Heather Houskeeper has a philosophy degree, so it’s not surprising that Friedrich Nietzsche, Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck are among her favorite authors.
She’s also a big fan of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. That helps explain why she studied herbal medicine and plant taxonomy at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine outside Ashville, N.C. – and that she spent much of the summer becoming the first “through hiker” to trek the Finger Lakes Trail and its six branches in one trip.
It took her two months to tread nearly 900 miles. She plans to write a hiking guide on the experience, she said during a recent phone interview. It will be modeled after her first book, “A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail,” after two hikes on the 1,200-mile stretch that slices through North Carolina.
Houskeeper, 32, glimpsed, photographed and penned notes about dozens of plants during her most recent long-distance hike, which started at the western terminus of the Finger Lakes Trail near Niagara Falls and ended Aug. 3 at Claryville, in the Catskill Forest Preserve, north of her home in Port Jervis.
She ate some of the plants she examined.
Q. You say in your blog, “I aspire everyday to learn more about and connect deeper with the natural world in which I live, as well as open my eyes ever wider to the beauty of which I am a part.” How does this work on a hike?
When I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2008, there was a real disconnect between the through hikers and their environment. Although we were in it day after day, the average hiker – myself included – didn’t know a whole lot about the plants, the geology, the scientific study of the natural world. That’s one of the things that led me into the Chestnut School. I thought, “This is crazy. I’ve gone out here for six months and I know I’m passing an abundance of food. I want to know what these things are.” I believe studying these plants helps connect me all the more. Walking down a path and seeing tree after tree after tree – once you know the plants, each one sticks out to you. It really changes your experience.
Q. What are some of the plants you’ve discovered can be sustaining, particularly along the Finger Lakes Trail?
Wood nettle is number one. A lot of people call them stinging nettle. True stinging nettle is a different plant. They’re related. Wood nettle lines the edges of the trail and its branch trails throughout. The leaves and the stems are edible and as soon as they come in contact with heat – either by boiling, sauteing, steaming or even crushing them – you’re disarming those hairs that are stinging. I incorporate those into my rice and noodle dishes regularly. Another one has been violet leaves. They are very spinach-like, and the thing with violet leaves is that they never become bitter like a lot of wild greens do once they flower. One that I discovered on the Finger Lakes Trail was musk mallow. The leaves are edible, both raw or cooked, but if you stew them up in a pot of noodles or rice, they will add a thickness to the sauce.
That’s nice if you’re eating pasta alfredo or something and want to make it a little more creamy as opposed to watery, which you’re often dealing with because you don’t have butter or cream cheese or milk out on the trail. The flowers are also edible, which is kind of fun.
Q. What were the most beautiful spots close to Buffalo that you saw along the trail?
Initially, I wanted to do the Conservation Trail, which travels closest to Buffalo and includes Niagara Falls, and the main Finger Lakes Trail. I wanted to see the Falls. The other branch trails ended up being a last-minute decision. Niagara Falls was beautiful. Little Rock City is a 2-mile stretch I encountered on day five around Ellicottville. That was a really incredible stretch. There’s all these enormous flat boulders and trees have grown around them and atop them and in crevices.
The trail travels at the base of these boulders. There were some interesting ferns there that I didn’t see much throughout the rest of the trail: common polypodi, which grew among the rocks there, and clintonia grew at the base of the rocks. That’s a really beautiful woodland plant with large, shiny leaves and bell-shaped flowers that produce blue-black berries. You normally only see clintonia in healthy woods.
On the Web: Read more about Heather Houskeeper at refresh.buffalonews.com.