading West

Fast forward to May 11th. I flew out for Washington State to embark on my next journey.  Getting there didn’t go as smooth as I had anticipated.  I booked my flight to Seattle, but still didn’t know how to get to Orcas.  It wasn’t until after I watchef this episode of GNGRBTS, a webcast put on my Ethan Newberry, that I figured out that I would need to rent a car and get to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal.  Had I known these logistics, the ferry would have been booked first, then the flight.  There was a 5 hour layover from flight to ferry. Hindsight is 50/50. It all worked out in the end and I arrived at the ever amazing island.

The next day was filled with sailing lessons, eating lots of fresh fish, a short hike on Mount Pickett to preview part of the race course through Moran State Park, and catching up with Lia, a fellow east coaster turned west coast transplant. Lia became my comfort keeper from the moment we re-united.  Lots of girl talk as we drove around the island, bib pick up, and the most amazing food at the Westsound Cafe and Kingfish Inn.  The food really was out of this world.

Race Day

I hadn’t experienced nerves like this in a long time.  Specifically in the form of, “What the hell am I doing here?  These people all have mountain legs.”  I kept chuckling with a nervous laugh everytime I looked at or talked to Lia.  She was awesome and kept reminding me that I belonged there.  Yes, I did belong.  This race was being used as a long run for the World’s End 50k in June.  So in essence, my goal became to enjoy every single moment.

Before I knew it.  Game time and my blood was pumping.  8am, go.

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These forests were tough but absolutely stunning. There were no flats at all on this course. Even the most horizontal trails still had some sort of incline or decline.

There were four major climbs, split between Mt. Pickett and Mt. Constitution, to keep runners honest. I was humbled by the longest climb. Over two miles ascending straight up Mount Constitution. As you start to see the sky peaking through the dense tree tops the course veers into a winding downhill around the mountain only to then switch into another steep incline before you reach the crested the top. Make no mistake. Summiting that mountain was a gift. The view at the top took my breath away. The Cascades and Mount Baker were visible off into the distance.

Looking back on the race now, I couldn’t have imagined how different this experience was going to be in contrast to my previous races.  So much respect for all the racers, staff, and volunteers. Amazing course. Well marked. Incredibly supportive people at the aid stations. The excitement and roaring claps as you get through the finish line was the icing on the cake. Perfect race day. It all ended with local IPA around the campfire later that night. Sharing stories amongst the locals about the east and west coasts.

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Going East

The next day was spent traveling to Fidalgo Island down to Widbey Island.  Lia’s family caught up with us and we hiked around Deception Pass.  More food to fill the belly.  I loved that we ended up at the French restaurant, Prima Bistro.  You see, the last race Lia and I raced together was at the Love Run in Philadelphia.  Afterwards, we ate French food. This was absolutely the perfect way to end the weekend.

One more ferry ride to Seattle. I dropped of the rental car and took a short bus ride to the main terminal. Flying red eye for the night.  I dreamed of the pacific northwest.

Final Stats

26.2 miles, 6,200″ ascent, 6h56m.

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Quest For The Crest on the Appalachian Trail

There I go falling in lust with another mountain. Off to summit the highest peak on the East Coast mainland as a good dose of trail medicine. The Quest For The Crest took 46 hours out of my weekend and a road trip to North Carolina. Add doses of belly laughter, getting chatty with the locals, and eating ridiculously good food. I took in all the southern hospitality and charm of the lower southeast.

Friday.

Aimee pulled up to my condo around 5:30am so I quickly scrambled to throw my bags into the eco rental car. We had a 10-hour drive, took back roads, and had loads of excitement to get us through the drive. The car was all dressed up with our finest art. When you represent the race and your running crew it draws in fun comments from total strangers. At one point we stopped in West Virginia to stretch out and buy some goods. So how do you know when you’re in foreign territory? When the guy parked next to you says something sweet in a deep southern drawl, you smile, and spend the next few minutes trying to decipher what he said. I love it.

