Monday, December 14, 2015

PA Lake Williams: Landscape Revisions

Lake Williams emerges from the fog.

Tethered to the kitchen table for many weekends now, working pretty much non-stop on my dissertation revisions, I had to take a break. But it couldn't be an all day break - no full play day for me because I had to keep going when I got home! I needed a nearby five miler to refresh my attitude and re-energize me for the next round. It's a long history environmental dissertation!

Where I am today. Not revising.

I drove up to William Kain County Park and decided to hike around Williams Lake, the lower (and oldest) impoundment to the Lake Redman reservoir system, park of the water supply for the City of York and surrounding regions. The hike around is about five miles around and combines a series of hilly sections with lakeside trails. The persistent morning fog hadn't quite lifted yet when I started but it was already heating up. For a week now the Mid-Atlantic has been stuck in a very warm trough of Gulf of Mexico air that has produced fog every morning for a week. Besides being 70'F in December, a whole host of spring-like occurrences have beset our region. I noticed rhododendron blooming at home, my honey bees are active, and while hiking I was brushing off hungry mosquitoes!  A fellow hiker said that his cherry trees were in bud already. Go away, El Nino!

Lake Williams is about 5 miles around.

Today I wore new trail running shoes to start breaking in for my Camino de Santiago hike in May.  I also wore a pack of about fifteen pounds. I am officially in pre-hike mode now. I've been reading about the route,  making notes for the towns and villages where I'd like to stay. I have a few birding buddies waiting for me as I make my way across northern Spain, so I want to be sure to plan for those visits first. It's been a good distraction from my revision work to read up about the places I hope to see and the birds I might spot. Though today's five mile hike is far short of an average fifteen miles a day on the Camino, it felt good to finally be carrying some weight and in the shoes I've decided to hike in.

Side trail through a (non-native) spruce wood.

In addition to the main loop, I took several side trails to explore places I've not been before. A few mountain bikers passed me, but otherwise I had the side trails all to myself as I walked up and down the hilly sections through old paper company property. On top of the hills I could see out across the beautiful Pennsylvania foothills and in the distance, some small mountains to the northwest - the beginnings of the Appalachians.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit berries!

Back down to the lake shore trail, and as luck would have it, I came across another outdoors friend. Last week I met up with my favorite theologian and today I found my favorite local rock hound paddling around. Jerry has helped me with some of the geology details of my dissertation and I can recognize his happy voice anywhere. He was out on the lake in his kayak watching me  negotiate a steep, narrow section of a fisherman's trail. "Woohooo! Hey, Doc!" he hollered from a sheltered cove. Of course his deep baritone voice carried across the lake like a fog horn!

Moss Lichen.

Down at the water's edge we talked about the weather which led to politics. It always does with Jerry. He is passionate about rocks and history and politics.  Not wanting him to have a heart attack in his boat, I suggested we change the subject to something less upsetting. "Can I just say though, that I sure hope that people get off their sofa's and go vote!" A fisherman in a canoe hollered back across the water "Amen!"

Pileated Woodpecker work.

Jerry spent many years in the Peace Corps and values the work people do to address the root causes of poverty and who provide relief in war torn areas. He's an incredible quilter and donates a quilt each year to the Mennonite Relief Sale in Harrisburg. He's not happy with the current outpouring of hatred towards Syrian refugees and the singling out of a certain religion by certain politicians/ non-politicians. He gets in several more sharp criticisms (which I completely agree with!) before I was able to turn that ship and direct the discussion to an old mill foundation nearby. He told me where in the woods I could find a dressed mill stone, "as sharp as the day it was dressed!"

Detail of an old dressed millstone.

I said my goodbyes to Jerry and went in search of the stone. It stood exactly where he said it was and I admired the careful dressing and the metal band that still wrapped around it. On the hill above was the old foundation surrounded by thick forest. How many people have worked in mills? Dressed stones? Ground grain? It's a technology that dates back thousands of years and that defines agricultural cultures the world over. This mill closed in 1908 and torn down in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of the water company reservoirs.

Paper company road.

I was thinking about Jerry's concerns. It's a shame we as a nation can't draw on our own personal  and shared histories (like milling) to acknowledge the important contributions immigrants have made to Pennsylvania's past. And it's also a shame that we can't draw on the knowledge of world events that force people to leave their homelands. Providing refuge from war and religious intolerance was one of the reasons the colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania were established. York County has a proud tradition of serving as a resettlement location for the US Department of Immigration and many local faith-based and refugee programs have been very vocal in support of our obligation and role to welcome people escaping strife in their own home countries.

Viburnum berries.

I almost forgot where I was headed, I was so absorbed in thinking about what Jerry had been upset about. I missed a turn, wound up on a private horse farm, and quickly snapped out of it when I saw the first of several big NO TRESPASSING signs strung along a plank fence along with "You Are Being Videotaped!" and "Hidden Cameras are RECORDING YOU!" Wow. Glad I wore my hunters orange (even though it's a no hunting Sunday) so I'm not mistaken for whomever it is the land owner is afraid of that might be sneaking on to his farm. I quickly turned around!

Common Mullein seed stalk, over six feet tall.

I followed what I thought was a boundary along the woods edge and was happy to see a trail marker ahead. I turned down the hill towards the lake through a scrubby-shrubby field chirping with sparrows. Common mullein standing five and six feet tall were natural seed feeders for a flock of chickadees and finches. The trail became wide and smooth, surely an old road through the remnants of plantation pine forests planted decades ago for the Glatfelter Paper Company.

Cane berries stems.

Beyond the scrubby field on my right and left, I could see the dreary leftovers of the pine plantations. These trees were planted in straight rows in sections across the hills like corn in furrows. Planted only a few feet apart, not a lot grows in the dense shade beneath them. As as they've grown old, the forest floor is a tangle of shed limbs and branches and no understory. I compared the vibrant life of the shrubby fields to the sterile plantation, dark and silent.

Goldenrod in fuzzy scarf.

When Aldo Leopold traveled to Germany in 1935 to visit the managed forests there, he came away disappointed with the forest plantation system. The highly controlled manner of planting spruce, then beech and oak, did not resemble a healthy, dynamic forest. Instead, these managed landscapes were missing vital elements of biodiversity, including the sounds of birds. Though he did not doubt that the Germans loved their landscapes, Leopold did not see how the plantation forest system would benefit wildlife or people in the long run. Leopold's tour continued on through German farmland, and here he found a different quality to the managed landscape.

Very old maple on a spring head.

"For the farmers, their land is more than merely a source of livelihood. It is part of them. Many of them are descendants of families that have lived for generations on the same farm. They and their fathers built up its soil; they know every foot of it and take a personal interest in everything it produces. They know the habits of the birds and animals that live on it - they know about the wildflowers and trees and weeds."

Lightening struck.

It is interesting to compare Leopold's notes about German farmers of the 1930s to German immigrant  farmers of Pennsylvania. The Old Order Amish and Mennonite farmers in particular have what I imagine, is the same deep, abiding love of land that Leopold observed. As I left the plantation forest and walked the broad slopes of former farmland, I sensed a different feel to the soil, the mixed woods, and even the scrubby fields that have replaced grazing cattle and orchards. I wondered how long ago this land was last farmed and by whom? Where did their fathers and mothers come from? What farming traditions carried down in their caring for their land?

Spillway at the Lake William's dam.

I crossed the top of the dam and continued my hike on the next set of trails. Up, up, up a long hill to the top and an intersection with the trail that leads down to the Nixon Nature Center, I turned south along the ridge and admired the view of the valley with Lake Williams glittering in the soft sunlight. The York Water Company relies on the quality of this watershed to protect the purity of the water it pumps to communities throughout the City of York area. The oldest investor-owned water company in the nation, YWC started in 1816 as an investment in the city itself, to provide pressurized water to fire companies who protected the properties and residents of the town. The pipes that ran from the small reservoir near the present Penn State York campus were made of hollow logs. By the end of 1816, those wooden pipes delivered in-home water to over 35 houses in the city and all public water pumps, including the fire hydrants.

Trail to Nixon County Park.

As the city grew, and demands for water grew as well, the utility realized it had a huge problem. By the late 1800s the city had so industrialized that the waste water of hundreds of factories and burgeoning residential neighborhoods was polluting its reservoirs. More reservoirs were built further from the small city's industrialized and crowded center. Iron pipes and steam power delivered pressurized water from several sources including Lake Redman. YWC built the dam on Lake Williams in the mid-1950s and by the mid-1960s continued demand for pure water resulted in a much higher dam at Lake Redmond.  The resulting county park that surrounds the two lakes is managed now to allow the old plantations to die off, to be replaced with native, mixed woods through tree planting programs.

Exposed maple roots and dining table.

As I hiked the high hills along the south end of the valley, I could see the arms of coves and quiet shores through the trees. I could even see Jerry, still out paddling! The flooding of valleys and control of watersheds for municipal water supplies has long been an environmental concern but mostly concerning the large dams and river-altering projects found elsewhere in the state and across the country. The fragmentation of habitats and loss of irreplaceable wetlands as valleys are flooded removes many species of plants and animals that make up the matrix of a healthy landscape.

Lake Williams reflection.

And, as Jerry would be the first to tell you, having worked for the park system for so long, damming water to make artificial lakes can also become big political issues. Funding is needed to reduce sedimentation by dredging or to replace aging infrastructure. Dams need constant upkeep. Changes in zoning to permit more housing developments nearby is often politically charged and never a good idea for the health of a protected environment. Sprawl is a problem in this area and through the leafless woods I can see hundreds of homes that back right up to the ridge top. Coming down the hillsides in some areas along the trail were deep gashes made by flood run-off,  the tell-tale signs of impermeable surfaces like roads, compacted lawns, and many, many roofs nearby.

Fungus on cherry log.

Impounding water has impacts on people as well. The mills, major employers for rural people around the valley were torn out at the time the YWC built the new dams. People were displaced and farmers lost land. And no matter how solidly a dam appears to be, major flooding events cause worry for those living downstream as recent catastrophic flooding in South Carolina has demonstrated. Pennsylvania history is fraught with dam disasters, the Johnstown Flood being one of many.

A quiet cove on Lake Williams.

In a few hours I'd come back 'round to the parking area across from base of the Lake Redman dam. It was a short, but much needed walk in nature on this weirdly warm day.  I couldn't linger to hike around Redman, though. I had to get back and resume work on my chapter revisions. But with winter break from my job coming up, I put the Williams-Redman hike-around on my list. Hopefully my first draft will have been submitted soon after Christmas, and I can enjoy - for the first time in seven years - a real few days of vacation!

The environmental history of water management is important to our development as a commonwealth and as a nation. The York Water Company was the first of its kind.

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