Take a Hike? That's Easy for You to Say

New York Times May 16, 1999

OUT OF ORDER; Take a Hike? That's Easy for You to Say


THE premier foot-sloggers of Long Island belong to the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference. They are dedicated to the proposition that the only way to enjoy the remaining beauties of this island is to hike through them in a primitive, 19th-century way: no dirt bikes, no all-terrain vehicles, but just one foot in front of the other.

Walt Whitman would probably have joined the Greenbelt Trail Conference. He was all in favor of the great outdoors, and celebrated the beauties of Long Island in his poems.

Isle of sweet brooks of drinking water -- healthy air and soil!

Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine!

It's not hard to guess what Whitman would think about the scenery along Route 110, near his birthplace, or the Walt Whitman Mall.

But there are still some unspoiled areas out there, and I wanted to see them the hard way. The Trail Conference organizes dozens of hikes throughout the year, and I chose an easy one to start. It was advertised as a ''flat to rolling'' walk of five miles through the pine barrens. The description also said ''out by lunchtime,'' which was encouraging to those of us who hate to miss a meal just to enjoy nature.

It's a strange landscape in the pine barrens south of Riverhead. The woods still stretch away in all directions, as if the bulldozer had never been invented. About a quarter of the entire landscape of Long Island was once covered with pine forests like this. Now there are just a few thousand acres left, waiting to be turned into subdivisions and golf courses.

Our hiking terrain was an area of 2,183 acres dedicated to what the sign calls ''passive recreation,'' although I soon discovered that there was nothing passive about it. It's named the David Sarnoff Preserve, after the whiz kid who helped develop radio in the 1920's.

The group gathered at 9 A.M. in a small parking lot beside the highway, in the middle of nowhere. There were 11 of us to begin with, and our leader was Kim Darrow, a guide with a bushy beard and a big hat. He carefully took our names in case anybody got lost, or in case any newspaper columnists had infiltrated the hike to reveal what really goes on out there in the woods.

For some reason, I had expected the greenbelt hikers to be all retired people who would be happy to hobble along at a languid pace, with frequent stops for refreshment, medication and conversation. But my fellow hikers turned out to be energetic, healthy and considerably younger than me. They came equipped with backpacks, serious boots, big, floppy hats, light-colored pants tucked into their socks to guard against against ticks, and long walking sticks for defense against lions and tigers and bears, and for whacking any ticks bold enough to appear on the trail.

If I had read the preliminary advice more carefully, I would have brought a lot more stuff. As it was, I had none of the essentials: no sunscreen, no hat, no water, no tick spray, no map, no compass, no food, no binoculars and no stamina.

I wasn't afraid of a bit of walking. I have been walking for years. But hiking was outside my experience -- especially when the hikes are given warning labels, like movies, so you can choose your own pace. I had chosen one labeled easy. But, by common consent, the group set off at what our leader humorously described as a moderate pace. It was immediately obvious that this was not going to be the usual, easy Long Island amble from the pastry section to the ice cream section. I trotted along and caught up, telling myself that I absolutely must not lose sight of my group. A person could easily get lost in the pine barrens, and I didn't fancy having my bleached bones discovered by the next scheduled hike in August.

The trail was just wide enough for us to walk single file -- so conversations had to be shouted back and forth along the line. It was a convivial group. Scarcely even breathing hard, people told their life stories, their divorce stories and shared the inevitable high school memoirs.

''Possible light bushwacking'' was mentioned in the description of this hike. So I expected that we would be hacking our path through the forest primeval, and that machetes and tourniquets would be provided. But Kim just carried a pair of garden pruning shears, snipping off a branch here and there.

From time to time, he called too-brief stops to show us interesting plants, berries and lichens, and to explain how pitch pines magically revive from forest fires. For those more technologically inclined, there were interesting remnants of the old RCA radio antenna field: insulators, fallen aerials and coils of wire, poignant reminders of how quickly technology moves on. In the 1920's, the cutting edge of electronic science was far from Silicon Valley, right here on the East End of Long Island.

Although the pine barrens all look the same from the highway, they are full of surprises once you get deep inside. We skirted a spectacular ket tlehole left behind by the retreating glaciers, and some isolated ponds inhabited by solitary mallards, who looked badly in need of a dating service.

From time to time, we stopped to examine ourselves for invisible deer ticks. Once, we had a bathroom break, probably violating several state and local laws in the process. But we never stopped for long.

Two and a half hours of steady slogging brought us back to the parking lot, just in time for lunch. Eleven of us had gone into the woods, and eight came out. Our leader seemed quite unworried by this. The Greenbelt Trail Conference has 3,000 members, so I suppose they can afford to lose a few. I was just glad that they hadn't lost me, and even more glad I hadn't chosen a different hikes, like 16 to 18 miles ''fast'' in Connetquot State Park, or 32 miles ''fast'' along the Long Island Trail.

There must be easier ways of getting exercise. You can take out a subscription to a health club and burn thousands of calories thinking up reasons not to go. You can mow the lawn by hand, or even park a couple of rows back from the supermarket entrance.

But if you want to see beautiful, unspoiled corners of Long Island, you have to do what Whitman would have done back in the 1840's: grit your teeth and take a hike.

Drawing (P. C. Vey)

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