Wednesday, November 30, 2022

PA Blue Marsh Lake NRA: Switchback Trail

 #40 2022 52-Hike Challenge: Blue Marsh Lake National Recreation Area - Switchback Trail, 4mi

Army Corps of Engineers

I don't know why I'm hurrying. This is my last hike for November and, as I try to finish my 52-Hike Challenge for 2022, my challenger/cousin has long ago finished in July. She is over ten years my elder and I practically job behind her to keep up when we hike together. She's been retired for just as long and enjoying every day of it. I'm giving semi-retirement a try. Honestly, it's taking a lot of adjustment. A friend and co-worker at my part-time job tells me it takes years to get used to it. Sigh.  I follow behind Amos on a gravel road next to Blue Marsh Lake, an Army Corps of Engineer flood control project just north of Reading. I'm feeling not very inspired by my thoughts or the scenery until we leave the gravel road bit.

Spillway in the Stilling Basin

Hiking below the crest of the large dam that holds back the waters of the Tulpehocken Creek we wandered through the stilling basin and over the spillway. I looked downstream into the creek valley where the Tulpehocken becomes a nice tailwater stocked trout stream. Amos was in a hurry and pulled me along the gravel road to get to all the smells. I don't need a coonhound's nose to detect the scent of a lot of deer here. 

Dog Beach and Blue Marsh Lake

We stopped at the Dog Beach and I asked him if he wanted to swim. He went down to the water and took a little drink then pulled me back to the path.  Amos was on a mission to discover every place a White-Tailed Deer has peed, pooped, scraped, laid down in, or walked. The first  half of this hike went by very quickly!

Leaving the gravel road

The flood control project was finished in 1979, a year after Tropical Storm Agnes inundated the Susquehanna Valley. That storm did not have as great an impact in the Delaware River Valley but Pottstown, Reading, and Birdsboro have been historically at high risk for massive flooding so this Corps project has helped control the potential for destructive floods greatly in those towns. 

Head-down sniffer on the job

The lake and its surrounding valley are now popular for boating, fishing, and hiking. I consider this hike as my Mile One challenge to walk all 26 miles of the Shoreline Trail around the lake. This bit of trail, however, only follows the shore for a short time before it leaves the main shoreline trail and begins an ascent up a knob of a hill then descends into the Tulpehocken Valley on the other side.  As we climbed, Amos began to slow down. 

One mile done - starting at the Stilling Basin.

Winter rosette of Common Mullein

Winter rosette of Mustard

We hiked up a series of twisty switchbacks designed by trail builders to prevent erosion and soften the steep climb. Pitch Pine and Oak began to fill the hillside. The top of the hill was capped with a Pitch Pine Grove with their bent trunks and limbs and dark short needles creating an open, airy canopy. Down the hill we went and the switchbacks became even more twisty, doubling back on themselves like Christmas ribbon candy. A lazy hiker would have been tempted to just quit the back-and-forth and cut straight down but I didn't see any sign of short cutting.

Switchback Trail (AllTrails) 

White Wood Aster, Eurybia divaricata

The sinuous path reminded me of the intentional spiraling of a labyrinth and now that Amos was a little tired, I was able to slow way down and walk meditatively.  Like the fringe on a prayer shawl, winter dried panicles of White Wood Aster lined the trail. I could all the way to the creek below but was loving the slow weaving of the trail that seemed to take way longer than it should have to get to the bottom. I was in no hurry to get there, however. 

Pitch Pine 

Labyrinths are created to instill a sense of attention and awareness as one walks serpentine paths that spiral, loop, and circle within a given space. Though I doubt the builders of this particular trail had a labyrinth in mind, it served as a perfect descent -or ascent coming the other way - that connected water to sky. Labyrinth walkers know that to reach the destination like a center, bottom, or top is having only walked half the distance. One must then walk back out. If it hadn't been so late in the day I would have done a proper labyrinth walk and returned to the summit of the hill. But the dim sun was getting low and the trails close at 4:30pm this time of year. I only had 30 minutes left. As it turned out there was a ranger waiting in the parking lot at 4:30 but I wasn't the last to leave. He gave Amos a nice compliment. "Fine looking hunting dog you have there!" 

Tulpehocken ("Tully") Creek

I was curious about who made the Switchback Trail but despite looking high and low, I found no information on it. It doesn't even appear on the official map (see Notes) but is linked with the Dog Beach and Shoreline Trail on AllTrails.  I did meet one mountain biker walking up the steepest part of the turns and the path was full of fat tire tread prints so it seems mountain bikers had something to do with it and had a labyrinth aficionado among them. Well done.


