Monday, May 25, 2015

PA Mason Dixon Trail -Maps 5 to 4: Sawmill Branch and Otter Creek

Saturday, May 24, 2015:  Airville, York Furnace, Shenks Ferry, PA, 13 miles

Be forewarned. I am terribly biased when it comes to this, the previous, and next section of the MDT. I tend to think these landscapes are the most divine of any of the sections on this 200 mile long trail that connects Chadds Ford to Whiskey Springs. I am biased I suppose because I can go here anytime and hike for an hour or a day and be only a few miles from my home. I am biased too because I have many friends in these hills, some who play violins and some who fish for the wild trout. I can walk a mile on the trail anywhere from Peach Bottom to Shenk's Ferry and know at least one landowner on who's farm or woodlot the trail  passes through. It can be tough going in some spots, but it is such beautiful landscape that for all the huffing and puffing the journey  through here is well worth it. 

Along Posey Road in Airville, York County.

Charles and Jeremiah on their 1767 trek through these parts remarked in their journals that the fiddle music, emanating from taverns and barns, sometimes got ugly. The land was contested ground and sometimes all it took for a fight to break out was for a Englishman to make a mockery of a Scot's tune. In fact, the land had been long fought over by settler families of the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, waging war against each other to settle boundary disputes and to lay claim for one royal governor or the other. It took Mason and Dixon some years to make that line, but when it was done and the deeds were settled and the blood finally sunk into the earth, the music remained. It is no coincidence that today the York County Fiddlers  and Deer Creek Fiddlers groups have a long tradition of summer 'conventions' in these hills.

Kim makes the first crossing of today's section.

So here we were, Kim and I, starting the second summer of our challenge to walk the entire Mason Dixon Trail. We met on Memorial Day Saturday 2015 in the parking lot of the State Gamelands along Blain Road where we ended our 2014 hike in the fall.  A little bit of road walking along Posey Road overlooking beautiful farm country to reach the field edges and woods above Sawmill Creek, then we were in the thick of it.We quickly regained our old pace and caught up on all the news of the long winter.

Storm damage was at times massive and in places along the trail, almost impassable.

Skirting across the heights of land then dipping into the steep ravines that characterize the river hills of the Susquehanna, we came across many areas that have been ravaged by recent and intense local weather events. Whether these events represent an increase in the frequency of wild weather that signals a shift in regional climate patterns or not, one thing was clear: the steepness of the land and the forests that cling by shallow roots to the outcrops and bluffs cannot long hold up against hurricane force winds, powerful down drafts of straight line storm systems, and torrential rains. Several of the trail's bridges have been replaced over the past ten years and in many places creeks are choked with logs and toppled trees. In one place we picked our way carefully through the mangled tops of ancient hemlocks that had (by my estimation) been toppled over the winter months. 

When nature alters the landscape so much that even a good GPS doesn't help.

Recent trail crew activity was a sign of ongoing efforts to keep the trail in safe order, but it seemed to me an almost impossible job. As soon as one storm's fury is cleaned up and repaired, another section of trail received a new dose of damage. Near the sight of an almost fatal landslide (for one poor old man out fishing on a rainy day several years ago) we met a fellow hiker on a geocache quest. The landscape had been so altered in a familiar area where he'd found an ammo box stashed  a few years before that he could not even recognize the bend in the creek.

Northern Watersnake.

The challenges of navigating some parts of the trail were more than made up for by frequent wildlife sightings including a wood duck performing her broken-wing display to distract us from her family of ten babies along Sawmill Branch. A fat and beautiful northern watersnake crossed the trail to force a stop to our progress along a very steep section. We waited patiently for the snake to find her hidey-hole under a trailside outcrop before we could move ahead. Two deer came crashing down in front of us, bounding down the nearly vertical hillside and vanishing in just a few leaps across the creek and into the thick hemlocks beyond.

Metagraywacke schist glimmers inside and out.

Me against a cliff of metagraywacke. Pic by Kim.

With occasional views of the wide Susquehanna from the river bluffs, we could see the general slant and tilt of uplifted rock that makes up the sharply defined shores and outcrops. This is metagraywacke schist, layered like sedimentary rock, but really a highly morphosed igneous rock from the depths of a proto-Atlantic seafloor. It weathers roughly, not like the smooth sandstones of the northern river valley that can be found in the cobble along the beaches at low water. This is sharp stuff, the kind of rock that tears the hull of an expensive kayak or the sole of your foot and palm of your hand.

