Monday, August 19, 2013

Red Bridge Campground

It's taken me nearly 2 weeks to carve out the time to give Red Bridge Campground it's much deserved review. That's just another signal of what kind of crazy summer it has been for us.

August 9th we met up with my in-laws to head deep into the heart of the Allegheny National Forest. We had already taken the boys camping 3 times this summer, and my in-laws were itching to get out with us, and have some fun in the woods.

Jen and I had scouted Red Bridge Campground during our May camping trip, and had quickly placed it very high on the list of future trips. Managed by the Forest Service, and right on the shore of the southern arm of the Kinzua Resevoir, Red Bridge Campground is prime place for campers and boaters alike.

We found this out very quickly when we arrived at 4pm to pick our campsite.  Being relatively early on a weekend, I thought we'd have no problem getting the perfect site, boy was I wrong. By 4pm 80% of the campsites were occupied, and another 10% were reserved. We drove each loop trying to make a judgement call on what would be the best site.

Instead of adjoining sites we found a large site where both my camper, and my in-laws truck could fit. They would be using a pop-up tent that secures in the bed of the pickup, so our set up turned out to be ideal.  We made couple adjustments then I hiked down the driveway to the self-service station. While there are 2 camp host sites, the campground is largely self-service, which I think is ideal.

The site was conveniently located to both vault and flush toilets, plus a shower room. Thick woods lent to the air of deep woods privacy, and the 10pm noise curfew is honored. Both nights we stayed, we were shocked at how quiet and peaceful the campground was overnight, despite being near capacity.

Shortly after going to bed Friday night we heard a bit of rustling in our campsite, then a shout from my mother-in-law. We turned our flashlights on, and shined them out of the window, just in time to see a good sized black bear stroll through our campsite. Unpreturbed by our commotion in the camper I decided to get out and just be sure he was scared out of our site. He left without incident, but what a way to start our camping trip!!

After a nice day trip on Saturday to the Kinzua Railroad Bridge, we returned to camp and hiked around some more. My oldest son and I explored the walk in sites. Their are 8 sites that are accessed by a small trail leading from a secluded parking lot. If you like the privacy of deep woods camping and want to experiment with campground camping, these sites are ideal. Heavily wooded, and seperated from the primary part of the campground with RV's.

Then we met up with Jen and our youngest and hiked to the opposite end of the campground where a fishing pier is positioned. This handicapped accessible pier was being used by a young family after some panfish, but happy to have a bite on any of their lines. Not surprising for late summer. The water is warm, and the fish have been dogged for months now.

Saturday night was uneventful, and we had a nice relaxing Sunday morning as we cleaned up camp. I wouldn't hesitate to stay their again, although I would attempt to make reservations, just in case.

Sites to see while there:

- The Kinzua Dam is quite a site to see, accessible by heading north on Rt 321 then west on Rt 62, the Kinzua Dam is the reason for the resevoir, and all the activities available there.

- The Kinzua Railroad Bridge, Skywalk. South on 321 to US 6 then east on US 6 for about 20 min, you'll find one of my favorite spots. After a tornado ravaged half the bridge in 2003 the state of PA refurbished the remaining bridge to be one of the most scenic vistas available in all the National Forest.

- At the junction of Rt 321 and US 6 is the town of Kane. A boom town of the lumber rush, Kane grew during the oil rush as well. Now a quaint town in the heart of the National Forest, there are several shops to see, but I'd urge you to stop at Bell's Meat Market. With over 20 varieties of house made sausages you can not go wrong.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A busy, busy summer

Well it's been a over a month since my last post, but I suppose this is what happens after our long Northwest PA winters. We've dreamed and planned for July, so once it arrives we are busy, busy, busy.

Since my last post, I’ve:
Had a large family picnic where I broke out two of my summer specialties: pit barbecued chicken, with a vinegar based sauce and smoked pulled pork with my homemade Kansas City style sweet sauce.

We took a week of vacation where we spent 4 days at my uncle’s cabin, with various day trips around the Allegheny National Forest. So much to write about there! I’ve got 4-5 blog posts slated, and I’ll probably even work in a published piece on this trip.

