Tuesday, February 21, 2017

PA - Oakland Run Hike on the Mason-Dixon Trail

Now that I'm recovering after almost seven weeks of colds, allergies, and more colds, I took to the President's Day Weekend with more energy than I've had since New Year's Day. This year's hiking theme is "Bridges not Barriers" and I decided to find trails that would offer some insight and inspiration. My first hike of the weekend was local, a section of the Mason-Dixon Trail known for it's steep creek climbs. The second hike was a seventeen-mile crossing from Maryland into Delaware along the newly completed C&D Canal trail (it goes by three different names depending on where you are) from Chesapeake City, MD, to Delaware City, DE - from the bay to the river. 

Mason-Dixon Trail Out and Back:  Lock 12 to (almost) Posey Road, York County, PA - 8 miles

Mason-Dixon Trail climbs the Mill Run valley on a very old wagon path.

The two hundred mile-long Mason-Dixon Trail starts in the west near Whiskey Springs on Appalachian Trail or, in the east, from the Brandywine Museum at Chadds Ford, both in Pennsylvania, but it makes a big loop into Maryland in between. The section I did today, I've detailed before on this blog. I started at Lock 12 on the Susquehanna River in York County, PA, with my goal to top out at Posey Road near the PA Game Commission parking area about five miles north. An up and back would give me ten miles, but by four miles in I was feeling weary - partly due to the many weeks of being sick and partly do to being out of shape for this rigorous adventure up and out of the deep ravines of the River Hills. 

Looking north along the Susquehanna, a major river barrier to westward settlement.

The first steep climb begins with a beautiful walk into the Mill Run Valley along an old mill road. A steep section of switchbacks leads up, up, up out of the scenic stream ravine on to a sharp ridge of folded gneiss where I looked out to the north and east over the Susquehanna River. This was an unreachable wilderness in the late 1600s and early 1700s as the river crossing was dangerous, wide, and often guarded by local native people who challenged settlers to come no further. For those who eventually made the crossing the greatest challenge was how to climb the river hill cliffs and bluffs. Few wagons could make the rocky, steep passage to the plateau above. By the 1720s intrepid road builders had carved wagon paths along some stream ravines. 

Folded and metamorphosed banded gneiss.

The trail continues along narrow ledges cut more recently by trail crews and drops back down to the McCalls Ferry Road (dirt). Just above the 1920s-hydro dam at Holtwood marks the ferry crossing, a cable and pole raft that carried wagons and horses across a shallows. This was how folks crossed the river for nearly 100 years until the first log and timber bridges were built. Few of these structures, however, survived the violent spring floods. Once the bridges at Columbia-Wrightsville and Rock Run were constructed high atop  sturdy stone footings and abutments in the 1850s, would cross-river traffic become dependable. 

Empty fish passage at Holtwood Dam.

I followed the blue blazes along the McCalls Ferry Road past Holtwood Dam. The water was high and starting to seep over the flash-panel gates. The sirens blew twice to alert everyone downstream that the water would be rising soon. The spring high water marked the start of fish migrations. There are a series of dams on the Susquehanna that block passage of migratory fish now. Once famously  known for the magnificent Atlantic shad runs, the dams make it nearly impossible for these fish to make it up the first twenty miles of river past Harrisburg. Conowingo, Holtwood, Safe Harbor, and York Haven dams all pose significant barriers to fish passage. It's a problem we've struggled with for a century. Needless to say, the great shad runs don't happen this far north any more. By the time I came back this way two hours later, water was roaring over the entire dam, but the fish passage remains closed. 

Ice-damaged trunk.

About a mile further along the road the trail dips down at a Mason-Dixon marker to the bank of the river and the last summer cottage that remains standing along an old road that was once lined with fishing cabins and summer homes. I wandered around old foundations and pilings and wondered about the last holdout. The energy company wants these places gone and when the life leases run out on them, they are demolished, burned, and hauled away. I came to the McCall's Ferry site where cable rafts connected York County to Lancaster County. The old trees at the landing all show significant ice damage, though we haven't had a winter this year. 

Ice wrappings.

Some of these old trees, their wide trunks at the water's edge, are still wrapped in ice from colder days and nights. They won't see the sun here until well into March. I remember playing on the ice fields here as a child, when the ice jams were so high and jagged! We haven't had that kind of freeze in decades. 

Common merganser and Canada geese.

Rhododendron tunnels.

The trail leaves the old ferry landing road and veers up the hill to the overlook at Oakland Run. Still in winter shade, this rugged valley can be cold on a warm day, so I found myself pulling down my sleeves and zipping up my jacket to shuffle through the tunnels of north-facing slopes of rhododendron. 

Looking out to the river from the Oakland Run section of the Mason Dixon Trail.
No old road to follow - just narrow trail.

Oakland Run is a beautiful but steep and rocky valley. It takes some effort to maneuver around the outcrops and ledges. Waterfalls and drops are all along this section, so I took some time to dawdle and investigate the cold water for trout. The climb up out of the creek is slippery and high-stepping from ledge to ledge. By the time I was two miles up into the valley I was beat! I decided to stop and have lunch on a sunny outcrop high above the stream. After eating I didn't have the energy to go on. Seven weeks of non-stop colds and allergies have done me in. I started back the way I came, enjoying how the slanting sun had changed the color of the water and the shadows on opposite ridge.

Winter sun and shadows on Oakland Run.

I met one birder coming up the valley who had never been here before. He was entranced and eager to explore the higher reaches. When I got to the old ferry road, a hiker with three dogs was happily making his way up. "This is a tough section of the trail," he said. I agreed - still huffing and puffing from my descent. Back on main road, I decided to walk the two miles back to Lock 12 along the river. Through the trees I could see the old Tidewater Canal built in the 1830s that floated canal boats from far upriver with their cargoes all the way to Havre de Grace, MD, forty miles south. 

Old canal bed now serves as an amphibian paradise.

The canal was active until the 1850s but storms, ice, and railroads put most of the Susquehanna canal system out of business. For those sections that still hold water, wood ducks and frogs claim the ponds in spring. As I finished my road hike to the car, I heard the first spring peepers calling from the canal in the low, February sun. I pulled out my journal and wrote -

Yesterday's barriers overcome, roads, bridges, canals, and someday the dams, will return to the migrations of shad. Tomorrow's barriers are unknown, but even so, today the spring peeper sings at sundown while tonight the tundra swans will bugle, winging north along the river path.


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