Thursday, October 30, 2014

Stations of the Beeyard: Autumn

One old beeyard with chicken under the old apple tree.

I've been keeping bees for many years and if I've learned one thing really well, it's the rhythm and pace of the seasons. Bees have a way of becoming patient teachers for anyone wanting to learn about the natural world in which we live. Bees also teach us how to be in relation with each other and Creation. Bee behavior changes over the course of the seasons and the beekeeper will be ignored (working bare-headed and bare-armed in an open hive) or attacked with the fury of King Richard the Lion Heart's hives against the Saracens (just run, don't ask questions!) or simply tolerated. I've noticed that humming or quietly singing helps to quiet a worried hive during a winter check. In summer, loud baying coonhounds can stand directly in front of a hive and are no more paid attention to than the weed whipper or mower at their front door, but have a single European hornet land at the entrance and look out! Mowers, dogs, chickens, people should remove to a safer place.

Entrance exam - a newly hived swarm inspects its new home.

Right now the gardens are beginning to shut down around the neighborhood. Studies have been done in England, Ireland, and Scotland that show village hives going into autumn are heavier in honey stores than hives in more rural areas. The bees in my home yard enjoy neighborhood gardens as well as the surrounding Amish crop fields, hay and clover meadows, and deep pasture where handsome Brown Swiss cattle graze. My own orchard and the orchards of neighbors hang heavy with peaches and apples where the beeyards are placed. Woods nearby are filled with flowering trees that start blooming as early as mid-March, but honey locust trees set my hives into a frenzy come June! The state inspector (a former student of mine!) says my honey supers were some of the heaviest he's ever lifted. Nice! Now all that honey has been put up and the hives are readying for winter. I'll leave a full super on each one as well as supplement with nutritious feed to help keep them strong and healthy as the days turn colder. Honey supers, some weighing as much as fifty pounds, are stacked in the bee barn out back ready for extracting. But first - before the reward - comes the work. It's time now in October to get ready for March.


Before the honey is extracted and drawn for bottling, I build the hive bodies, honey supers, lids, and inner covers to put into inventory. Freshly painted and coated in polyurethane, this new woodenware will be ready to go when I see that my wintered colonies are beginning to increase in spring. If I'm lucky - like I was this year - I'll have enough boxes, lids, and bottom boards to start a new hive with swarms I'll capture. This was a good year, as I caught/rescued three wild swarms and made three splits just in my home yard. It helped to be able to sell the splits in order to put money aside to buy the wood and paint for what I'm doing now!

A wild-caught swarm from May now calls the home beeyard, well, home!

The old apple tree, damaged so badly in last year's ice storm, has to come down this winter. This means I'll need to move the three heavy hives that sit under it over to the garden yard where the captured swarms from this year live. I'll try to save the rootstock and hope it comes back, practicing a bit of orchard nursing that my cousin Peter taught me. This tree makes a great Granny Smith apple and I hope it'll stump sprout so I can train three strong shoots to serve as new trunks. Peter saved three heirloom apple trees from the northern forest about twenty years ago and the rescued rootstock turned out to be New Hampshire rarities according to an orchard historian. Yes, there are orchard historians. The Eppig heirloom orchards are doing very well, and I brought home a grafted tree from his farm in Antrim NH in 2012 that is going gangbusters here in Pennsylvania.

Monkshood, false Solomon's seal, foamflower, redbud

As the gardens and woods behind my house settle down for the winter I can observe the success from past rescue missions to save plants. In 2007 I dug up a single wild monkshood from a patch of woods that is no more (another sprawling Royal Farms convenience store and gas station) and tucked it lovingly beneath a rescued redbud  (from a neighbor's scrubby sideyard - now manicured lawn). The redbud is one of my favorite yard trees and I'm hoping to plant more. The monkshood has multiplied like crazy, occupying several areas of my woods gardens on their own and is a favorite for late foraging bumble bees and my honey bees. How it spread I don't know! But now I have ten plants that burst into rich purple blooms each October in both the front and back woods gardens.

