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

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Local wilderness vacations: Chapman State Park

While staying at a cabin near Pittsfield, PA we took a day trip to Chapman State Park, in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest. From our cabin base, it was less than a 45 minute drive, so even if you're travelling from Erie, you'd have less than 2 hours windshield time. A little long for a daytrip, but I think that's not unreasonable.

Since we had never been there, we stopped at the Park Office to pick up some brochures. I love it when the brochure racks are well taken care of and well stocked. As much as I love finding new areas, I love to peruse brochures making plans for our next adventure.  And it didn't hurt to have a lovely garden of native Pennsylvania flowering plants.

After a quick scan of the map we decided to take a look at the camping area. Just passed the dam, and the parking lot used heavily this time of year for trout fishing, we passed a couple other parking areas near picnic pavillions, and playgrounds before we arrived at the campground itself. Simple and quaint, just how the campground at a State Park should be. Lot's of woods, and plenty of spots to either pitch a tent or park your camper.

At Chapman State Park, there are a couple cabins, and a couple Yurts, just like the one we stayed in at Pymatuning Campground. My biggest gripe is the fact that any of the structures in a campground in the State Park system must be rented for the entire week during the summer season. It's not that the prices are unreasonable, it's more the fact that I don't want to be locked down to just one campground on my week of summer vacation. Maybe we spend 3 nights at Chapman, then maybe 2 at Willowbay, and then 2 more at Cook's Forest. All have cabins to rent, however if they're on state land, you can't rent them for just one night.

After circling the campground, we headed around the lake to check out some of the trailheads for their system of trails in the park.  We quickly decided on following Adam's Run Trail. The parking was easy, and the trailhead was handicap accessible for about a quarter mile, when it turned and looped back to the parking lot. We continued on and found the trail to be a mix of grassy to gravely, crossing through every imaginable habit.

I think exploring the diverse habitat that PA has to offer was the best part of this trail. The trail followed it's namesake Adam's Run, which is a prototypical mountain run off stream. Clear and cold with a gravel bottom. Very easy to picture the old days when you could stumble on a native brook trout just around the next bend.

Trail improvement projects have installed several nice wooden bridges that made the early portions of the trail quiet enjoyable. However, in the picture below, I think Jen would have preferred better drainage in this section. Then maybe Robert wouldn't have needed a piggy-back ride!

By the end of the trail we walked out onto one of the large dirt parking lots the services the boat ramp for Chapman Lake behind Chapman Dam. With Trout season in full swing, and regular stocking still happening, this shoreline was a busy place the Saturday afternoon that we visited.

This was a great place to have some fun and get our camping season off on the right foot. Great hiking, and fun exploring of a new park for us to visit in the future.

What State Parks have you visited? What would attract you back to visit again? Leave your experiences in the comments. I'd love to explore your favorite spots.

Happy exploring,
Scott M

Monday, May 13, 2013

What we're built to do.

I've had lot's of jobs in the 13 years since I've graduated college. More if you consider the jobs while in school. I've been a stagehand, a barista, I've sold men's sweaters and women's bras, I've hired, trained and fired people, I've been a counselor, and a bank manager, I've written about hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, women's football, and giant diesel engines. Out of all of those things I've done over the years, I'm truly only built to be one thing: A Dad.

Being a Dad can be maddeningly frustrating, but then something changes. My little boy realizes he likes to give hugs and he tries to squeeze the air out of your neck each time. My big boy, finally turns his writing grade around. Then you realize these are the reasons why you bring kids into this world. So you can hold them close, and see them succeed. The frustration is actually unimportant, and passes as quickly as a summer breeze. The smiles and elation, well that sticks to you, like peach juice on your chin. Delicious, and worth every minute.

It's easy to lose sight of the important things in life. After all we have to have a roof over our heads and food on the table. What we choose to do to earn the money for those things is not who we are. They are not the legacy we'll leave behind on this Earth. The children that we shape and mold define the type of person we want to be. Whether those children are yours through biology, or as a result of life events bringing that little person into your life. Even if you never have your own, there will be children in your life that you will create an indelible mark on.

