Chilling in the Catskills
National Geographic Traveler senior researcher and inveterate family traveler Marilyn Terrell took her brood for one last summer fling to a rented house in the Catskills last month. Here’s her report:
The key was under the mat, as the owner had promised. But what lay on the other side of the door? Would it be another knick-knack-strewn, mosquito-infested craigslist disaster, like the last time? My family would never forgive me if I managed to screw this up twice in one summer. The last thing the owner had said to me on the phone was “Keep on truckin.” What did he mean by that? Cautiously, I turned the key in the lock and opened the door.
I needn’t have worried. This craigslist rental house near the town of Margaretville, New York, in the Catskill Mountains was everything the other house wasn’t: bright, open, airy, uncluttered, clean, well-equipped (even Wi-Fi), with plenty of room for our five kids, one of their friends, and our two dogs. On the kitchen wall hung a casual portrait of a youthful Janis Joplin, taken backstage at nearby Woodstock—I guess that explained the truckin’ reference.
Outside lay 20 acres (8 hectares) of hemlock forest to explore, a stream, a swimming pond with a dock, a rope swing, and lots of frogs. There were frog nets, an inflatable boat and rafts, and a small beach of perfectly shaped skipping stones. Plus an outdoor ping-pong table, a rope hammock between two trees, raspberry bushes with tiny ripe berries, and a fire pit with plenty of firewood. If our kids couldn’t make fun out of this, my husband and I would hand in our parent licenses.
The best part was not having to pack up the car every morning and drive the kids somewhere. If you were hungry or got tired of the water or needed a nap, you could just walk in the house, unlike our usual beach vacations which require packing everything you might conceivably want for the day or lining up at the overpriced snack bar, then at the end packing everything up and trudging back, sandy and tired and grumpy and sunburned.
The water in the pond was spring-fed and chilly, but the kids kept the fire pit stoked so they could shiver by the flames when they got out of the pond. Sully and Pearl (the dogs) were greatly intrigued by frogs. There were half a dozen excellent places to read a book: in the sun or shade, by the waterfall or in the hammock, on the deck or on the grass, or floating in the inflatable boat.
Sitting around the fire pit at night, listening to the waterfall, watching shooting stars, sucking out the insides of charred marshmallows, life seemed just about perfect. So to liven things up, we went to the Delaware County Fair and watched the demolition derby.
One day, my daughter Lucy and I hiked with Sully to Giant Ledge on Slide MountainSlide Mountain. There was a magnificent view at the top, and a coyote crossing the road at the bottom. Another day we drove to Woodstock to see my brother-in-law’s wildlife and landscape paintings in a gallery, and the kids smirked at the graying hippies dancing in the tourist-jammed streets. Another day, the boys went off to play paintball. And, despite the warning in a famous New Yorker cartoon to “get those Adirondack chairs out of the Poconos!” we enjoyed the non-native chairs on our Catskills lawn.
While the kids slept late in the mornings, my husband and I explored the deserted mountain roads, which are apparently loaded with skiers in winter. We discovered small towns with tall trees lining the main streets, Greek-revival houses in various states of restoration, and fresh corn for sale. The entire town of Roxbury is listed on the National Historic Register and has earned a Preserve America designation from the White House.
We marveled at how quiet and undeveloped this Catskills region is, and how pristine the forests, despite being so close to New York City. As it turns out, the teeming metropolis 100 miles away is the key to this area’s preservation. Recognizing the importance of drinking water for their millions of thirsty inhabitants, New York’s city fathers grabbed land in the Catskills in the early 1900s, dammed some rivers, submerged some towns, built aqueducts and created reservoirs for what I’ve always considered the best-tasting city water in the world. Now I know where it comes from. To preserve the quality of its naturally filtered water, New York banned development around the reservoirs, designating the Catskill Forest Preserve in Catskill Park ‘forever wild.’ After seeing an actual live mink loping across the road that borders the Pepacton Reservoir, I figure the “wild” designation wasn’t just a PR gimmick.
But local conservationists are quaking in their hiking boots about a proposed enlargement of the state-owned ski area, Belleayre Resort, which would add a golf course and lots of condos to this wilderness area. The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville hopes it doesn’t go ahead as planned. The minks do too.
- Nat Geo Expeditions