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Amid the wedding-planning mayhem this summer we took a long July 4 weekend to camp in the Catskills — specifically, Devil’s Tombstone. It wasn’t easy to find a relatively last-minute place to pitch a tent on a holiday weekend.

Getting there was an adventure. M. got stuck in Albany for work — with the car. I was in Brooklyn — with all the gear. So I overstuffed my pack and, leaning precariously on Subway train walls and poles, made my way to Grand Central to catch the Metro North to Poughkeepsie. Me with hiking clothes, crazy stuffed Osprey with boots and sleeping bags dangling off, and a train full of Manhattanites with lap-dogs bound for Catskill summer homes.

M. borrowed from friends in Albany what I couldn’t carry on the train, and picked me up at the station.

We rolled into the campground right at 9 p.m., right when the park office closes.
But the duo who run the campground stay open an extra 15 minutes on summer weekends just in case city-folk like us get stuck in traffic, or some such.

The guy running the place was rugged and muscular, with about 20 years on us and looking like he could still out-outdoors us in every way. Our campsite was on a small clearing overlooking the road, surrounded by trees — and no light. Knowing we’d have to set-up in the dark, he came to check on us. He couldn’t have been nicer. The tent couldn’t have been more uncooperative. (A lesson we know well, but clearly needed to relearn — kids, never attempt to set up a new tent for the first time in the dark.)

We gave up and slept in the car. Our Mountain Man friend was clearly disappointed in us, but we were far too tired to care. We know from experience that us plus dog fit very comfortably with the seats down.

Day dawned, and we explored. Devil’s Tombstone is a small, primitive campground, with a bathroom and not much else. But it was quit, blissfully so. No electricity meant no RVs, or radios, or much other noise but the occasional (very, very occasional) car on the road below.

Because it’s so small, state parks and rec granted us access to the massive North-South Lake Campground — as noisy and packed as our campground was serene. We strolled around the lakes on the Loop trail. Sirus, lured by a passel of ducks, actually swam.

A map of the area from the NSL office showed a more rugged route starting just before the formal park entrance, and so we had a second-day adventure along the Catskill Escarpment above Kaaterskill Clove.

(We thought about hiking up to the popular Kaaterskill Falls — I had never been. But the weekend crowds dodging traffic to the trail entrance quickly dissuaded us. On the escarpment trail, we met perhaps a handful of people.)

The trail took us up up up, around the backside of a small peak, and to the front again. Rain had come hard that week, so while the sun broke for us, the footing remained muddy. This isn’t a trail for the unsure of foot, and frankly, I’m not sure I’d tackle it again with the dog. On the far side, the trail narrowed precipitously with a steep drop to our right, nothing but a few scant inches of grass between my right pinky toe and things I’d rather not think about.  Sirus kept wanted to pass to our right. I yelled at her more than I should have, out of nervousness.

Our payoff — two overlooks, slightly cleared openings around granite outcroppings, with views to Connecticut and down the Hudson Valley.

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Meet Sirus. 

She’s our baby. 

A 6-year-old Weimaraner

She went to the vet this weekend for her just-in-time for summer checkup. She’s better protected than we are. Monthly flea and tic treatments. Kennel cough vaccination, also a good idea for dogs who hike during the summer. 

Hike? Boy, does she. 

She’s even got her own pack. 

Apparently there’s some debate over doggie backpacks. But I agree with the folks who say larger working dogs do just fine. Sirus has her own saddle pack, and carries her food and water on weekend camping trips. The key is to balance the weight evenly on either side. She also takes her backpack very seriously. This is clearly a job for her, with no time for dilly-dallying among the underbrush like she would without the pack. 

Mountainsmith human bags – hip packs, duffels, car organizers – hold up amazingly well, and have great suspension and extras, like pockets just wear you need them. They make a doggie pack too. I haven’t seem them, but judging from their other bags, and this review, it’s probably a safe bet. 