Never is this more prevalent to me than when we head away from home to go camping. Our first trip this year was May 10-12, Mother's Day Weekend. I think it speaks a lot about Jen that she wanted to go camping this weekend. Even though we are at a beautiful old cabin, being in the woods with a 7 and 2 year old is no easy task. Keeping two adults fed and happy is a chore enough away from home, but drive up into the mountains with two youngsters in tow, and you're asking for some frustrating moments.

It's all worth it though. My oldest did a 3 mile hike, across creeks, up and down slippery hills, through wet grass that soaked his shoes in the first 15 minutes, and not once did he complain. He paid attention to plants that were blooming. Saw a Red-Tailed Hawk soaring. Then shied away from a Orange Salamander crossing the path in front of us. My youngest ate a hot dog bun, and the hot dog! (If you have ever had a toddler you'll get it.) He even toasted his own marshmallow, and played in the rain.

After packing up camp, cleaning the cabin, we made the hour long car ride home. Since it was Mother's Day we visited both Nana's for a short while. After that we had a little dinner and as I finished the dishes my youngest hugged my leg and said, "Daddy, I go back to camp now?"  Yeah, the nights of rough sleep, the tears over homework, the frustration isn't important. We made an indelible mark on Robert's and Aiden's souls this weekend, and that is more precious than anything in the world.

How do you create memories that last a lifetime?  Leave your ideas in the comments. I'd love to hear them.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

And a dash of color

There's not to many things that stand out more in the forest, than an out of place dash of color.

Even though the woods are often full of objects to look at, most of those objects fall into the same color palette: greens, browns, some grays.

That's what makes the highly colored elements so strikingly beautiful. Take the Trillium here to the left as a prime example. The fuscia of the petals caught my attention from a solid 10 yards away. After 3 hours of hunting turkeys, and a 1/4 mile hike to explore a new area, here is this lone sentinel of color growing next to the trail. No other flowers around this one. A few hay-scented ferns, still tightly wound in the "fiddle-head" stage, but nothing close to this Trillium in color. While I'd love to add this beautiful plant to my home garden, he belonged to those woods. I'll visit that area next spring to see if maybe another plant has sprouted up next to this one.

Then there was this fellow traveller. Technically a Red-Spotted Newt, though most of us just called them orange salamanders whenever we saw them growing up. Interestingly enough This is considered the "terrestrial stage" because after being hatched in a pond, they take to the land to scout out a new pond where they will mate and continue on their species. The terrestrial stage helps to avoid inter-breeding, and keeps the gene-pool free of defects.

Look at the overview of where I found this newt travelling. He's easy enough to miss, until you see that out of place bright orange color in the center of the frame.

That's the joy of springtime in the woods. Sure our home gardens are popping up with daffodils and tulips. And they provide a welcome change of color, but the woods have been so quiet and devoid of any color that coming across these two examples of bright colors in nature, is a sight for sore eyes.

Unfortunately my boys weren't with me on this trip. They aren't old enough to head to the woods and hunt with Dad. They are old enough to hike around my uncle's cabin, and that's exactly what we'll be doing this weekend. I don't know who's more excited me and Jen, or the boys.

Robert is very excited because he has a new telescope and using it in the city hasn't been a really good time. We'll be on top of Cole Hill in Pittsfield, PA. Not the darkest point in PA, but it is in fact quite close. About 100 yards in either direction from camp there will be open fields where we'll set up the telescope and try to find a good view of the heavens. Aiden is quite excited himself. We had a small backyard bonfire on Saturday night and once the fire was up and running the first thing he asked for was a marshmallow.

Amazing the things kids remember, he'll be 3 in July and hasn't been camping in nearly 10 months, but he remembers that fires are for marshmallows.

What are your favorite springtime memories or past times?

What do you look forward to when going camping?

Leave a comment below. I'd love to hear about your adventures.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Local wilderness vacations: Allegheny National Forest

So after an admittedly Erie County bias in my first several posts in the Local wilderness vacation series, let me tell you know about an area near and dear to my heart: the Allegheny National Forest.

