Thursday, December 26, 2013

Susquehannock State Park

Perched high atop the plateau that overlooks the Lower Susquehanna River, Susquehannock is one of the smallest of the Pennsylvania State Parks system. The park covers just over 220 acres of forest yet maintains a commanding view over the 400' cliff that drops down into the oldest river in the East, making it a favorite for locals and visitors to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Susquehannock State Park occupies the high plateau on the Lancaster cliffs (left).
The Bear Island Complex, viewed here from the Norman Wood Bridge connecting
York and Lancaster Counties, is accessible only from the York shore (right)
and only by kayak, canoe, and shallow draft motor boats after ice-out!

The overlook is the main attraction here and is worth several visits throughout the year to observe the ever changing nature of the Bear Island Complex below. Bald eagles are common year-round and in the fall many migrating hawks soar at eye level following the river south. Winters can be brutal and from the overlook it is possible to hear ice cracking and booming on the river below.

Back from the cliffs, the park offers some rugged hill and valley trails that go in two directions: up or down. The aspect of hillsides to the sun's ray makes for some dramatic forest types with hemlock and rhododendron claiming the north slopes, and white oaks and beech trees claiming the southern exposure. White pines and red oaks top the rocky ridges, and tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), giants in comparison to all others, grow massively on the bottoms.

A fresh snow defines the ramrod straight boles of Liriodendron tulipifera that
cover the valley bottoms. Healthy understory shrubs and young trees shelter beneath these
giants in the rich soils here.  
The tulip tree is named for the four-lobed leaf that resembles a tulip blossom. In the Mid-Atlantic you may hear the name 'tulip poplar' as well, but the tree is neither a tulip nor a poplar. It is an Appalachian  native, found throughout the temperate eastern states, the sole North American survivor of the Pleistocene glaciation that wiped out many related species, extinct relatives whose fossilized leaf impressions and seeds are common in late Cretaceous and early Tertiary beds around the world. I once found a tulip tree leaf impression in the thin red shales of the Beartooth Mountains in Wyoming, a reminder of the rich forests that once covered a landscape now clothed in grasslands. For our area, the abundant tulip tree is a living link with pre-glacial times.

Among the tallest trees in the Mid-Atlantic forest, the tulip tree
(also called tulip poplar by locals) can easily reach 100' and higher.

Today I was the only person in the park, along with my two active coonhounds. The trails were blanketed with several inches of fresh powder put down by a fast-moving Canadian Clipper system that swept through Pennsylvania during the early morning. The air was still and quiet. Only a few tap-tappings of a probing woodpecker could be heard. The old Landis place, preserved by the park service, stands shuttered at the trail head. It serves as a reminder that these woods were once fields part of a community of hill farmers who made their livings off the wealth of the land.

The Landis House, a classic Lancaster plastered fieldstone farmhouse
awaits restoration funding to provide stabilization and preservation.

The old house is itself a lesson in the land, since all the materials needed by its builder James Buchanan Long were procured in 1850 from the hills surrounding the site. Slate roofing sourced from across the river at the Delta-Cardiff slate quarries, remains in excellent condition. It is said that a well-laid roof of slate should last two hundred years or more. Chestnut joists and rafters, some with bark still intact, are stark reminders of a long-lost forest monarch, although throughout the park stump sprouting is common. Clay for the chimneys, glass for the windows, iron for the latches and hinges, all came from local clay and sand banks, processed at small kilns and foundries within an hour's wagon ride from here. Hiking along the rugged trails, numerous cellar holes and stone walls are almost completely reclaimed by nature. For kids, this is an exciting archeological adventure. Mapping, sketching, and journaling about these old ruins can be great fun!

Winter is a lovely time to look for bracket fungi.
Bjerkandra adusta (top) and Pycnoporellus alboluteus (bottom)
are common in hardwood forests.

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