Friday, June 29, 2018

PA Swatara State Park: Bear Hole Trail - Swatara Rail Trail 11 Mile Circuit

My plans for Sunday were radically altered after hearing a story from a fossil thief.  I decided to make a sleuthing trip to find evidence of his last and riskiest heist attempt. I found it ten miles into this long, humid day hike on my second summer visit to the Blue Mountain Complex in Central PA. Someday this will be heck of a mystery story, I told him. "Just publish it after I'm dead," he said. " I don't want to go to jail in my 80s." What was it? You'll have to wait for the book. In the meantime, enjoy the puppy.

My little pit after an hour digging - one cool little fish impression popped out. 

Swatara State Park is probably best known for a now defunct fossil bank that once existed under the I-81 bridge over Swatara Creek. So much Devonian material was collected here that fossil hunters literally undermined the bridge to the point that it was unsafe for both hunters beneath and heavy trucks above.  A few years later the park tried to make up for closing the site by inviting diggers to a spoils area to dig through dump trucks of road cut material from a nearby construction project. The piles were reduced to bits within the year. Now all that remains of that site is a public digging area where some small but nice marine fossils can be found - with a lot of work and patience.

Old shale beds make for a nice public pit for digging and keeping what you find - but it's steep!

The whole park takes up a long stretch of sedimentary Devonian shales and mudtsone. Newer siltstone and sandstone banks can be found in old railroad cuts on the opposite side of Swatara Creek.  So if you know where and how to look, you can find lots of great stuff in situ but for pictures only. The public dig site is the only place in the park where you can dig and keep what you find. So I went to check out the public pit first and dug maybe an hour with my rock hammer and chisel (wishing I had brought my knee pads!) and found some nice small marine fossils and a fish - a small plated fish about two inches long.

Small plated fish with barbs - no tail. 

Very sharp shards - bring gloves. 

The pit is found along the very beautiful Bear Hole Trail hike/bike trail about a mile from the  Swopes Valley Road parking area. I was the only one in the park it seemed until about ten when folks started showing up with their dogs, bikes, and horses.  I made a quick return trip to the car to put away my digging tools then started out on an eleven mile circuit that combined Bear Hole Trail, a bit of the Appalachian trail, and return on Swatara Rail Trail.

Lock 5 of the old Union Canal.

A short way down the Bear Hole Trail, the Mifflin Trail leads to Lock 5, part of the long defunct Union Canal which was destroyed by a devastating flood in the 1860s. Parts of the canal are still watered but only in ponds and ditches, making for some great frog and turtle habitat. The bullfrogs in Lock 5 were impressively loud. The walls of the old lock are a fern lovers delight. Nature's original idea for a green wall.

Maidenhair Spleenwort growing in the canal wall.

Back on the Bear Hole Trail I spotted some lovely open forest glades that I assumed were old cabin sites since the trail was once a paved road. Most of the cabin-dwelling folks who lived in this area were forced out when the park was being established in the 1970s. These forest openings  are filled with wildflowers, humming with bees and sparkling with dragonflies. Poke Milkweeds were standing tall and seemed just about everywhere.

Poke Milkweed
Bordner Cabin

Several miles later I discovered by accident (I hadn't researched this trip at all so really all of it was a splendid surprise!) the incredible Bordner Cabin. It doesn't appear on the trail map, but I think the best places to explore aren't found on maps anyway.  I wandered in and out, sat on the porch, admired the view from every window, and read about the builder, Armar Bordner, a retired woodshop teacher and his wife, who were granted the only life-lease of all the cabin/cottage dwellers who were forced out. Granted, many of the cabins/cottages were in various states of disrepair and were not as beautiful as this hand-built log cabin, but I always feel a twinge of anger when hearing about displacements and losing home and camps under eminent domain.

View from  Bordner's great room of Aycrigg's Falls.

Armar and his wife, Peg, fought the loss of their cabin home to the state when the new park boundaries were being drawn up. Completed in 1939, Armar and Peg moved in during construction in the mid '30s and lived there for 70 years. When Armar passed away (in the cabin great room, looking up at the falls through the magnificent window) the cabin was adopted by the Boy Scouts then a Friends Group to care for it and keep it in good shape. Bordner, at age 89, gave a lovely interview in 1993 (now archived on You Tube - see Notes below), on his career as a tech ed teacher and how the cabin came to be. As a cabin dweller myself, this place really spoke to me.

