Winona Forest is located in a sort of no manís land south of the Tug Hill, east of the Ontario lakeshore, northeast of the Finger Lakes, northwest of the Catskills and southwest of the Adirondacks. In other words youíre not likely to get there unless youíre looking for it! What do you get if you do go looking for it? The landscape isnít particularly striking. No mountains, no lakes. Not unless you count the ones made by melting snow and rainwater. Youíll find trees. And solitude. And, on a day like the one I spent visiting the forest, the incessant plinking of raindrops on melting snow.
It may seem a bit silly, but one of my favorite things about Winona Forest is the trail names. You wonít find Trail #1 or Blue Trail or even Snakefoot Trail. Bonus points if you can name the New York State Park with Snakefoot Trail in it without looking it up! Anyway, at Winona State Forest you get fanciful names like Billís Belly and Winona Way. I like it. The trails arenít just all cute names either. Had it been 10 degrees cooler and the snow 10 inches deeper they wouldíve been a real treat for skiing. The trails are long and varied. Youíll find plenty of turns and hillocks and subtle changes in scenery. What you wonít find are those difficult or dangerous dips and cliffs that make some otherwise nice trails a bit too much for intermediate skiers. Tug Hill State Forest, Iím looking at you.
Thereís more to Winona Forest, but it becomes difficult to describe it in just words and pictures. The place reminds me of other off-the-beaten-path favorites. The inland trails and bushwhacks at Chimney and Scotts Bluffs, the west side of Stoney Pond. You know, those one-off places where you can sometimes just barely follow the trail, sometimes not at all, and almost always the landscaping is left to nature. It is forgotten, but not unfriendly. Old boardwalks have rotted and crumbled, but still offer support when walking over half-frozen mud. Sometimes. Incidentally, it brings up the point of funding. Itís clear that a forest like this hasnít seen much. While itís good that itís been left mostly untouched, it is a worrisome sign.
As I followed the trails I saw a few streams that may have once been bridged over. At one point I followed a trail that just seemed to end. Minor setbacks. Maybe it was just the fact that I hadnít been hiking in New York in four months. Maybe I wouldíve been happy finding any random plot of trees and bushwhacking my way through it. There are certainly other places where Iíd be upset at finding a trail whose maintenance had caused it to dead end itself or where Iíd have to walk upstream to avoid wading through freezing streams because the bridge had gone out. At Winona this seems alright. I write this now and maybe a bit of it is conveyed, but itís really one of those things youíd have to visit it to see. The forest just feels right the way it is.
The forest made a mid-December hike feel like mid-March. Whatís the difference? Theyíre both slogs through half frozen mud and unstable ice. Except that in March you know itíll be April soon. And then May. In December you have to get through the harshest winter still. Itís the sort of thing that makes the rain feel colder. Makes you cut that last bit short and put your camera away long before you get back to the car. Still, the weather wasnít terribly heartening. It had been drizzling in the morning. Roads that I could walk over at that point I needed cleats to get across at noon. Soon after this photo was taken I crossed another road and the ice had gone completely. Bringing a raincoat was probably one of my better hiking decisions. I guess living in a tropical rain forest makes you think of these things.
I didnít go straight home after this adventure. You see, I had this feeling I sometimes get that I wouldnít be out that way again for a while. There was one more place to visit. One more task to accomplish. My yearly pilgrimage to Southwick Beach. I usually like to go in late February when the ice dunes are large and strong and I can walk far out onto the lake on the ice, but this year I wouldnít get that chance. So I made an early visit to the lake and I think it understands.