For regular readers of my blog, you've read about my uncle's cabin near Pittsfield. We try to make it to that cabin 2-3 times a year, because of the beauty of that place, but also because it serves as a wonderful base camp for exploring the ANF. Since we have spent so much time exploring the ANF I can honestly say it is one of those places that have stolen my heart. As years pass I hope my boys find the same connection.

A little primer to get us started: The ANF covers over 513,000 acres or about 810 square miles of forested land. Travelling from Erie you can take US 6 to Warren to access the northern portions, or I-79 to I-80 to access the southern portions. For the sake of keeping this about local wilderness vacations, with the theme and idea that these trips are done in 1 day or less, and often with kids in tow, I'll maintain my focus on the northern portions. I'll define the northern portions as the triangle roughly created by Heart's Content Recreation Area, to the Kinzua Railroad Bridge, to the Kinzua Resevoir and New York state line. 

Heart's Content Recreation Area:
Formed as a land grant to the State of PA, by the lumber company that had owned the land, Heart's Content is the only tract of old growth timber in the entire commonwealth. What does that mean? This land has never been timbered, so the land is identical to how the earliest inhabitants of this area would have seen it.  Many of us have grown up visiting wooded areas on a regular basis. I like to hunt and hike, so I'd like to think I've seen every style of forest that exists here in NWPA. That was until I visited Heart's Content.

The trees are simply enormous. Saved from the hands of man, the trees here live out a natural life cycle, growing until some natural disaster like a windstorm or tornado topples them, or until they simply become to old to support their own weight. At which point they fall, often taking several trees with them, but simultaneously opening up a new section of the canopy. This new opening allows more sunlight to hit the forest floor, kick starting the next generation of trees.

This is entirely different than what typical forests look like. Even the oldest forests in PA have been cut at least once, but more often 2-3 times as is typical in a 50-75 year cycle of cutting. Two things happen: The trees clearly are younger; The trees are removed from the land so that the old trees are not in various stages of decay on the forest floor.

When visiting Heart's Content, make sure to walk the nature loop, which is an easy 1.0 mile hike, which has several placards describing what you can see along the path.  There is also a 6.4 mile hike, which loops through the forest and follows several old railroad grades outsite the old growth area of the forest.

Kinzua Dam and Resevoir:
The Kinzua Dam and Resevoir is located just 6 miles east of the city of Warren, and is one of the largest dams east of the Mississippi. The primary purpose of the dam was to control flooding on the upper stretches of the Allegheny River. However, the hydro-electric power serves as a tremendous green asset to the electric grid, and the 21,000 acrea resevoir that was created kick started the tourist industry in the ANF.

Several small camps had been constructed by the CCC back the 1930's, but once the dam was completed and the resevoir was full, several other private and public campgrounds were created. Plus a public beach area was established on the east side of the resevoir, just over the Rt 59 bridge.  I can not tell you how many afternoons my cousins and I swam at that beach while picnicking with our families.

Just last summer Jen and I took the kids to Willowbay Campground near the northern end of the resevoir, and what a great time we had. Within minutes of setting up in the cabin, I heard some leaves crunching, and turned to see a flock of wild turkey casually walk within 20 feet of our cabin. The boys splashed in the beach that was a stone's throw from our front door. We had such a great time we fully intend on making it back there this summer.

Kinzua Railroad Bridge:
Once billed as one of the 8 man-made wonders of the world, the Kinzua Railroad Bridge was the tallest steel railroad bridge in the world when completed. Then in 2003 a tornado travelled up the valley knocking down 11 of the bridges 20 towers. I remember the July day quite clearly. After a stormy day in Erie, I happened to be watching the news when a story came on about a tornado and possible collapse of the railroad bridge. Once the story was confirmed I thought back to all the family trips we had to the bridge. Hiking over and under the bridge was a tremendous adventure, and in one swift moment, half the bridge was gone. I can't lie, I shed a tear that night thinking about the bridge.

