It was Sunday morning, one day past the Ides of October. It was cloudy but already almost seventy degrees. It was a perfect day to go for a mid-Fall hike.
We wanted to get away from the broad, rails-to-trails pathways that we have been walking and biking all summer, so we fell back on our old reliable hiking site near Sarver in southeastern Butler County, the Todd Nature Reserve (formerly called “Todd Sanctuary”).
The Todd Nature Reserve is a rocky, stream crossed, 176 acre site owned and maintained by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. It has been, since Deborah and I moved to this area in 1983, one of our favorite places to hike. There are five miles of crisscrossing trails including a two mile (although it always feels longer than that!) “Loop Trail” that circles the site’s perimeter, and a number of shorter trails (with descriptive names like “Hemlock,” “Indian Pipe,” “Pond,” “Warbler,” and “Polypody”) that interconnect fern capped rock cities in densely vegetated copses with the human constructed pond (built in 1969). As you walk through Todd you go from stream beds to ridge tops and back again through young to middle-aged hemlock stands and a variety of mixed hardwood forests
We have had some great moments out on these trails! I remember carrying each of our children first in denim Snuggly Packs and then, as they grew, in metal framed, backpack carriers. I also remember letting them start our hikes by walking on their own and then ending up hoisting them on my shoulders after a few miles. I also remember standing quietly on a trail while a gray fox walked toward me oblivious to my presence until I said “hello, fox!” (or something equally brilliant!) and then watched him disappear into the surrounding brush. We once found a hen turkey on her nest right in the middle of one of the trails, and once we found a black bear footprint in some soft mud of a trail and spent the rest of our hike hearing imaginary bear snufflings and rustlings in the dense woods around us!
We have spotted numerous warblers in the spring and in the fall here at Todd and enjoyed the company of many garter snakes and black snakes. It seems on every hike that we come across deer standing watchful guard along the trails, too. Back in the early 1990’s, we experienced the full force of the gypsy moth population explosion along these trails (The Audubon Society chose not to use any pesticides in the reserve, so the caterpillar numbers grew unchecked!). We had to wear hats when we hiked because of continuous deluge of gypsy moth caterpillar feces as the larvae worked their way through the tree canopy and steadily defoliated the reserve’s oak trees. The infestation, though, burned itself out without human intervention, and very few oak trees were lost.
We pulled into the reserve’s gravel parking lot about 11:15 am and were surprised to see ten cars already parked there. Usually, Todd is only lightly visited and the parking area is empty. Could there be something going on today? We only saw, though, two other people out in the woods (actually they were sitting on a bench on the porch of the Naturalist’s Cabin at the start of the trails). All of the other people were well hidden out on the labyrinth of trails. When we got back to parking lot two and a half hours later, there was only one other car remaining.
There were still a few fall wildflowers blooming along the trails (white wood asters lit up the hike down to the cabin from the parking lot), but mostly the understory plants were settling in to a late fall senescence. Color along the trails came from a thickening mat of freshly fallen leaves (splotchy red and green leaves of red maples, yellow leaves of black cherries and yellow birches). Occasionally a still green leaf fell from one the tall red oaks and arced its way, back and forth and back and forth in the light breeze, falling down through the dense branches of spice bush and multiflora rose until it landed, without a sound on top of the growing leaf cover.
Acorns pelted down on us steadily as we walked along. This must be a good year for red oak acorns! Next year, then, should be a good year for wild turkeys, gray squirrels, and deer! Lots of high calorie food to help them through the long winter! In some places there were so many acorns that it was hard to walk!
In the clearing between the cabin and the start of the Loop Trail (and all up the graveled trail that runs to the cabin) is a continuous and very dense stand of poison ivy. The leaves are starting to fade from their deep summer green, but they are still thick and resinous and seem to glow as they reflect and concentrate the dim sunlight. I don’t see any berries on the plants. They must have been picked clean by hungry birds!
Freshly emerged mushrooms add to the textures and colors of the exposed soil and the fallen branches and logs. We have enough recent rain to trigger a coordinated emergence of the mushrooms and their whites, reds, yellows, and browns stand out against the paler, fallen leaves. There are rustlings under the leaves, too. Everything from crickets to chipmunks to forest millipedes scrambling about on the brittle surfaces looking for food, looking for mates, or looking for a good place to wait out the winter.
The trail is, as always, rocky and difficult to walk upon. You have to keep your eyes on your feet to avoid turning an ankle or stubbing a toe. So many trails in Pennsylvania are like this! In his book “A Walk in the Woods” Bill Bryson refers to the Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail as “the place where boots go to die!” You need to stop occasionally as you walk along in order to look around and keep track of trail markers and generate even a general sense of direction. While we are walking all hunched over, staring at the ground, I imagine the surrounding underbrush to be full of animals watching us with great curiosity. “What odd creatures,” they must be thinking,“ to plunge through the woods so noisily without even looking where they are going!”
We stopped at the pond and threw some bread to the fish (all of whom were hidden under the almost continuous cover of lily pads). Green frogs jumped at each piece of bread. The frogs just blink at the bread, though, and then swim away. We watch one green frog stalking a female dragonfly who is busily dabbing her ovipositor onto the open water near the shore. You could feel the logic of the frog: maybe the dragonfly is so focused on laying eggs that she won’t notice a clumsy, slow moving frog angling in for a leap and a grab? But just as it seemed the frog would lunge up after its meal, the dragonfly lifted up and flew away.
We spend two and a half hours wandering around the trails at Todd. There is something so peaceful about being in the woods walking on a narrow, wandering trail with only the sights of your immediate surroundings and only the sounds of your footfalls to fill your mind! We get back to the car tired but well rested, ready for whatever is coming next.