Monday, August 28, 2017

PA Horseshoe Trail Williams Hill Loop - French Creek State Park

I traveled back to the Iron Hills Region to hike a short six-mile loop around Williams Hill and add another section of Horseshoe Trail to my 'done' list. I started my loop at the Scotts Run Pond kayak launch where there is a small parking area. No matter when I come to French Creek State Park, it seems not many people come to this small pond. It can be crowded in the main park yet only a few cars parked here with a sprinkling of users. But don't tell anybody. I was greeted at the pond's edge by a Great Spangled Fritillary on a stand of Joe Pye - a great start!

Great Spangled Fritillary with a 'bird bite' on the left hind wing.

I followed an unmarked trail from the spillway, down Scotts Run to the main road through the park, turned right on the road, crossed the stream bridge, and found the yellow blazes just a few hundred yards ahead. There is a smart new "Trail Crossing" sign so you can't miss it. The Horseshoe Trail climbs up, mostly on an old wagon road around the shoulders of Williams Hill and never quite makes it to the top unless you elect to take a side trail to the summit. There are no views, however. The hill (a remnant of a mountain, actually) is completely forested.

Old wagon road.

Like much of the Iron Hills Region through which the Horseshoe Trail travels, this was once an industrial landscape. It was first logged for its oak and pine in the mid-1700s, then cut over for the charcoal wood needed for the many iron furnaces during the Revolutionary Period. Some historians claim that the iron that came from this region was instrumental in arming the Colonial forces to win our independence from England.

Maple Leaf Viburnum

Even though the furnaces have been silent for over a century there is still much to see of the furnace and forge industry. Remains of iron plantations can be found across the landscape. To the east is Hopewell Furnace, a National Park Historic Site, with its impressive furnace and remains of its company town. To the west is the Joanna Furnace Village, an impressively conserved plantation town. Both offer seasonal festivals that offer reenactments of  the life of the iron plantations once so vital to the economies of Berks and Chester Counties. But there's plenty to see, too, for the observant hiker on this heavily forested hill if you know what to look for.

Massive White Oak along Scotts Run.

With the forest recovered, it is now hard to imagine how busy this place was for nearly a century. Ore and lumber wagons crossed the mountain from Hopewell to Joanna. They carried limestone, iron ore, and most importantly, charcoal -  a constant stream of raw materials to prepare the furnaces to blast. Joanna Furnace was especially busy when it entered full blast operation that happened at least once a year. Several times Joanna Furnace was in blast operation for two to three years at a time - the sound of blast was heard all through the valley.

Even when a single track trail, the Horseshoe Trail follows an old wagon road.

The observant hiker will see charcoal black in several sections of the trail as the path cuts through old charcoal pits. Colliers cut, stacked, charred the cordwood  and lived on site in rough cabins near these cleared circular "pits" - really, just flat spots in the hillside about 25' in diameter. The smoldering charcoal mounds could not be allowed to get too hot nor go out. A blanker of oak leafs was raked on and off by the collier to allow air to flow down a stacked log chimney. It was dangerous, dirty work. When the heaps of cordwood had charred properly, the collier raked the charcoal out in the circular clearings to cool. The wagons arrived with fresh cordwood to unload and filled up on the fresh charcoal to be delivered to either Hopewell or Joanna.

Ramariopis laeticolor - common through the hike.

Now the forest is maturing again. White oak, tulip poplar, hickory, maple, and beech blanket the hillsides. It's hard to imagine this area as an industrial complex. The entire forest is declared an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Audubon. Most of the park's nearly 8000 acres is under forest canopy, making it the largest area of conserved forest between New York and Washington D.C.

Purple Cort, Cortinarius violaceus.
Black Earth Tongue - Trichoglossum sp.
Hen-of-the-Woods, Grifola frondosa

Squealing Fungus - named for the kids who found this.

There's been a lot of rain in this area in the last few weeks so fungi were everywhere. My favorite specimen was found with an explosion of squeals that erupted on the trail just ahead of me as a family of young children with their mom happened upon an enormous growth at the base of a dead tree. Each child had his or her picture taken with it. I offered to take a group shot with everyone and the fungus. They squealed and laughed! We officially named it "The Squeaking Fungus." Worth the unexpected rest stop to watch the entire family celebrate their find.

