Tuesday, October 26, 2021

PA Horse-Shoe Trail: Map 1 Valley Forge to Chester Spring - What is "Natural?"

When I first started this blog many years ago, I asked what is natural in the Mid-Atlantic? Given that this region has been so long settled and industrialized, and at one time, deforested to the point of unrecognizable, I thought what is natural about any of it? Twenty years ago when I discovered the Horse-Shoe Trail I began hiking it mainly as a connector to other trails and I honestly didn't care for it. Until I began to look at it through the lens of environmental history, however, it has since helped me detangle the idea of what natural could mean for this region. So here is my HST hike through Map 1.


Trailhead marker near Washington's HQ, Valley Forge, PA

What I don't like about the HST:  Some stretches of dangerous road-walking; cutting through housing developments and backyards - where clearly the neighbors want to keep you contained to the 24" wide path; the persistent threat of closure should a property owner decide they no longer want the path on their land. 

What I do like about the HST: The dedication of the organization and its volunteer trail crews for its maintenance and fostering good relationships with property owners;  its storyline of American industrial history-turned-natural natural history; its accessibility for everybody.

Parade grounds at Valley Forge - now Eastern Meadow and Shortgrass Prairie

This day I walked 15 miles from the HST official starting point near General Washington's HQ in Valley Forge near Philadelphia.  This is where the trail is most accessible to public transportation and visibility, where a lot of folks discover it and then say "Well darn! I'm gonna walk the whole thing!" (Somebody actually said that to me when I was crouched down taking a photo of the plaque.) Point of note, however, the best parking to walk this section is a mile further into Valley Forge National Park at the large car park under the watchful gaze of General von Steuben. But it's an easy walk and a great opportunity to observe the tremendous effort that the National Park System has invested in ecosystem restoration. 

Springhead that supplied the Colonial Bottling Plant.

Following the yellow blazes, I hiked up the steep old road that climbs Mt. Misery and observed  foundations and cleared flat areas where buildings once stood. The ruins of the bottling plant stand hard along the road, easy to explore. It faces faced a stream that has suffered terrible erosion from the recent flooding caused by Hurricane Ida. No matter how thoughtful the park service has been in allowing the mountain and meadows to return to more natural states, however, the human impacts that drive rapid global warming cannot be ignored. Every stream I crossed or looked at today was severely gouged and gullied. 

Bottling plant ruins and flood-wracked stream

Colonization and industrialization have transformed this land over hundreds of years but even before the first colonist set foot here, this land was managed by the Lenni Lenape, transformed with fire, agriculture, quarrying, and modifications to streams and rivers to funnel fish into pens and weirs. I stopped at the top of the mountain to give silent acknowledgement to them. 

Valley Creek, once industrialized and polluted, suffered heavy storm damage from Ida.

Yellow blazes mark the Horse-Shoe Trail

Refreshed yellow blazes and posts clearly marked the path all the way to my end point. I rarely pulled out the map. Even a detour was marked well enough all I had to do was follow a new set of (blue) blazes, unfortunately all busy narrow roads. When the trail re-entered the woods, I was reminded of the use of trees for charcoal throughout colonial period until the late 1800s. I tried to imagine the forests cleared of their great Oaks and American Chestnut, that in their charred state fueled fifty or so foundries, kilns, and forges that were on or near this path all the way to its terminus at the Appalachian Trail 120 miles on.  

The starting bell.

Crossing the Valley Forge NHS boundary on to private lands.

I didn't take pictures of the many fenced or gated backyards, posted with signs so that HST hikers don't stumble into private property.  The idea of privately owned land was something new to the native people who were pressed further and further west, south, even north to make way for new owners.  I passed a country club, a retreat, a private park - all clearly marked with keep out notices. 

Must make a tour reservation!

Past the Warton Esherick Museum, which I have always wanted to see. Wharton was a leader of the Studio Crafts Movement in the early 20th century. I studied his work when I was in art school and have always wanted to build/create my own studio as he did, literally carved from the woods around him. As I glanced back at his home and studio I couldn't help but notice the nicely forged strap hanger that holds the sign, a necessary piece of a blacksmith shop's forge equipment. Esherick and his wife split their time between this home-studio in the woods and a socially progressive community, Fairhope, in Alabama.    


