Wednesday, January 24, 2024

PA Susquehanna Riverlands: Ice Upstream and Down


Granted, this was not a hike but a truck-and-wander-walk along the Susquehanna River in late January. I wanted to spend some time with the river ice that, these days, is all too brief. Its appearance on the river came after a week of brutally cold air that settled in a dip of Arctic air from the north. It doesn't happen much anymore, what with climate change and all. I miss it. River ice has a special place in the memories of my youth - of daring forays out to pressure ridges and busting holes to drop a line baited with a live minnow. A time when we could actually ice skate on frozen ponds all winter and ice fish in the ice-locked Tydings Marina. 

Shield Lichen

Eight or more inches of snow had sunken down to about six inches  underlaid with ice. Amos and I scooted carefully right up next to a shore-bound ridge of ice. As I stopped to scan for birds, a lead began to open between the pressure ridge and a blue-green slate of toothy ice. Just like that. In minutes the lead was flowing and went from a few feet to almost twenty feet wide. I stood wide-eyed while Amos began to pull and whine. Ice was beginning to move. I thought that maybe under the sounds of scratching and screeching, the ice had something deeper to say, in tones that only dogs could hear.

Wrightsville Lock

As long as we wandered a distance away from the shore or above it walking the path across the wall at the Wrightsville Lock, Amos was fine, but up close and next to the edges of the floe, he was uneasy, whining, ears tucked back. I heard sounds of ice creaking and groaning. He heard something more unsettling. A moan? A subsonic set of booms? 

I'd just  heard a story on the news about a large group of ice fishermen who got stranded on one of the Great  Lakes when a shelf sheered from the shore-fast ice and began to drift, wind-blown out in to the open, frigid water. The Coast Guard came in and swooped them all off their precarious perches. Someone on the walkway across the Wrightsville Bridge was dropping rocks out on the river ice. How many ice dams have happened here? How many have broken loose and taken out bridges as they went. A hundred years ago, lots. Now, river ice is a spectacle, an occasion and a curiosity.  

Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge

Ice scours the trees that line the towpath. Some of the big old scars are at least a century old the bigger sycamores and enormous red maples that line the flooded canal. It was repeated ice floods that tore the canal apart from here to Havre de Grace in the 1800s and early 1900s. The river trees that weren't swept away with homes, lockhouses, bridges, and warehouses are still around to tell the tale. How they survived repeated year-upon-year of winter ice floods is beyond me, yet here they are.

Highpoint looking upriver to Wrightsville/Columbia

Annie Dillard wondered why anyone would look downstream at time past and not upstream instead, where "Here it comes!" with a promise time yet to come. A prayer for a gift of time, she quotes Merton in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "Lord! Give us time!" We stopped at Highpoint Park and walked the circle path that spirals around the summit. It is full of drifted snow, blown from north-facing slopes to the east-facing slope. It's deep.  Amos was very happy to be this high above the river even though he was post-holing up to his shaved, bare belly. I reminded myself with a voice-note to be sure to hike a section of Tinker Creek this year down in Roanoke on the Appalachian Trail, a pilgrimage to the Pilgrim and her book, published fifty years ago this year. Who wants to go? 

Poppy's Lunch Rock

Before long we trudged around the spiral path to Waystop #5 and gawked at the drifts, beautiful and etched by wind.  In summer, two years ago my (now 19!) grandchild Koda and I pushed Poppy in his wheelchair all the way up the spiral path so he could see the river coming and going. We stopped here in the warm sun to eat a picnic of pork fried rice and egg rolls from his favorite Asian food stop in Long Level, the River House. How can have been two years already? "Give us time!" I'm with you, Annie. I get it, Tom. 

One more return to the riverside and Amos refused to get out of the truck, but that okay. I stopped long enough to get a few more pictures, some reference shots for a nature journal sketch of the day.  I waved across the river at where I though the Blue Rock Boat Launch might be in case there were any friends on the other side checking out the birds sheltering on the open water behind the sand islands. 

