Sunday, January 23, 2022

PA Holtwood/Kelley's Run Out & Back - Amos' Big Ole' Nope

2022 52-Hike Challenge #3 was very close to home as the family is awaiting our newest arrival who will be born to these River Hills anytime now. As I stepped on to the muddy/icy/snow-encrusted/frozen trail at Holtwood, I imagined my son and daughter-in-law, who live just across the Susquehanna from where I was standing, taking their son out on this trail to go explore the ravine creek below or hike to the Pinnacle above. 

Across the high knoll.

Old Holtwood Road 

The old road is slowly closing over with vegetation but it made for a nice ice-free hard-surfaced walk down the contour of the hill to the mouth of Kelley's Run at the Susquehanna. Crossing over Kelley's Run below the deckless road bridge I missed a slick rock and went ankle-deep into the cold current. (I knew better coming back by hiking down to the railroad culvert and crossing there instead.)

Wet-boot crossing at the destroyed iron-span Old Holtwood Road bridge

My plans were to hike a seven-mile loop up the Blue Trail along the ravine then take the Red Trail to the Pinnacle and loop back, but about three miles up into the creek ravine I had to turn back as the trail had become very dangerous.  My hiking companion made the call to turn around and I'm glad I didn't argue with him.  Amos does not like cold feet or ice! Instead, we did an out-and-back of five miles. 

End of the road along Kelley's Run before the icy trail began.

I had my micro-spikes in my backpack and was prepared to put them on when, after crossing the creek again further up in the ravine, I stopped to consider what my big ole' coonhound would tolerate. He whined at the first cold creek crossing. He eyed the ice-covered boulders and icicles with his head lowered. At the second creek crossing he tried to turn around  midstream. He gave me the side-eye. 

Spray ice

We made our way around thick blobs of ice on the narrowing trail until we approached a very steep iced-over rock scramble. One slip and he or I or both of us would crash downhill into a sharp boulder outcrop with the icy creek twenty feet below us. Not the place for a misplaced foot or paw, he whined.  Not the time for a head-cracking swim, I said.  Nope, said Amos, and he stood on the last patch of leaf litter before the scramble. Not going up there. Good boy!  Instead, we carefully back-tracked and admired the ice formations with "curiosity stops" along the way.

Frozen cascades.

Almost back to the old road - this will have to wait for spring.

We'll try again another day.

We hiked back up Old Holtwood Road and said hello to hikers who were on their way down. They'd turned back along the ravine loop from above and were coming around the opposite loop to get a look at the mouth of the ravine and see how far they could go upstream. Amos gave them the side-eye too. I told them he'd made the decision to turn back and they laughed (giving him a lovely ear rub) and promised they wouldn't push past the icy rock scramble. 


Sunday, January 16, 2022

PA Nottingham County Park: Chromium Barrens Cold!

Hike #2 of my 2022/52 Hike Challenge happened at Nottingham County Park in Chester County, PA, on one of the coldest days of the New Year so far. I was layered up fine but I was a little worried about short-haired ole' Amos but he did great - as long as we were moving. He did not like to stand still very long, even for a quick snap for a picture. A fast five miles over some rough roads kept us both warm.


I've hiked here before but usually when things are greened up and the rare chromium barrens plants can be found. Today though, was a special kind of bleak. Even so, the barrens prairie grasses bathed the hills in gold. The trails were iced over in many places but easily gotten around. Only one other (very cold) hiker was out today and by the sound of her hacking cough, was not someone I did not want to get too close to. I'm trying to avoid people and not get sick as I await the arrival of my grandson Sawyer, due anytime now. Please lady, don't ask to pet Amos...

Doe, Feldspar, and Buck Trails make for 5 miles.

But she did. I had to explain to her that I am trying to avoid close contact so that I can meet my new grandson. She was kind enough, even though hacking away with red eyes and runny nose, to wave okay and we went our opposite ways. I must admit that I have lost any shred of patience with how people are treating this latest turn of the Covid pandemic. To avoid any bitterness, I tried to distract myself as she hiked away and admired the hard work the park staff have put into repairing the old roads that have washed out repeatedly with our many torrential rainfalls this past year. It seems like a never ending job at one culvert in particular and it seems it is always washed out. The large flakes of serpentine rock were thrown from the flooded culvert bank into the path. Ravine-like gullies run like giant sword slashes from uphill to downhill. An old cement culvert pipe sits broken and battered on the edge of the stream. All around are tractor tracks and boot prints pressed into the frozen mud. 

An almost completed Figure-8 for five miles

Barrens habitats are rare in the Mid-Atlantic, but extra rare everywhere else. They harken back to the thousands of years of cold savanna that once covered the state after the recession of ice sheets, but these barrens are the result of heavy metal soils where only special plants can handle the mineral and environmental stress.  The work it takes the park to keep these short grass prairies from being overrun with greenbriar and pine woods is never-ending.  Managed by fire as far back as the Early Woodland Period (1000 BC - 1500 AD) these vast chromium hills were the much more extensive. Agriculture has carved them up and fire management practices once so important to indigenous peoples were long forgotten. Not until the 1980s when modern conservation re-discovered the use of fire to maintain important habitat for threatened plants, insects, and animals, did the practice return to this area.  

