illustrated history of the Ithaca Hikers


Before 2004

Article by Roger Beck

It was in the early 1990s when my partner, Natalie de Combray and our good friend, Catharine O’neill began to organize small group hikes. Four or five hikers would have been typical, eight would have been a large group; quite different from the over fifty who showed up a few years ago.

Organizing was much less formal than nowadays and consisted of a few phone calls. There was no regularity as to when we hiked and we certainly didn’t hike every week, perhaps fifteen or twenty times a year.

Early on, most of our hikes were one way. We’d spot cars at our destination and ride share to the trail head. Of course, this was time consuming and on more than one occasion some hikers misplaced their keys, frantically leading to attempts to locate them or get the extra set. We managed somehow. I have no idea why this happened much more often than it has since then.

Most hikes were on the FLT. We made an attempt to link consecutive hikes to the last hiked section of the trail. The hikes were for four or five hours at a considerably slower pace than over the past fifteen plus years. We would leave in late morning and stop for a leisurely lunch after a couple of hours. The delight of mushroom harvesting happened a few times, as it has since.

I’m remembering a particular hike when Natalie and I convinced a reluctant friend to join us. We parked in the lot on Ridgeway Road and headed west on the FLT. This section is steep and it was hot and humid. We endured forty minutes of sputtering; “Why would anyone want to be out here in this heat doing this, I don’t know.”

Be aware, the above relies upon an unreliable memory.

Mar 2012
Natalie mid ’90s. She died in 2014


Summer 2004 through 2009

Article by shesse

In the summer of 2004 my wife Susan and I, recently arrived in Ithaca from NYC, met Roger and Natalie, who was then coordinating the hiking group. Natalie said she was pressed for time and we offered to take over coordinating the hikers. We began to organize a hike every Sunday.

First group photo of the post-Summer 2004 group. Not everyone shown
Natalie, right, with Catherine O’Neill, who came up with the idea for the original group
Lynn Anderson, a very experienced hiker who introduced the group to many new walks

My wife and I had never hiked before and we had no idea what to expect. It was a bit more adventurous than we expected.

2005 — Monkey Run bridge
Spring 2005 — Upper Lick Brook

The group started out small. Susan and I didn’t know anyone in Ithaca. Marjorie Olds, a long-time friend of Natalie’s with many contacts in the community, began a campaign of urging her friends and acquaitances to come out and try a hike. The group began to grow slowly but steadily through Marjorie’s contacts. Here we were after a few years, at a get-together at her house on a lovely day:

Meanwhile, we got into some semi-serious hiking involving a bit of effort:

Scrabbling up the steep hill from Fall Creek in Monket Run

We began to go out in unsettled winter weather. This was a near-blizxzard morning on Jersey Hill in Danby:

By early 2009 we were starting to get some decent turnouts, as people began to join us through word of mouth recommendations:


2010 through 2013

Article by shesse

In the summer of 2010 we had an event that would go on to play a major role in creating an identity for our group, a cook-out at Roger’s lovely rural property south of town. It was a delightful get-together, with swimming and drinking and lots of food, and we would go on to repeat it every year around the same time. We would make a special effort to invite people who had hiked with the group in the past but had left the trail for whatever reason. The event became more and more popular and people saw it as a way to keep the lively spirit of the group alive even if you’d moved on.

We also had more and more additional social events regularly, like this hike-n-swim and hot dog cook-out at Taughannock Falls SP in 2011. We had get-togethers at people’s houses, and meet-ups at beer halls. We ended up doing a fair amount of group socializing.

We also got a little more adventurous, or maybe reckless. Here we were taking an off-trail adventure walk up the Lick Brook gorge. It was really fun and striking, but we failed to notice that the rocks were covered with slime, and it was incredibly slippery trying to walk back down the sloping terrain. One hiker fell and broke a wrist. We also had another stream bed we would walk up that was very treacherous — we stopped after someone took a very bad fall.

We had a pretty stable group of regulars by this time — this line-up above shows a number but not all of them, and the regulars got to know each other pretty well. We started a second hike every week, on Wednesday mornings, so there was an additional chance to become acquainted.

