September 18 (15.5 miles, 7.75 hours) AT PA Sections 7 & 8
The only consolation to our early 5:30 am pre-dawn rising was the view of constellation Leo from our window. Just beneath it, our solar system was putting on a show. Four planets were visible on the eastern horizon. Venus takes the honors for the brightest showoff, with Mars and Jupiter below it, and faint Mercury hugging the horizon. We could still see the planets on our drive up to Pennsylvania even as the dawn brightened the sky.
With weather reports of a cold, but clear day and little chance of precipitation, we were looking forward to our hike. We knew that this was going to be a long day and having good hiking conditions eased our concern about the distance to be covered. After a 2-hour commute, our 8:00 am rendezvous with Michael at the parking at Rt. 325 parking lot went without a hitch. Then it was a 40-minute shuttle to the parking lot at Swatara State Park.
It was a pleasant morning and the tall grassy meadow at the beginning of our trek glistened with sunlight. The trail makes a gradual ascent up pleasantly wooded Second Mountain, filled with hemlocks. Along the way there’s the remnants of an old cemetery, one of many signs along this section of past human activity. The Trail drops down to the old coal and railroad village of Rausch Gap. After short jog on a gravel road the trail turns up Sharp Mountain. There it crosses a seam of anthracite coal. The black pathway exposes the industrial legacy and the much more ancient geologic formation that created this fossil fuel.
I’m not sure who was startled the most, Jane and me, or the bristly little creature that darted in front of us. Jane let out a small shriek, and I think the critter yelped in response before darting up the nearest tree. At first, the dark form looked like a tiny bear, but as it ran, its blonde pointed bristles flashed in the sun. No doubt that it was a porcupine. Now I can understand how its sharp pointed quills can serve as a fine protection against predators.
Walking the ridge was a spectacular treat. Jane said that the State Games Lands were a treasure in that it preserved the native habitat. Walking on a carpet of golden foliage sprinkled with splotches of red, the Trail rambled through nice stands of hemlock, laurel, and rhododendrons. At times, the rhododendrons were thick enough to arch over the trail. It reminded us of how important these public lands are in preserving our natural environment. It’s easy to see how both tree huggers and hunters can appreciate these special places.
We just settled down for a lunch break when a black cloud smothered the mountain. In an instant, a thousand pings echoed off the trees, leaves and rocks as specks of hail zipped through the canopy. It was a good thing we packed rain jackets despite the fair weather forecast. In a flash we donned raincoats and hoods. As we made our way back on the trail, it was interesting to see how the hail highlighted the landscape. The contrast of white pellets on the vibrant leaves was a reminder of how quickly things can change.
While this section is mostly flat ridge walking, the trail became more rock-strewn after passing the remnants of Yellow Springs Village. We made good time up to then, but our paced slowed for the remainder of the trek. The long downhill to Rt. 325 seemed to drag on forever, probably a sign of our fatigue.
The high level of trail maintenance was very apparent. The small creek crossings typically had stepping stones or even small bridges. It again sparks your gratitude for the hard work done by the volunteer trail crews. Even the campgrounds were decked out with stone chase lounges.
We reached the parking lot at 4:30 with plenty of daylight to spare. Neither of us felt as tired as we expected. The flat terrain certainly helped and probably our stamina is improving. We made the long ride home without incident and grabbed some veggie burritos for dinner.