Thursday, May 12, 2016

Twenty Seven days across Pennsylvania

"Hither to Yon" - Days 23 through 27

On April 13th I stepped onto the Great Eastern Trail at the C&O Canal Tow Path in Maryland.  Today, May 11th, I reached the northern terminus, taking just two 'zero days' along the way.

The Great Eastern Trail sells itself as a much quieter alternative to the Appalachian Trail--closer to nature, farther from the 'Madding Crowd'.  That it is.  The trail seems almost unused in places.  In one register I counted exactly ten entries in the last seventeen months, including mine.

Last fall I hiked the southern end of the G.E.T. from where it separates from the Georgia Pinhoti Trail north of Cave Spring to the southern end at the Florida state line.

I missed a lot of the middle part, including almost everything from North Georgia to the C&O Canal.  I also deviated from the Great Eastern Trail in order to hike the length of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.  But many of the parts I hiked are memorable and, for me, more enjoyable than the Appalachian Trail.   The segments I most enjoyed were the Alabama Pinhoti Trail and Pennsylvania's Standing Stone Trail.

As far as these last six days, I enjoyed the four miles of trail along the north shore of Lake Cowanesque in far northern PA the most.  There are a dozen or more benches with views like this.

The entire four miles is full of variety from woodland to open grassy meadow.  There's an old railroad bed that rises out of the lake, then you walk the streets of the ghost town of Nelson, also relocated when they dammed the valley.  You wouldn't know it was a street unless you notice the slabs of sidewalk on in the woods beside you.   All the houses are gone, though the proud cemetery still sits high on a hill behind.

I crossed the State Line on a road walk, leaving the Mid-State Trail and joining the Crystal Hills Trail, a spur of the Finger Lakes Trail that the G.E.T. organization is working to complete.

There wasn't much dedicated footpath, except for Pinnacles State Park.  Then the trail passes through historic Addison, NY.  Here's Main Street.

North of Addison there's about a ten mile gap to Erwin, with no blazed route, so I went my own way, resuming the trail where it finally plunges into the Woods at Erwin Hollow.  From there the trail gets into New York's patchwork of State Forests and there's plenty of quiet off-road trail, much of it through reclaimed farm land.  Here's evidence in the form of a sturdy old stone fence.

Like the Mid-State Trail, the Crystal Hills Trail is blazed orange.  It seems the maintainers enjoy their work.

For twenty seven days I've been heading north.  I'm almost at 42 1/2 degrees North and it's nice to have the long hours of daylight.  Now I'll be heading west on the white blazed Finger Lakes Trail, which eventually will return me to Pennsylvania.  More reports to come.


Here's the series of daily maps of my track.  It begins on Day 23 with the last piece of the Pine Creek Rail Trail, and a 9.5 mile road walk to the M.S.T. and ends with a few miles of Finger Lakes Trail proper on Day 27:

Friday, May 6, 2016

Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon, end to end by Rail Trail

A happy selfie in front of Water Tank Hollow Falls along the 62-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail - a trail that didn't exist when the Mid-State Trail was routed through the same area.

"Hither to Yon" - Days 17 through 22

Blame the lady at R.B. Winter State Park.  It was a miserable, cold, foggy, drizzly day.  I took a break from hiking, soaking wet from the pants pockets down after plowing through overgrown trail for five miles, and stopped in at the park office to ask for a map of Tiadaghton State Forest, which I was going to be hiking through in coming days.  The nice lady dug out the requested map and handed it over.  She also produced a map of Pine Creek Rail Trail.  "It has the Mid-State-Trail marked on it too" she explained helpfully.  I thanked her for her time, stuffed the Pine Creek map in my pocket as I left, and thought little more about it.

For the next three days the weather did not relent. I hiked the Mid-State Trail over Hill and Dale in fog with drizzle and occasional rain.  It was becoming painfully obvious that the MST went honking up and down severe slopes one after the other.  Sometimes it was to avoid private land, most times it was just to route a north-south trail through east-west ridges and valleys.  Some of these may not technically be PUD's (Pointless Ups and Downs), but they all felt pointless after a while.  Meanwhile the dripping wet outreaching twigs and ground cover began to haunt me until I was cursing under my breath.  When it wasn't raining, the damp fog kept the foliage from drying.  The temperature rarely got out of the 50's for two weeks.  It was miserable every day from start to finish.

