Signs of Spring 12: Getting Lost in the Woods

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Last Monday Deborah and I took advantage of an open day in our Penn State schedules and headed up to Todd Nature Reserve. The 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 thirty-three years Deborah and I 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).

There were no other cars in the gravel parking lot, so we knew that we would have the reserve to ourselves.   Our plan was to do the Loop Trail and keep our eyes open for both birds and wildflowers.

We walked up to the cabin and picked up a new copy of the trail map and then crossed the poison ivy rich clearing to enter the dark, cool hemlock forest. The red blazes of the Loop Trail took us to the right, and we walked up and over some rolling terrain in the deep cover of the hemlocks taking care to watch each footfall on the very irregular, rocky surface.

There are few decisions to be made while walking these trails. The paths are well worn and the blazes are always clear. Occasionally you need to jog around a fallen tree or bypass a muddy low spot, but it is not really possible to get lost.

Which is a shame (and it is also, to quote Anton Chekhov, the proverbial “gun hung on the wall” in Act 1!).

The times that Deborah and I have been lost on hikes, while not too very numerous, are times that are very vividly etched in my memory! There is some type of primal reaction, an instinctive intensity that rushes over you when you realized that you are out in the middle of an unknown area with no clear idea of where home (or your car) or help of any kind might be!

Mt. Marcy Photo by D. Tripp, Wikimedia Commons

Mt. Marcy Photo by D. Tripp, Wikimedia Commons

I remember being lost up in the Adirondacks while on a backpacking trip with our grad school friends, Mark and Terre. We were hiking up around Mt. Marcy and were enjoying a beautiful, sunny, early May day after post-holing our way across the lingering snow fields higher up on the mountain. Walking was easy and talking was even easier. All of sudden we realized that we were on a trail that had no blazes. We consulted our maps and could not make any sense of the terrain around us and the topographic detail of the map! We also realized that we didn’t have a compass and so were guessing at directions. There was nothing to do but follow the trail back.

We hiked a good mile or two back along the trail getting more and more anxious about where we were and where we were going to end up. Finally, we found a turn blaze that we had missed and were back on our trail and back on our map.

The feeling you get when you re-find your trail, when you see your blazes again is incomparably wonderful! Almost worth the anxiety that led up to it!

When Deborah and I hiked the Baker Trail a few years ago we also lost the trail a couple of times. One time we were able to use our maps and compass (I always carry a compass now!) to bushwhack across a field and forest stand to regain the trail. Another time we ended up wandering around on an active strip mine for several hours (because the trail blazes we were trying to find only faced one direction! They could not be seen when approaching the trail from an off-trail location!). Another time, we crossed a trail section that was being redesigned and the familiar yellow, Baker Trail blazes had not yet been placed (we wandered around for quite a while until, with great joy, we found a rectangle of bright yellow paint on an old black cherry tree!).

Anyway, you can’t get lost on the Todd Nature Reserve Trails (or so I thought!).

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Along the Loop Trail there were abundant wildflowers. The broad, flat, parasol-like leaves of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) spread out alongside the trail. Most of the plants had not yet opened their white flowers. Compared to previous years, the Mayapple seems to be developing a week or two later this year!  Trillium (both the large flowered white and the red) are still in bloom here, too. On most of the trails closer to our house the trillium flowers have faded and fallen. The “season-time” here is a week or two behind our local ecosystems.

Multiflora rose is growing in scattered patches that are getting larger every year. Garlic mustard is also becoming increasingly abundant. These two invasive species have the potential to do a great deal of harm to the native plant species in the Reserve. As I talked about last year, the impact of the garlic mustard extends to its stresses it exerts on the soil fungi that many plants (like Mayapple) require to flourish.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

There is a very nice array of native plants in flower: mitrewort, dwarf ginseng, clintonia, jack-in-the-pulpit (pictured to the left), Solomon’s seal, wild geranium and many more (Deborah listed twenty flowering species in her notes!). Ferns are also abundant along the trail including Christmas fern, evergreen woodfern, New York fern, sensitive fern, interrupted fern, hayscented fern, cinnamon fern, and rattlesnake fern (one of Deborah’s favorites). There is also an abundance of raspberry and blackberry canes growing along the trail.

We also met up with a very belligerent eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) on the now seldom used trail that goes to Inspiration Point (a formerly cleared spot the overlooked the deep ravine cut by Watson Run). The snake, who tried very hard to

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

convince us of his ferociousness by coiling up into a tight ball and lunging at us with an open mouth, seemed very put out that we didn’t immediately flee. We walked past him and went on to the point. He was slithering away when we walked back past a few minutes later!

As we approached the end of the Loop Trail and were getting close to the Cabin and the walk back up to the parking area, we saw a set of signs marking a newly completed trail called the Shoop Trail. This trail was not on our map, but the sign described it as a 0.9 mile loop, so we decided to give it a try.

The first part of the Shoop Trail was through a young hardwood forest. The path was firm and dry and the wildflowers abundant. The second part of the trail dipped down a bit into a spring fed swale and the trail became muddy and ponded over and very difficult to walk on. The trail then opened out into an old field full of young spring weeds and a scattering of the same invasive tree/shrub that we see regularly in Harrison Hills: privet. We followed the edge of the field toward the east and re-entered the woods on a broad, grass covered path.

About 50 yards down the path we heard and then saw a little warbler flitting around in the dense branches of the surrounding trees and shrubs. It took quite a while to get a clear look at him, but we identified him as a blue-winged warbler (Vermivora pinus)! Also, just before this warbler had flown into view, Deborah had spotted a plant that she had never seen before (its identity is to be determined!). We agreed that the extra walk on the Shoop Trail, mud and sloppy trail surfaces and all, had been more than worth it.

Then we realized that there were no trail blazes anywhere to be seen!

We backtracked to the spot where the incoming trail had opened out into the field and then carefully walked the edge of the field looking for more blazes to indicate the direction of the return loop. We could not find any.

Now, this is as “lost” as you can get in the Todd Nature Reserve. We knew which direction the cabin and foci of the trail grid was, but we just didn’t want to slog our way over the muddy sections of the Shoop Trail that we had already walked! We could see a road about a quarter of a mile to the west and assumed (correctly as it turned out) that it was the road that ran past the entrance to the Reserve. So we cut across the field, walked over a culvert that spanned the creek (which was high and running fast from all of the recent rains), and took the half mile or so walk back to the parking area.

There was very little adrenaline of rush in this “being lost” adventure, but we did get a nice extension on our walk around Todd!

Happy Spring (and almost Summer)!


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