Saturday, March 31, 2007

Winter walk to Stewart Park

view of Cayuga Lake from Stewart Park in winterAs I plod through my fifties, my exercise regime alternates between days of running and days of lower impact: sometimes nothing more than a quick round of push-ups, sit-ups and stretches, but whenever possible: walking, biking, or if I'm really lucky cross-country skiing. Living, as I do, in the west end of Ithaca, and being rather averse to getting into the car prior to using my body, my trips tend to go two different directions depending on time available and chosen method of travel. I can run over to Cass Park and do a three-mile loop on the nice paved trail. When I have time for a long walk, I often head to Stewart Park which is more like a five-mile trip.

These routes just happen to coincide with the Cayuga Waterfront Trail. Phase 1, already completed, is the Cass Park loop. Phase 2, which links the Cass Park loop to the Farmer's Market was originally supposed to be constructed during 2006, according to the official website, although little obvious progress has been made. Agreements with landowners still have to be ironed before construction can proceed. Phase 3 will eventually link the Farmer's Market to Stewart Park and the Tompkins County Visitors Bureau.

Long walks are a favorite part of my exercise regime – it's less strenuous on the body and the mind. There is time for leisurely contemplation and more opportunity to observe surroundings than during the rush of running. There's not always enough hours in the day for a long walk, especially in winter, during the weekdays. Light is limited; and I do have to show up at my job fairly regularly. Most weekends in winter I manage to fit in one walk to Stewart Park. Although not a finished trail as of yet, it still can be walked.

I start on the very west end of West Court Street. The big parking lot there is filled with potholes on the south end; mud and snow to the north where it's less developed. The anchor restaurant is gone from that location: most recently Buffalo Street Barbecue had a rather short stint, preceded by a longer successful run by Bistro Q. The owners of Bistro Q also managed Just a Taste restaurant in downtown Ithaca; plus they had a catering business and just couldn't handle all that success. Prior to that, Old Port Harbor restaurant was there forever (at least as long ago as I can recall). In the milder times of year, the MV Manhattan still docks there to collect passengers for their dinner boat cruises as well as other cruises, and they apparently use the building to prepare the food.

Although the parking lot is rarely full this time of year, there are cars back there from various businesses in the neighborhood, such as Enterprise auto rental which is on the corner of Buffalo and Fulton. Heading north with the ruts from vehicles in mud and snow, there is what appears to be a lot of nascent activity – much equipment and trucks, but I'm never there in the weekdays to see much work going on. The Spirit of Ithaca is docked there on the shore – another old cruise boat that had been previously docked over by Kelly's restaurant and has not been lake-worthy for many years. One day I was surprised to hear music coming from this old vessel – a jam session seemed in progress. The walking can be difficult along here some times of the year, as the access narrows to a rocky, potentially muddy path along the railroad tracks. The most difficult was following the Valentine's Day snowstorm when the snow was almost two feet deep. A thicket which runs along the shoreline is often busy with birds and rabbits skittering about finding shelter and food.

Next up are the Ithaca College and Cornell boathouses. It's easier walking now to veer away from the railroad tracks into their parking lots, and here the view of the inlet opens up. The Boatyard Grill is just across the inlet on the tip of Inlet Island and Cass Park is beyond. North of the boathouses is a shallow bay where in summers past we have pulled the paddles in on our canoe to float around lazily in the sun and observe a great blue heron still and waiting. Currently we have to continue down the road past Andree's Petroleum towards the Wastewater Treatment Plant, and turn left into the Farmer's Market. But presumably when Phase 2 is complete, the path will turn to the west along the north side of the bay around the DOT property and arrive at Farmer's Market along the shore. They'll have to do some major filling in to accomplish that, as a wide water-filled ditch, with a dense stand of reeds, currently separates the walker from going that route.

Once we do get to the Farmer's Market, we can see where the trail will arrive. An attractive trailhead has already been constructed at the Market. They had a ribbon-cutting for the trailhead in December 2006, but for now it's a trailhead to nowhere.

