Early Work on the
Finger Lakes Trail
Jean Doren Rezelman
Perched directly on the Finger Lakes Trail at Birdseye Hollow Park, I write while others hike on this 31st day of March, 1990. Ahead of me a neatly painted white blaze on an ash tree marks the trail. Red wings sing their "okalees." Song sparrows and chickadees join the chorus. A gull flies over. The wildlife pond reflects the wooded hill, the sky, a wood duck house. And I reflect on this Finger Lakes Trail.
This trail that people are hiking on today has just been built. It connects with parts that were built nearly twenty years ago. The Finger Lakes Trail was started earlier, more than thirty years ago. To tell about it I will ramble as does the trail itself.
I had lived in Ithaca while attending Cornell and for a few years after that while working there, so I was a little familiar with the country around Ithaca when I moved back in 1960. There had been hiking clubs in some of the other cities where I had lived, but I found none in Ithaca.
When I inquired why there wasn't a hiking club in Ithaca, I often got the suggestion that I should start one.
In the fall of 1961 a few of us formed the Cayuga Trails Club, which was a combined nature and hiking group. The next year Wally Wood of Rochester, New York, conceived the idea of a hiking trail that would wind across southern New York. We heard of his proposal, and went to a conference at Keuka College to plan such a trail.
I remember that at one early meeting we discussed a name for such a route. The choices narrowed down to Allegany-Catskill Trail (which some of were sure would be shortened to Alley Cat Trail) and to Finger Lakes Trail. My vote was for Finger Lakes Trail. I felt that such a name would insure views of the lakes that I love, from the trail.
Our Cayuga Trails Club decided to sponsor some seventy miles of the new trail, from Caroline on the east to Watkins Glen on the west. We divided the whole length into four sections marked by the numbered highways the trail would cross. The rough scouting of the general route had been done by Fred Mohn and Ralph Baker.
The method we came to use in laying out a section of trail was to choose a general route and then get permission from owners to scout the land.
My first experience on a scouting trip was on Connecticut Hill with Laura McGuire, Vivian White, and Bob Childs. Laura was familiar with the hill and said there were two routes we could try. One was by a beaver pond and we chose to walk it. Later that day waiting for a pot of spring water to boil over a campfire so we could make coffee, we decided that the route we had followed that day should be a part of the trail.
On another trail-scouting trip, Laura also led. Alec Proskine reasoned that the route had to include Hector Falls, north of Watkins Glen. But to do that there would be difficulties, such as steep wooded hillsides sloping to 60 foot cliffs dropping to Seneca Lake. Laura thought deer trails might be found along the brushy slopes. She led off, and I followed. The deer trails petered out. So did the daylight. We were crawling on hands and knees under the brush. I trusted Laura—she had once dragged a deer out of pitch dark woods.
"There's the road!" she exclaimed. "I can see the car headlights."
"How far?" I asked.
"Only about thirty feet—straight down."
Another time when I led, darkness came. We couldn't see the blazes. No map, no flashlight, and my poor sense of direction. We were on a big flat-topped hill and there were stars. I knew if we went the wrong way there would be a steep wooded truncated spur ahead. But, I guessed at the right direction, and we followed the constellations and came to the car. I was especially glad that I did not panic because my companion was new to trail work.
We would explore a wide territory, find the great views, the brooks, ponds and waterfalls, sites for lean-tos, even interesting historical places, and mark them on a topographic map to see if we could connect the beautiful spots. One of our biggest challenges was finding ways across the valleys that ran north and south and the gorges they ran into that ran east and west. We searched for easy ways up and down hills, using abandoned roads or deer trails. Sometimes there were places that hands and knees were the only way to go up a steep hillside. The trail had to skirt around the ends of the lakes and around swamps that couldn't be traversed in all seasons.
