Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

For A Quick Leaf Peep: Go Wawayanda

Yeah, I know. It's back to school insanity. Weekends are now hostage to homework and sports mayhem. But sometimes you end up with a Sunday surprise: a little bit of sun, a little bit of energy open few hours on the schedule.

Here's my suggestion: Skip the leaf-peeping crowds clogging the New York Thruway and head Wawayanda. It's just about an hour from Montclair and maybe a little more from the City. But this glassy lake surrounded by miles of trail-laced wilderness really does make you feel like you're, well, just what its name implies. Last autumn, on one of those precious Indian summer days, Paul and I popped up there with Noah, his friend, and Ringo. The colors were riotous, the air perfumed with that spicy, heart-tugging smell of dying leaves, the water as still as a mirror. We ate turkey sandwiches, then tossed fishing lines from the shore. We walked with Ringo along the flat, easy path around the lake, while the boys scrambled up fallen tree trunks and rocky shelves. And when we hit the dam at the other end, we laughed our own pants off as Noah and his bud stripped down to their boxers and ducked under the waterfall.

I've returned often ever since: For a Mother's Day picnic with Grammy Florence. For a day of kayaking with Grandma Carol (all sorts of boats are for rent between Memorial Day and around about mid-October). And just last weekend, I took all of my males on a New Year's hike to Shelter Pond just outside the park. You see, I gave them a choice: synagogue or the woods. I don't think they realize we don't belong to a synagogue and that I'd sooner go to a Nascar event in Texas than wear a skirt, read a book I don't understand, and stand up and sit down for five hours straight. Yes, I'm probably going to hell. But Ben the Nature Hater did fall three times and was tormented by a bee, so it's not as though there wasn't suffering involved. And we did do some good Nature worshipping, right? Whatever your inclinations, spiritual or sporty, go ahead, give it a try. Wawayanda will take you where you need to go.
Wanna Go? Need to know....
Getting There: Wawayanda is almost at the New York State border in the NJ Skylands, about 10 minutes from West Milford. Your best bet is to follow directions at this web site: You can also punch this address into your GPS: 885 Warwick Turnpike Hewitt, NJ. Keep in mind, though, that this is a mailing address and when your GPS tells you you have arrived, you will see only houses and get very nervous. Keep driving a few hundred yards, though, and you will see a big sign on the right pointing into Wawayanda, the entrance of which is on your left. For details, you can call:(973) 853-4462.
Trail Tips: Wawayanda State Park is a huge recreation area, with many trails (including 20 miles of the Appalachian Trail) and several parking lots. When you enter, you might want to pop into the park office for maps/info/recommendations. If you want to hike and boat as I've described, follow the signs to the lake. And here's the important right through the first parking lot for the lake and continue on to the second lake parking lot. This is where the boats and easy lake trails are. (The first lot is for swimmers, I think.) You can picnic at the picnic tables, throw your stuff back in the car, then take a walk around the lake and follow any of the trails for as long as you like. Just keep track of where you're going! If you want a more serious hike, ask the park office for advice and buy a map of the area (the ones they give out for free ain't so great). The Shelter Pond hike I took with the boys is amazing (so is Bearfort Ridge), but they can be tricky to follow so only undertake them if you are somewhat confident reading trail maps and blazes. The trailheads for these are actually outside the park.
When to Go: As I said, Wawayanda rents kayaks, peddle boats, small electric boats, etc. between Memorial Day and mid-October, so it's a great summer/early fall destination. Be warned, though, that it can get busy on peak swim weekends. Fall is divine, spring, too, and I've heard Wawayanda is the bomb for cross country skiing and even ice skating. I'll report this winter.
What to Bring: Bathings suits, water shoes, towels, picnic stuff when it's warm. Fishing rods any time--it's one of the few year-round habitats in NJ for landlocked salmon and trout. Mountain biking is big here. Dogs love this place and yes, signs say to keep them leashed. I generally let Ringo loose once I'm in the woods.
Costs/Services: There's a per car charge of $5/weekdays and $10/weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The rest of the year it's free. Boat rentals start at about $15/hour (I may be wrong here). There are lifeguards and a concession stand at the swim area; there's a decent bathroom and picnic tables at the lot where you rent the boats. All garbage must be carried out. If you don't feel like shlepping bikes, call ahead to the park office. I saw a sign recently that bikes are available for rent.
Fear Factor: None if you're just hanging around the lake. There are enough people so you won't feel creepy about getting lost or about being attacked by a bear or human. If you take a real trail, they are generally well marked, but it's still easy to get lost ,so always take another adult with you.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fresh Spin on the City: Ride the West Side

My girlfriend Gail turned me on to this wild West Side adventure a few years ago. And I’ve been doing it spring, summer, and fall ever since.

Here’s how it goes: Tell the kids you’re all going biking. Load up your gear. And point the car toward the Lincoln Tunnel. Then watch your passengers get increasingly confused as they see the city skyline growing ever closer.

