Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Map 5: Muddy Creek Gorge - It's All Uphill From Here!

Sunday 10-12-14: Dorsey Park to Muddy Creek Launch, 13 miles, Peach Bottom Township

We this started this section at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Plant at the Dorsey Park & Boat Launch and hiked straight along the river slope on a cut-in trail to a small cottage community at the base of the Muddy Creek Valley in southern Pennsylvania. The river here is so broad that on foggy mornings you can't see the Lancaster County side. We were impressed with the recent trail work along this stretch - wide cleared paths, recently weed whipped, new benches and blazes. Nice work!

An eagle scout candidate, Kim, Jim the President of the MDT Hiking Club, and me.

As we walked up the gravel road a silver truck came down and parked in the grassy shoulder behind the cottages. Here was the president of the Mason Dixon Trail System! What are the chances of that happening on a two hundred mile section hike? Jim Hooper was very happy to meet us and listen to our trail notes starting from way back at Chadds Ford, a hundred miles ago. We thanked him for his hard work, but he asked instead that we thank the young man who had just walked up behind us, an eagle scout candidate who had taken on MDT maintenance for this section over the summer. Really, trail volunteers and hiking club crews cannot hear 'thank you' enough! They deserve it!

Thank you, MDT Crew!

This segment is one of the two closest MDT sections to where I live in Peach Bottom Township. I often hike a seven mile loop up through the Muddy Creek Valley using the Mason Dixon Trail and our backcountry roads for the return. I share the trail with hikers, nature photographers, birders, whitewater kayakers, and fly fishermen. I count myself  a member of all these groups who love the remoteness and wildness of Muddy Creek. It is surely one the crown jewels of the Lower Susquehanna River Valley. My best fly fishing days are here in the fall and winter. Today I hiked past my favorite casting spots where I know some beautiful wild trout hide out - and I didn't say a word! Shhhhhhh....

Gold-on-green adorns the mossy boulders along Muddy Creek banks.

Aldo Leopold wrote about the 'red lanterns' of wild blackberry leaves during October in A Sand County Almanac, my favorite book to read every year around this time. In the early stages of leaf change which is mostly now in the yellow and gold range here in the Mid-Atlantic, things red stand out dramatically against the muted brown and ochre of the forest floor. The red leaves of blackberry and Virginia creeper practically glow against the yellow of the beech and tulip popular. Leopold marked partridge hunting season by the red lanterns of Wisconsin. Here in South Central PA I associate the red lanterns of fall with wild turkey. Kim and I glimpsed a big tom winging up into a white pine as we rounded a side stream valley. Acorns are everywhere right now and the will turkeys grow very fat on them!

Red berries of Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Once past the cottages (all adorable by the way - two are for sale) we came upon the hillside trailhead to the Muddy Creek section. It was mostly straight up on steep switchbacks, and we huffed and puffed.  Barred owls hollered across the hill, woodpeckers chatted, quiet fall warblers and a hermit thrush slipped through the oak-hickory woods silently. Muddy Creek, a premier whitewater run, fell farther below us as the trail kept climbing. The light through golden leaves of paw-paw, hickory, beech, and poplar cast such a beautiful shimmering, that combined with the cool temperatures (fleeces stayed on!), we were soon surrounded by the perfect autumn morning.

Welcome to the perfect autumn day!

The experience of hiking is much like reading a poem straight through, slowly, not sticking to any one line or word, allowing a flow of light, color, sound, scent, and experience to pass through and by without grasping or clinging. Certainly on long hikes, like my time on the AT, day-after-day walking creates a flow-state of consciousness. I'm reminded of William Blake's poem on non-attachment:

He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.

Beech leaves carpet the MDT through rhododendron. 

The MDT does not dip into gorge itself so you have to climb down off the trail into the boulder-strewn floor on slippery moss-covered rocks to see the squeeze chute where the creek tumbles through in a rooster-tailed rapid.  The bedrock is tilted schist that sparkles and glitters with mica and quartz. 

Looking into the tight Class V chute. Photo by Kim!