My hometown’s annual motorcycle rally, took place. The Roar on the Shore is in its 7th season, and was bigger than ever this year.
Flower garden is in full swing, and since we’ve had a cool, somewhat wet summer, the yard work hasn’t stopped either.
Shot 2 more videos for the Gear Review at, plus published an article and worked on a second, for NWPA Outdoors, and the Erie Times-News.
And even as I find time to eak out one more blog post, my mind is wandering to the camping trip with my in-laws last weekend. We headed down to Red Bridge campground on the shores of the Kinzua Reservoir, deep in the heart of the National Forest, and completely out of cell range for 48 hours. A blessing and a curse to be sure!
But this is what we do. Living in the northern tier our winters are long and harsh. Often not much to do, and not a ton of motivation to do what is available. So we plan and dream. Then when July and August comes around we replenish our spirit with warm weather outdoors activities with family and friends.
Happy Exploring
Scott M

Monday, July 8, 2013

Heading off to camp!

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase: I'm going camping?

Does it conjure images of camping trips you've been on?

Do you remember fun family times from you youth?

For me it's the process. In order to be able to go camping you have to pack up and take a lot of supplies with you. Living in a home day after day, we all take for granted the items we'll need to carry with us, because they are always at the house, just waiting to be used.

While that may seem bothersome to others, I find that process very relaxing, almost zen like.

It all starts with the menu. There's nothing waiting for you at camp. No pantry with the odd dried goods that could be whipped into a simple snack. No freezer with the odd pack of sausage you can cook for dinner. So that's where my camping trips start. I make a menu for each day, taking into account the activities for that day, plus whatever food phase the boys are going through. Thankfully the younger one is in a ketchup sandwich phase, so that's easy enough to account for. Then there's always the new dishes I've discovered on Pinterest or Facebook. BBQ pork foil pack and Mountain pies are high on the agenda for our upcoming camping trip.

Next is planning for the activities. We typically camp near the Allegheny National Forest so there's always something new to explore there. On our next trip we plan on spending a day at the Kinzua Beach area. When I was younger the Messenger family would gather together for a weeklong camping trip and one of the days would always be spent swimming in the Kinzua reservoir.  The boys are very into the beach this summer, so what better way to spend the day then sharing memories from my youth with them.

Packing, packing, packing. Often the bane of the camper's existence. You've got to bring everything you'll need, because there's no going back. To ease the process we'll often start packing days in advance. Dry groceries that don't require refrigeration will be bagged and staged somewhere out of the way. Clothes will be packed up a day or two in advance. Our oldest is getting to the stage where we are pushing him to be responsible for picking out and packing his own clothes. He found out on our last trip that it's always better to bring at least one extra set of clothes!

Then my favorite part: Setting camp. Whether you pitching tents and creating a fire circle, or moving into a cabin, setting up camp is part of the joy of camping. You've made all your preparations, now it's time to put it into action. Do you have enough wood? Will you be able to efficiently cook and clean around the camp? How will rain effect your campsite or activity plans?

That's the thing about camping. You've got to work to get by. There's no lounging on the couch and flicking channels. If you want a hot dinner, you've got to gather wood. You've got to make a cooking fire. You've got to make sure the ingredients for dinner, are thawed enough to cook, or held at a safe raw temperature.  It's all work, but for me it's the most enjoyable part of camping.

The Zen of Camping if you will.

Happy Camping
Scott M

Thursday, June 20, 2013

It's just a phase...

It's just a phase...

If I had a nickle for every time I've uttered that phrase in the last 3 years, I'd have the boys' college fund nearly complete. While it's hard to keep this kind of perspective in the heat of the moment, those four little words are some of the truest words a parent can keep in mind.

The first time Robert went to my uncle's cabin, he had just turned 5 and he'd barely make it 50 feet away from the cabin before he turned and ran back to us on the porch. Last month Robert and Aiden played all over the backyard and even went exploring a short distance down one of the trails on their own.

In December Aiden got his first "big-boy bed." Now in a toddler bed it was far easier for him to get out, so he never wanted to stay in bed. After 5 months of me lying on the floor next to the bed until he fell asleep, he now goes to bed on his own after telling me "night, night" and asking me to shut his door.

