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Get Outside: Wilderness, WNY-style

A canoe ride in the Red House area

Courtesy of Cattaraugus County Tourism

“I hear you’re going to Allegany. Which cabin did you rent?” asks Miss Patti, the childcare provider at my youngest son’s daycare, smiling encouragingly as she helps me zip up his coat and pack Blankey. My other boys are waiting in the van, laden as it is with sleeping bags and cans of Dinty Moore, in anticipation of our Father/Sons camping trip. We’re heading out once this last tyke is picked up and loaded in his car seat.

“I got one on Gypsy Trail, in the Quaker Area in the south. It’s in the back, right along the creek,” I respond.

Miss Patti’s look transforms from a smile into “the Face,” mouth frowning, eyes slightly wide. You know “the Face”—it’s the look women give men when we are about to do something dumb, usually involving children.

“Ehh, I don’t know about that. That’s the area”—here she covers my two-year-old son’s ears with her hands —“where bears like to hang out. Should you be taking the kids there?”

Allegany State Park, an hour south of metro Buffalo, is home to no novel or dramatic geographic feature like a Niagara Falls or a Grand Canyon. It contains no single iconic view, no singularly unique history, no individual magnificent animal, such as the bison of Yellowstone or whales off the West Coast, to attract throngs of camera-toting tourists (unless you count the rarely seen Quaker Area bears). Allegany never rises to any of these occasions. Rather, it is in the accumulated sum of small outdoor pleasures—a canoe or bike ride here, a campfire there—that one finds solace, making the 65,000 acres of hilly forested wilderness a popular leisurely retreat from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Allegany is an outdoor enthusiast’s playground in all seasons. In winter, leafless and snow-covered, the Art Roscoe Touring Area in a northern section of the park is groomed into some of the best cross-country skiing in the Northeast: twenty miles of trails unbroken by road or powerline. In the summer, these are transformed into mountain biking trails—mixed multi-use and single track—offering miles of gnarled and bouncy fun. A number of races and events are held at the Art Roscoe area throughout the year, from the mid-winter cross-country Loppet to the summer Raccoon Rally cycling festival.

But Allegany is about a lot more than high-energy sports for the serious amateur, and it is in summer that the park is the most accessible and popular for the average vacationer. For my most recent trip I was neither plunging down tree-root staircases on my bike nor braving icy winds and waist-deep powder, but instead was relaxing with my sons, enjoying a cabin by a stream and other simple pleasures of stripped-down outdoor living.

Reserving a cabin is easy using New York State’s new online system (newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com). Allegany is generally divided into two main sections: Red House in the north and Quaker in the south, with a swath of uninterrupted forested backcountry separating them. Both areas contain lakes and beaches for swimming and canoeing, trails for hiking, a general store for ice cream and other essentials, and a variety of living arrangements, from space to pitch your tent, to simple wooden cabins, to larger, more domesticated dwellings. The Red House Area has dedicated bike paths, the 1927 Tudor-style lodge, and generally more infrastructure, but for this trip, I am just looking for a creek to sit by and a little peace and quiet. Using the maps and amenity listings online, we are able to select the perfect spot, pay, and preregister, making the process of picking up our key the day we arrive fast and painless. My oldest son describes our cabin as a “wooden tent.” In truth, it is much more than that: four bed frames with thin mattresses, a table and benches for eating or playing cards, a wooden box stove for heat and a propane kitchen one for cooking, and a wide porch for enjoying the still night. It serves as a more-than-adequate base of operations for our further adventures.

My sons and I are big hikers, and so any camping trip for us involves many miles of up and down. A word of caution, however, to remember my warning concerning the stinginess of the views. Don’t pick a mountain to climb hoping to take in an Adirondack-esque panorama; these hills have no bald peaks. Even from the Stone Tower in the Summit Area, one’s view of the main park to the south is obscured by thick canopy. On a previous trip two summers ago, I backpacked several days along the North Country Trail, 18 miles total through the center of the park. The North Country Trail stretches 4,600 miles in all, connecting New England to the Great Plains. In New York, the trail runs through Allegany and then follows the Finger Lakes Trail across the Southern Tier before splitting, one footpath to the Adirondacks, the other to the Catskills. In my time on the Allegany section of the North Country Trail we saw little but green tube, never quite able to pierce the leafy veil that enveloped us. Instead, such a hiker has to be content with the esoteric surety that along the track you are currently walking, your feet alone could take you to North Dakota in one direction, and the Appalachian Trail—and thus Maine or Georgia—in the other.

The hills of Allegany State Park were not formed by the glaciers, unlike the well-ordered north-to-south moraines and lakes of Western and Central New York. Rather, Allegany is the northernmost unglaciated place in the eastern United States, a former island in a sea of ice. While on the top of Mount Seneca, I peered through the trunks of yellow birch and beech, catching a wisp of view of the surrounding ridge crowns, and tried to imagine the ice sheets of 20,000 years ago laid out before me. But the lush green was too much in contrast, the breeze too fair, and soon a cloud bank moved in to obscure the thickly wooded gullies and water-carved vales below me.

So instead of searching for a view, on this latest trip we choose a hike to the Bear Caves, a rock city of multiton blocks covered in moss and ferns. The hillside is littered with massive 450-million-year-old stone cubes that resemble a giant’s dice discarded mid-game. In their random jumble, they provide sheltered caves and a naturally formed jungle gym for the kids. The boys scramble from boulder to boulder, grinning and playing hide-and-go-seek. Thus the hike serves its main purpose: inducing in my children a love of nature and sense of wonder about what might be seen around the next bend. Still, we leave a touch disappointed; despite Miss Patti’s warning, and perhaps because I have kept our food tucked away from roaming critters, the only bears we see on the entire trip are the two handsome specimens stuffed and mounted in the small natural history museum in the Red House Area.

In the fading twilight on our last night at the cabin, I am skipping stones with my middle son on Quaker Run, my attempts at spinning the flat rocks producing a satisfying plunk in the water that makes him giggle. The creek is flowing hard, swollen from the day’s rain, small waterfalls and rapids forming at rocks and strainers.

“Dad, is this river big enough to white water raft on?” he asks, hope in his eyes. I’m sure the swift but narrow stream looks like a river to him.

“No, it’s not, kiddo.” But I like the way you’re thinking.

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