This is more or less the mid-section of the white water run for kayakers who have already dropped over shelves and ledges to get to this point. Most folks portage around the chute - and with good reason: there are often thick logs wedged into the crevice making entrapment all but certain. At high levels, the volume of water firing through the squeeze would surely pin a boat to the opposite undercut wall. I've paddled this creek many times in whitewater canoes and kayaks, and I know it's personality from just scraping through to full and pushy and dangerous and I've never felt the need to risk this section so I always carry it.

Where I usually take out and  carry around. Photo by Kim!

Beyond the squeeze, Muddy Creek tumbles almost non-stop down a steep gradient to the Susquehanna giving whitewater paddlers a real ride! Just when you catch your breathe from one tricky drop and turn, you have another, and another. For two miles the creek plays its way down and ends finally in a quiet pool complete with an embedded waterfall stream that pours over from a side wall. The not-so-fun part begins when its time to paddle the long flat stretch of river south to Cold Cabin Road Community Park about a mile and half away, or upstream through the old canal remains, working shoreline eddies to the Muddy Creek Access launch a mile to the north. Either way, trying to track a whitewater boat in flatwater can be tiresome!

Tilted bedrock valley floor sculpted by millions of years of fast water. 

Muddy Creek runs a long course through southern York County and is under the watchful eye of the Muddy Creek chapter of Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited. We gather several times a year to take care of streamside plantings, manage habitat, work in the native plant nursery, or clean up after floods and most commonly - after people. A favorite volunteer job for young folks is helping with the donut/coffee/cider table at the Muddy Creek Forks TU event held on opening day in early March. TU is such a great family organization to get involved with and with chapters all over the state, there's always a stream near home that could use your help. Cold water fisheries are such important habitats not only to trout but forest birds, insects, plants, and aquatic life. 

Muddy Creek is one of the most wild of PA's cold water fisheries. 

Muddy Creek has had its share of abuse, too. About ten years ago there were hoards of people here who over the course of a few months destroyed delicate forested banks, moss communities, and sand banks with long-term 'camping' (I call it squatting). It was awful. These people forced authorities and surrounding land owners to take drastic measures to limit access. The valley has recovered beautifully but I feel that we are always one field party away from seeing it defiled again.  MDT trail crews and TU groups have carefully removed disgusting trash heaps, dug out hacked off stumps and limbs, and re-planted banks and flood plains with native shrubs and trees. There is still plenty of trash to pick up, however, so its always a good idea to pack a bag or two.  That said, we saw a few recently tossed cans and bottles along the trail as well as a hold-over squatters camp draped in a torn tarp. Now, land owners let hikers know exactly where the property lines are, and the closely spaced No Trespassing signs can be a little annoying, but it's all part of a recent history of ignorance and neglect that we still struggle with. Parking at the bridge can be a real hassle and the local towing company makes a lot of money here when neighbors complain about crowds.

This makes me think again about environmental ethics and human morality. Leopold's 'red lanterns' are found in the same book where his essay on conservation and land ethics are found. He suggests there can be no ethic if something is not loved nor appreciated. The power of mob-think in society speaks to the need or compulsion to do as others do in order to be accepted - even respected. This behavior has serious consequences for areas that attract us for their wilderness or wild qualities. Having seen the crowds and the destruction they caused in this beautiful area for myself many years ago, I still wonder at nature's resilience and its ability to recover given time, attention, and protection. I am always interested in how we as society and individuals learn to care for a landscape, how to control our impulses to abuse and neglect a natural resource. I think the Mason Dixon Trail System volunteers and the good folks of TU Muddy Creek Chapter deserve a lot of credit for getting this message across.  

Old road cut through a mossy ridge.

Can we come to love the scars? Long before any of us were around to witness it, this valley contained a hydroelectric project  that required roads be blasted through the scenic ridges, and heavy equipment be anchored to the steep rock walls. The plant didn't last long, however. The steep V-shaped valley of the lower Muddy Creek can raise a wicked flood in a mighty hurry and within a few years the plant, its roads, and any sign of industrial man were swept away.  The remnants of roads remain, however, and serve now as the path for the MDT.  Along it you can see stone walls built to hold the heavy wagon road, a bridge abutment, and some massive curved iron plates that were used in water tank construction. I love recognizing these as artifacts of human history hidden in and overtaken by the rhododendron woods. But could you love the idea of hacked off limbs and uprooted trees, broken glass, vandalized boulders and walls, and mounds of trash years from now? I don't think so.  

