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.