The Stroll That Turned Into A Challenge
My Three-Day Adventure on the Susquehannock Trail
I’m blaming it on Maddie Tormoen.
The champion duathlete once said, "I only have so many miles in me and I want to use every one of them before my time is up."
That might explain why I decided, at some point during the first day of my 4+ day trek on the 85-mile Susquehannock Trail in north-central Pennsylvania, to instead do the trip in 3 days. With no +. After all, I am getting older. The knees are complaining a bit more on my adventures. The lower back implores me to slowly roll out of the sack instead of hopping up to greet the day.
Yet it was a somewhat inauspicious start to the whole adventure. I walked out of my motel room at the Potato City Motor Inn (I’m not making that name up) to a drizzling rain. I thought the rain was coming later in the day, not at 8 a.m.
The drizzle immediately turned a bit harder. I hadn’t even walked 50 feet before I removed my pack and set it under a tree, pulled out my eVent Packa, put my pack back on and then the Packa, and headed once again down the dirt road leading to the trailhead.
Less than a quarter mile later, I noticed that the lenses of my sunglasses -- the frames hanging from my sternum strap -- were missing. As the rain steadily increased, I sighed, turned around, and went back to the tree where I had set my pack. No lenses. I then carefully, slowly, made my way back up the road, swinging my glance from side to side. No lenses. Another sigh. The process had taken me a bit more than an hour, it was raining harder, and I hadn’t even made it to the trailhead yet.
Resigned to my lost glasses, I picked my pace back up and hit the trailhead about 10 minutes later. It was raining hard now but the woods beckoned nonetheless. Much like a youngster at his favorite swimming hole, I smiled wide and plunged in. I was on my way.
Keeping the Interlopers at Bay
I didn’t get far when I decided to stop again and put on my GoLite Reed rain pants. The rain was not going to let up. A few minutes later I was on my way again, enjoying the tall, leafy trees enveloping me as I made my way down the trail.
Actually, there is no Susquehannock Trail. It’s really the Susquehannock Trail System -- a series of interconnected trails wedded in holy orange blazes. But as there are few trail signs, I generally considered myself hiking the Susquehannock, or the STS.
According to the trail guide, in 1966 Potter County Recreation sought to link a series of old railroad grades and foot trails in the Susquehannock State Forest into a circuit hike. The Susquehannock Trail Club was established a year later to finish the STS, which opened in 1968.
Forty two years later, it rained steadily for a good bit of the morning, then let up to a schizophrenic sky -- at times a beautiful blue with cottonball clouds, at times a dowdy, gloomy grey, and still other times a drizzle would return for an unannounced visit.
At least the rain kept the flying interlopers to a dull buzz. There were few gnats and mosquitoes about, though the black flies had decided to brave the elements and join my party. As long as I was moving they didn’t bother me much. I kept moving.
A couple of miles in brought me to the first of a few vistas. The rain had subsided so I not only got to enjoy the view, I snapped a quick picture as well. I’m a picture taker, not a photographer, as is evident by the included photos!
I continued on and in a few miles crossed Lyman Run a few times, one of many, many stream crossings on this trail. Some of the crossings are nearly knee deep. In fact, this time of year the trail is quite wet, muddy, and even marshy in some areas. My feet were never dry for more than an hour -- and usually less -- before getting wet again. Fortunately wet feet don’t bother me, and toward the end of the trip the cold water felt great on my sore, tired feet.
The trail had pretty much been on an easy, downhill slope till this point. The climb out of Lyman Run was short but steeper than I had expected. I thought this trail was through rolling countryside! I would find out that a half dozen or so steep, long climbs made it anything but!
Four miles and a few water crossings/marshy areas later I hit West Branch Road and turned right. The road, according to the guide, was once part of Goodyear Lumber Company’s logging railroad system. A quick turn left and I was climbing again -- a half-mile, very steep incline that the trail blazers dubbed “Cardiac Climb.”
It’s easy to tell that the folks who made this trail really enjoyed the process, and had a lot of fun doing it. This is especially evident by a few wooden signs along the trail, one of which I passed while ascending Cardiac Climb that gleefully informed me that I was “almost halfway!” up the climb. The sign brought a broad smile to my face as I slowly continued upward over the rocky, sometimes wet terrain.
I hit Route 44 a couple of miles later, and thanks to BPL member Chris Bell, took a short detour down Rt. 44 to a beautiful vista overlooking the southern portion of the trail. The day was sunny and warm at that point, and I was feeling strong. I munched on a few Clif Shot Roks as I enjoyed the view, and then headed back down the trail, past the Cherry Springs Fire Tower.
