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Try a trek off the beaten path, in a swamp

Don't read this story.

I love swamp skiing. Cross-country skiing in winter swamps, that is. I love it for, probably, dozens of reasons, but at the top of the list is that so few people do it. Swamps in the winter are almost as free of human beings as they are of mosquitoes. And if you read this story you might go to a swamp to ski and then there might be crowds there.

So, don't read this story.

Recently I skied four different days in Thousand Acre Swamp in Penfield, just east of Rochester, and only on one of those trips did I see other people. I skied in Bergen Swamp, in Bergen, south of Brockport, and I saw nobody. And I skied in Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, which is mostly swamp, and saw only one other skier.

Those numbers afford an opportunity for aloneness you're not likely to experience elsewhere. Loneliness is bad, but aloneness -- solitude -- is good and required occasionally to maintain sanity. Spend all your time with other people, and you forget who you are and expend much of your energy in conforming to or reacting against who you think others think you should be.

But winters in the swamp remind you that you have a connection to nature, even icy, snowy nature, that you otherwise forget. Swamps absorb you, and that renews your individuality.

Don't believe me? Good. That's means you'll stay out of the swamps.

Actually, at least a dozen people over the years, when I've told them that I enjoy skiing in swamps, reacted with something like, "We have swamps in New York?" Yup. In fact we have tens of thousands of acres of swamps in Western New York, and as far as I'm concerned, the fewer people who know that, the better. So, if you do read this story, at least don't tell anybody else about it.

Skiing in swamps doesn't require much skill. Almost all the available skiable land is flat and straight. Water levels the land. You have to make certain you stay on trails, however. Environmentalists say you should always respect trails, but in swamps that's particularly important. You don't want to drown in a lagoon. Actually, the more likely problem is that if you get a little careless you'll ski into shallow water, your skis will get wet, and they'll accumulate snow that will make your skis drag.

But tell people the part about drowning in a lagoon. That'll keep them out.

OK, if you're not going to listen to me and you're thinking just maybe you will cross-country ski, or maybe hike, in a swamp in winter, pay attention to the wildlife.

You're not likely to go into a swamp in the summer to see the wildlife, and if you try, the mosquitoes will drive you out. Ten minutes is about the maximum most humans are willing to endure swamps in June, July or August. But January? Seems like all the mosquitoes have gone south. Or somewhere.

A brochure available at the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge, just south of Medina, says that 268 distinct types of birds have been spotted there, but only 87 of them are there in the winter, and most of those are listed as making only "uncommon," "occasional," or "rare" winter appearances.

Only the red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, downy woodpecker, blue jay, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, European starling, American tree sparrow, northern cardinal and American goldfinch are listed as being "common" in the winter.

Not a single bird species is listed as "abundant" in the winter.

I estimate that I see a bird, of any type, less than once for each mile of winter swamp skiing.

The same is true of mammals. A separate brochure lists 42 species of mammals that have been spotted at Iroquois, ranging from the Virginia opossum and masked shrew to minks and whitetail deer.

Sometimes I see a rabbit. Only once did I see a deer in a winter swamp, although they are pretty common in woodlands areas. Bobcats once lived in Iroquois, the brochure says, but not anymore.

Flora is thick and varied in the swamp, in spring, summer and autumn. In the winter, the green is gone and what's most noticeable, most eye-catching, are all the fallen tree trunks. And the dead tree stumps sticking up out of the water.

If you're a serious cross-country skier, you might try the Mohawk Trail, a 7.5 mile trek around Mohawk Pond. It's almost entirely flat without challenging curves, but it is long and spots can be wet. During much of it you'll be exposed to winds blowing across the water.

The Onondaga Trail is only 1.2 miles long and is also flat, but it's mostly inside woods, although you have plenty of views of watery areas. All together there are about 16 miles of skiable trails at Iroquois, all of them flat and unchallenging for the advanced skier, but all affording that great swamp enticement, aloneness.

Bergen Swamp has mostly wide, flat trails, and because it's used by hunters from mid-November to after Christmas, it's closed to hikers and skiers until winter is well under way.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, near Seneca Falls, closes its main road for much of the winter, but about three miles of trail are open to skiers near Esker Brook, near the northern end of the refuge. Parking for the trail is just off New York Route 89.

My favorite swamp for skiing is the Thousand Acre Swamp, owned by the Nature Conservancy, in Penfield, just east of Rochester. There's only about two miles of total trail, but they wind more than most swamp trails, and at one point there's a boardwalk about a tenth of a mile long directly over swamp water, providing perhaps the best view of what a swamp looks like anywhere in Western New York.

Admission to all these swamps is free and they all have plenty of free parking.

But, don't go. You won't enjoy yourself. I'm just tellin' ya.


If you go:

To reach Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, take I-90 east to exit 48A (Route 63); go north about 7 1/2 miles; you will be in the south central part of the refuge. To go to the refuge headquarters, turn west on Casey Road and drive about 7/1 0 mile. Free maps of the refuge are available there.

To reach Bergen Swamp, take I-90 east to Exit 47 (Route 19); go north about 5 miles; you will be in downtown Bergen. Parking for trailheads into the swamp can be found immediately north of downtown.

To reach Thousand Acre Swamp, take I-90 east to I-390; go 4 miles north to I-590; go about 6 miles north and exit at Browncroft Boulevard; turn right and go east about 5 miles; turn left onto Jackson Road; go about 3/4 mile north; entrance to swamp parking is on your left.

I-90 cuts through Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Seneca Falls, which can be accessed from either exit 40 or exit 41.

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