Aycrigg's Falls

I could have stayed at the cabin all day but I had to remind myself of my mission - to find evidence of and confirm the fossil hunter's story. I hurried past more open glades of flowers and ferns, remembering that these spaces were once favorite family gathering spaces, hunting camps, or homes.
Nature has reclaimed all of it, but somehow the Bordner Cabin seems so perfect to be where it is.

The creek starts its wide turn to the south and I checked out a few more old locks. A threat of thunderstorms was looming and with the intensifying humidity a chorus of bullfrogs and tree frogs erupted from the watered lock near the intersection with the Appalachian Trail. 

Compare this view with a 2012 visit by fellow long-hiker, "Gone Hikin' " (see Notes below)

Thunder started rolling and the frogs started calling!

I took a quick run down the AT to see the I-83 overpass where fossil diggers undermined the highway. Though I didn't think to take pictures because the thunder of traffic and thunder of an approaching storm kept me moving pretty fast, you can find good views on the "Gone Hikin'" blog post from 2012. You can plainly see how deep the undercut had become and how much cement was poured to shore up the road above! (See Notes below)

Waterville Bridge - a really nice truss bridge! 
I ran back to the bridge. The skies were darkening and I still had six miles to go. The Watervale Iron Bridge - an iconic waypoint for AT hikers - was engulfed in a cool mist rising from the creek. I turned right on to an abandoned road, now the Swatara Rails to Trail path - though there was a solid mile-plus of open road hiking in the humid overcast before the turn on to the old rail bed. If it weren't for the birding and the butterfly watching I would have been more discouraged than I was. I was beginning to think I'd been told a tale, but as soon as I was on the RR path I re-oriented to the directions I was given.

Catbird was scolding me for attempting to pick a berry - "My patch!!"

Exposed formation of sedimentary sandstone tilted vertical.
Northern Pearly-Eye Butterfly
Shade at last!

Bikers zipped past. Lots of tilted seafloor in the RR cuts. I examined pieces of very pretty siltstone that had fallen out of place during freeze-up/thaws. Then some really nice claystone showing ripples and worm burrows. This would have been extremely shallow water, sunlit, and full of filter feeders. I found what I had been told would be there and took lots of pictures. The storms rolled over and the sun was shining again, dappling the forest floor with light and color. I love a good mystery and the Father Brown in me was quite satisfied with the discovery. Onward.

On the old Philadelphia and Reading Line.

When is it appropriate not to share an exciting find in nature? I learned the hard way that publicly posting the location of an uncommon bird species nesting in a neighboring county brought grief to a property owner. I've seen poorly behaved photographers tramp over delicate habitat and disturb animals for "money shots" having learned of exciting finds on social media.

Eva, age 6 months, standing in for the fossil site picture. Cuter than old rocks!

Even though the creature has been long gone and is quite extinct, I feel its important to protect the site, though damaged from the heist attempt in the 1980s, from future harm. I think its important to protect the storyteller too, who confessed his past deeds to me in confidence. He'd read my recent post here about our trip to Penn Dixie Fossil Park in Western New York and wanted to share his excitement for fossil hunting - which happened to include his confession - hence the radical altering of my weekend plans. When I told him the site is still there, just as he described it he said "Well, let's hope its stays that way."  Here - look at this adorable search and rescue puppy-in-training instead. I'll let you know when I write that book.


Armar Bordner's interview on YouTube

"Gone Hikin'" did a lot of what I hiked this weekend, except back in 2012. Though it's only been five years, I found her winter shots of some of the same places I stopped to be great comparisons for how the forest and landscape features have changed. The company store at the end of the Swatara Rail Trail, however, is no longer there. It looks to have been burned very recently. I took no pictures.

Geology of Swatara State Park

Trail maps are available at the parking area kiosk - there were lots.  Here's the pdf map, too.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

PA Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area

In keeping with this year's theme of searching for Mid-Atlantic big trees and old growth forest, I ventured north to Blue Mountain to visit a relatively new conservation property for Pennsylvania. The land was donated to the Commonwealth by Alexander Boyd (1925-2013) specifically for the as a sanctuary for mature forest. These woods are thick, almost claustrophobic along some of the 12 miles of trails that follow old logging roads and are generally in excellent shape. I took my just-turned-one black and tan coonhound Amos for his first long hike and settled in to explore the conservation area's old roads and foot paths. When the woods are this thick, its good to have a keen scent hound along to discover what might be hiding in plain sight.

