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.

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.