Friday, March 7, 2014

Encounters with Animals: Elk at Hick's Run and Winslow Hill

Last week I posted about attending the elk rut, and how awkward it is to explain to a seven year old just what the elk do. The photos in that post were from Benezette, specifically the Elk County Visitor's Center and the fields and roads around it. But there are several places in Elk County to view the animals. Two of my favorites are Hick's Run and Winslow Hill.

To the east of Benezette on PA 555 is Hick's Run, which has an enclosed blind with several viewing locations. Even when the elk aren't in rut, Hick's Run is a delightful place to visit. The pathway to the blind runs through a stand of old-growth pine, and in addition there's a small family burial plot to explore. It's a bit disconcerting at dusk to be wandering around the stones of the Hicks and Dent families and hear the elk bugling. There is a free state forest campsite, with chemical toilets, located two miles down Hick's Run Road. And while there's no hiking trail in the immediate vicinity, the forest roads make for a nice walk.

Another good viewing spot is Winslow Hill, three miles up Winslow Hill Road from Route 555. Even aside from the elk this is a nice place to stop, because the view of the surrounding hills is breathtaking. And there are picnic benches a hundred feet or so from the observation area, so you can have lunch while taking in the scenery.

Both Hick's Run and Winslow Hill observation areas feature offroad parking. While its tempting to just pull over somewhere and and watch for elk, please don't. Elk County gets 75,000 visitors between August and October during the rut, and traffic can be heavy on the local roads. Enjoy viewing the elk, deer, wild turkeys, bear, and other animals at the viewing areas, not someone's driveway or lawn.

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Manasquan Reservoir hike, March 2014

Saturday after seeing the snow geese flocks I went with my friend Pastor Chris on a walk on the trail at
Manasquan Reservoir. The reservoir has a flat, cinder trail running a little over five miles. We started from the Chestnut Point trailhead and went east around the lake. The flat and forgiving surface was kind to my injured right ankle and heel, so kind in fact that I overdid the mileage and was limping the final quarter mile to the car.

Aside from the beauty of the frozen lake, we had many birds to see. Robins, grackles, bluebirds, ducks and
swans drew Chris' attention - he is a fine wildlife photographer. I don't have the skill or the patience to get birds on the wing, so I stuck to photographing the bald eagle nest. Normally the nest is hidden by the trees, but with the foliage missing it was easily visible from the walking path and across the water. Look for the mass of sticks in the distance, slightly left of center. Chris used a high-power lens to get photos of the head of the eagle in the nest; this is as close as I could get and still keep a good image.

Our walk was a three mile out and back, and as I wrote I was sore and limping on the final stretch. However, it was worth it to photograph the sunset over the frozen reservoir. The lovely colors were literally the calm before the storm, as winter storm "Titan" would arrive 24 hour later. Titan turned into Tiny as far as snowfall totals, but it did give us a nice sunset, and some above freezing weather for our walk.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Encounters with Animals: Snow Geese Migration

On Saturday I spent some time with my friend Pastor Chris in New Jersey chasing the snow goose. The snow goose spends its summers in the Arctic regions, but winters in the south. The flyway is directly over the Garden State, and they gather by the thousands in fields and meadows. Sometimes they keep to themselves, but they are often found in a flock with the Canada goose.

After a drive of about twenty minutes we came across an enormous flock of the birds near the entrance ramps to Interstate 195. A minute after we arrived someone, presumably the land owner, startled the flock to get them to leave. The group split, landing in three different nearby fields. Mission accomplished, I guess. Unless he owned those fields, in which case he simply spread around his problem.