Campground map at Otter Creek.

Without too much tumbling and tripping, we powered up a steep schisty hill to the Otter Creek Campground, owned and operated by PPL. Since it was Memorial Day weekend the campground was predictably full, but remarkably quiet and serene. Families have come here for generations since the building of the dams in the 1920s when workers were given caravans for summer outings and leased lots for building vacation cabins. As we walked through children were playing everywhere while parents and grandparents enjoyed each other's company. We discovered the camp store had what we craved after each hike - ice cream! After a quick lunch down by the river, we continued on with the second leg of the hike up and around the scenic valley of Otter Creek.

View north from Urey's Overlook.

We are far north of the Mason Dixon Line now, long removed from the east-to-west path of the Mason and Dixon survey party. It is documented that Mason did visit York City to reprovision for his crew working their way across the south county. There is debate, however, about how he traveled - whether by rough river road or by inland  pike.  Either way, the roads were rough and in some places dangerous, watched over by suspicious settlers armed with guns, knives , and mean dogs.

Otter Creek, a trout fisher's paradise.

The creek valley was humid, sun dappled in green and yellow light, and filled with carpets of woodland wildflowers. I was a little worried, however, about Sawbranch and Otter Creek, two of my favorite places that, along with Muddy Creek to our south, are some of the best wild trout creeks in south central PA. For over twenty years I have fly fished these beautiful rock-studded streams that are full of deep fishey holes that hide the craftiest of trout royalty. On our way down Sawbranch and up Otter, I remarked to Kim how silted over they were. The ledges and boulders, important habitat for all manner of aquatic life, were covered in inches of fine yellow-orange silt so that you could hardly make out the bottom features.

Silt fills in the important nooks and crannies stream animals require.

Narrow path along Otter Creek. Pic by Kim.

 Not far from here, just across the river, is the renowned Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve that, like the Otter Creek valley, shelters a vast ravine of woodland plants and old growth forest, but it has much better exposure to early spring sunshine that this deep shaded valley does not. But Otter Creek still boasts a lot of wildflowers! We were a little late to the trillium party and the mayapples were nearing the end of their bloom period, but jack-in-the-pulpit and carpets of mayflower bloomed all around.

Indian Cucumber, tho' not really a 'cuke.

Carpets of Mayflower.

Among the profusely blooming wild raspberry patches along the more open dappled sun-splashed trail, we caught sight of false solomon's seal, mounds of hay-scented and sensitive fern, and further up the dry hillsides, thickets of mountain laurel in full bloom.  We sniffed and coughed in the continuing rain of pollen making this season one of the more memorable for those who suffer from spring allergies. But the sight of a gentle downpour of yellow and orange tulip poplar petals made us forget our itchy eyes and throats.

Mountain Laurel blossoms.

A freshly grown polypore!

Husk of last year's blossoms over a bed of fresh leaves, Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid.

Winding in and out of the creek valley, we finally topped the highest bluff over the river for this stretch at Urey's Overlook (see earlier pic). At this viewpoint we are just downstream by a mile (as the crow flies, not as we hiked!) from the third of the great dams that harness the flow of the river at Safe Harbor. After a short rest at the overlook we followed a broad mowed trail out to the the hilliest section of Rt. 425 and a new parking lot (!!) designating a new management unit for Susquehannock State Park. 

Brand new!

We crossed Rt. 425 for the third or fifth or sixth time  and trudged down into what seemed to be a lost valley. This was the rough final third of today's hike, when our muscles ached and feet pounded inside our boots. Nothing a little ibuprofen later won't help, but for now it was all a head game. I imagined the fiddlers that our English surveyors heard dueling in the local taverns (two of those taverns still stand in these parts) and of the spirit of backwoods music that still permeates the area. In my head I played my mandolin again and again a tune I'd long ago forgotten the name of, but have heard the past two years at the local fiddler's gatherings. It helped to imagine the chords,  one chorus to the next, accompanying a group of fiddlers and strummers. Kim checked her Fit-Bit and saw that we were approaching the twelve mile mark. A few more refrains and a mile more, and we'd be looking down at the big dam!

Safe Harbor Dam on the Susquehanna.

