Sunday, November 19, 2017

PA: Rachel Carson Homestead, Western Pennsylvania

On a long drive to western Pennsylvania for a research interview, I kept an eye on the changing landscapes around me. I entered the beautiful Valley and Ridge Province once through the Blue Mountain tunnel, under the Kittatinny Ridge. This is the famously 150-mile long long mountain that helps guide autumn raptor migrations from north to south, from New York to Maryland. It was the last mountain that Rachel Carson passed over on her way to Baltimore, leaving forever her childhood home in Springdale near Pittsburgh - where I was headed today.

Looking back at the Blue Mountain/ Kittatinny Ridge - both an obstacle and an opening.
The great Pennsylvania interstates were not available to her at the time she relocated to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University and begin her Master's degree work in marine zoology. She would have used the Lincoln Highway that still meanders across the countryside up gaps in the mountains, and intersects dozens of villages and towns. I exited I-76 to drive the old route for a while and imagined all she would have seen on the way to her new life in the Chesapeake Region.

A tribute to the Lincoln Highway, Route 30.

I arrived in Springdale late in the afternoon. This is a working-class town on the banks of the Allegheny River just outside of Pittsburgh, that, like most Western PA industrial towns is attempting to make a transition to a sustainable future. I met with Rachel Carson Homestead Executive Director Jeanne Cecil for an interview. She gave me a marvelous private tour of the home and we talked at length about the site serving as a sort of pilgrimage destination for many. She had some wonderful stories to share. We talked at length about Rachel's childhood and early academic life and the impact her hometown, family, and Allegheny topography had on her.

From Life Magazine, 1962.

From an environmental history perspective, Rachel Carson's early life was filled with all the ingredients that set her life's trajectory in motion. Her hometown was bracketed upstream and down by two coal-fired power plants that (pre-regulation) could fill the little river valley with thick smog, a precursor to the killing smogs of the 1940s. It would be some time, however, before a single electric line ran up the hill to the Carson home just above town. For all of her childhood, the family had no indoor plumbing. Electric came late - one small line was run to the house by her older brother working as an electrician - to light one bulb in one room. The house, however, was filled with light during the day. It was filled too, with stories read aloud to the family pets, piano music, and lessons in nature study. The sixty acre lot originally purchased by her father, was slowly sold off in parcels as the town grew uphill. Visitors are surprised to find the two-over-two German built farmhouse (1860s) now surrounded by homes in a very suburban setting.

Coal-fired powerplant in Springdale, PA

Rachel moved away from Springdale at the time America's industrial muscle was being flexed. Stell, cable, and wire mills doubled in size and chemical plants competed with coal crackers for river shoreline. The paradoxical nature of communities under the umbrella of chemical, power, and steel industries along the Allegheny River offered residents both the promise of jobs and the concern - if not fear - of heavy pollution. The killing smog of Donora in 1948 concerned Springdale greatly, but the economy and good paying jobs held the community together. "There was a rumor of blue sky,"said a plant worker in Donora, "but I never saw it."

Rachel Carson's birth room. A space so sacred to some, they cannot enter it out of respect.

As I toured the small house on the hill, Jeanne pointed out that Springdale, rightfully proud of their connection to Rachel Carson, has worked hard as a community to make their economy and physical environment a priority. Like so many Western Pennsylvania river towns that struggle to balance employment, health, industry, and security, Springdale serves as a microcosm of the challenges that face the region. Across Western Pennsylvania, townships and their residents struggle to balance the need for jobs with the heath of their communities. Right now the people of Beaver County, PA, in the Ohio River Valley, are facing the challenges that a new Shell ethane cracker plant will bring. Some residents fear the pollution will force them out of their family homes, while others applaud the jobs the plant will bring.

The backyard. At the top of the hill is where young Rachel found her first marine fossil.

In nature, change is inevitable and unstoppable. The small trail out back of the house leads up to the top of the ridge where young Rachel found her first marine fossil. Her discovery launched a life-long love affair with marine life, propelling her to degrees in biology and marine zoology. The hill, now topped by the high school parking lot above the house, was once the top of a long slope of an ancient river bank. To look at the town from the air (Google Earth) you can see a series of old floodplain steppes on which the hilly community is built.  The region never experienced the uplift and folding of continental collisions as Eastern Pennsylvania did and at one time the Allegheny flowed placidly to the Great Lakes - there is hardly a gradient to speak of. The dendritic nature of entrenched creek and river valleys, however, make this a landscape rich in natural history and geological wonder. Rachel's mother, trained in the tradition of Nature Study in the 1890s, guided her excitement for finding clues to the region's marine past. Fossil hunting was lifelong passion for Rachel even as the idea of the age of Earth and the theories of evolution were still being debated and new fields of scientific discovery challenged old thinking.