I descended for quite a while to and along Hogback Hollow, passing a few beaver ponds, grassy meadows and myriad great camping spots. You’re never too far from water on the STS -- you’re either walking along it, walking in it, or walking to it. It’s one of my favorite aspects of this trail. I love walking along, and sleeping near, running water, and the STS gives you plenty of opportunity for both.
When I hit Short Run Road around mile 19, it was sunny and hot. I missed the cool rain of the morning! A left off the road along a stream and through a marshy area brought more great campsites, and I was only planning on 20 miles the first day. But it was still early, around 5 p.m., and I don’t sit still well. So I decided to press on to the Southern Gateway and Ole Bull State Park at mile 26. From the map, there looked to be plenty of camping there.
And there was. But I couldn’t use it. Ole Bull is a state park campground. $21 to camp for out-of-staters, and I had no cash. The camp host wasn’t feeling generous, and recommended I keep moving down the trail, where I could camp anywhere I wanted for free. It was now getting late in the day and I needed to get my hammock up and my bear bag rope hung before it got dark.
Drifting off to Anxiety
So I smiled and pressed on after filling my water bottles and a water bladder (for my meals, since there would be no water for a few miles) from one of the campground spigots. Pressing on meant climbing, sometimes steeply, for a couple of miles. When I finally got to the top of the rise, the sun was just setting below the horizon behind me. I quickly set up my hammock and got my bear rope up as darkness descended. I pitched my tarp over my hammock, ate a few more Shot Roks and a chocolate bar, and climbed into my hammock. I was too tired to cook dinner.
I drifted off to sleep to the sound of clucking wild turkeys milling about my camp. It was a warm night, and my cuben underquilt kept me so toasty that I pushed my cuben topquilt off me completely, letting a very gentle breeze brush against my well-sweated skin.
Well, almost drifted off to sleep. I suddenly heard something bigger than turkeys slowly moving nearby. I know there are bears in the area, so I shined my headlamp out and yelled, figuring I’d scare it off. It kept slowly advancing. Finally, I rolled out of my hammock and shined my Petzl toward the noise.
Crouched behind a downed tree was a bobcat, about 30 feet from my hammock, and he wasn’t that frightened of me at all. I yelled a few profanities, claimed the spot as mine, and waived my trekking pole a bit frantically in the air, occasionally hitting it against the tree next to me. He wasn’t all that impressed. I was a bit anxious. Bears don’t really frighten me that much. But big cats, that’s another thing altogether.
I must have been quite the sight. Wearing only a pair of black VBL socks and a pair of black Icebreaker briefs, everything else lily-white, pasty skin (I could have been a stand-in for the big doughboy in ‘Ghostbusters’), with a bright light emanating from the center of my forehead, I stood there making a loud, profane case for this particular campsite having been claimed. I didn’t have a flag, so my trekking pole would have to do.
I like to think that it was with a slightly bemused look that the cat finally turned. Either that or he just didn’t want that much fat in his diet. I climbed back into my hammock and listened as he slowly, deliberately padded away. I finally did get to sleep, but slept fitfully in spite of my tiredness. When my iPhone alarm went off at 6 a.m. with Steely Dan’s ‘Reeling in the Years,’ I did not hop out of bed!
But since I had decided the day before to make this trek into a challenge, I didn’t lie there long before slowly getting up and preparing for the day. I had put in 28 miles the day before, and wanted to put in 30 on this day to give me a 27-mile final day.
I packed everything but my food and cookset. I cooked one of my dinner meals since I hadn’t eaten it the night before. I didn’t feel all that famished, but knew I’d need the energy for the day’s trek. I enjoyed the meal, without rushing, as I looked at the woods around me. It was a beautiful spot, I drank it in with my electrolyte drink. The day began with a bright blue, sunny sky. I began with a cheery outlook and a full belly.
A quick cleanup and teeth brushing and I was on the trail at a vigorous pace, heading down steeply to Impson Hollow. There were so many single-strand webs hanging in the trail during this descent I ended up gyrating my trekking poles in front of me to keep them off my face. Had I collected all the webs that were clinging to my hat, hands and pants, I’m sure I could have had enough silk to knit that bobcat a nice sweater!
A long slow climb slowed my pace, and brought back the previous day’s hike to my legs. I still felt good, but my pace was no longer so vigorous. It would remain measured throughout the day.
