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Staying at Home in May (or why I hiked 138 miles in a cemetery) -- May 2020

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  • Staying at Home in May (or why I hiked 138 miles in a cemetery) -- May 2020

    Over the past month I've hiked every day but one over in Albany Rural Cemetery which is just a few miles from where I live here in the Capital District. They were short outings by hiking standards as I covered just over 138 miles during the month in thirty days. The primary goal initially was to get outside to get some fresh air and exercise but that eventually morphed into something entirely different since it seems I have a character flaw which renders me incapable of taking a step outside anywhere without a goal in mind or a patch to earn.

    With the local preserves around the Capital District having been overrun with crowds where few had existed before the pandemic I opted for the relative solitude of the cemetery. If you drove far enough in from either of the two entrances, where the small-ish crowds tended to congregate, you pretty much had the place to yourself. Plus, being essentially right down the street from me, the few minute drive made each outing a much simpler affair.

    One might ask if I was really hiking? You may have seen people strolling around your local park or neighborhood and figured I was doing the same in the cemetery. I was not. The best descriptor for my outings might be... um... er... urban bushwhacking? I spent virtually no time on the extensive road system of the cemetery. I basically went where my feet took me, unbounded by pavement, tromping through the uneven surfaces of the historic 467-acre property, up and down the steep little hills, exploring the woods that ring its perimeter, plodding through the deep, uncut grass of the large open fields and neglected areas of the grounds, along several small streams in wooded areas, and past small ponds, marshy areas, and tiny waterfalls. It was actually very pretty.

    That all made the terrain varied enough to simulate a short hike. There was even a half-mile long hiking trail along the ravine near the north ridge of the cemetery that was quite pleasant. I tried to incorporate an out and back (or two) on the trail into many of my outings. But basically each day I took a different route and made it up as I went along. The permutations were endless so I never got bored by repeating routes. I even managed to average about 520 feet of cumulative elevation gain per outing. Not an Adirondack ascent by any stretch of the imagination but it was better than nothing. And believe it or not these miles weren't as easy as those covered on your typical well-trodden hiking trail. You had to work a little to make the same forward progress. So overall, not hiking in the traditional sense but it was a decent approximation and the physical demands were at least in the ballpark.

    After a few weeks of trudging around I was a little disappointed I wasn't crunching out faster miles. Despite what I just detailed in the previous paragraphs regarding the terrain I had it stuck in my head that I should be clipping along at a quicker pace. So one day I walked four miles solely on the road system - the only such day I did that. On-road versus off-road was three minutes faster per mile and right in line with what I envisioned my speed should have been. That made me feel better and was enough proof for me that the routes I was taking were in fact a tad more strenuous than road walking.

    Beyond the varied terrain of the grounds there were gigantic old trees, fields of wildflowers, and abundant wildlife to enjoy. In addition to the legions of ordinary squirrels and chipmunks running everywhere, I spooked deer in the woods on numerous occasions, had a few snakes slither over my boots, and as a loyal customer of Marmot gear was pleased to come face to face with ten different groundhogs (which belong to the large group of ground squirrels known as... wait for it... marmots), including one I saw run into a burrow then pop its head out after a few minutes to see if I was still there.

    There was a variety of birds as well. Your typical city & suburb dwelling American Robin, Northern Cardinal, and Blue Jay were everywhere but I also ran across many a Red-Winged Blackbird, Wild Turkey, Canada Goose, and Mallard. On two occasions I also came across the largest Red-Tailed Hawk I've ever seen. Once it was patrolling the skies above me and the other was from up close as it flew from tree to tree about fifty feet away from me. What an incredible sight. It was a monster.

    Within the last week I walked into a field in the far western edge of the grounds to find a turkey vulture standing there. I walked closer and snapped a few grainy cell phone photos before it took off, circled the field a few times, dive-bombed me within twenty feet or so on each lap, then pulled up and landed in a tree where we stared each other down for a few minutes. It was unflinching until it finally got bored with me and took off again to circle the field as I continued on my way. I've seen dozens of turkey vultures over the years but never from that close.

    That same field has two bluebird boxes at the treeline along its northern edge but in the few dozen times I walked through there I never once saw a bluebird. Just a few days before the end of the month I finally spotted the lone Eastern Bluebird I would see about a half mile away from that field as it whizzed by me and landed on a headstone nearby.