Blue Marsh Lake Trail Guide is found on the main page of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/ Philadelphia District excellent and informative site. So much cool water engineering stuff here that I went down a seriously deep  rabbit hole.

The Labyrinth Society maintains a great collection of labyrinth types and histories. I wonder if I could add this trail to the collection?

Monday, November 28, 2022

MD Fort McHenry National Monument: A City Walk

 #39 2022 52-Hike Challenge: Fort McHenry National Monument - 2 miles

I wanted to include an urban hike/walk in this year's Hike Challenge so I chose Fort McHenry National Monument in the pouring rain. I had the whole place to myself save for two park rangers. Considering the bombardment of the port city fort occurred on a rainy night, September 13-14, 1814, it gave me a chance to imagine what that turning point in the War of 1812 must have been like for the soldiers and sailors stationed there.

Battlement path

Between the sea wall path (1 mile) and walking paths inside and around the fort I was able to log just under two miles so I backtracked a little and visited with the Baltimore City fireboat John Frazier. It was pouring the whole time, so ducking back into the Visitors Center was a welcome reprieve for a walk thru of the excellent museum. 

Dock entrance

Street entrance

There are two entrances to the park, one by water at the dock and one on Fort Avenue. A friend of mine who lives near the fort says that in good weather the park is loaded with people and dogs and dodge ball teams and kite flyers and fort visitors. It seemed eerie not to see another soul on this urban walk, though. With the heavy rain I could just make out the Key Bridge in the distance, built over the place where Francis Scott Key on his diplomatic mission ship witnessed the battle from the water. 

Gun battery and the Key Bridge (barely visible)

Ravelin battery 

Pouring rain on the battery walk

The story of the fort and it's vital defense of the port city of Baltimore is well told on the National Park Website (see Notes) so I won't repeat it here except to say that since I have been here years ago as a student I was very impressed with changes to its history education as told inside the fort's buildings across various displays and historic recreations. 

Fort entrance

Recreation of an officers quarters

Much needed attention is now paid to the complicated histories of slavery and the enslaved soldier as well as the critical role of Free Black soldiers in the city's defense against British assault and invasion by land and sea. Wealth and class played a role in leadership as did how officers were made and/or trained. When I was here in my school days we learned mostly about Francis Scott Key and the famous song that became our national anthem and that was about it. Now the tapestry of history surrounding this fort is rich and detailed and even covers the decades after the War of 1812 to include the WWI surgical hospital that was built here. 

WWI Army Hospital 

WWI Surgical Center with Fort McHenry inside

As I whipped around the walkways for a second time trying to make it to 2 miles, I was lost deep in thought about the WWI Army Hospital that was built here. No trace of the sprawling hospital remains today. I wondered whether my own grandfather who was from Baltimore and wounded in France was brought here for respiratory therapy, one of the specialties of this facility at the time, though it was known most famously for its work in facial reconstruction and ground-breaking work in plastic surgery. 

Bombs bursting in air

I didn't stay lost in my thoughts for long however as a hard rain began to fall and I made a run for the Visitor's Center! I checked my AllTrails and saw that I had just completed 2 miles so called it a day. The ranger at the desk (who I think has been here since I was in middle school) told me about a park assessment study for outlying sites that were critical to the British land invasion just before the fort was bombarded. Now I have another cool site to visit that I didn't know was out there but I am not going alone because he said its really spooky (abandoned/trashed/weird people hanging around).

Inside! Out of the rain!


Fort McHenry National Monument an Historic Shrine website has a robust series of pages under "Learn About the Park" that includes a bit about its life as a U.S. Army Hospital during WWI. 

Medicine in Maryland includes some good photographs of General Army Hospital No. 2 (1917-1922)

The Army Hospital and Spanish Flu epidemic. Baltimore Sun, (Sept. 20, 2018) "When World War I and the Spanish Flu turned Fort McHenry into one the country's largest hospitals."

Sunday, November 27, 2022

PA Wolf's Hollow Park: Octoraro Ridge

#38 2022 52-Hike Challenge: Wolf's Hollow - Octoraro Ridge and Forest Loops   4.5 mi

On this beautiful day, Amos and I took a very chill hike in Wolf's Hollow circling around the Octoraro Ridge Trail. Almost all of the trails in this beautiful Chester County park are old wagon and farm roads with some gentle ups and downs to keep it interesting. We could see clear down to Octoraro Creek as it glimmered in the sun. We met many other dogs out on walks with their humans. It was a nose-boopy calm kind of hiking day as he greeted every pup with a coonhound "kiss" rather than his exuberant LET'S PLAY! approach. 

