“Unsolicited advice travels no further than the brim of your hat.” – E.N. Woodcock.
Or in modern parlance: hike your own hike. But make sure you do it in north-central Pennsylvania when you get a chance.
“Hi! I didn’t sign up. Can I join the trip?” he asked.
It was 11:30 p.m. on Friday night. The temperature was below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Alex, John, and I had driven more than five hours from Washington, D.C. to rendezvous in the Tiadaghton State Forest to begin the 43 or so miles of the Black Forest Trail in a DC UL-leisurely 2.5 days. I had emerged from my car only a minute before and said hello to Mark, Erik, Cassie, Kylie, and David, who had arrived separately and on time. I could see that the pleasant red-bearded fellow with a twinkle in his eye and quintessential UL backpack was one of us, even though I had never met him before.
“Welcome!” I said and shook his hand. Jake, a DC UL Veteran Member and PCT thru-hiker, made nine – a proper Lord of the Rings party number. (For the record, folks, this is not the best way to get on a trip. Please follow the normal RSVP procedures.)
We shivered as we put our packs on. We admired the light snow that was all around us. Into the woods we went, aiming to hike the Black Forest Trail in an uncommon clockwise route that would have us doing the easy half of the trail first. The moon, nearly full, was bright overhead and after a few minutes I asked everyone to turn their head lamps off for a bit. We wandered through the quiet snow and trees by moonlight. This was why we rushed from work to get up into the wilds of Pennsylvania and away from it all. We found our first pleasant camp of the weekend by a gurgling creek and set up for the night. Since we arrived so late, I set an uncharacteristic wake up call for 7:30 a.m. the next morning.
Waking to full light (a rarity on our weekends of rising early and hiking far) we embraced the cold and snow and began our journey. Myriad stream crossings, mountain laurel, and occasional hemlocks graced our views. The deciduous leaves had all fallen this far north. Each stream, slightly swollen with water and not exactly rock-hoppable, presented a little riddle of how to cross without getting wet feet. Cassie made it even more appropriate by regaling us with actual riddles. Jake spent much of the next day trying to figure out one of them. We leaped, shimmied, prayed, balanced, and pogoed eight or more streams and enjoyed a slightly sunnier late afternoon. Our feet were wet anyways, thanks to the snow on the ground. But the stream crossings provided just enough trail challenge for our day. We finished our Saturday with the first of our climbs of the weekend and spread out not far from a pleasant overlook on a remote plateau campsite.
I started a little bonfire while the rest of the crew gathered a great haul of firewood. David even broke it into even and eminently burnable pieces. The whiskey (and cigars) came out, the stories began, and we settled in for a lovely evening. There were a few singed socks and shoes, I believe, as folks roasted the wetness out of their gear at night. It’s never a wise idea but we all seem to attempt it.
DC UL is blessed with many an experienced hiker, and this trip featured no less than a combined three AT and two PCT thru-hikes. Story time was never dull. Interestingly, as the fire began to die, we shared a few tales of creepy nocturnal animals noises as we watched the moon rise and the dark, leafless trees sway eerily overhead. Then off to bed.
When the first yips and howls, hours later in the night, sounded, I awoke puzzled. What animal could make that complex of a sound? It dawned on me a moment later that it wasn’t “an” animal. It was many in chorus. Our foreshadowed coyotes. In our shelters scattered in the woods, we all enjoyed the coyotes lamenting our choice of camp and the owls joining the symphony afterwards in warning to each other. This was why we went deep into the mountain plateaus of Pennsylvania: to join their world.
The next morning broke cold again, with a 6:30 a.m. wake up call this time. We hit the trail in the snow and hiked down off the plateau to meet up with Slate Run and Pine Creek. We knew that a restaurant/hotel waited down below and we had begun scheming about a hot breakfast. Because who can pass up such a wonder? Sadly, Hotel Manor was closed – but not the general store across the river! We went over for delicious breakfast sandwiches and coffee. I even found some very lovely “Nantucket briar”-scented Crabtree & Evelyn hand lotion near the cash register. We were dirty hikers but by golly our hands were going to feel good and smell nice. It was so pleasant Mark and I almost walked away without our hiking poles. But we didn’t thanks to our pals.
On we went, and at some point that morning close to the edge of civilization we saw on the side of the road, etched in stone, the name “E.N. Woodcock.” Unbeknownst to us at the time, Eldred Nathaniel Woodcock was a local legend who not only lived off the land in the nearby woods for more than fifty years in the late 1800s, he wrote an autobiography still published today about his life. His spirit became an anthem for our weekend. Though long perished, we were enjoying his woods. And his name. I’ll admit I ordered his book before I even got home: E.N. Woodcock, “Fifty Years a Hunter and Trapper.”
We began our first major climb of the day as we left the Pine Creek river valley. Jake somehow managed to brush his teeth while hiking for what felt like half an hour. We made sure a cute pup made it back to his owners. Erik and Cassie discussed the wonder of hemlock and I told them what I knew about the origins of the name “Black Forest Trail” as an homage to the deep, dark hemlock old growth forest that used to be the Pennsylvania woods before logging operations changed the landscape forever. And we finally took a number of layers off and enjoyed not feeling chilly for a spell.
This section proved to be the true heart of the Black Forest Trail: lots of big uphill climbs, hemlocks, and descents into mossy stream valleys. We enjoyed views every couple miles and the wonders of the backcountry.
Since we were doing the trail in a more leisurely 2.5 day version with 18 miles or so on Saturday and Sunday respectively, and the final seven on Monday, we planned to camp along Naval Run, arriving a little before sunset. When I arrived, last, I found the group sitting not far from the campsite but nobody had set up yet.
“Hi?” I asked, not sure what was going on.
“There’s a campsite up at the top of the next climb,” someone said. I also knew it to be about another 1,200 feet of ascent with the sun going down on us. But I didn’t want to hold the group up if everyone wanted to keep going. I had another couple miles in me. This site was close to a lovely stream and looked pretty comfy, though . . .
“Raise your hand if you want to keep hiking?” I asked. Only three hands raised. Staying was the choice after all. [Note: the campsite at the top was pretty spectacular.]
The next thing that happened was one of the more notable firewood-gathering operations I’ve ever been part of. The fire ring was down by Naval Run itself but the hill and trail were steeply above it. The crew spread out along the hillside and tossed fallen wood javelin-like down toward the fire ring. It was dangerous and effective. Folks gathering lower on the slope heard the whoosh of branches flying by their heads. Nobody was hurt or even grazed, surprisingly. The fire scene itself was a proper rollicking good time. We laughed. We ate marshmallows. Erik and Mark challenged each other to a Chubby Bunny duel. Erik won handily but I bet Mark practices at home for a rematch.
We woke up to a warmer world and set off promptly on Monday morning to enjoy our final seven miles, including two significant climbs. Though short and off the trail by 11:00 a.m., it felt like we got a good enough day in. Three nights, three days. A hunter warned us about incoming bad weather but we were long gone before it came. In general, we missed all but a dusting of precipitation and enjoyed a gradual warmup over the course of the weekend.
Another trail was in the books. We had left the world behind us and enjoyed ourselves away from it all on one of Pennsylvania’s best trails. As we made our way back to reality, we celebrated with a tasty meal at Williamsport’s iconic Bullfrog Brewery. We recommend returning to this area as often as possible. All of us will be thinking about it, and E.N. Woodcock, that’s for sure.