However, the State of PA recognized what a beloved visitors area the bridge had become, and made the investment to repair the remaining structures, and create a visitors platform at the far end. The resulting "sky-bridge" is truly a sight to behold. While I'm sad that my boys won't experience the bridge and park the way I did, the repurposed bridge and visitors area, is an excellent use of the area.

Do you have a favorite area of the ANF? Maybe a spot where you have camped or hiked? Let me know about it in the comments!

Like to hear about another great wild place the NWPA has to offer? Let me know the name of it in the comments and I'll check it out, so your favorite spot can be featured in another story!

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hiking with our boys and the gear we choose

Jen and I love hiking and exploring in the woods. As a result our goal is to try and instill that same love for the outdoors into our boys. With that in mind whenever we have some free time on a day off we'll often pack up the Jeep and head out to explore a new trail, or visit an old reliable wooded area.

There's not much worse than a cranky kid halfway through a hike because no matter how you slice it, you have to hike back to the vehicle. So the gear we choose really is critical to our success.

Last Father's Day Jen purchased a frame style toddler pack. The Chicco Smart Support Backpack, available on seemed to have all the features we were looking for. My shoulder straps are padded and contain a lot of adjustment. The waist band is similar. When it comes to my 6"1" 230lbs frame I'm always skeptical when purchasing online, but this fits as it should. Anyone who has ever carried a framepack and knows how to adjust it, will have not problems with this pack.
The pack also comes equipped with a kick stand, so the pack can be rested on the ground, completely unsupported, even when loaded with a toddler.  Aiden is just over 30lbs now, and he rides back there very comfortably. He is sitting up and completely supported by the nylon seat. A previous cloth infant pack we used a handful of times made him appear as if he was strapped to my back. This pack he can clearly see his surroundings and can rest his hands on the frame, or my shoulders.
On the back of the pack is a detachable bag that we've used to carry small items. Our plan is to make that our First Aid kit to use during our smaller hikes.

Since everyone's happiness is a real necessity on family outings, Jen has taken to carrying an older JanSport backpack. These leather bottomed bags are ideal little daypacks. The one she's carrying I used while in college some 15 years ago, and it's still going strong. The main compartment is undivided and when unzipped opens up flat in order to view everything stored within. There are two smaller compartments on the outside, perfect for small items you want to keep handy.

In reality the biggest necessity for a successful hike with our boys is our preparation. We constantly keep in mind that they are much smaller than us, and physically can't keep up with our pace. Plus they need to be entertained. As an adult, I know the excitement of turning a bend and coming face-to-face with a wild turkey or a white-tailed deer, but they don't know that yet. They will easily get bored, so we are constantly pointing stuff out to them and making sure they are seeing all the interesting things around them. We stop frequently to point out natural habitats, and areas where animals have obviously left their mark. When it's time to rest, we find some downed trees and break out the snacks.

There's no time table when hiking with our kids, we let the day bring what it will, and most of the time it brings beautiful memories.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Local wilderness vacations: Erie Bluffs State Park

On a recent sunny Sunday we found ourselves with nothing specific to do. A rare thing for a family with 2 young boys, but I'm not crazy enough to look a gift horse in the mouth!

Jen and I quickly packed up a daypack with some snack and drinks. I made sure my toddler pack was in the Jeep, then I grabbed the camera and we hit the road.

We headed west of the City of Erie, on US 20 all the way to Girard, PA. About 30 minutes from the city. Then we cut down to US 5 and drove about another 5 miles to Erie Bluffs State Park.

Erie Bluffs is a relatively new addition to PA's State Park system. Boasting over 500 acres open to hiking, and hunting. There is a developing trail network suitable for exploring with kids, or even mountain biking.

Attached to Erie Bluffs State Park is the Elk Creek Access Area, maintained by the PA Fish and Boat Commission. Elk Creek is one of the world's premier Steelhead fishing destinations.

Trails interconnect between the Access Area and the State Park.

Being that this was our first trip we reviewed the map and the information pavilion and headed off down the main driveway. This road is maintained with gravel to support the agricultural equipment used on the approximately 100 acres of corn fields.

