Hope in the Pennsylvania Wilds

Story by Jeff Davison// Photos by Jeff Davison
February 15 2017

Exploring lush natural beauty that was once lost but has been found again

The crash of a large animal breaking through the undergrowth shook me from a dead sleep. I peered out from my bivy in the light of early dawn. It had rained in the night. I lay still, listening to the rushing water of Two Mile Run behind me, and the songs all around of warblers, orioles, and even a yellow-billed cuckoo. One snap of a twig and my eyes darted in time to catch the movement of a dark shape just beyond the cover of thick forest. Almost immediately, down to my left, a high-pitched squeal, like a nasal whistle, confirmed my suspicion: elk. A mother was calling her calf to follow. And off he went, still too awkward to move silently, a skill he must soon learn if he’s to survive.

Pennsylvania travelI had spent the night in the forests of northwestern Pennsylvania, a region now known for its growing elk population. Large herds once roamed here, until 19th-century logging, hunting and rapid settlement destroyed them. By 1867, all elk had been completely eliminated from the state. After the reintroduction of a few animals from Yellowstone National Park, and a century of careful nurture, their number has returned to around 900, and the herd ranges over 7,800 square kilometres. I had come to explore a fraction of this territory.

Good for Life

Zippo museum Riding my Suzuki V-Strom DL650 south from Ontario the previous morning, I knew I was already nearing the Wilds when I was halted at a street corner in Machias, New York, not only by a red light, but by the sight of a bright red-brick building, covered in black and yellow advertising for Machias Outdoors, selling everything a hunter and sportsman could possibly need. From here I swung southwest toward Bradford. I knew I had crossed the state line the moment the roads improved. From cracked and patched New York roads to smooth, black ribbons. Welcome to Pennsylvania! In Bradford, I had to tour the quirky Zippo/Case Museum. The iconic Zippo lighter was born in the early 1930s as the first easily used, portable and – most significantly – windproof lighter. Founder George G. Blaisdell was so confident of its quality that he offered a lifetime guarantee: “It works or we fix it free.” Along with intriguing displays offering a window into the last hundred years of U.S. history, manufacturing and culture, there is also one of the company’s famous repair shops open to the public. I particularly enjoyed the collection of lighters that had been returned after being flattened by a steamroller or dropped in a rock crusher. Blaisdell replaced them all. In the early 1990s, the company acquired the Case Cutlery Company, and so the museum tells the story of these famous knives, as well. But perhaps my favourite was the Zippo car, designed – in typical 1960s PR fashion – to look like a lighter.

Next I turned east toward Coudersport and the beginning of the Susquehannock State Forest Loop. As anticipated, the roads were all in good to excellent condition, freshly paved or perfectly repaired. From the beginning of the Loop, winding asphalt rises and falls over mountainous terrain, often following the banks of First Fork Sinnemahoning Creek, West Branch Susquehanna River and Kettle Creek, in that order. Elevation changes could be rapid, from 150 to 750 metres. These Northern Highlands, once rivalling the Rockies, have, through eons of erosion, been subdued, their peaks rounded and now fully treed. Each is a replica of the next, creating the pleasing kind of repetition that adds beauty to both art and music. “Luxurious” was a word that kept coming to mind.

When the Levee Breaks

buck in the wildI began by following Route 872 south past Inez to Odin, where I stopped to view the Potter County Trout Hatchery, which is fed by Freeman Run (a sizable creek). Only a few minutes later, I stopped again, drawn in by the sight of massive chunks of concrete standing (some fallen) in disarray. These, I learned, were all that remains of the Austin Dam disaster. Built in 1909 to regulate water flow for the Bayless Pulp and Paper Mill downstream, the dam stood 15 metres high and 160 metres across the Freeman Run Valley. Designed to be more than nine metres thick, some frugal (or fast-talking) contractor reduced it to less than seven metres. Buckling and cracking were dismissed as part of the concrete-drying process. No one should have been surprised when, on September 30, 1911, the dam burst, destroying the mill and almost the entire town of Austin. Losses totalled $10 million and at least 78 lives. It was as sobering as it was preventable.

At Sinnemahoning State Park, I toured the Wildife Center, viewing displays of wildlife indigenous to the region: elk, deer, bear, bobcat, otter, mink, bald eagle and osprey, to name a few. The valley is a funnel of migration for several species, including the hordes of monarch butterflies that make the amazing journey between Ontario and Mexico each spring and fall – a one-way trip of 7,800 km. During these months, it’s not unusual for whole fields and sections of forest to be adorned in monarch orange. The attending ranger advised me that if I wanted a guarantee of seeing elk, I should take the 30-minute drive to Benezette and its Elk Country Visitor Center. Opened in 2010, this is the hub of all elk watching, with panoramic views, interactive exhibits, trails and viewing blinds. Immediately upon setting out, I was beckoned by signage to the overlook at George B. Stevenson Dam, one of four dams used for flood control in the valley – and significantly better engineered than its ill-fated ancestor.

