Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mason Dixon Trail: Map 8 - Elk Neck State Forest

Sunday, July 13, 2014:  Elk Neck State Forest (Elkton) to Northeast, MD, 9 (maybe 10?) miles

Well, we survived.

At least we two old ladies did, while the young soccer player from Madrid tore up the trail in some of the summer's worst heat and humidity yet, happily waving his spiderweb stick to clear the trail for those limping, huffing, and stumbling behind him. Alex just sauntered along. I whined and pined for winter.

Really nice trailhead signs, but confusing blazing on-trail. A tradeoff.

So for this, our next section of the 200 mile long Mason Dixon Trail,  I was really missing winter with its views, crisp air, chilly breezes, and - well - you get it. I much prefer cool season hiking, so I will spare you my pout. But just know that not a molecule of air was moving deep inside the Elk Neck State Forest, Maryland. And, still nursing a sore foot from a late springtime tumble with coonhounds, this nine mile section reminded me that I had to be careful on round pebble surfaces and in deep slippery gullies. Funny, how after hiking miles along steep trails in the ADK and Vermont, I assumed my injury had healed only to come home and find our local long-distance trail lying in wait for me.

Mountain Laurel through the forest was dense and tall.

I missed the annual Mountain Laurel blossoming (again) back home in PA. I don't know what was more important this time, but I kick myself every summer when I encounter large thickets of Kalmia latifolia anywhere in our Mid-Atlantic acidic forests and realize the bloom is past. In winter, which I was dreaming of during this hike, this native evergreen shrub adds a beautiful green understory to our deciduous and pine forests.  The MDT wound round and through dense stands of Mountain Laurel, especially at the start of the hike. Note: We left out the long hot road hike section through the town of Elkton (1 mile) and along a major roadway (1 mile) and picked up the trail at a small parking area off of Huminski Road, just west of town.

Pitch Pine defined the forest type for much of the hike.

As the trail snaked its way through the state forest, we were reminded again and again that we were on new and fragile ground, it having been deposited here on the upper Delmarva just a few thousand years ago by a meandering Susquehanna. The soil was thin, underlain by sand and pebble, carpeted with pine needles from pitch pine overhead. We passed many old, fallen oaks easily toppled by Hurricane Sandy two years ago. The sandy soils offer scant hold to the big, heavy trees in dangerously strong winds.  They all laid toward the south, victims of the tremendous 'returning north winds' on the backside of that historic storm. Pitch pine, the predominate tree of the vast pinelands of New Jersey not far east of here, resist the wind with their wide-reaching network of roots and slim wind-adapted tops. These trees define the Mid-Atlantic Eastern Seaboard forests, and here in the Elk Neck State Forest, somewhat inland, they  define this tract as well.

From the Peter Bond Trail look out platform, looking towards Carpenter's Point, the Northeast River, and the Bay.

Recent rains and high humidity created the perfect conditions to have a box-turtle-palooza! We found four box turtles in our hike through the state forest, all close to the trail where our gaze would naturally fall, so I wondered how many we must have passed that were just beyond our looking! We counted scute rings on all of them, ranging in age from a small and very curious five year old brown-eyed female to a thirty-something male, and a pair that were aged over fifty years. I really should have had my hand lens with me. It was in the bag of cling wraps, ibuprofen, first aid supplies, and itch cream I'd left on the kitchen table - pleh. 

Kim and Turtle #1 - peeking out.
Turtle # 2 - shuttered up tight.
Turtle # 3 - gazing at Alex.

Turtle # 4 - tightly inside.
The geology of Elk Neck describes the transition from the upland Piedmont to the Coastal Plain. Here the ancient Susquehanna once meandered back and forth, taking with it a number of captured streams and rivers, fanning out in marshes, deltas, floodplains, mudflats, and beaches. The Upper Shore areas of Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) exhibit some beautiful high bluffs seen best from the water or shoreline trails. Deep in the interior of the forest, however, we observed the highly eroded gully-wash streams, unconsolidated pebbles, sandy plains, and now and then, a cemented hunk of river gravel.

