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.

1 comment:

  1. Do you know if there are any access trails between rt 645 parking lot and Swatara Gap parking lot??