Creaking and popping at Shank's Mare

A nice older gentleman out for a walk came up behind me and asked who I was waving at. "Maybe my friend Sarah if she's over there doing what I'm doing over here."  He began to wave with me but then with a booming voice shouted "HI SARAH!" Amos jumped up from his nap in the truck and began to holler out the open window. If all of the Lancaster side of the river across from Shank's Mare didn't hear both of them, I'd be surprised. 


2024 is the 5oth anniversary of the publication of  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974).  Annie Dillard who is no longer doing public speaking or answering letters and emails, states on her website that she doesn't have time for any of this anymore because there's too much she wants to read and concentrate on. I get that, too.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

PA Chestnut Grove Natural Area: An Epiphany Hike to Star Rock

Chestnut Grove Natural Area, Star Rock, 2 miles 

We are in a serious snow drought of several years but we've entered a storm cycle sequence now so maybe we have a chance of getting more than we did last year (zero inches) before spring arrives.  Our first storm dropped inches and inches of rain and only a few inches of wet sloppy snow. Of course I had to go hike in the sloppiest conditions just to experience a skim of wind-driven slush before it melted into the run-off. With Amos now recovered from his cancer surgeries (for now) and feeling very energetic, we set off for a very wet hike to Star Rock, a fitting destination for Epiphany.  

Wetland complex

Owned and managed by Lancaster Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA) this little 170 acre gem is sited within slight view of the large operating landfill at Turkey Hill on a high bluff above the Susquehanna River. The trail system weaves in and around a remarkable selection savanna, grassland, and wet meadow habitats that attract numbers of birds throughout migration and nesting seasons, making this a hot spot for local birders. 

Big Bluestem 

The entire preserve was designed and planted in partnership with the Wildlife Habitat Council, a large non-profit conservation organization that works exclusively with land-holding companies to help them develop and manager wildlife friendly habitat within their portfolios of working and buffer lands. Today, despite being pulled like a train by a four-footed engine, I was able to see White-Throated Sparrows, Red-Shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagles (3), Raven, and Marsh Wren. 

Wild Bergamot seedheads 

Up and down an old farm lane we went, finally climbing a slight rise to the wood line overlooking the river. I managed a few quick snaps of meadow plants including my favorite grass, Big Bluestem. Once we made it to the woods, the farm lane ended and a trail carried us the rest of the way to a set of overlooks, Star Rock being the most scenic. By now, poor Amos was a little tuckered out. He hasn't had many long hikes since Thanksgiving and with his muscles and joints out of shape from so much recovery time, he carefully sat down and seemed to relish the break while I admired the view. 

Purple Coneflower seedhead

Star Rock and the River

Enough snow remained on the northern slopes of the York County side of the river that it finally felt like winter. I sat a while enjoying the view and the cold gusts of wind. By the time I had gotten my fill of the place, I turned around to see poor Amos shivering, patiently waiting with a little whine. On the way back down the trail, we both slipped and slid mostly into standing pools of frigid water. With the snow rapidly melting and combined with the run-off from the rain, the old farm lane had become swamped. There was nothing to do but walk through it, which Amos particularly did not like.

Flag-tree pine 

I thought about my American Orthodox friends in Alaska who sent me a beautiful Christmas card this year. They celebrate the Birth of Christ and the Festival of Light in the old tradition beginning on January 5 and through the day on January 6. It is also Holy Theophany, the Baptism of Christ, that honors holy waters (rivers) through baptism. I had to giggle reverently a little as we waded a half mile through flowing ice water thinking that this was indeed a good day for baptism.  For Alaskan Orthodox Christians, Holy Theophany represents and renews a sacred duty to the environment through honoring water as a direct connection to God and the Holy Trinity.

Whitetail Deer 

Patches of blue sky showed between racing clouds in the wind. Sunlight scattered across the grass hills and I thought I saw the tilt-and-dip of a Northern Harrier over the wet meadows. I looked hard for the tell-tell white rump patch but Amos was not having me stand still long enough to catch that field mark. He wanted back on dry land and into the warm dry truck. Onward we sloshed. 

