Saturday, October 22, 2016

PA Pinnacle Overlook Trails: Watching Walls and Water

I read this morning's headline story with some sadness:

"The 8-inch pipeline was breached in Gamble Township, Lycoming County, at about 3 a.m. Friday, according to a statement from Sunoco Logistics, which shut down the line after detecting a drop in pressure. The bureau said their “best guess” is that 1,300 barrels of product — approximately 55,000 gallons — spilled into Wallis Run, a tributary that flows into the Susquehanna. Comparatively, an Olympic-sized swimming pool holds 660,430 gallons of water.

"A response team from the Department of Environmental Protection is on site with local emergency responders, the bureau reported.“Personnel are still having trouble accessing the break site to put eyes on it and get a better idea of the extent and volume due to flooding in the area,” according to the alert. “Please inform local water authorities of the potential contamination if they use the Susquehanna River as a water source.”

"The breach was reportedly caused by heavy flooding in Lycoming County, which lies in the north-central region of Pennsylvania. Gockley said the area received 6 to 8 inches of rain.
“I’m sure they’re dealing with high velocity water flows because of the flooding,” he said. “My gut tells me it will take a few days to reach us, but I can’t say that for sure. This far downstream, it’s hard to know.” The gasoline will be diluted as it travels downriver, he said. And it’s still possible, he said, that emergency responders farther north will be able to contain the spill before it gets this far."
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Here in the Lower Susquehanna River Valley, we are on the trailing, windy edge of the huge frontal system that lumbered through over the past two days. The northern Susquehanna Valley, however, has received the brunt of the heavy rains and storms. I decided to spend the morning braving the gusty winds and hike to and around the Pinnacle near my home on the river, just to look at the water and listen to the wind and say a little prayer for the river and all the people past and present who have worked so hard to care for it. 

Pinnacle Area is now part of Susquehannock State Park.

This area has changed hands so many times it can be confusing to tell its story. When I first started coming here in the 1970s the entire enormous valley was owned and managed by the large hydropower companies that granted access (by federal law) to hikers and fishermen. After a long series of buy-outs and acquisitions, energy companies have come and gone and some have improved the area for outdoor use, while others have neglected it. Either way, a flat gravel road (sometimes open, sometimes not) has always led river watchers to the point of land that sits hundreds of feet above the water to face north into the cold winds and marvel at what's below and beyond.

View from the Pinnacle, looking north into north winds! Whew!
I met an older couple at the overlook and we started talking - though it was hard to hear in 40mph winds - about the health of the river, and how, even with gasoline expected to arrive by Tuesday, it has become a much cleaner, wilder, and loved place to spend a morning. The couple introduced themselves but the wind carried away their names. Still, they explained how they had been key players in getting important pollution legislation passed at the local and state level. "Pipe breaks, abandoned and leaking oil and gas wells, and industrial outflow was an everyday thing from the 1940s through the 1970s," they explained. "We - and our fellow river valley dwellers - had had enough when, after the incident at Three Mile Island, everyone just got together and said this was enough!" 

Roads from the 1700s can still be hiked.

The wind became so strong that we decided to go our different ways. My hands were aching with cold so I needed to get into the woods. I took to the old roads with my coonhound, Bug. Some of the roads which are now beautiful hiking trails are now maintained by local hiking clubs and Pennsylvania State Parks  (DCNR) - the land's new owner/caretaker (essentially us!) - and the Lancaster County Conservancy. I couldn't think of a better partnership for the care and upkeep of the River Hills than this.  On the heels of last summer's energy company abandonment of critical park and trails access at Holtwood (that included a public protest!), the LCC and DCNR have worked hard to connect the old roads trail network throughout the River Hills region including all of the ravine creek valleys - Tucquan Glen, Kelly's Run, Reed Run, Trout Run - and all of the spectacular waterfalls and tumbling gorges that they contain. By connecting and unifying ownership and maintenance, the problem of frequent ownership changes has ended at least here. Bug and I walked worry free for over four miles of old wagon road and enjoyed the fall colors, the singing wind, and peeks at the mighty Susquehanna far below. No trail closures, no keep out signs, no police tape. 

Hikers on a terrace trail below.