We wanted to avoid cities and towns and plan the route to go through the wild and still natural parts of the country. Much of our trail went through state land, but where we wanted to cross private property we always sought permission from the owners. So many land owners have been so very generous, to let the trail be marked across their property and allow hikers to walk across their land. The Finger Lakes Trail could not exist without the tolerance and good will of the private owners along the route.
Along the trail you often see evidence of earlier habitation. Much of the Cayuga Club's section of trail went through state lands bought up by the government during the depression. Buildings had been torn down or had disappeared, but old lilac bushes and old apple trees remained and reminded me of the past and caused me to wonder who may have lived in houses on those sites.
There was one abandoned place on Braley Hill I especially liked. A hollowed out log looked like an old watering place for livestock. The old foundation of the barn was intact. Sometimes after trail work we had corn roasts there . One day we took an elderly couple for a ride to her childhood home. When we got close to this favorite spot of mine, Gertrude exclaimed, "Why Roy, there's the old black walnut tree!" It had been her girlhood home, and she thrilled us with her reminiscences of her early childhood.
There were a number of considerations in laying out a trail besides just routing it to include as many beautiful spots as possible. We needed to find sites for lean-tos where water would be available. Finding springs was fun. Sometimes an old house foundation yielded a well-faced stone spring with running water.
I thought it was important that there be an inspiring view from the lean-to so that at the day's end when hikers rested, sitting on the large log, the Deacon's Bench, that was placed on the open side of the shelter, they could look out on a beautiful scene. At Shindagin Hollow, a waterfall was the interest point. It was small and it was musical, especially when blended with the song of hermit thrushes.
The plan was for the Adirondack style shelters to be a day's hike apart. They were always located at least half a mile from a road. Our first lean-to was given to us by the DEC, if we would move it. Carefully we took it down, moved and put it up in its new site near a larch planting, naming it Tamarack Lean-to, which sounded more poetic we thought than Larch Lean-to.
There were other concerns, too, about routing a trail, than just finding good shelter locations or spectacular views. We wanted the trail to be safe for hikers not only in summer but also in winter when wet places might be slippery with ice. Some of the routes were checked out in winter, spring, summer, and fall to be sure they were suitable in all seasons. Then there were questions to be decided like, shall the trail go through a patch of pink lady's slippers or avoid it for fear hikers might pick them? As more people became involved, we decided questions like these and made decisions on trail routes by voting.
The Seneca section was the last bit of our part of the trail that we did. Some thought we should follow a direct east- west line along old town roads. Alec Proskine felt that we had to include Hector Falls and I wanted views of Seneca Lake. I had heard there were great views from Satterly Hill near Burdett. We went to explore, and found a spot where you could look south to see Watkins Glen and north all the way to Geneva. The whole expanse of Seneca Lake from one hilltop!
There were trail work parties to clear a path or build a bridge over a stream. The making of the trail involved little cutting of brush or disturbing the environment, and once the trail was passable we painted white blazes on trees to mark the route.
The next step was measuring and describing the trail so that other hikers would be able to choose suitable walks and be able to follow the route with a map as a guide. I still have the chain that we used at first to measure the trail. Peg Rumsey and I had volunteered to find the length of sections of the trail, but we didn't know how to do it.
Reg Young said, "Just get some light chain and fasten a broom stick at each end of a length 52.8 feet long, which is one hundredth of a mile." To use this measuring device we dragged the chain along the pathway. The lead person left a paper cup at the end of a chain length and then went ahead until the second person reached the paper cup and picked it up while the lead person put down another cup. We kept track of the chain lengths and made notes to put in the trail description. Later when the club bought a measuring wheel Peg and I were spared our backaches from all the stooping to put down and pick up paper cups.
It took an average of a month's time for our club to complete a mile of trail. I once figured that for every mile of the 72 miles of trail our club completed there had been ten miles of walking to explore for the best route. Walking and seeing is, however, what hiking is, and the whole reason for The Finger Lakes Trail.
© 1990, Jean Doren Rezelman