We ran into an old hiking friend who walks here regularly with her little Scotty, Captain. This was opening day for firearms deer season so our conversation was interspersed with gunfire from across the hills and valleys. Amos is usually pretty anxious around gunfire but he gently played with Captain while Cheryl and I talked.  Such was the rest of our hike in the woods, friendly and calm, and for first day of firearms season and an active shooting range nearby, Amos kept it together. 

Old road/trail - Octoraro Ridge

Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides 

Christmas fern grows in clumps

Clumps of Christmas fern brightened the edges of old charcoal hearths. These ferns will stay green through the winter although there were also patches of Lycopodium and Intermediate Wood Fern that added to the early winter greenery. 

Intermediate Wood Fern, Dryopteris intermedia 

Intermediate Wood Fern

Up and around the big hill we went until we came out on to the open pastures of the hilltop farm where we followed the Fence Line Trail as it looped back to the Octoraro Ridge Trail and then down to the Forest Loop Trail. Amos discovered that the small acorns of an enormous Black Oak made an excellent snack.  As Amos browsed acorns I stood in awe of the huge oak trees that lined the sunny woods edge. 

Black Oak, Quercus velutina

"Deer hooves" oak leaf buds

Black Oak acorns

In the valley bottom we checked out many trees and shrubs that prefer wetter soils. Here we found Winterberry, Sycamore, Hazelnut, and Silver Maple. Sadly for Amos, none of these plants offered anything as sweet as Black Oak acorns. 

Let's go this way!

American Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis

One of the features that was consistent throughout our hike was the presence of charcoal hearths. The sheer number and size of them suggests a forge community was sited somewhere nearby on the Octoraro Creek. The fast moving waters would have provided the power needed to run a hammer mill. The ruins along the Charcoal Trail  within the park (and visible through the woods across the creek) suggest an iron-working community grew up here. See Fred Kelso's excellent historical survey in Notes.

Stone fence for livestock

One of a dozen huge charcoal pits or hearths along the old wagon road

Black Birch, Betula nigra

A nearby shooting range was busy and loud  but Amos remained calm and interested in everything we came upon. I was pretty pleased with my pup that we actually got to hike on opening day. We met up with Cheryl and Captain one more time on the return loop and stopped to share a snack at a picnic table. While there, I looked up and watched a Bald Eagle and a Red-Tailed Hawk coast over the bare treetops. A graceful ending to a very chill hike for Amos and me. Good boy, buddy.

Chill Amos


Fred Kelso has produced an excellent history of the Wolf's Hollow forge community.

Want to see what Wolf's Hollow looks like in summer? Walter Zolna visited in 2020 (I do love Walter's videos) and he even stopped by the stone house ruins on the Charcoal Trail. Lots of ruins are found on the opposite side of Octoraro Creek but are on private property. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

PA Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal: Lock 13


Ice begins to form on the Lower Susquehanna

Rambling down the Mason Dixon Trail, following the blue blazes south from the well preserved Lock 12 along the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, Lock 13 is ready for another exploration. With the leaves down and the woods bare and open all around, the huge walls and 170' foot-long lock are easy to spot. The river has not been kind to these ruins which even if they were protected by any park regulations or historical society (they are not) it will, flood by flood, pull it all down. 

Beam slots that held vertical timbers

Tree growth dismantles the integrity of the heavy stacked stones, their roots and massive trunks leaning into and prying apart the work of hundreds of immigrant stonecutters and builders. Freeze and thaw accelerates the work of tree roots while the downslope creep of steep river hills soils move the walls incrementally towards the river. 

Exploring the bottom of the lock.

The most recent round of spray paint vandalism, courtesy of  "Randi John Jesse Mason 2022," left me pitying those who do not have the decency to respect the beauty and history here. They've left their names (as well as numerous insults) for nearly a mile along the trail. Covered in bright neon green and hot pink is the sturdy bench built by a volunteer trail maintainer. The massive tollhouse bridge abutment is tagged in bright yellow. An archeological site nearby is overspread with their names and total disrespect. It sickens me every time and the graffiti problem especially since the Covid years has only gotten worse.

