Tuesday, June 30, 2020

MD C&O Canal Section 1: Georgetown to Carderock, 10 mi.

Due to COVID and our plans to hike in England scrapped, my sister Laura and I began our summer long-distance trail adventure on this side of the Atlantic. We've decided to hike the 184-mile-long C&O Canal Towpath from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, MD, and this weekend we made our first ten-mile section from Georgetown in Washington to Carderock. 

Georgetown, Lock 1, closed Visitor's Center red brick building on right.

We found our way to the historic bronze plaque that marks the start of the National Park Service trail and took our obligatory Mile Marker 0 picture. The canal empties into Rock Creek which then empties into the Potomac River and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay and on to the Atlantic Ocean.  It seems a far cry from the touristy, trendy Georgetown neighborhood of today, but this was an incredibly busy port with hundreds of boats a day onloading, off-loading, stuck in traffic. Canal boats jammed the canal. Sailing vessels and paddle wheelers clogged the river. We could hardly believe our eyes at the old pictures of crowded scenes of commerce and transportation on the interpretive panels outside the closed Visitor Center.  

1942 plaque

Old Georgetown along the towpath.

19th century industrial corridor on the canal.

Wood ducks and their chicks hung out in a shady cove beneath a massive Sycamore yet the roar of highway traffic, helicopters, sirens, and other urban noise reminded us that we were in the heart of a busy city, even with the slow-down caused by COVID. The protests that have occupied the heart of the Capital were not far away. People out walking or riding bikes in Old Georgetown were very mindful of social distancing. I was happy, however, to break free from the industrial environs of the city. 

Mile Marker to Washington City.

The C&O exists today due in part to the years of advocacy for its protection by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas who served the court 1939-1975. An enthusiastic outdoorsman, Douglas was far removed from the wilderness of Washington State, his home, yet he found plenty of wilderness not far from his D.C. home rambling up the abandoned C&O. He hiked dozens of miles every weekend to stay in shape, often camping rough on the banks of the Potomac and enjoying precious time in solitude and nature. When news of a possible highway project threatened to obliterate the canal in the 1950s, Douglas was outraged.

Lockhouse restored by C.C.C.

Towpath and watered canal. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

PA Caledonia State Park: Rambles

I'll start at the end of my day hike, a ten mile ramble that combined the AT, Ramble Trail (hence the title of the post), Thaddeus Stevens Historic Trail, and Charcoal Hearth Trail. I had only a mile to go on the Ramble Trail before re-entering a very crowded picnic area when I met Richard and Shadow.  I wanted to take a picture of them for the blog, but his story was so personal, that I felt our time together on the trail was something better to be kept in the heart. 

Trolley Line portion of the Ramble Trail

Richard is 77 and a Viet Nam Army veteran who served two tours. He's a biker-hiker who loves his Harley as much as the trails. He walked at a pretty good pace for a guy who'd had a triple by-pass and both knees replaced less than two years ago. His eight-year old Australian Shepard, Shadow, was out in front trotting along at a great pace until she wasn't. She'd sit and wait for him to catch up. "She keeps me walking!" he said. 

AT turns into the park on the Ramble Trail.

Most Pennsylvania counties have reopened (even though COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to rise) so the main park - swimming pool, picnic areas, and short trails - were crowded with people who've been staying home for months now. I'd kept to distant trails all day, however, and had come across only one other person. I came up on Richard and Shadow on the straight-away section known as the Trolley Line and the AT, an old section of rail-trail that brought people out to the park on slow electric trolleys from nearby Chambersburg and Gettysburg in the early 1900s. 

Appalachian Trail (5 miles out-and-back)

Richard has been a life-long walker. He told me how walking the trails of Michaux State Forest, Green Ridge (in Maryland), the AT, and the Mid State Trail saved his life after coming home from 'Nam. "Oh I must have thousands of miles under my belt, just hiking locally mostly." We shared our thoughts on Earl Shaffer's "walking off the war," the first thru-hiker to complete the whole 2,000+ trail after WWII. "I understand why he did it," said Richard.

Blacksmith shop Thaddeus Stevens had built for the iron-making village here in the 1830s

He told me of sitting on his sofa for weeks after being discharged.  He couldn't readjust to civilian life. He contemplated suicide and even had his pistol sitting in his lap when "my wife came through the living room and found me there. She said to go take a walk instead. So I did, with her, without my gun." He'd no idea what the AT was then except that it was a long trail and that he could get on it with a short motorcycle ride to the park. After his first five miles "I felt like a giant weight had been lifted."  Some days he went out for ten miles or twenty. Other times he packed a knapsack for a weekend overnight. But because he worked his whole life for a busy machine shop, he never had the time to do weeks out. He took himself to points farther and farther outside Franklin County. "One time I did a day hike of ten miles that took 100 road miles to get to!" I told him that I do the same. We laughed. Shadow stopped and waited. 