 

With stops included, we arrived at Albert’s Lodge about 12 hours later. My senses were on overload. Everything was big and beautiful. The backyard opened up to the Appalachian Trail. The extra large room and kitchen area was easily half the size of my humble condo back in Jersey. On the advice of the staff, we walked up the street to J&J’s Grill On The Green, a Bavarian restaurant. By happenstance, we also met and chatted it up with Marian and Stephanie, two local NC gals who were running the same trails for Saturday. Good food, great company. I ate perfect grilled trout, spaetzle, and red cabbage paired with an IPA made in Boone, NC. The name slips me.

Saturday. Race Day.

It’s 4am and my nerves have me wide-awake before the sun has risen. The RD, Sean Blanton aka Run Bum, calls this the hardest trail race on this coast. Over the past week the mountain has been topped off with snow. We have been warned to crawl on all threes. Aimee and I drive over to a local school for bib pick up and keep switching between more or less layers. Last call for the bus and we’re one of five who get pulled off for lack of space. SWEET! Guess who gets to ride over to the race by Run Bum himself?

 

Stellar props. Sean is so down to earth and chill. He shares a few adventures and points out the summit we’ll be chasing. And I’m thinking, “um, thanks for scaring me even more” as I turn my head skyward to peek at the densely tree lined crest.

I’m waiting for the race to start in a small gravel parking lot surrounded by sky high trees and am surrounded by peace. A seemingly small-sized crowd of trails runners were gathered around chatting. We shared stories about our commute with two guys from Ohio and Florida, respectively. One flew as the other was diverted on his drive down from a massive mudslide. We also had the chance to wish Marian and Stephanie good luck shortly before the start. After a bit, Sean gave us a few tips and we took off for the climb.

The Climb.

My ascent clocked in at about 3,000’ of vertical gain (give or take) according to Strava. I started my watch about 30 min into the race so my numbers are all messed up. That made me anxious. I was able to maintain a slow and steady run for about the first mile. The second mile strategy changed. My run changed to a bear crawl. At one point my right calf became numb and I had to climb backwards for a bit. This seemed to correct the issue. My heart was beating out of my chest and I focused on controlling my breathing without losing pace. It was difficult to find a steady pace with all the changes in terrain. Towards the end of the second mile I began yawning and focused on taking deeper breaths.

The Crest.

There were two other women who closed in on the crest around the same time I did. We shared jokes. It hurt to laugh, but I just couldn’t stop. Laughing was so incredibly important since I was on the verge of total physical exhaustion. And then the view opened up onto miles of fabled mountain. Stunning. The cold wind gusts prevented me from stopping much and at the same time I wanted to lay and gaze into the clear sky. This is the privilege of mountain exploration.

The Descent.

Have you ever had the chance to run downhill for miles, uninterrupted by loose rocks? It was easily the best trail run downhill. I felt as light as a feather and bombed through the last few miles with ease. My thoughts were focused on avoiding a face plant. As I passed two runners my confidence grew. On the last turn the noise of a crew cheering grew louder. I splashed through the final creek crossing and high fived the RD.

Final Stats: 7.5 miles. 6,200 feet of elevation change.

 

Post Race grub at Pig & Grits was delicious. Oh my goodness. You just don’t get food like this up north. Pulled pork on a fruit salad and Root Beer in a mason jar. Served by the nicest waitress in the thickest drawl. I giggled with my head down. Was it possible to clone her and bring her back to Jersey? Speaking of home, I opened my door at 3am. Just shy of 46 hours.

 

North Face Ultra at Bear Mountain

Embrace the sufferfest.  April 30th, 2016 I set out to attempt my third ultra.  What you DO is who you are, not what you THINK about.  Want something bad enough? Grind and kick your own ass.

Training

Back in January I wrote about a pretty simple training plan from the Ultra Ladies 50k schedule.  I am terrible at following plans, but wanted to successfully complete this tough race.  Success meant not getting lost on the trail, not getting too close to cutoff times, and having the chance to take pics on the trail.  For me, it’s all about the pics.  Here’s what worked and what didn’t.

  • For the most part I was able to follow the weekly miles.  It’s a basic plan that works for getting miles in. It was difficult to get all the mid-week miles in due to work, so I focused on quality runs during that time.
  • I didn’t plan enough for changes in elevation.  I was only able to train on mountains in PA a few times during this training cycle.  What I lacked in elevation training was felt on race day.

