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