The Pinnacle Area is steep country. The old roads and trails are terraced to reduce pitch and climb, certainly a benefit to the teamsters and their horses as they traveled from the plateau to the collier's woods and the crossings far below. It is rocky terrain at any point off the wide paths and for those hiking the trails, the rocks and ledges can be tricky, so a set of hiking poles is a good idea. Throughout the old path network, signs of the past are easy to see. The road itself and well-built stone walls are obvious signs of a long-settled landscape where people lived for generations from the early 1700s until the early 1900s when the valley was acquired by the hydro companies. I'm a stonewall fan, so I took my time studying the architecture of stacked stone.

Terrace wall for wagon roads.

The river hill we call the Pinnacle juts out into the valley of the river like the bow of a ship. Very resistant rock forms the height and breadth of this wall of rock that turned the river westward at its base. Composed of ancient sea bottom schists, this hill is folded and fractured like its many sister hills.  It contains thrust faults through which ravine creeks have cut and dropped as the land mass was squeezed and lifted by continental collision faster than the Susquehanna could cut through them. Fault lines and resistant bedrock have shaped the river all along the Lower Valley. Broken slabs of schist litter the ground and it became prime material for walls. Wagon roads are supported by terrace walls four to five feet high. These can be hard to see if you are walking on the roads, but easy to observe from the trails below.

Field walls contained oxen, sheep, and cattle.

The forest here has been cut over many times. Field walls cutting through dense oak hickory woods reveal that as steep as this land is, deforested hills were once open and clear, prime pasture for livestock. Unlike the walls of New England built of glacial round till cobble and small boulders, these massive schist-built walls are sharp, edgy, and flat-topped. Built to cave inwards at the center, the characteristic V-shaped top ledge ensured that the weight of the rocks in the wall would remain in place and not roll outward or collapse. They were built to last!

V-shaped top ledge keeps the wall from collapsing.

Stone is what lasts. Sometimes you can find the wide circular collier's pits or borrow pit dug into a steep slope. But mostly what we know of the people who lived and worked on the Pinnacle exists in local historical societies and on the land in stone. What we can't learn from the walls and terraces are what the conversations of the day were about - did they look at the river far below as anything other than an obstacle, a threat, or the bringer of millions of shad? People felt much differently about the river in the early 1800s than people do today. But surely the river ran with mud after the forests were cut down and they must have wondered at it. The heavy rains upriver of the last two days haven't yet arrived. But from up here there will be a noticeable shift in color as the flood waters arrive. What we won't see is the gasoline and other chemical run-off that travels with the downriver pulse of flood.

Miles of pasture wall run through the Pinnacle area forests.

The walls may not have much to say about the intimate lives of people on the river hundreds of years ago, but the fact that they are still with us on protected land that my grandchildren and great grandchildren will be able to enjoy speaks volumes. My coonhound sniffed out every 'possum and racoon trail while I enjoyed the play of wind in the trees and fall colors - but a sudden CRACK! startled both of us! Just uphill on our old road path a large oak split open in the wind. We hurried past it and kept up the pace all the way back to the overlook!

A mighty oak split in the wind!

On our way down Pinnacle Road I stopped to look out over the Amish farms that spread beautifully out across the plateau of river hills. There has been a great effort among Old Order communities to heed Biblical and social calls for conservation and along with "English" farmers, methods have been changing to protect the Susquehanna and the Chesapeake Bay.  Bright green bands of winter cover crop are starting to emerge, planted after harvests of crops, beans, and tomatoes to take up extra nitrogen and phosphorus and provide a late winter hay or early spring forage crop. Post-harvest cornfields are deep in ground stalk waste, covering soils that twenty years ago would have remained bare until next planting in spring. At the bottom of the farm lane where run off from the dirt road and barn roof once carved a gully, a beautiful rain garden grows. I stopped at their roadside stand and bought a bundle of sunflower heads for a bird seed hanging. We stood trying to share conversation in the roaring wind but soon gave up and waved goodbye.

Atop the plateau, farmers are using conservation tillage and green infrastructure to protect the river.


An excellent video produced by the Lancaster County Conservancy can viewed here. It does a nice job of explaining the goals of conservancy partners in connecting rover hills natural areas and trails and touches upon the abandonment of a favorite trailhead this past summer. If you live or hike in this area, please considering donating to the LCC - they do such great work!

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