Thursday, May 28, 2020

PA House Rock and Reed Run Preserves

This was a breath-catching hike where I had to remember to pick my feet up! Steep uphills, slippery downhills, rocky ridges, ledge scrambles, and lots of things to trip over. This 3.5 mile circuit loop trail starts and ends at the new-ish parking area for the Lancaster Conservancy House Rock Preserve off of Delta Road in Lancaster County. It traverses beautiful conservation farmland, native grasslands, and old pasture before descending into deep woods that trace the ridge lines of two prominent river hills above the Susquehanna. 


AT thru-hikers say that what they remember most about making their way through Pennsylvania is the painfully rocky trail. This orange-blazed Conestoga Trail upholds its AT cousin's reputation.  The House Rock formation is the focus of this hike and, as an archaeological site, it has always held a fascination for me. This huge shimmering schist and metaconglomerate outcrop stands high above the river and is visible to boaters and visitors to the Indian Steps Museum on the York County shore when the trees are bare.

A mile in is the welcome sign.

House Rock is part of a large list of known Pennsylvania rock shelters that were in use during the Early to Middle Woodland period, 3000 BC to 1000 AD.  Finds at the cave beneath the overlook indicate that the shelter was sparsely used, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence as the pro diggers like to say. (Mick Aston)


Archaeologists know that this landscape was important to post-glacial communities who followed herds of animals on migrations through the ridge and valleys system. Occupied for a short time, and only as a temporary site, House Rock was home camp to small groups of hunter-gatherers But suddenly chronological evidence of occupation - pottery bits, burnt seeds, and incised bones - simply stops. The site is never used again. Archaeologists suggest that this may have indicated the impact of an epidemic.

Stone stack.

Rock shelter sites are common throughout Pennsylvania and sites like House Rock usually held no more than a few family groups for seasonal stays. The gap at House Rock occurs at other sites and I wonder if small tribes of related kin were trading with other cultural groups as far away as the Atlantic where very early presence of European fishing explorations occurred. Increased interactions may have helped spread disease. We'll never know how they became sick but we do know how quickly disease can spread through groups that lived in close proximity. 

20th century graffiti gives the outcrop its name. 

People eventually repopulated the land, but as pressure from outside cultural groups created competition for resources,  loosely connected seasonal camps and villages began to gather together for protection and defense throughout the Lower Susquehanna Valley. House Rock and its environs may have served as a focus of gathering places. Small protected villages were built at the mouths of creeks on the riverside by 1200AD. The Shenk's Ferry people (named for the family mill on that site in the 1800s) maintained a walled village just upstream from House Rock. Called conestogas - "buried-post villages" -  these small communities of less than a hundred people were surrounded by timber walls. 

View downriver, Pinnacle Overlook in distance, left. 

In the 1300s the Susquehannocks were just beginning to claim lands along the river. Again a gap in the archaeological evidence occurs - another wave of disease?  This may have made Susquehannock occupation easier with weakened resistance from the Shenk's Ferry culture.

Glimmering phylite schist make House Rock shimmer in sunlight.

By the 1600s the Susquehannock people were the predominate cultural group of this region. In response to greater pressures from expeditionary forces, coveted trade routes, and the steady influx of settlers to the east, the size of stockade villages increased and up to 2,000 people occupied the larger fortified towns. Though no large ships could move north past the rapids at Conowingo, House Rock served as an important look-out for canoes and small craft navigating the channel both north and south. By the end of the 17th century another rapid decline in  native population occurred. The large conestoga villages began to empty out.  This was most certainly the result of yet another epidemic.

Rattlesnake Weed.

Archaeological records don't show what has long since decayed away. So much of what early people made was of organic materials like bone, shell, fiber, and leather, so a few flakes of flint,  charred nut shells, and a strand of cordage discovered at House Rock don't tell us a whole lot about those very early people. But the gaps in the records do tell us that they suffered massive loss. 

Yellow Wood -Sorrel.

The native Rattlesnake Weed is in full blossom along the rocky ridges and while it's name comes from its preferred dry ledge habitat shared with its namesake the Timber Rattlesnake, the milky sap was a popular folk medicine treatment for bites of  any venomous animal, insect, or spider.  As it goes with many epidemics and pandemics, those who hold the wisdom of plant medicines were always causalities as, like today, they were the first to aid the sick and dying. 

 House Rock

Dry, ledge habitat along the ridges.

