What a difference a few miles can make. From our home on the westernmost ridge of the Ridge and Valley Province to the Allegheny Front is only a couple miles as the crow flies, yet, as I teetered across a log and cable bridge over Bell Gap Run on State Game Lands 108, I felt as if I had entered another world.
The geology is different. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, the North American plate collided with the African plate. The collision folded the entire cover of sedimentary rock that had blanketed Pennsylvania. Because the Ridge and Valley area was closer to the collision, its folds were longer and more open than the long, gentle waves of the Allegheny Plateaus. The mountains of the Ridge and Valley were then higher than the Rocky Mountains are now and were gradually eroded down by streams that deepened and widened the valleys. Every winter the freezing and thawing of the earth slowly moved the soil farther down the mountains, which eventually produced the rounded hills we see today.
But while the rocks of the Ridge and Valley are tilted and lying next to each other, the rocks of the Allegheny Plateaus lie in flat layers stacked on top of one another like a multi-tiered cake as they were laid down over the eons. Because of the branching patterns of streams, the Plateaus area has a more irregular landscape than the Ridge and Valley, and, as hikers and hunters have discovered, it’s easier to get lost in.
When those streams cut down through the rocks, they often left cliffs or rounded benches. The Allegheny Front, as the eastern edge of the Plateaus section is called, stretches from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Its large, rounded cliff marks the end of the horizontal rocks and the beginning of the tilted rocks of the Ridge and Valley. Around here, when folks speak of going up the mountain, they mean the Front, not our gentler ridge.
During the European settlement of Pennsylvania, the Front provided an almost insurmountable barrier to the West. For instance, during bird artist John James and Lucy Audubon’s stage coach overland to Pittsburgh in April of 1808, the coach upset as it ascended the Front and was dragged on its side for a “considerable distance” before the driver gained control of the horses. Lucy was badly shaken and after that, she ascended every mountain on foot despite the constant rain and so did the other passengers. No wonder the subsequent construction of the Allegheny Portage Railroad impressed later travelers as not only safer but an amazing engineering feat.
The weather is harsher on the Front. During the winter, the snow is deeper and spring arrives a few weeks later than it does on our mountain. Even though most of our storms come from the west, the Front seems to blunt their severity before they reach us.
“A beetling escarpment,” Ben and Elizabeth R. Marsh call the Allegheny Front in The Atlas of Pennsylvania, and it was that escarpment we climbed last Memorial Day. Led by Dr. Todd Davis, a poet and professor at Penn State Altoona, who had discovered the trail a few miles from his home, several of us, ranging in age from four to sixty-nine, trekked slowly upward along a shaded old logging road that drops off steeply on the right toward Bell Gap Run at the base of the slope through a mature, mixed deciduous and hemlock forest. The left side of the trail is an often-exposed rocky cliff that displayed, on that day, a treasure trove of blooming wildflowers and ferns.
A hillside of painted trillium was a special treat. According to Ann Rhoads and Timothy Block in The Plants of Pennsylvania, painted trillium grows in northern Pennsylvania and at higher elevations along the Allegheny Front. This late-blooming trillium species likes a cool, strongly acidic, humus-rich soil underneath a bower of deciduous and conifer trees. The wavy edges of its three white petals account for its species name undulatum. The “painted” refers to the dark rose, inverted V at the base of each petal, the rose radiating outward along the petal’s major veins. Also know as “striped wake-robin” and “painted lady,” this trillium species almost springs out of the ground during sudden warm spells. As soon as it emerges and while it is still small, its flower opens. If it is pollinated then, the petals quickly turn translucent, dry and fall, disappointing trillium seekers. But those we saw on SGL# 108 were in full-size bloom.
Another white wildflower with a deep pink center and veins was the common or northern wood-sorrel Oxalis montana, which also grows in northern Pennsylvania and at higher elevations along the Allegheny Front. Even without its showy, five-petaled flower, its heart-shaped, clover-like leaves are distinctive. And after sunset, the leaves droop and fold close together as if in prayer. Known as “Alleluia” in England because it blooms near Easter, legend has it that wood-sorrel is St. Patrick’s shamrock. Supposedly, he was trying to explain the idea of the Trinity to his followers when he spotted a wood-sorrel at his feet.
