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!

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