Thursday, March 5, 2015

PA: Ice Hike - Pinnacle to Tucquan Ravine, Holtwood, Lancaster Co.

The last day of February, locked in frigid cold streaming out of the Arctic. I started out Saturday from The Pinnacle, a promontory overlooking the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and followed the Conestoga Trail north. My plans to hike an out-and-back to the Tucquan Creek Ravine included fitting my winter hiking boots with a set of ice spikes/mini-crampons. The ravine trail section and many stream crossings on the way up are thick with ice this time of year. The starting temperature was 10' F with a light wind. But it wasn't long before I was shedding layers, gloves, hat, and jacket for the heat I was generating on this tough winter hike.

Strap-on ice spikes or crampons are a necessity on this hike in deep winter.

I looked out at the Susquehanna from atop The Pinnacle: the view of the frozen river was stunning. Wind-driven frozen waves of snow and ice patterned the surface. A fly-by of an adult and juvenile bald eagle below the summit added to the drama.  To my left an orange blaze painted on a tree beckoned.

Looking north from The Pinnacle - frozen solid Susquehanna.

The Conestoga Trail is a 60 mile long Lancaster County backpacking trail that can be accessed in many places for day hikes such as this. Blazed orange and maintained by the Lancaster Hiking Club, the lands are under a partner stewardship agreement between the Lancaster County Conservancy and the power companies who manage the watershed for the big dams at Holtwood and Safe Harbor. In addition to the scenic Tucquan Ravine, the trail passes by the Wind Caves (open for cavers),  pre-historic rock shelters, a magnetite mine (entrance blocked), and valley upon valley of native wildflowers in bloom come spring and summer. There are several established single tent camping sites that for the most part are kept clean and attentive by backpackers, though there are sometimes issues with 'trail squatters' in summer, and party groups will be sites trashed. The conscientious hiker will bring along a garbage bag to help keep things picked up, for it is truly a beautiful area. 

I've been hiking for over thirty five years and the Conestoga ranks  as one of the most challenging in the area for difficulty. There are numerous hill scrambles and steep rocky descents, while the seasons present their own versions of hot/ humid or frigid/ icy, I prefer to get my Conestoga workout in winter when snows cover and cushion the rock-strewn path - but the trade-off is ice. The hills and valleys are aligned with river drainage east to west, so south facing slopes can melt during the day and refreeze at night. It can be sticky mud  or thick berms of ice depending on what time of day you hike. The north facing slopes stay in shade for most of the day and can retain snow well into spring. Ice spikes or mini-crampons are the safest way to travel this area in winter. But hiking with sharp spikes on the bottom of your boots takes a little practice. The mantra for ice hiking is "Stay off your poles and stick your points!"

North-facing hillside still thick with snow.

As I started down the hill from summit of The Pinnacle, the snow deepened. What in summer is a rocky, precarious trail in the first half mile was now thankfully blanketed in snow, but steep and slick. Few people had been out since the last storm, but there were a few sets of snowshoe tracks that were easy to follow, so I didn't have too look hard for orange blazes. Instead I concentrated on my toothy kick-step on the steep pitches and on the incredible river views all along the way.

Frozen wind waves.

The river looked solid but certainly wasn't quiet! It groaned and bellowed and made weird whale sounds, including a deep thrumming sound that traveled south to north. I've seen the river freeze over in the past, but have never observed the zig-zaggy waves of snow and ice that I'm almost certain were the result of many weeks of high winds we've had spilling out of the Arctic. 

Rock shelter and orange blazes.

The trail weaves in and around many rock formations, some of which may have served as shelters for people thousands of years ago. The Shenk's Ferry people, who some archeologists suggest may have been absorbed into the Susquehannock nation as it spread southward out of New York, occupied this river valley soon after the last Ice Age and utilized its many rock features for temporary camps and storage. The Susquehannocks who moved in to the valley 1000 years ago established large villages and farming sites on the hilltops where today farms and beautiful crossroad neighborhoods function much now as they did then as places to grow and store crops, gather, celebrate, and trade.

Icy ledges can be skirted around but I chose to kick-step right across!

With the sound of woodpeckers working the forest around me I came to the high ridge that frames the south wall of Tucquan Creek Ravine. The trail follows the spine of the ridge down to the river and involves ledges and narrow passages through sharp schist and gneiss. The sharp rock path was covered in snow-over-ice so I went verrry slowly.  I noticed where the snowshoers chose to skirt down through the steep woods, but I decided to follow the blazes. Now the icy fun began!

A tricky path to the valley bottom!

