Canyons are fascinating formations in the surface of Earth. I’ve enjoyed hiking and fishing them for many years. Canyons seem to be the geologic inverse of mountaintops, and exploring them seems like an immersion in the Earth whereas climbing the high peaks is more like an attempt to conquer a piece of the planet. Maybe canyons suit the humble explorer and maybe mountains are more suited for the alpha soul, although a canyon hike and a mountain climb both have elements of danger and of beauty, so accomplishing either one is no kindergarten graduation.
The Pine Creek Canyon (or Gorge) of north-central Pennsylvania, one of the finest river canyons in the eastern U.S., has been a draw for me since the 1970s. On my initial descent into the canyon from Colton Point State Park (circa 1975), I saw the first black bear I’ve ever encountered. Since then, every time I’ve entered a canyon, some phenomenon of nature has presented itself in a new and fascinating light.
Recently I decided to return to the Pine Creek Gorge, a natural area that the tourism promoters unfortunately call “The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.” I wanted to fish again for native trout in a side canyon called Four Mile Run. I would drop down on the Turkey Path at Colton Point, a 1.5 mile trail that switchbacks steeply through the forest. I would do it in my fishing garb, weighted with containers of food and water, while clutching a rod and a reel. It had been a half dozen years since my last visit to Four Mile Run, so it was time to reacquaint myself. I also needed some physical training. I was hoping to hike several canyons in New Mexico and Arizona this July, so I’d be needing every good muscle I could find.
The canyon off Colton Point (above the west bank of Pine) is close to a thousand feet deep. The Pine Creek Gorge and its “Wild and Scenic River” are the central features of an eastern wilderness popular for rafting, hiking, fishing, hunting, biking, and nature studies. The canyon is roughly 20 miles long. A hike along the West Rim or even the canyon walk from Colton Point can be a challenge for anyone when the weather is inclement. Today the weather was comfortable and breezy, but the Turkey Path has seen better days. Hikers have formed several confusing “shortcut” trails; some of the blaze marks have deteriorated and, in one location, a rock slide forces you to do a bit of fancy footwork.
When I reached Pine Creek I made a few perfunctory casts with a dry fly, not expecting much with the water temperature 66 degrees F. I saw a few bikers and pedestrians on the opposite bank 100 feet away, but no trout. Across Pine Creek lay the popular bike trail that’s been built over an old railroad bed to parallel the river throughout the length of the canyon. The walkers had come down from the eastern segment of the Turkey Path whose trailhead is located up on Harrison State Park. More people visit Pine Creek from the eastern park than from Colton Point because the Turkey Path there is more tourist friendly and more easily traversed. In fact I would see no more than two other hikers today along the west side of Pine. They were in an area of an old camp near the mouth of Four Mile Run. This camp at the lower end of a side canyon had been built by a former Pennsylvania governor, and it had sheltered some well-known outdoor enthusiasts such as President Teddy Roosevelt.
The wild trout stream was 10 degrees colder than Pine and the fishing was delightful. Trout were rising to the dry fly but were much less active than on my previous visit. On the earlier occasion, five or six years ago, my daughter and I tagged along with fishing guide Rich Meyers. We had spotted one of our vehicles on the roadway near the headwaters and then drove down to Colton where we walked in on the Turkey Path. On the long excursion up Four Mile Run we caught fish after fish, fine brookies of the pocketwater, and enjoyed the sight of three large waterfalls and their productive plunge pools. The picturesque falls, with their ferny seeps and mossy side walls, defied adequate description. Sure, we had to climb our way above each waterfall and had to pull each other by the hand, but the work was more than worth the effort. As for the current outing, well, I didn’t reach the falls. I had less time to deal with fishing and exploring and I still had to face the climb back up to Colton Point. There were blow-downs to deal with and, truth be told, I wasn’t any younger than I was back then.
It was a 45-minute climb to the car, with barely a rest. At one point near the summit I had to scramble briefly on all fours. Removing vest, boots and waders, I felt a whole lot lighter. I took a drink and felt the breeze transform the sweat on my skin to a chill. I wasn’t sure yet what the Pine and Four Mile had given me today, but it was something wild. It spread out on the car seat like a tired body in a bed.