Monday, May 28, 2012

Chuck Keiper Trail: A Three Rattlesnake and Ten Red Eft Backpacking Trip

"The pine cones are freaking me out."


"The pine cones look like scaly snake heads and they are freaking me out." 

Michael said this after seeing our second rattlesnake in 20 feet on the Chuck Keiper Trail in Sproul State Forest near State College, Pennsylvania. 

This was Michael's first backpacking trip after knee surgery, so we chose a low mileage trip (for us).  A friend joined us and we planned to hike 23 miles over three days.  We started along the ridge on Pennsylvania Highway 144 at the Fish Dam Run Overlook.  The first mile of the trail was completely overgrown, mostly by Hay Scented Ferns (Dennstaedtia punctilobula).  Five minutes down the trail, we noticed that several ticks had found their way onto Michael's pants, so we stopped and sprayed with DEET.  After a mile, the trail turned away from the road and we began skirting a large bog formed by Big Branch.  There were no bog boards, so finding solid footing made for an interesting challenge.  On slightly higher ground, we entered a hemlock grove.  It was a special treat to see live, healthy hemlocks (Most of the hemlocks further south have been killed by the wooly adelgid). 

Beyond the bog, we followed Big Branch for another mile through a beautiful open forest carpeted by Hay Scented Ferns.  Crossing the stream, and turning uphill, we started hearing thunder in the distance.  The trail brought us out into a high clearing filled with Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and blueberries (Vaccinium sp.).  We surprised a dark-coated fox, possibly a Gray Fox, who sprinted off into the brush.  As we re-entered the forest,  the thunder grew louder.  We had just started climbing out of a small valley when Michael got our friend's and my attention.  There, inches from the trail we had just walked, was a medium-sized yellow and gray Timber Rattler (Crotalus horridus).  It watched us carefully and then slowly moved away from the trail. 

At that moment, the heavens opened.  The thunderstorm that had been threatening had arrived.  Ahead of us was another clearing - not a safe place to be in lightning, so Michael started to pitch a tarp.  The lightning got closer, so we dropped our gear under the tarp and dispersed.  No need to become an example of what not to do in a thunderstorm on this day.  I sat on a log in the bottom of the valley (no stream), counting the seconds between lightning and thunder.  When I started, there was less than a second delay.  It was a small storm, though and pretty soon it moved off.  We shook out our rain gear and proceeded down the trail.  Our rattlesnake friend was still there, further off trail now, cautiously watching us, but not coiled to strike. Twenty feet later, our friend spotted a smaller, black Timber Rattler (again I had already walked by it).  Seriously. I have gone more than a year at a time without seeing one and we found two practically on top of each other.  This one was coiled to strike, so we gave it a wide berth. 

We continued on a few miles, passing through another large clearing full of Mountain Laurel, before arriving at our campsite near Cranberry Swamp.  In the morning, our friend and I hiked the two-mile trail around the swamp while Michael relaxed at the campsite.  His knee was a bit stiff, so we cut our trip short and re-traced our steps back to the car.  The hike out was hot.  The sun beat down as we crossed the clearings and the bogs.  On the way back, at the same spot on the trail, we saw a third rattlesnake, this one larger than the other two. 

I would definitely return to the Chuck Keiper Trail and hopefully, we will.  We saw a total of two other hikers, which is pretty amazing, considering it was Memorial Day weekend.  In spite of the lack of use, the trails are well-maintained.  We definitely saw a lot of wildlife (some of it a little more closely than we planned). 

Pictures (click to enlarge):  Day one:
 A little garden growing in a rotting stump. 
 Trientalis borealis (Northern Starflower)
 Hay-Scented Ferns in a young forest.
 Iris pseudocorus (Yellow Iris).  This one is exotic, but very pretty.
 Trillium undulatum (Painted Trillium).  This was the only one we saw that wasn't finished blooming.
 Heiracium aurantiacum (Devil's Paintbrush) - another pretty exotic on an old roadbed.
Our first Timber Rattler.  This isn't a great photo because the light was pretty low from the receding storm.  I wasn't going to push my luck to get a better picture (this is taken with a relatively long telephoto).
 Our second Timber Rattler (photo taken by A. Ricciuti - also with a good telephoto).
 The approaching storm.
A little Red Eft after the storm.
The stream near our campsite.

