Thursday, August 31, 2023

ME: Saco Heath Bog Preserve

For a few days in Maine I only had the opportunity to go exploring on my own just one time for a few hours at a nearby Nature Conservancy property, the Saco Heath Bog Preserve.  It was a lovely break away from being peopled-out at a conference nearby. The boardwalk and woodland trail out-and-back is about a mile and a half, not a very long hike but rather, instead, a slow ramble to enjoy being back to place I'd never been to before. 

Pitch Pine forest gaining ground near the forest edge

Encroaching woodland into the bog edge

The name for heath bog is a tad repetitive as the word heath when you trace it to Old and Middle English (heethe), Dutch (heide), German (Heide) basically means wet moorland, while bog from old Gaelic (bheug), Middle English (bog), Old Norse (bok) all mean a tussocky, sinking, wet/waste place. This 12,000 year-old glacial-formed joined double pond (coalesced) meets all the ancient definitions from hilly tussocks to untillable land (moor).

Old tussocks become anchor sites for trees

Mid-pond forest is floating over water

My fondness for bogs stems from both my love for natural history and for anthropology. The natural history is self-explanatory - I've always loved the unique living landscapes of the North and getting to know the unique plant and animal communities found in all manner of northern lands. But from as long as I can remember I have always held a fascination for bogs as living time capsules, that with water chemistry, cold temperatures, and extremely slow rates of decomposition may hold animal, plant, even human remains in near perfect condition for thousands of years. 

Long's Bulrush - this patch is over 100 years old

Larch or Tamarack - a deciduous conifer

I wasn't looking for Wooly Mammoths or Bog Men today, but I did enjoy meeting a new (for me) rare bog plant, Long's Bulrush (Scirpus longii). Noted as globally rare, this bulrush prefers peaty wetlands and is fire dependent. Where fires don't occasionally burn over moorlands, this plant is rapidly done in by invasive grasses or more aggressive heath plants. I also enjoyed spending some time with an old favorite, American Larch or Tamarack (Larix laricina) whose tight clusters of short deep green needles will turn brilliant yellow and burnt orange in autumn then shed for winter like a deciduous Maple or Birch. 

Pitch Pine surrounded by Cotton Grass and Leatherleaf (heath)

It's what underneath, tho.

The whole of the open bog is suspended above water. Heath plants and trees root into the organic peats and run laterally across the domes of built-up peat layers to form floating forests. In places where peatlands and bogs are commonplace in the landscape, one can find the cultural adornments of story and legend that surround them. Nearly all the boggy places of my ancestors time in England, Ireland, and Scotland have stories of travellers who, unknowledgeable about such things as quaking and sinking bogs, have been lost to their black depths, and these stories which may be true, gave rise to whole collections of ghostly sightings, eerie and inviting sounds of children playing, and strange paths lighting up in the moorland nights that lead to the lost and lonely drowned. 

Island path

Maybe one reason I find bogs so appealing is how they feel familiar, like a sunken homeland buried in ancestral strands of recovered memory. Even so, the botanist in me combs through each linear stretch of path for species I recognize unique to bogs. There are plants that only grow in these places and plants that have adapted to a wide range of places to include the challenging growing acidic conditions of bogs. Cottongrass waves ivory tufted above the Sheep Laurel and Leatherleaf while Indian Cucumber-root flickers its last bright green flame of the summer beneath the deep shade of Hemlock, Birch, Oak, and Pine.

Indian Cucumber-root, Medeola virginiana 

Atlantic White Cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides

I reached the edge of a wooded island growing as any other stand of woods though not rooted down but out. Lateral roots make the path a bit tricky. I watched my footing, especially in the places where cross-crossed networks of thick roots held water in bowls and sinks. At the very rim of the island I found a fringe of Atlantic White Cedar, a tree that by its very presence indicates water below and beyond. Intolerant of drought, this survivor patch of dense cedar stands almost defiant against what may come, having made it through increasingly warm and droughty springs and hot summer seasons (so far) as well as historic periods of intense logging for this valuable wood when almost every last shred of cedar was taken. Then there was a sign "Do Not Procede, Keep Out!" stuck right out in the niddle of the heath and it marred the view of the bog beyond. A signal, I thought as I checked the time. I turned back and faced the fact I had to return to the conference after all. 


Because its rhizomes grow and spread in datable concentric circles like that of a tree, Long's Bulrush can be aged by its rings. The patch found at Sacoo Heath Bog is over 100 years old.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

PA: Grey Towers - The Nobless Oblige of Gifford Pinchot

Among some of our nation's wealthiest families of the 19th and 20th centuries there was the practice of encouraging children to live lives of service to others, that in exchange for a lifetime of family support that they devote their lives to helping those in need. Nobless oblige has its roots in French nobility of the late medieval period and gave rise to the idea of chivarlry. Especially among French Catholic noblility, children of priviledge who were to inherit great wealth were also expected to bear great responsibility for those less fortunate, especially the vulnerable and poor. Not as widespread a practice today, the idea of the "obligated nobles" has faded away as modern oligarchs set up family foundations and promote philanthropy in other and very different ways. 

