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Visiting Old Growth

Sometimes you have to work to see an old growth forest. That’s what my husband Bruce, our son Dave, and I decided as we labored up the steep, rocky, north side of Paddy Mountain one summer day. We were following the unmarked Joyce Kilmer Trail through the Joyce Kilmer Natural Area in Bald Eagle State Forest. This 77-acre virgin white pine and eastern hemlock remnant in Union County is mostly near the ridgetop, and, once we crossed a stream lined with younger hemlock trees, there were no level areas. For over a mile, the rock-strewn forest trail was either steep or less steep. Only dogged determination to see the big trees kept me going.

It was no accident that the white pine and hemlock trees of the Joyce Kilmer Natural Area had never been cut. Back in the days when logging was done with horses, the conifers that grew on such steep, rocky ravines were often spared. Those I saw in the natural area were surrounded by large rocks, so I preferred to sit beside the trail and admire what I could see. Meanwhile, Bruce and Dave picked their precarious way around, through, and over the rocks in search of the largest trees and best photographic possibilities, and quickly disappeared.

That was when I heard and saw a few of the deep forest birds –a pair of hermit thrushes, a black-throated green warbler accompanied by a begging offspring, an eastern wood pewee, a black-throated blue warbler, and a common raven.

Eventually, the men returned, and we picked our way slowly back down the rocky trail. We agreed that of the 27 old-growth sites we have visited in Pennsylvania, the Joyce Kilmer Natural Area was the most strenuous.

“Too strenuous,” Bruce Kershner told me several weeks later.

Kershner, a short, bearded, energetic man of 49, lives in upstate New York and is a national authority on old-growth forests. He and Robert Leverett of Massachusetts, another old- growth forest expert, are writing a guidebook on accessible old-growth forests in the northeastern United States. Leverett is covering the New England states while Kerschner is concentrating on New York and Pennsylvania.

Next to New York state, Pennsylvania has the most old-growth forest in the northeast, Kershner says. So, as we drove along enroute to the two old-growth forests I wanted to show him–Alan Seeger and Detweiler Run natural areas in Rothrock State Forest–Kershner gave me his assessment of the old-growth places he had visited so far in Pennsylvania.

Based on a combination of the aesthetics, acreage and impressiveness of the trees, he rated Cook Forest State Park on the northwestern Allegheny Plateau as number one in the state–an A+ place. The 6,668-acre park in Clarion, Forest and Jefferson counties has three different virgin timber tracts–the 125-acre Swamp area of mostly old-growth hemlocks and a few white pines, the 70-acre Seneca area of hemlocks and white pines with some almost 300-year-old pitch pines, and the wonderful 100-acre Cathedral area, also primarily old-growth white pines and hemlocks, including the second tallest white pine tree east of the Rocky Mountains. Much of the rest of the park is mature second growth with old-growth characteristics and is the closest we can come to experiencing what was once known as the “Black Forest of Pennsylvania.”

Kershner’s A category was assigned to six places. The first was Woodbourne Forest and Wildlife Sanctuary, a 200-acre virgin hemlock and northern hardwood forest in Susquehanna County. It is the largest virgin tract in northeastern Pennsylvania, according to its present owners, The Nature Conservancy. It is also, Kershner feels, the most beautiful tract of old-growth in the state after Cook Forest State Park.

Previously owned by the Francis R. Cope, Jr. family, the entire 648-acre sanctuary was given to The Nature Conservancy by Cope, his wife, and his daughter, the recently deceased Teddy Gray. Coincidentally, Gray and her father, who was vice president of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, also fought to save Kershner’s third choice, the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas and Heart’s Content Scenic Area in the Allegheny National Forest back in the 1930s. Realizing then the importance of saving such places, Gray wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on “Observation on the Vertebrate Ecology of Some Pennsylvania Forests,” including her own Woodbourne and the Tionesta Tract.

The 4,131 acres of old-growth hemlock and beech forest in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, along with the 122 acres of hemlock, white pine and beech in Heart’s Content Scenic Area are all the old growth that is left of the six million acres of beech-hemlock forest that once covered the Allegheny Plateau. Unfortunately, 800 acres in the Tionesta Tract were flattened by a tornado in 1985 and regeneration is being set back by deer browsing. Then, too, beech bark disease has killed many trees.

Kershner not only visited already well-known old-growth remnants in Pennsylvania, he actively searched for new places. As co-founder of the Western New York Old-Growth Forest Survey, he has discovered dozens of previously unknown ancient forests. Near Dingmans Falls in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, he found old-growth along Fulmer’s Falls near the Child’s Picnic Area which he classed as outstanding. That’s because he, like me, thinks that the combination of old-growth and waterfalls is especially appealing. So, of course, my favorite place in Pennsylvania–Ricketts Glen State Park, with its 27 waterfalls and old-growth hemlock and hardwood forest–also rated an A with Kershner.

