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.

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