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Cabins of the Smoky Mountains

Prowling the Sproul State Forest in Pennsylvania

“There’s a view there, but I’m not too sure how good it will be.” View? I was all about the view. That was the reward for a difficult hike. That was the explanation I gave to my mother who could not understand “why anyone would want to walk up a mountain” – how else would I get to see wonderful vistas? How else could I stand in awe at my own puniness in the face of nature’s grandness? And this hike had promised three vistas, at least one of them spectacular. Spectacular! I was in for every single one. Our guide, Mike Eckley of The Nature Conservancy, said it was only one hundred yards up or so. Yes! I started up behind him, and the women who caught up to us at the end of the conversation followed along dutifully.

Well, they followed along dutifully, but not silently! I felt the slightest twinge of guilt as we fought our way through thick brush (following an almost invisible trail made, we decided, by a very thin deer who had leapt most of the way), uphill, in hundred degree heat. The low brambles wound around our legs, untying shoes, tripping us, and leaving a long scratch of blood from my knee to ankle. One hundred yards hadn’t sounded very far, but it was a football field after all, in less than ideal conditions. I almost ran into the woman in front of me who had stopped. We all looked at each other quizzically.

“It’s actually really amazing in the fall, with all the leaves. It just pops.” Oh. We could barely make out a mountain across from what we guessed must be a chasm, though there were too many trees on our side obscuring our sight to be sure. The forest was too dense to get any closer to the edge, though after all we had just done, I was tempted to try it. If I strained and used all of my powers of imagination, I could see the view’s potential. In the fall. We sighed and turned around. One woman good-naturedly joked that it was a good thing Mike had left his gun behind. He apologetically shimmied to the end of our line and led us back to the main path. The view really hadn’t been that great, but I was still glad we had checked it out. It’s all about exploration and adventure!

I attended the eighth annual “Prowl the Sproul,” a Keystone Trails Association hiking and camping weekend extravaganza held at Sproul State Forest near Renovo in central Pennsylvania. Camping was at the Western Clinton Sportsmen’s Association, or less adventurous hikers could stay in local hotels. Originally from Scranton, PA, I had been living abroad and in other states for the last twenty-five years or so, and I recently left Los Angeles to move back east. In the LA area, there were thirty or so meetup hiking groups, so I had my pick of trails every weekend. My search for hiking clubs wasn’t going so well in northeastern PA. I did find the NEPA Trail Mix group on meetup, but they seemed to focus on kayaking and mountain biking. It was extremely frustrating to look out of the windows of my parents’ house and see nothing but mountains in any direction – but not have anyone to hike with! When trail leader Karen Verchimak posted on the NEPA Trail Mix site about KTA’s “Prowl the Sproul,” I couldn’t have been more excited.

Karen and I arrived Friday morning, set up our tents, and had lunch. We could choose between two hikes for Friday afternoon. First was The Nature Conservancy Loop Hike: Hike and explore parts of Nature Conservancy Property. Explore new territory only seen at Prowl the Sproul with three scenic vistas, including the spectacular (emphasis mine) Bear Pen Vista, 4.5 miles. The second one was Pat Reeder’s Loop: See Reeder’s Trail, historic Pat Reeder’s Tavern and Little Boyer Trail. This hike resembles many hikes in Ireland, since this hike will start and finish at historic Pat Reeder’s Tavern. The trail will traverse near a gas well site, 6 miles. It was an insanely hot weekend in late July, in the nineties already, so Karen opted for the shorter hike. I was torn. I preferred a longer hike for more of a challenge, and I was curious to see the historic Irish tavern. Still, those vistas, and one of them spectacular… Karen assured me that the tavern was just historic, not necessarily cute or quaint, and the other guide said we would drive near it anyway and could stop on our own after our hike. It was settled – on our way to vistas!

When we arrived at The Nature Conservancy property, our guide Mike gave us an overview of his work directing stewardship for the forests. As we started out, he showed us a tree whose bark had been gouged out by a bear marking his territory and told us how easy it had been to see them in the spring when they were mating. We weren’t fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to see any on our hike, but Mike did point out various trees to us and explain the Conservancy’s work repopulating the forest. When I walk through a forest, I only think about the beauty of the trees. I had never considered what kinds of trees were there, what was happening to them, and how their appearance or disappearance could affect wildlife in the area. The chestnut blight of the early 1900s devastated the American chestnut tree population, and the Conservancy is involved in a project to create disease-resistant hybrids with Asian chestnut trees that seem to have some resistance. The chestnuts were really important as a source of food for wildlife in the area, and they were a hard wood tree that was widely used for lumber.