Conococheague Creek

I learned his wife was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's for seven years now. He rescued Shadow as a puppy from a local shelter after his wife was admitted. "I didn't know what to do. I felt that old sadness creep all over me again. I had thoughts about just ending it. I didn't want to live with out her. I had no desire to walk or do anything else. She had been my walking partner for over forty years."  There he was again, sitting on the sofa with the same gun in his lap, the thought popped into his mind to get a dog. "We'd never had a dog, always cats. I cried oceans when the last one died. I don't want to think about Shadow leaving me."  

Conococheague Creek.

Richard didn't know anything about dogs but off he went to the Cumberland County SPCA and adopted a mixed breed puppy that the vet later told him looked to be full Australian Shepherd.  "She's been making me walk every day since - after my bypass surgery - after my knee replacements - after putting my wife in the nursing home. I don't know what I'd have done without her." Shadow was ahead waiting for us to catch up.

A gilled mushroom.

The last mile of my hike was with Richard. We laughed and cried and when it was time for me to go left and him right. I wanted so much to give him a hug but knew I couldn't as per COVID-19 precautions.  I petted Shadow and told her what a great hiking partner she has.  As I started to go I turned and asked him one more question. "How far do you walk every day with Shadow?"  Richard scratched his head and thought a moment. "Well, three miles a day if I come here. I can't do the big hills anymore so I look for rail trails, park trails, and stretches of dirt and gravel road. On the old forest roads in Michaux we easily do five."  I told him I hoped we'd run into each other again and walk some more. "I'd love that," he said. We exchanged emails. As  I made my turn I heard him call out my name. I turned and he shouted back "You better be hiking everyday when you are 77! If I can do it, you can do it!" We waved and went our ways.

Charcoal Hearth Trail (3 miles)

Since our summer hike in England was cancelled I have been putting together a series of hikes along the Mason Dixon Line to learn more about the different routes of the Underground Railroad. I came to Caledonia State Park to see the iron furnace that abolitionist and Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens built and owned here. While Stevens lived in Gettysburg, then Lancaster, and fought to end slavery from his office in Washington D.C., his friend and furnace foreman William Hammett helped move freedom seekers across the Mason Dixon Line into Pennsylvania with Stevens' knowledge and support. The old roads - now trails - that lead to numerous charcoal hearths and iron banks were likely the paths they took to connect people to points further north or east. Some freedom seekers worked their way to New York and then to Canada. Others fled towards the Susquehanna, found crossings, and headed towards Philadelphia.

The current furnace stack is a half-size scale model built by the PA Alpine Club in 1927.

A small 1927 version of the original 1837 furnace destroyed in 1863.

The iron furnace went into blast in 1837 and remained in full operation until cavalry troops under Jubal Early destroyed the entire village it was learned that it was owned by Stevens. When hearing the news of its destruction, Stevens worried for the welfare of the many families and workers there and helped support them until the forge was rebuilt after the war with money from the iron workers, the Ahl brothers from Chambersburg, and Stevens himself. 

Preserved charcoal hearth platform.

The only original structure that survives today is the blacksmith shop of which only walls remained standing after the village was burned to the ground. After Early's troops wrecked the place, Confederate Army marched through the ruins of the village on their way to fight at Gettysburg and laid further waste to the fields and farms that supported the families who worked at the furnace, forge, blacksmith shop, and hearths. After rebuilding, the furnace remained in operation until 1870 but at a very reduced level.  As I hiked my combination of trails I found the flat round platforms of charcoal hearths everywhere but the ones on the Charcoal Hearth Trail  wonderfully preserved.  As with all furnace operations that require huge quantities of wood to maintain blast, the forested hills and mountains were seriously depleted by 1870 and lack of these resources may have led its decline. 

Huge stump-sprouted Chestnut Oak.

On all of the trails I found great stump-sprouted oaks that were felled during the iron-making days of the forge. Chestnut Oaks provide one of the densest woods for charcoal and it burns long and hot. Original oaks spanned several feet across. It is a species that is quick to stump-sprout. Over time the strongest of the shoots become new trunks that encircle the parent oak stump. I estimated that the multiple trunks for many stump-sprouted trees were over a hundred years old. The parent trees may have been several hundred years at their felling.


