Over the holidays I did a ~24 mile 2-night trip with my brother-in-laws along PA's Black Forest Trail (in north central PA). Thirteen of the miles were actually on the BFT, while the remainder were on ski trails, service roads, and bushwhacking. Although it was on the flatter portion of the BFT, it did include a section with ~23 water crossings. The weather was wintry for PA (8 deg F), high/gusty winds, and ~4" of additional snow on top of a crusty base.
The nice part of winter hiking is that the leaves are off, and the snow base creates a good contrast to see the geography of the surrounding hills. We went through numerous large stands of rhodies and mountain laurel bushes, that must be georgeous during peak season! We had some ups & downs (~200-500') since there are numerous creeks & runs in the areas that have countless ravines carved out during the last ice age.
Loc & Ron are not lightweight backpackers, but have certainly lightened up over the years. There is plenty of wildlife in this part of PA, so we had Bear Vaults and Ursacks for our food at night.
The Chuck Dillon trail guide reads "The BFT is not a novice trail-there are demanding ascents and descents, challenging stream crossings, and rough sections that will test the quality of your hiking boots."
As I said, we didn't have enough time or energy to do the whole challenging 42.5 mile loop, so did the northern and western section by doing some roads. We didn't see anyone on the trail or the roads except for three other that were just starting their hikes since it is just empty hunting cabins and the roads were iced up from previous storms where the sun had not melted it yet.
We were glad to have brought crampons for the road sections since it would have slowed us down picking our way across the 4 miles of state forest service and back roads that we took...or the potential of several falls on the very slippery ice.
We got good at putting on and taking off the crampons.
The road sections did give us some nice views of the eastern portion of the BFT trail, which both Ron & I had separately done 20-30 years ago during hot, humid, buggy conditions. It brought some relief that as 40-50 year olds we were suffering less now than we had back then with heavier packs and less experience.
We rejoined the BFT and climbed some more through rhodies and mountain laurel (state blossom of PA). We had crossed bear tracks earlier in the day, but I had not thought to take any photos. I did think you all would appreciate some photos of bear scat.
We hit camp 2 miles later in time to set up shelters and find some firewood to stave off the chill and dry out socks.
Rather than bringing a tent, Loc just brought the fly from his tent, which worked well for them since they each had bivies.
I could see Orion & I didn't think the snow was supposed to start until mid-morning, so I just cowboy camped in my Oware epic/spinnaker bivy. I later rethought the wisdon of that choice.
At 3 am I woke up to snow pushing down on my face and excessive condensation on my Western Mountaineering down 20 deg sleeping bag...so I got up and started looking for a good/flat spot to set up my BMW Stealth spinnaker tarp...that was fun. :(
It wasn't a textbook taut pitch, but it kept additional snow off me. It was noisy with the wind sounding like a freight train and some big gusts. I kept warm with two hoodies (BMW and R1). Won't win a fashion contest, but it was nice to have the lower part of the hoods to breathe through.
Hard to tell how much new accumulation we got since there was also some wind that night, but I'm guessing ~2". Everything was covered with new snow.
These other two guys really like their fires, so they had done a good job the night before to make sure that there were some hot coals (even under that snow) to warm up socks and thaw out water bottles for the next day's hike.
The temperature was ~18F with some steady breeze and little promise of sun, so we were eager to get breakfast and start moving again.
Beaking camp with the the wrestling of winter bags and small stuff sacks helped warm us up.
We had steady flurries that morning, but still got some nice views down into the ravines and hollows.
Lots of tracks in the newly fallen snow (birds, vole/mice, rabbits, bobcat/coyote/fox?, and bear).
It was hard to tell what some of these feline/canine tracks were since the snow was blowing and had filled in some of the details, but we saw lots of these tracks.
We saw this cool log with the bark and heartwood stripped away to show the chiral spiral of it's wood. The wood fiber itself can have a right or left handed chiral twist, which affects the overall growth pattern of the tree.
