Wildlife writer finds solitude, challenge, edible plants on the Finger Lakes Trail - The Buffalo News
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Wildlife writer finds solitude, challenge, edible plants on the Finger Lakes Trail

Heather Houskeeper went as long as three days without seeing a person during her two-month “through hike” on the  Finger Lakes Trail and its six branches, a nearly 900-mile trek from Niagara Falls to the Catskill Forest Preserve that ended earlier this month, and included different kinds of weather and terrain.

“It was really surreal sometimes,” said Houskeeper, 32, of Port Jervis in the Tri-State area, subject of today’s In the Field feature in WNY Refresh.

Houskeeper talked in that piece about the foliage she photographed – and in some cases ate – as she prepares to write a book with the likely title, “A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Finger Lakes Trail.” It will be the second in a series of plant guides she looks to write as she continues long hiking trips that already have included two apiece along the Appalachian and Mountains to the Sea trails.

The In the Field piece focuses on edible plants along the Finger Lakes Trail and her favorite spots on the Conservation Trail, a 177-mile branch of the trail that runs from Niagara Falls to the Pennsylvania border – though I didn’t have space in that piece about poisonous plants on the expanse.

You can read about that below, as well as questions she answered about taking long hiking trips.

Houskeeper journaled about the recent trip on her blog, TheBotanicalHiker.blogspot.com.

Below are excerpts from our talk:

Q. How do you train for these hikes and how do they impact your fitness level?

I don’t do intentional training before I set out. I’m always training and I do and teach Kundalini yoga. That’s another way I keep in shape. I also feel meditation helps me to be out for such lengths of time. I feel like nothing else gets you in shape to be on the trail better than being on the trail day after day. It’s a whole different animal. I have people join me who do various exercise ... and they’ll still struggle on the trail. It’s a matter of breaking your body and carrying that backpack and going up and over mountains regularly. Once you’re off the trail too, it feels amazing because your body’s so much more capable of pushing itself, using oxygen efficiently.

Q. Do you consider yourself a survivalist?

I don’t know. What I aim to do is meld the modern or conventional world with that of the survivalist or naturalist. I think there’s a lot that we can learn from the way people lived centuries ago, or even a century ago. I also think there’s a lot modern technology has to offer and I have no interest going backpacking the way John Muir did with a loaf of bread and a knapsack. I am all for the lightweight tent and Ziploc bags and some of the instant backpacking foods.

Q. Talk about your book, “A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail,” which is sold on your blog and in some bookstores.

It’s based upon my research while I was through hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail (in North Carolina). On that trail I did very much the same thing I did on the Finger Lakes Trail. I kept a daily log on what plants I encountered, in what frequency, and in what enviornments they were growing. I then compiled those things into a guide that is essentially a backpacker’s practical guide to identifying, harvesting and preparing the wild edibles and medicinal plants found along the Mountains to Sea Trail. Each plant is highlighted, featured with a photo, most of which I took on trail. Each plant is also featured in a recipe that can be prepared in the back country using minimal fuel, water, one pot and pan and minimal utensils. It’s appropriate for the beginner but I also do go in depth.

Q. What are the key ingredients – including tools, skills and mindset – that go into a weekslong hike?

As far as preparing, I always field an itinerary. I always have a schedule of how many miles I’m going to go each day. I don’t just go out there and see how far I’m going to get. Once I’m out there, sometimes that itinerary changes or goes out the window completely. At least you have a plan and that’s essential to how much food you’re going to carry and what kind of clothing you’re going to bring. Say you want to hike 50 miles. It makes a big difference if you’re hiking 10 miles a day or 15 miles a day as far as how much food your going to need. Are you going to hike a high elevation or low elevation? Are you going to camp in a lean-to or bring a tent? So I think planning your miles and having an itinerary are number one.

