Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary - River of Rocks Circuit Hike Part II

Leaving the North Lookout I headed across the escarpment on a route less a path and more a selected arrangement of half-ton boulders that afforded some sort of  footing. Still, the way is marked with red blazes painted on key visual points - large rocks and trees. The trick was to look up. It was way too easy to become engrossed in rock hopping, missing a critical turn or switchback. I tumbled once and luckily landed in a sweep of rhododendron which happened to bring every smallish flighty thing in for a look. 

Black and white warbler wondering what all the thrashing was about.

Hiking across the top of an escarpment is akin to being in the treetops as the canopy is not above you but below. My landing in a rhododendron thicket gave me an eye-to-eye view of some curious canopy-loving warblers hanging out in the stunted oaks on the ridge. A black and white warbler interrupted his whispering song to come see what bugs I'd stirred up. He got right to work. These tiny feathered migrants are making their way through the Appalachian Highlands to stake out a canopy claim. In spring the diffuse migration of wood warblers happens in bursts of song and flitting shadows. I love to catch a wave of warblers, a mixed up collections of energetic color and call. Come autumn, their breeding colors fade into browns and tans, so this is the time of year to watch for the brilliant blues, greens, yellows, orange, rust, and iridescent purples.

Black-throated blue warbler checking me out.

Back to my feet, wobbling along on sharp tips of rock wedges, I sensed I was being followed. I kept stopping to look back, expecting to find a much more able and faster hiker gaining ground on me, but instead all I saw were warbler shadows flitting along. Lots of warblers - hoping, I imagined, that I would catapult again into some bug-infested bush releasing a buffet of insects. But I kept my balance for the rest of the trip, and my following of tiny birds passed me off from the group at the top to the group along the apron of rock that slid into the quiet forest below.The stunted black oak gave way to maples, hickories, ash, and white oak that towered overhead. The rhododendron passed into mountain laurel. Wildflowers began to appear in abundance.

Bellwort along the path, a sign of richer soils on the shoulders of the mountain.

For a while the path opened up and became more of a trail. Almost a road. Maybe it had been a road. A way for oxen, mules, people, and wagons to move sand and lumber. The soils, enriched by detritus, were thick and springy, unlike the sandy dry skin of dirt at the top.  Stump-sprouting chestnuts filled the understory alongside sassafras and young oaks. What the widened path had once been -what it had been used for - was all a secret now, but it awaited my steps nonetheless.

Chestnut stump-sprouting in a new kind of forest.

This woods, as much as I wish it to be the Appalachian forest of my grandparents and great-grandparents, is a different kind of forest today. When the great chestnuts died away, an entire ecosystem died with them. What stands now as our Appalachian woodlands is a forest changed by their absence. Trees create an underground network with each other, sharing nutrients, communicating, offering support, and forming a web of life unseen and  unknowable to those hiking along the surface. The American chestnut was giant voice in the language of trees. Their strength and brawn is surely missed.

Clouds overhead and a light shower darkens the old woods road, lit only by borders of moss.

The old road wound gently through the valley and I forgot to look up. I wandered along the old road for quite a while not realizing I'd missed a red blaze and I was now climbing up.  I turned, walked back until I found a dogleg marked by a double blaze to the right. Down to the River of Rocks I went on what was now not a pleasant old woods road but a jumble of rocks that slid into the crux of the valley. Now the trail earns its name and its reputation!

The infamous River of Rocks Trail earns its 'Difficult' rating for the next two hours.

These slides are what make the River of Rocks. They can be found all along the Kittatinny Mountain, but nowhere else are they as visible and as dramatic as here in the  Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania. These are freeze-thaw slides, cascades of rock ledge blown apart by freeze-thaw cycles during the most recent glaciated period of 15,000-8,000 years ago. The rocks are really moving, millimeter by millimeter each year, the force of gravity inching them downhill. If you sit along a slide on a very cold winter day you can hear them pop and crack, even rumble a bit as they creep ever so slowly along. These were once exposed ramparts of sandstone where wooly mammoths and ground sloths once roamed. I reckon one day to bring my toy plush mammoth and photograph him walking sure-footedly across his ancestor's domain. Just for fun. But then - out of the corner of my eye, in a place I recognized where several boulders are spaced farther apart than all the others - voila! Pink lady's slippers!

In this pocket of leaf litter a patch of a dozen or so pink lady's slippers grew heartily, a tough bunch of flamboyant orchids, their maroon basal leaves pointed outward as if balancing (like me) between boulders. I was overjoyed to see them again and took off my pack to walk carefully around them. I'd been introduced to this patch, not quite on the trail (another delightful product of forgetting to look up for the tree blazes), by my friend Steve many years ago. He was just graduating from Rutgers with a doctorate in botany, on his way to a new university position in Virginia. That was almost twenty years ago. Steve is still there. The orchids are still here. I am still working on that doctorate but that's another story.