Then the day came that I crossed the West Branch of the Susquehanna and came into the town of Woolrich.  It's a gorgeous town, even on a cold gray day.  The town is built around the mills where they made good old fashioned mountain clothing back when it wasn't old fashioned - starting in 1830.  The street into town is lined with century-old Norway Spruces the way other towns used to have elms.

I stopped in the spacious town park (the trail meanders through it in a big arc) and got out my trail map.  I noticed that my next leg on the Mid-State Trail would honk up to a ridge, then plunge down to Pine Creek and meet the Pine Creek Rail Trail near its southern Terminus at the wonderfully named town of Jersey Shore.

Hmmmmmm. Pine Creek Rail Trail.  I dug out the map that the dear lady at R.B. Winter Park gave me and looked it over.

Something clicked in my head.

"A 62-mile, gently graded, graveled path that winds through the spectacular Pine Creek Gorge" said the brochure.  This is the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania - a major natural landmark in the state.  The Mid-State Trail barely grazes it in two brief encounters.  It was a working railroad back when they laid out the trail.  Who could blame them for avoiding it.  But that was then.

And this is now, with a forecast promising more rain and cloud and drizzle for the foreseeable future.  I went to school at Penn State, so I know that this part of the world can sometimes go for weeks without seeing the sun.

While I was at Penn State I flew with a pilot friend from University Park airport to Wellsboro and got a first hand look at the Grand Canyon.  That was a cloudy damp day too, back in Fall, 1969, and I remember how the damp moss seemed to be drinking in the moisture at the waterfall we visited during our brief ground stop.

I studied the maps in more detail, surprised to see that the two trails cross each other twice, and coincide for short distances in both places.

The two trails both go south to north.  One takes a dozen or more PUD's.  One is 'gently graded'.  One takes you stumbling over jagged rocks and trudging through knee-deep growth that crowds in over the foot path.  One is a ten foot wide 'graveled path'.  One follows mountain ridges and high ground most of the time.  One follows the river (much too wide to be called Pine Creek) for Sixty Two miles.

I remember how much I craved walking beside a noisy rushing river when I hiked the Appalachian Trail and got a scant few miles of it along the Housatonic in Connecticut.  Pine Creek is just such a river, and it has exactly a bazillion and six tributary side streams, each with lovely mossy waterfalls cascading down the sides of the gorge.

Waterfalls are the one natural feature I love more than any other.

Click.  I left Woolrich by road, skipping the PUD and making a bee line for Pine Creek.  I was on the rail trail by the end of the day.

It was the right choice.  It continued to rain daily.  The temperature never got out of the 50's.  But I remained dry as I walked the length of Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon via the insider's route--the Pine Creek Rail Trail.

I didn't miss a waterfall.   If the MST took me to views I would have seen fog.  Here are a few of the highlights, starting with another of the best waterfalls.

The old trail to this one is virtually unused.  The secret waterfall on a tributary of Pine Island Run.
A weeping mossy wall with trail lined with uniform age sycamores, river almost always in sight.
Cedar Run Trestle - most impressive of the half-dozen steel bridges.
River scene with canoer and country church
Spring bloom beside the trail
And here are a few highlights of the MST between R.B. Winter State Park and Pine Creek:

West Branch of the Susquehanna where the trail crosses it at McElhattan.  Note the dreary weather.
A Red Eft - juvenile form of the Eastern Spotted Newt.  The rain brought them out in numbers.
During an hour or two of partial sunshine I had this amazing view of a bowl-like valley that reminded me of Burke's Garden in Virginia--the valley that was Vanderbilt's first choice for Biltmore, but the owners refused to sell to him at any price.
MST uses less than a quarter mile of this old hand-built trail.  Even the fog couldn't mask the quality and hard work that folk put in here.

Now, for the record, here are the six days of GPS tracks, not interactive, just screen shots.  Where I deviated from the Mid-State Trail its route is drawn with a yellow dashed line.

