The winter air in the Pine Creek Natural Area, aka the Pine Creek Gorge, or the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, was all of this and more.
I took a four-mile ramble on the canyon’s Rail Trail following the mostly ice-covered waters of upper Pine Creek. The air was a crisp 23 degrees Fahrenheit, although the sun was shining now and then, illuminating the snow and ice and the several tracks of skiers and hikers.
I had total solitude in this 20-mile stretch of wildness flowing north to south at depths of a thousand feet below the sandstone escarpments at each rim. Oh, I saw a great blue heron and a pileated woodpecker and an animal which I’ll speak of in a minute, but I felt quite sheltered from the mundane world. The “longest creek in America” was at my feet, and a vast state forestland embraced the cliffs just east and west of me.
The Pine Creek Gorge Natural Area contains (according to a 1960s report by the National Park Service) “superlative scenery, geological and ecological value, and is one of the finest examples of a deep gorge in the eastern United States.”
I agree, and feel the need to finally do some fly-fishing here along the creek’s Delayed Harvest water in April. I have visited the gorge on many occasions over the last few decades but have never rafted its course from Ansonia to Blackwell or even traversed it with a fly rod or a bicycle along the popular Rail Trail.
I don’t know what I’ve been waiting for, but since I’m not getting any younger, there is no time like the present to become better acquainted. Lots of people take a raft, canoe or kayak through the gorge when the flow is good, but my own thoughts settle with a trail bike– ah, to pedal, and to stop at each side canyon for a bit of brook trout fishing with a short four-piece rod…
This natural area was a gift from the last Ice Age when the melting glaciers thwarted Pine Creek’s northward flow and reversed it through impressionable sandstone. The creek, rerouted, helped to carve this complicated landscape of forested hills and gorges. This was wilderness until the late nineteenth-century logging boom occurred.
I was near Deadman Hollow, named for an early twentieth-century trapper whose decomposed body was found in a bear trap he had set. Earlier, the Iroquois and Susquehannock hunters had traveled this course for many years. More recently, the Jersey Shore, Pine Creek and Buffalo Railway had traversed the gorge with passenger and freight service, forming the backbone for the 13 logging companies that eventually established themselves in the larger watershed.
The old growth forests were stripped bare by the early 1900s. Nothing was left but treetops which eventually fueled great fires that ravaged the land. Along with the floods that followed the fires, there were landslides and erosion to the point of ecological ruin. The region took on the appearance of a desert.
Over the past century, however, the forests have regrown and much of the wildlife has returned. Although the wolves and elk and panthers are gone, the bears and otters and eagles can be found, and wild trout thrive in many of Pine Creek’s tributaries.
Visitors arrive en masse to enjoy the state parks, hiking trails and waterways. Following the demise of the train era, the Rail Trail opened in 1996 and has become very popular with bicyclists, hikers, anglers, and other recreationalists.
This hiker had neglected to carry food and water, thinking at first he wouldn’t walk so far, and he became thirsty after the first mile of rambling. I was at the point of scooping up snow when I heard the song of water from the rocks on my left. Water was gushing from a pipe thrust outward from the cliff. Wonderful!
Returned to the trail, I glanced at an open stretch of water in the creek. A dark-furred animal stood 50 feet away on the edge of the ice, its eyes already well-fastened to my being. River otter! There it was, my first good look at an otter in the East. I’ve seen this animal in some western states, but this was special.
I wanted a photo of the moment, but the unblinking eyes told me it wouldn’t be easy. I positioned my walking stick, slowly removed my gloves, and tried to ready the camera. Looking up from my settings I saw that the river otter was gone– the photo wasn’t meant to be, not now, although I managed to capture the animal’s unusual tracks.
Otters were reintroduced to the Pine Creek Natural Area from other regions of the wild about 20 to 25 years ago, and they’ve been doing well. These fast swimming fish-eaters require pristine water conditions, and there’s plenty of suckers and stocked trout in the Pine to keep them healthy.