By the time of the Wampanoan pandemic, the first documented mass dying of native people in the Northeast in the 1630s,  disease historians say smallpox had already swept through Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Northeast in successive, horrible waves. By then there were no survivors of the Shenk's Ferry people. Captain John Smith encountered the Susquehannocks in 1608 and historians suggest that by then up to 90% of Eastern indigenous people had been killed by European small pox. The Susquehannocks were already in steep decline by the time Smith met them at Conowingo. 

Black Huckleberry.
Many of the plants I passed on the double blazed trail - blue for the preserve loop and orange for the thru-Conestoga trail - are documented as medicinal in the anthropological records. Their uses are gleaned from interviews with elders and practitioners at a time when European settlers thought to learn from native healers. Many of these plants, like the Black Huckleberry, used for pre-natal care and cardio-vascular health, were familiar to European folk who had plant family equivalents in Ireland, Scotland, and England. 

False Solomon's Seal

Tea made from the roots of False Solomon's Seal stopped coughing and cleared the lungs. Soothing "soft" drinks ( steeped in warm water and served cool as compared to hot-brewed drinks) were made from birch and sassafras and used to clear congestion and heal sore throats. Journal accounts of the 18th century show that mistranslations or language barriers had been a persistent problem while gathering information and the record is not complete on the extensive uses and preparations of these plants. Sometimes important information was left out entirely.  

Yellow Birch and Sassafras (behind) supplied two important tea flavors

Sassafras is a known carcinogen when used improperly and this small fact was learnt the hard way when demand for the plant in Europe skyrocketed and a mistranslated warning was ignored. The root tea, according to a Lenapi healer, could only be consumed as cool liquid not hot or fermented, while smoke or fumes from burning bark was best avoided at all costs. But that tidbit of information didn't make it to Europe and even as recently as the 1970s people were learning the hard way how dangerous sassafras can be. It is now labeled highly toxic in the USDA plant database.

Maple-leaved Vinburnum.

The trail runs up and down and around two muscular hills and while huffing and puffing, I wondered how much plant wisdom was lost to those gaps?  I wonder, too, about the healers we have lost in this most recent experience of pandemic, doctors, nurses, first responders, family care-givers. 

Reed Run and the nice, gentle trail uphill to end the hike.
In the quiet rise of trail that led away from the Conestoga Trail  at the intersection with Reed Run, Amos and I spent some time exploring the the cold waters, little rapids, and lush herb beds.  Hiking further on the blue blazed trail to complete our loop we crossed a beautiful expanse of conservation farmland, where the farmer is maintaining a native meadow of milkweed and other important butterfly host plants, another aspect of the native pharmacy we may never truly know.  

I will argue that our fitness and fulfillment as individuals and as a society require ongoing 
physical and psychological connection to the nonhuman world. 
If we deny or subvert our inherent need to affiliate with nature, we invite our decline 
every bit as surely as we do with the more obvious threats of war and disease. 

- Stephen R. Kellert
Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World (2012) 


Pennsylvania has a rich history of rock shelter cultures. See this State Museum of Pennsylvania blog post about Sheeprock Shelter on the Juniata River, a tributary Susquehanna. 

Also see this blog post on the pandemic history of Pennsylvania, emphasis on native cultures.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

PA Duncan Run Bushwack

Trails are crowded. Parking lots at local parks are packed. People have discovered the importance of outdoor time and space as the lock-down weeks roll on into months. As some states are beginning to lift restrictions on travel and business operations, I wonder what effect this will have on this new-found appreciation for nature and open space access? Or will everyone just go back to shopping, sports, and eating out?

Metasedimentary outcrop is the bedrock for this deeply eroded ravine creek.

Today I decided to skip the crowded parks and go for a bushwack in one of the nearby PA Game Lands units. I set out to find Duncan Run, a deep-down walled-in river hills creek that I've only seen on maps. It was quite the scramble down and would have been a tougher climb out had it not been for Amos pulling me up the whole way. I had him on his 30' lead with a carabiner attached in case I needed that line for lowering into tight spots or hoisting either of us out. I was nervous about this adventure, I have to admit. It was extreme social distancing to be sure and I did tell a hiking buddy where I was going and how long I'd be there.