Hay-scented fern

Cleaning in and around the bee yards I pay attention to fall colors. I'm inspired to paint the new hive bodies these gorgeous hues of orange, green, yellow, and brown so that I can keep some of the beauty of autumn in my yard year-round. Not so the orchard yard up the road. The manager there prefers my hives are painted white so that he can see them while mowing and pruning. No matter, I love white hives too. The feeder buckets are scrubbed white again, ready to fill with winter syrup. And the white bottling pails sit expectantly on my kitchen counter, free of summer debris and bee poop - from a summer free-for-all gleaning honey from the emptied pails!  

Feeder pails ready to go

This year's hive body color was matched to some wood fern (another rescue!) that has nearly taken over the front woods garden. For a week it flared a deep orange and now it is a glowing ochre. I took a frond of it with me to the home improvement store and it was a lot of fun to search through the paint chips to find the match. Sometimes it helps to have hives color-coded or uniquely marked. This is very true for hives that are moved around in a small area, like my home bee yard. When a hive is moved a short distance the foragers will continue to return to the original site and worry around where the hive once was. They may or may not notice their home just a few dozen feet away, as they don't clearly see or smell the unique identifier for their hive. A sudden rainstorm, predators like flycatchers and hornets, and cold weather can decimate a confused cloud of foragers. Providing them with clues and landmarks helps get them back inside quickly. I've had to move my home yard around five times in seven years for cleaning up after a hurricane, tree cutting, building/paving, etc., and I'll have to move it again soon to take the old apple tree down. Having unique colors or stickers (I hate stickers though!) helps foragers relocate quickly without having to re-orient the colony by closing the hive in for days.  It's not so important with the big yards out in the orchards, as they all stay in place for the year, and when they get moved they go miles not feet. I think this burnt fern orange will be a good color for next year's swarms and splits.

New hive bodies built and painted

Another ritual of autumn is visiting Ike over at Forest Hill Beekeepers Supply. Like many of the people I do business with, Ike is an Amish farmer.  He bought some wood working equipment from an old friend of mine who retired from building hive ware. It's fun to visit with Ike, Mary, and their kids while looking at the old saws and planers I used to work with at the shop near Baltimore. This stuff has certainly found a great home here. And Ike's place is so much closer! So, like all the other chores that come before bottling honey, I picked a rainy Saturday to go visit and stock up on glass bottles, frames, and foundation. Ike was busy flushing out a new stainless bulk tank he just got for buying honey from all us side-liners to bottle and market to some bigger grocery stores in the area. We dickered over his bulk prices and I am considering selling surplus bulk to him. I am happy to say I have a lot more honey than I can bottle and stock in my little (and cold) honey room. So this seems like a good deal.

Fitting, gluing, nailing hive bodies

The last chore before extraction is to call another Amish farmer-with-a-business, Dave, and have him come over and service the old pellet stove so I can start heating the kitchen up. Can't extract cold honey from cold frames. Soon my kitchen will be cluttered with heavy boxes of framed comb, warming up inside so I can skim the caps off with an equally warm (and super sharp) decapping knife. Into the (warm) extractor will go the dripping frames, warming the body with some a good hard spins on the hand crank (the motorized extractor is 'resting'), and watch the (warm) honey flow into the (warm) waiting pails. Some people argue with me that heated honey  isn't as good as 'raw' honey and honestly, I don't know what that means except that I'm pretty sure the one arguing with me has never tried to extract cold honey from cold frames using cold equipment. So Dave comes over, works a while, and lights the stove anew for the first autumn burn. We chatted some about what makes a good 'elixir' for colds and allergies, while I watched the indoor temperature climb to 70 then 80 degrees. "Warm enough to make that honey flow?" he asks, and it is. We say our goodbyes and with all the other beeyard chores almost done, I can finally think seriously about what comes next.

New lids and inner covers

There is still so much to do before I can even think about extracting, though. But once the kitchen is set up, and all the supplies are in place, we'll begin and not stop for nights on end. Many orders have already come in with many more to come as holiday gift and baking season arrives. Then the winter stock will be kept warm and fluid in the kitchen as family and friends come by to chose a jar or two. Over the summer my granddaughter and I polished off the last of the 2013 stock, swiping our fingers along the inside of the jar until it was gone. "I can't wait for October!" she laughed. She helped with hiving a swarm earlier in the year and asked if all the work of beekeeping wasn't like singing a song over and over again. "I remember doing this last year!" Like a song, the rhythms of beekeeping do cycle with the seasons, but each year has a slightly different melody as she grows in confidence and ability,  the next generation of beekeeper to take on the seasonal stations.