Striped Maple, Acer pensylvanicus

The conservation area straddles the ridge of Blue Mountain. With most of its 1,000 acres encompassing the northern flank of the mountain, a good portion of the property folds over the 1,200' ridge and includes the higher elevations of the mountain's southern flank. Hiking on the Janie Trail, which runs the frost-shattered ridge in a single lane footpath, I was able to note the tree and shrub species that preferred southern exposure to northern exposure. On the south-facing ridge were expansive stands of Paw Paw while on the north-facing ridge Striped Maple dominated.

Blue dot = Boyd Big Tree Preserve that straddles the ridge of Blue Mountain, Ridge and Valley Province.

Blue Mountain is a fascinating geological feature that serves as the front of the Appalachian Mountains  in Pennsylvania. It was a formidable barrier to westward expansion. Today, it's best known northeast of here as Kittatinny Mountain where thousands of people flock in the fall to witness the great raptor migrations at Hawk Mountain. Blue Mountain and Peters Mountain to the north form a wonderful canoe-shaped complex that is part of the biologically rich Ridge and Valley Physiographic Province of the Appalachian Mountains. Created during continental collisions, the Appalachians folded and buckled into very high mountains and deep ravine valleys, thrust-faulting  that stacked the highest peaks at over 20,000 feet. Over millions of years of erosion, the gentle folds and dips of the province can only hint at what a dramatic mountainous landscape this must have been.

Frost-shatter talus slopes, a signature of Pennsylvania ridges.

This preserve is named for philanthropist Alexander Boyd, who, while known for the development of many of the neighborhoods in and around Harrisburg, loved the mountain forests that by mid-century in Pennsylvania were approaching maturity once again thanks to robust conservation policies enacted when he was just a boy.  In 1999 he made the decision to donate his land on Blue Mountain to become a conservation area, adding to a long list of philanthropic endeavors for which he sought neither recognition nor award.

Plant impressions in sandstone - a thorny twig.
Sandstone shards found in the wide paths are darkened with fossil plant impressions. Like a scrapbook of old pictures, the shards contain images of veined leaves, tendrils of vines, twigs and seeds - impressions of an old forest long gone. Amos met an old man out for an early walk. He stopped and smiled. "A fine disposition!" he said as he ran his hands down my pup's flanks. He reminisced about coonhound hunting in these mountains when he was a boy. "My daddy hunted with coonhounds and his daddy before him. Coonhounds were all I knew for hunting companions and the retired ones became treasured family pets."  Coonhounds with their very short fur were the perfect for squeezing through "woods so thick that you could barely see where to set your next step." He described these woods as a second growth in his youth and trees that he remembered as young stands of 'doghair' oak are now thinned by natural process to feature the oldest surviving oaks, gnarled and thick.  Amos loved the attention. I loved the stories.

Chipmunk perched on a sandstone slab with a plant impression.

On the the mountain ridge a single-lane footpath replaced the wide gravel paths on the slopes below. Amos sniffed out a garter snake, a million chipmunks, and turkey that laid low until we were practically on top of her. When she exploded out of the thick understory, Amos and I both almost fell backward. His first-ever turkey, he looked at me as if to say "What on earth was that?!" Then he caught scent of something musky and pulled me along the trail. No doubt lots of animals must use this footpath for their own travels. Once out into the heat and glare of a power line right-of-way, he lost interest in the scent and watched instead a pair of hikers picking their way up the rocky trail towards from the valley below. 

Amos with Peter's Mountain to the north, across the canoe-shaped valley.

The right-of-way carved a broad corridor out the forest from mountain to mountain. I scanned the skies for hawks while Amos investigated butterflies. I busted some sandstone and looked for more plant impressions. Another turkey gobbled in the woods beyond. The armature of the old mountains was plain to see: fold and dip, valley, ridge.

Looking south to the Susquehanna and the SW curve of the Appalachians beyond.

As the hikers continued their steady climb towards us, Amos alerted me to a dog that they had on a long lead. They came closer and the dog got bigger and bigger. An Irish wolfhound, the size of a small horse, peered up at Amos from an outcrop still far below us, but he must have given Amos some sense that he was much bigger and planned to be the one in charge when they met up. I could see his raised hackles from there.  My brave four-footed hiking companion circled around behind me and hid.

Tunnel-like single lane footpath of the Janie Trail.