I also got creative with my training.  I ran the Febapple 20, part of the NJ Trail Series, and Naked Bavarian Marathon in place of two scheduled long runs.  I was joined by some amazing people for all or parts of other long runs.  Shout out to Gladys, who joined me while pregnant in her third trimester, for the last three miles of another long run. I joined Runhole for one of their training runs.  Really cool peeps out of PA. I cross-trained on Sundays with the Uptown Gentlefriends.  That Sunday crew is mostly made up of OCR racers.  Very different from me. Love them madly.

Race Day AM

It’s 3am and I fumble through my gear, get dressed, grab coffee, hop into my jeep and head to upstate NY.  My adrenaline kicks in about an hour into my drive so I started blasting my music and singing like a wild woman. Arrived in just under two hours. It’s beautiful up there. Look over my running plans. Okay. Lets do this. Woo-hoo!

 

After a 20 minute wait for the buses, groups of 30-35 were shuttled to the main race site.  I’m used to smaller indie races and this was a trail set up on commercial crack. In a good way.  The vendors, fire pits, and a three foot high central water jug was pretty cushy.  I kept running into / chatting with familiar faces from my tri-state races.  NY, NJ, PA strongly represented. Roll Call…

  • Balls of Steel. Loved the guy in leopard speedos and no shirt with the Buddha belly.
  • Honorable mention. An amazing mother-runner killing it at 28 weeks pregnant.
  • Beasting it. Type one Diabetic chick; you struggled, but rocked out on that course.

Talk Thirty To Me

This 50k is a challenging race for anyone attempting their first ultra.  If you under-trained, you may finish, but will be in a world of hurt. My plan was to mentally tackle the miles in groups of 10 at a time.  Quick breakdown.

  • First 10 was spent chatting it up with some amazing runners.  I ran a good portion with a seasoned endurance athlete, Katie.  Not only was she badass, but she dropped major knowledge. I shed my layers at mile 5. The morning turned into a tank top & skirt kind of day.
  • Second 10. My mind went bonkers. Rambling thoughts. These hills are killer. Oh, look at the trees! What the fudge, another hill? Am I taking in enough calories? God it’s beautiful out here. Am I normal? Hell no.  Oh, wait, yes I am. I really need to stop talking to myself.
  • Last 10-11. I was tired and had to focus on the downhills.  Tired of kicking rocks. Tired of the hills.  And all at the same time elated to run downhill.  Elated to have this opportunity.  Elated to kick rocks. At one point I pulled out my cell and checked social media. All the well wishes popped up in my feed.  Everything was good.

Runner’s High

I struggle for the last 2 miles. My gps watch died and I went into freakout mode.  Last quarter of a mile I was in tears.  Wild and crazy and lovely, happy tears.  And then the icing on the cake.  I saw Katie at the finish line cheering me on. Perfect. Then I saw an old co-worker from the Operating Room cheering me on. Beyond Perfect.  This race rocked.

31.1 miles. 9 hours and 41 minutes. Beer me.

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Naked Bavarian Marathon

It’s 5am and I have only slept about 4 hours.  My nerves have officially reached a crazy level.  There’s something about a “marathon” race that gets to me.  I did my usual gear and food check, then hurried out the door by 5:40 in hopes of arriving at a decent time to meet up with my running crew, bib pick-up, and a bathroom break.

I remember thinking that the temperature felt much colder than the high 30’s. I could forget any hopes of the sun as the sky was covered in clouds. Whatever, I was overdressed and would shed most layers throughout the course.  I arrived at 7:40am and located John, the 40 miler, and Nicole, the 20 miler.  Picked up my bib, rounded up the group for our obligatory picture, and then we headed to the start line to see John off on his journey at 8am. I started at 8:30, then Nicole at 9am.

So I knew this race was scenic, but did not expect the insane amount of hills and sharp vertical inclines and declines.  Pretty much from the beginning, with the exception of the first half mile, I started going downhill on rocky terrain. By the time I reached the first aid station, at mile 3.5, the hills were rolling on and off without a break.  I cannot underestimate the amount of enthusiasm bursting out of the volunteers.  They catered and genuinely cheered on the runners. And look at that aid station food!

