This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, A woods named Fred.
Hearing the thunder, we decide to pick up the pace a little — from one mile an hour to maybe two. It’s well past lunch time, though, and we finally stop to refuel at a cluster of Volkswagen Beetle-sized boulders. A few have managed to acquire a thin layer of humus over the millennia, and sport miniature gardens of Canada mayflower and Solomon’s seal, as in the above photo. Just like the small exclosure I wrote about last Friday, such boulder-top gardens suffer very little deer herbivory and are a good indication of what the forest floor might look like if deer numbers were kept at a saner level. Tree seedlings often take advantage of these miniature refuges, as well, but the thin soil offers little support for many species. For trees such as yellow birch and red spruce, rock-top purchases present little problem, but we don’t find either species along the Fred Woods Trail. Neither black birch nor eastern hemlock seems quite as successful; we find a number of them that have grown to a decent size on top of a rock, then toppled over in an icestorm or a strong wind, taking the humus with them.
I like that this is a mixed conifer-oak forest, though. I’ve encountered outcroppings of the Pottsville conglomerate in various parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and due to the variety of forest types and land-use histories, no two are alike. Even where the land has been horrifically treated, as at Dolly Sods in the Monongahela National Forest or the Wolf Rocks portion of Pennsylvania’s Gallitzin State Forest, the bare rock stands as a visible and charismatic reminder of an indomitable core of wildness.
The sun is still shining as we finish our lunches and resume our slow perambulation. The thunder seems to have moved off a little, maybe. We explore a small assemblage of bus-sized boulders and wonder if that’s what all the fuss was about. But then we come to a fork in the trail, with a Vista in one direction and a Rock Loop in the other. Not much of a contest there.
And then we are in the rock city, and it takes our breath away.
The surrounding vegetation might not be as lush, but the rocks themselves are every bit as magnificent as those at Bear Heaven in the Mon. The mossy parts are just as mossy, the iron oxide-y parts are as brightly colored, and the rock tripe is even bigger: we find two of the leathery lichens that are as big as serving platters. “The air can’t be too polluted here,” L. remarks.
Even the graffiti is tasteful: all of it incised, none painted. The oldest dated examples go back to the beginning of the 20th century, and one graffito from 1935 refers to a Civilian Conservation Corps unit, so it’s obvious that some sort of trail was here long before the completion of the entire Fred Woods Trail in 1980.
The graffiti is concentrated in a one-hundred-foot-long canyon, the narrowest portions of which would offer a bit of a challenge to anyone heavier than about ten stone. Even narrower fissures and caves allow sounds to travel through the rocks in strange ways. It’s easy to imagine the kinds of things that vision-questing teenagers must’ve seen here over the decades. The impression of enchantment is almost overwhelming…
…though some visitors seem to have taken a more irreverent view.
The rain holds off until just after we finish exploring the densest section of the rock city. We’ve gone a few hundred yards further when L. spots what appears to be the biggest boulder yet off through the woods, as big as a mansion. As we approach it, though, the top half resolves into a dense cluster of hemlocks, some probably of great age despite their relatively short statures, judging from their basal diameters.
My camera batteries have given up the ghost a short time before, so I’m a little out of sorts. It doesn’t help my mood when I notice a grove of mountain laurel bushes that are almost all dead, probably from a combination of deer browsing (yes, deer do eat laurel, even though it is mildly poisonous to them) and the various blights whose effects we have been noticing throughout central Pennsylvania. On the other side of the grove, another boulder curves upward like the prow of a ship. We are literally just standing and staring at that when a close crack of thunder signals the onset of a downpour. We duck under the shelter, and though we both have umbrellas with us, I convince L. that we’d be better advised to sit it out — it can’t last more than half an hour. We settle onto a couple of flat rocks that appear to have been placed there for that purpose by some previous visitors.
The rain comes down in sheets, and for a while that’s all we can hear. But after ten or fifteen minutes, it starts to slacken off, and I hear an odd sound — a cry off in the woods. A minute or two later, L. hears it too.
“That’s a person! Somebody’s over there.”
“I don’t think that’s a human being. Why would anybody be wailing?”
There’s not much of a wind, but the tree tops do seem to be swaying. “I think it’s a tree,” I say. “Dead trees can make all kinds of ungodly noises when they rub up against living trees.” I’m eyeing a particularly large example of this about a hundred feet away.
The rain stops twenty-five minutes after it began. We’ve polished off a bag full of dried pineapple pieces and are anxious to find out who’s been doing all the wailing.
We discover the culprit just ten feet away, resting against the limb of a chestnut oak: it’s a dead tree, all right, but much smaller than the one I’d had my eye on. Enough to scare the crap out of anyone who’s tried to camp here recently, though, I’ll bet.
And perhaps we should’ve been more frightened then we were about hanging out in that rock shelter. The next morning, L. will find a deer tick and have to go the emergency room to get shots for Lyme disease.
We pick our way slowly back along the wet trail. We smell the hay-scented fern hundreds of yards before we enter the younger woods. It smells nothing like hay now, if it ever did: an ambrosial odor that keeps us guessing even after the evidence of its humdrum origin is all around us.
For more photos of the Fred Woods Trail, see my photoset here, and another, by blogger Gina Marie, here. It was that photoset, in fact, that first tipped me off about the place. Thanks, Gina! And thanks also to Gary Thornbloom’s “On the Trail” column, which I found archived here [PDF].