Virginia Knotweed

Coming around the western shoulder of the hill the dry woods gave way to a cooler section of wet swales and spring beds. Walking further along the trail became sandy and dry, and I noticed that the forest composition had changed as well. As I slowed to take notice of the change in light I realized I had entered a chestnut forest - a stump-sprouted shrub layer of chestnut saplings fighting for their lives against the fungal blight, Phytophthora. It was pretty clear that they weren't doing so well beyond a certain diameter. I counted nearly a hundred stump-sprouted trees but none over an inch or two in diameter before they are fatally scarred by the fungal invader.

Stump-sprouted Chestnut.

The chestnut forest was once America's grandest of the grand, spreading across two million acres of land from the Appalachian states across to the Mid-West. It fascinates me that now, a century after the blight hit, we are using plant breeding techniques usually employed for domesticating and refining traits for agricultural crops With the chestnut we are attempting to bring the species back to the wild. Back-crossing and inter-crossing techniques each involve laborious hand-pollination of flowers on resistant stock.

As far as the eye could see - green but all with dead stems.

This work has been happening using blight resistant Chinese chestnut and by using pollen from some of the 300 mature survivor trees that still exist in the wild. Many botanists agree that there may be hundreds more survivors, but given the thick cover of a restored Appalachian forest (minus its majestic chestnut) and so few people actually looking, that we will probably never know how many mature trees actually survived into the current century. But there are many survivors out there.

Living and dying together.

We walkers and hikers need to know what to look for and who to report our finds to. The American Chestnut Foundation maintains state chapters in most of the chestnut's native range and their website offers a reporting link. I searched the canopy with my binocs for quite some time but to no avail. This was a vibrant sapling stand but no survivors to be seen from my vantage point on the Horseshoe Trail. It occurred to me that I've seen many stump sprouted chestnuts on all of my PA hike this year, but wouldn't it be great to find an old survivor no one has yet discovered?

Chestnut woods - all small understory trees under Black Gum canopy.

The side trails that lead to the summit, Ridge, Boone and Turtle, are blazed blue and red. These intersect a few times with the loop around the hill. There's an old park map that still shows the original path of the Horseshoe Trail coming close to the summit along the north shoulder of Williams Hill but it has since been re-routed. You could make a loop using the blue-blazed Boone trail that skirts north of Scotts Run Pond, but I stuck to the yellow blazes and came back to the pond across from the parking area.

A sunken road with wheel ruts.
A cord wood road, or "corduroy" would have been laid in this wet crossing.

I completed the loop in about three hours and sat at a picnic table on the pond for my packed lunch. It always amazes me to look across a view such as this and try to imagine an industrial landscape in place of what we see now. In a way, the change in view gives me hope that we can address some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, but I wonder how much of that change will be influenced by shifts in technology and economic response as happened in the Iron Hills during the late 1800s? With regard to fuels of today, how will landscapes change as a result of their replacement?

Scotts Run Pond at the finish.


Joanna Furnace is just west of Williams Hill and is owned and maintained by the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association.

American Chestnut Foundation  offers a reporting link if you think you've found a mature survivor. Remember that these trees are found in dense forest and that trees in yards or towns that seem at first to be American Chestnut may be Chinese or European Chestnut or hybrids.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

PA Horseshoe Trail: Hopewell Big Woods with an Invisible Dog

This was an honor hike, a 14 mile out-and-back from Hopewell Furnace NHS through the Hopewell Big Woods and Pine Swamp, out to the company town of St. Peter''s Village and back. I hiked in remembrance of a dog who couldn't hike, could barely walk, but tried everyday to cover new ground. Honey Bear, a big black lab / Newfy mix, showed up in my yard three months ago, likely put there by someone unable to care for him any longer. I called for a mobile vet visit. A large mass on his hip was hurting him. We had to lift all 110 pounds of him into the van lab. He willingly allowed the vet and I to carry, weigh, poke and prod, and x-ray him.

Honey Bear and Monkey

He was all love from the start, smiling, tail wagging. But the prognosis was terrible - bone cancer. "A few days, maybe a few weeks, at the most a few months," said Dr. Vance. "Well, it's hospice then," I said. " If no one claims him, I'll adopt him into hospice in my home." It's been fun, though at times painful, three very full months of love.

Sadly, he passed last week- and I'm still trying to deal with how difficult his last day was. But, undeniably, he had the best three months of his life.

