Ricketts Glen in Ice

Ricketts Glen in Ice

Monday, March 30, 2015

Meat Puppets - "Lake of Fire"

                Just outside of the city of York, Pennsylvania, is William H. Kain Country Park. There are 2 “lakes” at this park, Williams and Redman, and they provide a nice opportunity to stretch the legs for the day. These waters, which were created by a dam that provides water to the city of York, are now a public playground for anyone looking to fish, boat, walk, or take in the fresher airs that lie outside of the city proper.

The path around Williams, the lake that we’ve traveled on multiple occasions, is very civilized in that people come in and care for it regularly, and it’s fairly wide open in that it allow for access up through to view the waters from the cliff-side trail. At one point, there once was a small ascent with logs thrown down by the storm, but now it’s been split into parts by a chainsaw for easier access. Now, as a whole, the rare obstacles, like a tree trunk in the way of the path, can be straddled and crossed over. In addition, there’s very little graffiti and litter at the park, but that doesn’t mean that there’s absolutely none.

Idiots will always be idiots when they tell you what you need to do every day.

For the most part, when we drive the hour long trek west to York, we seem to have the lake to ourselves. Don’t get me wrong; there are a few couples or friends that tend to walk the path, always with dogs eagerly pushing to the end of the leash, but as a whole, it’s very quiet. We’re more likely to see fishermen toward the end of our walk, down from the bridge, which allows the water to cascade down the 2nd dam, than we are to see any walkers after we leave the parking lot / picnic area at the beginning of our walk.

The walk is nice for holding hands and enjoying nature with my wife. There is no destination except for the finish line, and along the way, the lake is always available to look at, even if it is obscured by trees. The paths up the hill are never too big, and even if the trail is muddy from the rains, it’s never too bogged in tiny “ponds,” which were created by the overflowing waters. In fact, a good pair of boots does wonders for combatting these mushy marshes.

The first time that my wife Heather and I went there, we had hiked roughly 3 of the 5 miles that the guidebook told us that we would travel around Lake Williams, when up from above, we heard what sounded like the thundering collapse of a branch falling down from atop the trees. As it was winter and the ice was covering the lake, we figured at first that, in that split second of surprise, it could just be the season taking its toll on the woods.

However, we were wrong.

First, despite the fact that we thought we heard a collapse, there was no falling branch. Instead, there was the shadow of 2 big wings flying up and over the forest and heading for another tree up ahead. These were the wings of a BABE, which is more commonly known as a “big-ass bald eagle.”

We followed this glorious symbol of our country up ahead to his next tree and his next tree until finally he got tired of us “chasing” him so he gracefully swooned across the lake and rested on branches on the pines that lined the lake on the far side. There, it turned out, he had a friend, and I stretched the zoom of my camera out as far as I could to see if I could make the brown and white feathers appear clearer and in more detail. Alas, my camera didn’t have the strength, but it got close enough to let us know we really had 2 eagles playing around in William H. Kain Country Park on that winter Sunday.

Now, every time we go to this lake, we’re on a BABE watch of sorts. The second time we were there, we saw the BABEs, so we were convinced that every time we would go, it would be a walk-in opportunity for photographic joy.

Just like that, you know.

Stories abound that the BABEs are also present at another local lake, which is named Middle Creek, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one, and the only time I did, I didn’t have the extended zoom lens to pull in the vision of the eagle as he sat on the log in the middle of the frozen lake.

Thus, my chances for National Geographic’s cover were zonked again.

Nevertheless, Middle Creek is an amazing place for birds, but in the journeys that we go to the lake, we tend to arrive in March for the onslaught of the snow geese and the tundra swans. This year, 110,000 snow geese were at the lake at the high point of their migration. During this visitation, the honking was louder than a summer music festival filled with tens of thousands of screaming girls beckoning in the latest boy band flavor of the month.

But these birds are no New Kids on the Block or One Direction. Instead, they are a once and done opportunity that can vanish as quickly as it arrives. Either you hear the notice that they are in town, or they can be flying north again in no time at all. In this, the 65,000 geese we saw on the lake both this year and last year can be reduced to zero if you come too late or at the wrong time.

In fact, the first year that I took my wife, there were no geese on the lake until slowly, over the next hour and a half, they all returned from the surrounding farm fields for lunch. When they hit their high point, the spiraled and twisted and filled the lake with a complete white covering that left a field trip of local kids in utter amazement. Not only was this one of those moments of a lifetime, but it allowed me to avoid having to explain how the things that I promised to be there weren’t there, but how we should come back next year to see if they are there.

If you do make it there, there are things that you should expect. Throughout the cacophony of birds, the geese keep flying in and landing, wave after wave of them, until something spooks the geese, and then they spiral around the lake as if they were turning left at Pocono International Raceway in that 2.5 mile triangle path to bring them back home and around to where they can sit safely on the ice or float on the freshly melted lake. Oftentimes, all it will take is a single BABE flying from one side to the other to spook tens of thousands of geese into one of these mid-air flights. Never mind you that the geese could kick his butt in a fight, at least if they all joined together to take on the talons and beak, but off they go to spiral and zoom around the lake in unison.

I often joke that a firework being set off could do the same thing, but I’m not sure that people would appreciate it – even if they would be fixated on its avian results.