The worn steps of the house resemble the steps of ancient flood plains  outside.

 The steps towards regulation of dangerous pesticides had begun before Carson had gotten involved. DDT made its debut during World War II. It performed its louse-killing and malaria prevention duties with so much success that the U.S. military made it clear that despite its heavy use on soldiers and civilians, no one had died from exposure to it and many lives had been saved from insect-borne diseases as a result. But this was a wartime narrative that transitioned to widespread civilian use as soon as the war had ended. Civilian manufacture and use of DDT applied the same reasoning and logic - that it had saved millions of lives and hadn't killed anyone. This became a persistent storyline that continues to support both its manufacture/sale/use today in other countries and to defame its critics, including Carson and other scientists who urged caution.

Honeybee die-offs offered the first evidence that DDT, used without farmer consent, would become a regulatory issue. 

Farmer Dorothy Colson became one of DDT's first critics. She launched an investigation soon after DDT was sprayed by cropduster, without her consent, near her family land in 1946. She lost an entire apiary of honeybees, a vital part of their farm's income for pollination services and honey sales. “Any poison strong enough to kill or damage honey bees is surely strong enough to affect people,” she wrote to local health officials urging a more rigorous study of its use. The fact was that federal agencies were worried about its affects. U.S.Fish and Wildlife scientists in Patuxent, MD, were working on field studies in the mid-1940s that proved DDT was a bio-accumulant, killing fish-eating and insect-eating birds who consumed aquatic prey exposed to long-term or heavy applications. The Association of Economic Entomologists were worried too, and suggested that long-term exposure might not be evident for decades in humans - possibly over generations. Monsanto in the late 40s, a major manufacturer of DDT, warned that “the danger inherent in the indiscriminate use of DDT as a cure-all is very real.” (1)

DDT application to American Elm. Wisconsin Historical Society.

As Carson began her research into DDT studies (to be compiled into her book Silent Spring) she knew that she was setting herself on a course that would result in widespread attack for challenging the wartime-turned-industry narrative. Nowhere in that narrative was the long-term concern  that Carson and many scientists and farmers before her had raised. As we know now, long-term and early exposure to DDT in pregnant women and their children has resulted in a human cost of lives related to testicular, ovarian, and breast cancers. It is an age and time-related connection that rewrites the narrative for modern chemical regulatory policy. "We were looking in the wrong places," writes anthropologist and biotechnologist Glen Davis Stone. (2)

Jeanne Cecil, Executive Director, RCHS

I stopped at a convenience store to gas up and met with a resident there who explained the damned-if-you-do/ damned-if-you-don't devil's bargain that many river towns experience. "Those stories about China and India smogs in the news recently? Yeah. My grandfather remembers this town looking like that," he said. "But what are we to do? We have a love/hate relationship to environmental regulation because - we are told - it kills jobs. I don't believe it. The wind industry has brought jobs. Solar has brought jobs. We need to adapt."  The narrative of good paying jobs weighs very heavily in Western PA and not a few people compare it with the storyline of DDT.

 (1) Elana Conis, "Beyond Silent Spring: An Alternative History of DDT."
Conis offers compelling historical evidence that challenge persistent military narratives that suggest civilian and scientific concerns were raised before Carson even raised her own pen.

(2) Stone's 2015 blog Field Questions  post "GM Foods: A Moment of Honesty," compares industry narratives between the DDT debate and GM foods claims. An interesting read that contains links to the groundbreaking long-term epidemiological work of Dr. Barbara Cohn.

Springdale Borough's town website, "The Power City," offers a really nice overview of the history of the river valley and a tribute to their daughter, Rachel Carson (see: Information).

The Allegheny Front is a public radio program well worth exploring online. I am a loyal subscriber to the podcasts and their webpage is excellent.

