Every year, DCUL features a 5-day Memorial Day thru hike of one of Pennsylvania’s long trails. As our leader, Karan, posted in his trip description: we just “pick a long Pennsylvania trail and hike the thing!” This year he picked the 85 mile Susquehannnock Trail System (“STS”) trail. DCUL hiked the 100 mile Donut Hole Trail last year, which shares a few miles of the STS, so those who did both now claim 185 miles of experience hiking up and down the Great Allegheny Plateau.
The trip promised the usual Memorial Day experience—multiple days of hiking over 20 miles a day; rain, rain, and more rain; and those famous Pennsylvania climbs and descents that we love to hate. (Pennsylvania often seems to adopt the philosophy that modern graded climbs with switchbacks are for the weak! Why traverse when you can just burn your calves out by going straight up and down?) Not advertised were horror warnings and a Spider-Man sighting.
Eleven DCULers accepted the challenge to thru hike the STS despite the foregoing and an ominous weather forecast of steady rain for most of the trip.
The 5+ hour drive up to the trailhead was, well, 5+ hours. However, our carpool—including two great guys, Adrian and Steve (“Baconator”)—kept up a steady conversation that passed the time; I’m sure the other cars in the caravan matched us because this is a very friendly group.
The crew this year was among DCUL’s strongest—so I knew it was going to be a fast group. Heck, Bryan (“Wolverine”) even does 100 pushups every day in addition to the hike because 25 miles up and down mountains with a pack is not enough for him. One of us was compared to Spider-Man on the trip, which I will explain shortly. It feels impolite to brag, but we knew we were strong. In fact, we were so overconfident we actually had our victory lunch at Knickerbockers in Altoona on the way to the hike!
We arrived at the trailhead in the late afternoon. We compared maps and the targeted campsite goal and took a good luck beer toast. Karan became overly enthused with the toast and “shotgunned” his beer. (Actually, this wasn’t intentional—someone threw him a beer can, he dropped it, the gravel poked a hole in it. He bravely stepped up to shotgun the spraying beer to avoid waste and to prevent an innocent bear from accidentally drinking it. Nothing is worse than a drunk bear! It comes to your campsite, knocks things all around, annoyingly and sloppily growls things like: “I love you, man. No, I really really love you man,” before vomiting in your tent. Yuck. Thanks, Karan, for taking one for the team!) Logan eschewed our “ultra-light” philosophy and packed enough beers that he seemed to have one each night on the trail.
We began to hike into the what is one of the most remote portions of Pennsylvania. No sooner had we started hiking that Kyle began describing DCUL’s last STS thru hike, which sounded like a disaster because approximately 10 people attempted but only 2 people completed it—the rest bailed at the halfway point. He said the failure was a confluence of factors: (1) it was during COVID and people got out of shape; (2) each person drove separately and had an easy bail out option without having to deal with a carpool; and (3) the rain was unrelenting. (All three factors would play a role in our hike). Brightly, however, he spoke very highly about the halfway point on the trail that passed through Cross Fork, a one-horse town with a biker bar restaurant called “Deb’s.”
The STS is a stunning trail. The Great Allegheny Plateau, as the name suggests, is a giant plateau. However, creeks and streams cut deep ravines into it over the millennia, so it feels like a mountain even though the descents are technically into canyons. When on the plateau, the experience is a long wooded plain. When in the canyons it gets twilight-dark, and one sees lush, tropical-style vegetation with running water almost everywhere. There are no soaring vista views on this trail, but the scenery does not disappoint. We also saw a lot of animals. Kylie (“Faceplant”) and Holley saw a wild turkey. There were deer and a porcupine. During a rest stop in a state park, chipmunks came at us like ninjas.
Since we started on the plateau, the hike on Thursday was predominately downhill. The crew stayed mostly together and we enjoyed the comfortable temperature and dry weather. That night we camped along a gentle stream in a magazine-perfect setting. We made dinner by a robust fire before bedtime. We had hiked 7.23 miles with almost no elevation gain.
The rain started first thing Friday morning. Steve (“Baconator”) may have been the last to see the dry weather. He wakes an hour early to hand-grind coffee beans for his French press, as is his daily backpacking custom. Really. For all of us, Friday morning would mark the last time our feet would be dry while hiking this trip. It rained on and off for most of the trip. The rain, obviously, made our feet wet, but the wet ground vegetation prevented any possible drying. Most of the hike consisted of pushing through overgrown grasses and vegetation. Someone called it a “car wash,” which was an excellent description. A tick paradise, we were constantly checking for the little bugs. I flicked off six of the pests, two of which had just started to embed.
We held a strong pace. Not even the climbs seemed to slow us down. At one point, we started up a colorfully-named hill called “Cardiac Climb.” Some trailblazer wag posted a cruel sign reading “Almost Half-Way!” It wasn’t as funny then as it is now.
