Signs of Winter 7: A Snow Hike at Laurel Hill

Photo by D. Sillman

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The winter is a time when many of us don’t even think about going outside to walk or hike. Much of this behavior is habit, I think. It is more than possible to layer up with comfortable, warm clothing and put on suitable boots that will stand up to even the coldest days of our winter. Properly clad you can get in some very nice miles along your favorite trails and paths. You need to watch for ice patches and avoid slips and falls, of course. You also need to anticipate steep slopes and maybe find routes that are relatively level. One cold, January afternoon many years ago I got stuck in the ravine of our campus’ Nature Trail unable to climb up the icy path (I was wearing some smooth bottomed tennis shoes!). I ended up pulling myself up through the scrubby underbrush well off the trail. Hanging on to the woody stems was the only thing that kept me from continually sliding back down the slope toward the creek.

Some of trails near rivers and creeks get a thick coating of ice that can persist until March. You need to find trails that stay clear or ones that are simply snow covered. A good winter hiking stick with an ice-tip is a great tool for a winter walk. Wool socks are also a good idea, and you want to be sure that your hands and face are well covered so that there are no problems with frostbite.

There are many advantages to winter hiking: the lack of crowds, the lack of ticks and biting flies, and the incredible quiet and peacefulness of the winter woods! Deborah and I have done a number of “snow hikes” with our friends Rob and Michele and have written about them on this blog. Take a look at the Wolf Rocks hike (November 14, 2014) or the Spruce Flats Bogs hike (November 21, 2014) or the Hemlocks and Snow Fleas hike (February 2, 2014) for a feel of some really nice winter hikes in the woods.

Keeping this history alive, the four of us decided to go for another winter hike back in mid-December!

Photo by D. Sillman

Earlier in the week it had sleeted and snowed, so there was ice on the roads and parking areas and a couple of inches of crusty snow on the trails. It was cold (the high that day was about 19 degrees F), but it wasn’t windy, and we were all well wrapped in our winter gear. Deborah and Michele even had glove warmers (which stayed hot well into the evening!).

We drove down to Laurel Hill State Park. The original forest on Laurel Hill had been dominated by eastern hemlocks, and there is a small stand of surviving hemlocks that we often visit but decided that the climb up and down that trail might be too icy today.

The site’s primal forest was clear cut in the late 1880’s leaving almost all of Laurel Hill a dry, brushy wasteland. The piles of discarded branch wood regularly burned often in extensive wildfires that spread over the ridges and valleys. In the early decades of the Twentieth Century the view of this ravaged ecosystem led Gifford Pinchot (the founder of the U.S. Forest Service and an eventual governor of Pennsylvania) to describe the uncontrolled logging of the Pennsylvania forests as “an orgy of forest destruction.”

It was also a fundamental lesson in forest ecology. The lack of trees allowed the rain to breakup and erode the underlying soil not only removing vital nutrients from the terrestrial ecosystems but also silting up the local streams and killing off fish and aquatic invertebrates. Further, the lack of water retention in the terrestrial ecosystems allowed rainwater to run unchecked into the rivers causing massive flooding with great property and human life losses. The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was at least partially attributable to the massive deforestation of these and neighboring ridges.

Photo by D. Sillman

We are fortunate, though, for two things: 1. Our climate and surrounding ecosystems enabled certain tree species (like the red maples, black cherries, and red oaks) to rapidly re-establish themselves in the charred habitats, and 2. There were people (like the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy) and programs (like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (or “CCC”)) that invested time, money, and energy into the rehabilitation and resurrection of these ecosystems. What we see around us today is the result of their foresight and efforts.

Many of the trees that make up this incredibly evenly aged secondary forest are relatively short lived. Black cherry trees, an important part of the “Allegheny Hardwood” association, live on average 100 years. Very few specimens of black cherry are ever found older than 130 years (tree life estimates are from Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources web site). Along the trails of Laurel Hill Park (and almost everywhere else in Western Pennsylvania, too) you see abundant woodpecker damage to standing black cherries and increasingly large numbers of standing, dead trees. Red maples are the most numerically abundant trees in our Western Pennsylvania forests. They have an average life span of about 130 years and seldom live to be older than 150. These trees, then, are also well past their primes! These rich, apparently healthy forests around us are nearing the ends of their expected life spans.

What these forest will turn into next is a topic of great interest and concern!

We drove to the Pump House Trail and parked in a very icy parking area. It was comically difficult to walk across the iced-up gravel to get to the trail head! There were a couple of pickup trucks in the lot when we arrived and one deer hunter coming in out of the woods (empty handed). Rob had hooked his orange hat onto his coat, and I thought about the orange vests I had intended to bring (they were hanging warm and safe in my garage back home). We planned to stay on the large trails and make as much “people” noise as possible. We could always hide behind Rob and his hat at need! We spent two hours walking the loop down to the pump house pond and up onto the ridge. When we returned all of the pickups had gone.

Photo by D. Sillman

On the hike we stopped at the CCC-built dam and crossed the sequence of the narrow, snow-covered, log, foot- bridges that spanned the winding track of the fast-running Jones Mill Run. The run was bordered and, in places, covered with a layer of ice. There were some beautiful icicle sculptures growing beside the fast running creek. In between log bridges the trail was stabilized by a layer of large, ice covered rocks. Walking very difficult. You had to keep your eyes on the path’s surface to keep from falling or turning an ankle. Every once and a while we stopped so that we could look around at the scenery.

Over the two hours of the hike we saw no birds, no squirrels, no deer and very few other people. We didn’t see any “snow fleas” today either. We did meet a young sheepdog (and his owner) to whom we yielded the right-of-way on one of the log bridges. We weren’t sure if the sheepdog would have seen us standing in front of him if we had tried to cross before he did! The thought of being knocked into the cold water of the creek was very unpleasant!

It was an incredibly pleasant hike! We then went to a nice warm tavern and had a sandwich and a glass of local ale. Winter hikes are the best!




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One Response to Signs of Winter 7: A Snow Hike at Laurel Hill

  1. Andy Schreffler says:

    Makes me yearn to get going!
    ML Schreffler

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