I’ve been reminded lately of mornings growing up in my gritty industrial town in North Jersey, when I’d sniff the air for the permeating odor of the day. Two stinks dominated, one eggy, as in rotten, and the other cheesy, as in aged Romano. But there were worse ones, chemical fume plumes that would sting a receptor deep inside my nostrils and make me go “Holy Mother of God!,” throw open a window, and glare accusingly at my neighborhood. I now live in the fragrant woods, but lately I find myself doing the morning sniff. Is that smoky smell just from the campground down the hill? A neighbor’s barbecue? Or is it Canada again? Tom and I usually bypass our air quality apps and head straight for the deck, where we gulp air like golden retrievers – hold, exhale, repeat. We’re trying to figure out, can we hike in this?
When the smoke apocalypse first struck, we decided to hike only on green air quality days, then only on green and yellow days, and then, fuggit, green, yellow, and orange, or we’ll never get out of the house. Tom reasoned that the wildfire smoke couldn’t be any worse than the egg/cheese stink we grew up with, and that our lungs have probably been toughed into invincibility. Thus won over, I agreed to head to Crystal Lake.
In a happy dream I once had, the walls of our bedroom fell back and the roof lifted off to reveal that we were already at the trailhead. The Ten Mile River Boy Scout lands are a little like that dream for me. Traveling to the nearest trailheads takes less time than sipping our morning tea. I have already written about a couple of trails in the area of long-popular Tusten Mountain. But more than 60 miles of trail are now open to the public, promising a never-ending buffet of hiking opportunities.
Once our boots hit the dirt, however, I had to temper my dream a bit. Many of the trails traverse a landscape left in a grotesque jumble by irresponsible logging. Many large landowners like the Boy Scouts allow logging to help pay the bills, but this job was badly done. Still, for anyone who wants to forge ahead, the blue- and red-blazed trails are well marked, and the map you can download on the free Avenza app shows your location at all times.
As for the unblazed trails, I suggest giving them a pass. They may appear on the map, and the Avenza locator may show you solidly on the trail, but it may not look like a trail at all. That was our experience on the Lookout Trail, and the Ranachqua Lookout it leads to, both marked on the map. It must be one hell of a lookout to get its own trail, I thought, so let’s go. We picked our way through the trackless brush, coming across the occasional cool find, like the spooky block-lettered TRUSTWORTHY sign (first of the 12 must-be’s in the Scout’s Law) atop a goal-post-type frame. It was surrounded by the decayed chunks of an abandoned outpost being slowly consumed by the advancing forest. Tired of bushwhacking, we eventually decamped to a cleared pipeline easement that runs parallel to the trail and walked until our locator dot aligned with the lookout star on the map. But instead of that kick-butt view we were expecting, we got a tiny bump of land surrounded by woods. If a lookout ever existed here, we saw no evidence of it.
Crystal Lake is a dopamine-hit that more than made up for disappointments like the Lookout Trail, and will keep me returning to the Boy Scouts lands for adventure. The trail skims the shore all the way around and is easy to travel. The lake is a real beauty, ringed by old-growth trees, and undeveloped except for some camp buildings at the northern end. It’s shaped like a partly deflated balloon; a reedy outlet, where beavers build their hutches and waterfowl make their nests, widens spectacularly after about a half-mile. Boys hallooing on the other side sound like distant thunder. On a quiet day in early spring we discovered the Tower of Friendship, a Depression-era obelisk sitting at the top of a grand staircase, with the bust of a Boy Scout wearing a thousand-yard stare perched atop the obelisk. On every side are mounted gifts from Boy Scout troops from around the country and world. Iowa sent a geode and Hawaii sent lava. New York Governor Herbert Lehman sent a rock. So did President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from his hometown, Hyde Park. Mexico, New Orleans, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Kentucky are also among the locales represented here in mineral form.
It was on an orange air quality day in early summer that we set out for Crystal Lake. The mountain laurel was in bloom, and it was everywhere. The profusion of beautiful blossoms amid the apocalyptic-orange air unsettled me. But, in time, all those white and pink flowers blooming so close upon the trail, caressing my shoulders and cheeks, cascading from ledges over my head, made me forget even that. Every step of this hike was an otherworldly movie set, a wedding planner’s dreamscape, except real and happening out of sight from everyone but us. I craved more even as I was getting my fill – more pink, more flowers, more miles like this.
We ate lunch at Eagle Rock Lookout, a real lookout this time, perched about 20 feet above the water. We sat at a picnic table next to some ancient white pines that loomed protectively over us. We could see the Tower of Friendship directly across the lake. The air in between was thick and strange, but we could still see it.
Trailhead: Pull-off on Crystal Lake Road, between Ryer Road and Trout Pond Road, in the Town of Tusten.
Trail: Follow a short, wide spur trail to the red-blazed Ten Mile River Trail and make a right, headed in a northeasterly direction. After about six-tenths of a mile, the trail intersects with the blue-blazed Crystal Lake Trail to form a loop around the lake.
Length: About four miles
Maps can be found on the free Avenza app (Search for 2018 Ten Mile River Scout Camps), and at tenmileriver.org/hike.