Seeing such a wide expanse of cut corn fields is not that common among State Parks, but it is a very good use of the land. The land was already opened to agriculture, prior to becoming a State Park, so why not continue allowing the land to be farmed, in order to offset the cost of maintenance and development of the park.

We followed the main driveway as it wound it's way on the east edge of the corn fields towards the north east corner of the park. Here we found a wooded trail, which was well worn and very easy to follow. Several other trails cut off of this primary trail, but we followed along eventually coming to a point where we could see down over the bluff to the parking lot for the access area. Knowing we were on the eastern edge, we then followed another trail closer to the lake bluffs.

Here is where the real beauty of this natural area lies. Raw and undeveloped this area looks much the same as it would have for the settlers some 200+ years ago. Steep cliffs, giving way to narrow shoreline, looking out over an enormous body of water. This was early spring and the trees haven't yet budded out, but I can only picture what the area will look like when we visit later in the summer. 

After following the trail along the cliff for about 300 yards, the trail took an obvious bend and we found ourselves meeting up with the initial trail very close to the trailhead and the end of the gravel driveway. Several hundred yards back towards the parking lot was a small picnic grove. Four rustic tables and a cement fire ring are all that fill this little clearing in the woods, but it was just perfect for some Goldfish crackers, a couple oranges and bottles of water.

After a nice rest we took a small trail out of the opposite side of the picnic grove, which wound around to the driveway and we headed back out to the Jeep.  We had a fun time exploring the east end of the park, but in the two hour trip, we barely scratched the surface. There are several trails at the west end of the park, and someday I'd love to make a loop hike walking the entire perimeter including all of the shoreline.

There's great potential in this park, and after reading the State's Master Plan document I think they are on the right track.

Happy Exploring
Scott M

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spring Gobbler Season: 9 Days and Counting

Alright Turkey hunters, this is it, the time of year we've all waited for, just 9 days from today the season will open up and we can start chasing them Toms again.

How will you spend your time?

Lots of hunters will continue scouting, and maybe even increase their scouting so that they can target specific birds on specific roosts. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact if you are really careful you can pattern the bird fairly accurately.

Me personally, I like to back off the final two weeks before any season opens, but particularly the spring turkey season. I have a rather tight hunting area, with limited spots where I can set up and have a real shot at success. So if I bust turkeys out of even one spot in the pre-season, well that's putting a serious damper on my odds.

Plus, whether or not you are still scouting, I would lay off the calls, and let your optics do the scouting. Turkey's visual acuity, is only rivalled by their hearing. Once in season, the name of the game is calling that bird to you, so you're calling is the "voice" of another turkey. If the turkeys you hunt constantly hear that "voice," but never see that turkey, I think they'll be less inclined to come to that "voice" once the season begins.

Now that's not to say that you shouldn't be perfecting your calling at home. Watch some turkey hunting DVDs, listen to turkey sounds on the Internet. Mimic the sounds you hear, and sharpen up your calling.

I find it relaxing to pack up my gear, and doing it a week or so before the season gives you plenty of time to discover what is lost or damaged, and replace it. If you are going to any kind of turkey camp, now's a good time to make a list and start shopping for that excursion.

Finally, if you have kept a journal of previous years, blow the dust off of it, and see what last minute lessons you can glean from those pages. Get out that photo album, and relive a couple of your successful hunts. Nothing will get you more in the spirit, then thinking about the ones your brought home, or the ones that got away.

Happy Hunting
Scott M

Monday, April 15, 2013

Farm Stands of Erie County

As the weather turns, my mind wanders to the fresh produce available all over Erie County. The ready access to farms is really one of the true blessings of living here. 

Below I've compiled a short sampling of some of the farm stands below. If you know of more, by all means leave a comment and I'll be sure to include them in a future post. There are also several online resources to find farm markets: click on Consumers, then click on A Consumers Guide to PA Farm Markets.