While stopping to photograph a blanket of Partidgeberry and Mountain Laurel in full bloom, a coyote darted across the trail ahead of me. He stopped for a quick look about fifty feet into the woods and I gave him a little nod and a whispered "Hey there!" before he continued on his way. I cannot help but to be amazed by the return of the wilds after an area such as this has been so heavily exploited.  I heard Ravens, Red-Eyed Vireos, Crows, Ovenbirds, Blue Jays, and Flycatchers.  Walking along the mill race that provided water power to the billows at the furnace, I heard Scarlet Tanagers and Wood Thrush. 

Walking the ridge of Graefenberg Hill.

Mill Race Path (1 mile) 

As I came down off Graefenberg Hill to find the connector to the Thaddeus Stevens trail, I met with one other hiker who said she had seen the coyote cross the road below.  Her dog, Tipper, a sleek black and white Husky, had "woooo-ed" at it and it stopped to look at them as well. She had also seen a Black Bear the weekend before and Tipper, true to his Husky-style of inquiry, had woo'ed at it too, but the bear wasn't haven't any of it and dashed up the hill. I observed a Creek Chub in the race and watched a fisherman pull a Smallmouth Bass from the mill pond across the road, which he quickly and gently let it go, showing his grandson how to catch-and-release. 

I completed the Thaddeus Stevens Trail and went across the road to the main park - boy was it crowded! I found the Appalachian Trail in the middle of it all and jumped quickly on and did a beautiful 2.5 miles up-and-back for five miles total. There was not a soul on the AT so I had it all to myself. More giant stump-sprouted oaks, more tunnels of Mountain Laurel. There are roads built by the CCC in 1937 and wagon roads for ore carries that criss-cross the trail. 

Mountain Laurel blossoms.

Blossom time!

There were a few old sand pits, relics of the mineral company that owned the land after the furnace shut down. While peering into one of these, just a short way off the trail, I got rattled at! I never did find the Timber Rattler though I searched hard for it. I really wanted to see one on this trip but thinking it was in the pit, at least I got to hear one. I do love these snakes and love finding them. Michaux State Forest has always been a good place to see them. 

Mature Hemlock forest.

I returned to the main park with its crowds and happy laughter of children playing in the creek. There were so many kids that I couldn't help but smile. A little boy brought me a stick to show me that it was really a light saber and that he'd protect me from storm troopers (his brothers). I walked carefully through the storm trooper zone and found my way to the last trail of my connected hike, the Ramble Trail. Beyond where picnickers ventured, a mile up the AT section of the Trolley Line and down along the creek, I met Richard. That last mile with him was the best mile I've hiked all season. I hope he and Shadow have many years hiking together to come and I'll write to him to set up another buddy-walk with Shadow. 

Stump sprout group with a seven-foot across parent tree base!

AT in bloom.


Thaddeus Stevens is one of my favorite local characters and for years I've enjoyed getting to know him as someone who lived next door in Lancaster,PA, as well as who changed the course of our nation's history. I wish he were around today to beat his fist and shout at the ignorance that still permeates our society, policies, and laws. 

I'm in the middle of reading Hans Trefousse 2005 book Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth Century Egalitarian, but I recently found this locally-written and produced play by Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology Professor Don Rhoads to be a fun watch (see the segment on his bar exam in Bel Air, Maryland, around 20 minutes in). The Institute is in Lancaster, PA.

Spielberg's Lincoln, released in 2012 is my favorite media portrayal of Stevens. He seems to compete with Lincoln for the historical spotlight. A deep consideration of this film is found here in the Gettysburg teaching blog House Divided, for teachers who are covering the Civil War in classrooms,

From Speilberg's Lincoln, Steven's chamber-rattling speech... 

 Go get 'em, Thad! 

Monday, June 8, 2020

PA Gettysburg Grasslands: Edges and Openings

Gettysburg National Battlefield makes for a great grasslands birding adventure and I wasted no time in heading over there when Sunday morning dawned cool, sunny, and full of the dawn songs of birds. I parked near the Railroad Cut and walked a meandering loop of several miles. It's been rough lately for so many of us and I was thankful for this opportunity to re-ground. The wind coursing over the wheat fields seemed to roll out like the waves of sadness I've felt these past many weeks, especially for those who suffer the indignities of racism while doing what they love - be it birding, hiking, or enjoying nature. I stood in the middle of a battlefield where so much blood was spilled fighting for the ideals of our democracy to unite us as one nation with protections and rights for all. The Battle at Gettysburg was in 1863. Yet, here we are still fighting, still spilling blood, still suffering.