Staghorn Sumac - an important winter food for birds

I felt guilty every time we rounded a bend only to scare dozens of birds off abundant staghorn sumac stands. With the ground now frozen solid, birds are unable to scratch the earth for seeds and wintering insects so they rely heavily on dried seeds and fruits clinging to bushes and vines. All the Poison Ivy berries have been picked over. The delicate Black Birch fruits might still contain some small winged oil seeds but are mostly gone. I spotted a flock of Robins working over a small holly tree and near that, a small winterberry. We rounded another bend and frightened off a small hawk that had hunted and killed a songbird. Amos stopped to inspect the pile of feathers, likely a Towhee. 

Eastern White Pine

Eastern Red Cedar

Black Birch

Adding to the bleakness of the scenery, I observed nearly all the Pitch Pines were dead as compared to a few years ago (2017) when I did this hike in the early fall and made note of how stressed these trees seemed to be. The Southern Pine Bark Beetle has ravaged the Pitch Pines. White Pines seemed to be holding their own. But but at every major trail intersection there were log landings where forestry crews felled, piled, and de-barked the salvaged trees for lumber. This is a win-some/lose-some situation though, as the freshly opened landscape will quickly recover in native grasses and even in the heavy equipment scars, the grasses and rare plants will soon appear. Soil disturbance is one technique for managing barrens habitats, so it seems the bark beetle has helped manage the invading forest. 

Grasslands minus the once prevalent Pitch Pine

We circled the old quarry holes and were startled by a flock of Turkeys flying low to land in a stand of Scrub Oak. I swear, the sight and sound of wild turkeys coming in to roost is something like watching a freight train in flight. The sound of the crashing turkeys spooked a herd of twenty deer that bolted across the stony road in front of Amos who of course had to holler full-throat at them which in turn scared the turkeys who took off for another roost. The whole time, a Great Blue Heron stood resolutely on a maple knoll inside the flooded quarry hole. He or she must have felt safe on the inside of the chain link fence as compared to what was going on outside of it! 

One of two flooded quarries to be passed on the Feldspar Trail

The uphill frozen road with its jagged, flood-washed slabs of sharp rock and large patches of thick ice made for a slow slog. This section generated some heat and by the time we'd reached the top I was unzipping my jacket and pulling off my mittens. But the sharp wind soon had me zipping back up. The high for today was 16 degrees and who knows what the wind chill was. I breathed it in until my lungs ached with cold, cold air, which I am so grateful for. Down in the hollow crossing a creek near the quarry holes, the air was impossibly still. Here on the height of the barrens, it pushed me along and Amos, sensing my pace had quickened, decided to pull. The wind at my back, the coonhound in front straining against his rope, we jogged the whole way back to the trail intersection where come summer the rare Pinks, Asters, and Oxeyes will bloom in the ruts of the logging trucks. 

Victory Run - no wind.

On the hilltops - big wind.

As we cruised down the trail towards the parking area, I stopped to look back at one of the few views where pines still painted a swath of green across the brown and gold grasslands. White Pines stood higher and filled in some of the gaps where gnarled Pitch Pines once stood like a wall of twisted trunks and gnarled branches. The White Pine stood tall, straight, dignified and maybe even defiant.  I stopped at a dying Pitch Pine and pushed my pinky into a bark beetle hole. Warmer winters and hotter summers have allowed this beetle to decimate this pine forest, but were it not for the ravages of the beetle the Bluestem grasslands would not have expanded as they have. The look-back view was astounding in its width and breadth of native grasses in winter gold across the hills. 

Dying Pitch Pine with Bark Beetle holes in a red trail blaze


Nottingham County Park (Chester County Parks)

Stateline Serpentine Barrens, Nature Conservancy:

"The Aftermath of the Southern Pine Bark Beetle at Nottingham" (2019)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

AT Hike #9: PA - Pine Grove Furnace State Park: Pole Steeple/AT Loop

A climb up to Pole Steeple overlook in Pine Grove Furnace State Park seemed like a great way to ring in the New Year for First Day Hike (which was actually delayed a week due to heavy rain on the 1st) so the day after our first snowstorm, my niece Amy and I ventured out. We combined the Appalachian Trail with Pole Steeple Trail and the old Trolley Line bike trail for a seven mile loop.  Adding this loop to my hiking project to day hike the AT through PA, this sweet little circuit makes for hike #9 and #1 for the 2022/52-Hike Challenge. 

White blaze on white snow

From my last loop hike that started and ended at the Camp Michaux parking area, this hike picks up where I left off after completing the short leg of AT that continues a mile down to Pine Grove Furnace. We parked at Fuller Lake and got right back on the AT literally in the parking lot and hiked north from there. The snow was fluffy and not quite half a foot deep and we were among a small group of outdoorsfolk who had ventured down some icy roads to explore the park the day after the storm. Everyone was chatty. Dogs were friendly. The bathroom was open! Off we went following the white blazes along Mountain Creek and up the mountain at the gated forest road a mile upstream.