And all the while that these birds fly, the people will gawk. Endless cameras will go off as kids and adults whoop and woo and aah at the sights, which have to be seen to be believed. The spirals will captivate. The landings will amaze. The intense clusters of birds flocking together will hold people’s attentions.

And somehow, through all of this, the lake segregates itself. Tundra swans in the little nook off to the side. Canadian geese off in their spots, here and there and everywhere. Ducks here or there. Nobody chooses to breach the sanctity of each other’s territory less a bigger angrier bird goes from being regal and into his or her own business to El or La Snapping Beak, the monster migratory bird, predator supreme of Southeastern Pennsylvania!

But these are not the only birds at Middle Creek. In fact, on this last trip to Middle Creek, we encountered a ring-necked pheasant strutting on the side of the highway. As a species, these birds tend to exist to be taken out by hunters as soon as they are stocked. However, they are good eating, so it makes sense that people would go after them in their temporary refuges in the farm fields of the states. Nevertheless, it seems that the state stocking them is more about tradition than it is about allowing the birds to find a “natural” home in the state again.

In addition, we almost ran over a wild turkey that was doing his best road runner impersonation, bolting from one side of the forest to the other, just fast enough that I could hit the brakes and not turn him into an early Thanksgiving dinner, which was definitely not part of the plan. Nobody wants to make road kill of any bird, and frankly, I still wish that the only real road runner that I saw, a lone “slow” bird down in Texas, would have done more to be like Usain Bolt when he crossed my Ford Escort’s path down in Big Bend National Park back in May of 2000.

Alas, his and my day was punctuated by his decision to run and my decision to be on the road at that given time.

Nevertheless, our visit to William H. Kain Country Park on this late March 2015 Sunday didn’t feature any of these accidents. Instead, it was all about the soaring gulls that we saw from the park benches around the lake, doing our best to watch them sweep and dive, soar and float, and take their place amongst the sparkling diamonds on the lake.

It may not have given us BABEs, but it was a great day for what it was. In fact, all in all, any day with nature is a good day, even if the only babe sighting that I saw was getting to be with my wife. I can’t beat that and the dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant that always follows any trip that we take to York.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

TLC - "Waterfalls"

          The images of Ricketts Glen in winter are varied in what they comprise. They are all beautiful, but some are more beautiful than others. Over time, I have learned that many of my pictures can’t even begin to compare to some of the masters who post to the social media groups of the world. Their eyes are just slightly better than mine at being able to pick out angles and intricacies than the things I see.
            Oh, don’t get me wrong. I take some crazy beautiful images, but to the professionals and skilled amateurs who I aspire to be like, they just seem to have worked a little harder, mastered something unique, which I have yet to do. I have my 10,000 hours148, but I just lack some of the formal refinement and tutelage that they have received.
In this, they see how things can be filtered and touched up on Facebook to dramatize the moments so much better than mine. Thus, my “naked” pictures, while personal to me, don’t even begin to compare to some of what’s out there. For this, I bow my head in respect to those great photographic artists who share their days with me.
Nevertheless, let me be clear; I don’t refuse to take pictures before of them. Oh, no… far from it! I take more pictures, but I allow them to stand for what they are, and if for this, the blues in the icicles aren’t as deep or the greens as shining in their reflections as winter’s jewelry, then so be it.
They are what I remember them to be.
And when I think of my images of those scenes from Ricketts Glen’s winter world, perhaps no other image stands out quite as much as the ice curtain between the Shawnee and Huron waterfalls. I have conservatively estimated that the icicles are 30 feet high, which is the same height as the Shawnee waterfall. However, they are most likely taller than that since it appears that they stand above the crest of the waterfall when they are seen on that back rocky wall.
            And when I think of these ice columns and how they fill the back wall that stretches from one waterfall to the next, I am still blown away, even while sitting at a computer on a warm almost spring day.
However, in February of 2004, the water in front of the falls wasn’t completely frozen over. As a result, I never walked across the ice that was bridging over the stream to find out what was behind them. Instead, I took many of my pictures from up on top of the staircase that descended into the base area. At the time, I found that this was sufficient in what I wanted from the hike. This allowed me to gawk and admire, and it was really that good.
At the end of my photo session, I did walk over to the far edge where the Huron drops and the steps are revealed, but for the most part, I stayed close to the edge and avoided anything that was situated near or over the water because I didn’t have any confidence in the surface I would be standing on.
To this day, I look at that picture that I have of that moment. I have stated it before, and I will state it again that this was one of those life-affirming moments. It was something so unexpected and so wondrous, that I had to get it printed out in a bigger size than what the standard 4x6 could offer. I had to share it with my students so that they too would understand the beautiful things that the world has to offer, for how can we not share these places with all those people who should learn and understand what they are?
And for this, the 5x7 image of the Cave of the Ice Cones, as it came to be named, sat it my computer room or my living room, either in its own frame or as the center of a collage of Ricketts Glen images for years to come.
Nevertheless, despite its prominence and meaning in my life, something was keeping me from going back there to this place to relive the moment. Over years, that thing would change, but still, I would look at the picture of those dozen or so columns / pillars / horizontal slabs / conglomerates of many thing icicles grown together and wonder how the heck Nature, even the beauty of Nature in all of its majesty, could produce something so amazing and unique.
In many ways, it became a white whale, even though I had seen it before and had beheld it and called it my own, but while it became an obsession, it became a different kind of obsession. It morphed into a place in my mind where all was good with my mind and that things like the cold and the wind and the gear I did and didn’t have and the people who weren’t with me on this hike and in life and the money I wasn’t earning and the expectations that I wasn’t meeting didn’t matter.
No, the only truth was winter waterfalls, and I was 100% hooked.
Besides, if I had winter waterfalls, I had something good to look forward to, and with that, I had adventures that were in some ways equal to those in magazines like Backpacker and National Geographic Adventure149.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Johnny Mathis - "Winter Wonderland"