Lock post timber from the 1840s still stand

A natural prop to hold a leaning wall

Tree buckling a towpath wall

Massive abutment of a former bridge over the towpath and canal

Wandering in and around these old canal ruins makes me appreciate the changes that the seasons bring. In late fall and early winter I can finally see into the woods enough to discover the old cellar holes, springheads, mill races, and canal ditches. Even an old tavern foundation is easy to find and I think about the canal boat crews and company men enjoying a hot meal and drink here. This time of year, as we approach Winter Solstice, is particularly meaningful. It signifies our need to be reminded that nature is in a constant state of change and that no matter how epic or lasting the works of man seem to be initially, how durable and well-built they seem at the time, nature will reclaim it and return all of it to herself. 

Drill (star-bit hand hammered) holes for blasting

To me these places are not full of ghosts or wistful remembrances of the past but are visible and tactile proof that there is always something new and unproven yet to come. Nothing lasts but what is constant is change. Even the hardest rock like the great outcrops of metamorphic gneiss (which was once ancient sea bottom) is wearing away grain by grain to be carried to the sea by the Susquehanna. This time of year reminds me most of how transient everything is. 

Rock shelter defaced by Randi, Mason, Jesse, and John.

This place is full of natural symbols that carry down from the time people made stone tools here, when the melting glaciers  had long before finished scouring the river bed with its silty milk-water. Fire - built by people in the lee of the rock shelter for warmth, cooking, and storytelling. Water - full of fish to sustain them. Earth - the fertile river silts that made for excellent farming. Wind - that carried the songs of migrating swans, geese, ducks, and shorebirds as they returned for the winter from the north.  For those who still celebrate these things at Winter Solstice, these symbols are still important in recognizing the turn of seasons. 

In case you need their names...

Ice is forming on the river, another sign and symbol of the change of seasons. Ice has shaped these river islands. It has scoured and pruned the forests that attempt to grow out here. Not a single tree close to the river can be found without ice wounds, scars, and gouges. The great ice floes of the 1870s destroyed so much of the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal that it remained in a constant state of rebuilding until canals were replaced by the railroads, thus ending the age of canal technology for transportation and trade. By 1904, the last standing vestiges of the canal days were ripped away by an historic ice flow and flood. The flow took out entire villages and towns, carried off and crushed the taverns, lockhouses, hotels, collapsed lock walls, drowned the towpath. 

Ancient metaschists and gneiss conglomerates - very old stuff!

On the way back I wander off trail to investigate what remains of the canal below Lock 13 and it a vast plain of destroyed canal wall, something almost glorious to see how the river has reclaimed this spot of human ingenuity.  I try to balance on the tipsy slabs of rock that splay out like giant scales of some mythical creature and Amos, who is four-footed and much more sure-footed, seems amused at my drunken walk. But hey, isn't a difficult path now and then important for a full life? 

Appalachian Rockcap Fern, Polypodium appalachianum

I pulled a garbage bag out of my backpack and picked up all the trash I could reach as I returned through Lock 13. A few shards of liquor bottles (rum). Three plastic soda bottles. Several assorted wrappers. Cigarette butts. A spent spray paint can.  A pair of muddy jeans (heavy!) and a single sock. A lighter. An empty pack of L&M cigarettes. These few things were recently thrown down here so it looks a lot better but I can't reach a bright blue plastic bag which bothers me. Trash attracts trash, I reason, so someone will see that there and figure "what the heck, it's already trashed' and add the next round of refuse to the lock.  

Timeless landscape - Bear Islands, Lower Susquehanna River

Before I left the site, I sat on the high wall of the lock and pulled out my little notebook. I add a winged poem (a poem written on the move) on how much I love this place for reminding me that nothing stays the same, everything changes, and everything has the promise to be be something completely unimaginable from its past. On the high modern Norman Wood Bbridge nearby, the roar of a logging truck crossing over is countered by the slow clip-clop of horses pulling an Amish buggy over one of the oldest rivers in the nation. 

Ice Floe and Flood of 1904 wiped the S&T Canal off the map for good. (Safe Harbor)


The authority on the Pennsylvania Canal Era, W.H. Shank still has the most useful guide to all the canals (there were a lot!) that were built in PA. Amazing Pennsylvania Canals (1997) can be found on Amazon, a must have for environmental historians who hike around looking for old locks, taverns, lockhouses, and canal ditches. There are quite a few of us in PA, actually. I am not alone in this quirky quest.