Maple tapping has begun and it’s complicated, arduous, physical labor in freezing cold weather. The “sap bush”, which is an area of trees that get tapped, needs specific equipment and so does the person doing the tapping. Each tree gets tapped by hand in a different place on its trunk each year and some of the tubing – called a dropline (in darker blue above) – is replaced. The sap line (in turquoise above) stays in place. Every year the tree gets a new tap and Tree Juice Maple Syrup has roughly 8,000 taps to replace. Tapping began this year on January 31st, 2021 in 15 degrees Fahrenheit and it continues this week even in a foot or two of snow, into which even the snow shoes are sinking.
“The tap network is a lot like the body,” says Jake Fairbairn part-owner of Tree Juice Maple Syrup. “The dropline is the capillary, the bigger arteries are the sap lines that lead to the bigger main lines (in black above). As you get more centralized you get bigger and bigger arteries”.
Another stormy day with clouds like puffs of grey gun smoke, and a steady two inches of snow. Whiteout on the peaks and a high of 34F. A thick layer of ice underneath the new snow makes the going treacherous.
A rare sunny day: clear, expect for squally clouds that drop snow on the high peaks like they’re icing a cake. Always fun to watch. A light breeze blowing snow off branches in the valleys. An uplifting day with a high of 30F.
An overnight snow storm has passed by morning leaving 6 inches of snow under rippling morning cloud that transforms into a solid dome of milk glass by afternoon. Still and quiet. A winter whiteout with a high of 36F.
Freezing overnight sleet turns mushy and then disappears throughout the morning. Light flurries on the peaks, but one end of Belleayre gets a substantial dusting of fresh powder. Gusty winds, swirling clouds and a show-stopping gunmetal sky at sunset. A high of 36F. It’s as if the year has decided to get going after a quite gloomy, pensive beginning.
Sunrise through a thin streaks of shimmering cloud looking like a clawed wedding veil that melted into gauze at noon, and a high of 37F. Still, frigid and quiet on the third day of Yule. Keep the fires burning before tomorrow’s rain.
30F at 7.30am and overcast with rippling cloud and a pink sunrise at 7.36am, rising to a high of 40F and sunny with wispy balls of cotton wool clouds. Icicles as big as railroad spikes glistening in the afternoon sun.
Winter Solstice began at 5.20am. The first day of Yuletide, the shortest day of the year (7.36am to 4.29pm) and originally an ancient pagan festival of lights. There’s a reason why there are festivals of light in religions in this hemisphere around this time – the darkest time of the year. The seasons are caused by the tilt in the earth’s axis. This tilt is constant as the earth spins in its orbit around the sun in an elliptical pattern (an oval). We’re at one of the narrow ends of the elliptical orbit, and the northern hemisphere is the farthest away from the sun at this time.
It’s that cake again: my go-to cake, the Heritage Apple cake, but this time instead of mixing the stiff batter with two cups of chopped apple, we’re mixing in a cup of lemon rind that has been steeped over night in maple syrup, the act of which transforms it into something else. Now it’s no longer a cake, but a chewy, lemony, brownie thing. If you like candied peel, you’ll like this. Candied peel is a zesty winter snack for people who still remember eating seasonally. Oranges were rare when I was a kid in London and so they were preserved in sugar when they were in season and eaten at Christmas. We used candied peel in our Christmas cake. This brownie reminds me of home.
I was co-incidentally given a cup of lemon that had been soaked in maple syrup to make Tree Juice Lemon Maple Syrup and, now that my only adventure in 2020 has been cooking, I put it in this cake. And by heck, it’s gorgeous. Here’s the recipe:
Beat cabin fever this winter. Get outside and and go hiking. Here are the top most exciting or beautiful Catskills Winter Day Hikes, ranging from easy or moderate to very difficult. All require crampons or snow shoes. If you’re a novice hiker begin with The Shavertown Trail in Andes. Read our Winter Hiking Tips post before you try winter hiking for the first time. Click on the header links to see a more detailed description of each hike.
This is family hike for all generations with a hemlock forest and long, panoramic views (pictured above). The first mile is the most strenuous, but the rest of it is relatively gentle. There’s a pond and a bench on which to rest if it’s not too cold.
Bearpen is bearish: a long, winding and slow snowmobile trail with spectacular views into Schoharie Valley at the top. Bearpen used to be a ski mountain and the old machinery still remains hidden in the undergrowth. There’s a magical winter wonderland at the top in the dead of winter. Gorgeous.
This is a spectacular hike. You’re coming up the back of Belleayre Ski Center and there are picnic tables at the top where you can eat in front of magnificent views and watch skiers and boarders drop over the edge of the double-black diamonds like stones over a frozen waterfall. This is a long, interesting hike with lots to see. Keep dogs on a leash at the summit to keep them out of the way of descending skiers.
The trail to the summit of Westkill is an extraordinarily difficult hike with a thigh-busting two-mile uphill struggle from the beginning, but the picturesque drive through the Spruceton valley, the double waterfall at Diamond Notch and Westkill Brewery make this a memorable experience, even if you don’t manage to get very far, because there’s a great of deal to see, and a tasty beer in a modern setting at the end.
Winter hiking in the Catskills can get dangerous very quickly. One minute you could be trotting along atop a magical winter wonderland, but take your gloves off for a few minutes to take a picture and end up with frostbite.
Water can freeze in your backpack by the time you’ve reached the summit of a mountain when you’re most dehydrated. If you’re layered with cotton and start sweating on your ascent, you’ll stay wet and soggy for the duration of the hike, which makes you more vulnerable to plunging temperatures. Your food can freeze and be impossible to bite or cut up. And then, of course, you can get lost or step into a deep snow pile and twist an ankle, which is easy to do on very rocky summits like Balsam and Giant Ledge.
Perhaps we should call this the Pessimists Guide to Winter Hiking. As we’re all keenly aware however, life in general is sort of dangerous these days wherever you go, and the outdoors is the safest option to enjoy the company of friends and extended family. Plus, there’s nothing more satisfying than eating your lunch while absorbing the views from some the Catskills’ highest ledges and summits.
Top tips: Don’t hike with a hangover. Start drinking water the night before and drink few pints of water before you set out, so you don’t have to carry extra, because water makes your backpack much heavier. Take an empty vessel so you can melt some snow in an emergency. Eat a hearty breakfast. Include highly calorific, but light foods in your backpack like grilled bacon, sliced meat, nuts, chocolate or boiled eggs. Take a hot beverage in a light flask to drink at the summit. Always take a lighter, some pocket hand warmers and a sturdy knife to break ice. Have a full battery on your phone. Most important: take the number of the local forest ranger before you start hiking and tell family or friends where you’re going.
A wild year at Upstate Dispatch is hurtling to a close and due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases we are being advised by epidemiologists, doctors and the media not to have Thanksgiving with people outside our immediate household. The Atlantic declares that there’s only one pandemic rule.
This year’s hunting season seems to be more popular than previous years as these mountains ring out with gun fire daily, one incident shaking the rafters of my house like a thunder clap. Food is expensive and this year has been financially difficult for everyone, but most of the Catskills is open for hunting, and so extra precautions – over and above the COVD-19 precautions for outdoor recreation – must be taken during this hiking season. See links below. Watch this space for winter hiking tips coming shortly.
November has been taken up with research and development for 2021’s TV station, Catskills Air. I’m now taking names of people to interview for my new Women of the Catskills segment for Catskills Air, and my Upstate Dispatch You Tube channel. If you would like to participate, or know a woman of the Catskills you would like to nominate, please email me on email@example.com. Candidates will be coached on Zoom lighting and back-drop set-up.
The Catskill Mountain Club has reported that we have already had four hunting fatalities in the region. Most of the Catskills is open for hunting, so all hikers and their dogs must wear blaze orange when hiking the Catskill State Park. The CMC has published a list of other places to hike during hunting season.
First the barrels had bourbon in them. Then they had Tree Juice maple syrup aging in them. As of 9am this morning, they contained Jenkins + Luekens apple juice, recommended locally as both tasty and well-produced, allegedly the best apple juice in the Catskills which is UV light-treated (cold-pasteurized). JL Orchards based in Gardiner, NY, have 200 acres of apples and other fruit like peaches and plums.
Now is a good time to experiment with cider making; apple season is winding down but there are still plenty of apples left. One 10-gallon barrel (pictured above) will be used to ferment the juice into hard cider that will spend its entire production life in the barrel. Perhaps we’ll go a little wild with this barrel, remove the bung and leave it to take on ambient yeast. The other barrel will be decanted into two five-gallon carboys with champagne yeast, fermented into hard cider and then returned to the bourbon barrel for aging.
This will be intensely flavorful Catskills juice. Watch this space.
Wightman Fruit Farms say that they’re closed on their Instagram account, but we found them open for picking yesterday from their small selection of heirloom apples and grapes. If they close this week, you can still pick apples from their cooler and put cash in the box. Wightman’s have an historic, 150-year-old tree called The King of Tomkins (pictured above) that is still full of fruit. The apples are larger than usual, crisp and juicy. They made a beautiful apple crisp.
Wightman’s charge $15 for a peck of apples, $25 for the honey crisp. If you’re still looking for outdoor dating ideas, you’re not going to get anything more romantic than disappearing amidst the rows of low-rising fruit trees, especially as the temperatures are still hovering around 60F until Saturday – the forecast calls for 70F on Thursday. Call ahead first to see if farms are open. Some farms in the Hudson Valley still operate if you pre-book an appointment, or their farm stands are open.
JL Orchards in New Paltz still had apples to pick this past weekend. Check their website for their apple picking update. Wright’s Farm in Gardiner were open last weekend and they are dog-friendly. Wright’s farm market is open year-round. Stone Ridge Orchard in Stone Ridge has a farmstead and a farm bar with pizza, cider, NYS beers and wine tastings. They have U-Pick apples now. Call them for availability.
How much more can we take of this gorgeousness? A seasonal gift to usher us through the last months of 2020. Another astonishing day with Autumn gold turning to copper with a thick carpet of fresh, brassy leaves in the forest. A high of 60F and breezy but humid, with a hazy sky.
October 15th, 2020 was National Mushroom Day, but this passed by unnoticed around here because rest assured that every day here at Upstate Dispatch is mushroom day. The obsession is feverish around these parts for mushrooms of all kinds.
Mushrooms are one of the world’s most sustainably grown plant – they’ll even grow on coffee grounds – especially if they’re foraged. They’re part of nature’s fascinating underground network of information and nutrients passed between trees and other foliage called mycelium. Not only to do they give a superbly bold, earthy flavor to soups and sauces, but they’re also high in Vitamin D (unlike any other food) a notable mood-lifter in dark months. Mushrooms are a good flavorful substitute for meat and they’re high in soluble fiber. Other nutrients they provide are Vitamin C, B, potassium, copper and selenium. They’re also being used to make bio-degradable packaging and in cleaning up the environment. Here are some great resources, information and recipes on this astonishing organism.
Horseradish is a spicy root of the Brassicaceae family of vegetables (that includes mustard, wasabi, broccoli, cabbage, and radish), that looks rather like a white, gnarled parsnip. The roots run deeply into the ground and the edible leaves that are bigger than rhubarb leaves, but long and thin instead of round, can grow to four or five feet in height. It’s easy to take credit for a huge horseradish crop, but the reality is that you can never really be rid of it. Once you try digging it up out of the ground, you realize that it’s tentacle-like roots travel far and wide around your garden, so you have to stop digging at some point. Whatever root is left is sure to pop out of the earth and produce leaves the following year. If you like spicy food, it’s a really easy crop to grow because of the low maintenance, frost resistance and it’s prolific growth rate. Hot peppers are much fussier than this hardy root.
Horseradish is most commonly found in a sauce with vinegar, but vinegar plus horseradish seems a little excessive: do we really need to suffer that much? I don’t. You can make it a little gentler on the palette by grating it into a condiment like mayonnaise or ketchup, or soups, or finely grating it into a hollandaise to put over eggs for a spicy benedict. It also goes well in a creamy butter sauce for venison or steak.
Store unwashed horseradish root in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. Once washed and grated, it should be put into vinegar to preserve it, but it must be used within six weeks.
Horseradish root is high in fiber; said to improve digestion and metabolism and contains a variety of nutrients like calcium, potassium, folate and Vitamin C.
A perfect Fall day – still t-shirt weather. A high of 62F and warm in the sun. Breeze shaking the leaves out of the trees. Overcast with rolling, blue-gray clouds that cast a beautiful light over the mountains at dusk.
A chilly morning, after an overnight low of 38F. A high of only 58F with billowing, plump clouds. A substantial amount of green remaining in the foliage despite the bare brushes becoming obvious. The range of Fall from start to finish is present in the landscape.
A high of 64F but still humid and warm in the frequent bursts of sun. Overcast with more swirling, grey-lined clouds and early morning fog. Soaked with overnight rain and a low of 52F. Schoharie County has more dazzling colors than its southern neighbors: vivid reds, plums, maroons and magentas join the oranges and yellow. A riot of color in the Catskills. A glorious Fall.