Before departing for my Year of Deviation trip, I hiked and camped in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York with four friends from New York City. This weekend trip was the perfect experience to have right before leaving my home country for a year.

I am sitting here writing this story in Reykjavik, Iceland, my first Year of Deviation stop. Many adventures await, I am sure of it. But I am still in awe of what we encountered in the Catskills, proving that some adventures can be found in the places we take for granted the most—our own back yards.

Nestled deep in the forest off the main highway surrounded by the Catskill mountains, Woodland Valley campground is run by New York State Parks. Like an outdoor hotel, reservations are needed and made online where you can choose which designated campsite you want to reserve on the grounds. We arrived shortly after check-in at noon.

The ranger gave us literature about the grounds and reminded us about the fine for feeding bears and other wildlife. We were told to keep food and drink in the car when we are away from our campsite as he pointed us in the direction of our reserved spot. We set up two tents and laid out sleeping bags. After nibbling down a snack, we locked up the car and found the trailhead for the foot trail that would lead us to Giant Ledge.

The Giant Ledge is a trail up Panther Mountain reaching over 3,100 ft above sea level. We had both seasoned and unseasoned hikers in our group of four and managed to make decent time: 3.5 miles one way in about 3.5 hours. This was a pretty challenging hike. Normal steep foot paths were mixed with rocky terrain requiring careful footing and rock scrambling in parts.

We took several breaks to snap photos of fallen and uprooted trees that fell from the wet season that summer. We also stopped to chug lots of water, eat some peaches, or simply admire the moss covered trees, sprouting fungi, and scurrying chipmunks. Otherwise, we spent the majority of the hike pushing up the steep slopes singing to our own soundtrack of broken Disney songs.

As four girls who spend most of their time walking the concrete jungle, we were all huffing and puffing and beginning to feel the impact of the hike on our bodies by the end of it. The payoff at the top, however, was worth it.

There was only a single note of civilization (one home tucked away in the distance) among the vast expanse of tree covered mountains stretching to the horizon. A true escape from city life. Even Rachel, the hiking newbie in our group, was saying things like, “So next time we go on a hike…” implying that she was officially addicted despite the difficult climb.

There’s just something about climbing or conquering a mountain that feels triumphant for anybody—perhaps even more so with the tougher climbs.

At the top we shared snacks with a very social chipmunk—plain almonds and blueberries right from our hands! After taking many photos and a full performance of “Colors of the Wind” on the ledge by my friend Dasha, we were ready to make our way back to camp. I led our team of four along the path retracing our steps.

As with any hike, the way back down let us know how hard our bodies worked on the way up. It took about 2 hours to walk down and every step was painful for each of us in different ways. My ankles, Dasha’s back, Eda’s knees. This was one way to feel like being in our late 20s is old.

We had our minds on the food that awaited us—especially the S’mores! It helped us keep going. Most of us spoke of how well we were going to sleep that night anticipating that the hike would make us turn in early, hit the pillow, and go out cold. We eventually made it to the home stretch. “I can see the camp site below” my friend said as she pointed down the slope to our right. We were close enough to smell the campers’ food wafting up to us on the hill. This was when Dasha said, “There’s a deer.”

I heard some rustling in the brush next to me but when I looked nothing was there. “There’s what?” I paused to turn back to her. She had halted in her tracks and was half smiling, wide-eyed with her mouth open. “There’s a bear.”

“Har har, very funny. There is no bear.”
“No, Rikka. There’s a bear.”
“Riiiight. Where do you see a bear, Dasha?”
“On the path ahead.”
“Yea right.” I didn’t want to look ahead or she’d think I actually believed her.
“I’m serious.”
“Yea right!”

We went on like this for about a minute and a half before I finally decided she might be being serious. I very calmly walked back to her. Preparing to be humiliated by my gullibility, I turned around. Nothing was there. “Where?”

“Around the bend.” I stepped to the side of the path to peer around the trees and to my absolute astonishment there was a black bear on all fours peering around the corner right back at me. “Shit!”

My body flushed with adrenaline, but instead of preparing to fight or run away, I decided to very slowly turn around with Dasha and walk very calmly in the opposite direction back along the path. We caught up with the other two girls behind us. “There’s a bear.” I whispered. “It’s on the path so we’re going back.” Dasha looked back and reported, “I think it’s coming!”

But instead of running, we turned toward the slope that headed down into the camp. Slowly and calmly we began sliding down. The slope was steep, but trees provided grips on the way down the 50 or 60 meter slide. About halfway down, campers who were grilling chicken over their fire called out to us. “Everything okay?”

“We’re good. There’s just a bear on the trail. Like, right up there!” We made it the rest of the way down and then looking back we watched as the campers hopped into their cars and began honking. The black bear had followed us down the slope! It seemed we had shown the bear a short cut down to the camper’s dinner! Yogi bear was just after that ol’ “pic-a-nic bas-ket!” It wanted nothing to do with us hikers—it was just hungry for some chicken! And after the hike we had that day, so were we!

We got back to our camp, began drinking immediately (!!), and then set to making our own dinner very hesitantly. The bear didn’t come back around that night so we ate our S’mores in peace. But the bear was the talk of the evening. The excitement kept us all awake much later than we expected.

The rangers told us bears come through the site about twice a week, but that we were pretty lucky getting to see one up on the trail. “Wow, that’s a once in a lifetime experience seeing one while hiking. You should have taken a picture!” We got one the next day on our way through the town of Phoenicia instead.

Despite and casualness of the ranger, I like to think putting safety before social media by turning away when we did was a good move. I read some information on bear encounters since the hike and found out that a black bear facing you directly may be a second warning that you are too close. I’m glad we didn’t stick around for the third!