Beardtongue in Herbst Woods

I ducked behind a monument that marked where Major Reynolds fell and discovered a hidden trail into Herbst Woods. A Yellow-Billed Cuckoo called from the oak-hickory forest and I had to find him. He led me by song down the trail to a glade of sunshine and leafy shadow and I found him perched on a thick arm of old hickory just above the trail. The little camera I use when walking and hiking was basically useless as I fumbled for a decent picture. I gave up trying and instead enjoyed a full ten minutes of his kawlping interspersed with tropical clucks and chucks. His bright sunlit yellow bill stood out against a dark background of shadow. 

Looking west towards the Appalachians.

I emerged from the woods for a full-on view of managed agricultural fields and native grasslands laid like a vast quilt across the battlefield where Union and Confederate cavalry and infantry clashed. The fields were full of  Blue Grosbeaks, Song Sparrows, Robins, Mockingbirds, Catbirds, Bluebirds, and Red-Winged Blackbirds competing to be heard. I listened to the whole of as one would to a symphony, the songs of each species blending with others, cohesive and intentional, together.

An American Crow perched on the head of a statue was harassed into flight by an Eastern Kingbird who was much smaller but very persistent. Other meadow and field birds joined in the chase and drove it away. Red-Winged Blackbirds kept diving at its back while a very brave little Carolina Wren took direct shots at its beak. This is the season for crow raids upon nests for eggs and hatchlings to feed their own young. Birds of open grasslands are particularly observant for crows and do not tolerate their presence. Once an alarm has been raised, mobbing by many species can follow.  Mobbing is experienced by owls, hawks, and nest-seeking snakes. 

Blue Grosbeak lays low as Crow is chased away.

Gettysburg National Battlefield is a gem for grassland conservation and is recognized as a Pennsylvania IBA (Important Bird Area). Grasslands are one of the most critically endangered types of habitat on the planet because they are so easily converted into agricultural use and thus vulnerable to large-scale clearing, burning, and cultivation. National Parks, particularly battlefields, have become models of grassland preservation. In winter there are Short-Eared Owls and Harriers and sometimes Snowy Owls. In spring and summer there a growing numbers of nesting grassland species like Bobolink, Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark, Indigo Buntings, and Blue Grosbeak. I like to visit over many seasons to observe these species and notice how the grasslands change from winter through fall.

The biological and historical staff at Gettysburg work together to reconstruct what would have been the type of mosaic landscape mixed pattern of wild and agricultural use of 1863. It's a big change from how this park was managed not so long ago. Up until the early 1990s, large swaths of battlefield were simply mowed as one huge lawn, most accommodating to reenactments and events.  Now the park manages smaller leased ag fields while restoring native grasslands to accommodate native species that depend on integrated and continuous habitat. To me this is extraordinary space where everything visible is a living tapestry of plant, animal, bird, insect, and soil.  To sit on the edge of a wild grassland is a balm for weary souls. 

Eastern Wood Peewee in a Witness Tree

I worked the edges from the trail's end to the International Peace Memorial to see the interaction of grasslands with species of the open woods. There are a few Witness Trees here,  that were living during the harrowing days of battle. I was lucky enough to photograph an Eastern Wood Peewee using a witness tree near the Reynolds monument as a perch for his insect-catching forays over milkweed and scrub cherry.  (See Notes for Witness Tree map). A Red-Tailed Hawk perched in an oak and watched for rabbits, young woodchucks, and rodents. A Cooper's Hawk rocketed from a walnut  and snagged a Robin in a fury of feathers. Song Sparrows flitted between perches in  young trees then dropped down into patches of thick meadow to disappear inside. A Red-Headed Woodpecker  probed a hickory tree and taunted me for a good picture which I was unable to get. I miss my long lens and good camera! Must. Get. Fixed. 

Red-Headed Woodpecker - terrible picture, sorry. 

Song Sparrow

I love watching interactions between bird species. A Turkey Vulture and Red-Winged Blackbird provided continuous caption-worthy scenes.  The vulture was picking over some hidden remains and was happily minding his own business when a rather annoyed Red-Winged Blackbird flew at him, around him, diving and fluttering. This went on for a while. The vulture watched the performance with mild interest. The blackbird kept it up until, in a long, leisurely about-face, the vulture simply turned away and went back to picking. Somewhat put off, the blackbird left - all that energy wasted on the unimpressed vulture. 

About face, by-bye blackbird.

