A woods named Fred


In the middle of a hot and humid afternoon, last night is still seeping out of the rocks. We are in a low place on a high place: caves and canyons on top of the mountain. We’ve driven an hour and a half north to find the same Pottsville conglomerate that we’ve explored five hours to the south in West Virginia.

school bus

We’re in a woods named Fred. The Fred Woods Trail is a five-mile loop in Pennsylvania’s Elk State Forest, named for a Bureau of Forestry foreman, Fred Woods, who died on the job in 1975. The trail was built by inmates in the Quehanna Motivational Boot Camp, mostly junior drug offenders, in 1980. To get there, you follow a steep gravel road out of Driftwood that ascends a chunk of the Allegheny Plateau called Mason Hill, which includes a number of hunting camps on private inholdings. The gated road into the trail is about a quarter-mile past the old yellow school bus.

cherry leaf galls

The trail begins in a nice hemlock stand, but soon leaves that to wind through a typical Pennsylvania hay-scented fern savanna just like what surrounds the school bus: a thirty- or forty-year old clearcut that was never fenced, and has been ravaged by deer ever since. (All the surrounding private lands are posted for “No Doe Hunting.” Killing only bucks does virtually nothing to reduce the size of the deer herd.) I move as slowly as possible in the 85-degree heat. Fortunately, I still find a few things to capture my interest. Bare shelves of rock begin to appear beside the trail, each covered with a film of perspiration.


After about a mile, we enter an older, mixed deciduous forest and things get a lot more interesting. A fallen, curled-up petal from a tulip poplar looks for all the world like a pair of yellow lips. Mushrooms begin to appear.


And millipedes: we slowly become aware that the trail is a millipede highway. We pass dozens of them, all from the common woodland species Narceus annularis (or perhaps the closely related N. americanus – see comments), some digging energetically in the leaf litter, others thrashing around to try and discourage a host of small, presumably parasitic flies. Millipedes are sometimes called rain worms, because they tend to only come out of the ground when it’s very humid. The Tsonga people of Northern Transvaal and Mozambique invoke a species of millipede in a song used in rain magic:

Rain-making, rain-making, Hum!
Rain-making, rain-making, black millipede!
Black millipede, Hum!
Black millipede we want rain!
We want rain!

Whether or not millipedes have a role in making rain, however, it appears that they may help to mitigate the effects of acid rain here in the largely unbuffered forest soils of the Appalachians. One study near Ithaca, New York found that a sizable local population of N. annularis acted as a significant reservoir for calcium and phosphorous, essential minerals that otherwise tend to leach out rather quickly, especially when the rainfall is highly acidic.


Then something else catches our eye: dozens, and then hundreds of little yellow flowers on what we had initially taken to be grass. This turns out to be a type of stargrass known as common goldstar. And scattered among it are the blossoms of rattlesnake weed, also yellow.

pine beast

A sign with a picture of a camera directs our attention to a view, complete with picturesque dead pine tree in the foreground. The haze is so thick, we can barely see ten miles. But my hiking companion points out a much more interesting sight at the edge of the clearing: a fallen pine tree that appears poised for flight on half a dozen Dr. Seussian legs.

That’s when we hear the first rumbles of thunder.

(To be continued.)

UPDATE: For more on Narceus millipedes, see Bev’s excellent photos and description here.

15 Replies to “A woods named Fred”

  1. What a marvelous adventure… thank you for sharing! I especially like the millipede rain dance song. :) I think I’m going to give it a try! Looking forward to part 2.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the hike, Dave. Also looking forward to part 2 (I can make some guesses as to what’s to come!) The pictures are great… when I was there forest life was just beginning. Very cool to see how much has changed in just a month.

  3. JLB – Thanks for stopping by. If I’d had more time today, I probably would’ve put the whole walk into one, long post, but maybe it’s better to break it up.

    Gina Marie – It’s probably pretty cool any time of the year. I mean, we couldn’t have heard worse weather, really, but it was still a fabulous outing.

    I will of course link to your Fred Woods photoset, along with my own, at the end of the piece. I’m really glad you posted it, because I wouldn’t have heard of the place otherwise. So hurray for Flickr!

  4. marly – Actually, I think it might be Narceus americanus, closely related to N. annularis. I think I’ll edit the post to reflect that uncertainty – but in the meantime, I’ll ask Bev (which I probably should’ve done in the first place).

    Larry, Lucy – Glad you liked! I’ll try and get the second part up today.

  5. Beautiful photos. It’s the time of year for the millipedes to be out and about. They do seem to move along trails as though they were highways. Unfortunately, a lot of hikers don’t notice them, so there are many casualties. I’m not sure which species of Narceus you would have there (see my email) – I’m guessing it could actually be N. americanus in your region. Up here, it’s supposed to be N. annularis, but I’m not sure just how far south that would extend.

  6. marly – Oh, okay! Your sense of humor is just too sophisticated for me (I slept through Latin class in high school).

    bev – Thanks for weighing in. At the risk of heresy, I’d suggest that for ecological purposes, it probably doesn’t matter terribly much which Narceus we have. But it is somewhat surprising that scientists don’t know more about them, and are still arguing about nomenclature. Quoting from your email, if I may: “There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of info around on these (or any) millipedes, which is amazing considering how important they are to forest ecology and the composition of earth in general. When I’m messing around looking for these millipedes in the leaf mulch, under pieces of wood, etc.. the amount of frass that they produce is incredible. They’re just big ‘composting tubes’.”

    Folks should remember that earthworms are not native above roughly the Mason-Dixon line, and that therefore the earthworm composter niche is filled by other invertebrates, such as millipedes, in northern forests.

  7. I hiked this trail with my wife last week and enjoyed it but I want to find out how Fred Woods was killed on duty? I searched the Internet but found nothing. Any help would be appreciated.

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