While hiking with Jonathan (“Shenanigans”) and Adrian, I noticed we were close to making “10 by 10” (10 miles before 10:00 a.m.) No one seemed interested in pushing for this arbitrary goal. However, when I later noted that it was 2 minutes before 10:00 and only 2/10ths of a mile to go to reach the 10 mile mark, we all started running with our backpacks bouncing up and down to make the goal. Logan, who was a bit behind us and was not privy to our discussions, saw us running and knew it meant one thing—an imminent 10 before 10–and he tucked in for a dead sprint, catching up to us right at 10:00! (This would not be our last . . .)
Later in the day, Kyle suggested we press on a few miles beyond our intended campsite for that night in favor of a new shelter he saw on his previous hike. He highly recommended the shelter and pined for a chance to get out of the rain and get dry. We made 24.5 miles with 3,910 feet of elevation gain well before sunset.
This shelter was in a hollow called “Spook Hollow.” Someone had a lot of fun with this. I really think I would like this person. A weathered, wooden sign posted on the trail warned: “Spook Hollow: Keep to the center of the trail. Stay within sight of companions. Refrain from looking back. Do not try to run.” Of course, we recognized this as a joke—but we each followed the instructions . . . just in case. Later, we saw a Bigfoot crossing sign. We looked around hopefully, but no one actually saw the big guy.
The shelter was exceptionally nice. In fact, all of the shelters on this loop are brand new—complete with that “new shelter smell”—and well-kept. They each had regular chairs, which Kylie (“Faceplant”) particularly liked. One shelter even had an Adirondack chair. The Spooky Hollow shelter featured an electric candle on a night table with a book of ghost stories that Kylie read to us. Despite everything being soaking wet, Karan maintained a blazing fire—and even kept it going when the rain picked up.
Saturday promised the excursion to Deb’s biker-bar. Everyone was looking forward to deep-fried food and cold beer— and a chance to get out of the rain. With this motivation, it was easy to score another 10 before 10. Heck, because we started early we didn’t even have to jog and scored 11.4 before 10. This day featured some of the hardest climbs. It was also just in time for the hardest downpour of rain on the trip. There was a descent so steep that each step felt treacherous. The rain didn’t help. I lost footing and slid down at one point, drawing blood and a good sized bruise. Another climb was up a cleared firebreak. The steady steep climb was psychologically difficult because you could see the entire climb all at once in the absence of the trees. The trial went straight up the hill.
The lunch at Deb’s biker-bar did brighten our moods. It was nice to be out of the rain and eating junk food. The place didn’t exactly deserve the Michelin star that Kyle’s praise seemed to suggest, but I’m glad I stopped for lunch. After lunch, we faced a long climb to our campsite, but the climb was well graded and wasn’t as fearsome as Kyle advertised. We made camp at the confluence of two nice streams, ate dinner around another fire, and went to bed early. We had hiked 23.44 miles with 3,431 in elevation gain.
On Sunday, we woke for a day of almost no rain. Dan (“Heavy D”) was extremely uncomfortable with what the rain did to his feet. Being wet constantly can make the feet raw and blistered. He was complaining that he was particularly chewed in the heels, a condition he thought was caused during the climbs. I offered a suggestion that worked for me: on climbs take short, rapid steps and go up on the toes and balls of the feet. He responded: “Well that is unhelpful advice! I can’t hike on my toes! Look at you! You are like Spider-Man! Do you have any other impractical advice for me, such as “just” shoot a web to swing across the canyon?” If he was insulting or not, I will never care. For the rest of my life I can say someone actually compared me with Spider-Man!!!!!! This is the first time I have had such a comparison—although a co-worked once compared me to Superman . . . but that is a longer story.
The hike on Sunday brought out some hot sun, causing Adrian to keep his umbrella in use. He transitions from rain protection to sun protection without skipping a beat. We also had some tough climbs. As with most of the trip the scenery was a good distraction from the pain. We arrived at the campsite very early in day, again. Jonathan and I felt the draw to burn a few more miles and pressed on. Most of us stayed in the designated spot. Those who stayed bagged 21.2 miles with 3,198 in elevation gain. Jonathan and I added 4.13 miles with another 849 feet and a 4k elevation day.
Monday, another dry day, was a very short day. It was a short 5.26 mile stroll for Jonathan and me, and a mild 9.39 miles for everyone else. We arrived at the cars in time for brunch. After cleaning up we dove back into carpools, grabbed breakfast at a dive diner called Big Mike’s, and headed home.
Out of 11 of us who started, 9 of us finished. The two that didn’t finish weren’t abducted by Bigfoot or anything bad; they just weren’t “feeling it,” tapped, and hitched back to their cars. In any event, all of us—Karan (“BA”), Kylie (“Faceplant”), David O., Adrian, Logan, Steve (“Baconator”/“Coffeemaker?”), Holley, Kyle, Dan (“Heavy D.”), Jonathan (“Shenanigans”), Bryan (“Wolverine”)—enjoyed the STS experience. As for me, did I mention that someone compared me to Spider-Man?