Then, within just a few years, the make-up of the regular group had changed. There was a new cast of regulars. This time, many of them would stay for years. We began to do some joint hikes with Cayuga Trails Club. This brought in new people. The size of the turnouts increased.

This shot was taken at the end of 2011:

Feb 2012:

Mar 2012:

It was during this period that we developed a new concept for the group — an official hikers’ outing to check out a non-hiking activity.

Our first event was bow-hunting, after we became curious about the bow hunters going after deer every fall. One of our regular hikers was married to a well known local bow hunter and archer and we headed out to their property out in the deep countryside to learn about, and try out, modern bows.

Later we had a great series of outings to area sawmills to see how the trees we walked past every week were processed after cutting.

Meanwhile, by early 2013 we were consistently drawing very large turnouts to the Sunday hikes..


2014 through summer 2020

In late 2013 we started the Ithaca Hikers web site, and added a third weekly hike, on Saturdays


Leigh Ann Vaughn

In 2012, a mutual friend introduced me to Marjorie Olds, who encouraged me to check out the Ithaca Hikers website. I lurked around that website for almost a year before I went on my first hike with the Ithaca Hikers on June 13, 2013.

This hike was in and around Upper Treman, and it was the best hiking experience I’d had in years. I was hooked. It was like a single-file cocktail party through the woods with no hooch, meaning that I got to chat with fascinating person after fascinating person. Every once and a while, the group would stop at a junction and people would naturally re-sort themselves so they could talk to different people. How brilliant! I also learned a great trick from Katharine Hunter to use when you can’t remember someone’s name: “I’m Leigh Ann, and you are…” This has come in handy many times, and I’ve taught it to other people.

The fact that the hikes were two hours, and I didn’t have to figure out where to go – just get there – meant that when I was running on fumes at the end of the week, I could still have a great hike and a great visit with people who were becoming my friends. For the first few years I was hiking with the hikers, I was just doing Saturday and Sunday hikes every other weekend because my husband worked in DC or East Lansing, MI. But when he moved to Ithaca for good in 2018, I started hiking every Saturday and Sunday, as well as on Wednesdays during Ithaca College breaks.

I remember when Steve Hesse mentioned to me that there were Wednesday hikes. This may have been in the summer of 2014. He mentioned that it was a relatively small group and I said something like, “Can I go? What do I need to do to go? Make a burnt offering? Sacrifice a chicken?” None of this was necessary, fortunately. The Wednesday hikes kept me coming back to Ithaca in the middle of every other week when I was on sabbatical, too, which I otherwise spent in DC with my husband. As great as spending time with John is, I also wanted to spend time with my hiking buddies.

Jim Rolfe asked me recently what my favorite winter hikes are, and I couldn’t come up with any even though I go on them all. The key thing for me – and I think for a lot of the Ithaca Hikers – is that we’re having a shared adventure, no matter what the weather or time of year. I also love getting to meet and catch up with returning hikers at Roger’s summer cookout and at other venues like Hopshire after a hike. For me, getting to spend time with the Hikers is one of the very best parts of living in Ithaca, and my life has been richer and more joyful because of it.


Dennis Foerster

I first met with the group around the time I retired, many years ago.  Virginia recommended that I meet with them for exercise and camaraderie; Va had learned of the group through her friend Natalie. The early “meets” were communicated by Stephen’s descriptions, without the benefit of Google location maps, and involved only long established trails.    My first two attempts to meet with the group (totaling fewer than ten people) met with failure–eventually, on the third try, I arrived late only to hear them returning through a trail of truly incredible mud, loudly complaining to Stephen about it–the trail has since been officially moved to a drier area. Va and our American Esquimo, “Snooker”, now a cherished memory, attended frequently–even in very poor weather.  I have a wonderful photo of a line of smiling hikers from a decade back, trudging up a hill in mid-calf snow.   Felt good to be physically vigorous surrounded by Nature and friendly people; through the years I grew slower and learned to appreciate my thoughts and the quiet of the woods as the group sped forward.  Va and I have always been involved with the woods; in the very early seventies we hiked every trail in the Harriman and Bear Mountain area, driving up from the “Village” each weekend with a backpack containing delicious deli sandwiches, cookies and such.     I look forward to showing up for hikes, doing what I can do and taking pleasure in it.


