I found the trailhead for the Pitch Pine Loop on the north side of Rt. 44, the old turnpike famous for its long length through the wilderness of northern Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century. Today, this ridge and valley road extending from Jersey Shore to Coudersport has, in all likelihood, fewer human residents along its sides than any other highway in the state. Mostly what you see are hunting/fishing camps and trucks that roll through with their fracking waste.
The 2.5 mile skiing/hiking trail is found along the high plateau with overlooks on the Miller Run Natural Area. The natural area includes a wild trout stream that is difficult to access, thereby making it tantalizing to an angler such as myself.
Starting from the parking lot, 2.6 miles northwest of Haneyville, I passed a hunting camp at a northward angle and proceeded through the crusted snow that challenged my booted stamina until the rising temperatures softened the resistance.
The pitch pine trees I remember from my New York boyhood were scrubby little conifers of the hilltops, but the trees for which this trail is named are anything but malnourished evergreens. The pitch pines, growing in poor, sandy soils, are regal in appearance when compared to their company of scrub oaks and mountain laurel. They can grow to heights of 50 feet or more, with plated bark from which diminuative branches can yield a profusion of tufted needles.
Pitch pine has clusters of three long needles. In colonial days the tree was used to make tar and turpentine. Its rot-resistant wood was used for water wheels that cranked production of the earliest mills. Today, this evergreen dominates the first half of the Pitch Pine Loop that culminates with an overlook of the 4,000-acre Miller Run Natural Area. Eastward, beyond the deep roadless area, one can see the far side of the Pine Creek Valley.
That’s the image I held in mind while peering down at Miller Run. What a valley. No road or access at the mouth on Pine Creek. No path, other than a long, steep drop on the northern side, a rough route to angling that I hope to employ some day in the company of another intrepid trouter, or two.
My trail guide, published in 1991, indicated that about 100 meters from the end of the loop I would find a remnant stand of tamarack, a last group of trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941, before the planters embarked for World War II. My trail guide needs an update.
I remembered reading a hiker’s comment in the log book when I started out: “It sure doesn’t look the same as before. Drilling? But still nice.” I hadn’t thought more of the comment until now, expecting to find the tamarack/larch stand near the end.
I came out of the woods on an unexpected gravel road, snow-covered except for a vehicle track leading to a giant well pad from a fracking operation. No more tamarack shrine to the Civilian Corps. Just an empty five-acre pad, a flat concrete monument to fossil fuels on a warming planet.
Conflicting arrows and trail blazes at the roadside near the drill site had me scratching my head and moving up and down the clearing. What a fracked-up situation! My trail guide had never mentioned an intersecting road.
I thought I heard a vehicle from distant Rt. 44, but I couldn’t be sure of where the hell I was. At the point where “turned around” hikers sometimes lose their head and start to run, I even entertained the possibility of having to backtrack the 2-plus miles and getting to the car the long way.
Luckily I regained a bit of reason and decided to approach the drill site. There it was. Another blaze mark and an arrow pointing to the woods across the opened area. I reentered the trees and quickly saw the main road and my vehicle. I found the car with a sour expression on its front end, as if to say, “You know, I’ve been parked here all this time, looking at the woods and that stupid drill pad up in the clearing. Didn’t you see it when you started out?”
I can’t stand a smart-ass car when it acts that way, although I have to be careful and massage its ego, thanking the vehicle for hauling me to such far-flung places as Pitch Pine Loop.
Nevertheless, I parked the car again, a short distance away, at Pat Reeder’s Tavern. We could all get objective once more. I could have a beer and a bite to eat. I could tell the bartender about a good walk in the Pennsylvania hills. She could tell me about this comfortable establishment on the “wilderness road.”