Sunday, October 29, 2017

PA Mason Dixon Trail - Map 2: Codorus Furnace to Gifford Pinchott State Park

Map 2/ Mason Dixon Trail: Codorus Furnace to Pinchot State Park, 20 miles

Kim and I have been putting this section off for a year and a half. We're almost finished section hiking the MDT, a 200-mile-long trail that runs from one end at the Appalachian Trail in Whiskey Springs, PA to Chadds Ford, PA. We started in Chadds Ford and have been making our way west for two-and-a-half years with pretty regular hikes until we got to Map 2. The idea of twenty miles of road walking was not very exciting. During our great delay we did other weekend hikes, celebrated First Day hikes twice, led a Camino group hike, took the kayaks out, all the while not saying out loud to each other, "I'm not excited about 20 miles of road walking. You?"

Codorus Creek
So here we were, parked at the historic Codorus Furnace on Codorus Creek, early on Saturday morning. No matter how many times I looked at the map, the little red trail line overlaid the thick black road lines without exception. No dirt paths. No river walks. We left my car in a wooded lot at Pinchot State Park a half hour before, so we knew there was only one way to retrieve it. Start walking.

I-Beam Trail Blaze, courtesy C.C. Beth at Steelton, PS

Most of the roads were quiet and had little traffic to dodge, but some were dangerous with no shoulder and heavy traffic. All in all, we're glad we did it in one big day hike - even though we made it to my car in the dark. There is an ecology to roads that combines the human endeavor of planning and building transportation routes (and the vehicle technology that use them) and the vegetative corridors, risks to wildlife, and pedestrian traffic. It's a strange ecosystem of man-made and adaptive nature that keeps the hiker on their toes. We jumped off the road several times to avoid being smacked by rear view mirrors, being flattened by enormous dump trucks, and cars going way to fast. I think I did as much side-stepping and forward walking.

Injured Black Vulture juvenile.
We met a juvenile black vulture on the side of the road and it broke my heart to have to leave the poor thing stuck there with a broken wing. The road kill draws scavengers and young vultures haven't figured out how to dodge oncoming cars. Just a short way up  the road we were sprayed with gravel and dirt as a car intentionally roared at us, spinning wheels into the soft shoulder as it passed us.

Goodbye, Susquehanna! Looking south, its waters bound for the Chesapeake Bay.

Last long look at our iconic river. Looking north towards York Haven.

We said goodbye to the Susquehanna River that has been a beautiful companion since Havre de Grace, Maryland, seventy miles back. Now the trail headed inland and upland to the northwest into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  We met a giant snapping turtle at the Wago Club. It was awesome.

This giant snapper has all the awesomesauce.
Road ecology is really a thing in ecological sciences. It started with Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady to Lyndon Johnson, who envisioned a better way to manage roadsides. Because of her wildflower planting initiatives and beautification projects we became more aware of how our roadsides look and function as habitat, minus ugly signs and trashy edges. York County townships do a nice job of keeping their roadsides trash free and a little on the wild side. Except for the LOUD overpass and off/on ramp fast food signage at the intersection with I-83, the entire twenty-mile section was free from billboards. 

A pretty stretch of creek-side road, virtually trash free and pleasantly wild.
But the same couldn't be said for some stretches of road-trail that passed through some interesting rural neighborhoods. We tried to admire the junk-filled yards, collapsing houses, confederate-flags-over-trailer homes, and various vehicles in the woods. We saw cabin cruisers permanently docked in the forest, Winnebago campers lurking in giant stands of dark bamboo, lawn ornaments from the 1960s arranged between sheds and shacks, and many campaign signs that haven't been taken down since the election. The folks in these parts wanted to make sure passers-by know for a fact that their candidate won. Lest we forget for a minute.

A junky stretch of roadside that would drive Lady Bird Johnson crazy were she here to see it. Photo by Kim.

Thankfully much of the MDT along roads was lightly traveled and very pretty in fall colors.
It's interesting to note that in Pennsylvania, road walking is almost as popular as trail walking. I see dozens of people every week strolling country roads, risking life and limb. I've got several routes I like to walk from my home but I always pick low-traffic times and wear obnoxious colors. Kim and I tried to walk side-by-side but traffic necessitated single-file or jumping off into the brush. In some sections we were walking through suburban neighborhoods with sidewalks but still I observed people walked in the road. So I didn't last long on sidewalks. Especially with lawnmowers spewing dust and cut grass into our path. Let the allergies commence.

