Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hiking: Trail Maintenance along AT and North Trail at Lehigh Gap

Today I joined Dave Scheid, trail maintenance co-chair with the Philadelphia Trail Club, and James Dunn, an Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner, to do some hedging of prickly greenbrier and other plants that had practically overgrown great sections of the blue-blazed North Trail, a scenic offshoot of the white-blazed Appalachian Trail just west of Lehigh Gap.

AT Ridgerunner, James, and PTC trails co-chief, Dave, on North Trail
I met Dave at the Translator Road parking area off of Mountain Road west of the gap, and we hiked up to the AT using an un-named spur trail - which we agreed to call the Birch Clump Trail, since there's a striking clump of white birch trees at the spot where it intersects the U.S.'s premier interstate long-distance trail. 

Looking west on the AT from Birch Clump Trail - AT intersection
From the birch clump, we hiked briefly east on the AT to the start of the North Trail, which shoots north but soon doubles back to the west as it traverses an exposed ridge of Blue Mountain, featuring nearly two miles of striking views of the Lehigh River and valley beyond.

Lehigh River and Pennsylvania Turnpike snake north from Blue Mountain
At the point where the North Trail cuts west, we came to a spur that to leads to the Devil's Pulpit, a precipice overlooking the Lehigh Gap that requires a precarious scramble to enjoy. I made a mental note to return here soon. For today, though, there was work to be done - and lots of it!

Clearing the trail from overgrown understory was the job of the day!
The North Trail runs through the Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site, Dave explained as we clipped away at rampant overgrowth. The entire north side of this section of Blue Mountain had been denuded at one point as soils were poisoned through the work of a now-defunct zinc smelter in the valley below. Trees are sparse along this ridge, but they are coming back. In fact, the once thriving American Chestnut is making a stand, though not a very tall one. The real growth here is the forest understory - the taming of which was the reason of today's trek.

American Chestnut makes a comeback on Blue Mountain near Lehigh Gap
Seeds were at one point dropped from the air to re-vegetate Blue Mountain's north face, from the Lehigh River to the ridge. And following the substantial rainfalls the area has experienced throughout this spring and summer, the site is thriving with ferns, tall grasses, sassafras and greenbrier, all of which are taking root and spreading like crazy over what Dave said in recent seasons looked more like a moonscape than a forest.

Hiking through rebounding Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site on North Trail
A little farther down the North Trail we ran into Ridgerunner James. James had hiked in from Lehigh Furnace gap with the intention of catching up with us. I'm glad he did! Listening to him and Dave talk clued me in on lots of trail trivia I might have missed out on if it were just Dave and I on our own. Dave is day hiker, like me. But James thru-hiked the AT in 2012, and now he spends many nights on the trail fulfilling his official role with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Staving off our hunger along the way, we had been snacking on juicy wild blueberries that were growing in patches all along the North Trail. But as the morning mist began to clear and we realized it was already well past luncthime, we decided it was a good idea to have a bite to eat before finishing up and making our way back down the mountain. 

Wild blueberries! Our reward for hard work clearing the North Trail
As we sat down in the midst of a great boulder field, I noticed my arms and fingers were quivering. I joked that I thought I might be having a stroke, but James confirmed he was experiencing the same sensation, confirming it must have been the result of nearly three hours of walking and clipping, not of something more serious. Phew! After eating and hydrating, we made our way back to the AT and then eventually to a point along Translator Road, which we took back down the mountain to our cars.

Appalachian Trail - North Trail and Lehigh Gap 

For me, this day exceeded my expectations for my first trail maintenance experience. It was great exercise for one, and even though my purpose for coming out here was to give back to the hiking community, which has given me so much in recent years, I ended up walking away having received an amazing learning experience. If you think you might like to learn more about the AT or volunteering with the Philadelphia Trail Club - and I highly recommend you do - check out the PTC website or email Dave for information. Tell him Brian from Man of Merit blog sent you!

Brian Schwarz is an award-winning journalist whose career was derailed by super obesity. He fought his way back to health - losing 165 pounds in the process of his "fit-life journey". A professional communicator by trade and activator by nature, Brian's personal mission is to inspire others to live their fullest lives. Follow Brian on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hiking: Giving back to the community that gives so much

I suppose you could call me an avid hiker now. That's hard to fathom considering where I was just a few years ago. But it's true! In 2011, I was concerned I wouldn't be able to endure a two-mile walk in the woods. Now I've summited at least a dozen mountains and can handle hikes with as much as 4,000 feet of elevation gain and happily trudge fairly significant distances. I've gotten so much out of hiking, in fact, that now I feel it's time for me to give back.