                Within 10 miles of Ithaca, New York, there are over 150 waterfalls that people can see and experience. Depending on who is doing the calculating, the minimum heights of these spectacles must drop between 5-15 feet to be considered “real deal,” so for the purposes of this book, we’ll go with the 10-foot measurement that I often hear discussed. While this may exclude certain tiny falls, which are still beautiful, and cascades, which do more to slide than drop, it still leaves us with a good basis of waterfalls to travel to and discuss.
In order to create all of these waterfalls, we need mountains and hills, and with that being said, there’s a lot of serious elevation going on above this town, which sits at the foot of Cayuga Lake. In addition, it’s also nice to have enough ice to create some serious glacier action, and that’s just what the Finger Lakes had when the glaciers receded some 15,000 years ago. Now, this area gets to boast some serious beauty to the hordes of tourists that come to visit and the myriad of transplants who come to take up permanent residence amongst the wineries, breweries, random outdoor activities, colleges, and raceways that make up this region.
And who’s to blame them? If it weren’t for the extended periods of freezing cold, I’d be willing to move up there, too! If I did move there, I’d also need a snowmobile to live out in the woods around this town, but I’m sure that I could make that a possibility. Nevertheless, for as nice as my Cabelas ECWS base layers are for handling the occasional day in the freezing cold, I’m still not ready to submit to the brutal cold of winter full time. However, if it weren’t for the biting wind that creates these natural paradises, which I long to see every winter (and in the seasons between), I could be swayed rather easily to give in to temptation and move to the Empire State… provided I could still wear a Red Sox hat.
All the same, while I don’t want to live there permanently, I do want to visit there as often as I can in all 4 seasons, and so it is that because of these extended periods of deep freeze that I offer up my gas, hotel, and restaurant money to Ithaca, New York. To me, this trade is well worth the 4 hours that it takes to drive there, even if it’s only for the opportunity to see Taughannock Falls, Lucifer Falls, and Ludlowville Falls.
That being said, there are many other waterfalls than just these 3 must-see destinations (and their half dozen or so surrounding falls) that I can and do visit, but I could be content with just seeing these 3 waterfalls and the parks that they are located in.
            For this, it is important to mention that other than just these three headlining acts, it is true that there are some other sweet waterfalls that carve out the gorges that run through the town. At the base of one of these is the rather impressive Ithaca Falls. At 150 feet tall, it is still 25 feet wider than it is high.