Please help the Rachel Carson Homestead get a leg up on much needed restoration and staffing! Donate and become a member. At this time there are still raffle tickets left for a lucky winner to spend a week at Rachel Carson's Maine cabin next summer!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

PA: Mason Dixon Trail, Map 2: Codorus Furnace to Gifford Pinchott State Park

Map 2/ Mason Dixon Trail: Codorus Furnace to Pinchot State Park, 20 miles

Kim and I have been putting this section off for a year and a half. We're almost finished section hiking the MDT, a 200-mile-long trail that runs from one end at the Appalachian Trail in Whiskey Springs, PA to Chadds Ford, PA. We started in Chadds Ford and have been making our way west for two-and-a-half years with pretty regular hikes until we got to Map 2. The idea of twenty miles of road walking was not very exciting. During our great delay we did other weekend hikes, celebrated First Day hikes twice, led a Camino group hike, took the kayaks out, all the while not saying out loud to each other, "I'm not excited about 20 miles of road walking. You?"

Codorus Creek
So here we were, parked at the historic Codorus Furnace on Codorus Creek, early on Saturday morning. No matter how many times I looked at the map, the little red trail line overlaid the thick black road lines without exception. No dirt paths. No river walks. We left my car in a wooded lot at Pinchot State Park a half hour before, so we knew there was only one way to retrieve it. Start walking.

I-Beam Trail Blaze, courtesy C.C. Beth at Steelton, PS

Most of the roads were quiet and had little traffic to dodge, but some were dangerous with no shoulder and heavy traffic. All in all, we're glad we did it in one big day hike - even though we made it to my car in the dark. There is an ecology to roads that combines the human endeavor of planning and building transportation routes (and the vehicle technology that use them) and the vegetative corridors, risks to wildlife, and pedestrian traffic. It's a strange ecosystem of man-made and adaptive nature that keeps the hiker on their toes. We jumped off the road several times to avoid being smacked by rear view mirrors, being flattened by enormous dump trucks, and cars going way to fast. I think I did as much side-stepping and forward walking.

Injured Black Vulture juvenile.
We met a juvenile black vulture on the side of the road and it broke my heart to have to leave the poor thing stuck there with a broken wing. The road kill draws scavengers and young vultures haven't figured out how to dodge oncoming cars. Just a short way up  the road we were sprayed with gravel and dirt as a car intentionally roared at us, spinning wheels into the soft shoulder as it passed us.

Goodbye, Susquehanna! Looking south, its waters bound for the Chesapeake Bay.

Last long look at our iconic river. Looking north towards York Haven.

We said goodbye to the Susquehanna River that has been a beautiful companion since Havre de Grace, Maryland, seventy miles back. Now the trail headed inland and upland to the northwest into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  We met a giant snapping turtle at the Wago Club. It was awesome.

This giant snapper has all the awesomesauce.
Road ecology is really a thing in ecological sciences. It started with Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady to Lyndon Johnson, who envisioned a better way to manage roadsides. Because of her wildflower planting initiatives and beautification projects we became more aware of how our roadsides look and function as habitat, minus ugly signs and trashy edges. York County townships do a nice job of keeping their roadsides trash free and a little on the wild side. Except for the LOUD overpass and off/on ramp fast food signage at the intersection with I-83, the entire twenty-mile section was free from billboards. 

A pretty stretch of creek-side road, virtually trash free and pleasantly wild.
But the same couldn't be said for some stretches of road-trail that passed through some interesting rural neighborhoods. We tried to admire the junk-filled yards, collapsing houses, confederate-flags-over-trailer homes, and various vehicles in the woods. We saw cabin cruisers permanently docked in the forest, Winnebago campers lurking in giant stands of dark bamboo, lawn ornaments from the 1960s arranged between sheds and shacks, and many campaign signs that haven't been taken down since the election. The folks in these parts wanted to make sure passers-by know for a fact that their candidate won. Lest we forget for a minute.

A junky stretch of roadside that would drive Lady Bird Johnson crazy were she here to see it. Photo by Kim.

Thankfully much of the MDT along roads was lightly traveled and very pretty in fall colors.
It's interesting to note that in Pennsylvania, road walking is almost as popular as trail walking. I see dozens of people every week strolling country roads, risking life and limb. I've got several routes I like to walk from my home but I always pick low-traffic times and wear obnoxious colors. Kim and I tried to walk side-by-side but traffic necessitated single-file or jumping off into the brush. In some sections we were walking through suburban neighborhoods with sidewalks but still I observed people walked in the road. So I didn't last long on sidewalks. Especially with lawnmowers spewing dust and cut grass into our path. Let the allergies commence.