The BFT is blazed with orange rectangles, and the intersecting ski trails had blue rectangles.
After the last road crossing (only one with any traffic) and talking with three other hikers getting ready to start their own 2-night trek in the other direction, we entered pine and Norway Spruce Plantations that were planted by the CCC in the 1930's. It was a nice break from the typical ~60 year old PA hardwood forest that we had been hiking through through. It was also nice to finally get some sunshine.
We got to a decision point..the main BFT route or the high water route? Since Ron & I had been wanting to finish this trail, we opted for the main trail. We later had opportunity to rethink that choice.
This was one of the earlier and easier of the 17 water crossings in this section. Since there were feeder streams, the creek kept getting bigger and the crossings kept getting harder to find. It started out as jumping 2-3 feet, progressed to rock hopping, and then scouting up & downstream for large trees across deeper, faster, and colder water.
We have bushwacked for awhile, then we realized that we had to make one last creek crossing, so we looked around for our best option and found a very icy set of logs that seemed best to slide down on our bottoms since we were eager to go swimming at this point of the day.
Loc found this deer carcass that was completely cleaned. I can't believe that when I took the photo I cut off the rack (5 points). There were lots of tracks around the carcass, but the recent snow had covered up the details, so I can't tell if it was feline or canine (any thoughts??).
We left the creek and climbed up through a bank of rhodies, which must be very pretty in May or June.
I used my Bushbuddy, but have decided that I need to refine my technique (using more lacey branches once the firestarted catches, not feed sticks too quickly to get a good flame, and use more of a wind block) since it took me forever to get the water heated. Otherwise, I might just switch to another stove. It's not worth the trouble in wintertime, and a open fire worked better than what I had going that night.
Ron tried to warm by the fire since we hadn't seen the sun for some time in that little hollow (even though it was only ~7 pm).
The wood was wet & frozen so it never got to be very productive.
Loc didn't have gaiters or waterproof shoes, which really made a differnce once we stopped hiking and had dinner. He tried drying his stuff by the fire, but quickly decided to retire to his sleeping bag since the wind was blowing through and the fire never really generated much heat.
I found a nice (but narrow) spot for my tarp (purchased from Pedro off Gear Swap) that night, and was happy with a tauter pitch since we continued to get snow flurries (another ~2"). It was COLD & WINDY that night with temperatures getting down to 8 deg. F and gusts that blew the tarp into my face. I know that may be mild compared to what the folks in New Enlgand and the upper penisula get, but it was quite a bit below average conditions for us.
"Rhodies are ‘thermotropic’; sensitive to temperature changes and respond with leaf movement. Charles Darwin wrote a book in 1880 titled ‘The Power of Movement in Plants’ in which temperatures causing movement is covered. As air temperatures drop below 35 degrees, the curling and drooping begins. The lower the temps drop, the tighter the curl and more vertical the hanging leaf." http://uconnladybug.wordpress.com/2009/02/02/rhododendron-leaf-curl/
However, we didn't need Darwin or rhodies to tell us that it was cold after leaving camp that morning. I thought that I would just need my Possum Fur gloves once I started up that steep trail out of the hollow and stowed my silnylon mittens from Cedar Tree (Packa Poncho manufacturer) in my backpack. Once we hit the top of the ridge and the wind hit us, my fingers were curling into my palms as much as the rhodie leaves in an unsuccessful effort to get warm.
The good thing that that wind did was to blow out the clouds and snow to provide some nice views in the morning. Unfortunately, the temperatures and our half frozen boots kept us from admiring them long.
We had a fairly easy morning hike (even with some misdirection and an extra mile of hiking from my map reading) so got back to the car before our water even had a chance to thaw inside our jackets.
It's always nice to find the car at the trailhead with four tires, all of the windows, and many good memories.
I highly suggest the Black Forest Trail to anyone that has a chance to hike it, but it's a rougher trail thatn most in PA.