Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mast Hope Gamelands

As the snows are falling here today in the valley of Lackawaxen, I would like to introduce you to a special place that is entrancing and accessible no matter the season. In fact, I first stepped foot on this easy walking trail in weather that was not so different from today.

Mast Hope Creek,  late winter 2016, in PA Gamelands #316
From the Zane Grey Bridge, travel down narrow and bumpy Mast Hope Plank Road, which runs alongside railroad tracks and through a corridor of deep green pines now snowladen, follow its sharp turn underneath a steel and stone square of a bridge and continue traveling until you see a small wooden sign that reads: PA State Gamelands. Shortly thereafter, turn right into a pull-off that will lead you over a rickety one-lane wooden bridge that doesn't seem suited to more than foot-travel (although I promise you it is) and you will spy another humble sign that reads: Gamelands 316. This is the start of this of this humble trail that affords far more beauty in 30 minutes walking than one would ever suspect.

This unnamed level trail follows the pristine Mast Hope Creek. Boulders perfect for sitting upon beneath the canopy of Eastern Hemlock line the creek as too pebbly shores that invite you to come dip your toes in the warmer weather. The embankments are tall enough to prevent flooding during a wet season but not too steep to prevent you from climbing down and crossing on a multitude of flat rocks to the seemingly endless woods on the other side of the creek.

Female cone of Black Birch tree (Betula Lenta)
The very first time that I went walking on this favorite trail of my luv's, our feet crunched over days old snow that had not yet been traversed as very few people make use of this trail as far as we have seen. However it was not long before we were lured to the other side of the creek by a snow covered fallen tree that made a perfect bridge for crossing. With the use of two long fallen branches turned makeshift hiking sticks we carefully made our way across the creek's icy waters. There we explored the woods that could easily have enveloped us in a labrinyth of bare Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) shrubs, Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), White Pine (Pinus strobus), and Birches (Betula spp.) had it not been for the creek leading the way.

Scott and his chest-high Cardinal Flower gone to seed, with shorter red Cardinal Flower at knee-height
When we returned to this trail in high summer it was transformed into a botanical wonderland. Scott was eager to show me his community of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) that he had carefully raised at home from collected seed and then transplanted to the creek's embankments. In fact, it was this passion-colored flower that had first wowed me when we had met. He had proudly showed me a photo of his floral offspring while chatting about our love of this guy had something to offer! What had started out as a a few small plants a year prior were now a burgeoning community of over waist-high arching red-petaled, blue-tipped stamen beauties, some already going to seed.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a member of the BellFlower Family (Campanulaceae), has history of use among native people from our region. It is said that the leaves and flowers were dried and were smoked as an effective remedy for bronchial spasms. The dried leaves and flowers were also steeped in a tea in relieving headaches, fevers, and nosebleeds. The roots were utilized in a tea to treat intestinal worms. Personally, I have not had experience with using Cardinal Flower medicinally and there are references to its toxicity as well, so this is certainly a plant to explore further before using.

Alongside Cardnial Flower were the mischevious yellow-faced Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens) as well as the ivory colored mouths of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra). These two neighbors used to be related, both members of the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaece) but due to recent DNA studies, Monkeyflower has been placed in the Lopseed Family (Phrymaceae). Both of these plants were also favorites of the native populations that probably once inhabited or traveled alongside this creek.

Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens)
Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens) is high in salt, absorbing sodium choride from the soil and concentrating it in its leaves and stems, therefore Native people as well as the following colonists would use it to flavor meat harvested from the woods.

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), is similar in some of its actions to Cardinal Flower. Its leaves were dried and taken as a tea to rid the body of worms. Being that is leaves are highly bitter, it was also used in afflictions of the liver and gallbladder.

After admiring these plants for sometime, we finally made our way downstream and down trail. Along the way, we paused on one of those flat rocks perfect for lounging and soon found that we were being this magnificent grandmother Black Birch Tree (Betula Lenta). Rarely do we see them so craggy with scaling bark as they are reported to become with age, but this one surely has been witness to this creek for sometime. It took us peering up at it's lowermost branches, still well above our heads to see its egg-shaped leaves, and breaking a small twig from a sapling at its base to smell wintergreen, before we were able to discern that it was indeed a Black Birch.

Black Birch Tree with fissured scaling bark
Eventually we got to hiking again and reached the wetland that the creek creates. Where the waterway rounds a bend, the trail disappears into a rich land of large tufts of grass, again perfect for hopping if your stride is long enough and a bounty of wild Raspberry (Rubus spp.) vines. One day we did stumble upon a father and daughter armed with a shovel and bucket. Covered in dirt and wet up to their knees, they were digging in the muddy soil for bait for fishing in the upcoming days.

Since researching this area further, I have also learned that these gamelands are on Pike County's list of Natural Heritage areas, as it is home to Slender Panic Grass (Panicum xanthophysum), a species found in few other places in the state of Pennsylvania. This grass is said to inhabitat dry slopes, therefore we did not encounter it where we ventured, but perhaps we would have if we had continued to explore the other side of the creek.

Although little traveled by hikers, it is evident that this portion of land is appreciated by far more than ourselves from Cardinal Flower to Grandmother Birch to kin seeking worms. It is a treasure I am thankful is well protected for the sake of the plants and those who reside here in this valley. Now, although I have spent the bulk of this post dreaming of warmer days, I want to remind you, that this area is simply magical in the winter, so put on those showshoes and hit the trail! I am sure these woods will reveal themselves to you in ways we have had yet to even see.

A wintery photo of Mast Hope Creek in PA Gamelands #316

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Tusten Mountain Trail

Alas the first snows have already fallen in our rocky northeastern mountains along the Delaware River. The delicate warm weather plants have nestled their seeds deep into the earth to slumber until spring and even the hardy weeds such as Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Burdock (Arctium spp.) have surrendered their green leaves to the cold sending their energy into their long taproots. However a number of the trails that carry us atop these plants and past their evergreen companions are still accessible and the views...well they are better than ever.

Sign at Tusten Mountain Trailhead off of Crawford Rd, complete with map
One such trail is the Tusten Mountain Trail located smack dab in between Narrowsburg, NY and Barryville, NY along route 97 off of Crawford Rd. The Tusten Mountain Trail provides a moderately difficult 3 mile loop or rather a lollipop, up and over Tusten Mountain and through pristine woods. This property is owned by the Boy Scouts of America but remains open to the public for foot travel.

Please allow me to transport you to a warmer time...early this past Spring...when I first discovered this trail. I knew that I would be teaming up with the Delaware Highlands Conservancy to lead a hike here in the fall and so I needed to do a preliminary hike to aquaint myself. My love and I were psyched to learn of a new trail just upriver from our home and so we set out eagerly.

Walking the dirt road that that leads to the loop up and over Tusten Mountain
The trail begins on a dirt road (this is the stick of the lollipop) that runs along an upper embankment of the  Delaware River. Now for some of the purist hikers out there this may sound less than enticing but trust me, the roadwalk in and of itself is beautiful, leading the hiker past tall healthy Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), knee-high forests of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and large boulders randomly dropped by Mother Nature in wooded clearings. I personally love a good roadwalk because one gets to simply take in the sights around them unencumbered by having to watch the next step.

Scott walking atop Stone Arch Bridge
Rounding a bend, the trail passes atop a picturesque arching stone bridge.  This bridge was built in 1875 when this now wooded glen was a hub of industry for the colonial settlement of Tusten. A sawmill, gristmill, tannery, and quarry could be found along the Ten Mile River which passes beneath this archway, the products of which were then transported along the Delware River and D&H Canal. Evidence of stone foundations can still be found along the Ten Mile River as well as the trail.