I-83 is known for its deer collisions, bawdy billboards, and truck traffic. It is LOUD.
The steady up and down progress as we began the climb into the Appalachian foothills offered a few change-ups from pavement. A single gravel road. A few pretty creeks with dramatic drops and gradients. During the early years of our nation, this was mill country. We saw a few foundations of old grist mills and mill dams. Immigrants flocked to York County during the early 1800s to find work in the mills down on the river and in the uplands. We walked through Manchester Town (Borough) , named for Manchester, England, where many immigrant mill workers came from. We walked past several home conversions for many of the red brick one-room school houses. 

An old mill road.
Little rural enclaves of small homes and rustic properties minded the roads through Andersontown, and folks waved and smiled. We walked past an a chainsaw artist's house with his finest work on display in the yard. His work made the Wago snapping turtle look almost amateurish. This guy loved solar panels, too. Yay, chainsaw artist! We passed horses grazing in small pastures and stepped aside to let riders and horses have the skinny shoulder. The sun was sinking low as we passed the Mountain Grove Chapel where we heard a choir member inside tuning up for evening service.

This guy's yard was amazing.
Fresh paint. Photo by Kim.
With just a few miles to go the sun slipped behind our first big hill and we walked in twilight up from our crossing Beaver Creek. The woods were getting active with deer and Kim was lucky to catch one with her camera crossing the road between us. I was actually beginning to worry a little about hunters and wished I had worn my blaze orange baseball cap - but I did have on my obnoxious yellow-green marathon shirt on. Kim was decked out in orange everything. 

This is when I started thinking about blaze orange at sunset. Photo by Kim.
By the time we got to the state park it was too dark to follow the tiny bit of unpaved trail to my car. So we skirted the curvy mountain road to the parking lot for about a half mile, sticking tight to the guard rails and shoulderless edge. There were hunters coming out of the woods, gathering around their trucks in the lot near my car and it helped to have their headlights blazing to light up the parking area. We had completed our twenty-mile trek entirely along roads and were glad to be done with it! We were both sore and stiff, but no worse for wear. Our next section is through Gifford Pinchot State Park and a section of PA Game Lands, back on dirt trail, heading steadily northwest towards our end at the Appalachian Trail. Next time I have to remember to be as orange as Kim.

Last picture before there was no more light.

Reminder to self: Dress like Kim for next section hike.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Getting our Run on in the Dog Woods

Old Bug is now on the far side of her tenth year, which is pretty old for a coonhound. It seems like such a long time ago that her sister Annie left us, aged 12 years. But it was just a year ago, Oct 7, that the old hound passed, leaving Bug alone and depressed. Then, this May, an abandoned Newfie-Pyrenes mix found himself a hospice home here. Honey Bear passed Aug 9 of the cancer that had made him lame. He was a joy to care for and Bug was as happy as she'd ever been after the loss of Annie. It's been hard on her again.

The Dog Woods

We go for lots of rides in the car. Lots of walks. So. Much. Cuddles. And today - like yesterday's ravine climb, was another happy walk, this time to the "Dog Woods" on the State Gamelands. She's a little stiff in the back legs from her climbing yesterday, but her tail was wagging hard and she let out a few great deep bays at the scent of deer and raccoon. This is where the York County Coonhound Club held their night hunt trials for a long while, but not many people run coonies here anymore. So many of the old men have passed on and I don't hear of many hunt runs happening in this "wayback bit of woods" much. Even so, this is great terrain for sniffing out mink, ground hog, raccoons, opossum, fox, deer, and sometimes the post marking spots of bobcat. Today was no less a bouquet of scent for Bug. She had a blast running from cave to holler to tree hole to den.

Black knot fungus on old cherry.
These are some old woods. There are signs of farming but it was such an long time ago, nothing recent. You can read the age of the trees by their stands - there's a young stand of hickories not more than twenty years old where some logging took place back in the 1990s. Then there's an old stand with so many tree-elders on it. While we walked downhill, golden leaves and the hickory nuts rained down. I stuck as many in my pockets as would fit. They won't last long, though. Almost as soon as they hit the ground the grey squirrels come for them and sometimes raccoon. This put Bug into a tizzy and I had to make her "hold" while two squirrels made several trips to a stash site in a bank of rocks.

Hickory nut.