Troyer Farms

Travelling out Route 19/Peach St, 8.7 miles from the I-90 interchange, the road runs straight into Waterford and in the middle of town a farm stand is set up for the well-known Troyer Farms.  This stand carries the strawberries in early summer until the corn, cabbage, and squash of fall.  Early summer strawberries are well know and worth the trip, this June.  Everyone I talk to enjoy a very simple preparation that highlights the natural sweetness of the berries:

1 quart strawberries, stemmed, washed, and halved
¼ cup of sugar
Mash a handful of berries, and combine mashed berries with remaining berries, and sugar in large bowl.  Allow to sit at least one hour, for the berries to start yielding their juice.  Serve over biscuits, with whip cream.

Finnell Farms

About 1.7 miles on Route 20, from the light in front of Harborcreek High School is Finnell farms.  This stand carries a variety of fruits and vegetables including strawberries, corn and peaches.  The peaches are particularly fantastic from Finnell’s.  While I love to eat peaches, just like an apple, below is a preparation will knock your guest’s socks off at your summer dinner party:

1 peach per guest
1 quart vanilla ice cream
Wash peaches, leaving skins intact split peaches in half and remove pits.  Place peach, cut-side down on a very hot grill.  Grill for 60-90 seconds.  Serve in a bowl with a scoop of ice cream. 

Mason Farms

Driving out Route 5/ West 12th street 6.6 miles is the roadside stand of the venerable Mason Farms.  Most Erie residents are familiar with Mason Farm’s store on Peninsula Dr.  However, when the weather is good and the vegetables are in season the scenic drive down Route 5 is worth the time.  As a certifiable corn snob I simply won't purchase corn on the cob from a grocery store. For my taste there needs to be a little road dirt on the husk for the corn to taste right.  My favorite preparation combines two of my Erie favorites:

6 ears of fresh corn, shucked
1 bottle of Erie Brewing Co.’s Railbender Ale
Combine corn and beer in a stock pot with just enough water to float the corn.  Bring to rolling boil, and hold at boil for 6-8 minutes.  Add butter and salt to taste.

Hulings Blueberries

Just off of Route 99/Edinboro Rd on Old State Rd, about 4 miles south from the blinking light in McKean is Hulings Blueberries.  Don’t let the name fool you, they’ve got more than blueberries, Including Pennsylvania maple syrup.  However, the blueberries are worth the drive by themselves and if you don’t pick up the syrup, here’s a easy blueberry sauce to cover your pancakes:

2 ½ cups fresh blueberries
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup orange juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Combine berries, sugar and ¼ cup of the orange juice in sauce pan, and warm over moderate heat.  In separate container combine remaining orange juice and cornstarch, breaking up any lumps.  Bring sauce to boil, and stir in cornstarch mixture, allow mixture to boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, allow to cool 5-10 minutes.

Perry Square

If a country drive, won’t fit in your schedule today that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy fresh produce for dinner.  Depending on what is currently in season, there are between 2-4 farm stands set up in Perry’s Square in downtown Erie most days.  The stands carry a variety of fresh produce, but it is hard to top fresh tomatoes.  Store-bought tomatoes have to be harvested early in order to clean, package, and ship before they spoil.  Farm stand tomatoes, may have come off the vine yesterday or early this morning.  Here’s a delicious dinner idea that may not be the best for date night, but is delicious anyhow:

2 tomatoes
2 white onions
2 pieces of rye bread, toasted
1 cup cottage cheese

Wash tomatoes, then slice the tomatoes and onions into slices of equal thickness.  Alternate layers of onions and tomatoes, adding salt and pepper to taste on the tomatoes.  Serve on toast, with a dollop of cottage cheese on the side.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Camping with our Boys, Ramping Up

It's April 1st, and camping season is right around the corner. Being the father of two young boys I know how excited those boys are to go camping again. I also know how quickly a pleasant camping trip can turn south and end up with tears and frustration. Over the past 3 summers my wife and I have developed a lot of good habits, and uncovered some bad habits, all in the hopes of developing the same love of the great outdoors in our boys that we already have.
With that in mind here's a handful of tips we've come up with that may help you out the next time you head out to camp:

1. Preparation.
As I said it's April 1st and for us our camping season has already begun. Have we been to camp? Unfortunately not yet, but since about mid February, when we visited the Erie RV and Camping Expo, we've been plotting out our summer activities.