Yellow pollen packets are seen at the two escapes.

The clasping petals enclose a trick, not quite a trap, scented with perfume and made alluring by bright pink shades of bee-love color. A woodland bee slips inside the heart pouch through a slit between the petals and finds - nothing. No nectar. No reward. So in making her way back out the bee must pass between rows of guard hairs that direct her up through the two possible exits. Capping each exit are two heavily laden pollen packets stuck tightly to the stigmas. The bee must push and squeeze to get out and in doing so the flower transfers pollen to her back. Off she flies, lured by another orchid nearby, and the transfer of pollen is complete.

I believe each place has its own natural history, its own unique story, and that there are so many histories to know that it is impossible to know them all. The Endless Mountain contains thousands of unique places, each with its own special tale-to-tell.  This tiny patch of flowers tells its own story of survival in a room sized opening between house-sized boulders. The seeds of the lady slippers, like many orchid seeds, have no food storage and rely on soil bacteria to coat them and help process nutrients for their growth. Unless this particular bacteria exists in this particular place, no seeds will germinate. Here, however, the pocket of leaf litter and debris must contain exactly what the plant needs to increase its colony size, for there are twice as many plants here as there were so many years ago.

A spring bubbles up from the forest floor in a bog-like hollow and quickly disappears back underground.

The trail opens into a broad ledge of sloping ground where for the first time I hear the sound of running water. A spring emerges from the sidewall of the valley and trickles out into a shallow bowl of ground, staying long enough to grow some tadpoles, then dropping out of sight in a jumble of boulders. From here to the base of the trail, some two miles away, the spring is joined by dozens of other underground streams that tumble and gurgle under the River of Rocks.  It is a river flipped upside-down, the boulder fields on top, the river below. At times the river emerges, flushes over mossy mounds of rock and disappears again below an ever widening plain of shattered, sharp sandstone.

One of several broad boulder fields that make up the River of Rocks.

It was still somewhat cool and not much before noon when I reached the main river of rock nearing the valley bottom. I had hoped to see timber rattle snakes as I have in the past, sunning themselves lazily on the boulders, but it was still too chilly.

My lunch companion, a Ruby-throated hummingbird. This is a female (no ruby throat).

I stopped along a warm edge of the  boulder field and had my lunch. I suppose my red Keene State College baseball cap attracted a friendly ruby-throated hummingbird. She stayed the entire time I rested and lunched, even buzzing my cap a few times!

Rushing springs pop out of the forest floor to join the underground river below.

After lunch I made the loop around the bottom of the boulder fields and began the long trek back up the mountain, this time on the north-facing slope that forms the south side of the valley. Rhododendrons are king here, and the trail winds in and through tunnels of  rhodie forest. In their shade, trickles of springs popped up and rambled downhill to the valley bottom.

Recent heavy rains have redirected many small streams. Come summer these will be dry.

After noon, heading up to the Visitor Center, more people started appearing. I no longer had the mountain to myself. It was hard to hear the warblers and springs babbling for the people talking loudly. They were coming down, I was heading up, so I stood aside as each party passed. Only one hiker, aware of the 'Hiker's Rules of the Road' thanked me for the right-of-way. On the AT this is a much appreciated courtesy and everyone gets a thank you for stepping aside. But I guess this is not the AT, and these day hiking folks were not aware of the custom.

White trillium in the rich bottomlands of the River of Rocks.

The hour-long trek up the north slope revealed many wet meadows and though I didn't see more pink lady's slippers, I did see flowers new for the day. Pocket meadows of just a few dozen feet across contained a stunning variety of wildflowers giving me pause, and much needed breathing breaks for the climb-out.

Wet meadows humming with bees and hummingbirds at the bottom of the valley.

Nearing the top of the trail, things got very steep. No people were headed in my direction but for one elderly woman with a full backpack on! She climbed slowly and took lots of breaks, but I didn't want to pass her, so I kept a distance and slowed way down. She had bear bells attached to the hip belt of her pack and as she started up after each standing break, she gave them a jingle. This had me looking nervously around for bears. I had observed earlier in the day several foot to two foot rocks rolled easily out of the way - a bruin looking for ants, salamanders, and beetles. Bears love bugs. But no bears all the way to the top of the mountain where the elder hiker continued ahead to the lookouts and I veered left to the Visitor Center and my car, Angus. A beautiful hike - I found the lady's slippers, and so much more. Slow, but steady, an amazing spring hike!

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