May 27-28, 2013
From the dispersed camping in the Allegheny National Forest we headed to an ANF rustic campground appealingly called “Hearts Content”. I chose it because it is next to a small track of old-growth forest of the same name. On the way we stopped in the small town of Kane to pick up a few supplies. At the Rite Aid we asked the cashier if there was a spot for wifi in town. She stared at us for a while with an unmoving expression of bewilderment and disbelief. Then she said, “I wouldn’t know a computer if it hit me in the head!” But suggested the small library in town, although it was closed for the day. When I asked if there was a McDonald’s there (they usually have wifi) she laughed and said to us, “You are funny people!” The closest one was 40 miles away. Kane was one of those too common rundown Pennsylvania mountain towns that in better days had an attractive main street of brick buildings. Now shops were closed and boarded and the pall of a poor economy and few opportunities hung in the air.
By the time we got to Hearts Content it was late afternoon. The Memorial Weekend vacationers had vanished and we were the only ones there. After exploring the campground and the wildflowers there, I walked to the old growth forest about a half mile away. Light was waning so I decided to wait until the next morning to hike the mile long loop trail.
It rained all night and through the morning, sometimes coming in random sparse drops and at other times in a frantic explosion of loud splatters. It became hard to know what was rain from the clouds and what was excess water shaken loose from the wet leaves overhead. Although climate has shifted everywhere (people comment on this in all parts of the country we’ve visited), these Northeast rains are the usual downpours at the end of May. It’s as if the sudden massive spring growth makes the forest extra thirsty and the sky obliges with heavy warm rain. Although it is hard to imagine that it could be possible, everything seems even more verdant and fecund after each shower.
The rain made Chris impatient to move on; he has yet to fully comprehend that this the way of weather in the East, an ongoing mix of dry, wet, warm, cool, changing quickly, day to day, all year round. We hiked the Hearts Content trail before heading on to Cook Forest State Park, also well-known for its old growth tracts. By noon the rain had stopped but the air was still misty, damp and the clouds hung low and dark. This atmosphere actually deepened the silence, mystery and beauty of these ancient woods.
I’ve known for a long time that there were virgin forests in Pennsylvania but had never seen them. Even though we traveled throughout PA as a child we never visited these woods. With old growth rare in the Northeast, the preserved patches have captivated my imagination for decades. I had hiked to Dunbar Brook in Massachusetts where old growth eastern hemlock and a variety of hardwoods still remain.
The idea of unlogged forests evoke images of something primordial, untouched and ancient, as though they offer time travel to a pre-Columbian America. Huge trees, thick mosses, unfurling ferns, darkened forest floors, deep silence. This isn’t exactly what you find partly because of the enormous change since the arrival of Europeans and modern development. (Read Charles Mann’s, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, for more on this!). But it’s as close to a living window into nature’s past as we will find. Sadly, insect infestations due to climate change and other causes are killing the oldest trees. Within a few years they may be gone forever.
I also realized that my perspective on trees had permanently changed since living in the redwoods of California for ten years. Some of the second-growth redwoods on our property in the Santa Cruz Mountains are larger, taller than almost any tree left in the East. We also have two state parks nearby with old-growth. Those trees are truly magnificent and begin to resemble the Ewok’s home world in Star Wars (which was filmed in Northern California) and also my original fantasy of what virgin wilderness should look like. On my visits to New England since moving to California, the woods there now look like they are made up of thin, lanky juvenile trees.
Despite my skewed perception of what a large tree is, the old growth of Pennsylvania were beautiful and a delight to visit.
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