However, most of those gorges have been transformed by the fences that keep Type-A college students from succumbing to the pressures of Cornell and Ithaca Universities… or so the more well-meaning politicians and bleeding hearts of the town would have us believe. Thus, the views of waterfalls like Triphammer are obscured by chain link fences.
However, the walk or drive up to Croton Dam is definitely a worthwhile experience to have. For this, whether they are viewed from regular bridges or a suspension bridge, the waterfalls all provide some serious torrential flows of water down through the town in order to drop and push through Cascadilla Creek and Fall Creek. This natural water action creates some serious art with the forces of erosion. Outside of the town, the upper creek at Buttermilk Falls State Park is really beautiful, but that’s more about the erosion, which is also true of Watkins Glen State Park, which is less than 30 miles to the west.
But it wasn’t those other waterfalls that we were really there to see on that Sunday morning in late January of 2015. The day before, we had been to Robert Treman State Park for Lucifer Falls, and we also drove up to Taughannock State Park, which features a waterfall that is 3 stories higher and 5 million times better than Niagara Falls. Of course, this is my personal prejudice against the tourism that has created a serious blemish on the panoramic view of this once proud series of waterfalls. I’ve seen this falls before. In fact, I’ve seen it 3 different times in the white snow and ice of winter and the deep green leaves of summer. I don’t need to go back unless Will Gad1 plans to climb it again.
While we would look to take in Cascadilla and Falls Creek after our morning’s activities, the real goal was to get to see the hoar frost icicles on the ceiling behind Ludlowville’s Falls. To access this 35 foot raised cliff, we would drive north out of town on Route 34 and 34B until we hit Ludlowville Road, which is not far from where we quickly would find Ludlowville Park in the tiny town of Lansing. Upon arrival, this park would offer its guests a fenced off view of the waterfall below, and it would offer us a path with just enough boot prints to lead us down to the base of the river.
Before descending, we strapped our Kahtoola Microspikes to our boots. These easy on / easy off crampon “substitutes” offer 3/8 of an inch ice cutting power without the front kick climbing spikes. However, it should be clear that they only have a half to a third of the size of the ice bite. Nevertheless, in most conditions, they work just as well for half the price, but it should be clear that, as my friend Janis states, they are not equivalent to the protection and durability that you get out of crampons.
My wife Julia and I sat at the picnic bench in the park, looking for a spot without snow to rest as we put them on and wandered down through the rocks and over the snow and ice cover through the icicle formations that lined the trail as we found our way to the creek side.
The Salmon Creek was all but frozen over, and the sheet of ice that forced the waters into hiding looked beautiful beside the snow and ice formations that shrouded the rocks and brush and logs lying beside the path. Ahead of us, I could see the cathedral of hoarfrost stalactites, which is why we had saved this for last.
We knew it would be beautiful and a fitting end to our weekend, but I also knew that it wasn’t as beautiful as the grand spectacle of Taughannock, which I emphatically proclaimed as my favorite waterfall ever just one day early. However, despite what it wasn’t, we still knew that it was going to be fantastic.
For the uninitiated, the best way to define hoarfrost is to imagine the products of a freezing fog, which allows very cold water vapor to quickly condense into solid crystals as they hop on board whatever solid, very cold object that they can find. When they do, they form amazing sculptures that have to be seen to be believed.2
Apparently, Ludlowville Falls allows for this to happen on an annual basis since it was in the pictures that I saw the year before. I hadn’t ever remembered seeing anything like that before, so it was with that drive to experience that I headed out for unique discoveries.
As I moved across the side of the creek, I was walking firmly on solid ice into a no-man’s land of ice. This path would lead me back into the cave. Walking was easy with the Microspikes. I was confident in their ability to hold and my ability to walk. I took my steps and moved over along the edge of the rock wall for balance, confident that I didn’t need my trekking poles.
From here, I could see the ice columns coated in hoarfrost. I could see the hanging icicles with their fuzzy coating. I could still hear the water rushing through the liquid center of the iced over waterfall face. I could see the spouting horn of water rushing out from the right side of the falls. I could see the tapestry of ice on the back wall and the big thick stalactites of solid ice, the regular variant, hanging from the ceiling until they touched the ground.
It was magnificent.
I looked back at my wife, and I saw her watching me to see what I did and how I did it. I was calm and at peace with all things. The cave area was more beautiful than I had imagined it, but not even close to as deep into the frost as it was the year before. Perhaps in another few weeks, it would be. Nevertheless, I was starting to reassess my view of Taughannock as the best waterfall in the other 3 seasons, but just really dang good in winter. In winter, Ludlowville was now starting to compete with the area above the Shawnee and the area beside the Seneca Waterfall (both at Ricketts Glen) as the best winter waterfall ever. The more I gazed in and the closer I got, it was starting to dominate. There wasn’t even a question.
It was hard to believe because this waterfall was fairly similar to many cliff drops in its wet season. In fact, I felt it reminded me a lot of Blackwater Falls in West Virginia. As I thought about this, I made myself a mental note that it was time to take Julia back to West Virginia to relive our honeymoon, but not today. We were too far away, and well, there just wasn’t enough time.
But there would be soon. Oh, yes, there would be time.
But now was about Ludlowville and Ithaca and experiencing this moment, and so as I moved forward and away from the wall to enter under the top of the cliff and into the cave area behind the waterfall, my right leg rapidly vanished into the snowpack. I felt it going all the way down until I was in to the top of my knee and still sliding in.
Sounds of Metallica3 filled my head as I knew that I was going into the freezing waters below! I was only a tenth of a mile from the warmth and safety of the car, and I was to be turned into a Popsicle right in from of my wife. I wasn’t even 100 yards from the top of the cliff, and I was about to find out the hard way that Mother Nature doesn’t give second chances.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

New Order "Blue Monday (1995)"

Since we're doing waterfalls right now and we're finishing the hiking / waterfalls (possibly American Book of the Dead) book.... whichever way the wind might blow, here are the 5 original versions (74 pages in Word) of the story so far. If you want to go to the essay I referred to on Facebook, it's the one right beneath this.


Part 1.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Five Man Electrical Band - "Signs"

