Saturday, February 29, 2020

PA Conestoga Trail: Pequea Nature Trail Section

I sometimes forget to post about my local trails because, well, they are very local, my backyard or just up the road and I am guilty of taking them for granted. But since there are so many local sections of the long distance Conestoga Trail nearby, I thought this would be a good 2.5 mile out-and-back to share because it is so beautiful and easy to walk.

The Conestoga Trail is 63 miles long and bisects the Lancaster County north to south. I live just on the other side of the Susquehanna in York County and, along with the 200 mile-long Mason Dixon Trail, I consider the Conestoga as one of my backyard trails that I can jump on anytime. The Conestoga is broken up into day hike sections that often have their own names and trail blaze colors but the CT orange blazes can be seen on all of the shorter sections. The Pequea Creek Nature Trail is a mile-and-a-half section of the Conestoga and makes for a nice scenic out-and-back section for a morning hike. It is - unlike most of the Conestoga Trail - very flat.

Old postcard scene from the trolley line at Colemanville, Lancaster County, on Pequea Creek

This section was recently put under the care of the Lancaster Conservancy and is well marked and well kept. The marking may not be so important, however, as it follows the narrow railway of an old trolley line and you really can't get lost. The trolley was a popular line on weekends for workers and their families in Lancaster to ride down to the river. Day excursions were cheap and with a picnic basket, a fishing pole, and the kids, it made for a relaxing Saturday or Sunday day away from the city.

The old trolley line way makes for a flat walk.

Pequea Creek is mostly a slow moving afair as it meanders through Amish farmland in Lancaster County then it reaches the gorge near Martic Forge where a high ridge of folded metamorphic rock is cut-through and s steep gradient begins. Water squeezes through a series of ledges and a sharp triangle-shaped boulder. The place is named Suzy's Hole supposedly for someone who drowned there, but really it's a fantastic swimming hole and a paddler doesn't want to spill over the ledge into a crowd of summer swimmers. The place can be treacherous, however, and there is a walk-around for canoeists and kayakers - and a big sign that says "Get Out Here"

You have been warned.

Suzie's Hole.

Start of the gorge.

Amos was sporting his backpack and stopped every 200 yards to plead for the treats I'd packed him, so finally we stopped at a viewspot in the gorge and he snacked mightily on carrots and kibble. Before too long a large Irish setter wandered up off leash, a nice big boy, and he sat prettily for treats as well. Then his owner came up, apologized, and leashed him up to move on. I hope he got his own treat later.

Bore hole for s small blast charge, late 1800s. 

As the trail follows on there is evidence of old bridges, their abutments still standing hard against the steep hillside. Road builders and later, trolley line workers, left plenty of evidence of blasting and stone-cutting. A 19th century mill is on the opposite bank, reduced by floodwaters to some high foundation walls, a doorway, and settings for a flume.

Down and up again.


It must have been a thrilling trolley ride as the walls of the gorge close in and the tracks crossed rickety trestles over side creeks with their steep-sided ravines and tumbling waters. Passengers in the open-air trolley might have held their hands out and touched the boulders and ledges along this curving section of track.

Pequea Covered Bridge comes into view

The trail section ends at the Pequea Covered Bridge but CT hikers can continue on through the Pequea Campground and still see the trolley trackway for some distance. It ends in the river town of Pequea where houses cling to steep hillsides and the creek becomes a backwater when meets the Susquehanna. Amos and I, however, turned back at the covered bridge. He wasn't very happy about walking through it, nope, no way.  Besides, a pair of honking Canada Geese needed investigating down on the bank.

The longest covered bridge in Lancaster County.

An island already has its pair of Canada Geese for the nesting season ahead.

Amos isn't so sure about walking across the bridge. No like!

Our return trip was a bit warmer. At least my hands stopped hurting with cold.  We met Mica the wired-haired something-terrier and his dad. Mica was verrrry interested in what Amos had in his backpack, so we had a little picnic. Mica's dad said that his grandfather was a factory worker in the 1930s in Lancaster and had taken his family many times (including his dad as a child) to the town of Pequea for picnics and fishing. "I remember the tracks here," he said, "long after the trolleys stopped running."

A ravine creek. 
A connector to the Pequea line took passengers to the church camp at Rawlinsville.

While Mica's dad and I talked about the trolley line, Mica was helping himself to the backpack treats. Amos sat politely and let him take his fill. When his dad saw the crime-in-progress, Mica got a scolding and scoop ed up into his dad's arms. Oh well, burped Mica. We said our goodbyes and stopped one more time before getting to the car. Amos was sure there was something left for him in his backpack so I checked and voila! - two carrots slices and two pieces of kibble.

