Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Well Worn Trail

I've been slacking lately - not doing the work I should be doing - on several projects, this blog being one of them. I'm not sure what the reason is behind this lack of motivation, but for the time being I'm blaming it on a gloomy winter that dragged out into a reluctant spring.  And though the weather seems as if it has finally decided that spring is here I'm not quite back into the swing of things yet.  Yard work remains to be done, and my bike is in the shop having a bunch of stuff replaced, repaired, or re-adjusted.  But I'm starting to feel the caveman stirrings of the blood that are indicators of summer activity, so it seems like a good time to dust off the keyboard and update the blog.

We had a nice rain event a couple of weeks ago, one that had me watching the Accuweather precipitation total maps and the USGS real time streamflow gauges.  I managed to get in two nice whitewater kayak trips while the water was up, and had pretty much decided that I was going to write a post about paddling Wolf Creek.  But then this weekend, with my bike in the shop, I decided to go for a short hike on a familiar trail instead.  So that's today's story.

Slippery Rock Creek is NW Pennsylvania's most reliably running whitewater creek.  It's just to the east of New Castle, and about an hour's drive from my house in eastern Ohio.  The best whitewater section of the creek is in McConnells Mill State Park, where you can paddle about five miles of class II-III rapids when the water is up.  This is where I learned to paddle whitewater, and I've made literally hundreds of runs down the gorge.

Me on Slippery Rock Creek in 1999, in my old Pirouette.  Note the bike helmet...
I had thought that my weekend was pretty much scheduled full, but then I unexpectedly got a couple of hours of free time, and needed to find a quick adventure that I could fit in.  There was a light rain falling, but that wasn't a problem.  So I packed up a bit of gear and headed east into Pennsylvania.

This trail runs down the gorge alongside the creek, right alongside the best of the whitewater - "The Mile" as it's known to local paddlers.  I've hiked it dozens of times, from the downstream end back up to the parking area by the ranger station, as a finale for solo kayaking trips on the creek.  But it's been three years since I've been on The Mile, and I've only been down by the creek a few times lately, so it seemed like a good idea to revisit this beautiful spot.

I parked up at the Point parking area, and hiked down the stairs into the gorge.  The highest points on the surrounding ridge are more than 400 feet above the creek, so there can be a bit of up and down if you're hiking in this area.

Once down by the creek I can see that it's at a nice juicy level, high enough that a paddle down would be a serious blast.  There had been a big rain early in  the week, and I knew that the water would likely be high, but it's still nice to see the rocks covered and hear the muted roar of whitewater echoing from downstream.  The rain and warm weather have been good to the forest too, and its beginning to show signs of spring.  The wildflowers are starting to bloom, and the trees are showing buds.  Everything seems a bit greener and the smell of wet earth fills the air.

The way is open and obvious, but not necessarily easy.  With the steep gorge walls squeezing the creek, the trail sometimes has to climb up quite a ways to find a path downstream.  The boulders that constrict the creek and create the whitewater also litter the banks, so that the trail involves a good deal of scrambling up and over.  It's one of those trails where you have to watch your footing the whole time, lest you catch a toe and tumble down the banks to end up in the water.  Yet despite the hazard it is an overwhelmingly beautiful place.  The hemlocks that line the creek give a dark, majestic presence to the narrow gorge, standing tall over grey lichen-encrusted boulders lining the perpetual movement of the creek.  Silent wildflowers grow among niches where wild bird songs compete with the drip of water down sheer rockfaces.  This is a special place, and I'm lucky to know that it's here.

Midway along the trail you come to McConnells Mill, a restored grist mill powered by the waters of the creek.  Here the water pools up behind a dam, and boaters must get out of the creek and portage around to the rapids below. 
 Looking over the creek from the observation deck I see a Great Blue Heron fishing in the water below the dam.  I've seen several people fishing along the creek already, as well as a pair of kingfishers, but the heron seems to be oblivious to everything else but the water.
As I hike down the trail I scout each rapid - a habit left over from the days when I paddled every weekend.  Some of the rapids seem very familiar, and I can easily remember the line needed to make it through smoothly.  Other rapids seem almost unfamiliar, and I study them trying to remember the approach, the move, and the exit.  Funny how something that once seemed as familiar as my own signature can gain distance over a couple of years.  As I hike along I promise myself that I'll get my boat back on the Slip this summer, when the water is nice and low, and re-establish my connection with the creek.  I've truly enjoyed the last five years of mountain biking, but I find that I'm missing whitewater more and more.

The hike takes an hour and a half to cover just over three miles.  The rain had stopped somewhere along the line, but I'm still soaking wet with sweat as I climb up the stairs back to the car.  Back in the day I used to run this trail from the take-out back to the Mill, carrying a paddle in one hand and wearing a life jacket.  Hell, I even carried my 50 pound boat the whole distance before.  Just goes to show that time goes on, despite our best efforts to ignore it.
It's going to be a great summer. I can't wait.


  1. Sounds like a glorious spot to get out and commune with nature. I can just hear it and smell it.

    Glad you got a chance to enjoy it.


  2. That certainly is some beautiful country, made somewhat haunted by both your photos and words...haunted is good, sometimes. Having become all-consumed with bicycles and riding and writing about bicycles and working on them and thinking almost constantly about bicycles it was a certain surprise when the other day I realized that I no longer owned a boat and that many months, years even have passed without being on the water.

    I have always believed that as land-dwellers on a water planet, we should pay a kind of homage to the waters and spend time on and in them. Canoes were a constant part of my life before sailboats and lately, I have been looking at pictures of sailing canoes.

    Hiking? I don't know...if God wanted us to hike he wouldn't have invented mountain bikes...