The definition of bushwack is "to travel by foot through uncleared terrain," and I put on my best William Bartram foot forward. Philadelphia naturalist and botanist, Bartram was best known for his bushwack walking through the American Southeast, but his twin sister Elizabath, who died in 1824 is buried just across the river, and was an able botanist herself. She was married to William Wright and lived in the wilds of Lancaster County near the Conestoga River, very close to the last Susquehannock village towns.  Indian Run creek came close to their farm and where it emptied into the Little Conestoga Creek and down to the main stem of the Conestoga River was where the native people of this watershed tried unsuccessfully to maintain their communities. Across the Susquehanna from where I stood on a thin vertical slice of ridge, I could see straight across into Lancaster County while below was the rush of Duncan Run tumbling east to the river.

Striped Cream Violet, Viola striata

Bluets and Stargrass on rocky ridges.

Before descending I checked out the moss and lichen communities and a small vibrant patch of Eastern Daisy Fleabane that grew in a sandy bowl of mineral soil. These rocks are the remains of old sea bottom, metasedimentary rock that is highly contorted, bent, and deformed due to continental collisions. The slopes are full of sharp talus plates, shed like spines, or eroded into stacks.

At the end of a spine, 120 feet above the river. 

Stone stack surrounded by talus scales popped off by tree root expansion

Climbing down into the valley I found several micro-habitats formed in the talus. Small sheltered coves held moist soils where Wild Geraniums grew. Amos found a very old male Box Turtle scooting along a wide mossy ledge. He was completely unafraid and tolerated me posing him for a shell picture. I doubt he's ever met dog or human before. Just as curious about me as I was about him, he never withdrew and instead extended his head out fully to check me out. Off he went in a turtle blur of speed when I set him back on the ledge. I watched him nimbly pick his way up and up until he scooted around a stone stack and was gone. No ropes needed.

Wild Geranium

I butt-scooted about twenty feet down from ledge to ledge, nervous about standing up. I didn't want to slip and fall down here!  Amos was like a mountain goat and made it to creek long before I did. Duncan Run rushed loudly down a series of talus shelves, whisked through slots, and tumbled around boulders. I really wanted to follow it to the river but thought better of it. Best to have someone come along for that bit. This is not the place to go it alone.

Duncan Creek

The air was rich and humid at the bottom. Moss communities smothered every bit of rock.  A fine gauzy green of new growth lay across the rocky banks. A Phoebe darted inside a wide gap between two ledges. No doubt she had a nestlings in there to feed. A family Pileated Woodpecker young squawked for a feeding from a standing dead pine. Amos and I moved upstream to the next spine of rock that towered overhead and climbed up along its side to find a narrow deer path that skirted a cove. We found a nice flat stone stack and scrambled up to enjoy crackers and beef jerky.  The noisy creek tumbled across a set of ledges thirty feet below.

Moss ledges and very sharp seabottom! 

Native Pinxter Azalea.

Virginia Waterleaf growing near the creek.

As I was exploring around the stack literally on my hands and knees - it was too steep to stand - and I gashed my leg on a sharp tree root that stuck out of a crevice. It wasn't a bad wound but bad enough to bleed pretty well, so I slung off my pack and pulled out the water bottle and dug around for my small first aid kit. All the sounds of bags crinkling made Amos think I was getting ready to eat again but when he came over and saw my leg he gave me the most concerned look.

Deer trail across the top of the steep slope.

Amos sniffed the offending tree root, then sniffed the bleeding gash, obviously having figured out what happened.  I'm not sure what the experts say about the cleanliness of dog tongues but I didn't have time to think about it before he started "dressing" my wound. I washed it out with water between licks and held a bandanna, probably dirtier than his tongue, to it to stop the bleeding. Score my first scar for 2020.

Eastern Daisy Fleabane growing on the high spine ridges.
Broadleaved Water-Leaf near the water.

Amos and I had been on our way up and out anyway, but sitting there quietly with the bandanna pressed against my leg gave me a few minutes extra to just listen. An Overbird began to sing, then a Red-Eyed Vireo, followed a Wood Thrush. Surrounded by Waterleaf growing in pockets of damp leaves with the song of Duncan Run below us, we waited a long while before continuing on - long after I'd put the bandanna away. A fine mist of rain started to fall and it was time to head over the height of the hill to the car, a mile through the pathless woods. A good day for extreme social distancing was had by all.


Jim Brighton's excellent short-lived blog to the rescue for my violet ID-ing -
He went on to create the Maryland Biodiversity Project and can be found there with Bill Hubick, hosting this amazing project online.

The Spring 2020 edition of Traveller, publication of the Bartram Trail Conference, features the family cemetery of Elizabeth Bartram Wright.
(My buddy Dr. Drew Lanham is in this issue, too!)

