Back to his nature

Catastrophes led Ken Kindler back to Long Island's woods and a rediscovery of a life worth living


May 2, 2004

When the woods first called to him, the boy wasn't even in kindergarten.

In the 1950s, when scraps of wilderness still surrounded Levittown's tidy ranches and capes, the boy would sneak past his mother and slip into the forest. Hours would pass as he studied butterflies and ants, mice and birds. Nature became one of the boy's earliest friends.

Over time, the boy became a man, and the woods lost their pull. But he continued to wander. The man dropped out of college, managed a gift store, then rebuilt automobile clutches. He settled upon a career - electronics - by flipping through the pages of an occupational handbook at the library.

All around him, the woods thrummed with life. But he was too busy to notice.

The man got married and went to work. Laid off by the electronics firm, he started selling life insurance, a job he dreaded. Day after day, the man drove his old Toyota from Port Jefferson to Plainview and back. He dreamed of exotic places and saved for an early retirement in the Caribbean.

It took a catastrophe to lead him back to the wilds of Long Island. Nature reinvigorated his life. And now the man is returning the favor by tending to the woods.

Rear-ended by life

On the day it happened - Aug. 17, 1990 - Ken Kindler was 41 years old. And miserable.

His marriage had sputtered, then stalled. He was working long hours in a job he hated.

"Life was a real drudge," Kindler recalled.

Then, while stopped at a red light in Selden on his way to work, a 19-year-old barreled her Plymouth into the back of Kindler's car.

Kindler blacked out. When he came to, his car was in a jumble around him. His front seat had been ripped off its base, and he was lying in the back.

He pulled himself out of the car and stood, dazed, on the side of the road. A police officer arrived, and asked him if he needed an ambulance.

"At first I said, 'No,'" he recalled. "And then, like a moment later, I had a terrible headache."

For the next nine months, Kindler was barely able to leave his bed, wracked by a herniated disk that caused unrelenting head and back pain.

"I couldn't do anything," he said. Over time, his back improved, but it never healed completely. The pain returned when he tried taking walks on the streets of his Port Jefferson neighborhood. Then one day, close to three years after his accident, a friend invited him to go on a hike.

Kindler was reluctant. "Immediately, I thought, 'Oh jeesh. I've done that before,'" Kindler said.

But he relented, and the two headed for the Calverton Ponds Preserve, a 350-acre nature sanctuary.

Inside the park, herons, egrets and kingfishers dotted the pristine ponds. Frogs sunbathed on their edges. Fish popped out of the water. "The place was just alive," he said.

Kindler returned from his hike transformed. "I think it brought back memories of when I was a kid," he said. "I couldn't believe I had lived on the Island for 50 years, and I didn't realize that this was here. And I wanted more."

He quickly made up for lost time. He bought a Hagstrom street map and searched for the Island's green patches, parking his car along the side of the road and plunging into the forest.

Steps toward healing

The more he walked, the better he felt. Long Island - quite literally - was healing him. On the trail, "You have this cushion of leaves and pine needles which was just the perfect thing for healing a back," he said. "It sounds silly, but it really seems like that's what caused me to heal."

He kept walking. Often, he'd start before dawn and return to his car after dark, barely conscious of where he'd been. "I'd sometimes hike 12, 15 hours. I mean, I just walked and walked and walked."

Outside, in the world of pavement and parkways and tended lawns, life was still painful.

His marriage continued to deteriorate, and in 1993, the couple, who never had children, separated.

"My marriage wasn't giving back. My job wasn't giving back to me. I wasn't getting any satisfaction out of life, really," he said. "Everything that I had built up just crumbled."

Kindler never really returned to his insurance job. In his absence, he said, his bosses had given away all his sales leads. Instead, he lived off savings and worked freelance as an engineering electronics tech. For a time, he attended classes toward a physical therapy degree, but his bad back meant he couldn't lift patients.

In 1996, he filed for bankruptcy.