            In Midwestern America, in the place where Buckeyes live, there is a waterfall that is truly gorgeous. It was given a name that is quickly “Google-able” by a person who discovered and photographed it, but since this waterfall is on someone else’s property, it’s not really his place to name, even though, like Columbus, he rediscovered it in a way that guarantees that his beautiful artwork will gather a lot of attention for himself and the waterfall.
More importantly than publicizing his photographic career, the family who owns the place that this waterfall is on has stated in Internet posts regarding this fall’s privacy that they are tired of cleaning up the garbage people leave behind. They clearly love their land and the beauty it offers, but they don’t like paying liability insurance to protect themselves against whatever COULD happen on their property, which shouldn’t be since it is private property and the trees are clearly adorned with “No Trespassing” signs.
Nevertheless, “hikers” will still go back to the falls and find ways around the sign. Some postings say it’s as simple as bushwhacking back on the other side of the creek. Other people flip the owners the metaphorical and real finger as they go back to this place despite the warnings of prosecution while bragging about their invasion.
In the end, it is what it is… another waterfall lost to people’s poor behavior.
Would people be allowed back to this site if they asked nicely? Perhaps, but at this point in time, it’s irrelevant since the land is private property. Besides, there is enough publicity and exposure for said anonymous falls that it’s not like they can’t be seen legally, it’s just that they can’t be seen in person.
And why is one little cliff that spouts water to the pitch pool beneath it so dang popular? In reality, the pictures are Photoshopped and angled perfectly so that the viewer thinks that these antelope shaped walls are much bigger than they actually are. The water is also flowing better than it does in the mostly dry season. In short, it’s the view of a lifetime with a lot of cosmetic surgery applied to it. Is it better than the rest of the falls that are on public property, ones that feature names that are universal since they are viewable to every person who comes along with a camera, walking stick, dog, gaggle of friends, or his / her lonesome self? I can’t say for sure. I’ve never been to these, and due to the privacy issues, I won’t be intruding.
But see, it still begs the question of why did we lose this waterfall (and many other waterfalls and vistas that still adorn guidebooks).
In my time, I’ve asked permission for one backyard waterfall, which was included in a really hastily thrown together tome of waterfalls in the state that I was in at the time. I knocked on the owner’s door, and when I asked permission, I was given it without hesitation. Perhaps, it’s because I don’t look like a 20-year old kid looking to have a beer party. Maybe it’s because I asked permission. Nevertheless, I asked politely, and I received. However, I didn’t stay long because there wasn’t much to see, and because I also felt kind of intrusive when the owner said that he has a lot of “guests” who couldn’t bother to knock. He didn’t mind giving permission to those people who do, but that sense of “uninvited guests” really stuck with me.
As I sit writing this book, I am aware of what writing a book about beautiful waterfalls and vistas is all about. On one hand, it’s me showcasing my biography as told through great places to visit, but I’m also opening a Pandora’s Box to anyone who wants to find the falls. For that, it’s my conscious decision to name the falls as they have been christened or to change their names. That’s a tough call since there are already guidebooks that feature the names of these places.
In the case of Ricketts Glen, these falls are featured in tons of books and even on a list of 1,000 places that people must see throughout all of the nooks and crannies of America. Due to this fact, it’s hard to rename it as something else and hope the hordes stay away. Besides, they’ve already found it. Their trash and graffiti has found it. Their feet are on the trails, and the music from their boom boxes fills the air. At best, by calling this a temple, we can get people to patrol the trails to keep away the smoke, the cannonball kids, the indiscriminate swimmers, the wannabe “artists,” the garbage men, and those people who are a danger to the living and the dead, if only we educate them to the fact that rocks and icicles are better where they are until Nature moves them herself. If nothing else, maybe someone, the right person, will venture into the woods of Sullivan County and see this magical place on a weekday and see it as it was meant to be seen… nearly empty and flowing freely. Maybe this person will take a picture, write a poem, publish a blog, or just tell a story at the lunch table and start a movement. I’m not sure if I can do that, but being involved with trail groups means that I am a voice for change, and if this is what it takes, then I blast my horn to the heavens and say, “Now is the time…”
But what is it time for?
In woodland literature, the biggest evil is a character named Katz in Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. He is horribly out of shape, and he throws his stuff all over the trail when he can’t carry it. For this, he is a greater danger to American than Isis, Global Warming, fracking, unemployment, pyramid schemes, rape, and murder combined. Nevertheless, for the fact that he has “left his trace” and the retold humor isn’t funny to a lot of overly sensitive types (and the reality wouldn’t be acceptable to hikers as a whole), there is a point that those detractors are bringing out and that is about “what’s right” in the natural playgrounds. For this, many commercializations (i.e. movies) aren’t “right” in what they can do to Nature. The fear of A Walk in the Woods and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild’s potential damage to the Appalachian Trail aren’t unfounded. After all, Into the Wild brought other wannabe victims to the Stampede Trail and that’s in the middle of nowhere Alaska. Aron Ralston’s bio-epic 127 Hours also brought tourists to Blue John Canyon’s elusive slot canyons and the Holy Ghost Panel in Canyonlands. In this, if the base of the Appalachian Trail at Port Clinton looks like a scene from Sanford and Son’s front lawn now, then imagine what it would look like if more hordes of party crazy teens find the swimming hole / beer party site down on the river! Imagine what would happen to all of those shelters for thru-hikers being occupied by throngs of people looking for a place to do whatever, however, with no regard for how to get their stuff out after they’ve dragged it in. The shelters are hard enough to get into already. Imagine if they’re filled with people who have no intention to hike the trail in sections or as a whole. Imagine if people have to drag out soaking wet sleeping bags and other assorted trash now, then what can we expect if the uncivilized world finds these pristine places?
