A Guided Hike Through Central Park’s Northwoods

On the north side of the West 100th Street entrance to Central Park, an Osage orange tree litters the ground with its namesake, softball-sized fruits. These lime-green, exotic-looking spheres immediately pique the interest of the dozen or so strangers who gather by the tree as the clock neared 11 a.m. on an almost-winter afternoon.

Facing the group are three urban park rangers who field questions about the vaguely tropical fruits residing in New York City’s urban landscape.

“Do any animals eat these?” asked an elderly woman, one of the many seniors in the group.

“Y’know, in prehistoric times, mastodons and giant ground sloths did, but nothing now,” said Ginny Renjilian, 25.

A little past the hour, as the group’s size grew past 30, the three rangers kicked things off.

“Welcome, everyone, to the fall foliage hike,” said Mara Pendergrass, 52.

Organized by Renjilian, whose urban park ranger group is a part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, this November hike was an educational trek through a northwest portion of Central Park’s Northwoods. As one of the many free events hosted by the urban park rangers, Renjilian explained, this hike was a one-mile, 90-minute tour around a small lake called “The Pool” and into the woods to explore the fall colors of the trees.

After sauntering 100 yards down a hill to the beginning of the trail, the group circled up around the rangers who were backdropped by the still-vibrant reds, oranges and yellows of the trees surrounding the lake.

As the hikers stood in the cold late morning grass, the day’s crisp air slowly froze their hands and caused their noses to run. Fellow hikers cursed the wind for blowing and praised the sun for breaking out from behind the occasional cloud. Yet, despite this, the park was alive with activity, from runners and cyclists to dog walkers and baby stroller pushers.

In other words, it was the quintessential cold, city Sunday.

Walking counterclockwise around the lake, Pendergrass leads the hike followed by Renjilian in the middle and Ty Morris in the rear.

“We’re primarily educators,” Renjilian said enthusiastically to a question about the urban park rangers. But, she added, they also patrol the park and intervene in any issues with wild animals that may arise.

Stopping every now and again to speak about a particular tree – from maples, willows and pin oaks to sweet gums, sycamores and sassafrases – Renjilian exhibited a vast store of knowledge. But her attitude is what was infectious.

“Here, smell this, if you want to, and then pass it along,” Renjilian, a former biology major who focused in ecology at Middlebury College, said joyfully about a leaf that she tore up to extract its scent. “This is from a spicebush, and it smells a bit like lemongrass.”

By this point the hike had progressed past the lake and through an old stone tunnel. All the while, the brisk air in the Northwoods was filled with the organic, earthy aroma of the colorful dying leaves that are scattered on the paths. It’s easy to forget the park’s New York City location and the city’s typical urban smells.

Arriving at a fork in the trail, the group split in two – half going with Pendergrass and the rest with Renjilian and Morris.

When a hiker asks about taking home fallen sticks or branches, Renjilian says that while members of the public are not allowed to, rangers can for educational purposes. She then reminisces about carving spoons from several fallen branches, which she takes to events at the park and to schools.

“We use ‘tree cookies’ – cross sections of tree trunks – to show kids how quickly or slowly different trees grow, and the wooden spoons are a fun way to show the different colors and weights,” she said. “I’ve even shown two different black cherry spoons before to show how the color of that wood changes over time.”

A naturalist through and through, Renjilian’s dedication to the environment led her to leave a desk job managing electronic medical record implementation projects in hospitals in order to be back out in nature.

“Personally, I hate being in an office,” she said, laughing. “If I can be in the office for an hour a day, that would be great.”

Looping back around to where the hike started, Renjilian has her group members smell two more kinds of plants – wild onion shoots and sassafras leaves.

“It smells like Froot Loops!” a middle-aged woman exclaimed to her friends about the leaves, which can have three different shapes.

“Yeah, we get that a lot,” Renjilian, a short bespectacled brunette in dark green park ranger attire, said while chuckling.

Back near the stone tunnel, Renjilian delighted the group with more fun facts about the peculiarities that arise from Central Park’s residence in the middle of Manhattan and the wildlife that calls it home. A majority of the waterfalls in the park are human constructed and can be turned off like a tap. Woodpeckers’ tongues wrap around their brains acting as a cushion when they peck. To construct Central Park, the developers used more dynamite than was used during the Battle of Gettysburg. And the starling bird is a great mimicker whose favorite New York City sound to imitate is a prevalent sound in the city: the car alarm.

With each new fact, time feels like it’s standing still. But before the group has fully realized, they are walking past the lake, making their way back to the 100th Street entrance.

At the top of the hill near the Osage orange tree, people give their thanks and farewells to the urban park rangers and to one another for a memorable experience.

And turning to the exit, as people shuffle off to their regular lives, a man walks away with an unripe, inedible Osage orange in his hand.

About the author(s)

Alan Kronenberg, from Cleveland, Ohio, is a Master of Science student at the Columbia Journalism School.