Hydro plant  construction road, now the MDT.

The humid north-facing slopes are covered in rhododendron groves that give the valley an almost tropical feel. "Rhodie woods" or thickets, cascade down the steep hillside into the creek and grow so tall and luch that at one point the trail goes underneath, in a  deep green tunnel of wide, large leaves and twisted trunks that arc over our heads like a cathedral ceiling. Like most evergreens, we think stay these plants green year-round, but looking closely we saw there were plenty of yellowing two-year old leaves drooping and dropping into the duff. The white pines overhead carpeted the path with their yellow needles and the hemlocks that hugged the rocky promontories an sheltered the big tom turkey were shedding quite a few needles as well. Walking on the fallen needles released distinct pine on earth scent. 

Rhoadie woods, emblems of  Pennsylvania gorges. 

The large sheltering leaves of rhododendron are important habitat as well. Hiking through here on a rainy or cold day, check under the leaves for insects like moths and beetles, and this time of year look for the beautiful orb weaver spiders that retreat to their daytime rests under a leafy roof. We had to duck under and around a few orb weavers on this stretch and I always love meeting them.  One year I found a little red bat sheltering in a curled rhoadie leaf on a cold morning.  

Marbled Orb Weaver

The MDT climbs steadily up and out of the creek valley and emerges at an old iron bridge. It turns right and climbs steadily, steeply,  along the road and we were huffing and puffing now. Once up and over the long hill, we hiked a lot of road edge across the Piedmont highland past Amish farms and pumpkin fields. It's such a pleasure to hear the clanking and clopping of horse and buggy and to get a friendly wave from an Amish neighbor.

Looking towards Lancaster County as we walk across the highland toward the Susquehanna.  Photo by Kim.

Across the height of land, all of it in beautiful farms with rich soils and thick pastures, we walked along the roadside for about five miles. The blazes, painted on sign posts and telephone poles led us t down to the river, past more Amish farms, and protective farm dogs. Sheep, cattle, chickens, big horses, giant jack mules, and industrious garden and hoop houses filled the landscape. We even caught sight of feeding flocks of starlings making their combined roosting flock, sweeping and turning in unison as they began to settle in for the evening.

Early morning mists rising from Muddy Creek Valley.

Past small cabins and cottages, past a busy apiary (not mine!), and around a sharp steep bend, we turned in at the PA Fish and Boat Commission's Muddy Creek Access and gazed out across a placid, deep blue Susquehanna River. Between us and the far shores of Lancaster County is the Bear Island Complex, a natural treasure for island biodiversity.
In the 1920s there was talk of the island complex becoming a national park, but local residents hearing of the park service's heavy handedness evicting people in the Shenandoah and Great Dismal, wanted no part of it. The idea died quickly and today the islands are monitored by the power company that maintains the next dam at Holtwood, Pennsylvania Power and Light.  Some folks still live out there and as we stood admiring the river I thought I could see the red metal roof belonging to a cabin on Chestnut Island where I once stayed as a guest sheltering from a very bad lightening storm. Best chili I ever had, out there on Chestnut!

Looking towards Turkey Island, part of the dozen or so islands of the Bear Island Complex.

So after another incredibly beautiful section hike, this is the best time in our journey to truly thank the hard working volunteers who give up their weekends and take precious days off to work on the Mason Dixon Trail. I hope I haven't been too harsh in my assessments of the trail conditions so far, especially in Cecil County, MD. If anything, I hope I've added some humor, as sometimes hiking - any hiking - can be frustrating and even painful! As Jim explained earlier in the day, it is all he can do as club president to maintain all the sections with just volunteer help from Chadds Ford to Whiskey Springs. The young eagle scout was just one of hundreds of people who work year round to make the trail a little better as we go. Thanks to Jim and the trail clubs, scouts, neighbors, and friends of the MDT!


Trail work along the M-DTS
Special Message:

ALERT! The Mason-Dixon Trail along the power line right-of-way from PA State Game Lands 181 boundary to Bare Road (Map 5) will be closed due to hunting from October 1 to December 31, 2014.

The next scheduled hike and meeting of the M-DTS will be Sunday, November 16th, 2014 near Conowingo Dam, MD. The hike before the meeting is TBA. The meeting itself will be in the visitors center after the hike

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