Historical marker down the road from the museum.

They both held to the idea of common use resources and lived at Fairhope as a single-tax property that included studios, workshops, cottages, and schools. Of course, they were shunned for their beliefs in social progressivism by anti-communists (many Pennsylvania artists, writers, craftspeople were) in the 1940s and 50s. Many social progressives fled Pennsylvania to escape political pressures and suspicion during the McCarthy Era. I tried to keep one eye on traffic and the other on my surroundings. I wondered about the use of the forest by craftsmen and, whether making utilitarian objects or artworks, if Esherick's creative progressive process wasn't part of the regenerating woodlands he surrounded himself with. 

A small community land commons.

I think I love Esherick's  wood cuts more than anything and how they remind me of wood fiber and grain emerging as image and object. Wood grain on paper made of wood pulp, they feel as intricate as woven bark baskets.  As a collector of few wooden bowls and baskets, I know that these items do not survive well in the archeological record and as I add a Gullah-made saltwater marsh grass basket or a turned Sassafras burl bowl to the table for Sunday dinner I think about how carefully these items were made and by whom. 

What you need to road-walk parts of Map 1 of the HST

Small patches of community conservation land provided safe haven from the perils of modern transportation. Some of these are small woodlands are barely enough to sustain habitat for non-human residents. I moved a Box Turtle out of the road.  I saw plenty of White-Tail Deer both in people's yards and in the patches of woodlands. I know that the Coyote has made the transition to suburban life when I found a few well-placed piles of scat full of rabbit and squirrel fur. The maze of roads and yards makes for poor habitat connectivity.  

Skirting a farm to avoid a road-walk.

Skirting a field to avoid a road-walk.

Skirting a pasture to avoid a road-walk.

Connectivity to culture and ecology are two important threads in weaving together a sustainable landscape. I can't say that hiking this section of HST was my most memorable hike with the (sarcastic) bonus of extra road miles due to the trail closure and long road detour, or twisting my knee stepping off a curb in a parking lot. But I could see that the landscape holds variations of its human and natural history well though out of balance.  I thought about one of Walt Whitman's great celebratory poems Song of the Broad-Axe and the implications for our natural heritage he wove into and out of the poem his take on American "progress." The hills here hold all of this as landform, some degraded, some restoring. "The shapes arise!" Whitman calls - and the land responds. 

Woodcut book plate by Esherick (1924) for Broad-Axe

I read the shapes of grown-over tennis courts, ankle deep with leaves and fallen limbs. The lumps and bumps of old foundations and sunken hollows of cellars and well pits dimpled the land. An old railroad slid  through the woods. Stone bridge abutments and little dams peek out from under vines and moss. Even some of the homes, once posh and expensive in their day, sit abandoned in the woods seem to be overtaking any attempt at making order of it.  I passed the now closed Great Valley Nature Center (sad!) and the meadow scrub that is now its parking lot. Shapes are rising!

Abandoned railroad in the woods.

Walking through this tangled landscape of plants and pavements, the question of what is natural seemed even more elusive. Here in the Mid-Atlantic invasive species like Chestnut blight, Spotted Lanternfly, and Tree of Heaven threaten the fabric of native ecosystems. But native habitats were long ago radically changed by centuries of industrial and agricultural use.  I picked up ticks on a stretch of pipeline right-of-way thick with invasive Stiltgrass. It is late October and there has yet to be a killing frost. As I sat on a rail of the disused railroad picking them off a White-Tailed Deer wandered by fat from feeding in backyards and gardens. 

Lawn ornament in the woods. 

The road walking and a sore knee finally got the best of me just two miles from my meeting place with a friend who offered to take me back to my car at Valley Forge. I was creeping along and the afternoon sun was already long in shadow. I can walk for days on natural trail but I am no good after a few hours on pavement. I called and she picked me up from a construction site that will soon hold million-and-a-half-dollar mansions on what was once cropland, that was once pasture, that was once charcoal woods, that was once berry meadow grazed by elk. 

