OUTDOORS: Two days and a night in the winter woods - LancasterOnline: News

OUTDOORS: Two days and a night in the winter woods

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Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 6:35 am | Updated: 1:47 pm, Thu Oct 3, 2013.

This was a switch. We're driving from Lancaster northward to the mountains and the snow is petering out.

How many times on these winter backpacks has our group departed a snowless Lancaster and headed for the Big Woods in search of the white stuff? Now, the reverse was true.

Fortunately, last Wednesday's blizzard that buried Lancaster in even more snow left a liner of about 4 inches here in Pine Creek Gorge.

When I started this almost annual affair in 1998, the idea was to seek out a different wild spot and sleep out on a cold and snowy night. We've pretty much succeeded but until last week's storm, it was uncharacteristically barren here in the high country.

I joke that maybe we should stay at home and carve out an igloo from a plowed snow pile in the Park City parking lot.

But it is snowing lightly and in the mid-20s as we start up the Naval Run Trail in Tiadaghton State Forest. Along are Jon Rutter, a Sunday News reporter who has been along on all 11 winter forays, and Scott Van Arman, a chemistry professor at Franklin & Marshall College, going winter backpacking for the first time in 27 years.

VIDEO: Winter backpacking in Lycoming County

We have just tip-toed across the ice crystal-edged stream when a party of four hikers appears to our rear. We're not used to seeing human beings on our winter treks.

Not only are they human, but they're from Lancaster County, as well. My propensity for stumbling into county natives in the wildest places never ceases to amaze me.

Out on a bracing day hike are Jeff and Karen Fry, of Manheim, who have a vacation home in the old logging community of Slate Run. Their daughter, Katie, and her boyfriend, Steve Hass, have driven down from Connecticut for the weekend.

Jeff and Karen stalk native brook trout with fly rods in this stream. Jeff, 64, tells me about a 10-inch orange-bellied brookie he once caught and released. "It looked like a little fire engine," he says, face brightening at the memory.

The clan gives us some savvy trail tips for our trip - and future ones - then bounds up a side trail leading to the top of Hemlock Mountain.

We trudge along in the quiet. No birds are chirping. The only sounds emanating from this vast forest are the tinkle of water flowing under ice and the dull crunches of heavy boots on snow.

The quiet. That's what strikes Van Arman the most.

"There is no rustling of leaves. Any sound in the distance is muffled by the snow," he says. "It is easy to get the impression that you are alone."

He's also entertained by tracks of rodents, deer, foxes and coyotes that leave little stories in the snow.

"Your senses are used in a different way to give you an impression of your surroundings," Van Arman notes.

There is an unblazed trail shown on the map that will get us to the top of the mountain and the Black Forest Trail. Little dashed lines that do not have names worry me and when we get to the spot, I realize that I was right to fret.

There is no trail.

But there is no other recourse - unless we want to add miles to the trip - than to pick our way up the steep ravine as best we can.

It is about as tough an uphill bushwhack as I've ever done. Not only is it mountain goat steep, but our hard-earned upward steps are undermined by snow and loose rocks.

Sometimes it's one step forward and two steps back and I find myself grabbing trees to win the battle.

It's getting late in the afternoon and we're sweating - a no-no out in the cold - before we finish the 1,200-foot climb and stumble onto the Black Forest Trail.

The perspiration on my head has frozen my hair into beads. My first cornrows.

We are rewarded for our efforts with a series of postcard vistas looking up and down Pine Creek Gorge.

A notice appears on the screen of my video camera: "Low Temperature. Cannot Access Media. Please Warm Camera."

We can't linger anyway. We have camp to set up and, perhaps most important of all, gobs of firewood to collect.

We make our stand against the night beside a spring in a clearing. We pitch one of our tents atop a mound of shavings from an old mill.

Here, in 1939 and 1940, trees were felled and planed to build the many barracks at Ft. Indiantown Gap.

We build a roaring fire and let the first sacrificial limbs turn to coals before hauling out our dinners. I open a can of lima beans and small red potatoes (it seemed appetizing enough in the grocery store aisle at the time) and pour them into my World War I surplus pan.

Having given our belly stoves fuel to burn warmth through the night, we settle into the traditional winter camping pastime: staring at the fire, getting as close to the flames as we can without melting clothes.

This we do for three hours or so before it's no longer too embarrassingly early to go to sleep.

It's not quite that boring. We have some semi-heavy fireside chats and solve a few of the world's problems before jumping into our down sleeping bags.

Now, I'm generally opposed to gadgetry. But I freely admit I stuck those disposable stick-on chemical hand warmers all over my clothing before retiring.

The wind is howling in the treetops overhead and the temperature will dip to 15.

You pray that nature doesn't call during the night. But I drank two Rolling Rocks and pay the price.

I know how hard it will be to get on frozen boots, so I try to do my business by leaning out the tent flap on my knees. (Don't mention this to Scott; it iss his tent.)

The next morning we leave the Black Forest Trail to visit Bob and Dotty Webber, two of Pennsylvania's living legends.

Since 1961 - except for a seven-year stay in another home - Bob, 75, and Dotty, 87, have lived in a simple log cabin Bob built on the rim of the gorge.

They have no electricity, running water or phone, and live 2 miles from the nearest road. They are not recluses, and they get a lot of visitors from hikers.

Webber, a semi-retired state Bureau of Forestry employee, has built many of the vistas in the state forest and still leads ambitious public hikes over hill and dale. He even has a trail named after him.

He gives us directions back to Slate Run - the same 2.75-mile route he hikes once a week to pick up his mail and few necessities at the grocery store.

For me, living in the winter woods is always a parallel universe experience. But, unlike the Webbers, we have obligations in the outside world and can't choose when we have to leave.

We head downhill.


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