I-83 is known for its deer collisions, bawdy billboards, and truck traffic. It is LOUD.
The steady up and down progress as we began the climb into the Appalachian foothills offered a few change-ups from pavement. A single gravel road. A few pretty creeks with dramatic drops and gradients. During the early years of our nation, this was mill country. We saw a few foundations of old grist mills and mill dams. Immigrants flocked to York County during the early 1800s to find work in the mills down on the river and in the uplands. We walked through Manchester Town (Borough) , named for Manchester, England, where many immigrant mill workers came from. We walked past several home conversions for many of the red brick one-room school houses. 

An old mill road.
Little rural enclaves of small homes and rustic properties minded the roads through Andersontown, and folks waved and smiled. We walked past an a chainsaw artist's house with his finest work on display in the yard. His work made the Wago snapping turtle look almost amateurish. This guy loved solar panels, too. Yay, chainsaw artist! We passed horses grazing in small pastures and stepped aside to let riders and horses have the skinny shoulder. The sun was sinking low as we passed the Mountain Grove Chapel where we heard a choir member inside tuning up for evening service.

This guy's yard was amazing.
Fresh paint. Photo by Kim.
With just a few miles to go the sun slipped behind our first big hill and we walked in twilight up from our crossing Beaver Creek. The woods were getting active with deer and Kim was lucky to catch one with her camera crossing the road between us. I was actually beginning to worry a little about hunters and wished I had worn my blaze orange baseball cap - but I did have on my obnoxious yellow-green marathon shirt on. Kim was decked out in orange everything. 

This is when I started thinking about blaze orange at sunset. Photo by Kim.
By the time we got to the state park it was too dark to follow the tiny bit of unpaved trail to my car. So we skirted the curvy mountain road to the parking lot for about a half mile, sticking tight to the guard rails and shoulderless edge. There were hunters coming out of the woods, gathering around their trucks in the lot near my car and it helped to have their headlights blazing to light up the parking area. We had completed our twenty-mile trek entirely along roads and were glad to be done with it! We were both sore and stiff, but no worse for wear. Our next section is through Gifford Pinchot State Park and a section of PA Game Lands, back on dirt trail, heading steadily northwest towards our end at the Appalachian Trail. Next time I have to remember to be as orange as Kim.

Last picture before there was no more light.

Reminder to self: Dress like Kim for next section hike.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Getting our Run on in the Dog Woods

Old Bug is now on the far side of her tenth year, which is pretty old for a coonhound. It seems like such a long time ago that her sister Annie left us, aged 12 years. But it was just a year ago, Oct 7, that the old hound passed, leaving Bug alone and depressed. Then, this May, an abandoned Newfie-Pyrenes mix found himself a hospice home here. Honey Bear passed Aug 9 of the cancer that had made him lame. He was a joy to care for and Bug was as happy as she'd ever been after the loss of Annie. It's been hard on her again.

The Dog Woods

We go for lots of rides in the car. Lots of walks. So. Much. Cuddles. And today - like yesterday's ravine climb, was another happy walk, this time to the "Dog Woods" on the State Gamelands. She's a little stiff in the back legs from her climbing yesterday, but her tail was wagging hard and she let out a few great deep bays at the scent of deer and raccoon. This is where the York County Coonhound Club held their night hunt trials for a long while, but not many people run coonies here anymore. So many of the old men have passed on and I don't hear of many hunt runs happening in this "wayback bit of woods" much. Even so, this is great terrain for sniffing out mink, ground hog, raccoons, opossum, fox, deer, and sometimes the post marking spots of bobcat. Today was no less a bouquet of scent for Bug. She had a blast running from cave to holler to tree hole to den.

Black knot fungus on old cherry.
These are some old woods. There are signs of farming but it was such an long time ago, nothing recent. You can read the age of the trees by their stands - there's a young stand of hickories not more than twenty years old where some logging took place back in the 1990s. Then there's an old stand with so many tree-elders on it. While we walked downhill, golden leaves and the hickory nuts rained down. I stuck as many in my pockets as would fit. They won't last long, though. Almost as soon as they hit the ground the grey squirrels come for them and sometimes raccoon. This put Bug into a tizzy and I had to make her "hold" while two squirrels made several trips to a stash site in a bank of rocks.

Hickory nut.

 One of the oldest black cherries I know grows here. I took it's picture for the 100th time. Although  inflicted with the black knot fungus which can deform and weaken limbs, sometimes killing its cherry host, this old tree sports the fungal knots with a certain pride, draped as they are in moss. With the past few days a little drizzly and foggy, the moss everywhere is lit up like neon against the fallen leaves. Against the black cherry's trunk, the moss stands out prettily. Every fallen limb seemed to have a splash of colorful lichen. From a distance the old growth moss mats on boulders seemed to glow.

Purple-toothed polypore.