Ten Mile River that flows beneath the Stone Arch Bridge

Leaving the dirt road, we were soon embraced by some of the largest White Pines (Pinus strobus) I have ever seen, tall slender Eastern Hemlocks with heavy green boughs, and of course in these hills, more boulders. We took the right branch of the trail, unknowingly heading up the steeper route to the summit. Here the trail climbed straight up, but because we had to stop several times to catch our breath we had the honor of admiring the many clusters of Rattlesnake Weed (Hieracium venosum) and bobbing flower faces of Mayapple.

Rattlesnake Weed (Hieracium venosum)

Leaf of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Flower of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) found beneath cover of two umbrella-like leaves 
The trail was well marked as we followed the yellow blazes that soon led us up less strenuous, although still rocky switchbacks to the top. Once at 1,120 feet, we found a flat table-like slab of stone marking the summit and a view all the more confirming that we had indeed reached the height of the trail.

View from Tusten Mountain in the Spring
Here we enjoyed a couple of granola bars and the tree-filled expanse of the Delware River Valley. When we were there, the trees were largely leafed out....admittedly obscuring some the vista...however that means this time of the year would be the peak season for a climb to the top! With needing some more time to rest, we took a seat on a perfect rock ledge for sitting and turned our eyes to the ground beneath us. It wasn't long before we spotted this fellow who blended in perfectly with the lichinized rock- bug folks - any idea what we are looking at here?

The insect guarding the summit of Tusten Mountain - mind you he was still as that stone as well
Here on this ledge we also found at our elbows, a thick spread of Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) with dangling bell-shaped flowers . From the cracks in the rock grew plumes of Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum) in flower and on the thin grassy surface grew yet more clusters of red-veined Rattlesnake Weed.

The bell-shaped flowers of Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) 

Inconspicuous green flowers of Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum)
Well rested and ready to see yet more of this trail, we continued over the summit and down another series of switchbacks. This more gradual descent led us past mounds of blue-stone slate, slivered and sharp, as well as a sort of bluestone amiptheatre where the mountain had been systematically sliced into to remove the stone; the walls of the mountainside nearly perfectly flat and creating an obviously man-made hollow. This is all evidence of the once-active Bluestone quarry here in the settlement. I learned later that fall from one of my attendees on the hike that oxen would have been responsible for carrying the heavy slabs down to the river. Another attendee, who is a retired geoglogy professor, was also kind enough to point out evidence of glacial activity in the area, evidenced by swooping markings on the surface of nearby boulders.

Scott making his way through the Eastern Hemlocks atop one of the hand-crafted wooden bridges
However this trail's allure did not dwindle once it flattened out and neared its end. At the base of the mountain, we traveled through the forest between pillars of old-growth Hemlock. The ground beneath our feet was a soft bed of dry red needles and hand-crafted wooden bridges guided carried us easily across slender streams. The woods were dark and warm and full of magic. We found ourselves literally frolickling like children, skipping over rocks and running full speed over bridges our arms waving this way and that. This place seemed safe and full of time, having escaped man's ax all these years. Here we also spied lean-to's for the boyscouts...lucky kids getting to sleep beneath these grandfather trees.

Tusten Mountain Trail hike (October 8, 2016) 
Quite the trail for just three miles of trekking. Scott and I returned here nearly two seasons later, in early Fall to lead that group with the Delaware Highlands Conservancy. It is always interesting to watch a group dynamic unfold - there is usually an initial hesitancy and uncertainty not only about the route but between attendees - like any group a trust must be established. But just as we had found a special taste of freedom and ease on this trail, so did the hikers. No sooner had we stepped foot into that forest of Eastern Hemlock (I took them to the left this time - the easier ascent) that each attendee's interest and expertise were revealed. I had a historian on my hike and a geologist and a star-gazer and an eagle-watcher and butterfly hatcher and so much more, and each one sharing their knowledge to broaden our collective perspective of this trail.

Thank you Tusten Mountain and thank you to all who made this trail what it is from the quarrymen of Tusten settlement to the attendees of that day's hike. The trail awaits even in the slumber of winter for your discovery - take a hike!