What do you think endures?
Do you think a great city endures?
Or a teeming manufacturing state? or a prepared constitution? or the
best built steamships?
Or hotels of granite and iron? or any chef-d'oeuvres of engineering,
forts, armaments?
Away! these are not to be cherish'd for themselves,
They fill their hour, the dancers dance, the musicians play for them,
The show passes, all does well enough of course,
All does very well till one flash of defiance

- From The Broad-Axe, by Walt Whitman



Purock Spring Water/ Colonial Bottling Plant a brief history by Mike Bertram, Tredyffrin Eastown Historial Society: https://tehistory.org/hqda/pdf/v47/v47n3p084.pdf

A lecture on Wharton Esherick, presented by Mark Sfirri:  http://www.raymondfarmcenter.org/sfirri-wharton-esherick-lecture

Walt Whitman's Song of the Broad Axe  from the Walt Whitman Archives:  https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/91


Wednesday, October 20, 2021

PA Horseshoe Trail - Scotts Run Lake Loop

Scotts Run Lake is at the north end of  French Creek State Park. We started and ended our weekly hike at the lake by taking the Horseshoe Trail which runs a wide loop through the park and connects with a dozen or more trails.  It's one of my favorite parks within 90 minutes of home. 

Scotts Run Lake 

To get his required "nose-on-trail-time" Amos the Minor Prophet, sniffer-finder and eager student in learning the ways of humans in the woods, enjoyed a long lollipop loop on the Horseshoe Trail that took him out to Geigerstown Road (the stem) and from Scotts Lake around to Hopewell Furnace and back (the candy).

Schuylkill National Heritage Area

The Schuylkill River is fed by the French Creek watershed and its famously rocky wetlands and swamps and many smaller streams make hiking here a tad wet.  The water table is high between the big hills and we hiked on two historic "stone roads" built to hold wagons, horses, and people above the saturated ground. We hiked bouldery hills where erosion has washed away the underlying clay and creates geological slope slumps. I was really impressed with trail crew work on these boulder pitches where hand built stone water bars and big rock steps help hikers as well as stabilize the slopes.  

One of Southeast PA's great long distance hiking & riding trails

Small quarry on the edge of Colonial road.

Near our turn-around point at Geigerstown Road, we explored a small quarry where sandstone was removed and carried on stone boats (heavy sleds) pulled by oxen or heavy horses to make the raised road through the saturated Sixpenny Creek floodplain.  I could see the remains of drainage ditches on either side of the stony path. It reminded me of a miniature Roman road with its side ditches and cambered cobble surface, though without regular road maintenance the ditches are mere depressions and the surface has been washed of its binding gravels and clay. It too has suffered slump! 

White Coral Fungus, Clavaria fragilis

Armillaria, sp. 

Slug nibbles and a slug poo

Painted Suillus, Suillis spraguei

Hydnopolyporous sp. (This one is just fun to say out loud)

Bouquet of fungus

Just a note - fall is hunter's season, so its best to wear bright colors and there is a firing range active this time of year near the Geigerstown Road crossing. Amos is a little gun shy so as we got closer he was hesitant to actually go out to the road. We turned around at the quarry. 

Getting loopy

Using a combination of trails, but mostly staying on the yellow-blazed Horseshoe Trail, Amos practiced all of his search commands and even tracked a mountain biker when I asked him to "find the boy."  Waiting happily at the bottom of a steep boulder slump "the boy" (actually Dean the Mountain Biker) was ready with an award of cheese curl and a pull rope to give to his "rescuer."  To celebrate Amos' tracking practice we hiked over to Hopewell Furnace NHS for a another treat and visit with his ranger friends there. He is a BARK Ranger at Hopewell, so he's bit of a celeb.

Heading back to Scotts Lake

Hiking back from Hopewell Furnace we stopped for a rest and a long drink of water. In the stillness we listened to a pair of Barred Owls conversing with each other and we heard a loud SNORT from a nearby but hidden White-Tail Deer who obviously saw us, but we didn't see him or her. 

Happy Amos.


French Creek State Park and Hopewell Furnace NHS are joined by a common boundary so its easy to go from one to the other by trail or park road. Hopewell NHS has some fantastic history events that highlight the Iron Master's House, elegantly restored furnace, and the collier's work. 