 One of the oldest black cherries I know grows here. I took it's picture for the 100th time. Although  inflicted with the black knot fungus which can deform and weaken limbs, sometimes killing its cherry host, this old tree sports the fungal knots with a certain pride, draped as they are in moss. With the past few days a little drizzly and foggy, the moss everywhere is lit up like neon against the fallen leaves. Against the black cherry's trunk, the moss stands out prettily. Every fallen limb seemed to have a splash of colorful lichen. From a distance the old growth moss mats on boulders seemed to glow.

Purple-toothed polypore.

When Bug found a hole to investigate, I was happy to find a log above it full of Purple-toothed Polypore. The purple frilly edges pop against the orange-hued shelf of this lichen. I nearly jumped out of my boots when Bug let out a bay at whatever was in the hole, so we quickly moved on.

Rain drops caught in a ground web.

I was surprised to find a group of young adults camped in a hollow by an unnamed stream. I asked if they had hiked in. They seemed really uncomfortable talking to me and wanted to know why I asked. I explained they were camped on state gamelands property and that I thought it might be illegal. "That's what another guy told us," said one young man. Their array of expensive hammocks, tarps, and backpacks (REI)  seemed to suggest they were trying out new gear. I asked if they were planning a hike in the future. No one said anything. Awkward. I did notice that one of the women had cinched her brand new camping hammock to a tree with a healthy rope of poison ivy vine growing on it. I walked over and took its picture. Then I told them what it was. No one said anything. Way more awkward.

Poison ivy vine

I was trying to be informative. I told them that since it was Sunday no one was hunting deer but come morning there would surely be some bowhunters in the Dog Woods. Again, crickets. So I did what any good hunting folk would do and told them about the (fictitious) coonhound hunt that starts at sundown tonight. "It'll be real loud," I said, "Guys with headlamps, dogs running everywhere, baying and howling to make your ears ring." The woman in the hammock sat up. "Hunting what?"

Haircap and Brocade Moss.

"Well, since you've been camping here - and not very neatly I may add," I said, "I'm sure you've dropped a little food or burned some food packaging in your campfire. So there'll be plenty of raccoons moving through here tonight to check for scraps. And then plenty of coonhounds to chase them up these trees y'all attached to." The young women were little pissed off. "I hate hunters!" one snarled. "Why so much killing?!" Bug seemed to pick up on her tone and raised her hackles. I looked around at the damage done to some of the young trees that they'd hacked up to make kindling and firewood. De-limbed sourwood, spicebush, and young hickories were all around. Swaths of moss had been torn from the base of the big trees and used to scrubs pots. "Yeah," I said pointing to the damaged trees, "So much killing."

The two women never did look at me. They had their backs to me the whole time. The two young men, however, climbed out of their hammocks and began cleaning up their cluttered campsite. Robin Wall Kimmerer, writer, poet, forester, and bryologist up in New York State, has written about the time it takes for moss mats to grow thick on trees and boulders. A thick blanket of moss can be over a hundred years old and take that long to grow back. An Onondaga woman, Kimmerer writes in Gathering Moss (2003),

Their loss will have consequences we cannot foresee. When the mosses are taken, their web of interactions goes along with them. Bird, rivers, and salamanders will miss them.

Deer trail leads to an illegal campsite on an unnamed stream.

The idea of hacking up a healthy understory rankled me. The more I looked around the more hacking I saw. On the ground, wet and dirty, was a brand new shiny hatchet. I reached down and picked it up. "Hey!" said the angry woman, "That's mine!" I pointed (with the hatchet) to the woods all around them and said "This is mine." I hope the Game Commission sends me a coupon or something for giving - at length - the story about how state game lands are managed, funded, and used by Pennsylvania's outdoor community. Birders, herpetologists, hunters with bows, trappers, hunters with firearms, even - bryologists - use and take care of game lands and that Pennsylvania has a strong tradition of land stewardship that we take very seriously.

Old growth moss.
Healthy understory.

My lecture seemed to do the trick and the two girls climbed out of their hammocks and joined the two young men in picking up their scattered equipment, food containers, and wet clothing draped on hacked understory trees. I handed the brand new axe back to the grumpy girl and suggested she learn how to use it and care for it properly. My friend John should have been there. He would have given a lesson for free and maybe expanded upon my lecture.