The other As went to the lovely 120-acre Hemlocks Natural Area in Tuscarora State Forest and the stately 500-acre Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area in Bald Eagle State Forest. Both have easy trails through remote stream valleys of virgin hemlock and white pine forests.

Kershner’s B+ rating went to wooded river valleys on the lower Susquehanna River that are owned and protected by Pennsylvania Power and Light–Kelly’s Run Natural Area in Lancaster County and Otter Creek Natural Area in York County. I agree with Kershner that these too are very special places.

Sweet Root Natural Area in Buchanan State Forest is “very primeval,” Kershner said, but it only rated a B because there is so much die-off. A 140-acre old-growth conifer forest on State Game Lands 141 near Jim Thorpe also had die-off in the treetops and for that reason was also assigned a B, but when we visited it several years ago, the Glen Onoko area with its several waterfalls reminded me of a miniature Ricketts Glen.

Other B places that have smaller acreage but beautiful trees, in Kershner’s opinion, are two southwestern Pennsylvania sites–Ohiopyle State Park’s Ferncliff Natural Area which includes 20 acres of old-growth along the falls and rapids of the Youghiogheny River, and the Laurel Hill State Park Natural Area’s four acres of old-growth hemlock along Laurel Hill Creek in Somerset County.

Forest H. Dutlinger Natural Area in Susquehannock State Forest also rated a B, Kershner said, because its 158-acre tract of virgin hemlock and hardwood forest is as difficult to reach as the Joyce Kilmer Natural Area. Only after a mile climb up a steep ravine do visitors reach the old-growth. Still, I remember it as a lovely place.

With such strong opinions, I wondered what Kershner’s reaction would be to my two A choices.

“Wow! This is incredible, This is special. It has a feeling of further south because of the tall rhododendron,” Kershner said as we walked the three-quarter-mile circular trail in the Alan Seeger Natural Area. The 118-acre remnant is best known for its virgin hemlock and interlocking canopy of twenty-foot-high rhododendron shrubs along Standing Stone Creek.

But Kershner was even more impressed by the old-growth hardwoods. Altogether, he counted seven species–red oak, yellow birch, chestnut oak, white oak, tulip, sugar maple and black gum–along with white pine and hemlock. As we walked, he enumerated old-growth characteristics on the tree species.

“There’s old-growth tulip senescent bark,” he pointed out, showing me the balding bark at the bottom of the tree. “The higher the balding goes, the older the tree is. The same is true of the moss layer. A tree must be 120 years old for moss to grow two feet up the trunk.”

Then he found a large white oak tree.

“Look at its buttressed roots. And the moss has grown four feet up the trunk. That makes it between 250 and 320 years old!”

Other signs of old-growth, Kershner says, are unusual growth forms such as a noticeable twisting of the trunks, the presence of the giant white bracket fungus Berkeley’s polypore Polyporus berkeleyi, and the lifting off of bark plates, especially on yellow birch and white pine trees. All in all, Kershner was impressed by Alan Seeger and gave it an A.

Detweiler Run Natural Area, only two-and-a-half-miles by foot from Alan Seeger, is harder to get to, which is why it is one of my favorite retreats. This 463-acre natural area contains 185 acres of old-growth white pine, hemlock and white oak according to the State Bureau of Forestry, but almost immediately Kershner pointed out an old-growth yellow birch.

By then, time was running short and Kershner counted the rings of fallen trees with frenetic haste. But even though he moved quickly, nothing escaped his sharp eyes.

“Look, jack-o’-lantern mushrooms,” he said, pointing to a clump of orange mushrooms growing at the base of a white oak stump.

“Listen to the raven. Look at the moss. Here’s an American chestnut branch.” I could barely keep up with him.

“Nature gives me energy,” he told me.

He still had many more places to visit in a few days and could hardly stop to truly savor each place. Still, I was amazed at how quickly he grasped their essence.

At first he was disappointed by Detweiler Run Natural Area as we descended the Axehandle Trail into the old-growth and then followed the Mid-State Trail through the natural area because it skirts the edge of the old-growth. But when the trail finally began winding among giant trees and piles of moss-covered rocks, he was satisfied that this place, too, is special and incredible.

As we finished our walk, he summed up his feelings for old-growth forest.

“The wisdom of the Earth is inscribed on the boughs of ancient trees. Death equals life in an old-growth forest. It creates new life and a series of lives.”

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