Saturday, July 16, 2016

PA Gifford Pinchot State Park: Beaver Creek Trail

The heat of summer has settled in. Meteorologists call it a heat dome. Nothing moves in the humid air. The woods are quiet. The birding world calls this time of year the doldrums in the Mid-Atlantic, a silent time that occupies the space between the excitement of breeding and nesting and the spectacular fall migration. But on today's hike, a slow walk for which I did not cover many miles, but did indeed cover a lot of ground, I discovered a lot of activity - just not as obvious as spring and fall.  

Gifford Pinchot State Park HQ and map rack.
I decided to head to Gifford Pinchot State Park, named for the first head of the U.S. Forest Service under Teddy Roosevelt and who also served as Governor of Pennsylvania in the 1920s. He was one of the New Conservationists in his years as governor, a group of state and national conservation leaders who worked to transform exploited landscapes with environmental restoration. In Pennsylvania, some of these enormous projects encompassed entire watersheds and created numerous state parks and forests with conservation work crews that predated the CCC. Pinchot's legacy includes tens of thousands of acres of protected forest, wetland, river, and marsh. 

Pinchot Lake under high heat and algal bloom.
Under the heat dome, we've experienced almost a week of triple digit temperatures. Walking along the Lakeside Trail to reach the headwaters of Lake Pinchot I could smell the dank scent of algal bloom. Excess nutrients, high water temperature, intense summer light, and minimal disturbance are the key factors that cause the blooms. The blooms can cause severe oxygen depletion in bodies of still water like lakes and ponds, and though not all of Pinchot Lake was under the blanket of this bloom, sheltered coves and areas where wind and boat traffic do not stir up the water suffer the most.  For wading birds like herons and egrets, algal blooms mask the waters below. Fishing is better along lake shores where waders can see their prey best, so no waders along upper cove shores today.

Lakeside Trail leading to Beaver Creek Marsh.
I stopped frequently along the Lakeside Trail to listen for birds. A small, noisey flock of titmice and chickadees alerted me to a red-shouldered hawk sitting on the water treatment impoundment fence. He was frogging in the still waters, swooping down to snatch a bullfrog from the mud bank. I watched him devour the frog while blue jays and crows joined in the mob. He seemed not to care and flew off unbothered into the deep woods. I stayed on, however, listening and watching. The stillness seemed to hold secrets and I wanted to discover what was happening behind this veil of heat and humidity.

Froggin' on the impoundment - Red-Shouldered Hawk.

I considered the woods and all its occupants. I wondered what I would see and hear if I stayed a full twenty-four hours, like a human game camera. The hawk had been a hint. Red-Shouldered Hawks and Barred Owls often occupy the same woods, the hawk hunting the same prey during the day that the owl hunts at night. I tried calling in a Barred Owl, but it was the wrong time, too much the middle of the day for any response. Yellow-billed Cuckoos, however, kwalped and scolded from the interior. My owl call drew the cackling jay-crow mob which escorted me to the end of the trail across from the Beaver Creek Marsh where I picked up the Beaver Creek Trail. The sunny edge was shimmering with flowers and berries!

The remains of an old cabin site - end of the Lakeside Trail at Beaver Creek Marsh.
Blooming at the end of the trail - Black-Eyed Susan.
St. Johnswort
Red Raspberries!

Sitting still is an important skill for truly appreciating and learning about nature. Though a few people hurried past my sitting post on the Lakeside Trail, no one saw me, just yards off the path leaning against a comfortable tree. Noting the spot for future observations, I continued on, considering the importance of stillness and quiet, of becoming part of the landscape in which one dwells.


Sometimes, when a bird cries out,
Or the wind sweeps through a tree,
Or a dog howls in a far off farm,
I hold still and listen a long time.

My soul turns and goes back to the place
Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my brothers.

My soul turns into a tree,
And an animal, and a cloud bank.
Then changed and odd it comes home
And asks me questions. What should I reply?

      - Rainer Maria Rilke

Crossing the road to the Beaver Creek Marsh I observed an Eastern Kingbird hunting over a protected nursery for wetland plants. Kayakers were putting in at the boat launch hoping to get to the lake before a line of storms and showers rumbled through. I hurried to the Beaver Creek Trail entrance as low roll of thunder echoed across the hills. Answering the thunder was a deep-throated chorus of bullfrogs and a flurry of dragonflies hunting the edge of the shimmering marsh. 

