The Todd Nature Reserve (formerly called “Todd Sanctuary”) is a rocky, stream crossed, 176 acre site owned and maintained by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. It is in Sarver in southeastern Butler County and has been, for all of the twenty-seven years we have lived in this area, one of our favorite places to hike. There are five miles of crisscrossing hiking trails in the reserve. A two mile “Loop Trail” encircles the site’s perimeter and takes you from stream beds to ridge tops and back again through young to middle-aged hemlock stands and a variety of mixed hardwood forests. Shorter trails (with evocative names like “Hemlock,” “Indian Pipe,” “Pond,” “Warbler,” and “Polypody”) interconnect fern capped rock cities with densely vegetated copses with the human constructed pond (built in 1969). The pond is a great place to view bull frogs, Canada geese, bluegills, and northern water snakes.
When we arrive (1:30 in the afternoon on a beautiful Saturday afternoon!) there is only one other car in the parking area. These trails never seem to be heavily used and have never, in our experience, been at all crowded. We usually, in fact, have the entire place to ourselves. We hike down the gravel path to the bridge that crosses the ravine of the small creek that connects into Watson Run (the main stream that cuts through the reserve) and, passing the Naturalist’s Cabin cross a field that in the summer is VERY full of poison ivy and enter the cool and quiet of the shady hemlock forest that lines the banks of Watson Run.
The creek flows noisily over a broad, flat, rocky bed. Its roar erases the sounds of the not so distant road. The forest floor and the trail surface are densely covered with layers of dry, brown leaves. The leaves only just hide the cobble-sized rocks that form most of the soil surface. Walking is difficult. You have to watch each footstep and have to stop in order to look up and view the surrounding trees.
The Loop Trail is freshly blazed. Red paint on the trees still looks wet and dripping. We hike steadily up and leave most of the hemlocks behind. In the hardwood stands the amount of downed wood is immediately impressive. Branches and entire trees have fallen in nearly parallel lines all around and all along the trail. This seems a sign of a young forest shedding its early successional species and, possibly, stretching itself into a more complex structure. The downed trees are foot diameter black cherry that are well riddled with woodpecker holes and some larger oaks (red?) that may have succumbed to the accumulated stresses of the repeated gypsy moth outbreaks of the early 1990’s. A few of the trees have been broken high up on their trunks probably after some other weakening event. There are also many others that have been completely wind thrown and lay across the forest floor with twelve to sixteen foot root balls that have been pulled up out of the shallow, rocky soil. In these disturbed areas black cherry and yellow birch saplings an inch in diameter and twelve feet tall grown thickly. I think that it would be possible to determine the years of the windthrows by measuring the sizes of the fast growing trees within them. In these areas, then, another early successional forest is growing. I see no oak seedlings or saplings, no evidence of a progressive succession.
At the southeast corner of the loop we see mayapple leaves just beginning to emerge from the rocky soil. As we climb up the south facing slope, though, the mayapple get more and more developed. The slanting of the soil surface to the southern sky increasingly gathers sunlight and warmth and speeds the emergence and growth of this wonderful spring plant. Fully spread “umbrellas” of leaves and even a few early flower buds are visible at the top of Loop Trail’s path.
There are small gnats swarming around our faces. We even resort to some DEET to keep them away. Woodpeckers (piliated?) are calling and drumming up in the canopy. Multiflora rose is leafing out as is another exotic invasive, garlic mustard. Multiflora rose is visible everywhere we walk and in a few years the garlic mustard (which can make tens of thousands of seeds from a single plant) will likely begin to choke out the native plants. But this year, anyway, there is still room for the native species. Spring beauty is near the end of its flowering but is still breathtakingly beautiful. Violets, pepper root, and rue anemone are also in flower. Canadian mayflower and trout lily are sending up leaves and one or two of the trout lilies have even begun to flower. There is also an abundance of raspberry along the trail (good news for a mid-June hike!) and the canes are densely covered with small, bright green leaves. The forming textures and shades of green are taking the forest away from the winter browns and grays into a building hint of the coming summer.
Spring azure butterflies are numerous along the trail. We even see a few white, cabbage butterflies in the sunnier, more open sections of the trail. We startle two white-tailed deer out of a thicket of vegetation as we pass. In the distance we can faintly hear spring peepers singing near the pond.
As we walk up to the pond, bullfrog tadpoles as big as my thumb dart in-mass from the open water into the leaf covered bottom mud. Swarms of bluegills swim to the shore when we sit on a pond-side bench. The fish voraciously eat bits of crackers that I toss into the water. Two Canadian geese quietly float on the far side of the pond. They seem to be dozing in the warm, afternoon sun.
We leave the pond and hike back toward the cabin crossing a stone path over Watson’s Run one more time. We pass a dense patch of skunk cabbage and see more trout lilies. An old, shallow limestone quarry is off to the right of the trail. The rocks and the carved out depressions are completely covered with overgrowing vegetation.
On the porch of the cabin is a small pile of debris cleaned up from the trail: tossed water bottles, food wrappers, glass containers, etc. It was good that someone is taking the time to clean up the trail, but sad that they had to do it.
We cross the cabin bridge and hike up the gravel trail toward our car. The way up seems much longer than the way down had been. There are two new cars in the parking area, but no sign of their occupants. It’s always a relief to sit down in the car seat after a hike.
(If you would like to read more about some of the plants and animals mentioned in this narrative, then check out some of the species pages out on the Virtual Nature Trail. Essays about pileated woodpeckers, white-tailed deer, spring peepers, gypsy moths, Indian pipe, raspberry, poison ivy, and skunk cabbage and more can be found at www.nk.psu.edu/naturetrail ).