At this point, my guys are already onto this trick. But they--especially Ben the Nature Hater--become way psyched when they realize that this day of biking will not take them into the woods but down the (now newly/or nearly completed) Westside Greenway that ribbons down Manhattan’s West Side along the Hudson River. It’s such an amazing ride, cooled by the water and chock full of eye goggling, nose-to-window sights, from the hulking Intrepid in the 40s to the swim-suit studded pedestrian piers off Tribeca, to the fang-like skyscrapers and Lady Liberty that beckon way on down. Just don’t get too hypnotized: On his first ride, our then-seven-year-old Noah was so entranced as he biked beneath the yawning hulls of the cruise ships docked at the Maritime Terminal, he drove right into another rider. This kicked off a chain reaction, whereby I rode over Noah, and two more bikers piled on top of us. The great gash in Noah’s bike helmet from that incident drove two unforgettable points home for all of us: Keep your eyes on the bike path. And a helmet really can save your life. At the very least, your day.

Here’s how we generally tackle the Greenway when kids are involved: We come in the Lincoln, zip up West End Avenue and park in the garage behind my mother-in-law’s apartment at Lincoln Towers. You can, of course, unload at any garage near the West Side Highway. But I favor this Lincoln Towers spot because it’s a super easy, quick, and safe hop from the garage onto the Greenway. And since it’s out of a touristy neighborhood (unlike near the Intrepid), the garage is quite affordable and the crowds are absent. (We also get to use Grammy’s bathroom, but I don’t know how she’ll react if you show up asking for the same. The garage has a bathroom, too.)

So, with kids, we roll onto the Greenway and head south…..stopping when we feel like it for cold drinks or an amble out onto one of the many park-like piers that jut out into the river. Follow, follow, follow the path---if at any point you get confused about which way to go (the path branches off frequently into minor detours and mini parks), just keep heading south and stay close to the river. You really can’t get lost.

Eventually, you’ll find yourself in the crystal canyon of the World Financial Center, surrounded by suited-up lunch crowds (weekdays), enormous yachts lolling in their privileged slips, and tourists from across the globe. When I’m with my kids, we usually lock up our bikes at this point (we just hook up to a barricade). Then we head into the Winter Garden, where there are tons of food options. We usually pick up sandwiches from Cosi, then head back outside and snag a table. After a good hang, we’ll head a little further south to soak up a primo view of the Statue of Liberty, then turn around and head back uptown.

When I go with my girlfriends or Paul, we usually spice things up a bit. That includes riding all the way down the West Side Greenway, around the Battery, back up the East Side, over the Brooklyn Bridge, into a little bit of Brooklyn, and then back across Manhattan on the streets. Our adventure also includes hunting a lunch spot down in the Village where we can lock up the bikes, eat outside, and order wine. Even more reason to wear a helmet, wouldn’t ya say? With kids, without kids, keeping it short, or exploring big time, this is one ride that satisfies. Every time.

Wanna Go? Need to know….
Getting There:
If you’re heading to my mother-in-law’s garage, come in via the Lincoln, hang a left on 41st, then turn up 10th . I usually take a left at 66th Street (where the old Martin Luther High School is). Take 66th Street, cross over West End Avenue, then take the next right onto Freedom Place. The garage I use is on the right, about a half a block up, across the street from the Jubilee Market.
Trail Tips: Once you unload your bikes, ride about one block west toward the water (this is through the newish Trump apartment complex). There’s an entrance to the Greenway down a ramp just to your--I believe--left. If you stay below about 74th Street, the trail is flat and easy all the way. Farther uptown, things get a little hillier.
When to Go: Even on very hot summer days, this is a great ride thanks to river breezes. I tend to avoid riding with the kids on peak weekends: This is the busiest bikeway in the country and slow or fallen riders can get mowed down pretty easily. (As I described above). My top pick: Playing hooky with a girlfriend on a spring weekday. Or a late Sunday afternoon ride with the kids and Paul.
What to Bring: Of course, bring your bikes. If you don’t or can’t byob, you can rent from Bike and Roll at 43rd Street/Pier 84. Haven’t used it myself, but it’s probably a good bet: Check them out at What else? Keep cargo to a minimum. In warm weather, I carry just my cell phone, water, and wallet on my bike. When it’s cooler, I’ll keep some fleece in a daypack. A camera, of course.
Costs: The garage I use costs something around $18 for the day, I think. Maybe a little more. Lunch is up to you….pack one if you really want to economize. A bike rental for the day will run you $30-$40, depending upon what you rent and how long you rent it for.
Fear Factor: No crazy rapist fears here--though if you ride above about 100th Street the scene can get a little sketchy. The biggest thing here is making sure the kids and you pay attention to the bike traffic so you don’t end up in a pile up. If you stay slow, steady, and alert, you’ll be fine.