Some people will say that this fear is unfounded because everyone deserves the right to find places, and that phrases like uncivilized could be construed as exclusive / racist / whatever, but I would say that a suburban slob can be just as bad as the stereotypical image of someone from the city or the trailer park, so people can look to find meaning in wherever it’s not. Besides, they’re going to do it anyway.
More importantly than to spend large amounts of time with that nonsense, I too will say that it is true that everyone deserves a shot at Nature. I’m a spokesman on behalf of the trails, and I’ve been known to yammer with people on the paths of my state about how “if you like this trail, you’ll love that trail!” I post my pictures. I encourage students and friends to get out and about. My life is the trail, and I have been brought to it by guidebooks and speakers who tell me where I can go to enjoy myself, but how can I balance the feeling that everyone deserves an opportunity to “play with my toys” in the same way that I was introduced to their toys with my need to protect the vested ownership that I and those who are already here have in protecting our home turf from those who might ransack it?
For this, I feel like Andy in Toy Story 3. You can play with some of my toys, but you can’t have them. You can come share in the joy I feel with these toys, but I’m not going to let you play with my favorite toys when I just meet you. Sharing is cool, but I need to check you out first before I let you in on my private joy. After I smell you out and check to make sure you’re cool, things will probably be different (we both seem like good people), and you’ll obtain the rights and privileges, but until then…
This probationary period / angst is the same thing that hunters / fishermen like my dad feel when they have to wander around all of the people that have found their way to his “secret” spots. When the whole area is filled up early in the morning, there is a sense of exploitation and extinction of possibility. In some ways, this isn’t unlike having to move from the Kodak Picture Moment right after the shot is snapped.
It’s one thing to shoot the breeze or stare at the skyline with kindred souls. It’s another thing to dodge their dogs, pick up their garbage, provide medical treatment to their unprepared kids, or have to unsuccessfully offer psycho-therapy to people who have no business in places that are above their pay-grades as I am left there to stand witness to them falling down a flight of stairs face first.
And yes, we all start somewhere as inexperienced schlubs / accidents waiting to happen. We’re all novices once. We all should be less than 98.6° because of dumb stuff we did early on, either being frozen as a Popsicle until April or as that permanent coffin temperature that comes when someone scrapes up our remains and brings them back home in a bucket. That’s what part of this story is about, but so too is knowledge and overcoming adversity, even if it’s how we are our biggest enemy in becoming what we are meant to be.
However, way back when Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire in 1968, he knew the consequences of what was happening to the West, long before it became saleable as a spread out amusement park of a tourist destination (and that was 100-200 years after we exploited and built up the East). While he believed that “A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches- that is the right and privilege of any free American,” he wasn’t totally sold on the idea of bringing just anyone in. For this he regaled his readers with stories of amazing places, but sometimes, he just never gave the names, or he told people that the places aren’t there as they once were so to not bother looking for them.
In the Walking Dead, Rick tells the people of the Alexandria Safe Zone that they have to be careful who they open their doors to, and that’s equally true in Nature. Everyone deserves a shot at the woods, but people build up an ethic and an appreciation in the lowlands and rolling hills that are close to home. If the first trip is the “be all end all,” then what’s to look forward to after this? If all it takes is having money to go somewhere and the knowledge that you can buy a trip to wherever, what’s special about the moment? Besides, people who buy moments don’t really live them in the same way as people who earn them.
On the flipside, it’s equally true that we’ve become reactionary in how we do close places like the Wave off to all but a select few, as if they were Cartmanland. This is another problem for the guidebook writer / tourist industry / hiking blogger. If we create a demand, we need to allow access or the backlogs of 1,000+ trying for 10 slots on a given day to get into Fantasyland will double and triple and nobody will ever get back there – even if we offer 10 more slots to 100 people willing to drive out into the middle of nowhere for a shot at getting in the next day.
And as I sit here pondering my great American story and how so much of my own salvation and meaning comes from the woods and mountains and waterfalls of my country (not to forget its culture and history), I realize that there is a great responsibility. However, for the things that I offer you, it’s what you do with them. It’s not my problem. I can give you a rope so you can climb to great heights, but you can choose to hang yourself with it. I could do the same with a gun, a knife, a condom, or a car. It’s just that I happen to be doing it with a computer.
Thus, if you are reading this story, remember that these places are special for a reason. Visit them as if you were entering a museum or a religious facility. Show respect. Be reverent. Take only pictures and leave only footprints. Tell stories when you come back. Invite friends to see the places, too, but raise a finger to your lips to “shhh” the fact that this is a special secret for you and the exclusive deserving few. If anyone could climb the heights, it wouldn’t be special. That’s why you can raise your barbaric yawp to the world for your successful ascent when you reach the Promised Land. You’ve made it man / gal!
However, if you need to see this place with an axe, a can of spray paint, a 6-pack of beer (or some other illegal substance), or any other device or object that allows you to hurt other people who might be enjoying the woodlands you’re now in, then turn around and buy another book. This one isn’t for you.
I think this is pretty straight forward.
That said, if you’re still reading, enjoy the book. I know I did.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Garth Brooks - "Friends in Low Places"

