We return to our parking spot the next day and keep on our return arc back toward Freeport Road. The yellow blazes for the trail are fresh and numerous and lead us across the lower park road and down a narrow, muddy trail that rises up into a clearing ringed with berry-laden Tartarian honeysuckle bushes. Tartarian honeysuckle is an exotic invasive but its red and orange berries are edible and may be providing some birds with an energy-rich food source. We cross Freeport Road with little difficulty and turn left down Altermoor Road walking past house after house with their acres of tended lawns.
After a block and half or so Altermoor Road turns to the north, and there is a double yellow blaze with the top mark off-set to the left indicating that the trail turns left at an old gas line sign. We follow the trail on into the woods and quickly leave the neighborhood behind. The trail is muddy and densely lined with an odd collection of herbaceous plants (which included white avens, burdock, wing stem, blackberries, black raspberries, jewel weed and enchanter’s nightshade). It is like the old field plants from the road edges and fence rows around the neighborhood have oozed their way through the opening of the trail down into the surrounding young woods. Trees are primarily black cherry, white ash and hickory. The trees get larger as we move along the trail and soon, especially when the trail rises up a few feet and becomes substantially less damp, red oak and chestnut oak become more abundant. With the appearance of the oaks, the density of the surrounding vegetation drops off greatly.
Tufted titmice and chickadees buzz over the trail and forage for insects up and down the tree branches. The black cherry trees have abundant, mostly green fruit that is just starting to show some early signs of ripening. A flock of cedar waxwings noisily flutters around the cherry branches and pecks at the, probably, still hard cherries. I have heard that the unripe black cherries are eagerly consumed by many birds and squirrels, and the waxwings seemed to be getting more than their share of this early harvest. I remember reading once about a species of baboon in Africa who were able to digest unripe, green figs. These baboons could swoop into pre-ripened fig trees and clean them out before any competitor (who could only digest the ripe figs) had a chance to get to the fruit. These baboons, according to my sketchy memory, produced powerful polysaccharide digesting enzymes which enabled them to break down the very resistant structural polysaccharides of the green figs. I wonder if the waxwings had similar digestive adaptations that enable them to get such a start of the unripe cherries? It would be a great selective advantage!
The trail takes a downward turn and suddenly becomes wet and muddy once again. The surrounding vegetation has a marshy appearance (skunk cabbage and sedges) and is enveloped in dense patches of multiflora rose. We cross a flowing creek and then head back up the trail. Slowly the ground dries once again.
Bright orange mushrooms are sprouting from the standing tree trunks, some of the downed wood, and, apparently, from the moist, black ground itself! A number of the black cherry trees have woodpecker holes carved into them. The size and depth of the holes (and the exuberant numbers of them) suggest that they have been made by pileated woodpeckers. Many of these holes would be perfect for cavity-nesting bird species (like bluebirds or tree swallows) to use for their nesting sites. It has been said that anything one does to increase woodpeckers in an ecosystem will also increase bluebirds!
We cross through a gate and enter what is labeled on the trail guide as the “Corral.” Signs caution every one hiking through this section to remember to secure the gates and to refrain from approaching any horses you might encounter. We saw no horses (sadly) and no fresh sign of any horses either. We are very thankful, though, that the owner of this large horse pasture allows hikers to freely cross their property!
We walk along the rolling pasture trail. Low spots are wet and muddy, and high spots are dry and firm. We cross through several sections of dense woods and see several exit gates uphill off to our left. Our path, though, keeps to the pasture. At once point we break out of a dense, still wooded area into a breezy, open old field. It is good to feel the cool breeze on this warm and increasingly humid day! The old field is rich with plant species. Yarrow, ox-eye daisies, bird’s foot trefoil, curly leafed dock, heal-all, and more fill up the horizontal and vertical spaces of the field.
Some chimney swifts fly overhead, chattering away gobbling up some of the mosquitoes that have been swarming around us (I hope!).
A warbler darts in and out of the dense branches of the thicket along the left side of the trail. I see flashes of yellow on its head, a black throat and chest, and dark sides with white stripes. I write down the field markings and then look it up in the field guide later: it is a black-throated, green warbler! Not especially uncommon, but a first for me! He sings a buzzy, staccato song that falls then rises into a definite “dee” ending. Great bird!
We leave the woods and walk past a family setting up for a cookout in their backyard. We follow their driveway down to Alter Road and turn to the left. Alter Road is very quiet, but it is narrow and winding with some scary blind curves. We stay alert and walk quickly so that no on-coming or passing cars can surprise us. We take Alter down to Saxonburg Road and walk in a narrow bike lane (it looked like a bike lane, anyway). Large trucks race past us. The heat and exhaust fumes from the passing vehicles makes me a little lightheaded. We cross under Route 28 and then are soon able to cross the road to reach a broad, gravel shoulder. Just putting a few steps between ourselves and the hot, fume-laden road is a great relief. We see a bike rider pushing off from a crossroad during a traffic lull. He smiles and waves as he glides past us.
We turn left on the road from which the bike had emerged (Donnelville Road) and then after about 100 yards turn left again onto a gated service road that climbs up to a cell phone tower (our next hiking goal!). We pause at the gate and sit down on a soil pile to have a gorp and water break.
The hike up the cell tower road is steep, long and hot. We have another drink of water at the top and then work our way around the tower and along the gas pipeline. Our path crisscrosses a power line right of way for the next couple of miles, and we go from the cool, but somewhat airless shade of the woods in and out into the breezy, but sunbaked sections of open old fields under and around the tall power lines.
There are large puddles everywhere up here on top of the long ridge. Some
puddles in are broad low spots generated by vagaries in the soil topography while others are in deeper ruts carved out by vehicles (and ATV’s) using the soft dirt and gravel access roads. There are small cluster of air bubbles floating on many of these puddles. Closer examination shows that the air bubbles are being utilized as refuges by a substantial number of predaceous diving beetles.
There is some ominous wording in the trail guide about the way this section of trail ends. It says: the trail “descends steeply and dramatically down to Burtner Road.” Now you have to know your trail guide author to know what “steeply” and “dramatically” really mean. Some authors are prone to be a bit hysterical and hyperbolic in their use of adjectives and adverbs while others are maddeningly understated in their descriptive vocabulary. We weren’t sure to which stereotype out trail guide author leaned. We know now, though: understated to the extreme.
I am looking at the topo map of this part of the trail. We had come to a significant downward trail section that is pretty steep but still very walkable. We then went down about 80 feet in a sixteenth of a mile and had to negotiate a deep erosion gully on our way down. Out on the trail, I was not sure if this is the described ending section of the trail or not, but feel that it was not too bad.
In about a half a mile, though, we hit the “drama.” We go down 140 feet in a tenth of a mile and then back up 80 feet in much less than a tenth of a mile. From our perch up on top of the ridge we see our next trail section (which causes us to consider changing our summer hiking plans) and hear a hint of the passing traffic on Burtner Road. We then go down over 200 feet in less than a tenth of a mile often sliding on our rear ends to keep from careening out of control down the slope. The ridge from which we start our potential energy dispersion is 300 feet above the elevation of the road. We had done all of the “down” over almost no linear distance.
We were very happy to get into the car! We also decide to do the rest of this trail some other year!