For our first long hike of the season, I think we did okay but I sure can't remember the final stretch into the woods following our view over Safe Harbor. I do remember my arms pumping up and down on my hiking poles pushing up hills in time to the imaginary sound of fiddle music in my head. But if there had been a rare bird or a beautiful snake right in front of me, I well might have missed it, so focused I was on that double scoop of strawberry ice cream waiting for me at the camp store!

This was the song in my head played here by some neighbors and friends at our York County fiddler's convention.  You can be sure I came home and pulled out the madolin while waiting for the ibuprofen to kick in! 


A nice new map is now available from the Camp Store at Otter Creek Campground (PPL) that shows the many area trails including the MDT:

You can make a full day of looping around the ravines and woods based from your tent or camper site with great boat access to explore the river for kayaking and canoeing. Just down the road are several small parks, historic buildings, and the remarkable Indian Steps Museum, open some weekends and for special events:

PS Notes:  51 weeks to go till graduation and a long walk across Spain! Please consider donating to my trip by clicking the Go Fund Me link at the top of my blog!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

MD: The Countdown Begins - A Walk At Governor Bridge Natural Area

Yesterday marked graduation weekend at my graduate school in New Hampshire. I am behind by a year because of an advisor fail over three years ago. I almost quit. I was so angry I can still feel bitterness. That I should have walked that stage yesterday blurs into  resignation of adding the extra expense and year to what has become a six year odyssey, a journey that has vacillated between what I love to do in writing and research and what I most despise about academe. But despite the highs and lows, I have been committed all along to environmental, agriculture, and conservation history which involves a tremendous amount of reading and writing, drafts and rewrites, reviews and proofing. These are the things I thought about while on a lunch walk following a meeting in southern Maryland. There's something freeing about the idea of acceptance when I can just wander to clear my mind.

Broad-headed skink.

Someone at the meeting yesterday asked me if I hate it - the disruptions, the grueling pace of the work, and rearrangement of life as I knew it. I had to answer honestly that somedays I do - that I am always exhausted, I've lost a few good friends, and I always feel guilty for going for a walk instead of writing another page. The worst part is trying to balance a full time job on top of the demands of this dissertation. Then there are the marathon writing weekends or holidays when I can write for 72 hours and not look up and be in the zone, when everything clicks and flows together and blossoms into good writing and a good story. I love that. But I miss  the weekend hikes, the overnights in the mountains, the long canoe and kayak expeditions, weeks and weeks of wandering and exploring.  So the countdown starts for next year - 52 weeks from now - when finally I'll walk across that stage.

My lunch walk destination after a meeting near Washington D.C.

I wandered the network of trails at Governor Bridge Natural Area trying to come up with metaphors for what I've already endured and what this next year promises to bring. The site is an old quarry area that came into the hands of conservationists and land planners when the sand and gravel company sold the land. But it's also a haven for people trying to escape the crowded highways and dense residential and shopping areas that have consumed everything around it. I met a few fishermen, one slightly drunk or high or both who had to tell me why he thinks parks are closed. Blame gays! Blame Obama! Blame the Pope! I walked very quickly away from him! My metaphor exercise wasn't working. 

Yellow pond lily.

The reptiles were out in force. It was a hot day for birds, but a nice day if you were cold blooded. I counted two black rat snakes, three broad-headed skinks, one five-lined skink, two garters, and a fat northern water snake. The spring migrant warblers have passed through I think, some staying to nest, but at the time of day I walked, early afternoon after the meeting, the birdsong had quieted down. I picked up red and white-eyed vireo by call, several common yellow throats, and orioles all around the ponds. The trails of old truck roads were perfectly tropical-looking draped in the greenery of high spring time, but it was the quarry ponds that really were beautiful. After almost 60 years an industrial area, the wooded swamps, open ponds, and vast meadows seemed like a miracle.

An old sand quarry pit now serves as a lily-filled pond.

This is sand and gravel country where for centuries people have mined the outwash of distant glaciers and the deposits of seas coming and going over millions of years. It's not uncommon to see abandoned mines and quarries like this throughout the southern Maryland peninsula, but it is a treat to see such a quarry site fully transformed into a park and valuable natural area. I circled all the ponds on the Red, Blue, Orange, and Yellow trails.  A canoe and kayak launch trail gives paddlers access to the Patuxent River Trail. 

Female Prothonotary Warbler.

