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.