Up from Star Rock

With the truck running, warming up my shivering, wet coonhound, I stood a moment to honor the richness of the day.  Water was flowing everywhere, across the meadows, through the wetlands, down the little stream that soon poured into the Susquehanna. The river will become the Chesapeake Bay and the Bay becomes the Atlantic Ocean.  Wind gusted over the grasslands. Sparrows and wrens darted in and out of cover. Then came the familiar and loud retort from inside the truck. "Get a move on it. Let's get warm and dry!" he hollered.  

A note on Amos - A Pupdate

Thank you to everyone for sending such wonderful notes, comments, and emails concerning Amos. For those not on my FB page or who know me through other communications except for this blog, here's the scoop... Amos was diagnosed with Mast Cell Tumor Disease, a type of cancer, back in November. After biopsies and a complete mapping of where these tumors were on his body, he underwent surgery to have them all removed. Lots of incisions and big scars! The issue with MCT disease is that these subcutaneous tumors can "seed" into the lymphatic system. A follow up ultrasound scan and x-rays have detected two more tumors, one in his spleen and one on the outside of his intestine which the doctor would like to needle biopsy to determine if these are cancerous or benign. So, we are still on this cancer journey which may include more surgery, chemo, or radiation if one or both are cancerous. For now is he back to his "normal self" but he seems way more sensitive to cold so I'll be shopping for a coat for a 90 pound dog! Onward.


Shivering Amos needs a coat!


Trail map of Chestnut Grove Natural Area:

LCSWMA Trails in Lancaster County:

LCSWMA  Main website

Sunday, January 7, 2024

PA Monterey Pass Battlefield: Stop the Wagons!

Monterey Pass Battlefield Park is a hidden gem in Washington Township near Michaux State Forest.  On Amos' first long walk since getting the all clear from the vet for a return to the trails, this 3 mile circuit was perfect for him. Walking through snow showers along the undulating trails through this South Mountain landscape on New Year's Day served as our First Day Hike 2024.

Maria Furnace Road / Great Wagon Road / Warrior's Path

The Battle of Monterey Pass is well documented on the many interpretive signs along the trails and even though the little museum was closed today, I felt I really informed about what happened here. As Confederate General Lee withdrew from Gettysburg, his wagon trains took the Old Philadelphia Wagon Road towards South Mountain then down the Maria Furnace Road in their attempt to escape to Virginia unscathed. Union troops met them here, however, and a fierce, close battle ensued as the wagon train was stopped and heavily damaged with over 1,300 prisoners taken. 

It all happened on the darkest of nights in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. Canon and muskets flashes along with bright streaks of lightening lit the narrow pass until battle strategies were rendered useless and both sides resorted to hand-to-hand combat. The Confederate wagon train, nearly twenty miles long and moving at a snail's pace suffered heavily with the complete loss of 90 wagons along a seven-mile stretch of the train. With snow swirling around and the woods deeply quiet, our hike slowed to an introspective pace. 

Wagon wheel "tire" strap

Slopes of jagged quartzite defined the battlefield for its many flanking attempts that cost the Union seventy-five soldiers. After hours of violent clashing, Union troops withdrew to the village of Ringold to care for its wounded, forcing a regroup that allowed the Confederate time to reform and move on. In the days that followed, Confederate wagons continued to rumble through the pass, secured by Confederate sharpshooters. Civil War historians mark this battle as one of the most confusing of the whole war, made worse by the storm and pitch-black night and the sheer exhaustion of both armies coming from three days of heavy fighting at Gettysburg.

Hand-to-hand combat took place on both sides of the pass

The main gravel trail heads uphill to a well-built overlook platform where I could look across the South Mountain complex and watch the snow squalls roll through. In better weather, and when the museum is open, there are golf carts available for those who need assistance to climb the steep grade to the peak. Today there were few people out - a family and two solo hikers - that I felt I had the whole place to myself, especially the connecting trails that branch off and loop around on old roads that connect to the Marie Furnace Road. 

South Mountain Complex

Monterey Peak

Journal page for First Day Hike

Heading back down the mountain along the wooded and silent Marie Furnace Road I met up with one of the solo hikers who was lapping me on the loop. We stopped in the snow and chatted a little bit before he introduced himself as a local veterinarian and he gave Amos a close inspection. Amos was all too happy to wiggle his way through a pat down. "Fine looking hound," he smiled. "Strong, all muscle, happy! I'm sure he'll be around for a long time to come." With that, Amos let out of his signature ear-splitting coonhound hollers surely heard all the way to Virginia. "Happy New Year!" said the Doc, "And many more to come, ole' boy!"