Dale Ley, Kindler's younger sister, remembers the time as a low point for her brother. "You could just feel the sadness. You know? I mean, he didn't communicate a lot. He still isn't a big talker. But you just knew."

Kindler kept walking. He'd come across strange insects and birds, and looked them up in the library. He became entranced by the beauty of pitch pines. Mostly, he just wandered. "I felt like, here was something that really mattered to me."

As Kindler walked, he noticed more sinister details. Tracks from all-terrain vehicles that scarred the earth. Deep ruts in the path, the result of erosion. Kindler would drive to a favorite walking spot and find that houses had replaced his beloved woods.

"I'd see that they were being bulldozed. And suddenly - like one-two-three - places that I loved were just being ripped up," he said.

'What are you shooting at?'

One day, on a walk through the Manorville Hills section of the pine barrens, Kindler came across a man shooting a rifle into the treetops. "He seemed to be aiming at something, but I don't know what it was. So I went up to him and I asked him, 'What are you shooting at?' He said, 'Mistletoe. I'm trying to knock mistletoe from the trees.'"

This made Kindler angry.

But he didn't know what to do about it. "All I knew was it was beautiful. And I loved it. And I wanted to protect it. But I didn't know how."

Then, one day in 1997, while hiking along a trail near Manorville Hills, Kindler heard voices farther down the path. "Normally if I heard people in the woods, I would go the other way," he said. "But they seemed to be having such a great time that I wanted to say hello."

When Kindler introduced himself to the woman and two men, "They were just so excited! And they loved it so much. It was infectious, you know, I felt an empathy."

After chatting for a while, Kindler said, "I told them about finding these places that were getting bulldozed and being very upset about it. And they said, 'Well, you should get involved.'"

Becoming an advocate

Within months, Kindler had become a member of both Southampton and East Hampton's trails preservation societies. He attended gatherings of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, another hikers' group, and became a regular at meetings of the Pine Barrens Commission, the government agency that oversees development in the pine barrens.

Kindler didn't always make a good first impression. "He was a little abrasive at first," said Dai Dayton, president of the Southampton Trails Preservation Society.

When he first showed up at meetings, she recalled, Kindler would rail against problems as if they were brand new. "We tried to catch him up on what we've been doing, and we tried to get him to understand that a lot of things [that] he was saying weren't being worked on, we've been working on for ages."

In 1998, Kindler started a Web site,, and added links to local trails, guided hikes, and other resources. The goal, he said, was to build a strong coalition between local government, nature lovers and trails groups. "I'm trying to give them more power, more strength," he said.

The Web site had another aim, too - to send a message to the sleepy commuters in whose ranks he had once enlisted: "People drive from home to work, back and forth. They pass on the side of the road the woods, and they don't even know it's there," he said. "It was a way of communicating to the public. Letting everyone know: It's here."

Before long, Long Island's trails had taken over much of Kindler's life. He was attending advocacy meetings almost every day. Though by no means a born hiker - Kindler is color blind and has a poor sense of direction - he was walking 100 miles a week, and spending several hours a day responding to inquiries from his Web site.

Money was a struggle, but he found ways to pay the bills. Once, he worked at a horse stable. Another time, he joined day laborers in front of Farmingville's 7-Eleven and took temporary work unloading lumber from freight cars. He edited a Long Island hiking guide.

One day, Kindler realized something. His life had changed.

His back was healed, yes. But so was something else.

He had been through a crash, a divorce, a bankruptcy. "It was kind of like slamming up against the wall, bouncing off and saying, 'Hey, wait a second, what am I doing? What's important?'" he said. "And discovering the natural open space on the Island and realizing, 'Hey, this is important. This is very important.'"

Other people noticed the change. "There was a focus in his life," said Pat Firestone, his older sister. "He fell in love. And just as when people fall in love, there is that wonderful, uplifting feeling that they have, and life seems different. That's the way I think it was for Kenny when he started discovering the trails and the open space out here."

Kindler found another kind of love, too. Less than two years ago, Laurie Farr showed up on one of his hikes.

