Sunday, May 2, 2021

AT Hike #7: Dead Woman's Hollow Figure 8

Amos and I hiked a figure-8 route that included 3.5 AT miles, several forest road miles, and the Dead Woman Hollow Trail. A large part of the the hike passed through a forest restoration area to bring back Appalachian heathlands that include Pitch Pine and Scrub Oak. The whole route clocked in at just under 8 miles (7.9) and included a beautiful, cool break at the Anne Mitchner Cabin and springs.  

Amos in the shade of a Pitch Pine

Two memorial stops were COVID-Bear and the official halfway marker for the AT. COVID-Bear on the Big Flat section of the AT marks the lost year for thru-hikers who had to abandon their hikes in 2020 when the trail, its shelters, and trail towns closed due to the pandemic. The National Park Service administers the AT while the Appalachian Trail Conservancy manages the trail maintenance, section organizations, and land acquisitions or re-routing. When both organizations decided to close the AT in May 2020 thousands of hikers, thru-hikers, day hikers, LASHrs, and others lost their beloved trail until restrictions eased somewhat in the late summer (hike with masks/shelters & toilets closed) to an almost full reopening just a few weeks ago. The trail today was somewhat of a celebration for many as I met several LASH and thru-hikers happily on their way again. (I wish I was with them.)


COVID-Bear Memorial
Official half-way marker on the AT

The half-way marker is rather anti-climatic but because half-way fluctuates from year to year depending on re-routes and new sections, it is moved for accuracy - so it can't really be something massive and immovable. 

Three-mile section of forest road

The AT section finished with a walk out to a forest road past a bright purple gate. The restoration area is in full view from the road and it occurred to me how carefully the AT corridor is maintained so that hikers get the feel of being in wilderness.  The trail goes right through the large restoration plot and I don't recall seeing any of it from the AT.  I'm glad I came this way because since the prescribed burn in 2017 there was beautiful sea of sassafras flowers on their spindly stems as far as the eye could see.

Logging road to the trail head. 

I left the forest road and took a turn on to a service road and over the AT, down to find the Dead Woman Hollow Trail. The burn area here has recently undergone a salvage logging operation to remove dead standing timber. It was at once distressing but also encouraging as heath plants like Low Bush Blueberry and Huckleberry were already established and in full bloom. The hillside was a-buzz with bumble bees and other pollinators working the bell-like blossoms.

Hot and dusty hiking - Amos no like.

Dwarf Crested Iris - a native Appalachian woodland iris. 

Almost the entire Dead Woman's Trail passes across the logged-out eastern slope of the mountain. It was stark almost too hot for poor Amos. We stopped a few times in the shade of remaining Pitch Pines and he quickly gulped down his water. While he rested, I observed Eastern Towhees, Phoebes, and Bluebirds working the slash piles for insects. I saw my first bear of the year - at a distance - from the log landing looking back down a haul road. Amos caught scent of it eventually but by then we were well on our way to entering the woods where a gushing great spring stopped us in our tracks. Amos waded, drank, and sat in the pools. Happy coonhound!

The Yellow Sea of Sassafras

Sassafras blossoms

The Sea of Lowbush Blueberry.

We came upon the Anna Mitchner Cabin just inside the wooded flank of  mountain, beyond the springs. No one was renting it for the weekend so Amos was able to roam around sniffing the various woodpiles while I picked up little bits of wrapper and plastic and then we sat and had a nice lunch. Atop the mountain the AT runs a quarter mile or so up a shale-gravel access road, and along it walk all the hikers oblivious the the restoration areas - the prescribed burns and logged out hillsides to the east and west. The walk back to the Shippensburg Road parking area gave me the chance to admire how well the AT corridor view shed is managed. Coming back into the Big Flat area where the Pitch Pines are old indeed, I could see what the restoration efforts hope to achieve as this area is one of the most beautiful wooded heathlands in Michaux State Forest. 

From whence we came.

Anne Mitchner Cabin (PATC)

AT viewshed.

Big Flat, where Scrub Oak and Pitch Pine shade the trail.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

MD C&O Canal Towpath: Noland's Ferry to Brunswick

Spring is full-on and our winter views of the Potomac are now becoming screened by bright green new growth across the flood plain forest. The canal is sometimes dry, sometimes watered. Where there is water there are red-belly sliders and painted turtles hauled out on logs. We heard our first bull frog of the year and a few trilling toads. Pileated woodpeckers were everywhere, as were red-bellied woodpeckers and northern flickers. 