Main trail to the summit


The Battle of Monterey Pass

Monterey Pass Battlefield Park, Washington Township, PA (off Rt 116) 

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

MD Oregon Ridge County Park: Slow Loop

Oregon Ridge County Park, Red Trail: 2 miles 

Quarry lake is 40' deep!

Somehow we found ourselves on a section of trail that had been closed, although when we came to the taped section prohibiting us from going any further, we had already been on the trail for a while. So, there we were in front of the parking area, minutes from our finish at a heavily damaged section of washed out trail that clearly said (from the parking area) DO NOT ENTER. Oh well, every hiker for themselves. Some chose to jump the tape and navigate the wash out carefully down. I chose to bushwack on to a deer trail that cut a diagonal path across the steep slope. Voila! Nobody got arrested. 

Chestnut burr

The downhill finish to our slow winter hike on the Red Trail marked the last hike of 2023. If there was ever a reason to explain why we were so slow, today's hike provided it - a family of nature nerds who can't resist checking out every little stream for benthic life, rolling logs for winter salamanders and invertebrates, and winter botany. While other hikers were doing laps around the two-mile loop trail (most of them with dogs) we just puttered along oooo-ing and ahhh-ing at the winter world. 

Dusky Salamander

All that was missing was the snow and ice which has been absent this year so far. Hopefully 2024 will have some colder temps and some snowy ground cover in store. I do think part of my feeling out-of-sorts lately is that I really miss a proper winter. Winters with snow on the ground for more than a few days in a row are becoming quite rare in this part of the Mid-Atlantic. Yet, snow is such an important aspect of our winter ecology that we aren't alone in feeling how the lack of it affects our year-round ecological health. 

"Princess Pine" Lycopodium

On this day, the last hike of 2023, it drizzled and was chilly, but waters ran clear of ice and there were no ice flowers to mark the trail. There were lots of doggy poop bags left on the side of the the trail in this high traffic park and I came away wondering why people can't just pack a zip-lock or container to pack out the bags rather than leave them for someone else (the poop bag fairy?) to collect? The dogs, on the other hand, were wonderful to meet and greet with lots of wagging and nose-boop kisses. 

Even the tiniest stream holds winter life - but no ice yet.

I'm not going to whine about "winters when I was younger" but I will say that in my lifetime I have witnessed drastic changes in the cold season. I will also say that when I was in high school, winter outings on snow shoes with our biology and art teacher on weekends were the absolute best and kept us literally deep in winter ecology and culture for months. I learned to love winter from people who loved it even more. We didn't have the means to enjoy skiing holidays or trips to famous winter wonderlands like some families did, however, but we did have some very astute winter biologists with whom to share our winter breaks close to home. Here's to my teachers on snowshoes (raising a glass to Tolkien on Jan 3), to "The Professors." 


One of my New Year's resolutions is to find the delicate flowers of the winter Partridgeberry. I am always finding it by its prostrate growing habit hugging the winter forest floor and very happy when I can find a few of its Christmas red berries still clinging on. But with so much else going on in spring time, I tend to forget about this little shrub (yes, it's a shrub) that can cover a half-acre of forest floor with one plant. This year I will make every effort to catch this little gem in bloom! 

California hiker in Maryland (American Chestnut)

Another reason we were slow was to better enjoy each other's company with one relative, my hiking buddy niece who has since moved to California (and a whole new hiking world), and the rest of us quite tired with all the busy-ness the holiday season inflicts upon us. It's the way of winter, though, a slow down and rest a little kind of world where we all spent a few hours just finding a little peace and quiet and each other's curiosities about the winter landscape relaxing. 


Oregon Ridge Nature Center and Park

Our fault for not consulting the notices section on the park's website where it clearly states the trail closure near the quarry lake. Thank you for not arresting us. We were kind of confused...