We approached one of the groups of birds, but they were alert and kept their distance. I wonder if they heard my comment that on seeing them my first thought was I didn't have a freezer big enough for them.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Stand Up Next To A Mountain": Standing Stone Trail and the Thousand Steps

(This is a guest post by Dan Glass, educator, blogger, and outdoorsman. I suggested he write for us about his favorite trail, the Standing Stone Trail and Thousand Steps in western Pennsylvania. I didn't expect the following very personal essay, but I'm better off for having read it, and I'm sure you will enjoy it as well.  It also appears at Dan's blog,

Dan will be leading me up the Thousand Steps and the Standing Stone Trail later this year.)

In life, there is a need for a sense of control in things. This is evident in anything from the job to personal relations to impersonal relations and the future. In this, nobody wants to be blindsided by unforeseen tragedies that can’t be cured by modern health science. People don’t relish the idea of waking up to collapsed walls that need thousands of dollars thrown at them in order to fix them. We also have this aspiration that the people who are in our lives will do what we want them to do, not in some way that we manipulate their strings, but more in the sense that they continue to be the people who we hope that they are rather than to bury us in their negativity.

            When these things don’t happen, we feel a sense of angst and frustration in our lives. When these things continue to go wrong, we lose our sense of control in our lives, and for this, we stop being who we are because we have become the always on duty fireman. In the beginning, taking the hose to extinguish the flames becomes a singular purpose, but as the flames continue to build and spread, it’s not so easy to keep standing before the heat in the hopes that there is an ability to remove the danger. Nevertheless, it’s easy to quit trying. People literally have to do nothing when they quit. That’s the definition of quit. People literally get to stop doing what it was that they were doing and move on to something else, consequences be damned.

            As a result, sometimes, when we’re playing our meaningless games, the easiest thing in the world to do is to tip the Monopoly board and to concede defeat. However, in real life, when things feel out of control, there’s no Monopoly board to tip. Instead, there’s a final bell to ring, but that’s not a good choice for people to make, so we don’t consider that an option (except for some people who do). As a result, people have to find constructive ways to deal with their negative stuff. These survival skills need to focus on the body, the mind, and the spiritual. Being out of control in any one or multiple ones of these things is a recipe for disaster, so it’s important that whatever the controlling method is, we need to find a way to utilize it often and effectively to efficiently limit the problems that we will have in our day to day lives.

            For me, I have found that there are many things in life that I have no control of, no matter how good Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival and Surviving Survival are. I have a wife who loves me, but that doesn’t mean that either of us are 100% on each other’s smooth and easy functioning preferences all of the time. We are there way more than we aren’t, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t hiccups and frustrations. In that same way, jobs are never easy either. If I am facing customers or co-workers, I can be on my game, but that doesn’t mean that they are always on theirs (and vice versa). As a result and without going into specific examples, it’s fair to say that these personal and professional interactions are challenging to our sense of purpose and successful output.

Different more difficult environments make them even more challenging.

            I’ve never been particularly good, let alone spot on, with finding a way to permanently eliminate my life’s concerns and frustrations. Allowing the freedom of choice to reign free doesn’t work for a structured environment, and apparently, rigid control doesn’t work well either. I believe that I know what I’m doing, but see the thing is that sometimes, I don’t. I’m not always on my game. I don’t always have the information, the learning, the experience, or even the assistance to get through, and I’m in Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” or Dr. Seuss’ “Streets that aren’t marked” way more than I need to be.

            I don’t like those places; they aren’t my favorite.

            But through it all, I persevere on and go to places where I have control when I sense that the rest of my life is out of control. That place is usually the mountain. It doesn’t matter if it’s spring, summer, winter, or fall. I’m there. The mountains provide meaning and answers in my life that some of my work no longer does. It gives me a sense of what Tom Petty said when he sang the words, “you don’t know how it feels to be me,” which if truth be told, is a very guy thing to say. As my dad did before me, I understand it completely.

But the mountains, the mountains… oh, to be in the mountains, for they are a good place, and being here in the center of relatively flat Lancaster County… I’m so far away, but you, the memories of you mountains… you are the answer.

I say this, and I know this, and yes, I am aware of Jon Krakauer’s quote from Into the Wild that:

“I thought climbing the Devil's Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams.”