As I turned to go, she mumbled something about "the b---- who ruined our weekend," and I had intended to just keep walking away, when Bug in all her coonhound glory, caught a scent on the deer trail that led uphill, back from where we came. She bayed and tugged and clawed at the ground.

What a great voice you have, Bug, in the Dog Woods.

I hung on tight and let her pull me up the steep trail. Her howls echoed off the hills and Lo! there were others who answered her! I had no idea there were other coonies running today. What a sound! What music! One, two, three coonhounds - all distinct from each other by the depth and cadence of their baying - came running over the hill, a young man breathlessly running behind them. He waved hello and tipped his orange hunting cap, but he carried no firearm. "Getting our run on, ma'am!" I was too far from the campsite to see the commotion this surely must have caused, but it made me feel wonderful to see a young man with his dogs out for the Sunday run.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Ravine Ramble in the River Hills

I've been on a bit of a tear so haven't had the time to enjoy a weekend unplugged, reading, writing, wandering. So this was the weekend I decided to hit the snooze button on my usual early-up-and-at-it Saturday routine. It has been grey and drizzly for a few days, but until this morning I haven't had the luxury of sleeping in. So there I laid under the quilt past 9am. My coonhound  snored peacefully as I drifted off again thinking, "Oh isn't this great!" Then....WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! A woodpecker banged at the window. The dog flew from the bed with a full-throated coonhound bay. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

Ravine wall on the Susquehanna.

Bug and I decided to investigate a remote ravine a few miles from home. I parked at the bottom along a dirt road and we climbed an old wagon path high into the V-shaped valley where the spring-fed creek, normally splashing down through an old sluice, was dry. We've had a long stretch of dry weather so this patch of drizzle and light rain has been refreshing for the surface plants and mosses, but its not been enough to recharge the groundwater and deep springs that seep from the ravine walls.

Sluice for a log mill.

We hiked higher and the going got so steep that I was climbing hand-over-hand. Even Bug, usually game for any off-trail challenge, was cautious about our route. The wagon path had become a deer trail leading to the top of the ridge, but what deer these must be to make this ascent!

Indian's Ledge

There is a hidden history to this ravine that I learned from a hiking companion many years ago. Steve is no longer with us, but these hills were his and he knew them like the back of his hand.  Ravines like this number in the many dozens from Conowingo, Maryland, to the great fault bend on the river at Wrightsville and Columbia, Pennsylvania. This unnamed ravine with its drought-prone cascade, was known for making moonshine and hunting deer.  Steve used to hunt up here from a rock platform that juts out from the ravine wall. From "Indian's Ledge" I could see a maze of deer trails below me. Like hunting from a tree stand above the animals, a quiet, camouflaged hunter can watch without being detected. (Moonshiners could also watch for the "regulators.) Steve was convinced that the ledge had served as a hunting platform for hundreds of years as there are ancient carvings incised in the rock.  If you look closely at the flat lichen-covered section on which a hunter might sit or stand, you can still see the faint forms of a stick-figure buck and a bow-legged hunter.

Garter Snake

Bug and I continued to climb along the ravine wall on a very narrow deer trail until we came to the top of the ridge. Back a ways from the spine of rock that narrowed out into space above the river in the distance, we found enough flat ground to walk side-by-side. At a disused campsite, we rested and had a snack of turkey jerky and water just as a very-much-alive gobbler cackled from the woods! Bug wanted to chase that turkey and she pulled hard on her leash to go for a go, but this was no safe ground for an off-leash adventure.

Fire ring and wild turkey haunt.

We continued our exploration by climbing higher on the forested hill when we intersected a trail from the nearby state park that made the job of walking wet woods a little easier. I found one of the springs that empties into the stream. It was dry. Another spring, built over with a dry stack wall, was barely bubbling up. A thin veneer of water slipped down into the ravine. Near here was the cellar hole of a settlers cabin while further on piles of field stone surrounded a patch that had been farmed a several hundred years ago.

Walled spring head.

This must have been difficult land to farm, but the signs of fields and pasture were all around. We heard the turkey again and Bug let out her best cry. Well, that turkey must have flown across the river to be away from her, because it was the last we heard from him for the rest of our hike. I didn't want to risk falling down the steep valley we'd just clambered up so I chose to walk through the park and back to the car via an old road. The road once led to a crossing for a cable-and-pole ferry and is used now to access a few old seasonal cabins. While on the road we passed a dug-out canoe under construction.

Beginnings of a dug-out canoe.