Repopulated Following

Hwy 555 (the newly established “Elk Scenic Drive”) was perhaps the best twisty riding yet. Twenty kilometres west, I turned right on Winslow Hill Road and stopped at Dent’s Run, one of four designated viewing areas. This one is an open field, the remnant of deforestation and mining. I didn’t realize that by 1915, such exploitation had completely stripped the state of all forests. The beautiful blanket of green we see today is less than 100 years old, and the direct result of a willingness to learn from our capitalist mistakes and to practise responsible conservation. Thank goodness for the few who had such foresight. I moved on to Winslow Hill viewing area, where four or five spectators were standing along the road, peering through binoculars across the hillside. At first, I saw a lone elk browsing leisurely. Then two, three . . . 14 was my final count.

Right next to me was a local couple who were clearly following the daily movement of the herd; they told me they had seen more than 250 in this very spot only last week. Turning east again, I was careful to ride well below the posted speed limit and to be hyper-alert. Dusk was falling and wildlife would be active along roadways. In fact, I slowed for three deer and eight elk en route, including two large bucks with antlers that, come fall, would be massive. At Westport, I turned north on Kettle Creek Road, where I began looking for a spot to wild camp for the night. A gravel side road, Two Mile Run Road, offered the perfect location. Off the main route, secluded and most notably flat – a rarity in these parts – I settled in while fireflies danced all around. After my morning fright, I was sitting under a tarp, the rain having begun again, while I ate my breakfast. The sound of tires crunching on gravel alerted me to the approaching pickup truck, which then slowed to a stop. Lesson Learned “You all right?” a voice called. With apple still in hand, I crawled out to meet an avid outdoorsman who said that if I went another hundred feet up the road, I’d be at an ATV trailhead that led from one hut to another all through the hills. Of course, I would have to check it out.

When I told him about my elk alarm clock, he warned me not to be too comfortable, especially around a mother and her calf. “They will charge!” he said. I told myself it was wisdom (not laziness) that I had stayed put in my bivy and not made some heroic attempt at a spectacular nature photo. After riding up to poke around the ATV staging area, I continued on the Loop, its cambered corners and lush scenery offering a rider’s paradise. I hadn’t gone far, however, when I startled four turkey vultures, heads buried to their shoulders in a warm roadside breakfast, courtesy of an unfortunate deer. On the entire Loop there really were very few vehicles – a plus for riding. But of course, for the deer, it only took one. The rain continued off and on for most of the morning. I wondered, “What happened to that sunny forecast?”

It was a good opportunity, however, to evaluate the new armoured and waterproof jacket I had gotten for a steal at last winter’s motorcycle show. Test results: it is armoured. In stark contrast, the new Klim pants were completely dry, and convinced me to bite the bullet for Klim again when I want a truly waterproof garment. It’s amazing to me how many others do not live up to their claims. (And I have cheaped out enough times to know!) In Renovo, I stopped at a gas station for fuel and coffee, and to switch out my wet gear for a dry shirt and proper rain jacket. (Experience had taught me never to set out from home with unproven apparel and no backup.)

The Frogg Toggs jacket lacked armour, but it was a risk I was willing to take in exchange for warm comfort. Smooth as Silk Highway 120, a Pennsylvania Scenic Byway, led me to the pretty little town of Lock Haven, home to Lock Haven University – as was evident in the abundance of student housing that was currently for rent (it was, after all, the summer months). The ups and downs, corners and switchbacks continued up 664. I did have to beware of logging and gravel trucks north of Lock Haven. And the road from Haneyville to Pine Hill Summit was particularly rough as PennDOT prepared to resurface the following week. Beyond that, the section they had already finished, all the way to Coudersport, was as smooth as silk – like surfing on air.

Throughout the area, I had seen a scattering of strikingly white churches, and noted that a higher-than-average number were Methodist. It is said that my great-great-grandfather, David Davison, was a circuit rider for the Methodists, travelling on horseback from town to town in the mid-1800s, spreading the Good News, as he understood it. Like many at the time, caught up in the mix of faith and American democracy, my forebears soon left for a newer, “truer” church. But I wondered what influence David had had in the establishment of these exact congregations. Perhaps this was his mark, enduring in northwestern PA.

Technical Difficulties

Returning home, I waited, engine idling, in an especially long line at the Canadian border. Finally rolling up to the booth, I turned off the engine, removed my helmet and surrendered my passport. When everything checked out, I wished our good officer a pleasant evening, hit the ignition and . . . barely a groan. It was the battery. Pushing my bike away from the gate was not one of my finer moments, but as I sat in Canada Customs’ parking lot considering my options, it came to me.

I was not alone, of course. Lots of fellow travellers, unlucky enough to have been directed to the parking lot for further inspection, surrounded me. Hoping one of them might have jumper cables, I already had the seat off, when I thought, “I wonder . . .” I reached in and removed two fuses – for high and low beams – and presto! Resuscitation. Fortunately, it was still daylight and I didn’t have much farther to go. As I neared home, I felt a rising sense of optimism. While we’re confronted almost daily with examples of human error and greed, clearly we’re also capable of recognizing and correcting our trajectory. In particular, I whispered a prayer of gratitude for those behind the restoration of our forests and their inhabitants. The rain could do little to dampen this experience. Discovering recent history and savouring a part of God’s green earth, I found my faith and hope restored in the Wilds of Pennsylvania.


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