A heavy frame of bees for the youngest beekeeper of the family.

So autumn rattles on and I check off the chores one by one. Today the the sky is filled with Canada geese winging south. The redbud tree out back, the first inspiration for a mineral-green underleaf color of the home yard hives years ago, shimmers against a chilly evening sky as I emerge from the bee barn with yet another white pail to wash. I think ahead to next fall, should I be so fortunate to see another turn around the sun, and wonder how that light blue-violet of an October sky or the deep indigo  of monkshood might look on a beehive.

Under the redbud at sunset.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

PA Mason Dixon Trail - Map 5: In Tight Places - Muddy Creek Access through Oakland Run Ravine

Sunday October 19, 2014: Muddy Creek Boat Access to Blair Road, State Gamelands 181

The morning started off cold and cloudy, with a chilly northwest wind driving down the river. We hadn't hiked long, however, before the sun started bursting through a lumpy, grey cloud deck. The wide fetch of the Susquehanna generated whitecaps and waves, but within the folds of the forested islands we were sheltered and warm. This Sunday's hike was all about the tight spaces from water gaps and canal locks to ravines and entrenched streams. Following last week's hike up Muddy Creek, one of the most beautiful river hill ravines in York County, Pennsylvania, this week's hike revealed many interpretations of tight places.

Restored lock on the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal near Muddy Creek Boat Launch.

The interface of rock and river suited the building of the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal perfectly. Constructed between 1836 and 1840, the not-so-wide canal accommodated the cigar-shaped cargo boats and not much more.  The canal company used immigrant labor gathered from the wharfs of Philadelphia, Wilmington, and New York.  Men and boys used picks, stone hammers, chisels, shovels, and wheel barrows to quarry nearby metaconglomerate schists from outcrops and borrow pits to build the narrow-walled locks, elevated towpath, bridge abutments, and lock houses. It was hard, dangerous work. While today not all the locks are restored (as was the first one we came across on this section) the dry stack stone walls and semi-watered ruins serve as important habitat for reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Come March some of the best vernal pool action around can be observed in the bottoms of these old locks and all manner of things from snakes to bats live in the generous cracks and crevices of the walls.

Loading a canal boat at the Peavine Island landing, now completely forested and reclaimed by nature. Credit - PPL.

The bridge over to Peavine Island (left). Credit - PPL.

The first third of our hike was out to the Bear Islands, an area recognized as containing some of the most biologically  diverse habitat of the entire river valley. Soft moss cushioned our steps and red and white pine trees whispered overhead in the wind. An immature black-crowned night heron lifted from her rocky perch at our approach.  Outcrops of uplifted rock carved and smoothed by thousands of years of glacial meltwater created a maze of kayak trails. Potholes, ledges, and beautifully sculpted cliffs provide places for miniature forests of pine saplings, bear oak, ferns, and grasses to grow, all sheltered from bitter winds and harsh sun. But occasionally floods waters will wash over the islands and scour the rocks clean of life, except for the deepest rooted plants.

Interface between bedrock and river - Bear Island Complex.

The idea that all life is transitory, changing, coming and going, is felt almost in-hand out here on the islands. Plant communities shift according to the seasons, and with the seasons come the responses of the river with its mean ice jams, violent floods, and deadly droughts. In summer there is unrelenting heat rising from the bare rock like from an oven and sometimes fire. Peavine Island shows evidence of an intense burn a few years back, where now pine saplings are sprouting, grasses grow, and fire-resistant trunks of the older trees still show. Except for those mature trees growing on the protected interiors of the largest islands, the edge communities seem to be all pioneer species, quick to anchor and grow and re-establish when disturbed.

Peavine Island overlooking a natural slough used by the canal boats.