When Bug found a hole to investigate, I was happy to find a log above it full of Purple-toothed Polypore. The purple frilly edges pop against the orange-hued shelf of this lichen. I nearly jumped out of my boots when Bug let out a bay at whatever was in the hole, so we quickly moved on.

Rain drops caught in a ground web.

I was surprised to find a group of young adults camped in a hollow by an unnamed stream. I asked if they had hiked in. They seemed really uncomfortable talking to me and wanted to know why I asked. I explained they were camped on state gamelands property and that I thought it might be illegal. "That's what another guy told us," said one young man. Their array of expensive hammocks, tarps, and backpacks (REI)  seemed to suggest they were trying out new gear. I asked if they were planning a hike in the future. No one said anything. Awkward. I did notice that one of the women had cinched her brand new camping hammock to a tree with a healthy rope of poison ivy vine growing on it. I walked over and took its picture. Then I told them what it was. No one said anything. Way more awkward.

Poison ivy vine

I was trying to be informative. I told them that since it was Sunday no one was hunting deer but come morning there would surely be some bowhunters in the Dog Woods. Again, crickets. So I did what any good hunting folk would do and told them about the (fictitious) coonhound hunt that starts at sundown tonight. "It'll be real loud," I said, "Guys with headlamps, dogs running everywhere, baying and howling to make your ears ring." The woman in the hammock sat up. "Hunting what?"

Haircap and Brocade Moss.

"Well, since you've been camping here - and not very neatly I may add," I said, "I'm sure you've dropped a little food or burned some food packaging in your campfire. So there'll be plenty of raccoons moving through here tonight to check for scraps. And then plenty of coonhounds to chase them up these trees y'all attached to." The young women were little pissed off. "I hate hunters!" one snarled. "Why so much killing?!" Bug seemed to pick up on her tone and raised her hackles. I looked around at the damage done to some of the young trees that they'd hacked up to make kindling and firewood. De-limbed sourwood, spicebush, and young hickories were all around. Swaths of moss had been torn from the base of the big trees and used to scrubs pots. "Yeah," I said pointing to the damaged trees, "So much killing."

The two women never did look at me. They had their backs to me the whole time. The two young men, however, climbed out of their hammocks and began cleaning up their cluttered campsite. Robin Wall Kimmerer, writer, poet, forester, and bryologist up in New York State, has written about the time it takes for moss mats to grow thick on trees and boulders. A thick blanket of moss can be over a hundred years old and take that long to grow back. An Onondaga woman, Kimmerer writes in Gathering Moss (2003),

Their loss will have consequences we cannot foresee. When the mosses are taken, their web of interactions goes along with them. Bird, rivers, and salamanders will miss them.

Deer trail leads to an illegal campsite on an unnamed stream.

The idea of hacking up a healthy understory rankled me. The more I looked around the more hacking I saw. On the ground, wet and dirty, was a brand new shiny hatchet. I reached down and picked it up. "Hey!" said the angry woman, "That's mine!" I pointed (with the hatchet) to the woods all around them and said "This is mine." I hope the Game Commission sends me a coupon or something for giving - at length - the story about how state game lands are managed, funded, and used by Pennsylvania's outdoor community. Birders, herpetologists, hunters with bows, trappers, hunters with firearms, even - bryologists - use and take care of game lands and that Pennsylvania has a strong tradition of land stewardship that we take very seriously.

Old growth moss.
Healthy understory.

My lecture seemed to do the trick and the two girls climbed out of their hammocks and joined the two young men in picking up their scattered equipment, food containers, and wet clothing draped on hacked understory trees. I handed the brand new axe back to the grumpy girl and suggested she learn how to use it and care for it properly. My friend John should have been there. He would have given a lesson for free and maybe expanded upon my lecture.

As I turned to go, she mumbled something about "the b---- who ruined our weekend," and I had intended to just keep walking away, when Bug in all her coonhound glory, caught a scent on the deer trail that led uphill, back from where we came. She bayed and tugged and clawed at the ground.

What a great voice you have, Bug, in the Dog Woods.

I hung on tight and let her pull me up the steep trail. Her howls echoed off the hills and Lo! there were others who answered her! I had no idea there were other coonies running today. What a sound! What music! One, two, three coonhounds - all distinct from each other by the depth and cadence of their baying - came running over the hill, a young man breathlessly running behind them. He waved hello and tipped his orange hunting cap, but he carried no firearm. "Getting our run on, ma'am!" I was too far from the campsite to see the commotion this surely must have caused, but it made me feel wonderful to see a young man with his dogs out for the Sunday run.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Ravine Ramble in the River Hills

I've been on a bit of a tear so haven't had the time to enjoy a weekend unplugged, reading, writing, wandering. So this was the weekend I decided to hit the snooze button on my usual early-up-and-at-it Saturday routine. It has been grey and drizzly for a few days, but until this morning I haven't had the luxury of sleeping in. So there I laid under the quilt past 9am. My coonhound  snored peacefully as I drifted off again thinking, "Oh isn't this great!" Then....WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! A woodpecker banged at the window. The dog flew from the bed with a full-throated coonhound bay. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

Ravine wall on the Susquehanna.