French Creek State Park   https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/FrenchCreekStatePark/Pages/default.aspx

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site  https://www.nps.gov/hofu/index.htm

BARK Rangers at Hopewell Furnace NHS  https://www.bctv.org/2019/07/30/be-a-b-a-r-k-ranger-dog-walk-at-hopewell-furnace-national-historic-site/

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

MD - Gunpowder Falls State Park: Highland Trail Hike-and-Dawdle

My niece Amy and I ventured out to explore the Upper Gunpowder River where it is at its most wild and scenic. The day was predicted to hold a few showers and be mostly cloudy, but it turned out to offer broken blue skies and gentle breezes. We were both happy and feeling very lucky to have this day to put aside the crazy-making world of post-Covid year office jobs and enjoy a long awaited day of hike-and-dawdle.  

Trail post intersection with the Highland Trail.

There were so few people out that we almost had the river and hills to ourselves, save for a handful of fly fishermen and day hikers. I was relieved not to see the parking areas packed with cars and the road leading down to the old iron span bridge absent packs of loud people. Honestly, I have been avoiding many of my favorite hikes this past year and a half because of the crowds so I was relieved to see this area so quiet.  

Upper Gunpowder River

The Gunpowder River flows very cold here, released from the bottom of the high dam at Prettyboy Reservoir just upriver. This is prime habitat for cold water species like trout. Long before the dam, however, these hills were dotted with charcoal pits and colliers huts and were mostly timbered for hardwood species like oak and maple that fed  forges and kilns. Much of the land was farmed after the clearing, but it is rocky ground and 19th century farmers struggled to make the land produce anything but marginal yields. Now it has come full circle, returned to a wild woods. 

Cold and gold the river flows.

Almost 60 miles long, the Big Gunpowder (there's a Little Gunpowder, too) runs from Southern York County, PA, to the Chesapeake Bay. It provides Baltimore City with its drinking water and  gathers in the Loch Raven Reservoir downstream. The Prettyboy Reservoir above us with its impressively steep dam serves as the backup supply should levels at Loch Raven become too low.  The system is charged by rain and snow melt.  The forested watershed is protected by state and city authorities. 

Warbler's demise

Colors popped under muted skies. Gold and yellow stole the show. Signs of "casual" beaver activity made us giggle. A great blue heron stalked for fish and migrating warblers, tanagers, and flycatchers kept us busy ID-ing as they fluttered through the woods.. My only complaint was how thick and almost impenetrable the banks of Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) had become. Where we saw native plants like Wild Ginger, they were buried under solid walls of the stuff. It really was a nightmare

Sycamore bark

We came to the Highland Trail post and turned uphill on an old charcoal wagon road that was so deeply incised into the hillside it reminded me of the ancient u-shaped holloway roads of northern England and the Borders of Scotland. No wider than heavy horse and his wagon, some holloways are so deep that a walker can remain unseen to sheep and cattle grazing in fields above. I've walked many sunken roads  in England and Scotland as segments of old pilgrimage paths, some so deep with hundreds (sometimes a thousand or more) years of foot and hoof travel that vegetation forms a tunnel of green overhead and the enfolding high banks cradle the treadway at bottom. 


We talked about how we've come to really love the shoulder seasons of not-quite-full-on-autumn and the raw yet hopeful late winter/ early spring where transition is subtle, almost secretive. We both love the austerity of the muted winter palette with its symphonic surprises of pure sound and color against  background of ochre, brown, and grey.  But today was about yellow and gold. We were in no hurry, stopping to notice every little thing so that despite the upward pitch of the old road we were never short of breath. The air turned slightly cooler and a breeze drew up the valley as dark clouds slipped past overhead but there was no rain. We admired an old pasture fence and some old sugar maples that once grew in the open sunshine, limbs outstretched and with thick trunks "eating" old wire and planks.

Haircap Moss


Highland Trail 

Near the top of the hill the trail split away from the charcoal road and skirted the slope down towards a tiny stream.  This was  a different kind of path, maybe one that started as a deer trail long ago. It weaved slightly here and there but mainly stayed true to the deer's way of descending steep slopes on the diagonal.


