Monday, April 7, 2014

Pennsylvania's Black Forest Trail - Thrills, Chills, and Spills: A "Plan B" Backpacking Weekend on

Known as the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania," the Black Forest Trail (or BFT)  in the Tiadaghton State Forest in north central PA lies three hours south of the Great Lakes.  Blazed orange along its 42 miles, the BFT features about 8000' of elevation gain, lots of streams, and lovely views.  The trail also features rugged wilderness terrain, treacherous stream crossings, and bears.  The name supposedly comes from the dense coverage of hemlocks and pines that once prohibited full light from penetrating the trees, hence the "black" forest.

Hiking the entire trail at once meant we would have to hike 20 miles on Saturday in order to fit the trip in a weekend, not to mention a 12 hour round trip drive.  I know there are some very hardy souls who think 20-30 miles a day with a loaded pack is a blast, but when backpacking, I usually hit my "fun threshold" after about 14 miles.  The posting mentioned that I had never been on this trail, so a sense of humor and a great attitude was a prerequisite to RSVP for this hike.

Craig and Becky at the Trail head


The Mid-Atlantic Hikes Website (which is an amazing resource for backpacking and hiking trips in the area) outlined two different backpacking trips for the trail; the BFT North and the BFT South.  The northern route is the roughest with 5000' of elevation gain, but offers the best views.  The southern route is slightly less challenging with total elevation change of about 3500' up and down.

We originally planned to hike the northern circuit, but after some emails back and forth with someone who already hiked the trail, and who described the potential for a very hairy stream crossing over Slate Run during periods of high water, we opted for a southern circuit.  The total mileage would be about 23 miles, with a breakdown of seven to eight miles each day.

Being early spring in the mountains, and only three hours south of the Great Lakes,our group prepared for the worst, but still hoped we would have the warmer spring weather we craved.  The week prior to the hike, the weather report turned ominous; instead of 50* days and 35* nights, the outlook was
for 100% rain Friday and Saturday, turning to snow Saturday night with temperatures in the 20's.  Our group has great turn out for cold weather hikes, but not so much for rain.  Needless to say, the group quickly shrank from 15 to 7 hardy hikers.  On the other hand, at least the weather would discourage other backpackers who frequent the area, giving us solitude and our choice of camps!

Friday, five of us met at the Trout Run Road trail head, with plans to hike counterclockwise to a camp near the bottom of Naval Run, where two other backpackers would meet up at the camp Friday evening.  The hike was to take approximately seven miles and give us 1000' of elevation gain with 2000' of loss.  Before leaving the trail head, a park ranger pulled up to chat. After he assured us that our cars would be safe from harm, he advised us that we would probably encounter some ice on north facing slopes of the trail. I had my Kathoola micro spikes in the car, but we saw only a few spotty patches of snow on the ride in, so really didn't give the warning much afterthought. 



The first few miles passed easily.  Although we occasionally trod through a few foot-deep patches of snow, the conditions were what we would expect for having rained the night before; damp and slightly slippery on the leaves.  A termite-infested stump beside the trail looked like it had been recently shredded by a bear looking for a spring snack.  Soon after the bear tree, we found a pine that bore the brunt of a porcupine attack.





We were making good time the first few miles, crossing Big Trail Road and following the descending Callahan Run in what became a gradual descent the first half mile, turning into a very steep descent the last half of the decline.  We had a few slips and slides during the first half; I slipped and landed firmly on my backside, with my left arm hyper extended by my hiking pole.  Thinking "this will need some Motrin," I had no idea what was in store for us.
Becky and Randy gingerly descend the trail
 The steep descent quickly turned treacherous.  Living up to the name of the "Black Forest," the many steep ridges surrounding us prohibited the sun from cresting the ridge line enough to dry the trail in the valleys, causing the trail to be covered with a very thin layer of ice.  The ice was so thin and blended so well with the leaves that often we didn't know of the danger until the person in front fell.  We all fell multiple times, with exclamations and expletives  galore. At one point, Uphill (Ted) slid straight off the trail and continue to slide about halfway down the hill to the stream. The trail couldn't be bypassed by going around the icy patches, because of the steep incline of the hill.  Furthermore, off the trail, the soil was really just a thin layer of shale, ready to give way anytime we tried to step on it.
Ted after sliding down toward the creek

Craig in the lead
We were relieved when we reached the Callahan Run stream crossing, believing the ascending, south-facing section of trail would provide a little less ice and falls, and more hiking.  Our pace had slowed to a crawl over the last mile, and we were only halfway to our planned campsite.  Although we had several hours of daylight, our concern was that the sinking sun would make the damp areas even more icy.  Unfortunately, within minutes it became apparent that this part of the trail was no safer than the last section.

After we spent about 10 harrowing minutes slipping and sliding over less than one tenth of a mile, we consulted the map.  Safety was an immediate concern.  So far we only had bumps and bruises to show for our struggles with the ice, but if we continued, there was a good chance someone would get seriously hurt. "Time for Plan B," I remarked.

"What is Plan B?" someone questioned.

"I have no idea but there is always a 'Plan B'." was the reply. 

After consulting the map and guidebook, we discovered we had two options.  One was to continue up the trail in the current direction by walking straight up the right branch of the Callahan Run, which the BFT crosses multiple times over the next mile. The creek was low enough to make rock hopping up the hill possible. However, the trail on the backside of the ridge would be straight down, and without the benefit of a creek to walk in should the trail be too icy and steep to descend. This choice would include another 1000' of elevation gain and loss over the ridge, and the uncertainty of the trail conditions concerned all five of us. 