     In life, there are many people who we wish we had known, but unfortunately, they pass away before we have a chance to meet them. Nevertheless, their work lives on, and for that, we feel that we know something about them. As a lover of the history of my country and the history of many things – baseball, music, and other things that I have dabbled with in my life (my time in England and my experiences with literature, for instance) – I find myself connected to a world of people who I assemble in some ways as if they were my Sgt. Pepper’s backdrop. Call it a history book or a genealogy tree or describe it as a living ghost story that I have thought about writing (The American Book of the Dead), and these things would all be true, but so would it be true that these people’s life works reflects similarly as an expression of who I am in life.
Tom Thwaites’ passing felt like one of these losses. His 50 Hikes books sit on my shelf to influence future hikes in the same ways that they motivated me to go on hikes in the past. His contributions to the origins and existence of the Standing Stone Trail are part of the reason that I am so actively involved in the political / literary / trail maintenance aspects of the hiking community. However, he was so much more than that.
In the Standing Stone Trail’s newsletter (The Rockhopper), I wrote that he was “The father of the Mid State Trail. The man who thought up the idea of the Standing Stone Trail. Penn State physics professor. Faculty Adviser to the Penn State Outing Club. University of Wisconsin graduate. Keystone Trails Advocate. Author of the series 50 Hikes in Pennsylvania (West, East, AND Central) as well as the author of the guidebook for the Mid State Trail and various other writings. Husband, father, and grandfather. Beloved and respected man by those who knew him (and those like me who wish they would have). This list, while brief, stands as the testament to a man who helped make Pennsylvania hiking what it is and what it will be. For all of this and more, we offer him a moment of silence and appreciation.”
And all of these things are true, for this is who he was and is to me, this guy who is sitting here in Ephrata, reflecting on Thwaites’ life despite the fact that I never knew him – I only knew of him.
Henry Miller wrote how, “once in a great while I came across a being whom I felt I could give myself to completely. Alas, these beings existed only in books. They were worse than dead to me- they had never existed except in imagination. Ah, what dialogues I conducted with kindred, ghostly spirits! Soul searching colloquies, of which not a line has ever been recorded. Indeed these “excriminations”, as I chose to style them, defied recording. They were carried on in a language that does not exist, a language so simple, so direct, so transparent, that words were useless. It was not a silent language either, as is often used in communications with “higher beings.”
But the thing is that for all of the people we never get to meet, there are some real people out there who understand and who get it. They’re not always the people that you meet in everyday life, but they’re good people and they get it. They have many of the same interests and ideas that we do, even if their day to day lives are different. They too like the trail and they get the point of existence in shades of the way we all hope we live when we think about Jack London’s credo of how I (he) “would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
They live their life to do things. They tell the stories that we want to listen to at the lunch table. They have the abilities that will teach us how to do things better. They may be the be all end all best friend forever, but then again they might be. In some cases, they may be just one of an endless stream of acquaintances in the middle of the book or some variation of what comes in between. Be it the mythlike Dean Moriarity, the best friend forever, the bit part, the supporting actor / actress, the wise grandparent, or some other special role chosen just for them.
Who knows? These people could be the trail guide, the photographer, the poet, the social media like to our posts, or the person who tells us what to experience in that brief passing moment that makes all things after it right when we experience it.
It doesn’t matter because they are and we are, and the whole is expressed by Walt Whitman when he wrote that, “O ME! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; Of the endless trains of the faithless--of cities fill'd with the foolish; Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?) Of eyes that vainly crave the light--of the objects mean--of the struggle ever renew'd; Of the poor results of all--of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; Of the empty and useless years of the rest--with the rest me intertwined; The question, O me! so sad, recurring- What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here--that life exists, and identity; That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
And so it was that Peter Fleszar and Neil Brennan were set to go with me to the Mid-State Trail meeting outside of Penn State Main Campus back in January, only to have it cancelled due to one of the many snowstorms of the season. However, while we didn’t get to celebrate the life of Tom at the meeting, we did get to celebrate and reflect the man’s life in a way that we hoped could be acceptable for whom Tom was when we went to Pete’s cabin for a Saturday and Sunday guy’s trip in Tioga County.
And during that time, I hope that our lives contributed a verse while walking through the snowy woods of northern Pennsylvania and southern New York. I hope that in getting to know and hear the adventures of one another while checking out a nearly frozen waterfall and stepping out across a frozen lake to hear the tales of ice fisherman, we experienced the great communion of kindred souls and an understanding of everything that would be with the year and for our lives. I hope that when we looked across the vistas and fields and mountains of the northern realm of the state that we all made a difference for each other, and in the passing of this essay to your life as well.
And it’s true that none of the hikes were the kind of things that would make Backpacker Magazine’s pages, but they do represent a first hike of the year (for me). They give me a chance to ditch the arm and back pains that had been plaguing me for the 2 previous months so that I could move on from them to The Thousand Steps, Hawk Rock, the waterfalls of Ithaca, Ricketts Glen, and the sights of Ephrata’s rails to trails path in the other weeks of the year. Winter is tough, and the cold snow, ice, and wind bite hard against our faces and hands, but still we go on.
That’s what it’s all about.
Sometimes, it’s common places sites in another corner of the world with people, stories and books on a shelf, dreams and hopes, memories and just hanging out with the guys.
I’m sure Tom would be “down” with more weekends like this… as long as what happens in Tioga County stays there.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy - "Mr. Heat Miser"