There are some narrow spots along the Mason Dixon Trail in this eight mile section to be watchful for. Crossing a slim rim of rock, we rump-scooted down slick rock to drop hopefully to narrow ledges below.  We side-stepped along ledges too skinny on which to do otherwise. We peered into every pothole and pocket, and gawked at the broad shoulders of the islands over which hawks, vultures, herons, and eagles glided. From precarious cliff overlooks we watched the river course through the islands as it funneled into ancient channels, sometimes hundreds of feet deep. Strange swirling currents and cold upwellings of water signaled submerged potholes and great crevices below. 

Freshly fallen leaves made the downhill approach to Peavine Island a little slick!

White and red pine needles carpet the trails on Peavine.
Uplifted metaconglomerate bedrock showing the force of continental collision.

Peavine Island is worth a full day of exploring and is easily accessible by hiking in from the restored Lock 12 from the north, but the approach from the south might be tricky for children or older hikers. Be aware of high water which could block access from either end, and avoid going out when the dam is releasing following heavy rains and snow melt. Though sirens will sound from the Holtwood Dam a mile upriver, a distracted hiker or fisherman could get caught out there as waters rise and cover the rocky path. I love paddling through the Bear Island Complex, especially in the late fall and early winter before freeze-up but after all the poison ivy has died away! PPL monitors the islands and there are still folks who live out here in cabins, so take only pictures and leave only the groove of your kayak's keel when you leave.

Unrestored lock on Peavine Island.
A single remaining gate bumper log held in with iron spike nails.

Restored Lock 12.

The hydrologically connected landscape of flood cycles, alluvial soils, sediments, organic matter, and weathering bedrock make this area a rich biotic environment. There are rare and endangered plants here, rare turtles and amphibians, and large specimens of riparian trees like red maple, sycamore, and river birch.  I was a little annoyed with the Japanese knotweed that now shades out entire banks, however. It grows so thickly at the Muddy Creek Access that it blocks views of the river.

Swamp beggar tick flowers brighten a cloudy October morning.

Partridgeberry cascading over moss on Peavine Island.

Once off Peavine Island and heading north along the river the MDT follows the canal towpath and allows for some nice views of the river valley. The Norman Wood Bridge spans the island chain to connect York and Lancaster Counties. The clop-clopping of horses pulling buggies across the bridge high above made for some interesting acoustics as the trail crossed underneath the great piers and bridge deck. Again, narrow-goings as the trail teeters in some places on the rocky, eroded towpath until it veers suddenly up towards River Road and around an old mill foundation. In canal days, this path would have been a comfortable ten to fifteen feet wide, allowing a teams of horses or mules to walk along towing the canal boats.

The narrow two-laned Norman Wood Bridge (PA Rt. 372) connects York and Lancaster Counties.

From an interpretive panel showing the wide towpath (now trail) and horses pulling canal boat (PPL & Exelon sign).

Looking down into the wheel pit and axle housings for a long absent overshot wheel at a mill ruins.

The MDT began a beautiful climb up Mill Run, a favorite summer hike and the location of a nice swimming hole  for my grandkids. Mill Run tumbled and sang through its deep valley, one of two nice ravine creeks we would see today. Ravine ecosystems are unique to each creek and even though some ravines may only be a mile or less apart, each has its own special character and feel. But one constant is that north-facing slopes are covered in rhododendron woods, and south-facing slopes are covered in oak-hickory forest. I love hiking up the ravines in winter when the waterfalls and cascades are frozen and the noisy waters are silent.

North and south-facing slopes of a small side creek to Mill Run.

Mill Run on its sliver of a race to the Susquehanna River.

Our swimming hole in fall colors.

Unlike most creek valleys found here in the Piedmont, river hill ravines have  deep incised valleys, steep walls, and no floodplains. These can be dangerous places during flash floods, and sometimes the only way out is straight up. Though not flooding today, we climbed up and out of the Mill Run ravine on a series of pitched switchbacks, higher and higher, until we reached a narrow spine of rock that ran out to the edge of the ravine's valley wall.   The high ridge mirrored the deep valley in its steepness though an inverted V-shape, and while the trail continued along its apex we observed young  ironwood, hickory, and oak anchored in its thin rocky soils.Not until we dropped down below the ridge line did we start to see larger, mature trees growing in the richer soils, more protected from winds.

Ravine ridgeline, an inverted V.
Holtwood Dam built at a narrow gap in the river valley.