The River Hills district is still home to many families who identify with native groups from long ago. The last tribe to occupy the Lower Susquehanna Valley were the Susquehannock, but this large cultural group was itself a combination of many other tribes, some from the north, others from the east and south. The log dug-out canoe was the primary means for traveling up and down the river before ferry travel made crossings accessible to horses, wagons, and settlers. I've seen a few dug-outs plying the river over the years. Finished, they are sleek and shallow and graceful. Here was one about a third of the way finished, looking chunky and fat, resting on stiles. It was filled with water. I knew that the recent rains couldn't have added this much water to the basin, so I assumed that it has been filled intentionally after a recent burning down. Partially burnt logs at the head of the canoe smelled like smoke.

Burn, flood, scrape, repeat.

The road to the river flattened out as it turned and ran parallel to the shore. The natural shoreline is underwater and a hundred yards further out and down, however, as the lake behind the dam many miles downstream floods the old banks. High water now submerges the old ferry launch, wagon roads, and canoe slips where finished dug-outs were rolled off their stiles and pushed into the river. Steve would often wonder what we could still see if suddenly the dam broke and the waters drained away. Back at the car I looked up into the ravine we had climbed a few hours before and Bug looked at me as if to say "Not again!"

Back to the car.

Monday, August 28, 2017

PA Horseshoe Trail Williams Hill Loop - French Creek State Park

I traveled back to the Iron Hills Region to hike a short six-mile loop around Williams Hill and add another section of Horseshoe Trail to my 'done' list. I started my loop at the Scotts Run Pond kayak launch where there is a small parking area. No matter when I come to French Creek State Park, it seems not many people come to this small pond. It can be crowded in the main park yet only a few cars parked here with a sprinkling of users. But don't tell anybody. I was greeted at the pond's edge by a Great Spangled Fritillary on a stand of Joe Pye - a great start!

Great Spangled Fritillary with a 'bird bite' on the left hind wing.

I followed an unmarked trail from the spillway, down Scotts Run to the main road through the park, turned right on the road, crossed the stream bridge, and found the yellow blazes just a few hundred yards ahead. There is a smart new "Trail Crossing" sign so you can't miss it. The Horseshoe Trail climbs up, mostly on an old wagon road around the shoulders of Williams Hill and never quite makes it to the top unless you elect to take a side trail to the summit. There are no views, however. The hill (a remnant of a mountain, actually) is completely forested.

Old wagon road.

Like much of the Iron Hills Region through which the Horseshoe Trail travels, this was once an industrial landscape. It was first logged for its oak and pine in the mid-1700s, then cut over for the charcoal wood needed for the many iron furnaces during the Revolutionary Period. Some historians claim that the iron that came from this region was instrumental in arming the Colonial forces to win our independence from England.

Maple Leaf Viburnum

Even though the furnaces have been silent for over a century there is still much to see of the furnace and forge industry. Remains of iron plantations can be found across the landscape. To the east is Hopewell Furnace, a National Park Historic Site, with its impressive furnace and remains of its company town. To the west is the Joanna Furnace Village, an impressively conserved plantation town. Both offer seasonal festivals that offer reenactments of  the life of the iron plantations once so vital to the economies of Berks and Chester Counties. But there's plenty to see, too, for the observant hiker on this heavily forested hill if you know what to look for.

Massive White Oak along Scotts Run.

With the forest recovered, it is now hard to imagine how busy this place was for nearly a century. Ore and lumber wagons crossed the mountain from Hopewell to Joanna. They carried limestone, iron ore, and most importantly, charcoal -  a constant stream of raw materials to prepare the furnaces to blast. Joanna Furnace was especially busy when it entered full blast operation that happened at least once a year. Several times Joanna Furnace was in blast operation for two to three years at a time - the sound of blast was heard all through the valley.

Even when a single track trail, the Horseshoe Trail follows an old wagon road.

The observant hiker will see charcoal black in several sections of the trail as the path cuts through old charcoal pits. Colliers cut, stacked, charred the cordwood  and lived on site in rough cabins near these cleared circular "pits" - really, just flat spots in the hillside about 25' in diameter. The smoldering charcoal mounds could not be allowed to get too hot nor go out. A blanker of oak leafs was raked on and off by the collier to allow air to flow down a stacked log chimney. It was dangerous, dirty work. When the heaps of cordwood had charred properly, the collier raked the charcoal out in the circular clearings to cool. The wagons arrived with fresh cordwood to unload and filled up on the fresh charcoal to be delivered to either Hopewell or Joanna.