Birds teach us things about life and living. Birding on the battlefield teaches us things about history. The Civil War ended in 1865 and to many folks this was the end of all things to do with slavery. But this battle were only the beginning of a long corrective journey that we are still on. My experience with birds has been been mostly of exhilaration, to be amazed by the variety and adaptations, songs and colors, shapes and sizes and the fact that they fly. The Vulture's story, however, is one that stays with me on this battlefield and reminds us all that the Confederacy should have died here. When the great three days' battle ended hundreds of vultures and all manner of feathered scavengers descended on the fields and meadows to pick the carcasses of horses and men, giving no preference for Confederate butternut or Union grey, man or beast. The citizens of Gettysburg came out into these fields to identify who they could, notify the families, and bury the dead. As families came north or south to claim the fallen, these same citizens accompanied the grieving to their resting places and, if needed, help them to disinter and load the bodies for long trips by rail or wagon to distant church yards or family cemeteries. Even months and years later local people were there to help the grieving find and send their dead home.

Monument of a cannon ball shattered tree with a nest of hope.

As these same citizens would write and tell decades after the battle the Civil War, however, didn't end here. Nor did it result in an end racial disparity, inequality, and violence. Next came a failed Reconstruction. The KKK, made up of former Confederate soldiers, formed to intimidate Black voters and those Black Americans who had finally - and legally - entered public office and positions of power. In response to Black Americans threatening the status quo of White Americans, came Jim Crow laws  that forced "separate but equal" mandates. The Civil Rights Movement pushed back. And now a new generation of young Americans demonstrate against police brutality, racial disparities, and injustice.  The grueling and morbid work of the citizens of Gettysburg to clean up after the battle did little to wash away the enduring stains of the war and we still grapple with this truth today.  

Rebecca Solnit writes in her most recent essay:

We never cleaned up after the civil war, never made it anathema, as the Germans have since the second world war, to support the losing side. We never had a truth and reconciliation process like South Africa did. We’ve allowed statues to go up across the country glorifying the traitors and losers, treated the pro-slavery flag as sentimental, fun, Dukes of Hazzard, white identity politics. A retired general, Stanley McChrystal, just wrote a piece about throwing out his portrait of Robert E Lee that he’d had for 40 years, and why a US soldier should celebrate the leader of a war against that country says everything about the distortion of meaning and memory here.

Somewhere southeast of here on Seminary Ridge is an out-sized equestrian monument of Robert E. Lee that dominates the western edge of the site final day's battle. This kind of glorification of the loser gave justification to The Lost Cause, a movement which resulted in many of these battlefield monuments to the Confederate State that framed the South as possessing certain principles of character, even saintliness. Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, who wrote the essay referenced in Solnit's piece framed it this way,

More than anyone, it was Lee the patrician hero, Lee the principled Southern patriot, and Lee the stoic warrior (rather than Lee the slaveholder, Lee the rebel, or Lee who had lost the Civil War) who fit the model in character and persona. Long after his death, he became the icon of the movement.

Gettysburg Battlefield holds more than stories of the battle. It holds the difficult ground that lies ahead.

Turkey Vulture picks an old carcass on the battlefield.

There are monuments everywhere. Some glorify the courageous presence and actions of combatants. Some are simple tablets or stones marking positions of regiments or lines of fire. As I rounded a bend in a hike up a short access road from the railroad I discovered a monument with a different message. 

The Granite Tree, erected in 1888, used the symbolism of birds and a witness tree to convey a message of hope.  Union survivor veteran Hillary Beyer explained to the crowd that had gathered at the dedication of the monument,

"The tablet on this monument tells you and future generations the number of men lost on this spot July 1st, 1863.  The dove (the emblem of peace) perched on the edge of its nest, proclaims the sentiment of brave and true men who fought right here.  The gun and knapsack attached to the tree proclaim to all that the war is over.” 

Except that the war wasn't over. Vultures are still feeding on the bones of racism and discrimination in this country and nobody can or should glorify that. Still, the Granite Tree and its bronze dove and nestlings does offer a sense of hope, though this morning it was the wind that washed sadness from me as I listened for species home once again on these hallowed fields. 


Finding the Witness Trees at Gettysburg. I was birding on the edge of woods and grasslands in the #15 - 17 tree area on this map, then moved north above Chambersburg Pike for grassland-only birding.  https://www.civilwarcycling.com/index/gettysburg-witness-trees/#:~:text=Definition,turn%20green%20due%20to%20oxidation).

Rebecca Solnit's full essay, "The American Civil War Didn't End,"  http://rebeccasolnit.net/essay/the-american-civil-war-didnt-end/

"I Threw Away my Prized Portrait of Robert E. Lee," Stanley McChrystal, from The Atlantic, Oct. 23, 2018: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/why-i-threw-away-my-portrait-robert-e-lee/573631/

The Lost Cause

* Excerpted from the Survivors Association, Gettysburg, 1888-1890. Complied by A.J. Sellers. See digitized regimental histories, State Library of Pennsylvania: