Monday, May 19, 2014

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary - River of Rocks Circuit Hike Part I

On this gorgeous spring morning I set out to hike the River of Rocks Trail in the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania, with stops at the North and South Lookout. The six mile circuit hike took me a tad longer than most folks because I stop for everything - I mean everything. In all it took me about six hours to go six miles. My goal today was to find a patch of pink lady's slippers I knew bloomed on the southeastern side of the escarpment, a patch I'd visited with friends for years. But make no mistake - this is a challenging, rocky trail. I took a set of well-worn hiking sticks for the trip and used them almost the whole way.

Hawk Mountain holds a special place in my heart, having learned of the efforts of Rosalie Edge from my Grandmom, an enthusiastic birder herself. Edge was a fighter for causes she felt needed a firebrand. She was an outspoken and vigorous suffragette for women's rights and when the job was done, she turned her sites on conservation. Literally. During the interwar years 1918-1940 she was considered a militant of the conservation movement exposing to the embarrassment of many established conservation groups such as the Audubon Society hypocrisy and inept practices she felt duped not only American wildlife and the public, but especially dues paying members and major donors. 

A large feisty eagle memorializes the fierceness of  Rosalie Edge and her efforts to preserve Hawk Mountain.
When I was old enough to drive, Hawk Mountain was one of my first long distance trips from home, although today the route is familiar and doesn't seem quite as long as it did then. In the past I guided adult nature trips for a local nature center and state parks, but no longer in the guide service, it has become refreshingly new to me as I walk at my own pace - like a slug along the edge of a leaf - enjoying aspects of the mountain that were hidden to me earlier. Like pink lady's slippers. You can't hike very fast and watch for delicate spring wildflowers while distracted with keeping your balance on sharp rocks and five ton boulder ledges all the way down a mountain.

A geology panel greats the hiker before you set foot on the challenging trails ahead.

Because Hawk Mountain is privately owned and operated as a conservation non-profit, they ask a trail fee to help support their efforts. I am happy to pay it each time. The fees go towards the excellent work and programs HMS offers. I was the first one there in the morning and waited as the Visitor Center was unlocked for the day. The air was crisp and still. I could see my breath! Ah, spring in the Appalachians. An attendant greeted me and suggested I make a quick trip to the North Lookout as the indigo buntings put on their best show before 10 a.m.  Great advice, since I had planned to do the circuit down the valley first and would have missed these bright blue showmen!

From the South Lookout the parallel ridges come together at this valley to form the funnel through which migrating raptors travel by the tens of thousands in the fall.

Upon reaching the South Lookout on a very nice hard-packed trail, the bowl of the valley spreads north eastward along the front range of the Appalachians of Pennsylvania.  Some places are like old friends, and the long mountain ridge on which Hawk Mountain Sanctuary sits is one of the oldest friends I have - pushing 500 million years old since laying down the first ocean sediments that now crown the escarpment with Tuscarora Sandstone.  Named the Kittatinny or Endless Mountain by the Lenape People, parallel ridges arc along the Front and come together here, creating a natural funnel for migrating raptors in the fall.

A beautiful set of engraved metal panels greets the South Lookout visitor. From here out the trails are difficult and steep.

Going by the beautiful bright green woodlands and vibrant warbler song on the hike to the North Lookout, it was hard to imagine that this escarpment was a killing ground for hawks. There are plenty of places to view the old photographs - at the Visitor Center, in books, online. I won't spoil this blog post with these, however, except to say what a gift this place is considering its history of hawk hunting and industry. Like many places in the Mid-Atlantic, extractive industry visited even these difficult ridge lines with sand mines, quarrying for sandstone, and logging to fire the nearby furnaces.

Pits, quarry banks, and mule cart roads are all but obscured by a nearly recovered Appalachian forest. Missing, however, are the great chestnuts many of which continue to stump sprouting and are seen only as gangly saplings in the understory. I saw plenty of chestnuts only a few feet high and wondered at the great roots below that once supported these massive trees and all the animals dependent upon the great mast.

Hikers are guided through an old sand quarry and up the steep front wall of sandstone to the North Lookout. Sand still spills from the Tuscarora ledges, a valuable commodity in the 1800s for the glass industry.

Americans enjoy their mythologies in politics, history, and social movements. We tend to agree with what fits neatly into our belief system while pitching fits at the possibility that things may not be what they seem. Conservation history is part mythology and part belief system, sprinkled with facts interpreted by people (you, me, historians) long removed from a particular place in time. Preserving large swaths of disappearing wilderness is seen as good, while utilizing wilderness for resource extraction is seen as bad. Saving rare and endangered animals is generally understood as a good and noble cause, while conserving common species and everyday landscapes usually thought of as a waste of time and money. This may be one reason Rosalie Edge sparked such furor: she turned conservation thinking on its head and declared all species worthy of protection, especially while they were common and well before they became rare.