Day two:
We all woke up to slugs in our shoes.  Michael's socks were covered in slug tracks.  Everything was damp from the first day's rain and I guess that made the shoes and socks appealing.
Cranberry Bog.  This spot teemed with dragonflies, green frogs, and more birds than I can begin to identify.  While we were standing at this spot, a hawk flew over, screeching at something. 
 An Eastern Chipmunk on a stump near the Swamp.
Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel) and Vaccinium sp. (Blueberries) along the trail in a high clearing.
 A log bridge over a stream.
 Our third Timber Rattler, this one bigger than the rest.
 A bear track in the mud near the trailhead.
Leucanthemum vulgare (Oxeye Daisy) along the road near the trailhead.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Spring Flowers: Pink Corydalis or Rock Harlequin

Capnoides semipervirens (Pink Corydalis or Rock Harlequin) is an interesting little flower.  The small narrow pink flowers have yellow tips and grow in clusters on the ends of the bushy plants' branches.  In the Mid-Atlantic, it blooms in late spring and early summer in the mountains, often in dry, rocky areas.  It is also adapted to colonizing disturbed areas, such as burned areas, roadsides and the edges of trails.  The colonies tend to decline after a few years with no disturbance. 

It occurs throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, except Florida.  I have most often seen it on granite outcrops on Old Rag, but it is fairly common in the mountains in the Mid-Atlantic.  It is listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern in six states:  Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Capnoides semipervirens on Old Rag Mountain (Shenandoah National Park 2010).  I have found C. semipervirens to be challenging to photograph.  It seems like the wind is always blowing when I find them, making it hard to get a clear picture. 
C. semipervirens on the Appalachian Trail at the south end of the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine (2009).
Another example from Old Rag (2009).

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cowan's Gap State Park Part 2: Tuscarora Trail and the Standing Stone Trail

A friend and I went out today to hike the other half of the Tuscarora Trail in Cowans Gap State Park, Pennsylvania.  We made a nice 10.9 mile loop with the Todds Trail, and the Standing Stone Trail.  It was nearly 11 a.m. by the time we arrived at the same trailhead we used a couple of weeks ago.  We crossed the dam that forms Cowans Lake and turned right to follow the Tuscarora Trail down the valley. 

The Tuscarora Trail mostly follows an old roadbed that is nearly level, making a pleasant walk through the young, open forest.  We made good time, passing several trails that climb straight up the ridge.  Near our turnoff, we happened to meet a trailrunner and his dog that we met two weeks ago on the other end of the Tuscarora Trail.  He and another woman were signing the turns for the Holy Cowans Gap 50 km Race.  Our trail notes said to keep an eye out for the sharp left turn the Todds Trail makes up the hill and that it was easy to miss.  The signs for the race next weekend made it nearly impossible to miss today.  The climb up from the turn on the Todds Trail was reminiscent of the climb on the Horseshoe Trail two weeks ago - crazy steep.  In this case, though, at the worst part of the climb, there were actually switchbacks.  We were very happy to see them.

We reached the junction with the Standing Stone Trail at the top of the ridge.  We took a short side trip out to a nice view where we took a short break.  The weather was just perfect today:  Breezy and warm, but not oppressively hot.  Back on trail, we headed south on the Standing Stone Trail.  The trail stays to the top of the ridge and is one of the rockier trails I've been on in a while.  It felt like we were rock-hopping for miles at a time.  We made good time on the Tuscarora Trail at the beginning of the hike and we lost that time up on the ridge weaving through fields of rocks and boulders.  Not to mention the blowdowns and brush.  That is not a complaint.  It was pretty spectacular.  The top of the ridge is really narrow and we would occasionally get sweeping views to the east. 

After passing the Horseshoe Trail, we finally reached the Knobsville Road Trail.  From there, we had an easy descent back to the car.  Except for the area near the lake and parking lots, we saw four people in six hours of hiking. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Sitting at one of the overlooks on the Standing Stone Trail (photo by A. Ricciuti). 
Sisyrhinchium angustifolium (Stout Blue-Eye Grass) on the Tuscarora Trail
 A little toad on the Standing Stone Trail.
Vaccinium stamineum (Appalachian Deerberry) on the Standing Stone Trail.
 The Standing Stone Trail along the ridge.  The trail follows the rocks. 
 Ferns lining the Standing Stone Trail.
 More ferns (if anyone knows what this one is, let me know and I'll post the identification).
 The view to the northeast from the Standing Stone Trail.
Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel) on the Knobsville Road Trail.

Monday, May 14, 2012

An Easy Walk on the C&O Towpath

Michael had a minor procedure on his knee a few weeks ago, so he has been out of commission for a little bit.  It is rapidly getting better, but he has to take it easy for a little while longer.  After resting for a couple of weeks, he had a little bit of cabin fever.  The nice weather hasn't helped with that.  On Sunday, he wanted to get outside, but didn't want to attempt to hike any hills yet. I finally came up with the idea of walking on the C&O Towpath at Riley's Lock in western Montgomery County, Maryland.  The Towpath is nearly perfectly flat and has the added bonus of being a short drive from where we live.  Although we had biked from the parking lot at Riley's Lock, we had never set foot on the path itself. 

We hadn't walked 200 yards, when we came across this:

A Great Blue Heron cruising around a pond near Riley's Lock (click to enlarge).  While we were watching it stalk it's next meal, another large bird landed in the pond:
A Great Egret (slightly overexposed).  That set the tone for the walk.  We saw at least three kinds of ducks and heard far more birds than we could hope to begin to identify. 

Near the Lock, there were a few people on the path, but as we got further away, we were only passed by the occasional cyclist or runner.  We did see this little guy out on the trail, too:
The sides of the Towpath were lined with flowers, many of them exotic, but I did see a several interesting native species:
 Phacelia purshii (Miami Mist).  This flower is new to me, so that was a nice surprise.
Polygonatum biflorum (Solomon's Seal).  P. biflorum grows in large colonies along the section of the Towpath we walked this weekend.  Some of them were nearly four feet tall. 

On our way back, we saw lots of turtles out sunning themselves on logs:

After a little over two miles, I asked Michael if he would like to go back and he said no.  We ended up turning around after a bit more than three miles, make for 6 1/2 miles for the day.  It wasn't a challenging hike by our standards, but it was a beautiful day and we were glad to get out.  Most importantly, it was a good first step back towards hiking for Michael.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Spring Flowers: Cancerroot

Orobanche uniflora (Cancerroot, Naked Broomrape, ) is a member of the plant world's misfit group:  the plants that don't photosynthesize.  These are the plants that cause you to say, "wait, I learned in elementary school that the definition of a plant is that it makes its own food."  Which is true.  Except when it isn't.  This group of plants includes parasites (feeds on living things) and saprophytes (feeds on decaying matter).  Many plant families included species that are parasitic or saprophytic. O. uniflora is a member of the Broomrape Family (Orobanchaceae), of which all of the species are at least partially parasitic. The fully parasitic plants (holoparasites) are pale white or cream colored, since they lack chlorophyll, and their leaves are reduced to stubby scales. Orobanchaceae also includes some plants that are hemiparasitic, meaning they both photosynthesize and feed on other living plants (I guess they have their bases covered).

O. uniflora is a holoparasite that is found throughout North America.  In the Mid-Atlantic it blooms in late spring.  The flowers are usually 3-5 inches tall and pale white to very pale lavender.  Common host plants include Solidago spp. (Goldenrods),  Saxifraga spp. (Saxifrages), and Helianthus spp. (Sunflowers).  The flowers are pollinated by insects or can self-pollinate.

I profiled another parasite last year, Monotropa uniflora (Indian Pipe), which is a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae).

 Orobanche uniflora on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road in April of this year.  (Shenandoah National Park).
A group of O. uniflora on the Old Rag Ridge Trail in May 2011 (Shenandoah National Park).
Another example from the Tuscarora Trail in Cowans Gap State Park, Pennsylvania.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cowans Gap State Park and the Tuscarora Trail

One of my goals this year is to hike more in Pennsylvania.  I regularly see great pictures of hiking attractions in the Keystone State on hiking boards and some of the trails aren't any further away than those that we hike regularly in Virginia.  Yesterday, I took a step toward meeting that goal.  A friend and I drove up to Cowans Gap State Park, near Chambersburg to hike a loop including the Tuscarora Trail that is supposed to have spectacular views.  We wouldn't know, we never actually got to see them.  In spite of that, we had a fantastic hike.

The first quarter of a mile of the Tuscarora Trail is flat, followed by a long, winding climb to the top of the ridge.  Blueberry bushes, wet from the misty fog, lined the trail on both sides.  As we climbed, the trail got narrower, hemmed in by blueberries, mountain laurel, and various other members of the forest's undergrowth.  Everything was soaking wet from the misty fog, which left us soaked from the hips down.  There just wasn't any avoiding the wet leaves.  Fortunately, the temperature was relatively warm, so being soaked wasn't a big deal.  Pink Azaleas (Rhododendron roseum) blooming in the mist stood out in bright contrast to the gray fog and green leaves.  Birds sang as we walked.  I really enjoyed this part of the trail.

Once we reached the top of the ridge, the trail became easier in terms of effort required to walk it.  It became quite a bit harder to find, however.  At one point, it appeared to dead end in a mass of young saplings.  We looked up on the rocks nearby to see if we could see a footpath, before finally determining that we had to push through the saplings.  It continued that way for about 100 yards before slowly getting better.  Then, we reached a trail junction in a clearing and the fog was so thick that we couldn't see the opposite side of it and, thus the continuation of the trail.  Fortunately, it wasn't a very wide clearing and once we ventured a little ways out into it, we were able to see the path ahead.

From there, we hiked along an old road to an overlook that is probably pretty cool (although graffiti strewn).  The fog was so thick that we couldn't see a thing, but it made a nice place for lunch.  Strangely, there were pigeons there.  I don't think I've ever seen pigeons outside of a city before.  After lunch, we returned partway down the Tuscarora Trail and then took the Geyer Trail down off the ridge, leaving the fog above us.  The Geyer Trail seemed steep at the time, but a later trail would make us think otherwise.  When we reached the creek, we turned north on the Plessinger Trail, which turned out to be a very pleasant walk along the stream.  At the end of that trail, we turned uphill again on the Knobsville Road Trail, which was another road walk.  We passed the site of a 1996 landslide that resulted from heavy snowfall followed by rain.

At the top of the hill, we continued down the road a short ways before turning uphill on the Horse Shoe Trail.  There is actually a sign at the beginning of the Horseshoe Trail warning of its steepness.  They weren't kidding.  It was a really steep climb, made more challenging by leaves and loose gravel.  We decided it was steeper than Hannah Run, which has a reputation in Shenandoah National Park as a thighbuster.  Fortunately, the climb up the Horseshoe Trail was short.  Unfortunately, the descent down the other side was just as steep and four times as long.  The fronts of my toes actually hurt a little today from being jammed into the front of my boots.  And the loose gravel and leaves are much less entertaining on the way down.  We made it down just fine and, from there, had an easy stroll to the car along the lake.

We'll definitely do this one again.  It was a beautiful hike, even without the views.  We hiked a total of 11.2 miles and saw a total of four other people on trail. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 The Tuscarora Trail south of Richmond Road in the mist.
Rhododendron roseum (Pink Azaleas) along the Tuscarora Trail.  The scent of these filled the air along the trail.
A little red eft on the trail.
 The badly overgrown section of trail.  My friend and I (taking the picture) are both actually on trail in this picture.
 The foggy junction with the Geyer Trail.  The Tuscarora Trail continues straight across the clearing, but it was a little hard to tell that at first.
 Water droplets on a strawberry leaf.
 A fiddlehead on the Plessinger Trail.
 Hypoxis hirsuta (Yellow Star Grass) on the Plessinger Trail.
 Cypripedium acaule (Pink Lady Slipper) on the Knobstone Road Trail.
 The sign for the Horseshoe Trail, with the warning!
 A little toad in the leaves on the Horseshoe Trail.
 Cowans Gap Lake from the dam.
A tiny cricket near the trail.  This little insect was about the size of my thumbnail.