Eastern Kingbird hunting from a netted enclosure pole.
Halloween Pennants mating in the marsh.

I stopped again, just inside the trail under the shelter of red maples. For a long time I stood and watched dragonflies diving, chasing, and swooping. The skies piled high with thunderclouds. Cardinals chipped from the trees, annoyed at my presence. Another Red-Shouldered Hawk dashed through the canopy with a complement of crows following closely behind. So far, this hike was anything but the doldrums! Even the kayakers were interesting as they explored the marsh - only their heads and circling tips of their double bladed paddles were visible above the expanse of pickerel weed.

A small feeder stream empties into the marsh - a nice listening spot.
Widow Skimmer.
Pickerel weed marsh at the mouth of Beaver Creek.
The line of storms built and billowed overhead, slowly moving east, and the sun soon appeared again. I moved deeper into the woods following the trail, now rocky with exposed frost-shatter boulders that hinted at the field of stone hidden below the surface of the bottomland woods. Frost-shatter boulder fields such as this tell a story of sub-arctic climate as the great glaciers receded to the north. Thirty thousand years ago this was a much different landscape, brutally cold and dry. As the climate warmed in central Pennsylvania, the rains came. Forests and swamps dominated the valley for ten thousand years. Streams and rivers washed away the thin topsoils and detritus to reveal the frost-shatter fields of cobble underlying creek beds. The trail became a combination of boardwalk and cobble-hopping. I found another nice place to stop and listen at a story stone embraced by the roots of an oak. Red-Eyed Vireos and American Redstarts filled the woods with calls and soft songs.

Summer dry, these low woods are submerged in spring snow-melt and often flood in autumn rains.
Frost-shatter cobbles smoothed by running water, now seasonal.
American Redstart snatching an insect in the canopy.
Story stone - a stone embraced by or embedded in a tree.
Story stones are placed by other naturalists to mark a place of interest for future visits. When I was a park ranger I would place cobbles of white quartz on stone walls or at the base of huge trees to mark locations that held biological or cultural meaning. When I led walks and hikes with groups, the stones reminded me of what I wanted to share. This stone was placed in the rooted arms of a tree, a marker for the park's naturalist to gather her families on a sitting log off trail at the edge of the marsh. It was a wonderful place to watch dragonflies, but hard to spot if you didn't know where to leave the trail.

Tiny, delicate tick-trefoil.

As I continued on, the marsh transitioned to Beaver Creek, visible through the trees. Though some kayakers ventured this far, the creek was nothing more than a narrow band of slow moving water clogged now and then with tangles of vine and fallen limbs. Beyond the reach of paddlers, I found another nice stop at a point on the trail where the creek rounded a bend and disappeared into a thicket of brush. Sitting on a clear patch of creek bank, I attracted the attention of a band of young robins, cautious catbirds, and the familiar mob of titmice and chickadees. I was roundly scolded for a few minutes, but soon forgotten as fledglings harassed their parents for food.  Redstart males chased each other through the thicket and somewhere from deep forest, a wood thrush fluted.

Beaver Creek moving slowly through the woods.
Last of the jewelweed.
Female Widow Skimmer.

I sat a long time on the bank of the creek. Though the humidity was oppressive for me, it seemed to make no difference to the animals and insects around me. A beaver cruised by. Another Red-Shouldered Hawk swept through the forest. The canopy was alive with chirps and songs, though much quieter than one would hear in the spring. I began to listen intently to the quiet calls, interrupted loudly by a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. The closer I listened the more I heard. Some bird calls were at the limit of my hearing, high-pitched whispers and shadow calls. Insects buzzed and sang. A cicada's song rose in the heat. 

White-Eyed Vireo making whisper calls.
Wild Ginger.

In long heat of the afternoon I closed my eyes and listened to the drone of insects and the whispers of birds. Somewhere over my head a beetle chewed bark that sent a tiny shower of sawdust down through the moist air. A distant rumble of thunder coaxed me out of my comfy sit and I started back down the trail for home. As I walked under darkening skies, the woods took on a glow of gold and shimmer. A lone hiker, plugged in to his iPhone and singing loudly, stumbled past me, oblivious to his surroundings. What has become of natural history, I wondered, when the satisfaction of learning about the natural world was reward enough for the effort of a walk through the woods?


Gifford Pinchot State Park is a popular summer park near Harrisburg and York. The trails usually empty, however, as most visitors are at the swimming beach, picnicking, or on the water boating and fishing.

Monday, July 11, 2016

MD North East River: Fall Line Foray

My first outing since returning from Spain a week ago. Just what I needed! I've had a tough re-entry considering how different six weeks in Spain absorbing the Camino experience was compared to the violence occurring back home in the States. From an atmosphere of kindness, generosity, and friendship to a universe of paranoia, fear, bigotry, extreme sadness, and unkind/ugly people left me feeling exhausted. I asked my friend Kim (who helped me train for the Camino with hundreds of miles of day hikes for the past two years) to please pick a place to paddle. I would show up when and where she wanted. I wanted to be on the water more than anything.

The tidal stretch of the North East River.
We met in Cecil County, MD, at the North East Community Park just south of the little town of North East. The Upper Bay Museum is here but it was closed, so I made a date with myself to come back and visit. The park was full of families enjoying picnics and the playground, fishing and riding bikes. The sandy beach kayak and canoe launch was just past the playground and pavilion. Looking south from the put-in was the wide North East River as it emptied into the Chesapeake, I saw sailboats skimming the distance open waters but our afternoon trip would be to the northeast following the narrow reaches of the river at high tide as far as our boats could travel to meet the Fall Line - the end of navigable waters.

A populated and private shoreline, complete with guard goose!
The North East River is not a wild eastern river by any stretch of the imagination (not the Susquehanna or Upper Delaware) so houses, docks, neighborhoods, and bridges are everywhere, but there is the strong element of nature adapting to the presence of people with its soft muddy tidal wetlands and sweeping shoreline forests. The area is known for its rich waterman's history and heritage of waterfowl hunting. The town of North East marks the northern reach of tidal waters while the old Upper Bay port town of Charlestown can be seen several miles down shore. The famous Turkey Point Lighthouse is far below and it would take a sea kayak and a paddler with open water skills to reach it from where we put in. So around the bend we went to make our way into the narrowing river as the high tide lifted our boats over mudflats and gravel banks.

Riding the high tide into the narrowing river.
Arrow arum, common alonhg the muddy wetland edges.

Osprey, bald eagles, and vultures wheeled overhead and we passed an eagle's nest - for the moment unoccupied - but a local fisherman assured us that it had recently held the fourth brood of eagles raised on that shore. We paddled as far as we could manage, then got out and walked our boats through cobble banks and shallow chutes. We managed to paddle another short section under bridges and around high cut banks before the sound of riffles and rocky ledges could be heard around he bend. We had come to the Fall Line where the gradient steepens, the Coastal Plain ends, and we've reached the end of navigable waters.

Walking boats over shallows and keeping cool in summer's heat.

End of navigable waters on the North East River.
A typical profile for Cecil County's streams and rivers are the deep gorges that define their course through the hard bedrock of the hilly terrain of the Piedmont. They meander and cut sharp lines as the waters find the faults and joints in the rock. Ledges stand on end and deep pools lift cold water from far below. We beached our boats and hiked a shoreline trail to a favorite swimming hole below the Amtrack bridge where ledges of pink feldspar and fine grained granite crossed the river's breadth. It was a great place to float!

Crystalline feldspars (pink) and multi-hued concrete (graffiti).
A deep pool and a relaxing back massage. (Photo by Kim)
We enjoyed ourselves so much that we almost forgot about the tide changing! There was a bit more walking on the way downstream as we lost some depth! Woof! But it was fun and we only grounded once on an emerging mudflat. I enjoyed just drifting with the outgoing tide as we returned to the wide reach with a view of the open river with its sailboats in the distance. I managed to get a little birding in as well, and was pretty excited when I saw a male common merganser coast over our heads - far out of season for this species! I also observed a wood duck hen with nine chicks, two kingfishers, mockingbirds and cardinals, a Carolina wren, and listened to a very agitated marsh wren warn us away from his nesting area.

Letting the tide take us out.

A Cardinal spy.
Great Blue Heron.


Though the Upper Bay Museum was closed when I paddled this river on a Sunday afternoon, it looks wonderful and I plan to visit soon!