My niece Amy on the AT as it runs along Mountain Creek

AT cuts straight through Pine Grove Furnace State Park and offers AT hikers a few opportunities to take a break here. The hiker's hostel - the old iron master's mansion (see video below) now managed by the AT Museum at Pine Grove offers simple bunkbed accommodations, hot showers, and a shared kitchen. This time of year, though, the AT Museum and General Store which is the site of the famous AT hiker's half gallon challenge ice cream  challenge are closed. Tom's Run Shelter is south of us while northbound hikers look forward to the great little trail town of Boiling Springs that offers food and lodging options for winter AT hikers. 

Happy new sign!

Up and up we went through the sparkling snowy forest.  Blue cloudless skies overhead and not a hint of wind, the woods were bathed in the golden light of January sun.  It was on this section of the AT many years ago that I encountered my first Hognose Snake and I remember sitting right down next to him in the middle of the trail to sketch his phenomenal patterns while he had a hard time deciding whether to flip over on his back to play dead or continue lay still for a ten minute sketch session. I have always loved snakes and some of my best encounters have been on the AT sitting alongside them sketching. Timber rattlers, copperheads, black rat snakes, hognose, ring-necked, garter, racers, northern water snakes - all have had their portraits done on the AT. 

Amy navigates the snowy stone steps to the summit.

I wanted to take a minute and that thank the trail crews that maintain the trails in Pine Grove Furnace State Park - I've met a few of the great Friends of Pine Grove Furnace and staff - they are amazing. The new trail signage, well-kept kiosks and well-stocked map/brochure boxes, crisp blue blazes on the Pole Steeple Trail, and the incredible work on the heavy stone steps on the knob and trail show so much dedication. Thank you!

Double ledge summit of the knob

So much for a snowball toss - too dry!

View from Pole Steeple 

Our views included several lakes which are all flooded ore and limestone quarries that supplied the iron furnace operations at Pine Grove.  Looking across the low mountains was spectacular and the winter sun warmed us nicely on exposed ledges of quartzite. The knob of tilted ledge tilted skywards, its slanting stone blocks the result of the mountain-building crunch of continental collision that grew the Appalachians.  The knob, a familiar geological erosional feature of the Appalachian range, stood proud against the blue sky.  As we discovered, the promontory was claimed by a pair of ravens who made their presence known as we hiked down the approach trail to the road below. We wondered if they were near a nesting ledge that will hold raven chicks come spring?

Needle ice from a charcoal pit

We explored several large charcoal hearths, flat areas known as "pits" (but they are not pits).  We descended the winding Pole Steeple Trail and they were easy to find as great white disks of snow- covered flats on the steep slope. We used our poles to pry just under the snow and leaves to find needle ice extruded from the black soil below.  Needle ice forms when the soil temperature is above freezing while the air above soil is well below freezing. The soil moisture is pulled upwards in delicate columns through capillary action making beautiful curls and ribbons of ice. Needle ice here was black with charcoal dust.

An easy-to-spot charcoal "pit" or hearth on the slope (two tents had been here in the snowstorm)

The underlying geology of the Pole Steeple knob is quartzite, a resistant rock common along the AT and through the southern PA landscape. Knobs form when less resistant rock types are eroded out of place leaving quartzite ridges and boulder fields. Frost action was the main erosional process following the retreat of glaciers north of here, when the region was both wet and frigid. Frost shatter caused rocks to split apart as trapped water froze inside crevices and cavities. Frost shatter leaves a unique jagged appearance on quartzite that stands above the landscape in columns, dagger-like fins, or "teeth," often visible for miles atop the ridges in winter.

Quartzite exposed on the ledges showing the angular erosion patterns of frost action

Looking up at the knob from Pole Steeple Trail

Our descent to the paved road below was graced with the croaking ravens and the company of a very few fellow hikers, all pleasant and happy to see each other. This is one of the best parts of hiking for me - reconnecting to people as fellow explorers, nature nerds, and positive souls. Maybe this is one of the reasons I am devoted to hiking. I am always restored by the kindness. Everyone takes a few minutes to talk, share their stories (and their dogs!), and happy regards. Hiking connects us in deep ways to each other and the land and I always come home feeling uplifted by those I've met on the trail and by the places I've walked.

Forested swamps.

The road ended at the gated forest road and we completed our loop. We rejoined the trolley rail-trail and wandered past a forested swamp where the ponds looked like they were about to ice over. We stopped to pet some wonderful dogs and chat with their owners, all hikers. We had a great visit with a Boiling Springs High School teacher and her bouncy pup Buddy. She looked tired from teaching (virtually and in-person in this crazy second covid year) but she was positively glowing with happiness that she managed to get a few hours hiking in on this day. "Man, anytime I can get out here - especially in the snow - it's just the best therapy for me. There is nothing better for heart and soul."  Truth. 


Pine Grove Furnace State Park

Info for AT hikers in the Pine Grove Furnace area that includes shuttles, hostel, and area lodgings near Boiling Springs and Carlisle, PA

YouTube! Iron and Charcoal Industrial History at Pine Grove Furnace State Park: