Wednesday, February 21, 2018

PA Ferncliff Wildflower Preserve

For Lent I've decided to take as many dawn walks as I can up until Easter.  Lent as a fasting period to prepare for the High Holy Days in the Catholic Church has its roots in early Christian traditions, but the word itself is derived from the Old English lencten and means the lengthening of days, the coming of spring. Like many Christian holy days and periods of religious observance, the forty days of Lent are overlaid upon cultural traditions that predate Christianity.  Among Celtic traditions the late winter fast was a period of rationing the last of the winter stores and a time of anticipation for spring's warmth and light.

A dark, rainy, foggy start to forty walks at dawn on Ash Wednesday: Mason Dixon Trail on the Susquehanna
To honor the Lenten fast today people give things up such as certain foods, not-so-healthy-behaviors, and conveniences. Many of my friends are going offline or doing without certain social media. Some friends are taking on something new that may challenge an old routine or way of thinking. I chose this year to take on forty walks at dawn. It is now the first Sunday in Lent and so far I've done five dawn walks starting in the dark and ending with enough light to enjoy a view.

A sunny dawning on Day 4 of 40: Susquehannock State Park, Lancaster County, PA
To the Celts, the natural world contained life lessons, spiritual meanings, and religious observances. Nature was not separate from humankind, but the home in which people lived - an ecology of relationships with all things living and non-living. Central to the Celtic deities were the spirits that inhabited trees, the holy spaces we now know as sacred groves, and recognized the plant world as having soul and wisdom.  It only made sense to mix my Big Tree theme for the 2018 hiking year with the Celtic-Druid love of trees, so I am trying to be conscious of choosing woodlands, like today's visit to Ferncliff, for these forty hikes at dawn.

Ferncliff, part of the Old Growth Forest Network.
Ferncliff is a Lancaster Conservancy site that has an old road to the river through a deep ravine. Ravines are topographically important in the River Hills region and are notable for containing old growth forest, large assemblages of native wildflowers, and wildlife. I thought Ferncliff would be a good choice, too, for taking (pretty big) new coonhound puppy Amos to see the river up close. The day dawned sunny but by the time the dogs and I had made our drive across the Susquehanna, clouds were banking above the ridge tops. The sun shone through porthole openings briefly now and then and the previous night's beautiful snowfall was melting fast, plopping on us all in fat wet dollops from the hemlocks and rhododendron overhead.

Dark diabase schist forms the stream bottom bedrock.
For a coonhound Amos did pretty good not getting too distracted by all the scent trails and deer paths, while his much older sister Bug insisted on walking any puddle she could find. The deer trails are incised deeply in steep ravine hills and I thought how much these paths are like bad habits we try to shake off during Lent - they usually follow contours of least resistance and are well known to other animals as well. It's easy to follow them. Amos was less interested in the well-trodden paths but very interested in the fallen trees that lay across and beside the old road. He hopped right up and tracked who-knows-what animals that use the trees as pathways. Among coonhound clubs, there are contests and "degrees" for how the dogs perform on track and Amos surely earned his degree in log-walking.

The narrowness of the ravine is apparent here.
Bug has always preferred work the edge of streams so her degree would be as a "wet tracker" and with the stream so close to the path she and Amos had me pulled in two directions as one walked logs and the other waded the stream. Thank goodness for long leads! It got to be a little much so I ended the fun and put them both on a double lead. At least I could walk straight ahead instead of staggering side-to-side.
Ancient rhododendron reach over the road like an arbor.
Ferncliff is a site designated by the Old Growth Forest Network as containing significant mature tree communities. The rhododendron were particularly impressive with thick twisting trunks that reached out to any sunlit patches down through the hollow. Groves of old hemlock, incredibly high tulip poplar, and ancient beech occupy every bend and flat in the stream valley. Ironwood and pawpaw filled the open spaces between the old trees while oaks of several species towered over everything, growing high on the steep land above the stream.

Old growth forest communities occupy the flat stream banks and bends in the narrow ravine.

The snow was not very good for tracking but according to the dogs' noses the sodden leaves and damp earth beneath was perfect for snuffling and snorting. This slowed our pace so much that I had the opportunity to study the rock formations, angular and sharp, showing none of the shapely curves of long exposure to river currents. The ravine is rough cut and raw.

Barnes Run is the stream that cuts this ravine.
Cut deeper with every major flood event with walls steep enough that mudslides and rock fall are part of its wall formation, it is easy to spot slippage slopes that carry heavy runoff down to the stream. The diabase, a type of igneous intrusion parent material, has been squeezed over time and at great depths into sheet-like layers now exposed standing vertically at the surface. These layers pop apart in freeze-thaw cycles. Tablets and tables of it laid in the stream bed having broken off from the outcrops far above, some of it weighing several tons.

A old grove sheltered below a diabase fin.

A slippage slope.

I'd be interested in coming back here every month or so to photograph the changes in the tree cover and the procession of wildflower blooms. Various websites list those plants that wildflower enthusiasts can find here in season, including some interesting orchids.  What caught my attention as we neared a stream ford, however, were some interesting small ferns tucked into rocky ledges. I found spleenwort and rock polypody growing from an almost hidden crevice in a roadside outcrop. How many people walk past this, I thought. I was thankful for the very slow nose-pace the dogs were setting.

Old growth hemlock.

The nose-pace ended at the stream ford and young Amos had to face his first wet crossing. He was very hesitant but being double leashed to Bug he walked carefully alongside her, flank to flank, until we got to the other side. I made sure to give him lots of pats and "good boy!" encouragements and he was pretty proud of himself. Every experience for him is new right now so it's fun to see how he sizes up things like edges, water, mud, and new sounds - like the raucous call of a pileated woodpecker.

"Don't worry," says Bug, "That's just a very large woodpecker."

Sunlight came and went as quickly as the clouds were moving overhead. One minute the valley was in shadow, cold and murky, the next minute it was bright with snow and glittering water.The sound of water dripping from the branches and the playful plops of wet snow slipping from the hemlock was soon absorbed by the sound of the swollen Susquehanna ahead. We climbed the railroad embankment, crossed the tracks, and looked out on the wide river fat with snowmelt from New York and northern Pennsylvania.

Playful sounds of the ravine were soon overtaken by ....
...the mighty thrum of meltwater moving down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake.

Amos stood in awe of the river. His ears stood out an he sniffed the air. He'd seen nothing like it in his six months and was transfixed. He watched the water lap at the embankment and stared intently at logs and debris mats floating by. A gull landed on a drift log and he whined and let out his first real "roo" - the famous coonhound bay that might wake the dead. Startled, he looked at me as if to say "That came out of me?!" Like with all young animals and people, the fun for us grown ups is watching them discover something totally new and thus we see it afresh with own our eyes.

Every child has come to know the name of God
Not the God of names
Not the God of don'ts
Not the God who never does anything weird
But the God who only knows four words
and keeps repeating them, saying
"Come Dance With Me.

-Hafez, Persian poet


Ferncliff is one of many beautiful natural areas under the management and protection of the Lancaster Conservancy. 


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