            Nevertheless, for me, there is a mountain chain that I have a particular infatuation with, a mountain
crush if you will, and those mountains are the huge Central Pennsylvania behemoths that make up the Standing Stone Trail. Whether in real life or in dreams, I see them and they stretch 70ish miles up and down the middle of Pennsylvania from Greenwood Furnace in the north to Cowan’s Gap in the south. If I access them from the middle, I see the painted on sign at the barn, which says, “At the end of the road, I will meet God.”

            I look at it and I feel that it was written for me and me alone, even if I know that the Mennonites who have commissioned these Biblical billboards throughout the area are saving many souls – not just mine.

And there are other images and places from above and beside this road, too. Be they the Juniata River or towns and business that spring up and vanish just as quickly along the way, they are everywhere. These places also include more scenic lookouts like the Throne Room and Sausser’s Stone Pile. They’re quite big, and they offer a serious challenge to people who want to follow Jimi Hendrix’s advice to “stand up next to a mountain… chop it down with the edge of my hand.” In this, there is a pride in success at defeating obstacles that kick back. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

            But the thing is that it’s not.

            And for all that is up, down, in the middle, and all around, there is one place that stands out. In the
center of this trail, about 2 miles outside of the town of Mount Union is the main feature of the trail that most people who have hiked the trail are familiar with. That landmark is a 1,000+ step staircase of sorts that rises from Route 22 to look out above Mapleton and the aforementioned Juniata River as it ascends some 800 feet above the valley floor. Nevertheless, it takes some doing to climb these stairs. Oh, there are people who do it all the time. I once met a older dude who does it every day, rain or shine. I’ve met marathon runners who do it in 11-15 minutes. I’ve met a trail runner who can do it in 30 while I lag about 10 minutes behind on my own pace in the cold of December. I’ve met plenty of people who hold up trees while pausing and stopping to begin redoing it. I’ve met a woman who claims she could run 6 miles, but she couldn’t do more than a couple hundred steps of it.

            Perhaps, it was all her fashionable designer sneaker company running wear that held her back – that or the makeup she was wearing perfectly that day.

Nevertheless, I’ve also met a woman who never hiked before who pushed herself up to the top of the steps to celebrate her child turning 18. She had a few years on me, but damn… just being out there like that impressed me when I think about athletic kids who quit the hike because they’ve got some laziness going with their younger years.

All the same, back in the day, lots of people did this trail. They went up and worked at mining silica to turn into bricks. After all, Mount Union was Bricktown USA for a reason. The quarries closed, but their remains are still present. The dinkey house is still there, covered in graffiti and looking somewhat cool for high school kids and college age kids looking to drink a six pack of their favorite cheap beer while sitting around and doing whatever it is that they're going to do in remains of the building.

Hopefully, they can dodge the creepy crawlies that slither and squeak while doing it.

For the rest of the people who use the trail, whether they’re seasoned hikers, Amish families out for a walk,
or other people who share an affinity with nature, the Thousand Steps is the central point for a challenging day out. To me, it’s the Great Equalizer. It offers no sympathy. Instead, it offers a challenge.

Climb me if you can. If you can’t, so be it. If you get to the top, sit on my bench and catch your breath. Take
your pictures, but keep in mind that you’re only halfway up to the summit. If you push another 700 vertical feet, you can go see Clark’s View, which is a sweet little view of the surrounding mountains. If you ascend the rocky section of trail that comes after some additional switchbacks, you can do the windy and narrow relatively flat top through. If you don’t want that, you can go down the side and come back out to ground level in the valley again.

The choice is yours, not mine. If you want to do it, do it. If you don’t, make way for someone else who has the drive and determination.

But as you’re doing it, it all comes back to that element of control. You control your speed. You control your ascent. You call the breaks. Maybe being shamed by kids moving quicker than you will shame you, but in the end, it’s up to you and your heart, both the one pumping blood and that sports metaphor of how much drive that you have.