As far as gear, I try and stay as light as possible. My tent, I carry a sleeping bag, I try to carry ultralight. That gives me a good base weight. For food, I carry your typical backpacking food: pita, peanut butter, granola, cheese, instant rice or noodle dishes. I used to carry a small head of broccoli or bag of carrots or things like that. If you learn what wild vegetables are out there, you can minimize carrying some of those fresh foods because you’re going to find them out on the trail. That helps some with pack weight. Clothing, I try to keep that to a minimum. I have one outfit that I hike in all the time and a couple of items of warm clothing. Depending on the hike, I’ll carry a towel and outfit if I can do laundry in town. I always carry a couple of plant guides, my tablet, a small magnifying glass to look at plant parts more specifically.

I don’t carry any expensive digging tools. Some of the trails are protected, so I’m not going to go out on a trail and dig a big hole and dig up, say, a giant Burdock root. I’m going to dig up what I can without disturbing the environment all that much. ... On the Finger Lakes Trail, because it is such varied terrain, a lot of times you’re going through areas where you’re on private property and you’re not legally permitted to harvest plants. Landowners haven’t given permission for hikers to harvest there. In those cases, I encourage folks to respect the law and use the guide and the trail as a classroom. Identify the plants, get to know them well, then identify them in your own backyard or other places in which you can harvest.

Mindset, being prepared for the unexpected. I need to be flexible and all right, hope things are going as you thought they would. You have to be prepared to be uncomfortable at times. At lot of times what seems uncomfortable at first, like walking in the pouring rain, may end up being the most beautiful day because all the colors are vibrant. Sometimes you get more miles than you ever expected because you were uncomfortable.

Q. What are some of the plants you’ve discovered can be sustaining, particularly along the Finger Lakes Trail?

Wood nettles is number one. A lot of people call them stinging nettles. True stinging nettles is a different plant. They’re related. Wood nettle lines the edges of the Finger Lakes 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 things 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. The flowers are also edible, which is kind of fun. They’re large, five-petaled flowers about an inch, inch and a half across. If you want to get fancy, you can use them to top cheese and crackers or a hummus plate, or something like that. They’re fun.

Day lilies, too. They’re not native, they’re invasive. All the more reason to eat them. The flowering tops – either before the flowers have opened, once they’ve opened or after – are edible. They’re very large flowers. I particularly like them when they’re closed. They have the crunch of a string bean. They’re pretty substantial and about the same size. Those also are good raw or cooked as well.

Q. What do they taste like?

Kind of like peas. There’s not as strong a flavor with a bite like celery, but they’re raw and crisp like celery would be. Not an offensive flavor at all. Very mild, crisp.

Q. Are there any poisonous plants you’ve identified on the Fingers Lakes Trail?

Yes. What I do in my (Mountains to the Sea Trail) guide is a feature the plants that are the most readily available and easiest to use in the back country and that are not likely to be confused with poisonous plants. On the Finger Lakes Trail, I did encounter water hemlock. If you were to eat any part of either of this plant, you would be dead within about four hours. Those are plants I saw in numerous areas on the trail along streams or swamps. Another one is wild parsnips that can cause incredible burns with the skin once you come in contact with the oils and the oils are exposed to sunlight. They basically cause a severe sunburn. And of course poison ivy, though the amounts were much less than what I’ve seen along other trails. And then there’s a number of plants that you wouldn’t want to ingest, that would cause intestinal discomfort. In my guide, I make a point to name those look-alike plants and describe them.

Q. How do you budget for these trips?

I usually bring some cash. You will come across ATMs, Walmarts or Family Dollars where you can draw out money once you make a purchase, so it’s a mistake to have a lot of cash. Basically, I figure it will cost about $1 a mile. The Finger Lakes Trail turned out to be, unfortunately, more than that, say maybe a buck fifty a mile. Hotel expenses in New York State were more expensive than I’m used to for all the other trails. I also went through multiple pairs of shoes that I don’t usually go through so quickly. This trail tore ‘em up.

Q. What kind of shoes do you wear?

I tried boots years ago through first hike attempt (in 2007 on the Appalachian Trail) and never had more problems in my life, so I went to trail runners. They’ve worked great ever since. The brand I was using was Brooks. They fell apart really quickly on this trip. They were caked in mud a lot of times. I always wear upper-end insoles. Those cost 40, 50 bucks but I feel those add structure and more stability to the shoe.

