Hilltopping

Over the weekend we set out on the Margaret Hill trail in a bid to scale the two tallest peaks in the western part of the island: Caneel Hill and Margaret Hill. Neither is particularly tall by the standards of, say, the Rockies or even the Appalachians. According to our excellent topographical map, available from the National Park Service for only $4.00, Caneel Hill is slightly less than 800 feet above sea level, and Margaret Hill is not quite 100 feet taller. But they certainly feel taller than that, as you scramble dead uphill from the trailhead on the northshore road, and they offer commanding views to the north and west.

To the north, pictured above, you see Whistling Cay to the left and, to the right and in the distance, you see the islands of the British Virgin Islands — or, to use the lingo of the locals, the BVI. Somewhere out there in the water the international boundary lurks, but the locals don’t seem to pay too much attention to it, especially if they are heading to the party beaches of Jost Van Dyke, which offers a kind of continuous spring break atmosphere.

From the lookout point rock atop Margaret Hill, show below, you get a bird’s eye view of the town of Cruz Bay and, off to the right, the island of St. Thomas, which is a part of the USVI. At night, the cruise ships, all lit up like floating Christmas trees steamy by St. John just to the left, south of the island, in a glittering single file parade. Who’d have thought there were so many cruise ships?

The path down Margaret Hill leads to the Caneel Bay resort, still closed in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which pulverized the island some 18 months ago. Watch your step, because the footing on the way down can be treacherous — but the chance to be a hilltopper is worth it.

Advertisements

Free Range

There are chickens all over Cruz Bay, the largest town on St. John. Every morning, we hear the full-throated crowing of this strutting specimen and his fellow rooster friends with our morning coffee, and when we venture into town we see the chickens hunting and pecking pretty much everywhere. We’ve even noticed “native island chicken” on the menu of some of the restaurants we’ve visited.

The chickens of St. John could justifiably be called “free range” fowl. They aren’t cooped up and being fed some genetically modified feed to fatten them up; they’re totally on the loose and running free and eating whatever they can find. But being free also means dealing with danger. For the birds that means darting across roads that are jammed with cars and visitors and dodging the wheels of the colorful Jeeps and SUVs that are the vehicles of choice on this hilly island. As we saw to our sadness and regret one night, they don’t always make it.

Why does the St. John chicken cross the road? Because it’s hungry and willing to take the risk for the promise of food on the other side.

Redefining “Strenuous”

The hiking trails on St. John are rated by degree of difficulty. There are three ratings: easy, “moderate,” and “strenuous.” Most of the trails are rated strenuous, and we haven’t encountered an “easy” trail yet. I think all “easy” trails may involve boardwalks and be wheelchair accessible.

What distinguishes “moderate” and “strenuous ” is more elusive. The trail shown above is rated strenuous, and the trail pictured below is moderate. So far as I can tell, they both have more than their fair share of rocks, tree roots, and constant inclines. Perhaps moderate trail don’t exceed 45-degree inclines and only have so many rocks and roots per square foot.

“Strenuous”? Well, sometimes you won’t even see a recognizable trail, be prepared to huff and puff on the unending upward switchbacks, and on the way down bring a little mountain goat with you.

Which End Is Which?

On this morning’s hike we encountered this colorful critter puttering his way along the rocks on the slope of Margaret Hill. He was bright and highly visible against the gray granite and the backdrop of green plants and about the length and thickness of an index figure. Which end is the front, you ask? He was moving right to left, so you’ve got to think the red knob at the left end was its head — but then again it might have been trying to trick us by backing up.

Hiking The Reef Bay Trail

About two-thirds of the island of St. John is national parkland. As is the case with most national park properties, that means you’ll find ample hiking trails that allow you to get some exercise and feed your adventurous spirit at the same time.

Earlier this week we decided to tackle the Reef Bay trail, which begins at mile marker 5 on the Centerline Road, up in the hills that form the twisted spine of the island, and then heads through dense forest down to the beach far below. The hike has a deceptively bucolic beginning, with a tiny parking area that is filled with beautiful butterflies, but immediately takes you down a rugged path into the jungle. As you descend, following a winding path with a steep downward grade, you’ll see lots of trees and insects and tropical plants, along with national park information signs — many of which have been rendered largely illegible by the ravages of tropical heat, humidity and rain.

More than halfway down, there’s a spur to the trail that takes you to a double waterfall and some petroglyphs left by the indigenous people who lived here in the pre-Columbian, pre-colonial era, when the pools of fresh water were an important resource. You can reach the upper waterfall, shown in the first picture in this post, by following a crude trail that heads straight uphill and requires you to limbo under several fallen trees. Don’t flirt with the pooled water, though — it looks to be filled with leeches.

Many of the petroglyphs have been worn away by the tropical climate, but some are still distinct. The experts believe they were created by the Carib or Arawak people. What’s pictured here? I’m not sure, but some might see an ancient astronaut and his spacecraft. I was just grateful to find some remaining legacy of the people who lived happily in this part of the world before European invaders brought greed, slavery, and disease that decimated their civilization.

And speaking of colonialism, the trail then winds past the remains of a colonial sugar plantation, with its long-abandoned stone buildings now inhabited solely by hundreds of hermit crabs and a colossal insect nest, and then on down to Reef Bay, a pretty little beach on the south side of the island that looks out over the turquoise Caribbean Sea beyond. We rested here for a bit, drank our water, and enjoyed the scenery — which for one member of our party included a sighting of a shark swimming lazily through the shallow water near the beach. In the back of our minds we all knew, however, that while gravity was our friend on the way down the trail, the forces of nature would not be so kind on the uphill trudge.