    Another day I was walking along and heard a very faint drumming noise; kinda like the sound a woodpecker makes but much softer. I stopped and ten feet away I saw a White-Breasted Nuthatch banging away at a what I presume was an acorn or nut wedged into the tree trunk. The intriguing part about nuthatches is they do this while perched upside-down on the tree trunk. Very cool to witness this from so close. And lastly, the Northern Flicker I stood a few feet from was also a treat.

    The cemetery proved to be a great place to get up close and personal with birds over the past month whereas I've only had a handful of such encounters in the Adirondacks over the past decade. I would also guess there were perhaps another few dozen avian species I couldn't identify as they flew rapidly by me. I am not a huge bird guy. My knowledge in that arena is quite limited. It takes me a while with field guides to identify anything but the most common of species.

    If identifying trees is your thing, the large variety of trees on the grounds could keep you busy for hours and hours. They boast at least 30 different species - 16 native and 14 non-native. You can seek them out using this guide... The Saucer Magnolia is quite a pretty sight when in bloom. The number of old trees that have fallen recently is quite sad though. Trees with trunks of huge circumference that must be cut up into parts with chainsaws and removed by the grounds crew. I counted rings on a bunch and found many to be 100+ years old. As an unabashed dilettante in a whole host of subjects I guess I can now add dendrochronology to the list of topics I've dabbled in.

    As for the wildflowers there were buttercups, daisies, red as well as white clover, and another dozen and a half purple, blue, yellow, white, and red varieties that were growing everywhere. Walking through fields of them was a daily occurrence. Then the grounds crew would cut the grass in one section of the property and you'd watch the flowers grow back again in the same location over the next week or so. I must say they are persistent little plants. But I am having a helluva time identifying them all. As with birds, I know nothing of wildflowers. Here is an album of the various species I came across...

    Perhaps some of you experts on flora could help me out. The first two pics are of the Saucer Magnolia tree mentioned above but the rest are wildflowers with some flowering shrubs thrown in at the end. And please forgive me but a couple are horribly out of focus but hopefully identifiable. Each is numbered for ease of reference if you click on the image then the info button. Any help in identifying any of these would be much appreciated.

    As for the history of this unique cemetery, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The property dates to the 1840's and was built as a rural, or garden, cemetery. The movement for that type of cemetery was popular in the mid-19th century before public parks became a big thing and as such were designed as civic institutions to be used by the public. Read more here if you are interested in the history... and

    Albany Rural has a Soldiers' Lot, monuments to various old-timey organizations and clubs I hadn't ever heard of before, and a section of the grounds with headstones from cemeteries in downtown Albany that were relocated there so the city could grow and not waste valuable real estate on the small burial grounds of local churches. And for you Adirondack buffs the final resting places of William Learned Marcy, Alfred Billings Street, Ebenezer Emmons, Archibald McIntyre, James McNaughton, and David Henderson are in the cemetery. It is possible to visit each of their grave sites all right in a row with little walking if you know your way around. Also buried here are President Chester A. Arthur, Philip Schuyler, Erastus Corning & family, John Boyd Thacher, and a variety of other luminaries and dignitaries from centuries past. In addition to these burial sites see a gallery of some of the more ornate and interesting headstones, memorials, obelisks, and mausoleums on the grounds here...

    Oh... I almost forgot what I mentioned in the title... I waited until I surpassed 138.36 miles before writing this trip report. Pretty specific, right? At first I had only intended to knock out the 100 miles required for the House Hike Challenge - a new, limited run challenge for May 2020 designed to keep people active while staying at home during the pandemic. Along the way I had a light bulb over the head moment to tack on the remaining 38.36 miles. That total of 138.36 miles represents the length of the Northville-Placid Trail (an exact figure detailed on the trail's official web site). Other sources peg it at 135 miles... or 133... or 127, or 117. Whatever. I took the longest from the primary source and went with it.

    This simulated trek was actually a homage to my father who has been keeping track of the exact mileage he has walked since 1987. He then plots those outings on good old-fashioned paper maps and tells me where he is on the Appalachian Trail or wherever else in his mind he may be. In addition to the AT he's ticked off a coast-to-coast trip, the length of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, and now just a few months shy of his 79th birthday is some 700 miles along a virtual version of Pacific Crest Trail. I figured why not take a page from his book and see what I could do while staying at home during the pandemic. Life father, like son I guess. And starting just recently I began working on another challenge called the One NY Virtual Challenge: Race Across New York. I'm participating in the 500K Division virtually walking the 310 miles (500K) from Buffalo to Albany.