And that is where I hiked and what I saw.  I'll be back on the MST briefly and then crossing the state line into New York.  Best of all the forecast seems just a bit better ahead.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hiking the wilds of Central PA

Mid-State Trail, somewhere in the middle of a state forest.  The mossy treadway was beckoning:  "Come hike me.  Step gently and I'll lead you yonder into the wonders of the wild."

"Hither to Yon" - Days 13 through 16

Pennsylvania's Mid-State Trail advertises itself as 'Pennsylvania's wildest trail.'  It is that indeed, though I've not yet hiked the section of North Country Trail through Alleghany National Forest, so I reserve the right to change my mind.  But the Mid-State trail is very lightly used and traverses vast tracts of lightly used state forest jurisdictions including Rothrock, Bald Eagle, Tiadaghton (pronounced Tie-DAH-ton), and Tioga.

In most places the trail is so lightly used that moss grows where you put your feet.  Trail maintainers don't have to worry much about erosion with that little usage, and that's good, because the trail here is not designed to prevent erosion.  Trail goes straight up steep slopes, puts you in stream beds in places, and there is not one water bar or runoff diversion structure in all the trail I've hiked so far.  This is the way the Appalachian Trail was in the 70's--before it got popular.  Also straight out of the seventies is the insistence on using the metric system for all distances and elevations.  The maps they publish have metric scales and metric elevation contours.

Sandra Friend of 'Florida Hikes' informs me that the late Tom Thwaites, architect of the Mid-State-Trail and physics professor at Penn State, was a strong advocate of the metric system.  The 1970's were the metric system's heyday in the US.  Congress passed the 'Metric Conversion Act of 1975' that created a US Metric Board.  The board was disbanded in 1982 as a cost saving measure by the Reagan Administration and we haven't been serious about conversion since.

I rest my case.  The MST is a throw-back - a hike frozen in the 1970's - a living piece of history.  And for that I love it.

Do you know what these are?  They're extremely rare these days.

They are real American Chestnut seed husks.  Not the hybrid kind - the natural wild kind.  Out there in the wild woods the American Chestnut is alive and well and working toward recovery.  The tree that produced these seeds was 40 to 50 feet tall and nearly a foot in diameter.  Although infected by the blight, it appeared to be successfully fighting it.

The American Chestnut knows what to do.  It doesn't need humans to fix what they screwed up.  It just needs humans to leave it alone.  The most blight resistant trees produce the most seeds, passing on their blight resistance.  We humans think in abbreviated time scales - we're ridiculously short sighted.  In a few thousand years North America's forests will again be dominated by wild American Chestnut Trees unless we humans find another way to kill them off.

The MST is a pure wild hike in the woods.  Thus my feature story about an iconic tree.  Otherwise my photos tend to highlight human stuff, like where the MST follows a new rail trail and takes the hiker through the newly rebuilt Poe Paddy tunnel (re-opened in 2015).

When it passes a minor viewpoint, the main attractions were three comfortable sturdy stone chairs and a stone-built stove complete with cook top and chimney.

But out in the wild seeing the signs of man seems just plain ...

I have no idea of the purpose of this very official looking sign.  For me it provided a laugh, and the nearby laughing brook was joining in.

The sound of water and birds, the feel of moss underfoot, the smell of spring flowers and humus, the inscrutable gray sky and gray rocks.  That's what made these four days of hiking special.

Here are the four maps showing my route through the wilds of central Pennsylvania.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Stepping Stone achieved - the hike to Penn State Campus

Stepping stones across a stream in the lush Rhododendron/Hemlock forest at Alan Seeger Natural Area

"Hither to Yon" - Days 10, 11, and 12

Stepping Stones are the metaphor for my 'big-picture' hiking project.  I'm hopping from rock to rock, each one being another place where I once lived, and each separated from the other by the erratic currents that make up the flow of life.  The stones aren't connected by solid ground, yet together they become part of a coherent path.

On Day Eleven I reached another stone.  After nearly fifty years of shifting currents I returned to the campus of Penn State U where I spent four undergraduate years studying Meteorology and learning to talk to an IBM mainframe computer - a room full of circuits that was stupider than a cell phone - using hand-typed punch cards.