I solo hike a lot but this was one trip I made sure to text my son and daughter about.  I gave them the approximate time of my start when I expected to be back (I always add an hour), and exactly where I would be. We've done enough trekking as a family that checking-in is routine. But there's nothing routine about hiking in winter, especially solo, so it was good to remember that someone knew where I was. Each step down the ridge was intentionally taken: kick in - step down - dig in - add weight - steady - repeat - all - the- way -to- the - bottom. The river boomed and wailed (is ice-out coming?). Woodpeckers wrapped loudly on hollow wood (a sign of spring!). And though I did take a stumble (ouch!) into a sharp rock wall (blood!), I made it to the bottom where normally the Tucquan Creek would have been rushing out to meet the Susquehanna.

Normally loud and dramatic - an ice and snow quieted Tucquan Creek.

The valley bottom, however, was eerily quiet. The entire creek was encased in ice and snow with an occasional collapsed section of ice shelf revealing almost silent swift water rolling along beneath. Where waterfalls and cascades tumble noisily spring through fall, the whole valley was hushed in winter white. A red tailed hawk wheeled overhead and let loose a long screech that echoed loudly up the ravine. I spent some time carefully making my way directly up the creek - as long as the shelf held my weight - to photograph a frozen waterfall.  Then with a loud crack I quickly made my way to  the ravine trail!

Frozen waterfall I.

Frozen waterfall II.

Frozen seep from the ravine wall.
The ravine trail is a popular summer hike but even then it is tricky in places: steep and slippery with water running from seeps in the ravine wall, boulder scrambles, a narrow ledge crossing just inches wide.  Today the trail was all ice and nearly impassable for anyone not prepared. The snowshoe tracks continued  with the claw-like scrapings of attached crampons. My ice spikes kept me solidly connected to the ice. I stopped so often, however, just to admire the scenes, that it took me a long time to make the climb up. Rhododendron blankets the valley walls that in summer creates a tropical tunnel of green and humid air, but today the wide horizontal leaves were curled tight into pendant tubes. An example of thermotropic movement in leaves, the Rhododendron demonstrates protective behavior in frequent freeze-thaw areas for which Tucquan Creek Ravine is a great example.

Freeze and thaw cycles occurs daily here and this can have serious consequences for plants at the cellular level. Without protective strategies, plants that are unable to protect against freezing soon suffer. Curling is a direct response to frigid temperature as a from of cellular protection. It's a bit like me taking off layers of clothing when I heat up (unfurling) and racing to throw everything back on before I freeze (curling). Although I was moving steadily along the trail and generating a lot of heat, it was still below 20' F and when I arrived at my turn-around spot and I noticed it was much colder in the shaded recesses of the creek valley where the Rhododendron thicket was most dense.

Hidden in the ravine below are several dramatic cascades.

I took my half-way break where the creek valley opens to direct sun, but I was shivering so hard in my own sweat that before snacking I put all my layers, gloves, hat, and jacket back on! But what a beautiful break listening to the deep thrum of the creek running rapidly below ice and snow, and feeling the warmth of sun on my face. In a patch of sun at my back a small red maple was showing its bright red twigs against the snowy hillside - a sure sign that spring is very close.

Red maple twig turning red - spring!

By noon the temperature had risen to 23'F and all things being relative, it felt quite balmy! I started back down the valley and up the steep ridge section, again building heat so quickly that I was soon pulling back off my hat, gloves, and jacket. I noted that since my earlier hike down, a wild turkey had crossed my trail. With his own set of sharp ice spikes at the end of each wide-spread toe, the turkey must have moved carefully across the ice encrusted snow. This was the slick, steep section where I'd taken my tumble and I noticed I'd left my own blood trail, not realizing I'd really torn open the side of my hand. Ouch. 

Turkey trail.

Sun-softened snow made for a slow return to The Pinnacle. It was almost two o-clock by the time I made the first overlook just below the height of the summit. I rested here again for no other reason that to soak it all in. I was joined by an Amish hiker who  smiled and rested in the warm sun near me as the river stretched out in front of us. "Been fishin'?" he asked after a long while and I thought this was a funny thing to ask, sitting on a ledge several hundred feet above the iced-over river. I told him I'd been to the ravine and back and hadn't thought to bring my fishing gear. He laughed a little and said I needed to stop in at Pequea upriver on my way home and check out the ice fishing going on there. "I augured down twenty-two inches yesterday! The ice is nice!"

First Overlook, a short hike downhill from The Pinnacle.

I returned to the car, ice spikes clacking on pavement. The weather is supposed to turn a bit warmer this week with some rain, some more snow, and the possibility of March flooding. It is now a season in change, that like early spring freeze-thaw cycles, is a process of cracking the shell of winter's grip.  Who knows what this river will look like next Saturday, or two Saturday's from now? Each day brings the promise of release from here on out!

For more about the Lancaster County Hiking Club and the Conestoga Trail -

The Lancaster County Conservancy maintains an excellent system of preserves and natural areas throughout the county.  See their list of properties and opportunities to get involved:

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