Midnight Ski in the Snow–Near New York City

January 21, 2014–By Jen Benepe–Fort Lee, NJ

For those of you stuck on the east coast of the U.S., nature dumped almost a foot of snow over a period of 8 hours in the region yesterday.

At the beginning of the Palisades Parkway trail on the cliffs, is a sign. © Jen Benepe

So I took the opportunity to do what is done best at such times, and took to my cross country skis.

Night time be damned, it was the best opportunity to ski across roads whose snow cover continued to build no matter how many times the municipal plowers came by.

Motorists were cowed by the incessant snow and dangerous driving conditions, producing fewer of them and making roads easier to cross slowly.

My i-Phone said it was 16 degrees, not cold enough to stop this American-Swiss-Pole with many years spent on cross country skis as a child, and many nights spent downhill night skiing during the one wonderful year we spent in St. Cergue,  a part of  French speaking Switzerland in between Nyon and Morbier.

I was the only girl allowed to night ski at our school. I remember fondly the orange colored lighting on the slopes, the falling snow driving into my face as I flew down the mountain, and almost breaking my ankle when my ski tip got caught by a big hole I couldn’t see ahead of me.

Still who could miss the opportunity for wonderful adventure? By the way, this is an adventure that every single New Jerseyite and New Yorker with access to the George Washington Bridge can enjoy, even if you come by subway and bus. I’ll explain later.

The fact that I was the only one out there, however, was befuddling to me. Where was everyone’s sense of adventure? Has Fort Lee been secretly breeding couch sitters?

So while all the creatures were tucked up in their beds, I donned my usually cycling-bound Assos winter jacket with three layers underneath–a Craft undershirt, a SmartWool 250-microdenier base layer (this is the heaviest version they make), and a thick, brushed poly cycling top.

Amazingly this combination would prove to work exceedingly well to keep me warm when the wind was tearing at my face, but never make me overheat.

The glow of New York City and the George Washington Bridge beyond the trail, and through the fog of the snowstorm. © Jen Benepe

On the bottom I put my Assos cycling tights because I haven’t been able to find a good pair of ski pants that don’t cost a fortune.

Without any layering on the bottom I was never cold, per se, but my thighs and backside took on a rosy hue that suggested they were dying which was good enough for me, because I could easily live without a few of those human layers.

On my head I sported a Louis Garneau poly head and neck gaiter, and over that I had a very warm sheepskin hat that I luckily acquired this year: I think without these two items I would have been miserable.

On my legs I put two knee-high Gore-tex gaiters by Outdoor Research that I picked up from Campmor. Those also would turn out to be essential, as the snow came up to my knees in most places, and the gaiters kept me completely dry.

On my hands I used thick UGG sheepskin gloves that were a gift from my stepmother this year.  They turned out to work well except when I had the misfortune of having to take them off.

I took off from Center Ave. near the George Washington Bridge around 8 PM, and was able to cross all of the roads, including Route 9W without taking off my skis.

But when I reached the steps that would take me up to the nearest park–necessary to get to the Palisades Parkway beyond, I made the mistake of taking off my skis.

What happened next was about 20 minutes of cursing when trying to get back into my left ski: in the darkness I could not see where the ice was hiding under the boot clip.

The GWB through the trees. “I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; ” From Lord Byron’s “Darkness.”

Finally after many expletives, I reversed course, and cleaned out the ski on the sidewalk. This episode served to totally freeze one hand which eventually became two, and resulted in near frostbite.

The Palisades Parkway: EMPTY of cars!! A fantasy fulfilled if only for several minutes on one night. © Jen Benepe

Skiing north along 9W on the sidewalks, I passed only three men walking on the roadway carrying shovels, on to their next job. I headed over to Coytesville, the old northern part of Fort Lee, winded my way east to Hudson Terrace past Strictly Bicycles, up Mrytle Ave., north to Bayview Ave., then west again to Route 9W.

Again I was able to cross 9W twice without taking my skis off. As I passed the local gas station between Irving and Washington Aves. I called out to the fourth living creature I encountered in 45 minutes, a snow-plow driver who was filling up. “Nice night, huh?”

The cross over from Fort Lee, to the Palisades Parkway cliff side area was untouched. © Jen Benepe

His face and body covered in grease, and wearing coveralls, he called back, “Great night for a ski.” Then he hopped back in his cab, and began plowing the path behind me: for a second I thought the plow would pick me up in its giant steel hollow.

As I reached the next corner, a man came out of one of a nearby restaurant carrying take-out food. “Can I take your picture?” he asked.

He pulled out his i-Pad and took a shot. “I have to send this to someone who can’t believe how much snow we have.” I laughed and said thank you, and he turned the corner to go home. As I passed the restaurant I saw there was one person inside eating at the counter.

I continued south and then decided that even if it was risky, might be dark, and might even be too difficult to reach, it was well worth a try to make it over to the path along the Palisades Parkway.

During the summer , that path is a wonderful place to run, and stretches from the bridge, all the way to Dyckman Ave. in Englewood Cliffs, and is about 6 miles roundtrip–if you stop there. Though I have never tried it, I have been told the path continues along the cliffs all the way along the Palisades–about 6 miles total (northbound only).