It's crazy how fast kids change. It's also one of the scariest things for a responsible parent. We so often over analyze each behavior, each action, and stress that we are creating a bad habit when we let this go on. Yet a few short months down the road and that little behavior turned  out to be nothing, and yet another behavior has risen to take its place as the concern du jour.

I guess that's what good parenting is though, right? You want the best for your kids. You want them to grow up without pain. You also realize that as a parent, you're charged with preparing them for the real world. The real world is full of challenges and heartache. Your stress over the little things, while still allowing them to grow, succeed, and fail, is what makes you a good parent. And by extension will make your children successful members of society.

If I accomplish nothing else with this life, my goal will always be to raise two successful, and fiercely independent men. Who, with any luck, will know the complete joy of being a father.

Scott M

Monday, June 17, 2013

Local wilderness vacations: West Branch French Creek Conservation Area

This past weekend the boys and I visited the West Branch French Creek Conservation Area. A painfully long name for a very serene place. Located on Rt 8 about 10 miles south from the Rt 8 and I-90 interchange. This wilderness area is very easy to get to and very easy to park, once you arrive.

We got there just before noon, on a sunny Saturday.  While we weren't planning on a picnic lunch there, the covered pavilion with a handful of picnic tables would be an ideal location for lunch. From start to finish the trail is about 1.1mi long, and is out and back on the same trail, except for a large loop at the end. Nothing too exciting, at least I thought, until we came upon the log bridge section of the trail.

While it appears to be a split log trail over tall grass in these photos, what you don't see is that there is a substantial flow of water underneath all of these marsh grasses. Immediately to the left of both photos is a 2 acre beaver pond that slowly drains in the direction of the logs creating a large swamp. Robert was hesitant at first, but after the first several logs, he was very entertained by the whole idea of it.

I'd estimate that this log bridge continued for about 100 yards through the swamp. Due to the rain we had most of last week, you could see and hear water flowing under many of the logs. Even with the logs we managed to get a bit muddy on the transition too and from the logs. Oh well, exploring new places isn't always a clean business.

Past the swamp, the land did rise and a very pretty pine forest opened up. The shade was a pleasant change after being exposed for so long on the log bridge.  We stuck to the trail, and made our way around taking time to note where animals had crossed the trail. At one point there was a very clear Possum track that Robert thought was very cool.

I had discovered this trail on a website for a new program that Erie Co government was hosting called Let's Move Outside. Part of a larger program initiated by Michelle Obama, Let's Move encourages people to get out and explore there local area on foot. The Erie Co program, lists 15 trails, 8 of which are through wooded areas. The remainder are through urban areas that have some scenic or historic interest to learn about while hiking.

Each trail has a unique art piece somewhere along the trail.

I'm not exactly sure that the whole in the art piece was meant for photos, but really who's going to stop an 8 year old from posing like this?

At the top of the artwork is a unique code.

Once registered through the website you can record each code so that you keep a checklist as you collect each of the hikes in Erie Co. For 2013, if you register each of the 15 hikes you'll be entered into a drawing for a new mountain bike they are giving away at the end of November.

At 1.1 miles this is a very short hike. However, this is a very scenic and natural area that has been developed appropriately so that the natural state is preserved. We hope to visit again later in the summer once the water level has subsided and after the raspberry bushes we found have ripened.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Local Wilderness Vacations: Scott Park

While talking to several friends at a picnic this weekend, one of my oldest friends, Chris Zimmer, reminded me of a wooded park that is easy to explore, yet I hadn't been there in years. Scott Park, located on W 6th St, in Millcreek, just east of Peninsula Dr is sandwiched between private property on the east and west, yet it extends all the way to the head of Presque Isle Bay. This locale lends itself to quick little wilderness excursions with the kids, a light yet scenic trail run, birding for the shore birds that call Presque Isle home or scenic views of Presque Isle Bay.

Since Memorial Day found me in the possession of 2 rambunctious boys, while Jen slept off her 3rd shift work, I figured we would explore a new area. Besides, what better way to run off some youthful energy, then peaking around the next bend in the trail?