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The trails relentlessly continued on with hills.  This was the easier part of the race as the hills rolled a bit more. About a mile after leaving this aid station the first 20 miler flew by me.  It was pretty exciting to see him and that motivated me to pick up my pace a bit.  By six miles I was hydrating pretty well. My mix of 2/3 water with 1/3 gatorade was keeping my tummy happy.  Next aid station – 6.5 miles.  Again, the friendliest volunteers, music blasting, great food.

This aid station marked the trail split for marathoners.  We ended up doing a lollipop around a separate section of trail to add 10k onto our distance.  We were also warned at the start line that there wouldn’t be aid stations for this next portion of trail. Well, do you remember how motivated I was by the 20 miler’s speed.  I chose to snap some picks and hold off on hydrating / eating at this aid station.  Horrible decision.

About 5 miles in, I started running on fumes.  I shed my gloves and black shirt as the temps were reaching into the mid 40s. Around this time I also finished off my second bottle of water/gatorade.  My energy was zapped.  My pace suffered tremendously.  A few people passed me, but I wasn’t in as bad shape as others.  I clearly remember passing a guy who just stopped and kneeled to the ground.  He said he was okay so I kept meandering along.  I kept willing myself up the hills.  It really was non-stop.  By the time I reached the next aid station, I gave myself a five minute break. Two PB&J quarters, a twizzler, a salted potato quarter, and some laughs with the volunteers cheered me up. After refilling my water bottles, I was off. At this point you crossed a bridge to join the 20 & 40 miler trails.  More trails of hill hell, but with a twist.  These were farmland trails, very similar to the local horse trails I run on.  Slightly comforting, and yes, there were horses.

Mile 16: By mile 16 I experienced something new for me.  I mentally hit a wall.  It was like my body regurgitated any and all insecurities into the front of my mind.  I clearly remember this hill that just compounded the climb one on top of another and my thighs were screaming at me. No decline.  I was upset, did I not train enough? Was I taking in enough calories?  Why am I talking to myself? This was different. There was no one in sight for this entire mile.  I reverted to doing simple math to snap myself out of it.  I counted my right foot stride in multiples of three, then repeated on the left strides.  It was the longest mile of my life.  But I kept going, one foot in front of the other.  By the time I arrived to aid station 17, the cloud lifted.  At this point I took full advantage of the aid station amenities.  Food, one Motrin, a salt tablet, and a half cup of beer did the trick. We cracked some jokes. Many jokes actually. I must’ve looked rough. I was so grateful for their kindness. Then, I was off.

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Luckily there were about 3 miles of relatively flat trail ahead of me.  I took advantage and worked on increasing my speed.

Mile 20: My strategy changed at this point.  I wasn’t going to let my mind get the best of me again.  I turned on my cell, started blasting music and singing. My pace per mile kept creeping down and I started adding a few sprints into the mix.  I made it to the next aid station and kept it moving along.  I started passing a few people and caught up with my friend John.  He was on his second loop going in the opposite direction.  After a few encouraging words, I pressed on.  My face was beaming as I knew the end was in sight.  Two miles later I caught up with Nicole.  I must have been deliriously excited as I told her, “Ok, I’ve got to go, there’s only 3 miles left and I want to do it in 15 minutes!”  Ha! That explained the perplexed look on her face.  In my excitement I even kissed her on the cheek before heading off.  This was it! I had finally reached that runner’s high and my endorphins were sky high. Fuck these hills. Hell yeah, I deserved it.

The finish line was in sight and I felt tears on my cheeks. Happy tears. Each tear was sending mile 16 off to hell.  I picked up my pace for the final quarter mile and heard more cheers.  I crossed the finish line with 27.2 miles. This was a fantastically hilly race. Stephan, the race director, did an outstanding job creating this course.

Lastly, I cannot underestimate the amount of preparation that went into the final food stop at the end.  Hot bratwurst, freshly made German potato pancakes with applesauce, carrot cake, tons of side snacks, and lots of water. And as luck may have it, I ran into Carolyn and Cheryl, who ran the February FebApple 20 miler with me two weeks ago.  We caught up with more friends and headed out to the marsh for some final pictures.