The wind was whipping the treetops about and from our resting ledge we could see whitecaps far below on Lake Aldred behind Holtwood Dam.  Unlike the C&O Canal along the Potomac which is still watered in many places (and great for flatwater canoeing!) the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal has filled in with flood silts and sands or has been drowned by the ponds behind each of the three big dams that span the river at Conowingo, Holtwood, York Haven, and Safe Harbor. From the top we could see the height of water behind the dam and knew that our lock finding was over for the day.

A water gap carved out by the ancient Susquehanna. The Pinnacle is to the right - a popular hiking destination.

It seemed we were hiking either into or out of tight spaces all day long. We stopped to admire a water gap, a place in the mountain where the Susquehanna over millions of years has worked its way through the ridge, most likely following weakened joints or faults, while at the same time the mountain was being uplifted. Geologists suggest that the down-cutting was occurring at the same rate as uplift, producing the dramatic gaps we see now. The Susquehanna is famous for its many water gaps, some of which can be seen from heights such as the Pinnacle, a popular hiking destination on the Conestoga Trail opposite us (see pic above). The next ravine, Oakland Run, offered an up close look at down-cutting, faults, and entrenchment to the point of going almost underground.

Rugged outcrops within the Oakland Run ravine offer plenty of rock shelters.

The MDT follows the Oakland Run ravine for three miles to the top of the valley - and it is all up! This was some very rocky hiking, made a little slick by fallen leaves and overnight rainfall, followed by a mile-long trudge up a fire-break road to the top. For anyone who claims me to be a flatlander, here in Pennsylvania I dare them to follow the blue blazes through the river hills! Hiking poles strongly suggested and on this day greatly appreciated!

Oakland Run seems to dive underground at times, coursing through its ravine.

The metaconglomerate outcrops are high and very old. They were metamorphosed over eons from sea bottom sediments into sharply defined cliffs and walls of quartz, gneiss, and schists, eroded out of the hill by the steep descent and weathering action of the stream. An active regional fault bisects the ravine and it runs close to the surface here. Jumbled boulders, broken shelf rock, and torn gaps in the cliff walls are evidence of some powerful tremors in the past. Just north of the Pinnacle over in Lancaster County the fault line continues, running northeastward along the river. The Wind Caves, a popular set of angular passageways on the opposite shore are the result of the pushing and pulling of folded slabs of mile-deep rock as they rode over each other during continental collision. The cave is a fine example of a tectonic shifting and compared to limestone caves or lava tubes, it is the most rare of all cave types. 

The Pennsylvania Water and Power Company sign is a relic from the 1920s! (See Notes)

The colors and textures of the ravine are extraordinary this time of year. Of course, the colors have been there all along but with the shortening of days and dropping temperatures the colors of summer are dying away to reveal the colors of autumn. The wildness of this place was made all the moreso as the winds, still rushing overhead through the tops of hemlocks and white pines, was absent at trail level. We felt like in a world apart walking through time enveloped in a folder of investigations waiting to be opened by a future ecologist, mycologist, botanist, or geologist. I felt a little hurried as we kept up hiking pace to beat sunset, and would like to come back to just wallow in the different seasonal colors, scents, and sights. 

Hay-scented fern turns white with the first cold nights.

Like a time capsule, the Oakland Run ravine holds so many interesting discoveries about geological and botanical history that will take more time to uncover. It was fitting that the late day's golden light of mid-autumn filtering down through the yellows of hickory and beech resembled the golden hues of a morning in early spring. The seasonal glow reminds us that each year begins and ends with exaggerations of sunlight, magnified and dispersed through the slim skins of leaves, coming and going like a breath inhaled and exhaled over the span of a growing season. 

The ravine turns hard south then hard east, possible following a surface fault.


Though not a focus of this particular post, in reference to the old sign we found embedded in a hemlock trunk, this historical book on the Pennsylvania Water and Power company is archived online with the Internet Archive, a domain of the Creative Commons that links thousands of libraries around the world. Holtwood Dam was the first power-generating facility to link hydro and coal power, the first hybrid power plant in the world.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

PA Mason Dixon Trail -Map 5: Muddy Creek Gorge, It's All Uphill From Here!