“Here,” he is purported to have said, “Is God manifesting His own threefold being in the form of a simple flower.”
Joseph Harned, writing in Wildflowers of the Alleghanies told that story. He also maintained that “the mere mention of the name of this dainty plant suggests at once a vision of cool, moist, and mossy woods” such as we experienced during our hike.
Foamflower, miterwort, sweet white violets, and Canada violets were almost at the end of their blooming cycles, and Todd assured me that there were many other wildflower species earlier in the season.
Walking fern crept along the edges, cracks, and crevices of the large rock outcropping. Of course, it doesn’t literally “walk,” but the tips of its long, leathery, narrow, pointed leaves often sprout new plants when they touch the ground, hence its species’ name rhizophyllum which means “with rooting feet.” Also known as “walking leaf,” it likes to grow on shaded, moss-covered, limestone or sandstone rocks.
The shrub layer overhanging the trail was very familiar to me — wild hydrangea, red elderberry and mountain laurel, with lots of rhododendron near the top of the ridge.
Many of the singing birds we heard were also familiar to me as breeding birds on our property — black-throated green, black-throated blue, black-and-white, and cerulean warblers, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds and Acadian flycatchers, as well as the “chips” of a Louisiana waterthrush as we crossed the stream. But three species we heard or saw during our hike are only migrants on our ridge — Kentucky and Canada warblers, and the ethereal hermit thrush.
Halfway up the trail, a Canada warbler flew toward us, scolding energetically, fanning her tail and fluttering her wings in a typical distraction display, which indicated the presence of a nearby nest. Since they often build their nests low to the ground at the edge of a bank in a forest edge area about 1000 feet in elevation, we assumed she had a nest hidden nearby. Apparently, the Appalachian Plateaus have always been a stronghold for this lovely gray-backed warbler with yellow underparts that sports a distinctive necklace of black streaks on its breast.
Our encounter with the Kentucky warbler was only aural, his loud, rollicking, two-syllable “tory-tory-tory” song emanating from the damp forest below. This southern species too is a regular breeder on the Appalachian Plateaus, even in small woodlots and has been moving steadily north in Pennsylvania. Yellow spectacles and black side burns distinguish this brown-backed warbler with yellow underparts that skulks and nests in woodland undergrowth.
I could only stop in happy wonder when I heard the singing hermit thrush and argue with myself over which thrush’s song — the wood or hermit — is the most beautiful. Since we must make do with breeding wood thrushes on our mountain, I’ve given it preference, but on the rare occasions when I hear a hermit sing during migration, I want to persuade it to nest here too. It’s aggravating to know that at least a few hermit thrushes only fly across the valley to nest on the Front.
With five youngsters on the trail, we tended to see the creatures at our feet. Once an American toad crossed our path. Another time everyone gathered around to admire a brown-splotched pickerel frog. Both species need water to lay their eggs, but otherwise both dwell on dry land. In the case of pickerel frogs, after mating in water, they spend their time in deciduous or deciduous/coniferous forests, wooded ravines, low-lying fields open fields or meadows. By late May, their mating season is over, but still this one was found near a spring and pool about halfway up the trail.
American toads are the least dependent on water, and by May they too have finished their mating. They can be found everywhere from suburban backyards to rocky hillsides, which is where the youngsters found the one at SGL# 108.
Even insects did not escape our attention. The amateur entomologist of the group called our attention to a sawfly that looked like a bee except that the attachment of the thorax to the abdomen was broad instead of narrow like those of bees, wasps, and ants. Sawflies are probably more primitive examples of Hymenoptera, the same order as bees, wasps, and ants; because they have no stingers and their larvae feed on plants. But surprisingly their larvae look like the caterpillars of butterflies and moths. There are many species of sawflies and our entomologist did not hazard a guess as to the species of the one he showed us.
With all the new wonders and old to look at and listen to, I was most impressed by the peace of the forest. I didn’t hear the cars, trains, trucks or airplanes that I hear from our ridgetop. It was as if we were miles from the nearest town, and yet we weren’t. But to me it was indeed a different world.
All photos taken by Dave Bonta on the day of the hike at Bell’s Gap. See the complete set.