Blackhead Range Traverse

Never lose my sense of adventure.  This is my third and final hike for the winter season.  The Shawagunks, Hudson Highlands, and now the Catskills have stolen a piece of my heart.  My mind has been blown on way too many mini-adventures within these travelled miles.

It’s 4am on Sunday and I’m not surprisingly hyper for the days’ adventure.  A solo trip to Upstate NY with three hours of open road.  Bag, supplies, food, and incidentals are all in check.  Those twice missed tissues are officially in my bag and ready to go. So what does one do for a long solo road trip? Explore music.  Blast it, sing at the top of your lungs, and do some crazy shoulder / arm / neck kind of dancing. Yes, I’m feeling super determined.

I drive past the road sign for Woodstock and immediately feel the mountain town vibes.  You’re in the sticks. Lots of open air markets line the sides of the highway.  Local maple syrup, hot apple cider, and mason jars stacked high with local jams. As I get closer to the the destination, my heart feels a little more full.  It is impossible not to feel humbled when you’re driving on the winding roads of the Catskills.  Look out of your sunroof or poke your head out the window just to see the mountain tops.

GPS location achieved, oh crap, we’re just parking on the side of a random road. I forgot this was a thru hike. I offer to leave my jeep at the starting point, a total of three jeeps carried the group over.  Two other hikers hop in and 10 minutes later we reach our base location.  It feels good to recognize some familiar faces. The plan is to tackle five mountains and get started pretty quickly.

The first mile or so really felt like you entered some sort of enchanted forest.  The deep greens, golden yellows, and chocolatey browns were gorgeous.  We all warmed up pretty quickly despite it being a cool 42F.  Our trail lead warned us that after 3000 feet of elevation we would be hiking in icy conditions so I braced myself.

And then it got steep, and scary.  Our trail lead ended up using his 50 foot rope and ice picking his way down to aid us in the climb.  I’m not going to sugar coat it. The climb was tricky, we bushwhacked a small part of it, and my heart skipped a couple of beats.

These ice trails became 75% of our overall path. Throughout all the miles I laughed, I challenged some fears, and I felt deeply centered.  Many of the lookout points were obscured by pine trees, but there were enough places to grab a bite with a view.

The miles continued. We worked like a great team.  Many stories were shared that will stay on those mountains. So, for the final half mile we were able to take off our crampons and give our legs much needed relief.  I opted to forgo dinner with the crew for the Super Bowl with friends.

Here’s the tally. We travelled the Blackhead mountain range in the northern region of the Catskills. In order, this included Blackhead Mountain, Black Dome, Thomas Cole, Camel’s Hump, and Caudal Mountain. Final stats: 12.87 km, elevation gain 2678 ft, time 6 hours.

Storm King Mountain

5 am. Up and slightly groggy after only 5 hours of sleep. Yesterday was my long run day logging in 12 miles and many errands.  My pups were rowdy so we played well into the night.  I’m blaming my lackluster morning on them.  The bag, clothes, and incidentals were all in check.  Except those damn tissues that were nowhere to be found when I needed them most on the hike.

On the road by 6 am.  Filled up the jeep and headed over to pickup my fiend Liz.  I cannot underestimate the power of going on a hike with your badass soul mate.  She’s a nurse, I’m a nurse. Beautiful – we speak the same language. She’s athletic, I’m athletic. Bonus – we’ll travel fast.  We are both thrill seekers. Hell yeah!

We arrived at 9am to an amazing crowd of hikers.  Did I mention that this specific hike was the group’s 6th year anniversary?  Story has it that the first hike ever only initiated 2 or 3 hikers.  I have always found it extra special to see the evolution of a small movement.   So here I am with 50 other hikers.  The diversity was palpable. One of the group leaders made a short and slightly emotional speech once everyone arrived. Oh yes! I did mention 50 hikers.  It was controlled chaos but the sweepers were definitely on point. Here’s a couple of pics for historical value.

 

Finally, the hike.  The plan was simple enough. A figure eight loop covering parts of the Buttermilk, Bluebird, and Stillman trails. Unfortunately, there weren’t any trail maps at the 9-West parking area. So we head up the mountain pretty much blind.  This was our first ascent. Looking up. Scrambling, yes!

