Hope in the Pennsylvania Wilds

February 15, 2017
Pennsylvania winding road

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

Story and Photos by Jeff Davison

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…

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