Ramariopis laeticolor - common through the hike.

Now the forest is maturing again. White oak, tulip poplar, hickory, maple, and beech blanket the hillsides. It's hard to imagine this area as an industrial complex. The entire forest is declared an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Audubon. Most of the park's nearly 8000 acres is under forest canopy, making it the largest area of conserved forest between New York and Washington D.C.

Purple Cort, Cortinarius violaceus.
Black Earth Tongue - Trichoglossum sp.
Hen-of-the-Woods, Grifola frondosa

Squealing Fungus - named for the kids who found this.

There's been a lot of rain in this area in the last few weeks so fungi were everywhere. My favorite specimen was found with an explosion of squeals that erupted on the trail just ahead of me as a family of young children with their mom happened upon an enormous growth at the base of a dead tree. Each child had his or her picture taken with it. I offered to take a group shot with everyone and the fungus. They squealed and laughed! We officially named it "The Squeaking Fungus." Worth the unexpected rest stop to watch the entire family celebrate their find.

Virginia Knotweed

Coming around the western shoulder of the hill the dry woods gave way to a cooler section of wet swales and spring beds. Walking further along the trail became sandy and dry, and I noticed that the forest composition had changed as well. As I slowed to take notice of the change in light I realized I had entered a chestnut forest - a stump-sprouted shrub layer of chestnut saplings fighting for their lives against the fungal blight, Phytophthora. It was pretty clear that they weren't doing so well beyond a certain diameter. I counted nearly a hundred stump-sprouted trees but none over an inch or two in diameter before they are fatally scarred by the fungal invader.

Stump-sprouted Chestnut.

The chestnut forest was once America's grandest of the grand, spreading across two million acres of land from the Appalachian states across to the Mid-West. It fascinates me that now, a century after the blight hit, we are using plant breeding techniques usually employed for domesticating and refining traits for agricultural crops With the chestnut we are attempting to bring the species back to the wild. Back-crossing and inter-crossing techniques each involve laborious hand-pollination of flowers on resistant stock.

As far as the eye could see - green but all with dead stems.

This work has been happening using blight resistant Chinese chestnut and by using pollen from some of the 300 mature survivor trees that still exist in the wild. Many botanists agree that there may be hundreds more survivors, but given the thick cover of a restored Appalachian forest (minus its majestic chestnut) and so few people actually looking, that we will probably never know how many mature trees actually survived into the current century. But there are many survivors out there.

Living and dying together.

We walkers and hikers need to know what to look for and who to report our finds to. The American Chestnut Foundation maintains state chapters in most of the chestnut's native range and their website offers a reporting link. I searched the canopy with my binocs for quite some time but to no avail. This was a vibrant sapling stand but no survivors to be seen from my vantage point on the Horseshoe Trail. It occurred to me that I've seen many stump sprouted chestnuts on all of my PA hike this year, but wouldn't it be great to find an old survivor no one has yet discovered?

Chestnut woods - all small understory trees under Black Gum canopy.

The side trails that lead to the summit, Ridge, Boone and Turtle, are blazed blue and red. These intersect a few times with the loop around the hill. There's an old park map that still shows the original path of the Horseshoe Trail coming close to the summit along the north shoulder of Williams Hill but it has since been re-routed. You could make a loop using the blue-blazed Boone trail that skirts north of Scotts Run Pond, but I stuck to the yellow blazes and came back to the pond across from the parking area.

A sunken road with wheel ruts.
A cord wood road, or "corduroy" would have been laid in this wet crossing.

I completed the loop in about three hours and sat at a picnic table on the pond for my packed lunch. It always amazes me to look across a view such as this and try to imagine an industrial landscape in place of what we see now. In a way, the change in view gives me hope that we can address some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, but I wonder how much of that change will be influenced by shifts in technology and economic response as happened in the Iron Hills during the late 1800s? With regard to fuels of today, how will landscapes change as a result of their replacement?

Scotts Run Pond at the finish.


Joanna Furnace is just west of Williams Hill and is owned and maintained by the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association.

American Chestnut Foundation  offers a reporting link if you think you've found a mature survivor. Remember that these trees are found in dense forest and that trees in yards or towns that seem at first to be American Chestnut may be Chinese or European Chestnut or hybrids.