Blue Phlox nest to a dry canal.

Golden Ragwort.

Paw Paw blossoms

Redbuds, Dogwods, and Paw Paw trees were all in bloom - and with the Paw Paws there were our first Zebra Swallowtails for the year.  There were gigantic old Sycamores and ancient old Maples. Boxelder and Tulip Poplar filled in the spaces between the old ones and the river.  But with all the blossoms and buzzing bumblebees and flitting butterflies there was the constant hum of diesel engines and rhythmic rattle and thump of freight and coal trails. Some were just yards from the path and we stopped to watch them all rumble by giving a wave to every engineer. 

Point of Rocks B&) Tunnel (unused)

Point of Rocks Station (c. 1930s) 

Two historic railroad towns are located along this stretch of C&O, Point of Rocks and Brunswick. Of special interest to me was the cliff face at Point of Rocks on the wide curve of river where we heard Turkey Vultures nesting above, Ravens, too. Later, while having late lunch at Points of Rocks station, my sister saw a Peregrine Falcon heading for the cliffs. Ravens are making a big comeback along the Potomac cliffs from Point of Rocks through Western Maryland and its always great to hear them croaking so close by.

Catoctin Aqueduct

Collapsed aqueduct after a flood.

We walked over the fully restored Catoctin Aqueduct and over a board bridge around a washed out culvert which seems to be in line for some repair work. All the while the trains rumbled by until within a mile of Brunswick we began to hear the crash of rail cars and hum of idling diesel engines. Our last mile and a half was crowded with scouts and families on bikes and walking dogs, many of them staying at the campground that sits right on the canal road. It was wonderful to see everyone out and about and being very considerate with masks on while passing us two slow pokes. What really got my attention while passing the campground was the smell of burgers cooking! OMG. So of course we had to go get our late lunch at Boxcar Burgers in town. A great 11.5 mile day followed by a great burger!

Dryad's Saddle, Cerioporus squamosus

OMG were these burgers delicious! 

Till next time, C&O 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

MD C&O Canal Towpath: Dickerson Conservation Area to Noland's Ferry, 6 mi.

My sister and I continued our walk on the C&O Canal Towpath where we left off in the fall, at Dickerson Conservation Area to finish at Noland's Ferry six miles upriver. This time we were graced with the good company of nephew Andy. The canal and the river were both full of spring rain and full, bright sun. It was cold, though, with a hard-charging north wind. Even so, woodland wildflowers were beginning to bloom and there were turtles sunning by the hundreds in the canal. There were dozens of Whitetail Deer browsing the forest and a handsome Great Blue Heron in his breeding finery, woods-walking along the inside canal path hunting for frogs. 

Dutchman's Breeches

Virginia Bluebells

Spring Beauties

This stretch is well above the furious Great Falls and here the Potomac shows its age-old penchant for meandering within the broad flood plain - sweeping turns, old oxbow bends, flooded bottom woods.  One moment the river is flowing fifty feet below us and another it is far across the plain where hikers are running their dogs on shoreline trails. The Virginia Bluebells are popping up in the bright sun and some are in bloom dotting the whole wide wet woods in patches of blue.   

Loch 27, near the old Spinks Ferry crossing

The Potomac is wide and shallow as we approached Lock 27 and its meadows of bluebells. It was once the site of a small ferry crossing located between the busy ferry landings at White's and Edward's downstream and other smaller crossings upstream at Noland's and beyond. In low water come late summer and fall, the Confederate Army found it easy to walk across here and in so doing attempted to destroy the canal structures to disrupt commerce between river towns and Washington. They weren't successful thanks to lock keeper Thomas Walter who negotiated (pleaded) against their actions and saved this section from destruction. 

Little Monocacy Culvert with my sister to give scale.

Between Lock 27 and the beautiful culvert arch over the Little Monocacy are the ruins of Dr. Boyd's late 1700's homestead built of familiar red sandstone, but not much of the structure remains except the chimney and hearth. Of course, my nephew Andy and I had to (almost) tumble down the wooded embankment to look back at the beautiful stonework of the culvert.  Just a half mile ahead was the amazingly beautiful Monocacy Aqueduct where we spent some time exploring above, below, and all around this incredible structure that floated canal boats over the wide mouth of the Monocacy River at the Potomac. Swallows twittered-soared out from under the watered arches and fed on early insect hatches. The stone, quarried and transported from Sugarloaf Mountain several miles away, gleamed in the sunlight. It has recently (2005) undergone an extensive restoration and clearing so now hikers and bikers can walk the canal bed over the river. 