Farr, a reference librarian, knew Kindler from his frequent visits to the stacks to research environmental topics. "We sort of barely said hello, but I knew who he was," she said. Farr's husband had died in 1995, leaving her with two teenage sons. "I had my radar up."

At the hike, they clicked. "It was instant," Kindler said, recalling their first talk. "It was just like the thing that you read about in storybooks and see in movies. We saw each other and it was just like" - Kindler stops, and his eyes grow wide.

They married on March 23, 2003.

"I can't believe it. It's like I'm born again," Kindler said. "I have a wife who loves me and treats me well, and cares about me, and I love her, and I enjoy her."

More setbacks

Though Kindler found a way to heal, adversity hasn't left his side. In 2001, both his parents died of cancer. Last summer, he was hospitalized with a lung infection that nearly killed him.

Nearly as painful as a physical illness is Kindler's fear that his beloved trails are in danger. Though local governments have spent millions in recent years buying land to protect it from development, Kindler says, much less is spent on protecting the trails from erosion, keeping out ATV riders, and making sure future hikers will be able to enjoy Long Island's open spaces the way Kindler does.

These worries accompany him everywhere. Out in the wilderness, Kindler speeds along the path, stopping frequently to remark on a dirt bike track or a disintegrating trail marker. Sometimes, he lingers on the trails, waiting with a camera to snap "yahoos" who illegally ride their ATVs through the pine barrens, a preserve that sits atop Long Island's main source of drinking water.

Ray Corwin, executive director of the Pine Barrens Commission, said Kindler fills an important role in the environmental community. "Ken is kind of a common denominator that everyone knows, from Hauppauge to Montauk," he said.

Sounding an alarm

For a decade, walking has provided Kindler with peace and solace. Now, it also serves as a reminder of what could be lost.

He says government officials, and even some of his fellow trails advocates, are in denial. He calls it "magical thinking" - a refusal to confront the fact that their precious open space may one day disappear.

"A lot of them get very upset with me because I'm saying it's in trouble," he said. "But it is. And I'm scared."

Kindler's favorite hikes

Here are five of Ken Kindler's favorite Long Island hikes:

Big Reed Pond Nature Trails at Theodore Roosevelt County Park in Montauk, off East Lake Drive. In addition to a number of looping trails, this 1,185-acre park also features the historic Third House, which was used by America's first cattle ranchers and later was a headquarters for Theodore Roosevelt after the Spanish- American War. The parks department furnishes a "great map," Kindler says, which is available at the park kiosks and office.

Laurel Valley County Park, off Deerfield Road in Noyack. Kindler reports that June is the best time to tour this 148-acre "enchanted forest," because that's when the mountain laurels that give the park its name are in full bloom. In wintertime, there are views of Peconic Bay. The Southampton Trails Preservation Society sells a map of the park, 631-537-5202.

The Marguerite Crabbe Greef Sanctuary, off Millstone Brook Road in Southampton. This walk, which can be extended to nearby Elliston Park or the Wolf Swamp Preserve, is lovely all year, Kindler says. Watch for egrets and herons on Sebonac Creek. Go to www.pec Woods.pdf for a description and a map.

Wildwood Lake in the David A. Sarnoff Pine Barrens Preserve, off Route 104 in Flanders. Kindler says this hike, to Wildwood Lake and back, is great in the summer, when you can swim, and in the fall. Kindler reports that this is a great place to "get away from everyone." One rainy day, Kindler said he saw an osprey rip a fish out of the lake only 20 feet from where he was sitting. To park in the lot, you need a Department of Environmental Conservation permit, which can be obtained by calling

631-444-0273. A map of the area is available through the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, 631-360-0753.

All 32 miles of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail in one day - a hike for the truly ambitious. The trail runs from Long Island Sound at Sunken Meadow State Park to Heckscher State Park on Great South Bay. "It's a great challenge, and it visits some incredibly lovely places," Kindler says. He recommends hiking north to south, because sunrise on the Long Island Sound is "breathtaking." A map of the hike can be obtained from the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, 631-360-0753.

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