Thursday, October 29, 2015

PA: Middle Creek WMA, Lancaster Co. - Hiking the Furnace Hills

Pennsylvania has a long tradition of conservation and outdoor recreation. The PA Game Commission is one of the Commonwealth's agencies that works hard to balance the opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and nature appreciation with the need for land management for wildlife. It's a delicate balance, for sure, considering how emotion-packed some of the user group issues can be. But if you know the fall hunting seasons (area closures), peak birding periods in winter (traffic-clogged roads), and wear your blaze orange in both of these seasons, hiking the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in northern Lancaster County, is a great day hike.

Check out the Visitor Center first for trail maps and beautiful displays.

I explored the Furnace Hill trail system, the Middle Creek WMA's segment of a long arc of ore-rich ridges of red sandstone. A combination of trails starting at the Visitor Center forms a nice 5 mile loop: Conservation Trail, Elders Trail, Middle Creek Trail, and a road walk back to the Visitor's Center that offers several nice views of the lake.  Other loops can be made using a section of the Horseshoe Trail, built in 1935, that passes across the ridges. Horseshoe Trail connects the AT north of Hershey to Valley Forge National Park near Philadelphia and is known as one of the premier long-distance equestrian trails in the East.

A cold front was passing over in the morning hours making for dramatic Furnace Hills views.

I started off on the Conservation Trail at the corner of the parking area. It features a large swath of restored grasslands and meadowlands and beautiful views of the valley. Sparrows were everywhere! White-throateds dominated the meadows and chipping sparrows captained the wind-driven edges of sumac and young maple. A brisk northern wind whipped leaves from the tulip poplar and beech trees in a fantastic yellow leaf fall for most of the day. After a  few hard freezes the only flowering plants remaining out on the meadows  are the purple asters and despite the chilly morning the cold-hardy bumble bees were busy foraging. 

Owl zone! 

The Furnace Hills are part of a large complex of iron-rich landscapes in the Pennsylvania Appalachian foothills that were critical to the Colonial iron industry. Many of the trails through this region are actually surviving Colonial roads that connected mining sites to charcoal pits (an important furnace fuel) to furnaces to industrial pikes and highways. It's important to remember that what may look wild and natural today was once an industrial landscape where few trees stood. The forests that now blanket the Furnace Hills are second and third generation woodlands.

Tulip poplar dominates the hillsides and creek valleys.

Walking along the old roads (i.e. trails) I met up with dozens of other hikers in family groups and small Sunday hiking clubs. Everyone was chatting away in German. "Guten Morgen!" was the happy greeting. It wasn't until I returned to the Visitor Center in the afternoon that I heard any English at all.   Old Order and Mennonite  are incredible birders and naturalists! Whenever I have the opportunity to practice my German I learn something from them. Today I learned that the barred eulen are getting active down in the low woods and to listen for one in particular that is a real show stopper.  Fall through winter is what we call the owling season when most resident species are courting and many northern migrants can be observed through the rural countryside of Pennsylvania. Resident owls include the great horned, screech, barred, northern saw-whet, and barn owls. By late fall and winter we can add northern species like short-eared, long-eared (though these do breed in north central PA), and snowy owls.

Clearly, the barred eulen who lives here disapproves of hikers on his boardwalk! 

The barred owl action began almost as soon as I set foot on the boardwalk that traverses the wet woods between the two ridges I would hike today. I saw him/her only once, a shadow shifting through a bright yellow curtain of foliage, an eulen shape quiet in flight but not in voice! How so much noise can come from a football-sized feathered creature I do not understand, but the owl's caterwauling and barking kept up all the way through the woods and ended when I stepped off the walkway. I waited for other hikers to come by to see if the performance would continue and sure enough a young Mennonite family ventured across the boardwalk escorted the whole way by the hollering eulen. The young children giggled with delight as their dad tried to mimic the owl which only seemed to agitate it even more.

An old iron furnace road showing managed shrub edges for habitat.

Out of the low woods I followed an old gravel road to the Elder Trail start.  Tiny peeps and chirps of early forming winter flocks of chickadees and tufted titmice drifted in and out of the edge habitat on either side. PGC maintains healthy edge zones for wildlife by cutting back the mature trees up to ten feet from the road edge. Though interior trails are not given such treatment, it was nice to have such a broad view through this forest. Numerous horse-drawn carts and buggies rattled along loaded with binocular-wielding birders and picnickers on their way to Sunday afternoon gatherings. The Elder Trail branched off on a two-track road that climbed to the summit of a ridge.

A trotting cart and horse canter up the Laural Road.

The names of the old furnaces are still found throughout the region. In some places the Colonial and Post-Colonial furnaces themselves survive. Upper and Lower Valley Forges, Coventry Forge, Warwick Furnace, Hopewell Furnace, Joanna Furnace, Elizabeth Furnace, Upper and Lower Hopewell Forges, Speedwell Forge, Cornwall Furnace, Colebrook Furnace, Manada Furnace can be found as place names. Cornwall and Hopewell Furnaces are restored historic sites that feature preserved iron worker villages and their original furnaces. Speedwell Forge survives as a restored red stone iron masters house and is a fine B&B. An industrial archeologist has determined that along the arc of iron-rich hills that sweeps from west of the Susquehanna River east to Philadelphia, over 40 forges and furnaces were in production from 1750 through 1820. As forge and furnace technology improved larger furnaces and plants replaced these and following the Civil War the large steel-making plant at Steelton was in full production while all others closed.