Lightly cemented Tertiary Upland Gravels, outwash freshwater stream alluvium of an ancient Susquehanna River.

Kim and Alex take a snack and water break on a sand bluff.
The wandering nature of the MDT through the state forest was a nice break from some of the straight and narrow road hiking we'd done on earlier sections. It was so wandering that after we took our break at Plum Pond bluff, we missed a dog-leg turn and found ourselves across from the park maintenance building. Some of the hard plastic blazes, nailed into the trees (bad form!), had been vandalized and we're sure that turn must have been one of those. So here we were trudging up a sandy road, past the noisy shooting range and the quiet archery range, until we found the trail head signs again. We picked up the MDT through the forest and finished our off-road hike in the town of Northeast.

A lightening-struck tree, just past the Plum Pond bluff.

As far as the Mason Dixon Line goes, we are as far south as from the PA/MDstate boundary as this trail goes. But the actual survey team did travel farther to south in 1764 as they established the Tangent Line: the boundary between Delaware and Maryland. From June until September, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon - in a heat and humidity so stifling that many of the large survey party suffered heat illnesses - walked up and down the line from the Nanticoke River to New Castle County twice: the first time to lay the line, the second time to adjust it.

Map in collection, University of Delaware

The marker star to lay the line was the tail of the Little Bear, Ursus Minor. Astronomer Charles Mason, working through the night, tracked the star with his brass telescope and zenith sector, sending out his candle men into the wilderness to mark the line as the star aligned with the wire embedded in the telescope lens. By day Jeremiah Dixon fixed the line according to offset calculations established by Mason the night before, directing a huge party of axe men, chain men, assistants, and brushmen to clear a path through some of the thickest forest in the region. When corrected, the 80 mile line ran perfectly straight from the swamps of the lower Delmarva to the farmland of the Piedmont. How they did it so quickly and so accurately remains a mystery, and even with modern satellite technology to check their work, today's surveyors marvel at their precision.

Emerging flower of  Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora

Come fall, the rechecking and realigning slowed as the famously dense fogs of the peninsula shrouded their path day and night. Though temperatures had cooled significantly and the work was less taxing on the large party, financial backers in Philadelphia worried that progress had slowed to the point that it would have to be continued the following year, thus create a cost overrun. But in a grand final push to correct and set the final line, Mason and Dixon finished by November and returned to Philadelphia to write their reports. The next spring they would begin to establish the West Line, finally dividing once-and-for-all, Pennsylvania and Maryland and ending decades of boundary disputes.

Alex and his bright blue shirt served as our 'walking blaze' through the forest.

Though our path is not straight like the Tangent Line, the MDT was laid out purposely to wander above and below the famous Mason Dixon Line to give hikers a taste of the landscape as the surveyors may have experienced it. They did not have to contend with the noise and traffic of Route 40, however, and at the point of limping, I was a little impatient to get back to the wooded trail after we spent some time on the sidewalks and roads of the tidewater town of Northeast. A local shopkeeper, a neighbor of Kim's, graciously allowed our sweaty group to use her bathroom. Then on through a rougher part of town to avoid a wickedly overgrown field that apparently does not see much of a trail crew in summer. But- Lo! Rita's! Along the highway! Must have ice! Beyond Rita's and across the highway was the Little Northeast Creek, a return to the wooded trail and a noticeable change in landscape - we'd not only crossed Route 40, we'd crossed the Fall Line!

Above the Fall Line at trail's end for this section.

Hopefully our last MDT section east of the Susquehanna from Northeast to Perryville, MD, will happen on a much less humid, hot day. For those following the maps, know that some of the plastic blazes are moved, removed, destroyed, or in some way tampered with.  We missed a major turn because of their removal and probably hiked an additional mile trying to find our way to another trailhead. That missed turn, however, led us to a beautiful overlook that we would not have discovered had we not popped out at the park office, the Peter Bond Trail. Worth the diversion!


Edwin Danson (2001) Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. John Wiley and Sons, Publisher.

John Means (2010) Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware, and Washington D.C. Mountain Press Publishing Company.

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