Q. How do you prepare for the unknown and protect your safety?

I carry a small knife that I primarily use for slicing cheese and apples and that kind of thing. I’ve encountered nothing but kind, helpful, generous folks on trails. If I encounter a single man who’s full of questions, I’ll be vague. Animals, I did encounter a bear on my last night off the Finger Lakes Trail. He wasn’t aggressive or after my food. I saw him about a half-mile before I ended up camping along a marsh. I did proceed to hear some sounds later that night that put me on edge but he didn’t end up being a problem. On the Appalachian Trail, bears were a real problem. A larger knife kept me safe. I never had to use it. And making sure my food was far away from me up in a tree on a bear hang – and lots of hooting and hollering and banging rocks together if I encountered them on the trail. They were so used to human beings there that they weren’t scared at all.

Q. So all this hiking isn’t stands of trees, wildflowers and rainbows, is it?

Not quite. The mud was incredible for the first month. It rained and rained and rained on the trial, so oftentimes I was going through ankle-deep mud. That wasn’t fun. The trail also is a real mixture of terrain. It’s not all woods walk. Especially out west in the Buffalo area on the Conservation Trail, there’s a lot of farm field walking. That was a different kind of challenge. After this hike, I find farm trail to be the most challenging to walk on. You look at it and it looks like a wave of grass, or nice flat earth, and you want to frolic across it. Well, once you’re on these farm fields, the soil has been tilled and the soil is very rocky, so you’ve got rocks in there and these big globs of dirt and grass, and you’re trying to walk upon this and your ankles are slipping back and forth each way. When you add a lot of rain, you may not have these giant globs of dirt but then you’ve got this mud that sucks you right in. There was also road walking and more mountainous walking. You were always moving back and forth between one environment to the next.

Q. What would a typical week be like in terms of staying indoors and camping while on a trail?

Typically, I would be either in my tent or in a lean-to for an entire week. Every five to 10 days, I would either get a motel room or end up being taken in by somebody. On the Finger Lakes Trail, a lot of people who took me in were from the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. That was really awesome. I’d be hiking in an area or blogging while going through and word would travel down the trail. Somebody would contact me and say, ‘Hey, if you need a place to stay, I’m just a few miles up the trail and I can come and pick you up.”

Q. You say on your blog that you’ve crossed paths with day hikers in Ithaca and the Catskills but not on many other parts of the Finger Lakes Trail. How long did you go sometimes without seeing another human being and what does that feel like?

It was really surreal sometimes. On the AT (Appalachian Trail), that’s a through-hiker thoroughfare and on the Mountains to Sea Trail I didn’t encounter other through hikers or day hikers, but I was going through so many towns that I was seeing a lot of townspeople. This trail is very much a wilderness trail. I didn’t go through a lot of towns and there were no other through hikers or hardly any day hikers. The longest I went was three days without seeing anybody or talking. Sometimes I would speak aloud to hear my own voice and make sure it still worked.

I don’t get all that lonely because I’ve got so much I’m focused on while out on the trail: researching the plants and writing. The writing would take up all of my time in the evenings, so that time would fly by. I’m used to solo hiking and I prefer solo hiking because you can go your own pace and really take in your environment rather than be distracted by talking or interacting with another person. When I would encounter a group of people or a person along the trail, it was kind of shocking. It was almost a feeling like, “What are you doing? You’re on my trail.” Coming into town it would be very overwhelming to suddenly be around all of these people and all this traffic. It was sensory overload.

Q. You have lots of time to think. Where does your mind tend to go?

It’s a real gift that I’m researching the plants, because that’s where a lot of my focus is. I’m constantly scanning the grounds and the sides of the trail, making mental notes or taking down notes about what I’m seeing. If I need to make a number of miles, I’ll kind of play a game with myself and repeat the names of the plants that I’m seeing over and over again in my mind. I also think about home and personal relationships, the kinds of things you have time to turn over in your mind. The sweetest spot is where you’re thinking about nothing, which does happen through long stretches. You’ll realize, “Oh my goodness, 4 or 5 miles just went by. Where did they go?” You’re in it. It’s kind of like a walking meditation.


email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh

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