Sunday, March 11th 2006
I've hiked a lot of the easier sections of the Mid State Trail near State College, and I figured that plugging the gaps would be a good way to motivate me to hike more.
I've often set out on hikes from the Jo Hays Vista, atop Tussey Ridge on PA26, and I've hiked over to the Indian Steps Trail a few times, once in a 20 degree blizzard, and once on my way down to Shaver's Creek for the Ironstone Loop. On that hike, I had to bail out halfway, since the ironstone loop was too much for me in a single day.
This time, I wanted to hike further than the Indian Steps on the MST, rather than descending the mountain. I had surgery to repair a badly damaged shoulder two years ago, and I'm still not halfway ready to hike like I used to. If you've never had a shoulder repaired, I don't think I could explain how much it affects your entire body. I lost pretty much all my upper body muscle tone, and now, after two years, I'm finally to the point where I can start to get back in shape. This hike is one of my first solo efforts at any kind of serious distance. Yes, I hiked a bit in Shenandoah National Park last year, but I had company in case something happened, and I they weren't the kinds of hikes I was accustomed to in 2002-2003, for instance, when I hiked almost every weekend.
So . . . about this hike!
I drove from Whitehall Drive up Pennsylvania Furnace Road. Now, let me tell you that if you do not have a Jeep or other SUV with a lot of ground clearnce and a desire to scratch your paint up, take the other route--over Tussey on PA26, then hand a right on Harry's Valley Road, then up PA Furnace Rd, which I think is named Pump Station Road, or something like that, on the south side of the ridge--look it up before trying. If, however, you want a nice, bumpy ride over some basketball-sized, muddy rocks, this is the road for you. I drove to the very to of the ridge and parked on the east side of the road, where a little bit of a parking area is cleared out. I think this used to be a state forest campsite (#4) a few years ago. At least that's my recollection, because the marker that I thought was there wasn't there.
I started east, which is north on the MST, toward the Indian Steps Trail. The weather was great, which is why I decided to take a hike. The air temps were near the record of 75 for this day.
After crossing some blockade rocks, you quickly come to an abandoned radio or fire tower site. Concrete slabs and guy wire posts surround a nice, flat area. Apparently, this site is also popular with people who like to smash beer bottles and build large fires while drunk, too. The area is quite littered. In a town like State College, where high school kids party like they're in some Animal House fraternity, you would think that they might leave the mountains alone. I mean, why drive for a half an hour, up a dangerous dirt road, just to get drunk, when all you have to do is walk to any apartment complex and walk right in? I don't get it. Anyway . . .
The ridge hike was typical for the area, with lots of large rocks to twist and strain your ankles. I've had recurring problems with the ligaments that hold my ankle in place for a few years, now, and this is the sort of thing that will either re-injure me or make me stronger. The trail is a little more 'wild' than the more popular and accessible parts of the MST, and I was actually looking forward to some solitude.
After a hundred yards or so, a nice vista opened up to the south, and you can see how wide Stone Valley really is, even though quite a bit of haze and fog presented itself. Stone Mountain looked like it was 20 miles away, and I think you could see all the way to the gap in Route 22 near Huntingdon. I'm not terribly familiar with that neck of the woods, so I am guessing a bit. A little further and a trail, clearly marked "H20", headed down the hill to the north, and it looked both mossy and steep, but water is scarce up here, and I would think a trip down the hill would be necessary for anybody attempting to hike this ridgeline on a backpacking trip.
About a mile in, I was stopped in my tracks by a powerful, musty smell. I thought for a moment, and then realized that people describe bears that way. I knew I was in bear country, and just a few years ago, a 500+ pound giant black bear was bagged in the valley below.
I didn't see any other signs, though, and tossed it up to an overactive imagination. Since I had never actually smelled a bear, I was simply speculating at the source of the odor.
A few dozen yards further, a nice outcropping with ledges of the type bears like to sleep in presented itself. Not quite a knife edge, I could imagine a family of bruins huddled inside, waiting for their first spring meal to walk by. Nearby, I saw a tree with all the bark splintered off. I know that lightning will do that to a tree, and we did have some recent storms, and this one looked fresh. The bark was a deep rich color, shredded around the base of the tree and up about 6-7 feet. Of course, lighting couldn't explain the claw marks that were deeply etched right at eye level. OK, I am definitely in bear country, I thought.
I hiked the next mile thinking mostly about bears, and I was quite relieved to find a couple enjoying the view at the first intersection with the Indian Steps Trail. I'm not sure why, but that trail follows the ridgeline for a couple dozen yards on its way from one side of the mountain to the other, in a Z kind of pattern. I hiked on to the second intersection of the trail, and this was as far as I needed to go, having hiked in from the other side at least twice. I was glad, too, because I was getting tired.
On the way back, I thought about how I might give a bear a wide berth. Should I hike over to PA26 and call for a ride? Naw, hundreds of people hike this trail, and I don't recall that anybody got mauled by a bear.
I hiked back and couldn't believe how much farther I had come than I remembered. I suppose that some adrenaline can quicken your pace. about 1/3 of the way back, I happened on a pair of hikers, and they had a rather aggressive collie with them. this was reassuring, since I know that bears don't care for dogs, and vice versa. If there were a bear nearby, this collie would have known about it. I asked if he had scared all the bears away, but he seemed more intent on scaring me away.
With a little less anxiety, I headed toward my Jeep, and this time I noticed more and more of the blowdown that must have occurred from Hurricane Ivan or one of the ice storms we've had over the years. Trail crews did an excellent job of clearing the way, and I only had to scramble around two fallen trees, as I recall.
My legs started getting wobbly long before the H20 trail, and my ankles started to ache from too much stretching of my battered, old ligaments. I wish I knew more about the anatomy of the ankle, because I'm really not sure what causes that pain. I only know that it makes hiking impossible when it's injured, and I need to get back in shape this summer.
By the time I came back to the concrete slabs of the old tower, I was plenty hungry, wobbly enough to have been pleased with my effort, and ready to get down off that hill. I took the southern route back, since I wasn't really in the mood to ride that kidney-busting trail back north. The drive through at Burger King was a welcome sight, and I am always amazed at how good food tastes when you've earned it like that.