    Usually, nearly 140 miles of hiking would give me enough material for a dozen or more trip reports but after walking in the same area so much lately this rather lengthy report represents my entire output. Whatever you call what I was doing - urban bushwhacking, observing and learning about the physical world around you, exploration of a historic place, or just plain exercising, it doesn't really matter as my time in the cemetery has been a pleasant diversion and a needed escape for the past several weeks. And it was probably the most I've walked on a day-to-day-basis in a few decades. I usually get my cardio on a stationary bike to save wear and tear on my aging body so it was good to know I could still get out and crunch out some miles each day without every joint in my body revolting - even if it was only just four to five miles per outing. I'm gonna continue visiting there. I seem to find something new each time I go, and getting outside is better than being cooped up at home on the stationary bike.

    In conclusion... what a strange month. And memorable. I never envisioned myself hiking the grounds of a cemetery so many times but given that it was the largest and closest green space to me it worked out perfectly.

    Some pics from my time walking the cemetery and links to a few hundred more for those who are curious or enjoy that type of thing...

    link (mentioned above) to the album of grave sites in the cemetery (165 pics)...

    link (mentioned above) to the album of wildflowers (25 pics)...

    link to the album containing the pictures below and several dozen more of the grounds and physical features of the cemetery (65 pics). Give them a quick look to see if I was being truthful about Albany Rural being more appealing to hikers than your ordinary cemetery...

    Albany Rural Cemetery...

    Grave of Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States...

    Graves of Marcy, Street, Emmons, McIntyre, McNaughton, and Henderson...

    The short hiking trail along the ravine...

    A sasquatch den in Albany? I knew it! Or maybe some kids building a fort? Or perhaps a shelter constructed by homeless people? I don't know but it was quite elaborate and a lot of work went into it...

    A tree stand in the woods on the northern edge of the property. Who the hell hunts in a cemetery?

    The view to the east from the hill on the northeastern edge of the cemetery...

    The closest thing I've seen to a fire tower since March. I still cannot quite figure out what it's former function was...

    I came across this bird's egg one day. While hard to grasp the scale from the picture it was a bit larger than a typical chicken's egg. Any idea what species it could be from?

    The high point of the cemetery grounds. You didn't think I'd walk the area for a month and not find the high point, did you? There is no trail or herdpath leading there and it's about a quarter mile true bushwhack to that point through the woods from the nearest open area of the cemetery. The spot is NOT marked. The ribbon was placed there by me for ornamentation upon my arrival and went back in my pocket when I departed...

  • #2
    Any idea what species it could be from?
    it looks like a Canada goose egg


    • Makwa
      Makwa commented
      Editing a comment
      Looks near enough like one after comparing pics on-line. Just looked at the eggs of all the other large birds I mentioned and goose appears the closest.

  • #3
    Great pics and story-thanks. Quite interesting what one may find near home when we look but so often everyone thinks they must travel some distance.


    • Makwa
      Makwa commented
      Editing a comment
      Thanks OH. The cemetery takes a little while to warm up to. After the first half dozen times I went I was getting a little bored with it. But the more I explored around and found unspoiled, lightly-used areas the more I enjoyed it.

    • WNY Wanderer
      WNY Wanderer commented
      Editing a comment
      Outstanding photos Makwa... and great point Old Hunter about being able to find interesting places without having to travel long distances. Even as someone who has explored his own region extensively for decades, I still haven't run out of places to visit in my neck of the woods. I'm always finding new hiking trails, scenic overlooks, lesser-known waterfalls and gorges, and other interesting sites that I previously didn't know about. And I've got 5-6 places lined up for this upcoming weekend including a pair of medium-sized waterfalls (and one smaller one) that I haven't seen before.

    • Makwa
      Makwa commented
      Editing a comment
      Thanks WNYWanderer.

      I've been doping out all of the local preserves around here in hopes of finally visiting some. I'm guessing the crowds may be lightening up some. If the cemetery and the local parks around my neighborhood are any gauge it appears the number of people out exercising at any given time has halved or more over the past ten days or so. I'm hoping that also applies to the preserves where parking is rather limited. I'll still be a visit the ADKs at every opportunity I get kinda guy but mixing in some more local flavor has grown more appealing during the past few months.

      Have fun on your local adventures.