Amos was sure something remained in his backpack so he sat for me to check...
Pequea Creek at Martic Forge.


Trolleys were a favorite way to get around Lancaster County a hundred years ago and according to this history, trolleys carried 12 million people around the county every year! Whoa.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

NJ Wharton State Forest: Hello Silence My Old (New) Friend

The New Jersey Pine Barrens can be a magical place for a young hiker to explore - minus the heat and bugs - so that's exactly what my grandchild Kenzey wanted to do on her Friday off from school. This was her first experience of the pine barrens and with a cold Atlantic wind blowing, it was mostly people free as well, with the whole day devoted to listening to the forest. She hiked along in complete silence, stopping now and then to stand and listen. "Where does the sound go?"

Pitch Pine in its "fire-proof suit"

We quickly learned the difference between the two dominate pine species, Short-Leafed and Pitch Pine. The Short-Leafed Pine stand straight and tall. It and it was easy to see why colonial shipbuilders logged the pinelands for this species. The Pitch Pine is clad in very thick plates of bark that protect it from fires and its branches and limbs go this way and that, giving it a wild-haired look.  Between the Pitch Pine stands in their fire-proof suits and the Short-Leafed Pines standing twice as tall, flocks of tiny winter birds flitted past. We counted by sight Red-Breasted Nuthatch and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet along the Batsto River in stands of Atlantic White Cedar. By sound we counted Pileated Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, and a Red-Shouldered Hawk.

Short-Leaf  Pine

From the Visitor Center we followed Batsto Lake Trail along the river for the first half of our hike of four miles and a portion of the long-distance Batona Trail for the second half. Tops of old dunes and overlooks above the river provided some expansive and intimate chances to observe the life of the forest and wetlands. A pair of Tundra Swans bathed upstream in a big splashy ruckous. Canada Geese yodeled at us from across the river.

Batsto River with a new admirer 

Kenzey lives in Delaware and knows well the hassles of the bloodletting season. The pine barrens can be miserable at the height of summer bug time.  Hiking in winter is much more enjoyable for both of us and we especially liked not having to deal with biting flies, mosquitoes, and midges as we slowly made our way around the four mile loop.  Bufflehead Ducks and Canada Geese scattered from a cove on the river as we wove our way through blueberry thickets down to a bench. A pair of Dark-Eyed Juncos tolerated our listening session as they picked through the duff under stunted oaks.

Ice edge on a black river

The cold wind plied the banks of the Batsto River and we got a bit chilled so decided to head back up to the main trail and find a sunny place to sit for a snack. Before long we found a white sandy patch, the remains of an old dune blow-out. We basked in the warmth of the sun while gnoshing on pepperoni and cheese with a chaser of green tea. We pondered the old dune and how the seas rose and retreated 15 time during the Cretacous and Tertiary Periods, 135 million to 5 million years ago. She's a lover of paleo-everything and aspires to be a paleo-artist. She gave me a thorough accounting of what creatures may have swum in those deep seas all that time ago. The Atlantic Coastal Plains are layered with strata from many such events and in the barrens there are 13 different soil types! The most abundant soils are highly acidic and found throughout the highlands where only the toughest plants can grow in these nutrient poor environments.

Tannins color the water blackish-red

Sandy soils are very porous so rain and snowmelt is quickly filtered through. The water table is high - in some cases only two feet from the surface.  The pine barrens sources all its own rivers and streams from the aquifers that lie within its boundaries. All the wetlands - bogs, swamps, and fens-  are fed by waters that rise from these lands.

Ancient sand dune blow-out patch 

At the Batona Trail intersection we turned right and walked for two miles on the only long-distance trail of 50+ miles in the region. On a paper map I showed her what those thin contour lines meant and we felt the ground rise as we walked to the summit point of our hike at 625' where there was another bench and another listening session. We followed the height of land along a sandy ridge where in the last few years a big fire must have roared through. The tops of the pines were charred and the canopy of pine needles that still clung to the trees were burnt rust and brown. Side-sprouted bunches of needles proved that some trees survived but there were plenty of dead fallen trees to work around.

At the intersection of the Batsto Lake Trail and the Batona Trail - turn right

Fire is the single most important factor in the pinelands ecology. It is now the season of controlled burns and we could smell the piney smoke from a fire not too far away. I told her about the few times I served on control back burns when I worked with DNR. T described what the woods might have looked like with burn crews making their way along fire breaks or moving with the low waves of flames through the woods with their pulaski tools, backpack water pump tanks, shovels, and broad rakes.

Batona Trail enters a burn area and baby pines are everywhere.