Sunday 10-12-14: Dorsey Park to Muddy Creek Launch, 13 miles, Peach Bottom Township

We this started this section at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Plant at the Dorsey Park & Boat Launch and hiked straight along the river slope on a cut-in trail to a small cottage community at the base of the Muddy Creek Valley in southern Pennsylvania. The river here is so broad that on foggy mornings you can't see the Lancaster County side. We were impressed with the recent trail work along this stretch - wide cleared paths, recently weed whipped, new benches and blazes. Nice work!

An eagle scout candidate, Kim, Jim the President of the MDT Hiking Club, and me.

As we walked up the gravel road a silver truck came down and parked in the grassy shoulder behind the cottages. Here was the president of the Mason Dixon Trail System! What are the chances of that happening on a two hundred mile section hike? Jim Hooper was very happy to meet us and listen to our trail notes starting from way back at Chadds Ford, a hundred miles ago. We thanked him for his hard work, but he asked instead that we thank the young man who had just walked up behind us, an eagle scout candidate who had taken on MDT maintenance for this section over the summer. Really, trail volunteers and hiking club crews cannot hear 'thank you' enough! They deserve it!

Thank you, MDT Crew!

This segment is one of the two closest MDT sections to where I live in Peach Bottom Township. I often hike a seven mile loop up through the Muddy Creek Valley using the Mason Dixon Trail and our backcountry roads for the return. I share the trail with hikers, nature photographers, birders, whitewater kayakers, and fly fishermen. I count myself  a member of all these groups who love the remoteness and wildness of Muddy Creek. It is surely one the crown jewels of the Lower Susquehanna River Valley. My best fly fishing days are here in the fall and winter. Today I hiked past my favorite casting spots where I know some beautiful wild trout hide out - and I didn't say a word! Shhhhhhh....

Gold-on-green adorns the mossy boulders along Muddy Creek banks.

Aldo Leopold wrote about the 'red lanterns' of wild blackberry leaves during October in A Sand County Almanac, my favorite book to read every year around this time. In the early stages of leaf change which is mostly now in the yellow and gold range here in the Mid-Atlantic, things red stand out dramatically against the muted brown and ochre of the forest floor. The red leaves of blackberry and Virginia creeper practically glow against the yellow of the beech and tulip popular. Leopold marked partridge hunting season by the red lanterns of Wisconsin. Here in South Central PA I associate the red lanterns of fall with wild turkey. Kim and I glimpsed a big tom winging up into a white pine as we rounded a side stream valley. Acorns are everywhere right now and the will turkeys grow very fat on them!

Red berries of Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Once past the cottages (all adorable by the way - two are for sale) we came upon the hillside trailhead to the Muddy Creek section. It was mostly straight up on steep switchbacks, and we huffed and puffed.  Barred owls hollered across the hill, woodpeckers chatted, quiet fall warblers and a hermit thrush slipped through the oak-hickory woods silently. Muddy Creek, a premier whitewater run, fell farther below us as the trail kept climbing. The light through golden leaves of paw-paw, hickory, beech, and poplar cast such a beautiful shimmering, that combined with the cool temperatures (fleeces stayed on!), we were soon surrounded by the perfect autumn morning.

Welcome to the perfect autumn day!

The experience of hiking is much like reading a poem straight through, slowly, not sticking to any one line or word, allowing a flow of light, color, sound, scent, and experience to pass through and by without grasping or clinging. Certainly on long hikes, like my time on the AT, day-after-day walking creates a flow-state of consciousness. I'm reminded of William Blake's poem on non-attachment:

He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.

Beech leaves carpet the MDT through rhododendron. 

The MDT does not dip into gorge itself so you have to climb down off the trail into the boulder-strewn floor on slippery moss-covered rocks to see the squeeze chute where the creek tumbles through in a rooster-tailed rapid.  The bedrock is tilted schist that sparkles and glitters with mica and quartz. 

Looking into the tight Class V chute. Photo by Kim!

This is more or less the mid-section of the white water run for kayakers who have already dropped over shelves and ledges to get to this point. Most folks portage around the chute - and with good reason: there are often thick logs wedged into the crevice making entrapment all but certain. At high levels, the volume of water firing through the squeeze would surely pin a boat to the opposite undercut wall. I've paddled this creek many times in whitewater canoes and kayaks, and I know it's personality from just scraping through to full and pushy and dangerous and I've never felt the need to risk this section so I always carry it.