North Lookout with its famous owl-on-a-stick (lure)

Edge entered the conservation movement at age 55 after a privileged life traveling the world and enjoying the comforts of wealth. She pivoted into the movement by reading an article detailing the slaughter of 70,000 bald eagles in Alaska and equally appalled to learn of typical migratory hawk hunts staged closer to her home in New York City. She was as sharp as the Tuscarora Sandstone that lies tumbled across the North Lookout - a force unstoppable, and justifiably feared by some in the conservation community she sought to clean up. Learning of the localized hawk hunt atop Hawk Mountain, she bought the land outright and quickly declared it a sanctuary in 1934. The hunting stopped and her story spread. Soon, societal disdain for other local hunts brought these affairs to a quick end (Wagoner's Gap, PA; Rocky Ridge, PA). An old friend of mine, Charlie Gant, would often recall for me the days of the early hawk watches and his sixty years participation in the annual fall and spring counts. I dedicated my hike today to his memory, and sat for a time at the North Lookout imagining the young men and women returning from the War, finding solace and purpose in the conservation of this land, gathered in celebration and anticipation for the fall counts.

Looking to the northwest, towards the coal fields of central PA on the horizon.

From the North Lookout, the view to the Great Coal Fields in the far distance can, with binoculars, include the hulking silhouettes of old coal crushers and breakers. With a little squinting, you can also see a new generation of energy - the slowly spinning blades of the ridge top wind farms near Hazelton, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton. The Little Schuylkill River cuts a zig-zag path through the Valley and Ridge Province, an aptly named section of the Appalachian Mountain complex. Open farmland provides critical open space to many nesting raptors who call Penn's Woods home: kestrels, barn owls, red tailed hawks, red shouldered hawks, northern harriers. The Sanctuary is a partner in the Pennsylvania Farmland Raptor project that encourages landowners to  create and maintain habitat for open land raptors with emphasis on barn owls, kestrels, and northern harriers. 

Indigo bunting declaring territorial boundary on the North Lookout

While contemplating the mountain's history I was reminded of the Visitor Center's attendant's advice for coming here first with a territorial dispute  between four male indigo buntings. The ruckus was intense as they declared exactly where the boundaries were for multiple territories all across the boulder field.  But it was a musical ruckus and a very pretty sight too. Wouldn't it be great if humans settled their disputes with singing instead of military invasions?

No one else up here but me and two birders! In fall you would be hard pressed to find a spot to sit with so many people coming up to watch the hawk migration.

Wild azalea blooms inside the protective cover of a wind-sculpted rhododendron on the North Lookout.

The boundary song battle continued for some time, offering me plenty of opportunity to photograph these spectacular little birds and rock hop over to take some snaps of some beautiful wild azalea blossoms. I was gone so long in fact, leaving my backpack on a boulder back by the treeline, that upon my return I found my trail mix bag neatly removed from an outside pocket, sitting on an adjacent boulder. Hmmm. I waited a while longer near my pack until the deft expert reappeared. She noticed me before getting too far into the bag, then quickly backed out. A lesson learned the hard way on the AT - micro bears more trouble than big bears.

Micro-bear: Chipmunk with a mouthful of my trail mix.

As I resumed my circuit hike, I thought some more about Rosalie Edge. In my opinion, she's been sadly forgotten in our nation's conservation history. Maybe because she stirred too many pots with too much fire that many established conservation histories choose to leave her out, or maybe because she doesn't quite fit the nature-benevolent stereotype of the period. It's not nature-y to be angry. There is one biography by Dyana Z. Furmansky (2009). Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature from the Conservationists. University of Georgia Press. A good read, but better to visit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for a full appreciation of what she gave us, and the hawks, and the indigo buntings, and the chipmunks. 


The year I was born, one of my favorite people of all time, Rachel Carson, visited Hawk Mountain. I found the exact place she sat to watch hawks and I watched indigo buntings instead from that rocky seat!

Here's the HMS website - a nice read, but better to go there yourself!

Part 2 of my River of Rocks Circuit Hike will post next week: Did I find pink lady's slippers? Did I fall and break anything? Did I feel I was being watched? Stay tuned...

This hike dedicated to the memory of Charles H. Gant, Jr. 

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