He was full of fun, play, cuddles, and loved short little walks around the neighborhood. He had lots to eat - so many treats! A friend gave him massages and I administered so many pain pills to keep the pain at bay.  His pet sitter loved on him like no other when I had to be away for a conference. He tried to walk - all the time. He always wanted to play fetch with Monkey, his favorite toy. He wanted to bounce and jump. Our night walks were his favorite. We'd only go around to the woods but he couldn't walk the trail off the road. It hurt too much to be on uneven ground. He wanted so badly to go farther! He'd lay down in the road at the trail entrance and rest. Dejected, he'd rise up and turn for home. So, for today's hike I'm taking him (in spirit) for a long hike and imagining him hiking along with me.

Hopewell Furnace and Forge Iron Village Visitor Center.

I made the ranger at the Visitor Center's desk cry. I didn't mean to! I explained I was doing a day section on the Horseshoe Trail and taking Honey Bear with me in my heart. She asked about him so I told her his story and she came around and hugged me. "Have a great hike!" she said through tears.

Yellow is the blaze color and the trail symbol is - guess?

The Horseshoe Trail is a long backpacking trail that arcs through several Southeastern PA counties east of the Susquehanna River. I've done several day hikes over the past few years, so I'm ticking off another 7 mile stretch with this walk through the Big Woods down to St. Peter's Village.

Hopewell Big Woods Area - my start was at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (top of map).

This section of trail was very well marked. New blazes, fancy trail posts, and lots of yellow horseshoes keep the hiker going in the right direction. It was good to see so much trail work done over the summer. One other trail user came past me on a trail run. But the path was muddy and lots of it was underwater from yesterday's torrential rains. He was a mess! Oh well. What would Honey Bear do? Walk right through! I quickly became a mess, too!

Beautiful new markers!

Fresh new blazes in paint, tags, and post markers.

Rain-freshened Turkey Tail fungus.


Late summer blossoms.

The trail followed the edges of wild meadows of State Game Lands and across a few roads then dipped down into the very wet Pine Swamp. This area of the Hopewell Big Woods is saturated and full of rocks. Historically it was a cedar swamp (called "pine" back in the day) but cedar was a prized lumber in the 1700s and very little of it survives except in a protected pocket far from the trail.

No rock-hopping but the trail was flooded and muddy alongside this small stream.
Swamp blossoms.
Meadow blossoms - Virgins Bower twining around Milkweed.

The trail was so wet and muddy! I was hiking through shoe-sucking mud giggling to myself, imagining what a big dog like Honey Bear would make of this place. Pure fun! I followed the yellow blazes through the swamp then up to an old railroad bed that passed through numerous quarry sites. Huge blocks of stone were dumped long the old rail bed. Drills marks and gunpowder holes were obvious on all of the dumped stone. The trail climbed a steep hill the dropped down into another valley where I was surrounded by old quarries, dumped stone, and pits.

Drill lines and powder holes (still blackened from blasting).

I'd arrived in the heart of  the St. Peter's Quarry (1880 - 1970), where quarry men removed the prized "black granite" blocks for transport and finishing down in the company town.  The Horseshoe  Trail wanders south, turning away from the approach trail to the town. I took a red blazed trail towards the town and soon was standing on the banks of French Creek. I imagined Honey Bear getting right in to wash the mud from his thick black fur coat.

French Creek..

Unfortunately for the trail and the historic quarry, access from big parking lot allows lots of vandals to spray paint the boulders and cut-stone fields. It was downright annoying!
It was e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.
I wandered into town a little disappointed with the damage done by spray paint. My turn-around spot happened at the first place I could find a seat - the ice cream shop in St. Peter's! Ice cream was Honey Bear's absolute favorite. When I saw an old Bassett Hound coming along the sidewalk heading to the parking lot and his car, I asked his mom if I could buy him a small cone in honor of Honey Bear. She said "YES!" So much fun watching her try to keep Barney from inhaling the ice cream cone. I sat on a bench and slurped down a milkshake. YUM!

The Village Scoop - Honey Bear's addiction was ice cream!

Returning to through the Big Woods with a rare view of the mountain ahead.

I turned back after the delicious break. Barney's mom called to me from the big parking lot and said that I had made Barney's day with the ice cream cone - and hers too. She wished me well and that I should know that taking Honey Bear on his long-awaited woods walk was the best thing she's heard all week - a week when it seems no news was good. She came over and gave me a hug (the second one today!) and I gave Barney a cuddle and played with his ears. Time to head up the mountain and through the swamp and into the woods and imagine Honey Bear so tired by the time we get back that he'd sleep all the way home.

Godspeed, my brave boy. You are so missed. Let's do this again sometime, shall we?

Returning to Hopewell Furnace NHS, 14 miles out-and-back with side trails at the Quarry.

