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125 miles, 6 days: Shelter Island hiker completes Paumanok Path

COURTESY PHOTO Joe Denny moments after he completed the 125-mile Paumanok Path stretching from Rocky Point to Montauk in late July.
Joe Denny moments after he completed the 125-mile Paumanok Path stretching from Rocky Point to Montauk in late July.

Late last month, on one of the hottest days this summer, Shelter Islander Joe Denny decided to take a 125-mile hike.

Discussing the idea with his wife, Julie, Mr. Denny said she was supportive. “She married a guy who does crazy things,” he said.

Six days later, with punishing heat and humidity accompanying him every step of the way, Mr. Denny completed the Paumanok Path, a trail that runs from Rocky Point to Montauk State Park tracking through the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead, Southampton and East Hampton.

Blistered feet, dehydration and exhaustion were worth the reward of being, he said, the first hiker to walk the entire length of the Paumanok — named after the Native American designation for Long Island — which has been 30 years in the making but only completely connected this year.

In 2000, before the full trail was finished, Byron Lane of Stony Brook ran the Paumanok and did it in a record time of 35 hours and 10 minutes.

Since then, Mr. Denny, 40, an electrical contractor, artist and a member of the Shelter Island Trail Club, said he had heard about another hiker who had completed half the Paumanok, but he wanted to be the first to complete every step.

Why not wait for better weather conditions?

Simple, he said. He wanted to be the first person to complete the full length of the trail and didn’t want to lose the distinction by delaying. “I’ve been waiting 20 years for this hike,” Mr. Denny added. “It was a long haul. I’m recovering.”

Part of Mr. Denny’s strategy was to accomplish the hike alone, to avoid being held back by someone else’s timing and to give him a chance to reflect on what he was trying to achieve.

“I wasn’t really longing for company,” he said.

His equipped himself with a 30-pound backpack containing a tent, a sleeping bag, a small cookstove and food and drink. But he quickly learned that the weight of the pack was a burden to carry on a long slog through steam bath conditions.

Blueberries on the trail provided help with dehydration until he could leave the trail and hail a cab to take him to a store for more water. He then phoned ahead to a friend, asking him to stash water along the trail near the Shinnecock Canal to be claimed later. He also had a filter to scoop water from ponds for drinking.

Through the Shinnecock area, some of the trail is on paved road that was torture for his feet, he said.

But one of the most difficult areas of the hike was through Manorville Hills State Park, appropriately named for its uphill trek.

“It was like being in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains,” Mr. Denny said.

As difficult as it was, he described the views from the hills after flatland hiking as “beautiful.”

There were  blazes along the trail directing hikers, but some had been covered by overgrowth and he found himself losing the path a couple of times. It probably cost him only a few miles, but given the overall length of the hike, it was discouraging, he admitted.

Just four miles into the hike on day one, he thought to himself that given the heat, he couldn’t complete the Paumanok. It was “an internal battle” to push forward, he said.

“It can be discouraging and you don’t want to lose your state of mind,” he added. But he fought dark moods, knowing to give into them would result in failure to complete his self-established challenge.

On day one, he had finished 15 miles; another 23 on day two; and 24 miles on day three.

The Paumanok was making him pay. “By the third day, I was hurting pretty bad,” Mr. Denny said.

He would start out at dawn each day and go as far as he could before dusk, so he could find a place to settle for the night. Twice he left the trail — once to spend a night at his parents’ house in Sag Harbor, and another night at a friend’s house in Springs. But he would pick up where he left off the following morning.

Despite being able to shower and sleep in a bed those two nights, he didn’t get much sleep during the entire trek.

“I was just so wired from the whole experience,” he said.

It poured rain late one day and he had to run about five miles to claim his pre-arranged camping spot before darkness set in.

Now that he’s succeeded, he has specific advice for others who might want to follow in his footsteps:

• Plan a 12-day hike, not six, he said. He didn’t have the time to do that, but realized it would have been wise

• Arrange to stash water and supplies at various points rather than trying to carry it all

• Invest in a good quality solar charger. He had a charger that was practically useless

• Invest in good shoes. His were not as supportive as he might have liked.

• Protect yourself from ticks. He tucked his pants into his socks, which he had pre-soaked in permethrin. Still, he found and removed a few ticks each day

He’ll take his experience of the Paumanok to inform his work with other volunteers in the Shelter Island Trail Club next month, linking trails crossing Sachem’s Woods and Sylvester Manor. Eventually, that project should link trails throughout the Island, he said.

Mr. Denny said he hopes attention given to his accomplishment will spur others to get involved with trail development on the Island.

He also has another ambition. Since he was 13, he’s wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. That challenge is a good 10 years away, he said, but at 50, it will be another milestone reached along the way.

Editor’s Note: Since it was published in The Shelter Island Reporter Thursday and online on several Times Review sites and social media pages, several commenters have also claimed to have completed the trail. However, the trail was officially designated in April 2016 and it appears Mr. Denny is the first person to hike the full 125 miles since. A previous version of the trail traversed through private property in Southampton Town and has since been revised, according to Ken Kindler, a board member of the Southampton Trails Preservation Society.

We do not want this article to diminish the accomplishment of Mr. Denny or any other hikers who may have completed the trail.