Friday, June 17, 2016

A Hundred Mile Walk in the Woods - Allegheny National Forest

Mountain Laurel in bloom adorns the North Country Trail in southern Allegheny National Forest.  This is near the northwest edge of the range of this species.

"Hither to Yon" - Days 42 through 48

To hike in the deep woods, away from the scourge of the man-machine, is to revisit the creation.  The forest evokes a primeval time when man still depended on his connections to the forces that molded him.  Coming here awakes vital ancestral memories that are etched into our genes like glyphs on a stone.  It gives those memories life, lets them speak again.

It is to breathe this clear and ancient air that I come to Allegheny National Forest today, to read the runes within, to re-connect with myself.

These are connections that we forget at our peril.  This path through the woods is a true path, shaped by the timeless land, not straight, not smooth as our machines would make it.

Trees are king here in Allegheny National Forest.  The trail builders have respected that, and have built minimal footpaths that avoid roads or the rumor of roads.  They even avoid tracks cut long ago that have not seen a machine in half a century.  The trail through this national forest is a joy.

Few people hike here.  In the more remote areas the trail stands knee-high in the fresh late spring vegetation.  Yet it is well blazed and easy to follow thanks to a few dedicated maintainers.  A trail can be loved to death.  I'm here to declare that this trail is worthy of such love.  Heaven forbid that too many read this!

When I walk in the woods I find that it is not the trees that gain my attention.  It is the little things.

But there are a few big things, too.  This forest is notable for some massive rectangular house-sized blocks.

And there was the walk beside Alleghany Reservoir, built just fifty years ago.

The reservoir is a monument to the power of our machines, and when it fills with silt our folly will be exposed.  Yet today it sits quietly on the land and I can imagine that it formed naturally, as the nearby Finger Lakes did.  Most of the forest animals do not know the difference, and for me it's just a little self-deception that lets the runes etched in my DNA continue to speak as I wander the trail. 

The deer huffs and scampers away.  The one small bear I saw fled before I could say 'boo'.  The birds fill the sky with wing and song.  The chipmunks scoot into their holes chirping their alarm.  And I pass by and smile, because all these voices come from the same deep-rooted glyphs that drive me.

It took me a week of day hikes to traverse the national forest.  Here's an overview map.  The section of trail discussed here is marked in orange, within the green-stippled portion of northwestern Pennsylvania.

Zooming in, here are the seven daily GPS tracks.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Fourteen Days across New York

The North Country Trail near Oil City, PA has its own oil well

"Hither to Yon" - Days 35 through 41

Well, I'm back in Pennsylvania, hiking through Alleghany National Forest, and not far from Oil City, PA, as I continue west on the North Country Trail.

It took fourteen days to negotiate the portion of New York's Finger Lakes Trail between the northern terminus of the Great Eastern Trail and the western Terminus of the FLT at the PA border.

Walking in the North Country woods is a pleasure except where the footing is boggy.  New York has a big collection of 'pocket-sized' state forests, few larger than a thousand acres, and the trail takes good advantage of those.  There were connecting road walks that were never long enough to be tedious.  Other sections cross private land where the trail goes through logged-out areas that were not pretty and where the trail itself was not foot trail but ripped-up, muddy ATV and ORV tracks.

Then there were sections of pure magic.

For me, the magic is often a feeling.  It can't be photographed.  It happens when the wind calms, when the sun streams down in kaleidoscopic ribbons through the high forest canopy, when the understory brush falls away to reveal a grand park-like vista of endless old trees ... and then the wood thrush starts to sing--its tones a perfection of pure, penetrating musical bliss, fifty million years in the making.

It can also happen when I can see that the trail is truly loved by those who use it and maintain it.  There was the area around Cash Park, where volunteers have paid to line the trail with a promenade of landscaping trees, some marked with memorial plaques.

There was a section of difficult trail through a ravine where volunteers have put in hundreds of hours making it easier to hike.

And there are the meadow walks.  I always love being under the open sky, and it doesn't hurt to have friendly locals rushing up to greet you as you pass.

