Third time’s a charm: Part 3

By Jim T. Ryan, Hooligan-in-Chief

Previously: In Part 1, my trekking partner and I made good time on northern Pennsylvania’s Black Forest Trail, a 42-mile circuit we’re attempting to hike in 3 days, but had to backtrack to the car to retrieve our map. In Part 2, we reached our first day camp after 13 miles (including the backtrack) taking in the vistas of Hemlock Mtn. and the wildlife of northern Pennsylvania.

Hammock arrangements, BFT Camp 1.

Sleeping well in the outdoors is different for everyone. Some people lie down on their sleeping bag or hammock, crash into dreamland and snore for 7 hours uninterrupted except maybe to pee in the middle of the night.

In a tent, I can do that, possibly waking somewhere in the middle to relieve myself or switch positions. But I found in a hammock you’re always aware of the fact that you’re somewhat exposed. And if your hammock isn’t quite set right, it could be uncomfortable, only contributing to your periodic waking throughout the night.

Sunbeams wake the forest, BFT Day 2.

That first night on the BFT, I only slept in 2-hour increments, but the hammock was one of the more comfortable ways I can think of to sleep in the wilderness, particularly in the summer. However, nighttime temperatures dipped into the low 60s (F), and although my fleece summer sleeping bag was adequate, I could have used a ski cap to keep my head warm. Who thinks to bring a ski cap when the temperature over three days is projected to be in the 90s? From now on, this guy will think of it.

Flip flops, bear bags, steak-n-eggs

At 6 a.m., with the sun peeking over the Allegheny Plateau rim, I couldn’t sleep anymore and it was time to get up. I stoked the coals left over from last night’s fire (we stoked the fire mid-night to help warm us up a little) and Josh fetched the food from our bear-bag spot across the creek.

Two things: one, in mid-summer, it might seem like a good idea to bring flip-flops to wear around camp and relieve your feet from the thick socks and tightly laced hiking boots you’ve been wearing all day. But on the BFT, I would suggest you bring a pair of regular sneakers or running shoes if that’s your goal and don’t mind the extra weight. The terrain is too rugged and in the summer, the stream hollows are lined with “itch-weed” a short over-abundant weed with serrated tear-shaped leaves. Brushing against it leaves little filaments and scratches along your feet, ankles and shins with a maddening itch that lasts 10 minutes. Not to mention, flip-flops don’t give you the ankle support you need.

I found myself turning my ankle regularly, scratching constantly from the itch-weed.

Evidence of a critter attack on our food bag.

When Josh came back with our food bag (we strung up his pack for that function), we quickly noticed that our bear-bagging job had been sub-par. Something, possibly a bear cub or large raccoon, had been able to reach the pack at least with it’s mouth and tear a small hole into the pack.

Josh suspected mice, but the hole was torn the way a larger mammal would rip into a bag. The hole made me think of what my beagle did to my son’s backpack the first time he left his lunch in there.

In this closeup, you can see the teeth marks on my
dry sack.

But, if it was a raccoon, why didn’t he just climb down the rope, tear open the top, climb in and devour our food? My suspicion is that a small bear climbed the tree and was just close enough to grab the bag with his mouth, but unable to really do much damage. Whatever it was, he was able to bite into my dry sack and get a tooth into my GORP bag.

No more trail mix for the trip, but all the rest of my food was unscathed. So we made breakfast. I wasn’t real fond of my dehydrated eggs and ham. Kind of bland, and I forgot my salt and pepper. Tabasco sauce would’ve improved them, too. But alas, I forgot the condiments.

The leftover steak from the previous night was a nice addition though. Warmed over the fire’s coals, it tasted even better. I had some Starbucks instant coffee to cap the meal. I bring those Via packets on every trip. I’d like to bring a percolator and do real camp coffee, but there’s just no room in the pack for that.

Once the strength was up, the hammocks were down, and the water was stocked, it was back on the trail.

“Sea of Ferns” 

I think why I’m so enamored with in the Black Forest Trail — what drives my obsession with finishing it — is that it has a diversity of terrain and scenery. From mountain tops to rock-cutting creek beds and lush plateau fern forests, it really does have it all. That second day was filled with some of the more intriguing trail sights. I guess that’s fitting because if you were tackling the entire trail in a normal four days starting in the village of Slate Run, you would be ending your trip with these unique landforms.

Chest-deep in the “Sea of Ferns,” day 2.

As we climbed up out of Little Slate Run, traversing its slopes gradually, it became a blessing when itch-weed slowly was displaced by ferns, wildflowers and laurel. Reaching the plateau rim, it’s kind of like being in a different environment. The ferns grow so thick and tall that seeing your feet becomes a problem. We had run into the tall ferns on the first day, but not nearly as thick as those above Little Slate Run as we crossed the plateau toward Foster Hollow.

Calling the ferns a jungle isn’t quite right. The foliage was thin above your chest, mostly because the oaks are tall and the laurel is mostly set back from the trail. No, it was more like a green sea, which is a little more distressing than it sounds.

Can you see the BFT through the ferns?
It was tricky at times and if you looked back, it appeared
you were blazing a new trail.

Placid on the surface, you were keenly aware that below the surface were all the critters of the forest scurrying about, scattering at the noisy, hairy apes trodding through their environment. But where the trees gave way to patches of bright sunshine, your gaze turned to what you could see of your feet. You were even more attentive when the ferns cleared and the tires started gripping sun-warmed rock.

I’ve been to this part of Pennsylvania before. And yes, there are snakes. Namely, the eastern timber rattler and the copperhead. I have yet to see a copperhead, but in 2001 I came across a rattlesnake while backpacking the Chuck Keiper Trail (southwest of BFT by about 30 miles, near Renovo) with my brother-in-law, Mike Magill.

Wavy flashback effect …

Nothing prepares you for the first time you hear the warning of a rattlesnake at fairly close distance. In 2001, Mike and I were walking along the road back to our car and as we passed a drainage culvert on the left, the rattle started up loud. We jumped about two feet in the air and a yard to our right. We then proceeded to follow the sound until we peered into the rocks of the culvert (from a safe distance). There, tucked between two massive slabs of stone was the pitted snout, cat-like eyes, thick scaly body and shaking rattle of the snake. He wasn’t coming out for anything, but we kind of hoped he would so we could get a better view of him. Eventually, we moved on, but what a sight those snakes are. Beautiful rodent-eating machines.

Wavy flash-forward effect …

I’d just rather not surprise one who’s sleepily sunning himself on a rock like a surfer on the sand.

“Am I the only one who’s thinking…” I started.

“I know, I keep thinking about snakes, too,” Josh said.

Well, at least we were both on the lookout. Then again, we were kind of hoping to see one from a distance anyway. Short term flashback to Day 1: we did see a snake sunning himself on a rock. We passed the stone foundation of an old saw mill from the plateau’s days in the 1800s when all of Pennsylvania’s old-growth and second growth forests were clear cut.

Oh my God, he’s so deadly… Garter snake at the sawmill foundation, day 1.

But there on the rocks… What’s that? I thought. Yes! A snake! Careful… closer… camera out and on… closer… careful… aim… CLICK. Got him!

It was a harmless garter snake. Glad I’m not a cricket, because that’s about the biggest prey he could swallow.

On day 2, we didn’t see any snakes that I remember, but our eyes certainly weren’t deprived of transcendental sights.

In part 4, the “Knife’s Edge” and disaster strikes the BFT for the second time in six months.

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