Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Jean's Run - downstream-most waterfall
Friday, October 27, 2017, was a perfect autumn day in southeastern Pennsylvania (sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s [Fahrenheit]).  I haven't used many vacation days this year, so I decided to play hooky to take advantage of the great weather to hike on a weekday when there would be few people in the woods.

Nearly 20 years ago, I had completed a challenging circuit hike in the valley of Jean's Run near the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.  Jim Thorpe advertises itself as being in the Pocono Mountains, and it is near the Poconos, but technically it's in the folded terrain of the Ridge and Valley physiographic province, not on the flat but highly dissected Pocono Plateau.  For the layman, these are minor points that would only interest a geology nerd.  Suffice it to say the landscape is Appalachian.

Somehow I had stumbled on Jean's Run while I was hiking in the next watershed to the east: the valley of James's Run, which tumbles through an incredibly scenic and popular gorge called Glen Onoko.  When I hiked up Jean's Run 20 years ago, the valley made a lasting impression on me.  I recalled vividly that, midway up the valley, Jean's Run suddenly emerged from a narrow cleft in the rocks and tumbled over a dramatic waterfall that was barely passable.

Because I plan to move away from southeastern Pennsylvania in a few months, and because I wanted to challenge myself physically, and because I wanted to see the incredible waterfall again, I made the Jean's Run circuit my goal for the day.

The Jean's Run watershed is part of Pennsylvania State Game Lands 141, an area owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and set aside for hunting (and other recreation).  My route would take me eastward from the parking lot on a flat woods road maintained by the PGC along the top of Broad Mountain, and then along a woodland trail down the steep southern flank of the mountain to the mouth of Jean's Run.  From that point, I planned to bushwhack northward back up the trackless Jean's Run valley to the PGC's woods road and then to the parking area where I left the car.

I knew the hike would be challenging.  There's no trail along Jean's Run, and the valley is very, very steep and V-shaped, with rocks and boulders that have eroded out of the upper valley clogging the stream channel.  I knew I would have to crisscross the stream repeatedly as I made my way uphill/upstream, but the autumn had been fairly dry so I wasn't concerned about the numerous stream crossings.    

The top of Broad Mountain is flat, rocky, dry, exposed and infertile. As a result, the chestnut oak forest cloaking the mountaintop is open and stunted.  My walk eastward along the PGC's woods road through this forest was a monotonous slog that I had to complete to get to the "good stuff," so I walked as quickly as I could.  I only encountered birds (a small flock of Dark-eyed Juncos) at one spot.  After about a half-hour, I reached the trail that descended to the mouth of Jean's Run.
Woodland trail descending to Jean's Run
Jean's Run flows into Nesquehoning Creek, a much larger stream made ugly and sterile by coal mine acid drainage.  At the mouth of Jean's Run, I turned upstream (north) and began my ascent through the valley.  Very near the mouth, there's a substantial stone ruin that looks to me to be perfectly square.  I have no inkling about the purpose to the building.  However, from my previous hike, I remembered that there was a dam upstream.  The dam and the building undoubtedly were related.
Stone ruin near stream's mouth

Poured concrete dam
Upstream of the dam, there is no evidence of human occupation.  I made my way up the bottom of the steep valley through dense streamside rhododendron thickets.  Early settlers called these thickets rhododendron "hells" because of the difficulty of moving through them.  They got that right. 

Rocks and froth
After an hour or so, I was soaked with sweat, tired, and scraped and bruised from repeated slips and falls on the uneven rocks.  I decided it was time for a rest and for lunch.  So, I found a relatively flat surface with a good view of the stream and pulled out a honeycrisp apple, a Clifbar, and my water bottle.
Lunchtime view
There were also opportunities to photograph some russet fungi and autumn leaves.

Bracket fungi

Red maple and shining firmoss
After lunch, I continued my ascent.  I tried to stay as near the stream as possible to enjoy the sounds and scenery, but sometimes had to climb a bit up the hillside to avoid otherwise impassible stretches.
Typical Pennsylvania mountain stream: boulders and rhododendrons
After a while, I began to doubt that I had seen the cleft in the rocks with the gushing waterfall 20 years ago.  I was exhausted and battered and, frankly, I just wanted to get out of the valley.  At just about that point, I arrived a the spot I was seeking.

My route up the valley to this point was almost directly northward.  However, when I reached the spot I had remembered, the valley turned abruptly and Jean's Run began flowing from the west.  The first part of my hike was bathed in bright sunlight, but the valley oriented to the west was in deep shadow - dark and mysterious - a valley that Victorian writers would call a "defile."  And, at the mouth of the defile, there was not a narrow cleft in the rocks with a waterfall pouring forth like I had "remembered," but there was a huge vertical cliff on the southern side of the valley that had the effect of making the mouth of the defile look like a gateway into another world.  Just inside the mouth of the gorge was a beautiful waterfall (first image in this post) - not as daunting or intimidating a barrier as I had remembered, but a beautiful introduction to a valley that was full of five dramatic waterfalls.  The gorge was sublime.

(I would love to know the geologic origin of this valley.  The gorge here, in addition to being oriented east-west instead of north-south, was also even steeper and more rocky than the valley further downstream - if that was possible.)

I enjoyed the view of the mouth of the gorge and then began my ascent.  It was impossible to stay close to the stream here.  The valley was simply too narrow and choked with boulders to navigate close to the water, so I had to make my way a few dozen feet above the stream along the valley slopes.  Progress was extraordinary slow and footing was bad.  But, every few hundred feet, there were waterfalls.    
Second falls (counting upward from downstream)
A splash of color in the dark and verdant ravine
Third falls
Another draw for exploring Jean's Run is the riparian eastern/Canadian hemlock forest in the gorge.  The forest is virgin old-growth: 19th century loggers never stripped the hemlocks out of this inaccessible valley.
Fourth falls
I savored and photographed each falls in turn; after all, this is expressly what I had come to re-live and enjoy.  However, I really was exhausted.

Fifth (uppermost and final) falls
Upstream of the uppermost falls, Jean's Run passes under a bridge on the PGC's woods road.  I finally reached the bridge and walked the last mile back to the car like a zombie.  I can hardly remember being more tired in my life.

Pennsylvania Game Commission sign at road crossing
Postscript.  The next day, I plotted my route using GoogleEarth.  What I thought was a four-mile hike was actually 6.75 miles.  I descended and then climbed back up 1,000 feet in elevation.  A 2,000-foot change in elevation over a 6.75-mile hike in four hours wouldn't be too much of a challenge on a trail, but the 2-3 miles I bushwhacked up the valley over rocky barriers was the killer.

I badly scraped my right shin, I scraped my back when I slid backward down a rock, I cut my forehead on a branch, and I wrenched my knees (already in poor condition) in so many ways I'm still trying to recover.  I haven't decided if the trek was worth it, but I have decided that I'm officially old.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Pure Joy

For a quarter-century, I have been censusing the birds that nest and breed in a 40-acre woods in my preserve.  On eight mornings at the end of May and beginning of June, I have awoken at the crack of dawn, wolfed down a quick snack, power-walked 20 minutes to the tract, and then begun censusing.  For the next three hours and ten minutes, I have scanned the trees with my binoculars and pricked up my ears to catch the slightest hint of birdsong.
The forest is not the most dramatic or beautiful woods in my preserve.  Most of it was farmland until about 1920, but a new owner abandoned agriculture and allowed the woods to return.  The canopy is still young and not very diverse--mostly quick colonizing and rapidly growing tuliptrees and ashes (which, alas, are now under attack by the devastating emerald ash borer beetle, imported from China).  Nevertheless, it is the woodland I've come to know the best in my preserve.
And I've come to know its birds, too, especially the Ovenbirds.  Ovenbirds are aberrant warblers that look more like small thrushes.  They skulk around furtively in the duff and the low understory, defending their territory with their distinctive and increasingly strident tripartite teacher-TEACHER-TEACHER call.  The birds are much more often heard than seen, but since I spend so much time in the woods with them, I'm bound to observe one or two each spring.

The Ovenbirds and their offspring are remarkably faithful to territories.  I could probably outline the birds' territories each spring without even venturing into the woods - which is what distressed me when I learned that a part of the woods I've come to know so intimately was for sale.  I originally included this five-acre woods in my census area because it was owned by an individual who I thought would never sell it for development.  I was proved wrong in 2016, though, when the owner announced plans to sell the land for housing.  The land included the territory of an Ovenbird (or its offspring) that I had documented from my very first census in 1991.
I could clearly imagine an Ovenbird returning to its breeding grounds from the tropics, anticipating re-asserting its territory, only to find that its woodland had been leveled.

Fortunately, the landowner was willing to work with my organization to try to protect the land permanently.  The landowner delayed a sale until my organization could work with the state to secure open space funding.

When the landowner finally sold the land to my organization on Tuesday afternoon, February 21, I practically leapt for joy knowing that one Ovenbird pair evermore would have a place to raise its brood.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Winter Solstice Walk

Kali on the rail-trail through my preserve approaching a rock cut
After a really cold week, temperatures moderated yesterday.  So, I took an hour's comp time in mid-afternoon to walk in my preserve with Kali (who retired in October and is, thus, available for a walk on a moment's notice).

I wanted to get outside to enjoy the blue skies, the stark woodlands, and the low-angled sunlight.
American beech-dominated woodland slope
At the base of the the slope pictured above, a small spring-fed brook wanders through mucky bottomlands (below).
Years ago, someone planted two cypress trees on the edge of the brook.  Though they're outside their natural range (closest natural occurrence is in southern Delaware, about 50 miles south), the trees have survived and grown well.  They even sport their characteristic knees.
Cypress knees
The rock cut from the first image; I like this abstract play of angles, sunlight and shadows
Large boulder in the shady woods

Monday, November 28, 2016

Flight 93 National Menorial

Entrance to the Flight 93 National Memorial. Grey stone walkway is the flight path.
On our way back from Pittsburgh to our home in southeastern Pennsylvania earlier this month, Kali and I detoured to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, between Somerset and Bedford.

The memorial, which consists of a museum/visitor center situated directly on the path of the doomed flight, is embraced by a long, semicircular walk that leads to the site of the crash.  The walk eventually will be shaded by 40 groves of trees to commemorate each of the passengers and crew members killed on September 11, 2001.  To date, some of the groves have been planted, but the memorial is still a work in progress.

Nonetheless, visiting the site is extraordinarily moving and emotional.  There were lots of tears among everyone there--including Kali's and mine. 
View back toward the museum along the flight path
Crash site overlook at the end of the flight path walkway
The actual crash site is marked by a large sandstone boulder, which is barely visible in the image below, just short of the line of hemlocks.  The plane hit the ground at over 500 miles per hour, so the passengers' remains are in place and protected in the grassy field beyond the white gate.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Visit with JP (Pittsburgh is SO Hilly)

Kali and JP sharing home-made apple pie
Kali and I visited Pittsburgh two weeks ago so that I could deliver a talk about invasive plants to a garden club (see previous post).  Kali and I both earned doctoral degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (Kali: English; Scott: Biological Sciences) while we lived in Pittsburgh from 1976 until 1981, so we "know" the city and still have friends there.  On the way back home, we stopped to visit a friend from graduate school days  Jan-Paul (JP) was teaching English as an adjunct at Pitt when we lived in Pittsburgh and we became close friends.  JP has eclectic interests in classical music, literature, European languages, natural history (he's a much better naturalist than I), and especially gardening.  He even served as the gardener for Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer at their estate north of New York City for a few years.  Alas, JP was eccentric, peripatetic and couldn't settle down, so he never earned a really "good" living.  He loved Pittsburgh, and when it came time to retire he looked for a place he could afford there, finally buying a fixer-upper in the city's working-class Greenfield neighborhood for $120,000.
View of the back of the house
Of course, he immediately set about transforming the derelict yard into his own eclectic garden.
View toward the street of the garden between the house and garage
He spends much more time in the garden than in the house.

View from the back of the house through the late-October garden
The reason JP bought this house was for the expansive view from the back.  The house is perched 100 feet from the edge of a very steep slope tumbling down to the Monongahela River, affording wonderful views to the south.
Backyard garden looking southwest
The area immediately below JP's house was the site of the Homestead coke works when Pittsburgh was "Steel City."  His neighbor, who has lived next door her entire life, said that her mother couldn't hang laundry outside to dry or it would get dirtier than it was before it was washed when the coke works were operating.  Today, the coke works are gone and the area is being redeveloped for apartments and retail.

In the image below, a tributary valley is visible across the river at the left of the image.  The next valley upstream (just to the left but outside the range of the image) is the drainage of Hay's Run.  There have been a pair of Bald Eagles nesting in the Hay's Run valley for the last few years, and JP says he sees them cruising on the thermals occasionally.
View southward across the Monongahela River
Kali and I had forgotten how hilly Pittsburgh is.  If Pittsburgh were wealthier and had better housing stock, it would be celebrated as the San Francisco of the East.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Pittsburgh Botanic Garden

A decade ago, a colleague invited me to collaborate on a project at the site of what was destined to become the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.  The site was within Settlers Cabin Park, one of Allegheny County's parks in the southwestern Pittsburgh suburbs near the airport.  The land had largely been strip mined for coal and then abandoned until it was purchased by the county for a future park.  Since mining ended, the scarred hillsides had naturally reforested, although the streams draining the area were still poisoned by acid mine drainage.  Our collaborative project was to evaluate the site for invasive, non-native plants, and to develop a management plan.  After we completed our report, I didn't hear anything else about the garden.

Two weeks ago, I delivered a talk about invasive plants to a joint meeting of the Village Garden Club/Garden Club of Allegheny County.  In speaking with the garden clubs' members, I asked about the status of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden - who better to know about progress on "my" project?  Few of the people with whom I spoke knew much, and I don't think any of the garden club members had ever visited the garden.  So, after my talk, I dragged Kali and our friend/host/former employee Rhonda out to the garden to look it over.  What follows are images I made there.
The attractive Visitor Center, used mostly for revenue-generating functions (e.g., weddings, etc.)
The garden is just getting off the ground.  The concept is in place and trails have been blazed, but the garden is in its earliest stages of development.  Most of the land is still covered in young woodlands and meadows, with trails cut through to provide access.  And, invasive plants are ubiquitous!  
Friend Rhonda under a pergola
Birdhouse in the goldenrod meadow
Kali and Rhonda in the goldenrod meadow
I liked this image because it looked very impressionistic
Backlit goldenrod
Backlit tuliptree leaf
A "folly" in the forest
Woodland trail
The garden administrators have decided to install environmental artwork throughout the trail network as an added attraction.  Most of the work is not of the highest caliber, and some is downright unappealing and shoddy (in my opinion).  However, the evocative wooden installation below was stunning.  (Ignore the bizarre thatched "tiki houses" in the background.)
We visited the garden during late afternoon, which illuminated the tops of the trees perfectly to capture autumn's glory.
The most highly developed section of the facility is the Oriental Garden.  Its central focus is a huge lily pond surrounded by a paved walkway.

Kali (left) and Rhonda on a boardwalk near the lily pond
Rhonda (left) and Kali on steppingstones crossing the upper end of the lily pond

The lily pond serves a dual purpose:  it is the aesthetic centerpiece of the Oriental Garden, and it is also an ingenious system to treat acid mine drainage in the stream that feeds the pond.  The garden received a significant environmental grant to create this treatment system.
At the end of our walk, we arrived at the eponymous "settlers' cabin," which has been lovingly and carefully restored.

We enjoyed a very pleasant late afternoon autumn stroll through the woods and fields, but the garden fells "raw" and has a long way to go before it becomes a real horticultural asset for the Pittsburgh area.  Maybe, by the next time that I'm invited to speak ten years hence, I can share more progress.