And then they were gone. The two hikers and the big wolfhound must have branched off to one of the lower trails off the northern flank. Amos looked relieved when I told him "it's okay" and we began our descent. I went slowly, watching the right-of-way for animals and the sky for hawks. Amos tasted flowers and chased a cabbage white butterfly. We never did catch up with those hikers and the wolfhound. We re-entered the forest on an old wagon road and into the shade which made Amos very happy. Being a black hound in bright hot sun has its draw-backs on a hot day. As I took a drink of water from my bottle, he fell over and luxuriated on the cool gravel.  He was immeasurably content to lie there and nap.

Smooth and wide gravel bed of an old road make the way for the East Loop Trail.

The gift of old woods is best appreciated sitting still and listening, looking, and breathing in the sweet forest air. While Amos napped I sat down and listened to warblers and thrushes. A towhee called from the leafy forest floor and an ovenbird hopped on and off the road to catch ants and crawling things in the gravel. In the distance I thought I heard drumming. Could it be a grouse? It was too rapid and low-pitched to be a woodpecker. This are the kind of woods that beg for you to sit and stay a while.

Frost-shatter talus slopes hide springs that erupt from the rock into the path.

Beyond the bird song and leaf rustling of the million chipmunks, I made out, just barely, the sound of running water. We were still high up on the flank of the mountain, nowhere near the creek at the bottom. Then I realized that I was hearing springs running beneath the talus. When Amos decided he'd had enough nap, we continued on the road and found numerous springs erupting from the rocky slope. Some stayed at the surface and ran across the road to continue downhill while others burst out into the sun only to run underground again.

Springs appear then disappear back into the talus.

I am so fresh in soul and spirit
that life bubbles around me
in a thousand springs.

- Robert Schumann, composer

Power-napping on cool stone road.

The bubbling springs, birdsong, woodland insect chorus, and my footsteps on the path, combined with Amos' tingling bell and tags sounded together like a complex piece of music. What better excuse to listen to some Schumann? I found a nice orchestral piece by the composer to play from my phone, quietly, as a backdrop to long walk downhill. I can't imagine he was inspired by anything less than an exuberant early summer day in the forest  when he composed his symphony No. 3 "Rhenish" - complete with gurgling springs. The music seemed to bubble up and erupt just as we happened upon another gusher from the frost shattered stones. Great fun!

Squaw Root was everywhere. 

Enchanted Nightshade? 

The trail headed steadily downhill on the old graded road. Where the springs gathered together, small creeks formed tumbling over rocks through old gullies in the woods. Nearest these above-ground streams were the oldest stands of trees, though not ancient by any means. Century-old stands of oak shaded pools of water where I watched a mink scramble up and down, now-you-see-me-now-you-don't on the hunt for frogs. Double-trunk tulip poplars soared over the wet patches where skunk cabbage was beginning to brown and shrivel. End of spring is here as was the end of the long grade.

A double trunk Tulip Poplar towers over patch of wilting skunk cabbage

To end our hike in Boyd's woods, we found the spring-fed pond near the bottom of the preserve. Here a photographer with a big, long lens was taking pictures of blue gill and frogs. A green heron stalked along on the opposite side.  Down plopped Amos. He lolled about in cool grass as I talked to the photographer. Then he was snoring. Tired puppy after seven mountain miles!

Spring-fed pond.

I sat for another Amos nap until it was time to say goodbye to the photographer, then Amos popped up and we headed down the short trail to the parking area. He slept all the way home, listening to Schumann.

Short-grass prairie experimental area, Peter's Mountain to the north, from the parking area. 


DCNR Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area:  BoydBigTreePreserveConservationArea
There is a fine trail map downloadable from the Hiking section on the website, but I found the kiosk at the parking area well stocked with them.

Monday, June 11, 2018

PA Mason Dixon Trail - Map 1: Gifford Pinchot State Park to Western Terminus

See this box turtle?  She represents the speed at which Kim and I completed the 200-mile long Mason Dixon Trail from Chadds Ford, PA to Whiskey Spring, PA. It only took us four years, which is about how long a box turtle takes to patrol its entire territory of a few acres - slowly. We finished our last section hike on Saturday, June 9, 2018, starting at Gifford Pinchot State Park to walk 18 miles into the Appalachian Mountains to reach the terminus with the white-blazed AT at Whiskey Springs. This turtle, which I accidentally poked with my hiking pole in high brush somewhere along the massively overgrown PA Gamelands segments of the MDT, was our spirit animal. Steady on...

Eastern Box Turtle.