Really adventurous travelers can take the path almost all the way to state line, or they can take the road down to the Englewood Boat Basin and then loop around on the Henry Hudson Drive back up to Fort Lee, which would be about 12 to 14 miles in all (depending on how you come back to Fort Lee.)

What the hell, I thought and started skiing over to the entrance which consists of steps leading to a overpass along Hudson Terrace. Municipal street plowers were congregated near the entrance and at first I thought it would be closed off, but it wasn’t. My only conundrum would be how could I get up the steps without taking my skis off again?

Fortunately, my skis fit just right on the stairway, and I climbed sideways, step by step up to the pathway and overpass. I had to do the same thing on the other side, and it occurred to me, not for the first time, how the administration of Fort Lee totally ignores the beauty of its surroundings and by not providing better access for people to run or ski the parks they are squandering a valuable resource that could make their town a magnet for vibrant, healthy people. That one impediment–the stairs instead of a sloped pathway– would be enough to turn away a lot of people.

The gorgeous view of the GWB from the trail. Romantic, scintillating, abandoned by all but the deer and I. © Jen Benepe

But once I was on the path, it was brilliantly beautiful. Ahead I could see the George Washington Bridge, with cars traveling very slowly across. Beyond was a winter wonderland, quiet, white, sparkling, and empty of all humanity.

Light coming from the parkway shown enough on the snow for me to see my way comfortably, but I did have to navigate some spots where there were rocks or steps or drop offs: because of the soft snow my skis sunk almost to the bottom with each stroke of my legs.

Fortunately I know the trail well, so I knew where these impediments were the worst.  I passed deer hooves in the snow that had been snowed over, and wondered how they might be surviving this weather.

I traveled north about one mile until I reached colorful lights of the Sunoco station, whose beacon shown through the trees and offered a little warmth to my freezing cheeks.

The station was practically empty, with the neon-green vested employees puffed up from layers, waiting for customers. I skied straight to the front door of the their shop, and bought a hot chocolate.

The glow of the Sunoco sign along the path. © Jen Benepe

Behind the counter their employee Janeth could not believe I had skied there. She took my picture.

When I came outside, a Palisades Parkway police officer drove over to me: I was afraid he would tell me I could not retrace my steps through the woods. But he didn’t: he only wanted to make sure I knew my way around. I told him I was trying to drop my paunch and he joked that he would only do the path with a snowmobile.

I got back on my skis and retraced my path, and was surprised to see that the trail I had left had been walked on. In the darkness I could not tell if it was just a deer, or two, or a deer and a person.

I was sorry I didn’t have apples to leave behind. But I also wondered if someone wasn’t living in the park–I could smell the smoky burning smell of wood, and it tinged me with paranoia: I started to ski a little faster.

The glow from the roadway lit the path all along the way, and sent shivers of sparkles into the snow. © Jen Benepe

Going back was smooth and warmer with the wind behind my back. I had to reclimb the steps on the Hudson side the same way, but to get back to Route 9W, I skied along the  entrance ramp to the parkway. (This is safe is you stick to the sides.)

As I passed over Route 9W, not a single car could be seen in either direction. That changed in minutes, but I enjoyed the fantasy briefly that cars no longer dominated the roadway.

The author getting a cup of hot chocolate at the gas station, normally only reachable from the parkway by car.

Again I was able to ski all the way home without taking off my skis. It was just what I was looking for: a night time frolic in the snow, enjoying nature at her savage and beautiful best.

It was certainly a welcome change from the couch and TV, which I think I may leave behind for the rest of the year.

A cup of hot chocolate went down like magic after 1.5 hours on the skis in 16 degree weather–and dropping.

How to get there: If you live in New York City, take the A train to 175th St. (you can also take the 1 train to 181st, and walk west a few blocks to the George Washington Bridge bus station).  From the street level bus depot take one of the Spanish buses to the first stop in New Jersey (tell the driver la puente, or simply “bridge”): cost $2.00. These buses run every 5 minutes, but beware, they stop around 11 or 11:30 PM.

You can also walk –or ski–across the bridge, but beware that often the sidewalk is closed during extreme weather or icy conditions, so it is best to sign up for a Port Authority sidewalk alert beforehand. (Sometimes their site is not updated with weather closures.)

Once you are out of the bus, head up the steps behind you  to Route 9W.

You can walk two blocks north to the steps that lead to the park and the pass over to the parkway. If it’s dark, it’s better to head over to Central Ave.., two blocks east (towards the GWB) along Northbridge Plaza. Then walk three blocks over to the park, where you will see the stairway to the overpass at the junction of the park and Hudson Terrace.

The area above the bridge was skiable both on the roads and along the Palisades Parkway, along the cliffs above the Hudson River.

If you’re driving, you can park anywhere north of the GWB, but make look out for signs that read ” no parking on snow days,” where your car will be towed.

There is a municipal parking lot south of the GWB, in between Route 9W and Center Ave. It is within walking distance of the entrance I used, or there is another entrance off the north walkway entrance to the George Washington Bridge.

Take a cell phone and preferably another person with you if you are traveling at night.

Daytime the area is safe, but it is recommended that in inclement weather you ski with someone who knows the area so you don’t end up going over the cliffs.

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