Friday, August 18, 2017

PA Honey Hollow National Historic Landmark, Bucks County

Here's an idea! Repair a severely damaged landscape so that in a few decades no one will ever know what it looked like before the forests, marshes, lush pastures, and bucolic barns. That's what's happened at Honey Hollow, a small watershed in the Piedmont section of Bucks County, PA. The main valley is under the management of the Bucks County Audubon Society and the entire watershed to include the Audubon property is preserved as conservation land. It is registered as a National Historic Landmark. For those looking for its soil conservation history, it might not be too easy to find.

One clue you've arrived is the official Pennsylvania Historical Marker.

This area is north of Philadelphia in what is now a pretty built up area. In the 1930s though, this rural valley was considered "out there." Not far from the Delaware River and the town of New Hope, PA, there were six farms that occupied the 700 acre watershed of Honey Hollow Creek. The farmers in the high land lamented that their soils had washed away after decades of intensive farming. The farmers downhill lamented that their fields were being buried by silt and mud every time it rained.

A mold board plow.

The age of horse farming was coming to a close and the age of mechanized farming was just reaching these small valleys of eastern Pennsylvania. Horses could plow places where tractors could not, and generations of horse-drawn moldboard plowing had torn, exposed, and destroyed hillier sections of the valley. Some of the farmers in the valley had switched to small tractors by the 1930s when the Soil Conservation Service was invited to survey the watershed for advice on what to do. Top of their list of recommendations was to stop using horses and stop plowing land with the moldboard plow.

Contour plowing with disc plow.
The farmers listened to what the SCS men had to say and made the switch. They also took all of the recommendations for soil conservation to heart: no more moldboard plows - switch to disc plows that turn only the top layer of soil. They planted cover crops to protect soils from rain and sheet erosion. They build miles of hedgerows to block wind protect hillier ground. The replanted trees and allowed forest to regrow in the steepest sections to protect the stream and close-over gullies with canopy. The farmers of Honey Hollow were the first in the nation to band together to protect a watershed as a cooperative - the Honey Hollow Watershed Association. Their work not only healed the land, but served as a model for hundreds of watersheds restorations across the nation.

Old gully.
I hiked about four miles of trails from the nature center, formerly a grain and equipment barn with a seedy story of its own. I had to look hard to find evidence in the thick woods of its past degradation. Hidden in the sloped hillsides were gullies and wash-outs barely visible under reformed forest soils. Steep banks of silt soils and a stream bed full of tumbled limestone boulders attest to Honey Hollow's flash flood history.

Stockton Sandstone (Triassic sediments) in Honey Hollow stream.
Stream crossing on the trail via Ordovician limestone blocks.

The valley is a relic landscape of an ancient Triassic sea, as is much of this section of northern Bucks County. The sedimentary sandstone rocks tell us that shallow seas received the erosional debris from eroding mountains nearvy. A slight rise in the landscape is all that is left of Buckingham Mountain and it crosses the conservancy lands to the north at the headwaters of Honey Hollow Creek.

American Chestnut sapling.

The hike up the stream bed reveals a forest in recovery. Update from Charlie Davis, Natural History Society of Maryland. " American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is not considered an early succession plant—it is very tolerant of shade, which is a characteristic of late successional/climax species. It would have been a relict at Honey Hollow that somehow made it through the disturbance of forest clearing. It probably persisted on land that was cut and grazed, but not cleared. American beech suckers tend to be resistant to deer browse, and perhaps similarly for other ruminants." American Beech, considered a pioneer tree (one of the first species to establish in a transitional woodlot), is everywhere on the ridge. In the valley are tulip poplars, maple, sycamore, willow, walnut. There's not much of an understory. Deer are a problem. They nibble down the arrowwood, hazel, and dogwood. I noticed an experimental exclosure on the ridge, a fenced area to keep deer out. It looked as if a healthy understory was establishing in there.

Agricultural fields surrounded with mature hedgerows.

Looking down-valley to the marshes that were once silted fields.
Now a bluebird trail, old fields transition to meadows.

This is a short day hike. Don't expect to spend miles out on the trails. Some of the land is off-limits to hikers, as it contains an outdoor education facility reserved for students. Some of the trails are severely overgrown. A talk with the land manager revealed a need for volunteer trail maintainers. I avoided the overgrown trails and stuck to the forested valley trail. I met up with a small group of day hikers who had no idea of the area's history. They'd seen some signs but didn't understand the significance. "We're just going for a walk in the woods," said one hiker.

