Begun in 2004 by one man devoted to nature and conservation, the roughly 85-member Bullthistle Hiking Club furthers that mission today through guided hikes, trail maintenance and educational events in Chenango and surrounding counties.
Club treasurer and original member Carol Smith said it all started with Ed Sidote, an avid hiker and club founder.
“Ed Sidote was very active in the Finger Lakes Trial and he was actually the third person to hike the whole thing,” Smith said. “He was over 70 when he did it, and after that, he wanted to promote the trial and hiking locally, so he and a group of other people got together and organized the club.” She added that, despite occasional fluctuations, club membership has remained between 80 and 90 for many years.
Club President Peg Fuller said members participate year-round in weekly, often themed hikes, predominantly on Chenango County land, much of which is also Finger Lakes Trail land.
“We try to lead a hike every Sunday,” Fuller said, “and we do hike in winter … so that’s different from some other clubs.”
Fuller said, “We try to come up with different themes. We’ve done dog hikes, which are shorter and great for new people; moonlit hikes, (which) are a whole lot of fun but (present) another aspect of hiking, because it’s dark; poker hikes … which are like a poker run; kids’ hikes; and we do an Ed Sidote hike every year, which is also a Finger Lakes Trail-named hike, out of respect for Ed Sidote.”
Don Windsor, an original club member and frequent leader of historical hikes, said hike participation varies and is often weather-dependent.
“It fluctuates,” he said. “Sometimes you get four people or you could get 28.” Windsor noted that the median “is about eight” hikers.
Among members, Fuller said, activity is split between hiking and trail maintenance.
In 2017, members logged 391 hours of hiking during 87 recorded hikes. Fuller said, “That’s up from 2016, when we only recorded 69.”
Also last year, club members spent 1,073 hours working on trails, including those sections of the Finger Lakes Trail in Chenango County.
Fuller, who said trail maintenance can include removing debris and branches, emptying fire pits or repairing picnic tables, noted, “We take great pride in our trail maintenance.”
Members said their motivation to continuously hit the trails reflects a shared belief in the club’s overall aims.
Original member Colleen Townsend, who regularly maintains about 10 miles of trail, said “I (do it) because I love to hike. I like visiting and being with the other people who are doing it and (I) just love the hiking and the exercise and the nature.”
Windsor said, “Hiking makes you healthier. We live longer than sedentary folk.” Anne Altshuler, another original member, added, “It really gets you fit, even just doing short hikes.”
Part of keeping the club’s mission relevant, Fuller said, is community outreach and education. In line with that ideal, members host informational tables at area events and partner with local youth programs and schools.
“We try to do more community-related things,” she said. “The YMCA has a camp and we lead hikes for the kids and do presentations on the basics of hiking.”
Fuller added, “We’ve done public relations events (at places such as) South Otselic Heritage Day, Roger’s Hollow and Chobani … to generate interest.” Additionally, the club has led Norwich Middle School photography classes on hikes.
Because of the club’s focus on education, Fuller said, hikers of all ability levels are welcomed.
“When we hike, especially with a new hiker or children, we try and stop and point things out,” she said. “It’s not just a hike — it’s the educational part and appreciation of nature.”
Fuller explained, “We lead the hike: We teach people how to read the blazes, trails and maps and we always welcome beginners. You don’t have to be a member to hike with us and we welcome guests to our meetings.” The club meets at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month in the Norwich YMCA.
Even among members, Fuller said, experience levels vary.
“Some people on hikes are brand new and some people in this (club) are Finger Lakes Trail end-to-enders, which is a pretty big accomplishment,” she said. Fuller, who said she “knew nothing about hiking” before joining the group, added, “Some of our hikers do high peaks, some do flat land or some do long-distance hiking.”
A hoped-for offshoot of the club’s educational efforts, Fuller said, is increased membership.
She said, “We want to grow our membership. One of our goals that a lot of the members talk about is trying to get young people involved.”
Despite some difficulty recruiting new members, Fuller said, people of all ages consistently express appreciation for the club’s work.
“In the trail registries … you see comments thanking (us) for maintaining the trail and saying the trail looks great,” she said. “People come up to us on a regular basis and say ‘thank you.’”
This summer, Fuller said, the club will again participate in National Trail Day, June 2, offering two hikes and a closing cookout celebration. Additionally, members plan to make a presentation during the Preston Scout Health Fair on June 17.
The annual Ed Sidote Hike takes place at the end of July.
For regular Sunday hikes, members meet outside the Norwich Howard Johnson at 8 a.m.; mid-week themed hikes are scheduled by individual hike leaders.