Even the road walks can occasionally provide interest, such as this early morning vista,

And when an overnight rain brought out millions of tiny snails.


Since I'm not choosing to be a purist on the North Country Trail, I chose to play hooky from one 13.7 mile trail section that was half road walk in order to walk a 2.5 mile alternative on the Pat McGee Rail Trail -- a quiet, grassy, flower-lined avenue well away from civilization through the Little Valley Creek valley.

Here's a map of that detour.  It was a major short-cut.

Next the trail came through Salamanca and crossed Seneca Nation sovereign territory.  It passes right by their huge casino then plunges into wild lands.  I passed both the casino and this equally impressive beaver lodge in the early morning mists.

Finally, some magic in the woods can indeed be photographed.  Here an old rotting tree serves as an inspirational work of art.

Magic happens when its not expected.  When you get up every morning and hike a new piece of trail that you've never been on before, the unexpected is around every corner.  This is what hooks me on the hiker life.


Okay, now for the geeky stuff.  I am obsessed with documenting the route of my Personal Continuous Footpath using my GPS.  So here are the seven daily tracks for the remainder of my traverse of western New York State:

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Introduction to the North Country Trail

"Hither to Yon" - Days 28 through 34

I have chosen to hike the North Country Trail because it is the only footpath that can get me from the east coast to my childhood home in south central Wisconsin, the next destination in my journey to connect every place I've ever lived.

The American Discovery Trail is another alternative, and the ADT is the only trail that will get me from Wisconsin to Colorado - the last home I will connect to - but it is not a trail that strives to become a foot-travel-only path.  It uses a lot of long rail trails to get across the country, and a whole lot of plain old auto roads.  The ADT has no federal designation yet because it doesn't qualify as a National Scenic Trail.  The North Country Trail is a National Scenic Trail.  And that's why I'm planning to hike all of it except the eastern and western ends.

Here are my first impressions.  It's a low key trail.  It doesn't seem to have much of a central organization, though it has a fancy headquarters building right near the trail in downtown Lowell, Michigan.  It doesn't even sell maps for the parts of the trail in New York and Ohio, but defers to the local organizations of the older Finger Lakes Trail and Buckeye Trail, which it follows for long distances.

Here in lightly populated western New York the footpath has a mix of public land, private woodland, and road walks.  Very few people hike it.  Here, for example, is a shelter with a great view, but notice the grass around it entirely untouched by human feet for at least a couple weeks.

I know nobody's been out hiking because the Finger Lakes Trail people seem obsessed with Trail Registers.  They have one every four or five miles on average.  And the number of entries in these registers is limited to a couple dozen per year.

But the North Country Trail is a very long trail - 4600 miles from western North Dakota to Eastern New York via the Kentucky border in southern Ohio.  It would be unfair to pass judgment on such a vast trail after having only hiked a piece of it for a week across western New York.

So here, without further analysis, are the highlights of a week on the North Country Trail.

I've passed a wind farm near Howard, NY, with the gargantuan windmills making swooshing sounds that can be heard from a mile away.

It is still early spring here, and I passed a woods where the ground was carpeted with 'Trilliums by the Milliums'.

I hiked past a spectacular view of Keuka Lake, one of the major Finger Lakes, yet it was obscured by trees.

This was the best view from the trail.  The only clear view I got was from much lower down and far from the trail.

I've hiked a few 'gorges' or gullies, with steep sided walls and breathtaking cascading streams.  My favorite was the one near Garwoods, NY, where the trail was the stream bed and the flow was low enough to walk it without getting wet.

There aren't many tree plantations in this area, but I hiked this one on a day when the temperature remained in the 30's and there were intermittent snow flurries all day.

But on another day the temperature was in the mid 80's, and that brought the wild azaleas into bloom.  Here's one that is perched on the brink of a slide area with a view of the Genesee River.

Now here's the key.  At least once on each of the seven days on the NCT I've had at least one moment of pure joy - the feeling that I would not want to be anywhere but here, and that I am abundantly blessed to be able to have this experience.  It is for these moments that I hike.

For those interested in details of my route, I present the seven maps of my daily route below.