                Every year, the winter offers a cold, howling wind that comes through the mountains, valleys, forests, and fields.  Over the past 2 years, they call this “The Polar Vortex.” This term is just a fancy way of saying that it’s brutally cold for an extended period of time. When I was a kid, they just called this “winter,” but back then, I also walked uphill both ways over sheets of solid ice on an 8-mile journey to get to school. Well, not really, but it sounds like some of the conversation that tends to happen in the comparative scheme of which winter is the worst.
            The truth is that it has been cold. The snow that we have has stuck around for an extended period of time. The ice has frozen solid into large blobs or columns that could withstand a hit from a 280-pound offensive lineman with little more than a “is that all you’ve got cupcake?” in return to this challenge to its grasp on the earth. If we look at this temperature trend objectively, we see that it’s not going to be changing soon as there is more snow and ice to follow as the temperature continues to dip significantly down below the magic 32° line.
            With that, what better to do than go to Ricketts Glen to partake in the frozen waterfalls with a group of hikers that came readily assembled off of Facebook groups like Pennsylvania Waterfalls and Hiking and Backpacking Pennsylvania?!!
            Sara and Ben Nevin helped me assemble the list of hikers for the day. After some last minute cancellations, we were joined by my wife Heather, Dennis Crasper, Susan Burdette Switzer, Aaron Campbell, Lori Dieter, Brian Kerr, Jakub Jasinski, Vaibhav Bhosale, and Kevin Hart. Of course, we weren’t the only hikers in the falls area that day. In fact, by the end of the day, the parking lot was full from at least 20 different cars.
            It seems that winter waterfalls have become a lot more popular than they were when I first got into them back in February of 2004, let alone on my first excursion to an Ohiopyle State Park dressed in white back in January of 2001. The parking lot was definitely a testimonial to this, and I would say that it was good to see so many people back at the waterfalls, though I question those who don’t have microspikes or crampons (as based on my own experiences without them and the rules that say that you must have them and an ice axe and a rope not to forget some really helpful trekking poles) and those who choose to come back into God’s artistry with the intent of smashing icicles to the ground (something about Leave No Trace).
But this story isn’t about those negative things. It’s about what’s good about hiking at Ricketts Glen in the winter. There is camaraderie and friendships, both new and old. There is learning and experiencing. There is a need to see the beauty of Nature in everything that is, and it is about experiencing a treasure that can be brought back to the everyday world with pictures and stories. It’s about a shared experience with some of the best photographers that I’ve ever seen. This is also about our challenge to life’s frustrations, which sometimes fill our backpacks – even if we mean to leave them at home.
And it really is a day where all things good stand out in the frozen air of morning and get the inner furnace kicked on strong as the hikers can push through the trails to discard hats and gloves in those moments of photography that come between the “oohs” and “aahs” of the “is this vision really real?”
And in many ways, it’s reliving the journeys past, the sum of all moments, the physical endurance, the experience, and the dedication that goes with the athletic training to reach confidence and ability, which together allow for something like this.
And looking at it from this perspective, this was my 6th journey into the Glen in the seasons that are guarded by a yellow line and a couple of menacing looking signs which lists gear and a final warning to anyone who might not think that this “traipse through the waterfalls” could turn out to be a search and rescue mission for the DCNR who do their darnedest to make sure that no hiker turns into a popsicle (and thank you to them for doing that and still keeping the trails open and accessible so others can enjoy while risking another one of those moments).
Fortunately, on this day, everyone made it out of the trail intact. This was in no small part due to Sara’s moratorium to get as many crampons on the ground as possible. This was also due to the fact that Ben is a seasoned ice climber who has that rare mix of knowledge, patience, and drive. Many teachers come to their  task because they can teach themselves, but Ben has a patience and gentle way of bringing out people’s confidence when it’s their first time through a task. He also knows how to spring people into action when they have to get through their inhibitions and fear in the middle of a task so that they can stay in one piece or at 98.6°. 
As the hike went up the trail, we saw blue ice, cool little formations that hid in obscured little cracks and crevices, mega waterfalls frozen from the intense cold wave that also solidified the streams over the creek (it’s important to note that I’ve never seen the creek this frozen), ice caves, windows in the frozen stream and waterfalls, and hoarfrost formations.
And I should add that for anyone that’s never see hoarfrost in its delicate beauty, it hangs in all of its fuzzy glory from the ceilings of the most special of places. In fact, I can only ever remember seeing it at Ludlowville Falls in New York (by Ithaca).  However, on this day, it was the highlight of our hike. Just like the 30-foot ice curtain that hangs on the wall above the Shawnee was the greatest moment last year (a return to that spot for the first time since 2004), I was in awe. My wife telling me how I had to get in there to see “this” couldn’t possibly describe how pristine and joyous the sensation of looking up in that “broom closet” of a cave was. And we all got that moment that day. How many pictures were taken in the cave? How many selfies and posed shots for our cameras, which we would upload to social media when we returned to a world of Wifi that doesn’t exist in the Glen, would we take? The answer seems to be too large to count! Nevertheless, we came, we saw, and we enjoyed.
And we did our best to make sure we left it intact for all of the other people who would gaze upon it that day and when the next day’s snowstorms ended. And we marveled at Marcus the Mouse as he scrounged around the snow for food. We ascended the 16-foot Murray Reynolds as the waterfall was buried beneath snow and ice that made it possible, though difficult to climb. And then we climbed up to the cave area of Sheldon Reynolds, nearly 30 feet above the pitch pool beneath us. We also wandered behind the ice wall at B. Reynolds, which coincidentally is not named for Burt. We took our pictures by the hundreds so that we could always remember these moments. And we did what we had to do to stay safe on icy trails, frozen waterfalls, and snowy paths.
And we had lots of fun, which is why we were there in the first place.
 Next year, we’ll do it again. When we do, we’ll assemble another group. I hope you’ll choose to get the gear so that you can be a part of it. When you do, you can come up for the day or the weekend. In this, Ricketts Glen has some beautiful family cabins for you to stay in. For all the “roughing it” you would expect, you’ll be cozier than in many hotels while getting to lay your claim on the top bunk!

However you choose to see the park, I hope you do. It’s a jewel of Pennsylvania that has to be experienced.