Where I usually take out and  carry around. Photo by Kim!

Beyond the squeeze, Muddy Creek tumbles almost non-stop down a steep gradient to the Susquehanna giving whitewater paddlers a real ride! Just when you catch your breathe from one tricky drop and turn, you have another, and another. For two miles the creek plays its way down and ends finally in a quiet pool complete with an embedded waterfall stream that pours over from a side wall. The not-so-fun part begins when its time to paddle the long flat stretch of river south to Cold Cabin Road Community Park about a mile and half away, or upstream through the old canal remains, working shoreline eddies to the Muddy Creek Access launch a mile to the north. Either way, trying to track a whitewater boat in flatwater can be tiresome!

Tilted bedrock valley floor sculpted by millions of years of fast water. 

Muddy Creek runs a long course through southern York County and is under the watchful eye of the Muddy Creek chapter of Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited. We gather several times a year to take care of streamside plantings, manage habitat, work in the native plant nursery, or clean up after floods and most commonly - after people. A favorite volunteer job for young folks is helping with the donut/coffee/cider table at the Muddy Creek Forks TU event held on opening day in early March. TU is such a great family organization to get involved with and with chapters all over the state, there's always a stream near home that could use your help. Cold water fisheries are such important habitats not only to trout but forest birds, insects, plants, and aquatic life. 

Muddy Creek is one of the most wild of PA's cold water fisheries. 

Muddy Creek has had its share of abuse, too. About ten years ago there were hoards of people here who over the course of a few months destroyed delicate forested banks, moss communities, and sand banks with long-term 'camping' (I call it squatting). It was awful. These people forced authorities and surrounding land owners to take drastic measures to limit access. The valley has recovered beautifully but I feel that we are always one field party away from seeing it defiled again.  MDT trail crews and TU groups have carefully removed disgusting trash heaps, dug out hacked off stumps and limbs, and re-planted banks and flood plains with native shrubs and trees. There is still plenty of trash to pick up, however, so its always a good idea to pack a bag or two.  That said, we saw a few recently tossed cans and bottles along the trail as well as a hold-over squatters camp draped in a torn tarp. Now, land owners let hikers know exactly where the property lines are, and the closely spaced No Trespassing signs can be a little annoying, but it's all part of a recent history of ignorance and neglect that we still struggle with. Parking at the bridge can be a real hassle and the local towing company makes a lot of money here when neighbors complain about crowds.

This makes me think again about environmental ethics and human morality. Leopold's 'red lanterns' are found in the same book where his essay on conservation and land ethics are found. He suggests there can be no ethic if something is not loved nor appreciated. The power of mob-think in society speaks to the need or compulsion to do as others do in order to be accepted - even respected. This behavior has serious consequences for areas that attract us for their wilderness or wild qualities. Having seen the crowds and the destruction they caused in this beautiful area for myself many years ago, I still wonder at nature's resilience and its ability to recover given time, attention, and protection. I am always interested in how we as society and individuals learn to care for a landscape, how to control our impulses to abuse and neglect a natural resource. I think the Mason Dixon Trail System volunteers and the good folks of TU Muddy Creek Chapter deserve a lot of credit for getting this message across.  

Old road cut through a mossy ridge.

Can we come to love the scars? Long before any of us were around to witness it, this valley contained a hydroelectric project  that required roads be blasted through the scenic ridges, and heavy equipment be anchored to the steep rock walls. The plant didn't last long, however. The steep V-shaped valley of the lower Muddy Creek can raise a wicked flood in a mighty hurry and within a few years the plant, its roads, and any sign of industrial man were swept away.  The remnants of roads remain, however, and serve now as the path for the MDT.  Along it you can see stone walls built to hold the heavy wagon road, a bridge abutment, and some massive curved iron plates that were used in water tank construction. I love recognizing these as artifacts of human history hidden in and overtaken by the rhododendron woods. But could you love the idea of hacked off limbs and uprooted trees, broken glass, vandalized boulders and walls, and mounds of trash years from now? I don't think so.  

Hydro plant  construction road, now the MDT.

