Return to The Hook

turtlehead at The Hook

The last time I visited The Hook, the hobblebush and painted trilliums were in bloom. It was mid-May. My hiking buddy L. and I parked on the south edge of the 5,119-acre watershed and scrambled down a steep ravine as the shadows lengthened, and we began to worry about the long drive home. Greenish-yellow pollen coated our boots.

That was in 2005. How did we let five years go by without returning to this spot less than two hours from home? But better late than never, as they say. Many of our favorite spots in northern Pennsylvania have probably been marred if not ruined by deep gas drilling in the Marcellus shale formation, and we’ll never get another chance to see them as they were, while many of the old-growth stands around the state that we visited in the early aughts have been decimated by the alien invasive hemlock woolly adelgid and/or beech bark disease.

Joe-Pye weed
Joe-Pye weed

The Hook, though, is still in pretty good shape. In fact, it looks healthier than most forests in the state, due to the low deer-browse pressure. We saw hemlock boughs that dragged the ground and abundant oak and other hardwood seedlings in the drier areas. This time we entered from the north side, following the well-blazed Mule Shanty Trail along a seep that turned into a trickle that fed into the pure, dark waters of Panther Run — a much more gradual descent. The light-drenched woods gradually grew darker as conifers began to appear and the hills closed in, and oddly, I noticed that the mosquitoes actually decreased in number as the afternoon wore on. It remained humid, though — so humid that moisture condensed on many of the rocks on the trail. L. washed her face in the creek at one point and her face was still damp, she said, half an hour later.

rhododendron leaf
rhododendron leaf

Again the shadows were long, but this time they signaled relief from the heat. The trail wound between boulders and talus slopes, and for much of the way followed the rocky bed of a century-old narrow-gauge railroad built during the lumbering boom. These were no rolling stones — they’d gathered their share of moss and lichen — but some of them still shifted uneasily and made hollow clinking sounds as we walked over them.

And as before, we found abundant silence. Three times we flushed ruffed grouse, which rocketed out of the rhododendron with the usual heart-stopping burst of wings. There were scattered calls of ravens, and a black-and-white warbler sang beside the trail at one point, but for long stretches all we heard was the trickle of the stream.


On the long drive up, L. had been looking rather obsessively for a particular kind of packaged ice-cream in a cone with nuts on top, and not quite finding what she wanted. So when a few chanterelles appeared in the trail I thought maybe her luck in finding delectable cone-shaped food items had turned, but search as we might, we couldn’t find any more. At home, I told her, the woods are virtually devoid of mushrooms because of the drought.

We walked as far as a wooden foot bridge that had marked the end of our hike from the opposite direction five years before. I actually didn’t recognize it until we reached the middle and looked at the graffiti scratched into the railing with pen knives: somehow those human markings triggered my memory and I recognized the configuration of hills and creek as well.

tinder polypores on yellow birch
tinder polypores on yellow birch

Neither mule nor shanty was in evidence along Mule Shanty Trail, but we did find a log covered with the hoof-shaped tinder polypores, one of the most storied of all fungi. We took a shorter route back to the state forest road following the evocatively named Molasses Gap Trail, along which we discovered the remains of a loose stone foundation which couldn’t have supported much more than a shanty, for mule or otherwise. Molasses Gap Run disappeared under the rocks, where its trickle remained audible in the silence. “Lonesome water,” I said.

I knew L. was familiar with the poem because it was she who had first given me a copy of it ten or fifteen years ago. Roy Addison Helton was a Pennsylvania poet who spent some time farther south in the Appalachians, collecting and adapting folk material such as the legend of lonesome water, which held that anyone who takes a drink from such a hidden stream can never leave the mountains.

Dug where I heard it
Drippling below me:
Should a knowed better,
Should a been wise;
Leant down and drank it,
Clutching and gripping
The overhung cliv
With the ferns in my eyes.

Tweren’t no tame water
I knowed in a minute;
Must a been laying there
Projecting round
Since winter went home;
Must a laid like a cushion,
Where the feet of the blossoms
Was tucked in the ground.

Tasted of heart leaf,
And that smells the sweetest,
Paw paw and spice bush
And wild briar Rose;
Must a been counting
The heels of the spruce pines
And neighboring round
Where angelica grows.

I’d drunk lonesome water,
I knowed in a minute
Never larnt nothing
From then till today;
Nothing worth larning,
Nothing worth knowing.
I’m bound to the hills
And I can’t get away.

This makes me just a little uneasy, because at least two times that I can remember when I was a kid, I did this myself — dug down through the rocks and drank “lonesome water.” I don’t know if that’s why I’m still hanging around central Pennsylvania or not — a place can get its hooks into you in any number of ways — but I definitely feel I haven’t learned anything of any particular value over the years. If anything, I’ve grown dumber.

shadows of shining clubmoss
shadows of shining clubmoss

Certainly it’s neither smart nor especially pleasant to stick around and witness the decline and degradation of so many of the places I love. But at least a few of them remain relatively intact.

0 Replies to “Return to The Hook”

  1. Great post Dave. I like the way when you tell of a journey, whether in a video, a poem or a piece of prose like this, you slip your hand into the viewer’s/reader’s and take him/her with you. It’s a generous sharing. In your writing I always feel all of my senses engaged. The Hook sounds a marvellous place.

    I like too the yarn of ‘lonesome water’, and it struck me as suitably poetic that you recalled with some unease that you once did drink from it, and perhaps thereafter never really did leave the Hook. I like those stories where everything turns out to be a dream from a distant starting point.

    1. Thanks, Clive. I edited the post to hopefully make it clear that I wasn’t referring to The Hook per se but to the area as a whole. Both my “lonesome water”-drinking experiences were here on our mountain.

  2. Clive has said it better than I could. Thanks for this lovely post and photos, Dave. It’s reminding me that it’s been a while since I’ve been up in the mountains behind us for a similar hike.

    1. I can see where your mountains might be a little more daunting to hike, though. Our ridges wouldn’t even register as foothills in your neck of the woods, I’m afraid.

  3. Fascinating… as often, you’ve sent me link-chasing around, to find that the Iceman was carrying tinder fungus. And the story of lonesome water is spooky!

      1. Oh, yes… I always wish I knew more about the plants and fungi I see on my hikes. Once I saw a tree with a bunch of artist’s conks, and recognized them from one of your posts. (We didn’t take any… that’s bad juju on the Appalachian Trail. ;-) )

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