Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Pennsylvania- it's WILD out here!

Pennsylvania Wilds
Once when I was 19 years old, I drove across the state, packed in a car with 4 friends to see Rusted Root in Pittsburgh...I remember a whole lot of barns, rolling hills, fields of crops and of course the occasional Amish wagon being pulled by horses alongside the highway. This was more or less my western exploration of a state I was born and raised in. In fact, besides long-distance hiking the narrow corridor of the Appalachian Trail (that consisted largely of rocks), I had never much explored Pennsylvania outside my northeastern corner. That is until I received an invitation to speak at the Keystone Trails Association's annual gathering in Emlenton, PA. Emlenton sits on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest, just some miles northwest of Pittsburgh and just south of where I began my journey on the FLT in NY. My love also had a couple of concerts to play out in this neck of the woods. So given that we would be driving over four hours to the other side of the state, we thought we may as well take our time and explore this place that we call home.

It proved to be far more than rocks and Amish.

Because we took a more northerly route, we traveled through the round-top mountains of Pennsylvania. There simply isn't that much room for rolling farmfields. Those that we did see, were planted against the sides of steep hills, mostly good for grazing cows. We pulled off at a little town called Brookville to stretch our legs and marveled at how it made use of the strip of flat land in between the mountains for its mainstreet and all of its side streets seemed to go straight up or straight down....a good number of which were cobblestone. The storefronts lining the main street were two- and three-story, flat-faced, each sitting flush against the next, like a town out of the old West. Most all of the practical stores were dusty and shuttered, whereas those that were open were filled with trinkets from the past...antique store after consignment shop. The next exit up from Brookville was home to a Wal-Mart and all the accompanying big-box stores. No more need for the family owned businesses. However, we did take the time to peruse one of these store-front time capsules, and found a number of fellow patrons therein, all clad in camo, including the shopowner. Oh...there was a functioning taxidermy shop in town...that's one thing Wal-Mart hasn't figured out yet.
A Botanical Hike on the Finger Lakes Trail presentation at the Keystone Trails Association annual gathering
Once in Emlenton, we stayed at a lovely camp tucked into the hills and enjoyed a weekend of meeting folks who love hiking in Pennsylvania. The Keystone Trails Association's annual gathering brings together people from the numerous hiking clubs within the state as well as Pennsylvania chapters of organizations such as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and The North Country Trail Association. We even got to hop on the North Country Trail for a group hike. This trail led us through a boulder strewn woods which held remnants of oil drilling and natural gas transport. Throughout the weekend I had the opportunity to chat with a good many of the attendees and what I appreciated most was how present each one was and the wonder with which they hiked when tramping down the trail. This was not a group hiking for the motivation of patches or awards or to impress...rather they hiked to be impressed by their natural surroundings. The experience was the award in and of itself.

Relaxed and renewed from our time at the conference we headed for the Wilds. This is a 2 million acre patch of mountainous land in the center of Pennsylvania that is home to wild elk, the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, industrial megaliths of time gone by, and pristine woods that at this time of year are a radiant collage of orange, yellow, scarlet red, bronzes and browns.

Kinzua Bridge Skywalk

View of destroyed Kinzua bridge
Our first stop was at the Kinzua Railroad bridge located just outside the town of Mt. Jewett. This industrial jewel was at one time the tallest and longest railroad bridge in the world. Built in just 94 days in 1882, it reached 300 feet into the air and spanned over 2000 feet across a gorge from mountaintop to mountaintop. In 2003 a tornado ripped through the valley, leaving a scarce 600 feet of bridge that has now been converted into a walkway and at its base a maze of trails. It was still a knee-shaking wonder to walk to it's edge, gazing out at the sea of trees surrounding us and the wreckage of iron and steel below. Glass plates were even installed so to give the feeling of standing on air. Although the visitors on this beautiful weekend day were numerous, the scenery prevailed.

A-frame outside Wellsboro
We spent two nights in this tiny A-frame just outside the town of Wellsboro. It was equipped with all the necessecities of heat, electricity, a bed, stovetop, bathroom, running water and none of the frivolous extras such as wifi, more than 13 channels on the 12-inch TV, or cell service. Perfect for removing one's self from the interweb and immersing one's self in the wilds.

Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
The next day we traversed both the east and west rims of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. In Leonard Harrison State Park we hiked the Turkey Path which parallels a series of cascades and travels 1000 feet down to Pine Creek which snakes along the canyon floor.  On the western side in Colton State Park we trekked the West Rim Trail which meanders along its western edge, knocking out 5 of its 30 miles.

Pine Creek falls

Pine Creek with rock cairns

As for the plant life of this gorge, I was surprised to see many plants that I associate with either more northerly mountains of New York or taller mountains of North Carolina, such as Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), Foam Flower (Tiarella cordifolia), Wild Aniseroot (Osmorhiza spp.), and Wild Ginger (Asarum spp.). The Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) were also so healthy here that we barely recognized them. We are used to seeing Eastern Hemlocks wrought by the effects of the Wooly Adelgid, with needles of a dusky green and bare branches. But here their boughs were heavy with white banded needles that shown vibrant green.

Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)

Wild Ginger (Asarum spp.)
Driving home, we largely took route 6, weaving our way through tiny town after tiny town. What I was most struck by here and throughout the mountains of PA, were the equally tiny houses nestled in these hills. I saw nary a McMansion, the largest homes being instead old farmhouses. Some of these homes were ramshackle, some cabins that had clearly been part of a camp of one kind or another, and many simply small, purposely quaint. Gas stations were few and far between and when we did stop for fuel, locals held doors and cashiers seemed genuinely glad to make small talk. These seemed to be people who appreciated their surroundings more than their belongings and as a result had the time and presence of mind to be kind to strangers...who mind you probably looked like "city folk"...and this is usually the last thing I ascribe to myself. But it's all relative. Our travels also shed some light on the culture of our little town that we presently live in, Lackawaxen... just off this very same route 6.

When we finally crested the mountain for Scranton and plunged into the spiderweb of interstates, big box stores of every kind, flurry of cars and changing lights, and stopped at a Starbucks for some coffee, our senses felt overwhelmed and agitated. Indeed its all relative, and once you've unplugged it's all the harder to plug back in. Good to know that the Wilds are not far away and maybe... a whole lot closer than I thought.

Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
Thank you to the Keystone Trail Association for the opportunity to share my story with you and thank you to all the hikers who attended! Hope to see you on the trail!


  1. Hello Heather!

    I always appreciate the the time and effort you take to post on your blog; not just about the "botany" side of things (which I enjoy), but also about the things happening in your life, this being one example. Your writing is evocative, and descriptive, whisking the reader away with you to experience the same things together; sort of like an old-time postcard to friends or family. You use a signature linguistic phrasing that is oddly pleasing, and quite unique. I find myself smiling when the Botanical Hiker shows up in my in-box...

    Thank You!

    Canada Goose

    1. Hi Canada Goose,

      Thank you for the thoughtful praise. This is just how I hope for the blog to be received - personal yet informative. So very glad that you are enjoying it!

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