After a slight climb to Twelve Mile Road I headed downhill and came to a thick, dark forest of older spruce and pine trees and little light. A wooden sign proclaimed the area “Spook Hollow.” The warning underneath - "Keep to the center of the trail. Stay within sight of companions. Refrain from looking back. DO NOT TRY TO RUN.” -- made me smile as I plunged down the dimly lit path. As I walked through this area I thought it a perfect place to set up a smoke machine, dress up some volunteers in monster costumes, and conduct fabulous Halloween hikes on cool October nights. The setting was perfect! Even the Native Americans who once inhabited the region agreed, they called it “Shades of Death!”
The darkness didn’t last long as the trail soon opened up. I passed the intersection of the STS with the North Link Trail, which connects the STS with the Black Forest Trail (a trail I had done the previous weekend).
Another mile, and another short climb, put me on Rattlesnake Trail. I’m not sure where it got the name, I didn’t see a single rattlesnake, or even signs of one. A couple of miles later I passed the intersection with the South Link Trail, which also links to the BFT. I began a gentle descent, much appreciated as I began to tire a bit. I had only hiked about 7-8 miles, and began to wonder if I’d make my 30 miles for the day.
The descent got much steeper as I climbed down to Morgan Hollow. The trail was rocky and wet in places, making this part of the hike slow and treacherous.
The rest of the day followed much the same pattern. Plenty of streams and stream crossings, grassy marshland, tiring climbs and sometimes steep descents. And beauty everywhere. The trail throws a lot of looks at you, and I enjoyed them all. There were plenty of deer, chipmunks and squirrels to keep me entertained.
The rains of the day before revisited in the afternoon. I put the pack cover part of the Packa on my pack as it started, and then slipped into the jacket itself as the rain fell harder. I went through this process two or three times as the rain fell, then waned.
Loud thunder accompanied the rain on this second day, with gusty winds. I never felt the need to take cover, instead continuing to press on. The tall, thin trees rubbed together in the wind like young lovers, and were about as noisy! I once thought I heard a trailbike ahead, then realized it was trees rubbing together in the wind.
It was some time during my second day, late in the day, when the my trek turned from a fun hike to a somewhat grueling challenge. The steep climbs had taken a toll, my pack felt heavier in the afternoon than I remember it feeling in the morning when I put it on. My feet were sore. My right shoulder began to feel a dull ache. I had packed for four dinners and breakfasts, and I was not appreciating the extra weight!
So when I rolled into the small town of Cross Fork, lowest elevation on the trail, I decided to give up the challenge and get a motel room. I’d get a hot shower, a good night’s sleep (it was only 5 p.m.), and hit the trail refreshed the next day. I’d easily put 25 miles in on the third day and have an easy 10 the morning of the fourth. Sounded quite reasonable to me. After all, I’m a big believer in staying flexible and adjusting plans as necessary.
I rang the bell on the office door of the motel at the far edge of town. There was a light on inside. But no one answered the door. Perhaps they saw this weird looking sweaty guy standing on the stoop and decided they didn’t want any part of him. Perhaps they were in the bathroom and I just didn’t wait long enough. In any case, I quickly readjusted my mind again, checked my map, and plunged back into the challenge.
I followed the main road out of town (which was the trail) to where the trail veered off into the woods. Up a hill. A steep hill. And a long one, too. Slowly I made my way up the ascent, this time with plenty of light left. I caught brief wisps of cool wind as I climbed, and removed my hat to increase the pleasure of the breeze. I crested the hill and kept going, along the level top and then down the other side, leaving the Twin Sisters Trail for the Elkhorn Trail, and down into Elkhorn Hollow. I followed the stream looking for a good spot to set up my hammock, quickly finding one and making camp.
I set up slowly, as I still had plenty of light left. I strung the hammock and found an appropriate tree for my bear bag. I walked down the trail a few hundred feet with my dinner and cookset and enjoyed a leisurely, delicious dinner and a dram or so of 21-year-old Glenfiddich. It had been a tough day, more climbing than the first, I was pretty tired, sitting at mile 53/54. If I was going to complete my challenge, I had to put in 31 or 32 miles the next day. I sipped my scotch. Of course I would.
The Final Push
I slept quite well next to the stream. The nice thing about sleeping next to a running stream is that the noise of the stream pretty much drowns out anything that might be milling about your camp. No animal noises, no fitful sleep. It was much colder, 38.5 degrees overnight compared to 50 degrees the night before, so I slept in a shirt and had my topquilt over me from the start. I was warm from the scotch, toasty from the topquilt, full from dinner. I went to sleep with a weary smile on my face.