The humid north-facing slopes are covered in rhododendron groves that give the valley an almost tropical feel. "Rhodie woods" or thickets, cascade down the steep hillside into the creek and grow so tall and luch that at one point the trail goes underneath, in a  deep green tunnel of wide, large leaves and twisted trunks that arc over our heads like a cathedral ceiling. Like most evergreens, we think stay these plants green year-round, but looking closely we saw there were plenty of yellowing two-year old leaves drooping and dropping into the duff. The white pines overhead carpeted the path with their yellow needles and the hemlocks that hugged the rocky promontories an sheltered the big tom turkey were shedding quite a few needles as well. Walking on the fallen needles released distinct pine on earth scent. 

Rhoadie woods, emblems of  Pennsylvania gorges. 

The large sheltering leaves of rhododendron are important habitat as well. Hiking through here on a rainy or cold day, check under the leaves for insects like moths and beetles, and this time of year look for the beautiful orb weaver spiders that retreat to their daytime rests under a leafy roof. We had to duck under and around a few orb weavers on this stretch and I always love meeting them.  One year I found a little red bat sheltering in a curled rhoadie leaf on a cold morning.  

Marbled Orb Weaver

The MDT climbs steadily up and out of the creek valley and emerges at an old iron bridge. It turns right and climbs steadily, steeply,  along the road and we were huffing and puffing now. Once up and over the long hill, we hiked a lot of road edge across the Piedmont highland past Amish farms and pumpkin fields. It's such a pleasure to hear the clanking and clopping of horse and buggy and to get a friendly wave from an Amish neighbor.

Looking towards Lancaster County as we walk across the highland toward the Susquehanna.  Photo by Kim.

Across the height of land, all of it in beautiful farms with rich soils and thick pastures, we walked along the roadside for about five miles. The blazes, painted on sign posts and telephone poles led us t down to the river, past more Amish farms, and protective farm dogs. Sheep, cattle, chickens, big horses, giant jack mules, and industrious garden and hoop houses filled the landscape. We even caught sight of feeding flocks of starlings making their combined roosting flock, sweeping and turning in unison as they began to settle in for the evening.

Early morning mists rising from Muddy Creek Valley.

Past small cabins and cottages, past a busy apiary (not mine!), and around a sharp steep bend, we turned in at the PA Fish and Boat Commission's Muddy Creek Access and gazed out across a placid, deep blue Susquehanna River. Between us and the far shores of Lancaster County is the Bear Island Complex, a natural treasure for island biodiversity.
In the 1920s there was talk of the island complex becoming a national park, but local residents hearing of the park service's heavy handedness evicting people in the Shenandoah and Great Dismal, wanted no part of it. The idea died quickly and today the islands are monitored by the power company that maintains the next dam at Holtwood, Pennsylvania Power and Light.  Some folks still live out there and as we stood admiring the river I thought I could see the red metal roof belonging to a cabin on Chestnut Island where I once stayed as a guest sheltering from a very bad lightening storm. Best chili I ever had, out there on Chestnut!

Looking towards Turkey Island, part of the dozen or so islands of the Bear Island Complex.

So after another incredibly beautiful section hike, this is the best time in our journey to truly thank the hard working volunteers who give up their weekends and take precious days off to work on the Mason Dixon Trail. I hope I haven't been too harsh in my assessments of the trail conditions so far, especially in Cecil County, MD. If anything, I hope I've added some humor, as sometimes hiking - any hiking - can be frustrating and even painful! As Jim explained earlier in the day, it is all he can do as club president to maintain all the sections with just volunteer help from Chadds Ford to Whiskey Springs. The young eagle scout was just one of hundreds of people who work year round to make the trail a little better as we go. Thanks to Jim and the trail clubs, scouts, neighbors, and friends of the MDT!


Trail work along the M-DTS
Special Message:

ALERT! The Mason-Dixon Trail along the power line right-of-way from PA State Game Lands 181 boundary to Bare Road (Map 5) will be closed due to hunting from October 1 to December 31, 2014.

The next scheduled hike and meeting of the M-DTS will be Sunday, November 16th, 2014 near Conowingo Dam, MD. The hike before the meeting is TBA. The meeting itself will be in the visitors center after the hike