Another hard wood tree, oak, picked up some of the slack, since acorns are also a vital nutrient for so many animals, but various insects and diseases have been plaguing those trees as well. The Nature Conservancy has been working to replant oak trees, but mountain laurel and other low growing plants and shrubbery overwhelm the young shoots, and those that do make it to sapling get eaten by deer. The Conservancy was working with hunters to control the deer population, but Mike came to the conclusion that fences to keep away the deer were the best answer. Unfortunately, it’s an expensive solution, and one that is only being used minimally now, as the Conservancy’s budget will allow.

After a stop to use the outhouse and dip our bandanas in the icy cold stream (heaven!) at Dark Hollow Camp, we finally came to Bear Pen Vista, the spectacular one. It was definitely worth it! We threw off the shadowy veil of the forest and stepped into a wide expanse of sunny green mountain range, blue-edged and hazy in its brilliance. Where one mountain ended, another began, staggered at angles like the humps of slumbering dinosaurs, guarding the valley. The western branch of the Susquehanna River snaked off along the outer edge of the bowl, protected in its fortress, oblivious to the horizon.

I stopped and took a deep breath – this was my forest, my mountains, my vista – or I suppose more accurately, I belonged to it. I was born in Pennsylvania, spent the first seventeen years of my life in it, and never hiked its mountains. I saw them just about every day as I was growing up, their majesty, their brilliant colors in the summer and fall; I drove among the quaint coal mining towns that grew up in their hollows, and I completely took them for granted. Until I was gone, of course, and felt an ache that I only recognize now, back among them. The mountains of Pennsylvania are comfortable and familiar; I feel like I know them and they know me. Everywhere has something to offer, and I’ve spent most of my life traveling around appreciating other places. How wonderful to finally love what my own state, what my home has to offer.

The last mile of the hike from the vista back to the cars was all uphill, so Mike left us on the road to the vista while he went to get his truck to shuttle us back. I would have preferred the longer hike, even with the ungodly heat (at its full length it was only 4.5 miles), but I really wanted to see the view. In hindsight, I guess I could have walked back with him; he did come back to the vista with the truck, but at the time I wasn’t really clear on that. I’m okay hiking in the heat; it’s only when I stop to rest that I feel overheated. It was a fantastic vista, but the hot temperature didn’t allow us to enjoy it for long! When Mike came back, we took photos and piled into the back of the pickup truck. Many of the women had never ridden in a pickup before and were quite excited, so I didn’t feel too badly about missing the end of the hike.

On the way back to our campsite, Mike pointed out Pat Reeder’s Tavern, so we stopped in to check it out. There really wasn’t anything Irish about it except the name, and it was a bit of a dive, but everyone inside was chatty and friendly, and it was air conditioned. I hardly needed a beer to dehydrate myself further, but I was not about to go back outside before cooling off, and they had Pennsylvania’s own Yuengling. Sold.

We sat next to a young man from Arkansas, one of the men working with the gas company, drilling for natural gas in the area. He drove the excavator to create and maintain the roads needed for the drilling to progress. He didn’t seem to have an ethical problem with his work. (I was horrified at his story of hanging doughnuts and marshmallows off tree branches to get black bears to stand up for photos, so I didn’t think we’d agree on the repercussions of natural gas drilling.) It made me wonder what The Nature Conservancy’s take on it was; I hadn’t thought to ask Mike, though after that I think I discussed it with every guide and hiker who would listen. How much advocacy did the Conservancy’s budget allow, particularly in this tough economic climate? And what was I doing to learn about the environmental issues in my own backyard? How was I contributing to the preservation of the natural wonder around me? Would future generations be able to enjoy it as I had? Was I enjoying it to the fullest extent that I could be?

I sipped my Pennsylvania Yuengling and remembered the spectacular view. I was off to a good start.

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