Bug and I decided to investigate a remote ravine a few miles from home. I parked at the bottom along a dirt road and we climbed an old wagon path high into the V-shaped valley where the spring-fed creek, normally splashing down through an old sluice, was dry. We've had a long stretch of dry weather so this patch of drizzle and light rain has been refreshing for the surface plants and mosses, but its not been enough to recharge the groundwater and deep springs that seep from the ravine walls.

Sluice for a log mill.

We hiked higher and the going got so steep that I was climbing hand-over-hand. Even Bug, usually game for any off-trail challenge, was cautious about our route. The wagon path had become a deer trail leading to the top of the ridge, but what deer these must be to make this ascent!

Indian's Ledge

There is a hidden history to this ravine that I learned from a hiking companion many years ago. Steve is no longer with us, but these hills were his and he knew them like the back of his hand.  Ravines like this number in the many dozens from Conowingo, Maryland, to the great fault bend on the river at Wrightsville and Columbia, Pennsylvania. This unnamed ravine with its drought-prone cascade, was known for making moonshine and hunting deer.  Steve used to hunt up here from a rock platform that juts out from the ravine wall. From "Indian's Ledge" I could see a maze of deer trails below me. Like hunting from a tree stand above the animals, a quiet, camouflaged hunter can watch without being detected. (Moonshiners could also watch for the "regulators.) Steve was convinced that the ledge had served as a hunting platform for hundreds of years as there are ancient carvings incised in the rock.  If you look closely at the flat lichen-covered section on which a hunter might sit or stand, you can still see the faint forms of a stick-figure buck and a bow-legged hunter.

Garter Snake

Bug and I continued to climb along the ravine wall on a very narrow deer trail until we came to the top of the ridge. Back a ways from the spine of rock that narrowed out into space above the river in the distance, we found enough flat ground to walk side-by-side. At a disused campsite, we rested and had a snack of turkey jerky and water just as a very-much-alive gobbler cackled from the woods! Bug wanted to chase that turkey and she pulled hard on her leash to go for a go, but this was no safe ground for an off-leash adventure.

Fire ring and wild turkey haunt.

We continued our exploration by climbing higher on the forested hill when we intersected a trail from the nearby state park that made the job of walking wet woods a little easier. I found one of the springs that empties into the stream. It was dry. Another spring, built over with a dry stack wall, was barely bubbling up. A thin veneer of water slipped down into the ravine. Near here was the cellar hole of a settlers cabin while further on piles of field stone surrounded a patch that had been farmed a several hundred years ago.

Walled spring head.

This must have been difficult land to farm, but the signs of fields and pasture were all around. We heard the turkey again and Bug let out her best cry. Well, that turkey must have flown across the river to be away from her, because it was the last we heard from him for the rest of our hike. I didn't want to risk falling down the steep valley we'd just clambered up so I chose to walk through the park and back to the car via an old road. The road once led to a crossing for a cable-and-pole ferry and is used now to access a few old seasonal cabins. While on the road we passed a dug-out canoe under construction.

Beginnings of a dug-out canoe.

The River Hills district is still home to many families who identify with native groups from long ago. The last tribe to occupy the Lower Susquehanna Valley were the Susquehannock, but this large cultural group was itself a combination of many other tribes, some from the north, others from the east and south. The log dug-out canoe was the primary means for traveling up and down the river before ferry travel made crossings accessible to horses, wagons, and settlers. I've seen a few dug-outs plying the river over the years. Finished, they are sleek and shallow and graceful. Here was one about a third of the way finished, looking chunky and fat, resting on stiles. It was filled with water. I knew that the recent rains couldn't have added this much water to the basin, so I assumed that it has been filled intentionally after a recent burning down. Partially burnt logs at the head of the canoe smelled like smoke.

Burn, flood, scrape, repeat.

The road to the river flattened out as it turned and ran parallel to the shore. The natural shoreline is underwater and a hundred yards further out and down, however, as the lake behind the dam many miles downstream floods the old banks. High water now submerges the old ferry launch, wagon roads, and canoe slips where finished dug-outs were rolled off their stiles and pushed into the river. Steve would often wonder what we could still see if suddenly the dam broke and the waters drained away. Back at the car I looked up into the ravine we had climbed a few hours before and Bug looked at me as if to say "Not again!"

Back to the car.