Other brands make them too. Sirus’s is burried in packing boxes, or I’d mention hers. She’s had it a few years. A cautionary note: they aren’t easy to find. Some Petcos have them, I think. Some REIs do. Amazon has Kelty packs (also probably a good bet), but the Mountainsmith are out of stock. Small online dog-based stores might be the best bet, or a local speciality store. 

I have a new baby. She’s an Osprey, Ariel 75. Oh so pretty.

I hadn’t planned on getting a new pack. Too cost-prohibitive for a grad student researcher salary. But this summer I worked part time at Eastern Mountain Sports. I couldn’t resist.

My old pack, a workhorse Kelty, dates to 1996. My mom bought it for me, in honor of my pending semester in Jerusalem. We went to the only outdoor shop in our little town. The place had a tiny backyard on a major street where a rickety fence tried to hold up a host of kayaks and canoes, which looked like they might topple onto cars at any minute. The shop itself looked like a glorified shack from the outside. Inside, all I remember is my Kelty, a purply-blue and black. It was one of the first packs made to fit a woman. The straps hugged my shoulders, the hip-belt my waist, like the other packs didn’t.

The pack has weathered Patagonia and Lapland, the Alps, the Negev, the Adirondacks, Gibraltar and Machu Picchu, to name a few. The fabric has held up brilliantly. A few years ago I lost a screw thingy that kept a stay in place. Sometime before Peru a couple of plastic brackets fell off, so I had to tie some straps together to keep everything in place. I ditched the chest staps years ago, before I knew what they were for. All those little things added up to big annoyances – and possible safety hazards. In the Adirondacks last summer, the top of my pack refused to stay on straight. In a thunderstorm, on slick rocks, I fell and reinjured my bad shoulder. My fault and the weathers’, but an unbalanced pack didn’t help.

And then I started selling packs. The new versions are so lightweight, they shed pounds from my Kelty. I slipped on an Osprey and knew I had to have it. Could my Kelty have sufficed? Sure. But the Osprey’s high-tech features sang a siren’s song. Like the ventilated back. The differently-size hip belts that can be heated and molded to my frame. The light construction that felt like carrying air.

Working at EMS gave me a mad discount, so here I am – with my my new baby. See the extra thick plastic clasp on the chest strap? That’s an emergency whistle. Clever. Totally freaks out the dog.

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Top on my weekend getaway list for the Capital Region/New York City has to be the Mohonk Mountain House. My mother stayed there once for a business meeting and raved about it so much that my brother and I gave our parents a night there for their 30th anniversary. We joined them for the day and dinner, and fell in love with the place.

Mohonk is an old-time castle of warm stone and warmer wood, a high-class version of everything cozy and comfortable about a Catskill or Adirondack retreat – but only 20 minutes max from the highway that connects Manhattan to Albany and Montreal. The house sits on a lake, which in turn rests at the base of a cliff. The house has paddle-boats in the summer and Nordic skis in winter. A gazebo offers warm-weather barbecue. Afternoon tea in a massive great room with sofas is a must. A broad veranda with rocking chairs overlooking the lake offers the perfect place to read, knit or chat.

Day passes to the grounds are available, but an even better option is to make a meal reservation. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are gourmet affairs in a cavernous, circular wood-panelled room with picture windows above the Catskills. Dinner has an old-fashioned jacket, tie and skirt dress code. Room stays include meals, but reservations for a single meal, without an overnight stay, include a grounds pass. So while $30 may be an expensive breakfast (rates range up to $61.50 for dinner), the perks are priceless.

The House also offers a lovely afternoon tea with cookies. It’s meant for overnight guests only, but no one asks questions if day guests quietly join in.

I’m sitting in an Albany coffee shop, trying to work, and a family of 10 just invaded on their way down to Mohonk. A woman said their father is treating them and his grandchildren for a Sunday night there in honor of his birthday. Are you listening, mom and dad?