I continue north along the shoreline around the Farmer's Market building to where Cascadilla Creek runs into the Inlet. The path hugs the shore between the creek and a fence surrounding the wastewater plant. It's wild again along the margin there with the overhanging trees and wildlife. Docked boats can be seen at the marina across the creek and then there's the Haunt. I used to go there when I was young and they had great music down on Green Street. I hear they still have great music and a lot of events and even food. Sometimes I see and smell the smoke coming from their barbecue as I go by.

A footbridge over the Creek brings us very close to the railroad tracks again and then we're on Willow Avenue. There's the building where my daughter used to go to Montessori pre-school. Occasionally I brought her on this very trail, but more often we travelled the paved city streets back then so that I could roll her in the stroller. Turn left and head north on Willow Avenue past various businesses and the Tompkins County Transportation Center where the buses all go at the end of the day, towards the golf course and Cayuga Lake. The Newman Municipal Golf Course has been a popular spot since 1935. I don't totally appreciate golf, as those manicured lawns require an awful lot of inputs of chemicals, so was glad to hear that the city has recently applied for a grant to develop more ecological ways of maintaining the course, such as using effluent from the wastewater plant for the irrigation system. The mature trees are glorious. From the magnificent Scotch Pine and Colorado spruces when you first approach Pier Road to the ancient sycamores and maples scattered throughout, they take my breath away on a sunny day in winter outlined against the sky – the bright white bark of the sycamores festooned with hanging balls. Heading east around the perimeter of the course, glimpses can be seen of the lake to the north.

The path will follow the existing road around the east side of the golf course. Further down the road is a gathering spot for shopping carts which have been found all over the city. A huge mound of wood chips that have been left over from various clean-up operations sends up a damp woodsy odor.. Anyone can back in there with their vehicle and haul out as much wood chips as they can get.

You can also sometimes detect a slight burning odor as you approach the Fire Department's Training Center. Once or twice I've watched the firefighters dealing with a training in full gear, hoisting ladders, ramming into locked doors, voices yelling, and smoke pouring into the sky out of the wrecked cement block structure. Knowing that there was no real danger, I could enjoy the thrilling spectacle of their skill and serious intention.

The trees open up to the east and Fall Creek comes into view. In the milder weather there are often plenty of people spending the afternoon calmly fishing, sometimes equipped with lawn chairs and coolers and children running about. Over the pedestrian bridge we reach the heavily wooded Fuertes Bird Sanctuary. In the wintry time of year, I'm careful to hold onto the railing on the slope entering and leaving the bridge as it can be quite slippery on the wooden surface – I have fallen on my bottom there before!

There's a main path that circles all through the wood. I can walk it in about 15 minutes. You feel like you're in a remote refuge in this old growth woods except for the incessant sound of cars on nearby Route 13. It can be quite muddy during the wet parts of the year. Someone had pitched a tent last year well off the trail where it could barely be seen when vegetation is thick.

Over another footbridge and we're in Stewart Park – depending on the weather, full of picnickers, young people gathering around their cars with stereos blasting, old people feeding the ducks, geese, and gulls, children chasing them and playing in the playground. On the coldest days, maybe just a few birders and people who don't get out of their cars but just come for the view. I head for the Cascadilla Boathouse, and walk between it and the shore and get on the path that goes around the swan pond. Alas there are swans there no more, although there used to be in years past. Then walking along the shore, there is most always a breeze, and an ever-changing panorama of sky and moody watercolors pulsing on the surface of deep waters. In the wintertime, the shallow water freezes for quite a ways, and braver folk than I venture out on the frozen surface to get a closer look at the birds. Once I saw in the distance near Lake Shore Road a large kite trying to catch the wind, and eventually it did reach up to the sky, and the person attached at the other end appeared to be affixed to a skate board. He slid over the ice drawn by the wind from the sail - a winter windsurfer!

At the other side of the park, over the railroad tracks, there is the Ithaca Youth Bureau and the Tompkins County Visitors' Bureau. A small intimate garden behind the Youth Bureau invites quiet contemplation protected by tall cedars and a tiny footbridge bridge over a streamlet.

You could then head out of the park and get on Lake Street and get to visit the roaring waters of Ithaca Falls on the way back into town, or circle back into the Fuertes Woods and back where you came. The possibilities for walking around Ithaca are endless.