The trail has veered far from the actual Mason Dixon Line northwest towards the mountains and quite a ways from the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Today we started at Gifford Pinchot State Park at the end of the Beaver Creek Trail/Mason Dixon Trail on Squire Gratz Road. With some road walking along a busy highway, we were looking forward to getting into the woods but, whether as a prank or as a relocation, the blue blazes leading from the road to the State Gamelands trail were spray-painted black. We roamed around a bit trying to find the trail entrance from the road. It was frustrating and getting humid. We learned later that massive thunderstorms erupted to the south and east of us but we were already soaked in sweat and wet underbrush by then. We checked the MDT webpage for trail updates but nowhere did we find this confusing loss of trail. So we just started walking up the road some more and voila - found a blue blaze.

There are several SGL sections to get the hiker off-road, but we opted to skip the densely overgrown SGL 242.

It has been a very wet, rainy May and June, so I think that no matter how hard a trail crew might work to keep these wilder sections open, they quickly grow over. It was a real struggle in ankle deep mud, prickly briers, climbing over blow-downs, avoiding poison ivy, and pushing through shoulder-high grass. We'd sprayed ourselves heavily in tick repellent earlier but that did little to deter biting midges and mosquitoes. At one point we decided to do a walk-around of SGL 242 as we'd had it with bushwacking through jungle-like conditions and making such slow progress. We were worried about arriving at the car in the dark. We may have added a mile to our hike, but walking pleasantly cool and shady gravel roads through the state gamelands was just what we needed to recharge.

Squawroot, Conopholis americana.

The bulk of this section is road-walking, however, and it can be quite dangerous on narrow, curvy lanes without shoulders. Kim draped my pack with a blaze orange vest while she wore a bright orange PennState cap and orange shirt, knowing that our biggest challenge today was being seen by drivers. It kind of makes me mad that we don't have arrangements with landowners that are so common in the U.K., Scotland, and Ireland that provide for walker's right's of way across farm and pasture land. We spent the rest of our day hopping off and on roads which put a real kink in our pace.

Looking into the South Mountain hills. 

We found plenty of roadside attractions like donkey puppies. They all came scurrying from their shady run-out to say hi and get their noses petted. We saw some beautiful horses, too. A Haflinger pranced down a farm lane to greet us. A beautiful and very large black Shire with white socks galloped happily as we waved to him from the road.

Mini-Donkeys! Donkey Puppies! Wee Donks!

The day got more humid as we hiked uphill towards the mountain. Our water was running low so we spotted a small township park with a set of pavilions. Surely there would be a water spigot...

I asked a nice lady in the first pavilion if she knew where we could get water and she invited to the party! We both were so happy! Yay! Party! I had an ice-cold soda and some pretzels. Kim eyed the tray of cupcakes with anticipation. We learned a lot about the graduate as the family played a "Did You Know?" game after the gifts had been opened. My favorite was "What was Cory's favorite childhood toy?" and the answer - coming from everyone - "Anything John Deere!" These folks were wonderful trail angels. (There is a water spigot between the two pavilions - and nice bathrooms.)

Crashing a graduation party!

Refreshed, we continued the road walk ever upwards to the mountain ahead. It's been four years since we started this hike and now we were in the final two miles. Plodding onward.

Looking towards South Mountain.

Whiskey Spring Road - the last bit ( for those who start from Chadds Ford!)

Up and up we went. The midges got thicker. The mosquitoes were biting. We waved our caps around our faces and leaned into the uphill. We were now in the Appalachians and the storied Appalachian Trail would soon intersect our path and with it, the end of the Mason Dixon.

Whiskey Spring!


We reached my car and the intersection of the AT with Whiskey Spring Road. We asked a young couple to take our picture then Kim immediately went down to the spring to soak her feet. I did some stretches and peeled off a soft back brace which had soaked up about ten gallons of sweat.  I ate a handful of hiker's candy (Ibuprofen) and drank a full quart of water with some energy drink powder added. For giggles, I spread out all the section maps in the set. You can get a set by joining the Mason Dixon Trail Club. Looking down at all the places we've been brought back so many memories.

All 200 miles, ten maps.

So what's happened in four years? I earned my doctorate. Kim's kids went off to college. My grand- daughter entered middle school. Kim hiked in Arizona and Maine. I hiked in Spain, Colorado, and the U.K. I learned a ton about Mason and Dixon, the surveyors, and the landscapes through which they traveled to make "The Line." We've both connected to our local trail communities (York County, PA, and Cecil County, MD). So what happens next? Hmm. We've got our eyes on The Quad Crown!


Mason Dixon Trail System -