The deep woods seemed older than they were, and if I closed my eyes and listened to the flycatchers and vireos punctuating the forest with their calls, I could imagine a wild, untouched place before the quarries were clawed from the sandy soils. But the fact is that in order to reclaim this property for conservation purposes, some serious work had to be done. Wetland soils just don't happen. Forest soils have to be replaced. In the field of reclamation, ecologists and biologists work with heavy equipment operators to create the base layer of what will be a restored habitat, whether terrestrial or aquatic. It's hard tedious work - the unglamorous side of conservation. And it takes time to see results. 

A forested wetland - and a family of geese.

As I walked along the trails I observed hints of the construction work that took place here to maintain the swamps, ponds, and water flow. Pipes, large and small, culverts and dikes seemed to criss-cross every boundary between woods and open water. Another bit of engineering has recently come to the scene: beavers building lodges against the flow of water, thwarting the work of two-legged water engineers. The humans dig out the dams, the beavers put them back. In the big picture however, stream management doesn't mean a lot if the laws designed to make these places possible and to protect them are themselves weak or unenforced. Congress continues to wage war against the EPA and Clean Water Act. Development in and around areas like this continue to have real and devastating impacts on streams and rivers.

Eastern Phoebe feeds her young under the bridge I was crossing.

A blogger named Kirk who I follow ( can explain more about the impact and consequences of poor policy and political wrangling on our waterways and wetlands. He's a 'mud engineer' and works some of that heavy  equipment to make and manage places like this. But as an environmental historian, the story of policy and restoration ecology is an important one that helps us to see the 'before and after' of a place. Laws and conservation policies that are enforced or not have very real, sometimes ugly, results on our ever-shrinking wild resources.

A friendly black rat snake.

My failed metaphor hike came to an end an hour later, when back at my car I took a few minutes to glance back down the trail. This visit had been pleasant enough - but I could have done without the talkative fisherman. And, I felt guilty for not having found a library somewhere to do a little more reading or writing instead of wandering around an old sand quarry. I had to head home - through hours of congested highways as it turned out. Hours in the driver's seat, frustrated and impatient, something like this PhD program - not enough time to do good work, and the time I have is spent in traffic between offices, meetings, schools, and events. But I must thank those who, for the past five years, have recommended the places I've visited for my lunch walks - my own tranquil hours to decompress. 

Dark and handsome Orchard Oriole.

So the countdown begins. Fifty-two weeks till I walk that stage and then venture off across the Big Pond - a graduation gift to myself of the 440 mile Camino de Santiago. I'm praying I can stay on schedule with my writing timeline and have a first draft ready by fall. And I know, through experience, to expect the failed metaphors and the frustrating starts and stops. But the birds are always singing somewhere. I'll hang on to that for the next year. There are many stories to be told...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

PA: Ridley Creek State Park - Height of Spring

With one play day a weekend (sometimes none) while working steadily on this environmental history dissertation, I've tried hard to catch the height of spring migration here at home, at White Clay Creek State Park (DE) and at Ridleys Creek State Park (PA) near Philadelphia. Between the yard, the farm lane at work, and my five mile hikes I managed to catch a few arrivals, but the trees have leafed out so full and so fast that my window for good photography quickly closed! Birding by ear, however, has been incredible!

Indigo Bunting, Bryans Field Trail, White Clay Creek State Park

Curious female Towhee, White Clay Creek State Park.
Ovenbird, White Clay Creek State Park.

The northern Piedmont is particularly beautiful in mid-spring as the rolling hills and deep ravines fill with a bright green glow and the male birds, having come from South and Central America, fill the gaps with song and excited activity - nest building, territorial patrols, and displays for mates. Females flit here and there, creeping through the underbrush and leaf litter, and say little. There are nests and eggs to hide.

Red-winged Blackbird snacks on flatworms at Swan Harbor Farm.

One of many goose families at Swan Harbor Farm.

Young male muskrat parades in front of me at Swan Harbor Farm.

Out on the wetlands at Swan Harbor Farm the wetlands are full of Canada geese nesting on top of last winter's muskrat pushups, and the muskrat have started rebuilding new homes for the year. The males construct the mud and stick (mostly mud) platform and douse it with scent in hopes of attracting a mate. When a curious female inspects the new digs he parades and pursues her. I witnessed a parade on a recent lunch walk as a young male swam back and forth in front of me - not sure what I was squatting there on the bank. A female came by shortly after and he quickly turned from me to her! 

Song Sparrow sings his heart out on his territorial patrols, Swan Harbor Farm.

Tree Swallow nesting in a wood duck box.
Glossy Ibis working the flooded fields at Swan Harbor Farm.
Catbird, Ridleys Creek State Park.

Towhee marking territory, Ridleys Creek State Park.

The area in and around Ridleys Creek State Park deserves another few visits. But for this past Sunday's visit I stuck to the Yellow Trail for my birding and picked up some beautiful wildflowers and interesting views of the former Jeffords estate which is now state-owned. This area, the center of colonial and post-colonial horticulture, boasts an amazing variety of stunning public and private gardens, the well-known Longwood Gardens among them. 

Jeffords Estate, build around a German colonial stone farmhouse, Ridleys Creek State Park.

Early 1900s glasshouse in ruins - but what a birding hot spot!

Cedar 'walls' of the sitting garden - another birding hotspot!

More later on Ridley Creek State Park when I go back to visit the Colonial Farm and Tyler Arboretum and explore more of the trails, ruins, historic buildings, and the great fishing creek. For now, it is the height of spring and we are making the not-so-slow swing into summer. Humidity has returned, that wonderful (or not) attribute that makes the Mid-Atlantic either a pleasure (for those who enjoy torture) or a pain for exploring outdoors.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

PA: Nottingham Serpentine Barrens, Chester Co.

It's been a long week, so I took a long walk. Late in the day on Saturday I made a four mile loop around Nottingham Serpentine Barrens County Park in Chester County, PA - about forty minutes from where I live. I love serpentine barrens and I've done a post or two about them. There are many conservations lands within a short drive of here that protect them. Soldier's Delight, Goat Hill, and many others. They are rare habitats that contain only those plants that can tolerate heavy metal soils - toxic to most plants in the Mid-Atlantic.

One of many views over the serpentine hills at Nottingham.

Like many serpentine areas, this place too was once heavily mined for  chromite for the making of munitions during WWI. It was a busy place and the landscape was heavily scarred and altered.  There are the remains of a reduction site near one of the big quarry lakes for history buffs, and plenty of placer mines, quarry pits, and old roads that date to the war years 1914-1919.

Quarry lake - very very deep and fenced off.

The main section of the park is beautifully laid out with scenic places to picnic, several small pavilions for parties and reunions, playgrounds, a really nice small lake, and a pretty little pollinator garden. This park has always been a jewel in the Chester County parks system. It's worth a whole day to really explore. But today I did three hours before sunset and just enjoyed the natural company of the insects, birds, deer, and even a few red bats.

Box elder flowers aflame over little Victory Run that cuts through the park.

The deciduous trees are all well on their way to having leaves and are in one stage or another of budburst, flower, and new leafy growth. Black cherry trees already have their burstings of Eastern Tent caterpillar and I stopped to watch them wriggle and congregate outside their silky shelters. 

Eastern Tent Caterpillar on black cherry.

The predominate trees at Nottingham Barrens are the pitch pines that grow across vast open plains of serpentine soils. In most places the metallic rock is just at the surface and soils are only a few inches deep where soils exist. 

A hunk of weathered serpentine broken open to see the raw chromite inside.

A tiny marsh of reed in a wet hollow.
A wind twisted pitch pine above a barrens prairie.

Sap was running from this sapsucker's recent work.

A whitetail deer (doe) on Doe Trail. Go figure.

There are many trails to explore and I suggest picking up one of the full color maps at the office or at a stocked kiosk. I did a four mile loop on Doe, Buck, and Feldspar Trails, then walked the gravel roads from end to end in the developed section. Because I came late there were only a few dog walkers and a few botanists. They pointed out some of the trailside flowers like this moss phlox which was blooming in profusion.

Moss Phlox.

I'll stop back in a month or so to see the progression of the prairie grasses and composite flowers. But for now the hills are still brown and open. All we need is a herd of buffalo and we're good to go. But there is a little research going on...

As the sun set behind the hills of pitch pine I came across this Morning Cloak butterfly chillin' on a knotty dead pine limb. These butterflies are only observed in early spring so it was nice to have such a good long look at it before heading out. I'll be back in a few weeks and capture the green-up in a very difficult place to live and grow! 


Websites for the park and its conservation partners - 

Chester County Parks

Nature Conservancy - Nottingham