Monocacy Aqueduct

Biking through the (unwatered) aqueduct.

Beyond the aqueduct and from the canal towpath we could look deep into open forest that will soon be veiled with greenery. A large herd of Whitetails browsed just across the canal and speaking softly to one gentle doe, we were able to visit with her for some time as others slowly made their way across the fresh green forest bottom munching and wagging their tails. These woods once contained the old Monocacy Trail, a pathway that carried the Tuscarora and Shawnee into South-Central Pennsylvania, although the southern Tuscarora did live temporarily here (hence the modern road name nearby of the Tuscarora Road) on their log walk of displacement from North Carolina in the early 1700s. The area is rich with indigenous archeology dating from 5000 B.C.E. to the mid-1600s and place  names reflect this long, sometimes tumultuous occupation of native people along the river and out on its islands.  

It is good to remember that these landscapes were peopled long before the canal works lent its iconic feats of stonework to the experience of being in this place. The land between the Potomac and the Susquehanna, my home river many days' walk to the north and east, was contested in-between-land where northern and southern tribes fought over resources, raided each other's encampments and towns, and generally made settler expansion difficult if not impossible in these parts before the 1730s. The Piedmont land between the rivers was made inhospitable by war parties for both local tribes and early settler farmers sent into this dangerous frontier by Colonials eager to claim more territory.  More on that history as we progress further along... 

Bluebell meadow.

From the road bridge ruins at Noland's Ferry. 

Noland's Ferry

Our six mile stroll ended at Noland's Ferry, where we were surrounded by the local high school cross-country running team stretching after their towpath running session. We climbed the old bridge ruin to the grassy flat there and had our lunch, looking down at walkers, hikers, bikers, and doggos.  It wasn't our longest walk on the C&O by far but it was one of the most beautiful stretches, a welcome end to winter - though we did shiver like mad up there in the wind on the bridge!

Whites Ford to Noland's Ferry


White's Ferry was officially closed this past winter (2020) after operating since 1786 due to a long-standing land dispute with Rockland Farm on the Virginia side, but we were happy to hear that negotiations are underway to resolve the dispute and that a local conservation-minded  businessman has stepped in to help reorganize operations and reopen the ferry.


On a brighter note, the White's Ferry Grill is still open and DELICIOUS. Thank goodness they had some sweatshirts for sale for because I completely underdressed for this hike. Brrrrrr. 

Sister Laura and nephew Andy on this cold (!) six miler. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

PA Appalachian Trail Hike: #6 Milesburn Cabin Out-and-Back

8 mi. out-and-back from Shippensburg Road parking area on the AT to Milesburn Cabin.

Milesburn Cabin

This next section was a simple, if not leisurely, out-and-back to the Milesburn Cabin within a mile of where I looped back on my previous hike from Quarry Gap. So while my goal was to connect the last hike to this one, I wasn't worried about the half a mile of road walking to make ends meet. The cabin was rented for the weekend so I couldn't go poking around but Amos did meet up with a bunch of Scouts having trail lunch nearby and he promptly stole a bag of Cheetos from a kid as I was talking to the trip leader. 

Entering from the parking area on Shippensburg Road.

This section of the AT is well within the 60 square miles of land owned by the South Mountain Mining Company that operated several iron furnaces in the area, including Pine Grove Furnace (preserved) and the Big Pond Furnace (ruin) in Michaux State Forest. The Big Pond Furnace was destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1880 but the environmental effects of a century of having two large furnaces within miles of each other is still evident today.  By the time the CCC was active in this area, with two camps - one near Big Pond Furnace and the other north at Pine Grove Furnace - thousand of pines had been planted by reforestation crews to stabilize the soil. Many of these replanted pine woods survive today and the AT is shaded for a good mile where snow still lays through such a woods on the way to and from the cabin.

AT follows a section of CCC road.

Keeping in mind that none of this forest existed by 1900 having been cut clean off the mountains to make charcoal for the furnaces - makes walking this section of the AT all the more intriguing. I took my time to note the wagon roads and water features. While most hikers simply stick to the trail to get from point A to point B, I spent a good two hours jumping off the path to investigate traces of roads, heaps of rock, and pits that were definite clues to this area's industrial and restorative past.  Some of the roads were purpose-built CCC work roads made to reach areas for tree planting and others retain their 19th century wheel-rutted haul road profile.  