Steve Schwartz

Steve chose to comment through some favorite photos from the group:

Nov 2011 — Steve’s first hike with us
Our famous giant-fire winter cook-out
Steve and Diane, far right rear
For a number of years, Steve would have a birthday party for me and himself (one month younger) at his house
early 2012


Stephanie Zerilli

Hello Hikers,
I think I started hiking with the group in 2014, when I found the Ithaca Hikers website. I always enjoyed hiking the gorge trails, wanted to meet fellow hikers, and explore new trails. The group gave me the inspiration to get out weekend mornings, meet many interesting people, have great conversations, make wonderful memories and friendships. I remember being exhausted after the first several hikes and taking a nap afterwards!


Summer 2020 — a change of leadership

Article by shesse

In Aug 2020, Susan and I stepped back from coordinating the hiking group, and Jim Rolfe took over. I had taken a very bad fall on a hike several years earlier and gotten a concussion that left me with some permanent damage to my balance and eyesight, which were already both affected by a rare nerve condition I had inherited. It would be impossible to dream up someone to replace us who differed more from us when we started with the group. Jim had grown up in the country outside Ithaca riding horses — he worked in the state parks as a young man — became a policeman after graduating from IC — served two tours overseas in the military — he was accustomed to hiking in all conditions for hours, sleeping out in cold weather, hiking at night, heading out on the trail for days straight — in short, a genuine hard-core hiker in the best sense of the word.


Comments by the new hike coordinator Jim Rolfe

Roger and Stephen have done a great job summarizing their contributions in running the group, so I’ll try to scribble down a few words of interest. A little personal background is needed, I think…

Unlike Stephen I’m an Ithaca native. I grew up on the Western fringes of the Town of Ithaca, before that side of the Town saw much in the way of the development it’s had in more recent times. Behind our house ran the Culver Creek ravine area, offering hundreds of acres of undeveloped gorges and woods for a young kid to explore. Across the street lay hundreds of more acres of old farmland which was relatively newly abandoned from its earlier farm use and was slowly being reclaimed by nature; an entirely different ecosystem to explore.

Like many long term Ithacans we took the natural resources of the local state parks for granted, visiting them very infrequently for cookouts or a short day hike on a park trail. Most of my personal local “hiking” consisted of simply walking into town. As a young kid if there was no parent headed to Ithaca, my brother and I were limited to walking ourselves there; the hour-long walk each way was something we did on a regular basis. Perfect timing for an Ithaca Hikers hike, in retrospect…..

From 1979 to 1988 I worked as an employee at the two local Treman state parks, which as a regular course of business often entailed hours of walking each day doing trail work in many of the seasons or weather that regular park users don’t get to see the park.

1990-2012 was my time in the Army National Guard. The military has a knack for taking something that’s perfectly “fun” in civilian life and making it “not fun”, and that included being out in nature. Unit training might consist of being in a training area at Fort Drum in any of the seasons, regardless of the weather or time of day. A few years of sitting in the woods for a couple of weeks of continuous rain, heat, cold, bugs, etc…or a long four day weekend of transitional Watertown weather that starts as sun, changes to rain and ends with snow accumulation for the ride back to Ithaca; all of that has a way of souring your outlook on being out in nature. They threw in a couple of years in the Afghan desert towards the end just to mix things up. I’ve never been anyplace I was colder than in the desert in the middle of the night….

After I retired from military service it took a few years to reset my head into being able to enjoy nature again. By early 2018 I was getting medical advice that I needed to be more active and get some regular exercise. I worked with someone who was a member of the Ithaca Hikers, and she told me to try hiking with the group. That is how I found the group; through word of mouth. As Roger and Stephen said in their writings, that’s how many people found the Ithaca Hikers over the years.

My first hike with the group was what I perceived to be a death march to the Pinnacles through deep snow. If you read Stephens weekly report of that hike, he even acknowledges that it was somewhat brutal compared to most of our hikes, mainly due to the unexpected deep snow conditions the group found itself hiking in. I arrived at the hike late because I’d initially gone to the wrong intersection. By the time I found the right trailhead the group was a good distance down the seasonal road. No matter how fast I tried to catch up, they remained a speck in the distance, the sound of their voices floating back to me through the trees. I never did catch up to the hikers that day, but at the end of the hike Katharine came back up the trail to find me, I assume to ensure that I hadn’t expired in the woods. Very kind of her to do so.