I like that in myself. I may do things right or wrong at work. I may want to be a better husband or to regain more control at the things I do. Many of them have a lot of what ifs. Oh, there are things that I may manage to make happen or not, but as to whether they happen, things can get in the way of that. I can get in the way of that, and I don’t like that about me. I really don’t like when all of the external locus of control stuff gets in my way. I can’t control that the same way. I want to be my own responsibility sometimes, but I’m a citizen of a community, so it’s not like I always can.

Nevertheless, when I’m on the trail, I can (for the most part). If I want to push up the trail, and go hard
through the painted orange blazes to get up above Greenwood Furnace or Cowans Gap, if I want to see Monument Rock, or some of the views of Big Valley, that’s my call. I either can do it or I can’t.

It’s simple and mathematical. Either I’m in enough shape to make it or I can’t. I felt the same when I used to go to the gym and push weights. I could or I couldn’t. There was no subjective opinion. I didn’t have to be graceful; I just had to do it.

The mountains are like that too. I can hike the miles or I can’t. Very rarely is there an opportunity to hitchhike back to safety. That being said, when I attempted the whole 72 miles of the trail in the summer and I went out after 20 miles with blisters, it took me over 5 miles to get to a section where my wife could drive up to “rescue” me. Even then, it was an unmarked dirt road, and I had cruddy cell reception so arranging an extraction wasn’t easy, but it was a welcome sight when I saw her Mini Cooper in front of me.

But that’s the thing about hikes, and it’s the same whether they are a couple miles or a couple days. It’s about the repetitive nature of the journey and being able to stay in it for the game. Just like with NASCAR, most drivers and cars are fairly similar in what they can do, but can they do it consistently without going down? Hmm… now that’s the real question. In the woods, this control is also tested. Have I made the right choices for boots, backpack, poles, food, water, and tents as well as other odds and ends? Have I prepared enough? Do I believe in me? The trail answers all of those questions.

It even answers how long can I look at mountains and trees and rocks without getting bored out of my gourd. How long can I listen to birds give their chirpings? Are squirrels scampering enough excitement for me today? How will I do with the choking humidity of summer? If it rains, will I be stanky and miserable for the rest of the hike? Was that sound that I just heard a bear, and if it was, can I use my bear spray to have a fighting chance to get to the road before he chooses to maul me to death?

            Oh, and there are other questions, too. Is there anyone else out here on the trail or am I the lone whackadoo crashing through spider webs that have been growing all summer? Am I lost? Is this map completely wrong because I have to be further along than it seems like I am? What the hell made me give up a perfectly good bed to sleep in the woods as things that I can’t see are happening out there all around me? Isn’t there someone that I can be hiking with so that I don’t have to say that I’m afraid of the dark?

            But at the end of the day, that is the Standing Stone Trail. It is those types of trails that go on forever
and ever, those views that stretch out for miles and miles and miles, those boulders that shake and shimmy when they’re stepped upon, the bounding deer that get spooked from their hiding places, the soaring vultures that wait to see if you or I will be their meal, and the lakes in the state parks that seem to wait for hikers to bathe in the glory of their victory while washing off the stench of the trail – provided that the hikers didn’t die of rattlesnake bites, dehydration, rockslides, and bear attacks, or just sit in the woods refusing to move.

            Nevertheless, as Edward Abbey would say, “It is the right and privilege of any free American.”

            To me, the what ifs don’t matter. I’ll take my chances because the rewards of the 2-3 hour drive are
worth it. I can look back on the Thousand Steps from the Throne Room. I can see the farm land from tens of amazing views, named and un-named, up and down the mountain’s spine.

            And at the end of the day, I can push myself to be great for me up top of all of this because the control that I have in this environment and the reward I get while I am on top of the world makes up for all of those people and things that I don’t want to deal with at the base of the mountain or back at home.

            If I’m lucky, I don’t have to bring the conflicts with me. I can just focus on the good things. I can leave the stresses behind me as they drip out into my shirt as I sweat them out once and for all. Let the un-necessary remains seep into the forest floor in a Thanatopsis process of fertilizing next season’s growth. Let the things that don’t need to be vanish from existence like the leaves that once littered the forest floor.

            Soon, they will be just dust and memories.

            In the meantime, I will rise up as King of the Mountain and look out on all that I see, and I will know
that it is good. While there, I will breathe it all in and hold it true until the next time I come back, which is never soon enough.

            Why? Because everything I feel here is a good thing. I like this trail. It is my favorite.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Dan Glass. All rights reserved.


Monday, March 3, 2014

ADA Hike, French Creek State Park, June 2010

The outdoors is for everyone, but not everyone gets outdoors. Among the missing are the disabled. And that's a shame. The outside is a wonderful place, and no one should be kept away from it. While we all experience it slightly differently, we do experience it, and that's a common bond. As fellow blogger and woman with cerebral palsy Olivia Mozzi wrote about learning to ski, "...sports are a great equalizer. When I ski sitting down and you ski standing up, we share the same snow. We have the same goal of getting to the bottom of the hill, regardless of what equipment we are using. "

I got to share some of the same snow, in a sense, in June 2010. French Creek State Park had a series of "ADA Accessible Nature Hikes." Once a month on a Saturday morning in summer park ranger Phil McGrath led a one mile hike from behind the visitor's center at the park to Hopewell Lake and back, using a well-beaten trail. 

McGrath, who uses a wheelchair, works with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to add ADA opportunities to the park system. One of his accomplishments was to have a flat, gravel trail added to Barbour Rock in Pine Creek Gorge, which gives an accessible alternative to reach the overlook. Another was the creation of "Accessibility Adventure Day"at French Creek, a yearly event which featured adaptive hiking, fishing, biking, and kayaking.  And then there's the nature hikes. McGrath's led them since 2009, and while French Creek's 2014 calendar isn't available for the summer, I expect he'll be back.

Aside from McGrath, there were a half-dozen hikers in wheelchairs, a couple of caregivers, and myself that June day. I could have felt like the odd man out, but I didn't. We were all out to have a good hike. And the mile was one of the better hiking experiences I've had. McGrath stopped and demonstrated what a gall on a leaf looked like, or explained why some plants had woody stems and some didn't. The slower pace allowed more observation of the natural world than if I'd worked to maintain a conventional two to three mile an hour rate. Rather than the disabled hikers experiencing the outdoors as I do, I was experiencing the outdoors as they do. It was refreshing and fun, and I learned in more ways than one. . 

As the only person standing who was not a caregiver, I tried to be helpful and didn't succeed. Noticing Ranger McGrath was stopping at seemingly every bush he passed to pick a branch and show it to people, I offered to pull off some leaves of an interesting looking plant. "Neil, that's poison ivy" said McGrath. "Please don't pick it." Despite that near-miss and a couple of suggestions I looked a little tired from the heat, I emerged unscathed from the hike. Hopefully the other participants continued to find ways to be involved in the outdoors.

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Weigh In, March 2, 2014

Once again due to winter weather changing my plans I'm changing the date of the weigh in. It was a good week for weight loss, and I am now 305. My short term goal of being below 300 by April seems very, very close. That said, I'm going to be away from home the next couple of days and my patterns of eating are going to be disrupted. Hopefully the fact the next weigh in is a week and a half out will allow any lapses I have to be atoned for.

Recovery from my injury two weeks ago seems to be progressing nicely. I hiked nearly 3.5 miles yesterday, most of them on a flat cinder path. The final half-mile took a bit of determination, and I was limping the rest of the night from overdoing it, but today there's just some soreness. I will be back.


A Taste For The Woods: 2014-03-02

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A Taste For The Woods