The second option was to cross back over the left branch of Callahan Run and walk east on the Callahan Run Trail to a blue-blazed trail along Pine Creek.  From there we could walk up Naval Run to our planned campsite.  The topographic map revealed that this path was much more open forest along the bank of Pine Creek, allowing much greater sun exposure.


Remnants of ice flow, Callahan Run at Pine Creek
Ted and Randy crossing Callahan Run


After a quick discussion of the options, we unanimously agreed to take the second alternative. We carefully crossed the creek and returned to the junction of the BFT and the Callahan Run Trail.  We were instantly rewarded by a nice, wide trail which appeared to be an old forest road.  We descended gradually to Pine Creek, where we were compensated for our earlier hardships by an amazing view of the confluence of the river and stream from a huge and scenic campsite.  The surrounding landscape was dotted with huge blocks of ice.  The ice flow must have been incredible before the rain.  Some of the ice blocks were several feet thick and 6-8 feet long.


Two more easy but scenic miles had us at our originally planned campsite on the banks of Naval Run, joined by Mike, his brother, and his friendly black lab.  With a minimum of effort finding dry wood, and by scraping out the inner, dried core of a down and dead tree, we made quick work of a roaring creek side campfire.

We had a great night's sleep, with temperatures around 30*. After a leisurely breakfast we broke camp to continue our adventure. Hoping to finish the rest of the hike as outlined by Mid-Atlantic hikes, we retraced our way back down Naval Run trail. to the BFT. 


Taking a break after boot-scooting down the ice, Naval Run
Whoops!  Another "Plan B!" Because of ice and dead falls we missed the trail and found ourselves at the crossing of Big Pine Trail and Naval Run Road AFTER we had spent 30 minutes crossing Naval Run.  Another round of conferring over the map, another change to our route.  No one wanted to cross back over Naval Run and the crazy steep and icy trail, so we ended up road walking for a mile before heading 1000' back up the ridge to join the BFT on the Gas Line Trail.


The trail was wide and well marked, and the scenery on the ridge was the best yet.  Although the ridges and valleys were shrouded in mist, the view was still spectacular.  I would love to witness the landscape lush with greenery in the summer, or rich with color in the fall.


Becky and Amy enjoying the scenery
We continued on the BFT until another steep, hemlock obscured descent covered with ice.  Another "Plan B."  Or by now it is Plan E. Hmmm, a pattern is emerging when it comes to this trip!

Once again a consult of the map and guide book presented us with a camp three miles down a forest road.  The camp is described as surrounded by "virgin hemlocks."  Rain was imminent, so another group discussion decided that a dense cover of hemlocks would be lovely to protect us from a driving rain.  We made camp within an hour, and well before dark Mike and his brother produced another blazing campfire, under the shelter of the towering trees. 


Under the shelter of hemlocks and pines
Mike and Bandit
Uphill and I were comfortable in our hammocks, above the soggy pine sheds of the forest floor. I had my huge Winter Palace by Hammock Gear, while Uphill had modified his tarp with a carbon fiber pole mod on the pull-outs.

Demeter's Winter Hammock Camp

Uphill's modified tarp with doors
The final day of our adventure greeted us with temperature of 34*.  By the time we broke camp two hours later, the temperature was a balmy 26* and a dusting of snow and light sleet blanketed the forest.  We trekked easily back to our cars. 

En route to Maryland, Uphill found a great tex-mex restaurant called Mercado Burrito in Lewisburg, PA, home of Bucknell University.  The small counter-style restaurant had the most amazing sweet potato hash imaginable. Craig and Ted enjoyed the huge made-to-order burritos, while Becky and I savored the burrito plate sans tortilla.  I would definitely suggest a stop here for a home-style version of a Chipotle burrito.
Ted devouring a Mercado Burrito
Overall, this was a fun and challenging weekend.  We hiked 18+ miles with 2000' of elevation gain.  Every trip presents a backpacker with a new challenge, and we were definitely presented with a few learning opportunities.  I certainly learned to pack micro spikes the next time I venture this far north in the spring.  Becky christened this weekend "Thrills, Chills, and Spills," and thus the name for this post.  I can't wait to return to the BFT to enjoy the many vistas and explore the countryside. 
A map and small guidebook for the BFT written by Chuck Dillon can be purchased online from Pine Creek Outfitters. 

2 comments:

  1. What an interesting and detailed hike report! This kind of stuff is so much more appealing than the trash on tv. By the way, I'd be interested in what foods you took with and all. I'm still getting my food boxes together for my late starting AT thru hike. How do you feel about using ziplock bags to rehydrate oatmeal, pasta, etc. with boiling water? Thanks. Great pics!!

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  2. Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. I plan on doing more posts on one of my favorite topics; trail food! I do use the freezer bag method (FBC) frequently, although I like to cook in my pot to avoid the exposure to plastics. Have you checked out Sara Kirkconnell's website and book at www.trailcooking.com? A very good starting point! I also trail bake on occasion (I have a prior post about baking with my Foster's Pot). I have an Excalibur dehydrator that I use to excess to prepare my meals, although I supplement with freeze-dried meats.

    My meals are a hodge-podge of whatever I have previously dried. I use chicken, dried beef, or pemmican I made that I will throw in a bag with baked ramen noodles, dried potatoes, or dried squash. Add some veggies (spinach, peas, dried tomatoes, carrots, etc) and a packet of broth and you have a complete meal. I also take lots of herbal tea bags. And I love Larabars!

    Good luck on your through hike!!

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