Hemlocks and American Sycamore gave way to White Pines, Hickory, and Oak. Beech trees clustered at the elbow of the trail where it crossed the tiny stream.  American Holly punctuated the yellow understory with dramatic dark green foliage and it will stay just so throughout the winter. Spicebush flaunted its understory skirts of golden yellow and Virginia Creeper showed off cranberry-red leaves weaving through Christmas ferns. Hay-scented and Woodfern have already turned brown and brittle, but the hardy Christmas fern, like the Holly, will keep its deep green year-round.

Macro photography 

As we bent and kneeled to take pictures of mushrooms at ground level, I noted that besides a few toothy scrapes on the caps, not many animals in these parts seem to eat exclusively mushrooms. And there were lots to choose from! The Northern Flying Squirrel, Glaucomys sabrinus, however, prefers mushroom caps over almost everything else and I've observed these forest gliders tucking mushroom into knotholes and the forks of limbs for later dining. During my time in South Carolina, I remember watching wild boar root for emergent mushrooms - oh the damage they did to the forest floor! I'll stick with Northern Flying Squirrels, thank you.

Sunken charcoal road

Underside of a bracket fungi

Fallen trees and dead standing snags were heavy with clusters of Artist's Conk, Ganoderma appalanatum, bright white shelves of bracket fungi. The undersides of these tough woody fungi looked different from the gilled undersides of the capped mushrooms on the forest floor. I tested the limits of my Pixel phone's camera by trying some close-up macro photography to capture the distinctive basidiospore tubes underneath.  While I was at close quarters with the fallen tree, I noticed that almost every square inch of its surface was covered with thick netted webs of mycelium. No doubt the tree's rotting interior was riddled through with several species and I ventured a guess that biomass weight of the fungal decomposers in this one tree might exceed the weight of the remaining wood. 

Blue blaze of the Highland Trail

I noted that from the river's edge to our height on the valley rim, there were thick forests of Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) with some of the biggest diameter trunks I'd ever seen in this valley. I almost mistook them for Rhododendron being used to seeing its thigh-round trunks on the banks of Muddy Creek at home,  I did a double take when I saw that these giants were actually Mountain Laurel. How old they must be, I wondered.  

Gravel work road

After a sit-down water break and a sweet visit with Penny, a petite hound puppy, we topped the hill under some powerlines and started on the last stretch of trail. Laid with big chunky dark gravel, the gated work road connects the powerline corridor to the paved road ahead. We stopped to admire a Spotted Orbweaver at the locked gate (who kindly obliged our attempts at macro). These spiders are some of my favorite fall critters and I always make the time to say hello.  Penny and her human friends crossed the paved road ahead of us and continued on wooded paths to Prettyboy Dam another mile or so on, while we turned down the paved road to end our loop.

Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscona sp.)

Blessed are you, autumn,

season of unavoidable endings.

You show us how letting go

can be a glorious, joyful practice

with your spectacular colours.

You model how to hold 

paradoxes with grace -

the balance of living and dying,

relinquishing and receiving,

gathering and sharing.

You know that death is not

and ending, but a passage,

a transformation into new life.

May we learn these lessons well:

to celebrate with abandon

to practice reverence 

to surrender completely

to embrace tenderly

to love without regret

- Wendy Janzen



Gunpowder Falls State Park is a long, linear state park and is divided into several management areas. We hiked the Highland Trail Loop on Falls Road in the Hereford Area 

Autumn poem by Wendy Janzen, Burning Bush Wild Church 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

PA - Lebanon Valley Rail Trail: Mt. Gretna to Lebanon Out-n-Back

How can the Root Beer Barrel not be the theme for this post?  The Root Beer Barrel was a local favorite hot dog and soft drink stand that stood aside Rt. 72 coming in to Mt. Gretna for 50 years. It was renovated and moved to its present location on the LVRT by two young men, their work team, and the original builder to serve as their Eagle Scout Project. (The Eagle Scout projects on this trail are impressive!)  It represents one of those quirky mid-century Pennsylvania roadside attractions - and there were many -  that sprang up when motoring around the Commonwealth was a weekend family pastime. I was one of those kids who was stuffed into the back seat of my great aunt Louise's Pontiac for hours of Sunday motor-touring, stopping at, I believe, every one of these places.  