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

PA Home

These past many weeks - I've lost count - during our COVID-19 shut-down, I've had the time to really observe the changes in my garden, yard, and woods as spring comes on. This remarkable (and sometimes difficult and scary) stay-at-home experience has given me the opportunity to do what I have longed to do each spring, to simply be with the season and watch and listen and be part of the process of its blossoming.

Looking out back, April 20.

My "normal" work life involves commuting, sometimes driving hours a day to offices and campuses and field sites. The drive time is now home time and I am in a constant state of amazement at the numbers of animals and plants here, the birds and reptiles, and even the sheer mass of earthworms and soil life as I turn garden beds. Some creatures are just passing through on spring migration. Others are full time residents. But the members of my hime community that I have most loved watching have been the native plants relocated or nurtured here over the past 20 years. This property was at first a sparse, neglected, and grass-filled space that had been timbered out. Save for a few Red Maples and a grand old Red Oak out back, the place was pretty barren. Now my garden yard has become a haven for native plants and a home for the birds and animals that depend on this habitat. It is shady and complex and full of life.

Hickory planted by a squirrel.

The flames of Beltane

burst green and red

in the woods
where hermit thrush
and catbird
sew together dawn to dusk.
Born again,
in fires of bud burst and becoming,
wildlings hatch,
the door basket
overflows with gifts
of blossoms.

As so noted in the tattered old spiral notebook.

Being home for work has had its own set of challenges. Disrupted sleep patterns. A coonhound that doesn't understand what work time is - if I'm home it must be Amos' time. Being distracted by constantly looking out the window at everything happening out there while I'm locked to my computer screen in here.  It was because of this distracted gazing, however, that I noticed my first-of-year (FOY) Rudy-Throated Hummingbird (May 1), Catbirds (April 19), and Orchard Oriole (April 29). These are birds that nest in my little woods so I have always wanted to catch their arrival date. All three are currently nesting now as are House Wrens, Robins, Carolina Chicakdees, Yellow-Shafted Flickers, and Cardinals. Having noticed the Catbird and giving a WHOOP! during a Zoom meeting was distracting for meeting attenders as well.

Redbud blooming tight to the stem.

Noticing the progression of bud burst and blossoming has made me aware of the changes in my own cycles of concentration, sleep, and creative time. At first, work was still work but it seemed to bleed over into my home life. I may have lost the time driving but I gained extra hours to work on projects and to get things done!  Be productive! Between a torrent of online meetings, however, I suddenly stood up and walked out the door to stretch and noticed a young Pignut Hickory I have loved since it first sprang up - no doubt a squirrel planting. It was unfurling its leaves almost before my eyes. I stood in rapt attention for the entire 30 minute break between meetings. It was that day that I had to put my foot down. Works starts at 9 and ends at 5, I said to Amos (looking unfazed), but it will be interspersed with gazing breaks, bird feeder watching, and tending the veg garden. It seemed I had finally worked out a routine after many weeks of frustration and immediately I saw spring.

Wild Ginger and ground blossoms. 

Turning compost during a break, I noticed just how many insects and worms occupy that space. Amos was "helping" and dug up a startled little Garter Snake. Then another. (I quickly put them back!) I watched Crows raid a Robin's nest and listened as the distraught parents cried and screamed in chase. Bumble Bees weighed the blueberry patch down with their tending to the hundreds of bell-shaped blossoms that promise a heavy crop this year.  A brave little House Wren landed right at my feet to snag a worm from the compost and ducked into the nesting box over the blackberry canes. This was all during a single hour-long lunch break.

Dogwood blooming out front 

These breaks have become creative time for me. I take my sketchbook (when it's not raining) or the old tattered spiral notebook where I jot my thoughts out the porch or deck.  The time after I get up in the morning is now devoted entirely to creative work in the garden and an hour or two writing before I log into my work account. Two mornings ago I walked outside at dawn, put Amos in the fenced yard, and grabbed a shovel to start a new wildflower patch when mommy Opossum carrying two babies on her back wandered over to the freshly turned compost pile and began to forage. I was four feet away and all happily going about digging breakfast. Thankfully Amos was at the far side of the yard engaged in cross-fence discussion with a neighbor's dog, but it seemed that my morning routine is now accepted by all the occupants of this wild little acre.

Robin' Egg

With all this noticing you would think I would know more about the little patch of land I call my own, but that hasn't been the case. The more I notice, the more questions I have and the more I realize I don't know.  When asked about a Robin's egg I found on the ground after a particularly big wind storm a few week ago I realized I couldn't answer anyone's questions. "Where did it come from?" (I assume it blew out of a nest in the wind storm? I don't know.) "Is there a nest nearby you can put it back into?" (I don't know.) It's too big for Hummingbird's nest but will Chickadee raise it? ( I'm not sure.) Is it still viable after a cold night? (I don't know.) "Why is Nature so cruel at times?" (I don't know.)

Sassafras blossoms.

Fighting back the urge to be ever more productive while working from home, I realize I hardly know this place. I wander around and try to remember if I planted this or that or if a Grey Squirrel or Blue Jay planted it for me? Where my dear coonhound Bug was buried last summer between two Redbuds, a little Red Oak is now pushing up. It is a wonderment and I visit it every day.  Maria Popova writes "The cult of productivity has its place, but worshiping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living." This sums up how I feel about where my attention as gone these past twenty years, often working two jobs - at one point three - and hardly having time or energy left to notice the rewilding of my home ground.  

Virginia Bluebells

Maria continues her life-learnings and adds "The flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny." As I am writing this a cold rain is coming down and the woods around my cabin are practically neon with green. I noticed that when the world is wet and the sky is dull, colors seem to pop and saturate the eye with a riot of tones and intensities. In view of this shut-down and stay-at-home time, my attention to place and home ground has intensified along with the ongoing exuberance of spring and that is more productive for my heart and soul than any project or online meeting.

Stay safe, be well, and take this time to notice.  


Maria Popova's Life Learnings essay appears here:

Monday, May 4, 2020

PA Old Pinnacle Road Out and Back

May is National Take A Hike Month! At least it is in my house where a walk or hike a day is required for maintaining positive mental health during this long pandemic shut-down.  A few weekends ago Amos and I hiked the Pinnacle Preserve and walked a section of the unpaved Old Pinnacle Road north of Kelly's Run. South of Kelly's Run the old road was paved but it is quickly growing over with vegetation and is part of the Kelly's Run trail system. It's a good hill walk workout!

Old Pinnacle Road closing in with vegetation.

We got a late start after dinner, but it was delightful to walk in cool breeze, no humidity, and brilliant low sun. We began at the Kelly's Run trail head at the old Holtwood Park, now managed by the Lancaster Conservancy as part of the Kelly's Run Nature Preserve. A mile through the woods, across a big bluestem meadow, and down a steep section of trail, then finally to the old road gate that starts a long descent to Kelly's Run at the bottom of the valley, it was all downhill from the car.

Wild Geranium 

On the old road it seemed Indigo Buntings were a dime a dozen darting constantly back and forth across the shrinking pavement surface. A Great-Crested Flycatcher sang from the edge of a small grove of Paw Paw. Yellow-Rumped Warblers flitted through the down slope underbrush. Towhees called from the high slope. Pileated Woodpeckers worked in tandem on a dead standing pine. A Barred Owl called from the hill top. Very birdy!

Wild Radish

Paw Paw blossom

The river hills across the river put on quite a show in the slanting light. From a view point not yet obscured by leaves, the Oakland Run valley was beautifully defined by the light and shadow of the contour of hills. The Mason Dixon Trail runs along the river and right up that valley to the game lands on Posey Road where Amos and I had hiked the day before.

A cross-river view of the Oakland Run Valley and its sister hills

Cascading spring and spring flowers.


American Dogwood

The road walk is a little under a mile and steady down until it reaches the remains of the bridge that spanned Kelly's Run. It is now a skeletal frame of iron trusses and beams, but still beautiful in form and age.  A Phoebe has built a nest beneath an I-beam and it didn't tolerate our presence for too long. We backed away and slipped down the muddy trail to the creek where the ruins of an small dam are still visible.

At the Pinnacle Road Bridge over Kelly's Run

Kelly's Run and a partial dam ruin

We stayed exploring the creek for a good half hour and when I got chilly I made the executive decision to start the climb out. Even though this out and back is only three miles, one of our shorter day hikes, the hill climb back generated heat through extra calories burned. It was a constant uphill walk from the creek to the gate, then upwards into the woods with a steep final pitch to reach the breezy native grass meadow at the top. Just as the sun was setting we reached the car with a cool drink for Amos and hand sanitizer for me.

Old woods road back