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Enjoy the outdoors with a nature hike

David and Janet Kowalski made Adirondack vacations a centerpiece of family life as they raised their three sons.

Those trips made quite the impression.

The couple, retired scientists from Amherst, spent their 25th wedding anniversary several years ago on a hike to the top of Algonquin, the state’s second highest summit, and middle son Adam, 26, proposed to his fiancée, Melinda Rothman, during a hike last Memorial Day in the High Peaks. He plans to marry her this summer, after a backpacking bachelor party in the same vicinity.

The Kowalskis look forward to future vacations in their favorite destination, but discovered long ago that they don’t have to make the cross-state trip to get their outdoor fix.

“Western New York is just a gold mine for hikes,” said Janet Kowalski, one of three vice presidents of the Adirondack Mountain Club Niagara Frontier Chapter. “We’re really blessed.”

When her husband wants to take a hike, he said, “I tell my wife I’m going to church.”

The couple, along with Richard Schraven, a retired chiropractor who also lives in Amherst, recently took sanctuary at Royalton Ravine Park in Gasport. Red-winged blackbirds flitted through the brush near the trailhead before they set off for the trees in the 146-acre expanse. The hikers followed. As they trekked, garter snakes slithered past the trillium, trout lilies and spring beauties that basked on the woodlot floor, bathed by sunshine that slowly, in the coming days, will create a leafy canopy over the banks of the East Branch of Eighteen Mile Creek.

Tree roots poke through parts of the pathways here, creating makeshift stairways. Parents and children sway as they amble over the creek bed on a plank suspension bridge. Stone remains of the former home of Belva Ann Lockwood – a Royalton farmer’s daughter and one of the first women to run for U.S. president – can be explored as the roar of a waterfall calls hikers farther up the trail. The 35-foot cascade is one of 200 in the region.

“In the Adirondacks, they refer to spring as mud season,” Janet Kowalski said, “but we call it waterfall season because the waterfalls are at their peak because of spring runoff.”

Here’s what the Kowalskis, Schraven and Ellen Banks, all members of the regional Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) chapter and the Foothills Trail Club, want you to know about hiking in these parts:

The benefits

The Kowalskis have passed “an awful lot of cars at the mall” on the way to nearby hiking destinations, Janet Kowalski said. Over the years, choices made have given them and their sons, who also include Jason, 30, and Nathan, 21, a chance to get some exercise, strengthen social connections and trample stress.

“There’s a high you get when you’re outdoors,” Janet Kowalski said. “Hiking is also free.”

She is 58 and her husband older by a decade. Both are in very good health.

“We take zero medication,” she said. “No vitamins, either.” Instead they hike, bike, paddle and eat lots of vegetables.

Schraven, 71, has enjoyed similar benefits, and more. Several years after his first wife died of cancer, he met his second wife, Mary, during an organized hike. The two married almost six years ago.

The possibilities

“This is a wonderful time of year to hike because the days are getting longer,” Janet Kowalski said. “It’s a great way to enjoy Western New York.”

Trails abound. Many are tied to the Conservation Trail, a meandering 177-mile, marked stretch that runs from the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls to Akron before it turns south and heads through Darien Lake and Allegany state parks on its way to the Pennsylvania state line. It also connects to the Finger Lakes Trail.

The nonprofit, all-volunteer Foothills Trail Club has taken primary stewardship of the Conservation Trail, clearing brush, building foot bridges and working with private landowners on some stretches to allow public access for those who vow to leave those properties undisturbed.

Like those in ADK, the roughly 300 Foothills club members come from all walks of life and range in age from young people to those in their 80s, said Banks, club publicity coordinator and a retired Daemen College psychology professor. Most members are middle aged and older, but family participation is encouraged, she said. They meet up regularly at spots that include the Niagara River, Ellicott Creek and the Buffalo waterfront.

ADK excursions include hikes, backpacking trips, paddles and bike rides – sometimes all in the same get-together. Kowalski family favorite hikes include outings at the Niagara Gorge, Beaver Meadow Audubon Center in North Java and Tifft Nature Preserve, near downtown, where osprey often can be seen.

Banks favors Hunters’ Creek Park in Wales and Holland Ravines in Holland, a more challenging hike.

The system

Organized hikes cost something – $22 to join the Foothills Club for a year and $40 to join ADK Niagara Frontier – but that ensures an orderly outing, generally broken into three categories: manageable saunters, up and down climbs and brisk hikes. Hike leaders – and many along for the walks – are familiar with the terrain, wildlife and historic landmarks. Back of the pack hikers are shepherded by a “sweep,” who brings up the rear and makes sure nobody gets left behind.

Most hikes allow places for hikers to stop and take a breath – or take their breath away – and many end with at least some of the group stopping for a snack or beverage.

“It’s so nice,” said David Kowalski, “doing things with people of like mind, people who want to be active and not sit around watching the tube all the time.”