Steely Dan woke me early Wednesday. I decided to forgo a hot breakfast as I wanted an early start. I wanted to get in before dark, and figured I’d need all the time I could get to do so. So after a Bobo’s Oat Bar, a small chocolate bar and an electrolyte tab in water, I hit the trail. It was a sunny day, blue sky with nary a cloud. And warm. Which would turn to hot.
I knew I’d have a few steep climbs, but nothing as bad as the previous day. Still, I could feel the tiredness in my legs from the beginning, and the soreness in my feet soon followed. I was wearing my New Balance MT 100s, which were relatively new. I had been hiking in Asics Gel Trabucos for most of last year, the MT 100s were an attempt to go minimalist. I had worn them on two previous hikes, so I knew they fit fine. But I was definitely feeling the lack of support early on day 3, especially since the trail was so rocky in spots!
A few stream crossings and a slight climb put me on the side of a steep ridge. About an hour into the day, I came across the only two other hikers I saw on the trail the entire trip. As they ambled about their campsite I waved and shouted a cheery hello and pressed on.
I was drinking more water on this day, and stopped shortly before noon for a refill. The black flies swarmed mercilessly. I chided my Steripen for taking so damned long to do its magic while shooing the flies buzzing all around me. When I finally got my two liters sterilized, I found my pack literally covered in black flies. As I shooed them away, I lifted the pack cover (I used a yellow MLD pack cover in the mornings as it was turkey hunting season) and realized that the flies covered my pack under the pack cover as well. I quickly ripped the pack cover off, stuffed it into an outside pocket and swung the pack onto my back. As I reached for my trekking poles, I saw they were covered, and I’m not exaggerating, covered with black flies as well. Shooing the beasts away again I grabbed my poles and moved down the trail swiftly.
The flies were much worse this day than the previous two. Fortunately, as before, as long as I was moving they didn’t bother me much. And I was nearing zombie mode anyway. I continued to look around me and enjoy the beauty I was walking through, but I did it without a smile. Humorless. Beauty noted, move along, try not to think about how tired you are and how much your feet hurt.
I started to set mini goals. If I can make 12 miles by noon, I should be able to finish before dark. If I can get to less than 20 miles by 2 p.m., I should be able to finish by dark. If I can get to less than 15 miles by 5 p.m., I should be able to finish by dark.
I hit all my marks with time to spare, and as each mile passed with each hour, I knew I’d make it. I took a few pictures, looked around a bit more. During one memorable stretch, caterpillars were hanging by a thread in front of me on the trail. And not just one or two, but by the half dozens. It’s as if they were commandos, lowered on their lines, mini-Uzis slung across their backs, looking for a plate glass window to kick through in search of terrorists. I dodged as many as I could as I made my way down the trail.
When I came to what I knew would be my last descent I stopped and looked around. I took a couple of swigs of water, ate a Tanka Bar, and leaned my weary bones forward. I knew that the last ascent followed the last descent (couldn’t be the other way around, nooooo) as I moved down the sometimes steep hill. After a short, somewhat flat section at the bottom, I came across a small, beaver-created pond with a beaver hotel in the middle. I stopped and pondered what a tremendous amount of work the beavers had to have done to create their sanctuary. It was amazing, really. I took a couple of pictures, smiled at the thought, then began the last climb.
Though I knew I was close to the end, I couldn’t muster the energy to pick up the pace. I was probably only moving about 2 mph, but that would have to do. The climb wasn’t particularly steep, but it seemed to go on and on. Once I crested it, there was a short 1-2 miles back to the hotel. My sole thought: I hope the hotel is open on weekdays, and I hope they have an available room!
I ate my last Bobo’s about a mile from the finish. It tasted great! As I approached the hotel I stopped once again at the tree where I was sure I must have lost the lenses to my sunglasses, and there they were. I can’t believe I didn’t see them that first morning.
Smiling, I picked them up, and headed for the hotel door, the challenge completed well before dark (I finished right around 7:45 p.m.). My feet, shoulders, legs … my whole body was tired and sore. As I undressed and started to run the shower water, waiting for it to get hot, I thought about how I hadn’t had a real vacation in quite some time. For whatever reason, I had decided to turn my leisurely vacation into an exhausting challenge. I’m still blaming it on Maddie.
I won’t say I pushed myself to my limits. I don’t think I really got close to my limits. But I did test myself.
And I passed.