I was a dorm rat.  Fraternities were not my style, and I wasn't interested in complicating my life with the independence of an off campus apartment.  Amazingly the two dorm buildings that I lived in--Pennypacker Hall in the then hopelessly remote new complex called East Halls, and Shunk Hall down closer to College Avenue on the SE side of campus, remain virtually unchanged in all these years.  Here are two photos offered as proof.  In January, 1969, during a heavy wet snowstorm, my friends and I stayed up all night building an interactive snow sculpture--a set of arches over the steps in front of the Pollock Commons (our cafeteria building, then called the PUB - Pollock Union Building).  The maintenance crew responsible for clearing the snow allowed the arches to remain for several days before removing them.

And here's today's view from roughly the same location as the second photo.  They've added two arches over the entrance!  Wow - did they take their remodeling inspiration from our long-ago snow arches???

Note the upgraded but still present street light fixture at right in both photos.  They've modernized the look of the place, and seriously upgraded the student's dorm experience since my day (cafeteria food then was 'you get what we serve', now it's a buffet including unlimited PSU creamery ice cream in a dozen or more flavors), but the bones are the same.

It was a quiet Sunday morning when I visited campus--good for nostalgia.  The McLanahan's book store on College Ave was open, still in the same place.  But now it's much more of a clothing and memorabilia store than a student supply store.  Three doors down the same McDonalds that I frequented as a student was still in business, now open 24 hours. Back then the Big Mac hadn't been introduced yet.  Their big new thing was the double cheeseburger.  I looked for the Hi Way Pizza place where we used to hang out, but it was gone.  The company still exists, but now their one location is far from campus.

I've visited Penn State a few other times since I was a student there.   The last time was with my daughter when she was touring campuses as a high school senior.  Other times were on business.  But this was purely a walk back in time.  I walked in from the mountains, spent an hour bathing in memories of a bygone era, and then walked back to the mountains.

Happy Valley, as they call it, looks happier from the vantage point of a mountaintop, where all the nitty-gritty of college life fades into a patchwork of green meadows.

As I approached Penn State on Day Ten I passed some of the places my friends and I hiked when we wanted to escape the campus drudgery.  Prime among those was Bear Meadows - an 800 acre bog with rare species and a microclimate that allows frost all year (or did back in the 60's).

As I retreated from Penn State I picked up the Mid-State Trail and followed it under US 322.  That was sort of the dividing line.  Once north of there I was truly back to wilderness hiking.

US 322 is busier than many interstate highways.  The trail goes under it via a little culvert--not much more than a drain with a narrow sidewalk and hand rail.  It was so tiny I had to crouch low as I walked through.  On the other side I was startled by a twitter and flurry of wings as a bird flew its nest.  There it was - a neat little nest perched right on the hand rail with five ivory yellow eggs.  Breakfast!  Just kidding.  As always I took only photos and left behind only a smile.

One last note on this segment of my hike.  It's about 'Trail Magic'.  They say "the trail will provide".  True trail magic comes in may forms, comes unbidden, and is not expected.  True magic can only come when you least expect it.

I was lost.  As I was transferring my vehicles from the south side of US 322 to the north side I could not exit on the road shown on the map.  You can't get on or off 322 in very many places, and none are close to the trail crossing point.  I found myself in the town of Milroy - a one-horse town, literally (Amish carriages).  I asked for directions at the huge truck stop beside the highway.  They didn't even have a local map.  I asked at the Dollar General across the store.  No luck.  I was about to give up when, as I was pulling out of the Dollar General parking lot, who should drive in but a DCNR forestry warden.  Voila!  I flagged him down and got all the information I needed.  I would never have found my way on my own, because the road I was looking for was gated and abandoned.  The officer even gave me a map and took my vehicle license plate and description, promising to look after it as I parked it overnight.

"The trail will provide."  In situations like this it's hard not to believe in magic.

Here are the GPS tracks screen shots for the three day hikes covered in this report.  The hike to and from Penn State was basically out and back via the same route, which is why it looks a little busy.

If I can get EveryTrail to work, I'll add interactive maps and more photos.  Stay tuned.