Thursday, June 23, 2011

Susquehannock Trail System Hike

As you know I usually am the Weekend Hiker, in that I tend to go on overnight hiking trips.  But back in January I made a New Year's resolution to do a long-distance backpacking trip this year.  Well I recently accomplished that goal.  My hiking buddy, Chris, and I set out to hike the entire 85 mile Susquehannock Trail System loop in six days.  It turns out we had to stop early and so weren't able to complete the entire loop but it was still the longest backpacking trip I've taken since I was a teenager.

Chris and I met Monday morning, the 13th of June, at the trailhead at Ole Bull state park. The weather was perfect. The trail climbs immediately from the trailhead up to a ridge. I have written before about how many more ferns there are in Pennsylvania than in Missouri. But I had not realized the extent. Here's a shot of Chris with a carpet of ferns behind him stretching as far as the eye can see. That was pretty typical of the forest floor during much of the hike.
We picked the best week of the year to go hiking I think.  The mountain laurel was in full bloom everywhere we went -- beautiful white and pink blossoms surrounded us on all sides when we were at high enough elevation.  This picture doesn't do it justice but it was the best I could do.
Chris was a great hiking partner for this trail.  He lives quite close to it and painted many of the trail blazes himself.  He also maintains a section of the trail by himself.  As we hiked along he told me the history of the area.  Apparently there was very heavy logging back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The first to go were the pines.  Then there was a building boom in the country which caused the loggers to go back after different species.  Previously the eastern hemlock (state tree of Pennsylvania) had only been valued for the tannin that could be extracted from it's bark.  The hemlock in this area were hundreds of years old (as old as 800 years in many cases) and were enormous.  Only a few old trees survived this mass harvest but the stumps can still be seen.  In almost every valley if you look you can find the old railroad grade that had been built to carry the logs to the mill.  The rails are gone but you can still see where the railroad ties were.  We found several old whiskey bottles from the period.  Chris also pointed out a stand of apply trees that sprung up around an old logger camp, apparently from discarded apple cores.

After the area had been clear cut it became known as "Pennsylvania's Desert".  The state was able to purchase the land for little money and the forest has grown back to where it is very pleasant.

There is one "trail town" on this loop.  It's the little town of Cross Fork.  We stopped at the tiny general store for an ice cream.   

The heavy rains this spring have had an impact on the trail.  The currents in the stream had been so strong that they had carried tons of rocks downstream and pile them up in various places.  You can see an example of this below.

Chris noticed some places where the stream had changed course compared to just a few weeks before as the stream had choked it's old channel with rocks.

The wet spring had a rather unpleasant side effect.  The stinging nettle, which normally just grows in boggy areas of the trail, was thick everywhere.  For some sections we were up to our knees in stinging nettle for a mile or more.  Thank goodness for long pants.

This area is home to a great number of rattlesnakes.  We only saw one on our hike but it made for a little excitement.  I was in front and came upon a snake who was apparently coiled next to the trail waiting for a chipmunk to run by.  I heard the rattle right next to me but couldn't see the snake because of the brush.  Chris told me it was just to my left so I stepped away from it and circled back to where Chris was standing.  From there I was finally able to see it.  A good-sized "black phase" timber rattler, about 5 or 6 feet long.  He was a well-behaved snake I must say.  He gave me a good warning and then when we gave him some room he slithered across the trail (stopping to look at us and make sure we wouldn't attack him).  Here's the best shot I got of him.

Notice the rather large rattle.

On the third day Chris' bad knee began acting up and we realized that we might have to adjust our plans.  By the end of the day it was clear that the best strategy would be to bail out the next day.  I think our total distance traveled was 50 miles or so.  I had a great time.  One of the things that had kept me from doing multi-day hikes before was that I was reluctant to go that long without anyone to talk to.  A hiking partner make a lot of difference.  Chris is a great hiking partner.  He's a very experienced backpacker and a good conversationalist.  I'm hoping that a doctor will be able to fix his knee so we can hike again in the future.


George Carr said...

Glad you were able to get out for more than a weekend. I can sympathize with Chris, since I've been hiking with a torn miniscus for over a year now. Hope he heals ok.

Chris said...

Nice photo of the snakes rattle. Captured that bad boy on video but my zoom is a bit fuzzy on my present camera. Why would I use zoom to film a rattle snake? hmmm

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