Update on ID:  Canada Horsebalm (Collinsonia canadensis) (Thanks, Charlie! NHS/MD) 
Trumpet Creeper vine in bloom.
Milkweed and Monarch caterpillar.

For an environmental historian, this landscape is exciting and full of secrets. I was pretty impressed that the day hikers had no idea as to the land's history. To them it was a walk in the woods. To farmers like P. Alston Waring and his neighbors in 1939, the deforested, wasted land was bleak and in need of emergency treatment. Their hard work and commitment really paid off. I had to search hard for erosional features and noted that the forests blocks most of the views except from the highest vantage points over the fields and lower marshes.  Waring notes in a small booklet for the Bucks County Watershed Conservancy (1972) that in 1702 a moldboard plow first broke ground here. In 1939, he writes that the farmers of Honey Hollow (himself included) "changes square fields to contoured strips, planted wildlife hedges and built ponds. Now man was working in harmony with nature."

Colonial Revivalist barn, built in 1935, now the Audubon visitor center.
Spring house, circa 1850.
National Historic Landmark marker and fire hydrant (left)

The farm that is now the Audubon Center has its own fun history and is worth investigating. Some of the trail signs highlight this story, but I found more interpretive signs by (with permission) rooting around in a storage area of the barn. The land was purchased by a rich (although criminal) investor from Philadelphia in the early 1930s. This was the age of the rich gentleman estatesmen who, like those bankers and real estate men of the pre-2008 crash, didn't know what to do with their millions of ill-earned cash dollars. "Honest" Bob Boltz hired an expensive Colonial Revivalist architect to build his estate house and barn. He hired landscape designers to install underground pumping systems to supply water from a pond to the house and barn with a system of buried pumps and pipes. Fire hydrants appear like weeds in the middle of fields and along the trail. "Honest" Bob knew that the feds were on his trail in the 1940s and he simple disappeared only to be caught and arrested in the late 1940s for his crimes of embezzlement and extortion. I giggled a little at the parallels of history.

Boltz Barn interior built in 1935, now a nature center.

A random fire hydrant from the 1930s underground water system installation.

Current entrance is just down the road from "Honest" Bob Boltz's estate house.

My favorite part of this short hike was discovering the water wheel house, nearly hidden from sight at the lower pond. I thrashed through some thorny vines to find the trail that took me over the raceway to the simple stone shed that housed the wheel and a family of black vultures. The building is in bad shape and the roof is nearly gone, covered for now with a plastic tarp. This is a shame but it takes a lot of money to preserve these old structures and keep them in shape. It was clear to me that the Audubon Society could use some help in this regard. [ Read this as "Please Send Money!" ] As I approached, the vultures, including their "cute" single fledgling youngster hopped obligingly up from their tarp-covered roost to flap loudly to a nearby locust tree. Once I had taken a few pictures inside and made my quick exit they loudly flapped back.

Momma (or Poppa?) Black Vulture exiting the roost as I approached the water wheel house.
Water wheel house, raceway, and nearly dislodged wooden wheel.
Rotting in the woods, but making for a great vulture nesting site.

My hike lasted less than two hours, but it was worth the two hour drive up just to be in this landscape that I've studied about but never visited. It was a great look at a fully restored agricultural landscape that is still being farmed, carefully and with great stewardship. The greatest threat this watershed faces now is encroaching development. Strip malls, busy streets, clogged tourist shopping districts, and McMansions are at the edges of the conservancy lands. It's worth the trip though, especially if you have the time ( I didn't) to go a few miles further to New Hope and hike along the canal trail on the Delaware - for me, another hike for another day.


Bucks County Audubon Society. Thanks to Dave for getting me oriented to the site and allowing me to dig around in the back storage area of the barn.

A nice little 1972 booklet that BCAS let me have (it doesn't appear yet in PDF format online) was P. Alston Waring's "Inventory of Natural Resources," a collection of natural history inventories done by local biologists Lester Thomas (Chief Naturalist Bucks County Parks); David Benner, Professor of Horticulture, Delaware Valley College; George Carmichael, Pennbury High School biology teacher; Joe Pearson, Ornithologist; Elizabeth Rex Thomas, Biologist; Charlotte Gantz, Entomologist; Charles Child, Artist; and Malcolm Crooks, Honey Hollow farmer and founder of the conservation district at Honey Hollow.

I mention all of the contributors because I know some of this blog's readers are conservation historians and will recognize a few important names from Pennsylvania conservation history!