Some species of pine set hard, enclosed cones that require the heat of fires to pop them open and spread their seeds. Fires sweep out ouchy Greenbriar thickets and reduce any leafy material to ashy cover. Seeds may set where they drop or travel on the wind and lodge into bare soil further on but soon the grey forest floor will erupt into a pine nursery underlain by sheets of grass and fern.

Pine Savanna 

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey were some of the first publicly owned woodlands in the nation where fire was used as a management tool. In the late 1940s local burn management units went against  prevailing national policies of fire suppression. But the NJ foresters proved with evidence that unburned pinelands will transition to oak and other deciduous cover so quickly that dropped leaf litter of only a few years is enough to prevent young  pine seedlings from surviving. Heavier seeds like acorns and nuts can penetrate leafy floors but no so the pine seedling with has delicate threads of roots that cannot reach or hold on to detritus littered floors.

Pitch Pine charred bark 

The practice of controlled burns may have started with indigenous people who set fires to promote grass savannas beneath the trees. These grasslands maintained preferred species of game animals like deer. Left unburned for ten years, a heath bush like blueberry and huckleberry will follow.  As we walked along we noticed five different stages of fire recovery from early  savanna, heath barren, scrub forest, pine nursery, and mature forest. Still listening, we added Turkey to our bird list as a flock squabbled and gobbled in the not-to-far distance. They remained unseen however, hidden in low roll of grassy hills.

Silence stop.

Silence is one of the major thresholds in the world. Meister Eckhart said that there is nothing in the world that resembles God so much as silence. Silence is a great friend of the soul; it unveils the riches of solitude. It is very difficult to reach that quality of inner silence. You must make a space for it so that it may begin to work for you. In a certain sense, you do not need the whole armory and vocabulary of therapies, psychologies, or spiritual programs. If you have a trust in and an expectation of your own solitude, everything that you need to know will be revealed to you. 

- John O'Donohue, from Anam Cara (1996)


Though it was too cold for snakes, salamanders, frogs, and toads, we promised we'd come back in the spring to camp overnight and do a night hike to a bog or vernal pool.  My favorite snake is the Pine Snake and I shared with her how I helped to raise one when a nest of eggs was found raided by a predator and my ranger friend needed helpers to incubate and raise any surviving babies.   I received two eggs, but one did not hatch. But other egg did hatch and that tiny creature grew into a big, beautiful Pine Snake that two years later we drove back to the pine barrens to release where the damaged nest had been found. I like to think that somewhere in these woods there are the descendants of Ranger the Pine Snake.

One last listen before people, roads, bikes, and dogs ....

The silence of the woods was what made the greatest impression on my grandchild. She stopped often to stand or sit - just to listen. When the wind had calmed, the depth of the pinewood's silence was profound. She was moved by it - as was I. We need to bring our children into the silent places. Let them drift into the heart of a quiet pinewoods and discover silence on their own terms. Given them the chance to experience it before their busy lives as adults overtakes them. They will come to honor it and maybe even love it - the quiet woods.

Do not try to serve
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there patiently,
until the song
that is yours alone to sing
falls into your open cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to the world
so worthy of rescue.

- Martha Postlethwaite 

Jersey Devil fan and her grandmom.

The thrill of the day was learning about fire ecology and fire-dependent forests. I know that she will always remember the encounter with a ranger who flagged us over as we were leaving the Visitor Center for home.  He invited us to watch with him as a charred log began to smoke and crackle, a full 24 hours after the fire had been suppressed.  "Fire is a friend to this forest," he said, "but it's a friend you have to keep an eye on so that he doesn't get into trouble!" 


New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve

Wharton State Forest

The classic field guide to the New Jersey Pine Barrens is Howard Boyd's A Field Guide to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey: Its Flora, Fauna, and Historic Sites (1991). I now carry this in my Kindle Library and we had a good time researching our finds using Kindle on our phone. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

DE Delaware Seashore State Park

I've just spent three days at a conference (a very good one!) in Ocean City, MD, and since it is Sunday and time to head home I decided to go for my Sunday 10. I had to combine two hikes and combine miles because DE doesn't have many long-distance trails. I combined two hikes within the Delaware Seashore State Park complex that covers DE's coastal areas from Bethany Beach north along the Coastal Highway to Dewey Beach.  I started/finished with a 3.9 loop and cross-over (using linking trails) at Fresh Pond State Park in Bethany.

Loblolly Pine - a mother tree among a nursery of young pines and other species.

This park is dissected by a number of straight canals that were used to drain the land for farming or for transporting goods and services around the back bay area. I do not recommend hiking here in the warmer months as it must be a mosquito factory. I read the reviews on All Trails and sure enough people complained about the insect hoards.

Loblolly cones have horizontally keeled scales with single sharp spines

Loblolly pines were the dominate forest species here and there were young pines shooting up in nurseries around mother trees where ever a bit of sunlight showed through. Competing for canopy space were sweet gum, red maple, ironwood, and birch but the entire forest floor was covered in a velvety soft and quiet blanket of shed needles that marked the dominance of this great southern pine.

Eastern Red Cedar in a pine nursery

Our only native juniper is actually named Eastern Red Cedar which is a confusing name-switch, but Juniperus virginiana was found in all the places where fields or pasture may have once been. An old hay barn and various farm structures still stand throughout the northern reach of this park so it hasn't been too long since crops and animals were raised here. I kept hoping for a Saw-Whet owl tucked up in a ERC but didn't find one. I did find a Great Horned Owl feather, though!

Sweetbay Magnolia - a young and single specimen

My best find was a very young Sweet Bay Magnolia, the only native representative in DE of an ancient tree family, a very primitive group that goes almost as far back in the fossil record as the pines. I remember finding Magnolia leaf fossil in Wyoming high up in the Bear Tooth Range on a dig many years ago. The along the edge of the plate of stone I held out to the dig manager who inspected it was the faint impressions of its amazing flower. The Pleistocene glaciation wiped most of the 23 species of Magnolia off the map and it is only in the U.S. Southeast Appalachians and Coastal states like Delaware where they survive. Only the Sweet Bay is found here but further south and in the mountains I've found the Large-Leafed and Mountain Magnolias.

Lolblolly seedling in a bed of Prickly Pear Cactus.

Prickly Pear Cactus in the only native species of cactus in Delaware and though it is somewhat cold tolerant, it does go into a withered state and no less prickly! I watched a loose beagle rocket through the woods dragging his leash behind him and then holler and yelp when he blundered into a blanket of cactus. His owners came running up to catch him but he wanted nothing more to do with those woods and quickly retreated into their arms.

Indian River Inlet Bridge has a pedestrian lane!

After almost four miles at Fresh Pond, I drove a few minutes north to the Indian River Inlet park. I birded the jetties for about an hour then took the pedestrian crossing over the bridge. It was a great viewpoint to observe the swirling currents and the breadth of the wild beaches north.

Arctic Long Tailed Duck - I counted 50 around the jetties.

Bufflehead Ducks

From the height of the bridge looking through the North and South Jetty to the Atlantic

As I was walking the paved paths along the water, past the paved campground, and down the paved roads to get to Burton's Island I was starting to get hot! I can't imagine this place in the heat of summer. Another reason I love walking and hiking in winter. I walked past the marina where the state parks, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Coast Guard keep their big boats. Impressive!

Causeway to Burton's Island

Crossing old dunes to the forest

Sinkhole in the marsh

I crossed over the causeway to a trail section that crosses an old dune complex. At one time this was oceanfront and may soon be ocean front again. This area has had several episodes of submersion and exposure so old dunes can be found well inland hidden by forest and fields.  Soon I was looking out across marshy coves and expanses of tidal marsh.

Grand old Pitch Pine with a twisty top
Google Map view of Burton's Island, the marina, paved campground, inlet, and beaches.

Like most of the inland bay islands, Burton's Island is slowly giving ground to rising waters. The trail is only a mile long loop and covers the frontal dune and two high points reachable by long stretches of boardwalk.  As I walked along these fragile connectors of wood and decking, I thought about how tied to the sea these places are. There are surviving copses of pine and hardwoods surrounded by marsh and what must have been livable ground nested beneath swaths of reeds. The trail is not long and soon I'd made it to the end where I could see across to the inlet bridge before the path turns back on itself . I surveyed the eroded banks and noted how many trees had pitched into the salty water. An old woodland was being exposed by the scouring, stumps and clay, even a deer track preserved in hard bottom.

Reeds laid low by storm waters and high tides.

An osprey nest on the eastern edge of the islet.

My winter walk was generally minus the birds and I wondered how this island, much of it untouched by the trail, could be seen by water. I made a note to come back with my canoe and paddle the sandy outline of its edges come spring when the shore birds return. For now, it was gloriously still and quiet and I visited the old dune of my way to the causeway.

Twisted in the wind

Indian River Inlet Bridge through a tangle of pitched-over woodland.

I would NOT want to be out here on a buggy summer day! That said, I do hope to return with my boat and paddle around the edges to do some birding... The parking area (I walked in) might be tricky to find as you must drive through the marina to reach it. It was a great walk across the inlet bridge though and I highly recommend parking at the south jetty and walking over to Burton's. I logged six miles (that included a bit of beach wandering) for a pleasant, uncrowded walk that combined with the Fresh Pond unit made 11 miles for my Sunday 10.


What Burtons Island looks like with birds!