Our primary location is a cabin that has been in my family for nearly 50 years now, so our first order of business is circling the weekends we want to go there. My uncle uses the camp regularly as well, so to maximize everyone's enjoyment I work closely with him to secure our weekends.

Next we look at other weekends, and types of camping we want to do this year. My father has a small camper that's truly built for 1 or 2 people, but our boys are so young we're going to give it a try. Figuring on the 7 year old sleeping on the fold down table, and the 2 year old sleeping with us, it will be cramped quarters for sure. It will also be the perfect reason to keep everyone out in nature, and not huddled up inside a camper. 

We also want to attempt tent camping this year. We've had a few failed attempts at this in the last couple years, but now I think we're ready to try it. I've scouted a couple campgrounds with lots of amenities and with any luck we'll have a good time. With all of this in mind we've got to take a close look at the type of gear we have and make a list of what we'll need to buy

2. Organization
The natural next step is getting everything organized. There's nothing worse then forgetting that critical piece of gear, or hustling around the house trying to fide it, when you wanted to be on the road 30 minutes ago. My wife and I have a supply of camping goods that we keep segregated in a rubbermaid tub. This includes old housewares that we no longer use in our kitchen, but are in good enough shape to go camping. By having these set aside, we can immediately grab that tub, inspect that everything is there, load it up, and our camp kitchen is ready.

Since a typical camping weekend has been on our minds for months before it happens, getting organized the week of, is just part of the excitement. We'll typically leave Friday afternoon, so clothing is packed Thursday night, with Friday's clothes laid out and ready. Toiletries will have to be packed up after they are used Friday, and then they are placed in the top of the bags for ready access. Food was typically purchased several days before, but anything cold will need to be packed into coolers the day of.

**My wife and I have learned that being organized, and getting packed up is really one of the most critical steps. Almost no matter what else happens, if you have what you need, and got off on a good step, you can always salvage a camping trip. Take your time with this step, it absolutely will pay off.

3. Activities
"The best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray."
No matter how well organized you are something will throw a monkey wrench in the plans. That's exactly why we like to have a few more activities planned then we actually have time for. We won't stress out and try to cram everything in. Instead we'll roll with what we have time for. Within all our plans we'll have to have a few rain activities planned, becuase a rain day eventually happens to all of us. That weatherman was wrong and the low pressure system shifted, dumping rain on your perfectly pitched tent. How are you going to handle that? What other activities can you do?

Rain days are great days for roadtrips. Your initial intent of this trip may have been to hike down to an unfamiliar river and drowned a couple worms, but since the weather isn't cooperating, why not hop in the car, and put some miles in the rearview. My wife and I did exactly this on the 2nd day of our summer vacation camping trip last year. The rain blew in, so we loaded up and headed towards a campground I had circled on the map, but never had the time to scout for a future trip. Not only did we find one of our favorite public campgrounds, with great views of Kinzua Resevoir, and cute little cabins, but we also found an amazing butcher, who produces 22 varieties of sausages. We tried 2 last year, and plan on going back to try even more this year.

4. Advocate for each other
I have never claimed to be some super amazing father who never gets frustrated. For better or worse I do. This is where as parents we need to advocate for each other. When my wife's patience wears thin, I make an effort to step in and find another activity for the boys to do, while she gets a drink of water and clears here head. She'll do the same for me. Parenting is tough, and parenting in a confined space and time, when everyone wants to do something different is tougher. You've got to have each other's back, and not let a couple bad attitudes ruin the whole weekend.

5. Enjoy it! 
With everything else in mind, the most critical thing to do is to enjoy it! You're out in nature, a place that most of us only get to visit. So who cares if you forgot to pack the extra socks, or if you didn't bring that special dessert you had planned on, or if you end up with the wettest weekend of the entire summer. Shake it off and find something to enjoy. Maybe it's a card game around a small table. Maybe it's a drive down an unfamiliar road. Maybe it's sitting on the porch swing watching hummingbirds feed. You never know what little memory will really stick.

Happy Camping
Scott M