Arriving at the trail head marked Bay Trail, I turned on what is quickly becoming my favorite smart phone app, My Tracks. My Tracks uses GPS to track your progress as you hike a trail and gives you several useful stats as you proceed, then saves the stats plus the map you've created for future reverence.

To the left is a screen grab of the Stats tab that was created as we walked the Bay Trail at Scott Park. 1.1 mi is not an extensive hike by anyone's definition. Both my 7 and 2 year old have been on longer hikes. Admittedly the 2 year old has finished those longer hikes in our pack, but that's a different story. And the 2 mi/h pace is respectable for the youngsters. To the right is the map that My Tracks created during the walk. Both tabs are accessible while recording, making the app not only useful for compiling data for future, but also if you found yourself lost your map view could help you regain your bearings.

As we reached the cliffs to the bay we heard the familiar rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker on a nearby tree. We never did see him, but judging from the volume I think it may have been a Pileated Woodpecker, which if you've never seen one you will be astonished at the size. Roughly the same height as a Red-Tailed Hawk, or Sharp Shinned Hawk, the Pileated Woodpecker is quite large. As you can imagine when he starts rattling on a tree, the whole woods knows about it.

I always find it astonishing the way some plants seem to pop up out of the blue. Take these Virginia Waterleaf plants in full bloom. This patch was immediately to the left of the path opposite a large cliff that went down to the water's edge. From a light lavender all the way through a dark purple, these patches of flowers seemed so wildly out of place.  While not uncommon in PA, just as the name suggests the plant is native to Virginia. I imagine the moist micro-climate right along the bay lends itself to this plant thriving.  Altogether there were 3 large patches, each measuring 6-8 feet across. Very pretty and a lovely surprise for the boys and I.

As we reached the corner of the property you can clearly see the portion of Sara's Campground that is accessible from Presque Isle Blvd on W 6th St. Camping so close to where people live full time has always struck me as funny, but that's just because I've had access to some lovely remote campgrounds. Plus I have had the privilege of growing up near Presque Isle. Not everyone has that, so a campground near such an awesome attraction really does make perfect sense to outsiders.

The trail continues back out into the same parking lot we departed from in between the softball field and the BMX track. There is another ball field plus a playground and pavilion for group picnics.

Can you think of any other hidden gems nearby? Maybe a park with an unmarked trail that is just emerging, or maybe a trail that's been there for years, but only locals know about it. Leave a suggestion in the comments. I'd love to hear about new spots to explore!

Happy Hiking
Scott M

Monday, May 20, 2013

Rolling with the punches

Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. At least that is how the last week and a half has felt. We had all gone camping the weekend of the 10th, and had plans to take my Dad's camper the weekend of the 17th. Shortly before the first campout there was an "issue" that came up with Jen's schedule at work. The resolution to that issue, revised her schedule for the foreseeable future making spontaneous camping trips a near impossibility. Did we get mad? Maybe a little at first, but what can we really do about it? Should we stay mad and ruin the times we do have, or roll with it and make the best decision you can, with the information at hand.

You roll with it and move on. And what a great lesson this is for our boys, too. In life we take time to plan, and hope for the future, but the future is a moving target. Our plans keep us as close as possible to the target, but you just never know what may come around the corner and force your plans to change. 

Or do kids end up teaching this lesson to their parents?  Look at the fun those two crazy monkeys are having playing in the rain, in the photo above. We had talked about and prepped for this camping trips for weeks and weeks in advance. Jen and I saw the long range forecast and the chance of rain Friday night, our first night in camp. The boys weren't interested in the weather forecast, they wanted to go to camp.

Just as we finished unloading the Jeep at camp the rain started in, and what did the boys do? They didn't mope around feeling sorry for themselves because it's camping on their weekend at camp. They played in it!

They took turns running from the porch to the big Cherry tree in the yard. They stood under the downspout and felt the water hit their heads. They used a fly swatter to bat at the water while it fell from the downspout. Our boys rolled with the punches, and isn't that the best lesson they could ever teach us?

Let me know what lessons a child has taught you in the comments. I'd love to read about it.

Happy Exploring
Scott M