The adventure started June 18 at the North Country Trail Head on RT 346 near the New York border. John Stoneman, of Allegheny Outdoor Adventures, and I arrived just as the other hikers were starting out. Boots hit the trail at 6PM sharp. The event was the North Country National Trail ANF Chapter's Allegheny 100 Challenge. Hikers were traveling between 25 and 100 miles on the North Country Trail in the Allegheny National Forest between June 18 and June 20.
John, more competitive and in shape than I, would have burned the trail up with the rest of the group, but he was kind enough to take a more leisurely pace with me. I had only committed to 25 miles rather than pushing for 100. We had parked a car at Sugar Bay planning to at least hike the entire Tracy Ridge section that evening, but some of the other hikers were going to try to make it all the way to Chappel Bay that evening (a full 25 miles). Our plan was to hike at night, but to be off the trail and back to Tracy Ridge for camping by 10 or 11PM.
The sunset hike was beautiful. The water reflected and magnified the evening light, fortunately long into the twilight. The trail was relatively easy except for a few inclines that caused my heart and lungs to jump out of my body and smack me around for using them without sufficient warning.
We eventually caught up with some of the hikers who were resting at one of the trail's many springs and streamlets that trickle down to the Allegheny River Reservoir. We passed the hikers for a short time but regrouped with them after dark, posing for a picture by an abandoned artifact from previous episodes of human stupidity in the Allegheny (see picture below). Oil and gas debris became a theme on day two of my hike in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, where we were looking for Pogonias, but kept stumbling onto pipes, and tanks.
As it does, the sun finally left us and night came in full. There were moonbeams dappling the path. Unfortunately, John and I—who had again fallen away from the hiking group at the insistence of my internal organs—had turned out our lights to hike by, and admire, the moonlight. We missed our turnoff to Sugar Bay and proceeded unwittingly toward the Hopewell Camping area. John took a nice spill on the way down to Hopewell, but caught himself with his forehead on a large, flat log. He shook it off pretty well. After we discovered our mistake at Hopewell and turned around to hike back to our missed turn (adding another few miles to our evening adventure), I took a tumble going uphill, which is a lot harder to do, but hurts less than the way John did it. Eventually, we made it out to RT 321, to the car, and to Tracy Ridge for a dinner of cheese curds and Pringles. It was sometime after 1PM. We were bruised, and beat. John looked forward to his hot tub. I looked forward to 10 more miles the next day.
Bill Belitskus, ADP's board president, met me the next day at 10:30AM near the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas in the ANF. We decided to drop a car at our end point near RT 948 on FR 148 at Cherry Run. On the way back to drop a car, we decided to try to find one of the five Marcellus Shale gas well sites planned by East Resources (leases now owned by Royal Dutch Shell) on FR 444 near the west intersection of RT 948 and RT 66. We found the well site a short distance in on FR 444. The site was marked for clearcut for the 15 plus acre areas needed for each drilling operation (see photo on left below). These drilling operations will permanently alter the landscape, take and contaminate millions of gallons of water for each operation, disrupt underground aquifers, and seriously degrade air quality. In addition to the five Marcellus Shale gas wells planned for ANF lands there are at least nine more on private in-holdings within the footprint of the ANF and many more in the surrounding counties (seeFive Marcellus Shale Gas Wells Planned For ANF Land).
As Bill and I travelled on to the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas we passed other notable scenes of interest, including a National Fuel Gas (AKA Seneca Resources) Pipeline; and a fine example of the U.S. Forest Service's use of Monsanto's broad-spectrum, non-selective systemic herbicide, glyphosate (see photo on left below). Eventually, we found our NCT Trail Head, parked the car, and began our hike keeping our eyes to the ground looking for Pogonias. The trail was pleasant, the day was cool, and our heads were down searching. It didn't take us long before we had turned down a resource extraction road instead of the NCT. We backtracked looking for the NCT blue blaze. The difficulty in the Allegheny is that with 3,500 miles of roads at a density greater than many urban areas it is easy to lose your way in the maze of forest scars. The trail system used currently on the ANF only requires a blaze every so often to affirm for the hikers that they are still on course (see photo below right, of Bill Belitskus, a blue blaze on a cherry tree, and old metal oil and gas pipe). In the ANF this system presents a problem for all but the extremely vigilant blaze watchers. Hikers on the ANF should always be prepared with topographic quad maps, and a compass (and/or GPS). We had topos and compass, and my trusty dowsing pendulum for extra safety.
Part of our trail wove through the old-growth area hit by a tornado in 1985. Large areas of thicket grow around the rotting carcasses of ancient trees, which serve as nurse logs for seedlings, and nutrient for mycelium and fungus. With the exception of not focusing on high-value timber species, the forest and the tornado have accomplished some of the same forest conditions the U.S. Forest Service manages for, but without herbicides, clearcuts, or prescribed burning.
From the trail we didn't see much of anything that looked like a Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides)until we entered the Cherry Run Watershed. Here we saw several thick-stemmed plants that resembled Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana), but without the Pogonia flower we could not make a positive identification. Cucumber Root has a thin stem, but Small Whorled Pogonias have a thick stem. The non-flowering plants look similar.
We passed magnificent rock areas with fern and hemlock, and some beautiful clear springs that form the headwaters of Cherry Run.
At some point on our journey as we were wandering around looking for blue blazes, we found that we were not alone. In the mud of the sidetrack we were on, we found fresh bear tracks (see photo on right). We looked twice at the larger footprint, which at a quick glance looked human. Not long after, as Bill and I became distracted chatting about U.S. Forest Service shenanigans, dodging old oil and gas infrastructure, surveying trail edges for Pogonias, and trying to keep a decent pace to get down the trail, that ancient sense of something approaching from behind came on me. I turned quickly probably looking like I was about to be run down by a rabid bear or an angry oil man. But, it was one of the 100-mile NCT hard-core hikers, Michael from Ohio, who was burning up the trail behind us. He had hiked from the NY border to where we were, close to Cherry Run. Very impressive!
As we hiked closer to the intersection of Cherry Run and the South Branch of Tionesta Creek we began to hear the gut wrenching sound of new oil and gas activity. This time it was the constant roar of a compressor engine in one of Arthur Stewart's Duhring Resources drilling areas. Duhring's drilling areas appear to be some of the worst in the Forest. Directly beside the NCT were tank batteries, compressors, well pads, roads, pump jacks, and water withdrawal equipment. You can distinguish Duhring's pump jacks from those of other companies because he covers the pump engines with blue plastic tubs. We could see new well pads and roads from the trail. Some of the areas that were already in operation with pump jacks had piles of logs piled on the backside of the pads. This was something I had not seen before on the ANF. Typically, the timber is marked and removed, the revenue from the cut going to U.S. citizens. However, these trees had been cut and piled (see photos below). Bill reminded me of the files we had reviewed showing Duhring's complete disregard for the public's surface resources, including the timber. In his correspondence with the U.S. Forest Service he threatened to get the tress out of the way that were interfering with his access to the mineral estate. From the appearance of the timber piles on the well pads, he did just that.
Near the end of our hike, an old Maple caught my attention. He was very old and large. His feet were in the creek. A completely healed counterclockwise spiral wound showed that this tough old tree had recovered from a lightening strike. Lately, the presence of the tough, old, and scarred that have survived battles and wounds are my inspiration to keep up the fight against our human ignorance and self-destructive behavioral patterns.
For Bill and I the North Country Trail ended at his green truck, which was a welcome sight parked near the trail head at Cherry Run. We had not found what we were looking for, but we put the trail under our feet and found more of what we know needs to stop in order for species like the Small Whorled Pogonia, and us, to survive.
Above: Oil and Gas Well Drilling Operation Taking Water from Creek
Above: Timber Piles on Well Pad
Above: Iron Pipe From Previous Oil and Gas Activity
Above: Old Oil Tank from Previous Oil and Gas Activity
Above: Cathy Pedler on NCT in Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas