First Person / Hiking the Baker Trail
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This past summer we went for a 132-mile walk through Western Pennsylvania. In a series of eight-mile, car-to-car hikes, we covered the Baker Trail from its southern starting point near Freeport on the Allegheny River through Armstrong, Indiana, Jefferson, Clarion and Forest counties to its terminus just south of the Allegheny National Forest.
We carried our refillable water bottles, bags of crackers and trail mix, and a set of excellent maps published by the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy. We encountered deer ticks, barking and snarling dogs, loose pigs, needy sheep and goats, passing trucks, cat brier, poison ivy, ankle twisting rocks, rushing creeks and more uphill stretches than we would have thought logically possible. Sore knees, blistered toes and a dislocated finger were a few items on the downside.
The list for the upside of this experience is much more extensive.
Walking along at 1 1/2 to 2 miles per hour through the incredible patchwork of habitats that make up Western Pennsylvania, we identified 63 species of trees, 72 species of birds and almost 200 species of "non-tree" plants.
We experienced some of the great woodlands of the commonwealth. We walked through ancient stands of white pine and hemlock and also through extensive areas of young, secondary forest dominated by red maple, red oak, black cherry and white ash.
We saw and felt our agricultural foundations in the vast fields of corn, soybeans and hay. The acres upon acres of these fields take on different mental dimensions when you have to walk through or around them rather than blasting past at 60 mph in a smooth-riding, air-conditioned car.
We came face to face with our energy exploration and harvesting systems. The coal mines and their truck and train transports, the oil wells and the gas drilling sites and the network of pipelines that interconnects them all tied us directly to the fossil fuel wealth that powers our society, that powered the car we used to go out to see them, that powers the computer that I am using to write this. We felt a shared responsibility to use these resources wisely. We also felt the fear that our two most precious natural resources, water and land, are in great danger from the new fossil fuel technologies.
We saw streams running clear and cold over their rocky beds, and we also saw streams bubbling orange and silty, poisoned with acid mine pollution. We walked through scrublands of multiflora rose, knotweed, and goldenrod. We walked past mowed lawns and their ecological monotony. We walked past rich, flowering ditches and field edges that had species diversities and complexities that could rival a rain forest.
We saw homeowners out in their yards, farmers out on their tractors and a large number of people driving past us in their cars and trucks. We saw the Amish working in their gardens, fields, sawmills and carriage shops. We watched them drive past us in their horse-drawn buggies and wagons. But, with the singular exception of two other couples we passed on a Sunday afternoon in Cook Forest, we saw no one else, over the 132 miles of the trail, who was just out for a walk or a hike!
What else did we see?
We saw that we live in a place that can recover from ecological assaults in a very forgiving way.
The mass deforestation of these counties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (what Gifford Pinchot called "a perfect orgy of forest destruction") resulted not in a Haiti-like denuded landscape but instead has generated an increasingly rich recovery forest which may be on its way to forming even more stable and productive conformations.
The rehabilitated strip mines were not the sterile, Mars-like landscapes we saw in the active mines, but instead have become complex patchworks of ponds, wetlands, meadows and forest that were extremely rich in both plant and animal species.
Here in Western Pennsylvania we are blessed with soils and a climate that enable our agricultural and wild places to flourish. We are also blessed with natural resources that may enable us to have the time to make the transition to more renewable forms of energy, and we are further blessed to still have wild places (if not exactly "wilderness") to which we can retreat for relaxation and exercise.
We have a great backyard all around us, and the Baker Trail runs right through it. We need to make sure we take care of it.
First Published November 13, 2010 12:00 am