Pinchot family graveyard on Laurel Hill

Grey Towers

Gifford Pinchot, whose home estate Grey Towers I visited in Milford, Pennsylvania, reflected in his life and life's work the family practice and dying tradition of nobless oblige in America. In the late 1800s as his father impressed upon him the weight of social responsibilty borne from great wealth,  a virtue to be demonstrated for the good of society, Pinchot as a student chose a path unique and unknown to most American industrialist families - that of conservation of natural resources. Using family connections and money, he sought a rigorous education here and abroad to learn all he could about the science of forestry and forest management. What he discovered on his educational journey was that America was stumbling headfirst and ignorantly into a national crisis of deforestation and that it desperately needed conservation intervention if forests (and soils, water, air) would survive into the 20th century. 

Memorial to the Father of American Forestry and the USFS

"The Bait Box" playhouse

As I toured the house and grounds with USFS Ranger Tracey, I was struck by the paradox of Grey Towers as representing both extreme wealth and a consuming cause for public duty.  She stopped at the elaborate playhouse, "The Bait Box," which is being renovated as a small retreat space and meeting area. It was built for Gifford and Cornelia's only son Gifford Bryce Pinchot and is full of quirky details and fun spaces for imagination and as an accompaniment to "The Letter Box" nearby, a blockhouse fortress professional office and meeting space for Pinchot and his aides, apart from the family home. The Letter Box for work, The Bait Box for play, the home itself Grey Towers for the Pinchot family, comfortable and modern, thanks to Cornelia's push to exit the Victorian era once and for all and enter a new age of American progressivism. 

The Outdoor Dining Table for floating meals

As Gifford Pinchot launched his career as America's first forester, his social circles (already wide and influential) expanded to include politicians like Teddy Roosevelt - also from a family that practiced obligatory duty to society - with whom Gifford formed a lasting friendship and enduring partnership in advancing the cause of conservation in America. It was TR who played matchmaker for Cornelia and Gifford and who proudly attended their wedding, happily taking credit. All three families, Pinchot, Bryce, and Roosevelt, were powerhouses for service to the public good and from this partnership came Gifford Pinchot's conservation motto "for the greater good for the greatest number for the long run."

Library - Italianesque portrait of Cornelia and children

Artifacts of a bygone lifestyle

Until his death in 1947, Pinchott's accomplishments reflected the rise of America's powerful conservation movement. His influence, ideas, and drive to impress upon government and society the need to change our thinking about America's seemingly vast stores of natural resources as finite and vulnerable to greed (capitalism and capitalists). Indeed, it was is ability to change thinking about the sustainability of forests under corporate greed that lead to the creation of the U.S. Forest Service. There's so much written and recorded about Pinchot's life that it makes little sense to describe it all here (see Notes), but the idea of nobless oblige made the greatest impression on me. It got me to thinking about the Progressive Era a lot more in the context of an individual or a family's service as responsibility to one's country. How different things are today ...

Copper Beech planted by Gifford Pinchot

Ranger Tracey described the forested ground of the estate as the work of Gifford himself. Among the trees planted by Pinchot were nine small Copper Beech from Europe that he knew he would never see in their maturity. They were planted in part to honor the traditions of service the family represented, a family with philosophical roots in European ideals of obligation to society. They were also planted as living memorials to his time of progressive change, a time of contribution and service that reverberate even today in the shifting landscape of USFS conservation mission. We sat for some time on a bench below the spreading limbs of one these century old trees and talked more about what conservation for the common good means today. 

Imagine TR and Pinchot sitting here talking about forest sustainability...


Forest History Society - On Gifford Pinchot, U.S. Forest Service  Chief 
U.S.F.S. Grey Towers National Historical Site

Grey Towers Heritage Association

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

PA Stony Valley Rail Trail: A Rough & Beautiful Ride

 Stony Valley RR Trail:  Ellendale Gate to Cold Spring, 24 miles O&B  

Start of the Stony Valley RR Trail at Ellendale Gate, Dauphin County

This trail follows the remains of the Stony Valley RR bed and is used for hiking, biking, and during hunting season, ATV access for hunters and PA Game Commission crews/patrols. Stony Valley Creek follows alongside the trail for most of its length, the creek 14 miles from its headwaters and the trail 20 miles from Ellendale to the Lebanon Reservoir. I did the trail on my gravel Trek Marlin 6 bike - and I'm glad I did not bring the road bike. It was a challenge for many miles with washed-out patches of large gravel stone and freshly laid loose gravel that gave me a few near tumbles and one "derailment" off the trail completely at a new culvert section. But, it was worth all the effort. This truly is one of the most beautiful rides I've ever taken.

Stony Creek - A designated Wild and Scenic River

The trail follows Stony Creek Valley, directly on the railbed of the Schuylkill & Susquehanna  RR, a line that connected the two important rivers by rail and carried thousands of tons of coal, lumber, goods, and passengers (under different ownerships) from 1849 until 1949. It connected four small mining towns along this single twenty-mile stretch and brought tourists and travelers through from as far away as Philadelphia. Before the railroad, this landscape of 50,000 acres of rough and tumble talus slope and beaver valley was called St. Anthony's Wilderness, used by Lenni Lenape and Susquehannock people for hunting and fishing who were the main concern of Moravian missionaries who trekked here to convert them to Christianity in the 1700s. 


The PA Game Commission owns and cares for this large tract as Gamelands #211, the second largest roadless tract of wildland in Pennsylvania. As my ride demonstrated, the trail has suffered a lot of heavy flood damage and the PGC is investing heavily in its repair. Torrential rain events, part of our "new normal" for PA summers, have caused wash-outs and massive gullies. New culverts and drainage paths, engineered to handle these damaging precipitation events, will hopefully protect the trail. For now however, these recent repairs have made the trail a tough ride.  But, as Pennsylvania's oldest rail trail, designated by the PGC as a pedestrian and bike trail in the 1940s, it's a treasure that allows us into the heart of a Eastern wilderness. 

Yellow Springs erupts from a talus bank

A sand spring bubbles up before sinking back into the buried talus

Rattling Run tumbles under the "new" bridge. Note the original RR bridge  piers.

Riding does not allow me to grab pictures as fast I would like. I rode past a Timber Rattlesnake sunning on the edge of the trail and turned back to find it had retreated into the talus stones. I rode past a "devil's race course," a slope of exposed talus boulders, and thought I'd seen a dark moving shape among the rocks. Sure enough, a bear was lumbering out of view as I returned hoping for a picture. My biggest miss was a bobcat that sat atop a large boulder scratching its ear. We startled each other and like that it was gone. I wonder if the bike is more intrusive due to its speed and noise on gravel, or if I had walked in would they have seen or felt me coming long before I came upon them? 

Entering Lebanon County from Dauphin County

Meadow-grassland restoration with Second Mountain in the distance

A cement rail bench that held spare rails needed for repairs

Another rail bench I missed coming in and saw going out

I stopped at the site of the Cold Spring Train Station and explored the ruins of the famous healing spring resort town of Cold Springs. At the height of the TB and malaria epidemics of the 1800s many families from Philadelphia retreated here. Foundations of the ice house, caretakers home, bowling alley, dance hall, and the grand hotels are scattered all through the forest. Deep wells and pump houses directed spring waters to walled dipping pools and a bathhouse for cold water "treatments."  A mysterious fire claimed the resort in 1900 and ended its fifty year history. I wandered around here a long time. 

Cold Spring Hotel and Resort. Courtesy Lebanon County Historical Society

Caretakers house main steps

Ice house with ice slide to the cellar 

Bits of brick and ceramic at the hotel site near an open detectorist's hole - ugh

Water tank piers that held a massive gravity-fed water cistern for the hotel

Steps to the dance hall, scattered around with decorative porch post bases

Courtesy of Lebanon County Historical Society

As I wandered the ruins I couldn't help but notice the dozens of metal detectorist's pits and scattered discarded finds ringing open holes. Being on PGC land, getting caught with a metal detector and digging for artifacts carries a fine that is many times the cost of a metal detector. I was really disappointed to see so much digging, leaving the hotel site in particular pock-marked with holes. C'mon people. 

Turk's-Cap Lily (Lilium superbum) 

Heading back, I stopped several times to visit the creek and listen to birds. At one point I was surrounded on three sides by three different species of vireo - Red-Eyed Vireo, Blue-Headed Vireo, and a White-Eyed Vireo. When I stopped to admire a Turk's-Cap Lily in an opening near the Rattling Run Trail, I added a Warbling Vireo! Most of these birds will continue to sing into late summer and September. It was nice to know that this area has almost all of the PA breeding species so easily heard. 

Talus slopes are glacial period relics

"Bobcat Rock" where there once was a wild cat...


This is the go-to website for all things Stony Valley RR Trail. Resident of the area and excellent local historian Brandy Martin compiled this great resource that helped me explore the area. Stony Valley

PA Game Commission Map of Gamelands #211

A classic Wildlife Note by noted naturalist Chuck Fergus for the PGC on the Vireos of Pennsylvania