The second hike I attended, I got out of my car to look up a very steep roadwalk route the group was planning to do. At that point I was convinced that the group was trying to kill me.

My point in bringing up these early memories of hiking with the group is that I can relate very much to what it’s like for people starting to hike. It can be a daunting experience for someone with no previous experience to want to walk in the woods with a bunch of strangers for hours at a time, in any of the four seasons. I appreciate the new hikers who are willing to try it and who keep coming back to continue hiking with us in the weeks and months and years that many of our personal relationships have now spanned.

Stephen and Susan were very generous in the transition process of handing over leading hikes to myself and the fellow group members I rely on to publicize and lead our hikes and plan social events. It’s been very helpful the last couple of years to have the Hesses continue to occasionally hike with the group, giving me their feedback on planned hikes that I sometimes thought were new to the group but which I would find out were locations that they’d simply worked out of the rotation of regular hikes. Sixteen years of hike leading experience are indeed big shoes to fill, I am finding out…

The last couple of Covid years has found these hikes being the main social interaction that many of our regular members could have with other people. In 2020 the main body of hikers splintered into smaller sub-groups, or even solo hikes, due to restrictions put in place on group activity sizes. As we approached the end of 2021 and began 2022 I was very happy that we started to have many of those members return to resume group hikes. We also expanded the Ithaca Hikers group visibility in 2021 by starting an Ithaca Hikers Meetup page, which has brought many interested new hikers into the group. I’m not sure if the group will ever reach the numbers of hikers that regularly turned out for some of Stephen and Susan’s hikes, but it’s an encouraging sign for me of a return to “normal” life.

If you are new to the group, or are just thinking of starting to hike with us, I encourage you to give group hiking a try. It’s been a very rewarding experience for me in the few years that I’ve been with the group.


What a fantastic group this is!

Article by shesse March 2022

When Susan and I retired to Ithaca from NYC in late 2003, we assumed we’d pursue the standard-issue college-town lifestyle  —  plays, concerts, join a book club, maybe volunteer for something.  Instead, we met Matjorie Olds at the gym a few months later  —  she introduced us to the hiking group  —  and our retirement life was off and running into a whole different direction we’d never imagined.  It turned out to be a lot more fun than going to plays and restaurants for entertainment.  All of a sudden, after years of living in cities, we were out in a new world  —  we had no idea there were so many hiking trails around, or that the woods and fields would be so enchantingly beautiful.  We loved getting out, and meeting so many interesting and lively people who also loved being out in the woods.  Luckily, I decided early on to document the hikes in photos.  So now I have a huge trove of old shots.  Looking through them immediately brings back memories of the day and the hikers on the trail with us, and what fun we had.  I’m so sorry it had to come to an end.

A short video and musical tribute to Steve and Susan created by our own Annie Wakeley Wall at the time of Steve and Susans departure from the Ithaca area:

Shared with you – OneDrive (

June 1st 2023

With the passing of Steve Hesse this week I would like to add a link to a 2016 Ithaca Times article on Steve and Susan written by Marjorie Olds

The Hikers | Community Connections |

Jim R.


With three years of experience under my belt of organizing these hikes, I wanted to comment on some of the changes that have occurred in that time.

While I haven’t added up the individual hikes, I believe that we have roughly doubled the number of regular hike locations we have in our rotation. This has meant that many of our locations only get hiked as a group perhaps two-three times a year, much less frequently than in the past.

For the last couple of years we added what I refer to as ” further away” hike locations we would visit for a fourth hike per week in July and August.

The group has expanded its presence on social media, with pages on and Facebook that have brought many new hikers into the group. We have a good group of hikers who have stepped up and run those pages on behalf of the rest of us, which leaves me free to continue planning future hikes.

There are numerous hikers who volunteer to lead hikes throughout the year, often in areas that they are personally familiar with, which lends a special quality to those hikes.

I am currently in the process of planning a hike of the Appalachian Trail in mid-2024; while I am away I am sure that many of the other hike leaders will continue to lead numerous group events in and around Ithaca! Stay tuned!