The Root Beer Barrel

The idea that people actually had time to spend on "leisure time" gave my riding partner a bit of a giggle as we both had to wrangle time away from work-related schedules to make this day happen. "With everyone I know working two and three jobs just to stay ahead," she said, "it's a wonder 'the working class' has time at all these days."  We reflected on how the Covid-19 year affected the work place - how jobs that were once considered not important suddenly became essential. Carol is one of those. She is an office manager at local pet hospital and never missed a day of work during the pandemic. She struggles to find qualified office staff a year and a half later so she's been working two shifts a day for the past ten months, plus an occasional shift at the local Dollar Store. "It's crazy how hard I see some people working. And crazier still that other people won't or can't return, making it harder on the rest of us." She mentions lack of affordable and reliable child care for two of her most valued office staff.

Kauffman's Park whistle stop

Carol had time only to ride one way to Lebanon from Mt Gretna where we'd left her car. I opted for the out-and-back since I had the time. Soon she was off to her next shift.  As I waved goodbye I thought about how important this railway corridor has become, once so important as an operating railway to the working people who took holiday at Kauffman's Park near Mt. Gretna or who came by rail from cities to attend church meetings and camps, disembarking at the same station just a mile north of the village where we began our ride. 

Steel span bridge

On my return ride I noted the whistle stop post that alerted engineers to the busy rail crossing at Mt Gretna Station up ahead and imagined how the passengers must have watched in anticipation for the roller coaster, swimming lake, and various attractions through the trees. It's all gone now-  existing only on faded postcards and photographs on Eagle Scout kiosks and historical displays. The foundations of the station are visible through the brush as is one remaining intact water tank, the stone surround of a  decorative fountain, and a wide, flat siding area that once contained the boardwalk and crosswalk.

Old railroad ties mouldering in the leaves

During the work week, the Cornwall-Lebanon Railroad carried products to and from the mines, kilns, and furnaces as well as lumber, produce, and military materials. The large National Guard site, just north of Mt. Gretna sprawled across the hills and featured an impressive rifle range and tent barracks complex. It was moved to the present day Indiantown Gap location, and a smallish empty lot named Soldier Field is all that remains. 

Conewago Hotel

In the summer and on Sundays excursion trains carried passengers to picnic groves, parks, and church camps.  Leisure time was a valuable commodity then as it is now.  For the families of the furnace and quarry workers and (mostly) women workers who toiled in the dozens of factories from as far away as Harrisburg, a trip to church camp meeting or a relaxing day at the amusement park and picnic grove was the highlight of the summer season.  If you had a lot more money and a lot more time, a well-to-do person might book a room at the Hotel Conewago to enjoy a weekend or a summer respite from the smoke-filled streets of the manufacturing towns upriver, where according to one hotel guest "smoke stacks took the place of church steeples."

Disused water tank in the woods.

Our Covid experience not withstanding, available leisure time and income to support it for most American workers - especially women - has not changed in over a century, despite optimistic predictions made by economists in the first half of the 20th century.  Current studies that measure labor participation rates and worker-sector analysis to show who is working and where (Francis, 2007; White 2014) conclude that leisure time in the 21st century is about equal with that of the end of the 19th century.  This sobering reality makes John Maynard Keynes' 1930 rosy predictions seem like science fiction. He predicted that "central problem for humanity would be using its abundant leisure time in a meaningful way." Carol later emailed me to say that her hour-and-a-half on the bike trail that morning was one of the best breaks she's had a year. 

The LVRT may not transport people from urban work centers to relaxing parks and camp gatherings anymore, but its corridor still serves to provide people with a beautiful outdoor experience  for much needed time away from their hectic work weeks. Even just an hour-and-a-half on a bike rolling through an early fall forest is balm to a busy woman's soul. As we learn more about how important leisure time is to our mental and physical health, the national rail trail network is helping to provide leisure opportunity for when one has the time.   


Lebanon Valley Rail Trail https://lvrailtrail.com/

National Bureau of Economic Research, Francis (2007)
 "Where Did All the Leisure Go?" 

White (2014) "Changes to the Leisure Time Landscape." 

Keynes (1930) "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren."