The sawfly stood in the middle of the trail blocking our way, slowly moving its antennae like the arms of a martial artist, its wings too tattered to fly. “They don’t sting,” Steve said. I scooped it up and it we passed it from hand to hand before depositing it on a trailside tulip poplar.
A gang of us — three families — had gathered for a Memorial Day hike in Bell’s Gap, on the trail to Pancake Flats at the top of central Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Front. The trail is unsigned, as are nearly all the trails in our 1.4 million-acre state game lands system, the Pennsylvania equivalent of National Wildlife Refuges. So despite the fact that we’ve lived here for nearly 40 years, and the trail is less than ten miles away, I’d never hiked it before, not having been sure where the good trails are in State Game Land 158. It took a newcomer to the area — poet Todd Davis — to scout out this and other trails in the game lands above his house in his restless hunt for poems and for deer. Deer hunting is confined to the autumn months, but poem hunting is year-round, an open season.
Just because trails lack signs and blazes doesn’t mean they’re unmaintained. In the preceding brief video (which subscribers must click through to watch, I think) my mother demonstrates her famous high-speed log-footbridge crossing technique.
Once across the creek, the trail — an old woods road — begins a gradual ascent of the southern side of the gap. We skirted the edge of a tiny pond just big enough for one pickerel frog and some lily pads. Canada mayflowers bloomed in profusion, which along with some other signs, such as abundant three-year-old rhododendron sprouts, confirmed what Todd had been telling us: that the local deer herd had yet to recover from the winter of 2006. The other common wildflower along the trail also had a name invoking our neighbor to the north: Canada violets. And near the top of the mountain, the birders in the bunch were thrilled to spot a Canada warbler — though they were even more thrilled when they heard and saw a Kentucky warbler on the way back down.
Meadow rue (above) was just coming into bloom — a flower that, despite its common name, tolerates the deepening shade of a late spring woods as well as anything can. This is actually eastern waterleaf (see comments). I found the unopened buds at least as intriguing as the blooms: a mass of feathery bracts reminiscent of some headdress from the highlands of New Guinea. Foamflowers and bishop’s cap were nearing the end of their run, while the last of the painted trillium had shriveled a few days before, by the looks of it.
We passed stands of very mature second-growth oaks and tulip poplars, intermingled with hemlocks which still seemed free of woolly adelgid damage. It was a very impressive forest, especially for state game lands, which are often subjected to short-rotation timbering to help pay the agency’s bills. Comparisons with Plummer’s Hollow were inevitable, but a little unfair perhaps, since the exposure, elevation, and geology all differ greatly. Plummer’s Hollow Run follows the same, vertical sandstone formation for its entire length, while Bell’s Gap cuts through a layer cake of shales, sandstones, limestones, and conglomerates. This complex geology helps explain why, in the Appalachians, you never have to go very far from home to see something completely different from what you’re used to.
And that in turn might help explain why Pennsylvania has the most stay-at-home population of any state in the union. Certainly in my case, being able to travel a few miles and see starflowers in the path is way more exciting than the prospect of ever visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I realize most people aren’t quite as attuned to such variations in the natural world, but Pennsylvania’s cultural diversity is also due, at least in part, to its complex physical geography: Slavic coal miners a few miles away from Mennonite farmers and Italian quarrymen.
Fortified with chocolate chip cookies, we made it all the way to the blueberry scrubland at the top of the mountain — Pancake Flats, so called I suppose because of the usual scattering of huge, flat boulders and outcrops of Pottsville conglomerate that cap the Front.
It was, as I said, Memorial Day. Some mark the holiday with parades and shows of piety, but I had no stomach to watch an enormous flag being carried through the streets of a town whose council had recently voted to despoil its own section of the Allegheny Front with a massive industrial wind plant right in the watershed for its reservoir. My own loyalty is to the land rather than the symbol, to crazy quilts rather than to the orderly subdivisions of a flag.
On the way back down, we passed another pair of hikers heading up — the first Todd had ever seen on this trail besides himself and those he brought with him. We exchanged smiles and greetings. “I walk up here every couple of weeks,” one of the men said.
To anyone with an interest in plants, returning the way one came is rarely boring; you can’t step into the same trail twice. I found a flowering wood sorrel we’d somehow missed on the way up. And on an outcrop of limestone halfway down, Mom and I spotted a gang of eldritch, arrowy leaves spilling over the step-like rocks: walking fern, Asplenium rhizophyllum. It seemed to be in even less of a hurry than we were.