A Mennonite hiker shared some great local history information about this old iron road, now the Elder Trail.

I crossed the intersection of the Elder Trail and Horseshoe Trail and headed downhill along an old iron road. I met a Mennonite hiker coming up. He was a font of iron furnace and forge history - most of it shared in German. He drew on my trail map where, outside the WMA, I could find the remains of several Lebanon County foundries and furnaces to the north. He pulled a small point and shoot camera from his pack and showed me a recent find in the woods, the remains of what he called the New Market Furnace. I'll have to check that out, I told him. "Gut! Gut!" he said, "Before natur vernichten!" (Before nature consumes them!)

Horseshoe Trail and Elder Trail intersection on the top of the Furnace Hills Ridge.

Horseshoe Trail heads west along the Furnace Hills ridge on an old furnace road.

I'm not sure why the encounter with the solo hiker in black pants and suspenders slowed me way down. He went on his way up the hill in strong strides. I went on my way downhill. But he went up a lot faster up than I went down. I found myself almost inching along the old road. I wanted to see the landscape the way he did - full of hints and clues to its industrial past. The northwest wind played tricks. The bumping of limbs against trunks and branches against limbs became the thump and rattle of axles and wheels on these rocky wagon roads. Leaning trees squeaking against the boles of others became the sound of high-sided buckboards holding heavy loads of charcoal. The wind created so many voices in the forest that in my lazy stroll down the valley  it wasn't just me hiking, it was we - a friendly ghost kind of hike.

"Fedora" Mennonite family.

I explored an old cabin foundation, the chimney still standing and its mortar  showing clearly the impressions of log walls. I dabbled in a hand-dug well and spooked a large green frog from his yellow blanket of poplar leaves. Red sandstones and conglomerates  were easily quarried from these hills. Driving around the area you can see how beautiful redstone foundations of large German barns and handsome village homes. I stayed at the foundation for some time running my hands over the stone and tracing the deep impressions of the cut-end of logs in the mortar.  Deer moved quickly across the trail and what I thought might be a bear in the distance scramble up a slope - though by now my imagination was so active I well may have dreamed the bear. They are here, however, and from the many large boulders overturned along the trail, a bruin had in the past week or so come through looking for grubs, bugs, ants, and worms.

Chimney still contains log end impressions in its sides.

Autumn woods, especially on blustery days such as this, do play on the imagination. How many "sightings" of panthers and bears turn out to be feral cats and black dogs out exploring? How the mind wants to see wild things! We crave the thrill of seeing something rare or secretive exposed and when our minds create these sometimes fanciful and wild artifacts out of shadows and semi-stories, we feel the goosebumps raise and we shiver a little.

Black Oak on the dry ridge top.

Compared to what settlers may have found running wild in this landscape 350 years ago (and subsequently destroyed) we are only just beginning to see the return of species that our grandparents would never have dreamed of seeing out their farmhouse windows or while on their Sunday walks along the stream. Coyotes big as wolves (the Pennsylvania wolf sanctuary is not far from here), lumbering black bears, a bobcat. I've seen these animals in the Furnace Hills - some for real, others in my imagination -wishing they were as common as the squirrels and as loud as the barred owl. I want them back. I wish them back. As I neared the bottom of the valley within earshot of the creek I stopped short when I saw the bear. It shaped shifted into a black-clad Amish teenager walking along with his German short-haired pointer. I laughed (but shivered again!) and we said "Guten Nachmittag!"

Middle Creek Trail follows an old trolley grade.

The hairpin turn from Elder to Middle Creek Trail is easy to miss. I was still laughing at my imaginary bear when I realized I'd missed the hidden connector and wound up in a parking lot at the bottom of the valley. I retraced my steps until I found the trail, an old trolley grade. At a narrow wooden bridge that sits atop the trolley line bridge abutments I met two young Mennonite hikers exploring some ruins. They asked if I would take their picture with their point-and-shoot camera at standing in front of the old bridge.  "Opa remembers the obus that came through here. He will enjoy this photo. Danke!"  The trolley line ran through nine rural villages and connected many area farmers with markets in Ephrata and Lebanon.  Though it was only 22 miles long the trip from end-to-end took almost two hours! The trolley grade turned trail, however, is only a mile and a half to its terminus and soon I was hiking along on the main road for a final mile back to the Visitor Center.

Views of the lake with happy honking of newly arrived Canada Geese!

I took my late lunch on the tailgate of the car and looked out across the valley. Formations of Canada Geese were swirling around the lake calling to those hundreds already on the ground. Goose greetings were as happy as those of the  German-speaking hikers I'd met on the trail. Looking to the hills I tried to imagine the iron industry here and how it consumed the forests creating ecological wastelands in its hundred-year long wake. Danke! to the PGC and generations of conservation workers for restoring the view, the woods, and the hope that the wild is working its way back home.  


Time your visit carefully during fall migration as this place can fill up fast with birders and tourists, their cars lining the roads and filling every available parking space. Sunday mornings are the best time during peak migration to plan a hike here. Plenty of parking at the Visitor Center before 10, bathroom, and well-stock map racks! Save a little time to wander the museum. 

If you are coming from far away and want to stay right in the WMA, you can't go wrong with a few nights here!

Don't forget that this is a popular hunting area. Areas are well posted when they are closed for hunts. But always pack a blaze-orange vest or cap just to be safe. "Hunters wear orange and so should you!"

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