Pileated Woodpecker's square hole. 

The old topo maps for this flat ridge ramble describe the terrain as "watery" and it was true today as snow melt and natural seeps and springs made some of the trail very wet. Trail crews are kept busy building and repairing stone water bars to direct water off the trail through this section but a quick bushwack off trail near these areas revealed wetlands full of calling frogs and skunk cabbage. I found a small hand-dug pond along a flat CCC road (off trail) that simply hollered with wood frogs. Many vernal ponds are found throughout the watery flat ridge and it wasn't hard finding them by the tremendous sound of wood frogs. 

Birch Run Shelter

American Wintergreen

Loop and return.

With the most of the snow now gone it won't be long before spring wildflowers begin to appear along with unfurling skunk cabbage leaves at the seeps and ponds. Most will dry up as spring warms to summer so frog and salamander mating is frantic right now.  I looked - hopefully - for signs of early spring flowers but didn't find any except for the American Wintergreen which still holds some bright red berries and whose winter red leaves are beginning to show signs of chlorophyll returning. 

Stump sprouting!

Some parts of this stretch have been recently logged but the techniques and practices of managed lumber harvest are so much improved for wildlife and biodiversity compared to the stripping of forests by iron furnace companies and "high grading" of the 20th century. Most Pennsylvania forests are not replanted as they did in the CCC era. Instead, great care is given to identifying parent trees that will naturally regenerate an area and to leaving living stumps intact for quick re-sprouting. Using forest management planning today, Pennsylvania forests are regenerating twice as fast as at any time in our history.

Resting by the hand-dug pond along an old CCC road (off the AT). 

Wood Frog


Forest Management in Pennsylvania (PennState)

A comprehensive master plan for the preservation of the South Mountain complex, its history, and future plans of the South Mountain Partnership

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

PA Conestoga Trail: Pequea Trolley Line

I love the 2.5 mile out-and-back section of the Conestoga Trail along the old Pequea Trolley Line in  winter. As Pequea Creek tumbles down through the gorge on its way to the Susquehanna River, the level rail grade makes for safe passage through an otherwise steep and dangerous pinch point.  The trolley line once carried thousands of passengers a year from the city to the river from the Martic Station to enjoy summer recreation, fishing, and picnicking.  This must have been a thrilling ride to squeeze through the gorge on the narrow gauge rails.

Pequea Trolley rail trail is a section of the longer Conestoga Trail. 

Amos checks out a side creek.

We have been gifted with lots of snow this year, three feet so far (!), and it really has been wonderful after several winters of little or no snow. A long-lasting snowpack ensures plenty of water for recharging for springs and creeks. I wonder how much of the years-long winter water deficit can be made up in this one snowy season, however?  In any case, it's beautiful to see.  I counted six different animal tracks including skunk, weasel, possum, mouse, white-tailed deer, and otter (on a boulder in the creek).   

A bounding stride of a small weasel.

"The Hole" 

Through the gorge

The rail section is just a short segment of the 60 mile Conestoga Trail that runs the length of Lancaster County. There are plenty of places to do day sections as well as hike it as a long distance trail with good camping sites along the way.  There's even a grueling 24-hour trail run competition. The trail is known for its kick-butt steep and unforgiving rocky hills. Even though this section of relatively flat path is easy to do in any season, I did wear my micro-spikes as the trail comes very close to the high cut bank and the icy creek twenty feet below is no place to wind up. 

Cascade of ice. 

There's a warm up on the way and spring is right around the corner, so I'm trying to keep this winter lodged in my memory because who knows when we will have another like it.  The few people I met on the trail were all there because they too love winter and this section of trail. "It's almost too much to take in," said one hiker. "It's magic," said another.  Soon the snow will be gone and the trail will be full of hikers who have been itching to get back to the path. 

2.5 mile out-and-back 

Hiking is a huge tradition here in Lancaster and York Counties and hiking clubs from both counties will begin spring maintenance days soon. I've signed up for three trail work days and am looking forward to it!  Both the York and Lancaster Clubs were formed in the 1920s during the height of "nature study" at schools and colleges locally.  Here's a historic gem from the 1930s of the Lancaster Hiking Club. Check out all the high tech gear - but I don't see any micro-spikes. 


The Lancaster Hiking Club (founded in 1927)

The York Hiking Club (founded 1932)