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


  1. Think I'll head there for a hike tomorrow!!!! The very first hike of 2017!!! Thanks!

    1. Hope you had a wonderful hike! Perfect way to start the New Year!!

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