 

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And here’s the first lookout.  Really cool to see the main road.  And the Hudson River.  Stunning.

 

20 minutes into the trails and the group of 50 dispersed into smaller groups of faster, mid, to slower hikers.  Who knows where Liz and I fit in.  They were cool and everyone was doing there own thing.  I shed my wool shirt and gloves. The group ended up stopping for a few pictures and taking in the scenery.

Miles later, it seemed like a good amount of people were able to regroup and snack.  It’s funny to over hear some of the conversations. It was very clear to me that Liz and I were one of the very few people from New Jersey.  The subject of Taylor Ham versus pork roll ensued.  I just said the truth… Bacon is my answer to everything.  I love bacon!  Then the subject of health came up.  It was very cool to see everyone eventually come to the consensus that you eat and live to enjoy life.  When your time comes, it comes.  Internally I thought, wow, these conversations are so different at work.

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The terrain seemed to change from this point on.  Parts of the path were ice covered requiring us to scramble above or below parts of the trail.  Basically, side lying trees and trunks were your friends at that point. There was also a steep increase in vertical climb.

We made it to our second destination on the mountain.  A great look out point to eat, while watching the Hudson river, and rest.

We hiked on.  At this point we were in a small group of 5, then 3.  It worked well. Another change in terrain shortly thereafter. One of the locals, Scott, told us about a brushfire from about 14 years ago that scorched through the area. Once I found out that he was a local, I just kept picking his brain.  And he didn’t seem to mind.  This is, of course, one of the better ways to find out about the local hot spots. We had also arrived at the last part of the trail. An incredibly strenuous climb to get back to the car.  Let’s just say it was a combo of scrambling and super lunges. Throw in some patches of ice. My legs were on fire, begging for relief. I was drenched in sweat and loving it.

Arrived at the jeep.  Final stats: 5 hours, 12.7km, and 4181″ elevation change.  We opted on the local brewery.  Reminiscing in the best way possible.

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The Gunks

 

4am. I’m up and ready to conquer the day.  Or find some semblance of winter.  It’s been extremely mild in NJ and I’m craving the chilled winter air.  My pre packed bag is ready.  I rummage through it real quick and am good to go with food, clothes, and incidentals.  For some reason I kept obsessing over baby wipes to the point where I woke up several times though out the night.  Hey, if we’re stranded on the mountains I want to be clean.  Oxymoron, yeah, got it.

About an hour and a half later I’m on the road and pick up two friends.  While the plan is to meet up with a larger group of hikers at the base of the mountain, my gut feeling is that there are too many quirky personalities to risk an awkward hike.

By 9am we reach the Catskills and an amazingly beautiful wilderness conservation center.  Completely decked out with stuffed wildlife hanging from the ceilings to the floor, wall painted murals, and the friendliest staff.  $10 for all day parking.  Meet up with the group, a pretty chill bunch.

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I started climbing and was immediately awestruck by all the tabletop rocks.  There was a bit of ice and snow, no big deal as long as you had microspikes.

 

Next stop was Lake Maratanza, halfway up the mountain.  This was the first and only time the sun poked through the clouds.

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Miles later we stopped to check out the views of New York.  Snacked and kept moving. The  group hiked at a quick pace.  I stripped a few layers.  It was all good. We made it to Verkeederkill Falls.

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Our last and final stop was to reach Sam’s Point Ice Caves.  It was gated off, closed.  Just our luck.  Much to my content there were a few renegades that just kept it moving.  When you drive over two hours, you want to check out the caves.

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I slowly lowered myself into the cave.  It felt like someone put the air conditioner on high.  Freezing was an understatement. Also, let’s just say that a foot or so of ice and no railing made that part of the trip pretty unmanageable.  I’m okay with that.  When I think of caves, leave the manicured stairs and railings out of it.  Give me scrambling pitch black openings into the earth.  I want to rappel into a bat infested hole and feel my heart beat out of my chest.

We ended up turning back and headed towards the car.  I received a call from family that it finally started snowing pretty hard down south so we opted to leave early.  The rest of the group headed into Ellensville to a little Mexican spot.  Yum.  Missed out on that one.