Man of Merit and HikeyHikey blogger, Brian, on the Mill Creek Trail
Pennsylvania is home to an extremely active hiking community, a fact that was lost on me when I previously called this state home. I had spent the better part of a decade living in Pennsylvania - off and on from the mid-1980s to the late-1990s - and back then I can honestly say I only truly experienced the mountains of Pennsylvania through my car windows, on frequent commutes between my mom's home in the Susquehanna Valley of South Central PA to my university - IUP - located in the Laurel Highlands of Western PA.

I'm happy to report, though, that since I've returned to the Commonwealth I have discovered that Pennsylvania is home to thousands upon thousands of miles of trail, including portions of three national trails and a handful of other long trails. To manage this vast trail network, there are several hiking clubs that staff an army of volunteers - my local club is the Philadelphia Trail Club (PTC) - and there is even a statewide advocacy group - the Keystone Trails Association (KTA).

I have contacted both the PTC and the KTA this week seeking out volunteer opportunities, and these groups are so on the ball representatives have already contacted me and eagerly recruited me to get involved.

The PTC maintains a 10-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail, north of Allentown, and on Saturday, July 13, I will be joining members of the PTC's trail crew to clear an AT-access trail within PA State Gamelands near Lehigh Gap.

Mill Creek Trail, in need of some maintenance, French Creek State Park
On September 7, I will be volunteering as a trail sweep for the KTA's Super Hike along the Susquehanna River between York and Lancaster counties. For that event I'll be clearing the trail, making sure all participants are ahead of me and no one is left behind, while removing all flagging tape from the last quarter of the 29.6-mile course. (Next year I plan on training to actually do the Super Hike!)

Hiking is such an amazing activity for achieving and maintaining physical and mental fitness, so I'm excited about the chance to volunteer to support the local hiking community here in Pennsylvania. Maybe I'll meet some folks along the way, too, so I can finally find some hiking buddies to join me on my many planned hikes for the remainder of the summer and the rest of the year.

Brian Schwarz is an award-winning journalist whose career was derailed by super obesity. He fought his way back to health - losing 165 pounds in the process of his "fit-life journey". A professional communicator by trade and activator by nature, Brian's personal mission is to inspire others live their fullest lives. Follow Brian on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hiking: Planning seven hikes in Eastern Pennsylvania

Since arriving back on the East Coast two months ago, my hiking has been limited to the Orange and White trails of the Wissahickon Gorge, a rare gem of urban wilds that rises into the Piedmont through Philadelphia's northwestern city limits. I'm getting the itch now, though, to hazard deeper into the woods. So I'm making plans to venture farther north and experience a few of the many amazing trails of Pennsylvania's Schuylkill Highlands and the Pocono Mountains.

Beneath the canopy of green along one of Eastern PA's amazing trails
My goal is to experience the following seven hikes this summer as I continue to condition for my first ever 20-mile hike later this year:

1. Pulpit Rock and Pinnacle Vistas - Appalachian Trail

This hike will take me from the Hamburg Reservoir along a section of the Appalachian Trail which, according to what I've read online, boasts two of the best vistas along the Pennsylvania portion of America's premier long trail.

2. Neversink Mountain - City of Reading

I love urban-accessible hikes, so I'm excited about hiking this historic small mountain, wedged between downtown Reading and the Schuylkill River.

3. Camelback Mountain - Big Pocono State Park

The first time I heard about Camelback Mountain I was in the ski club at my high school in the Shenandoah Valley, on a trip to nearby Massanutten Mountain. The cool kids were excited about going to Camelback for a ski trip later that year. I learned that night that skiing was not really my forte, but now that I'm an avid hiker, I figured it's about time I check out what the fuss is all about.

4. The Falls Trail - Ricketts Glen State Park

Wow! Twenty-plus wateralls on one loop trail! I have to check this place out! Having spent the better part of two years hiking the desert mountains of Central New Mexico and Southern California, I am more than ready to experience a full-on riparian environment like this.

5. Glen Onoko Falls - Lehigh Gorge State Park

This hike is located just outside the town of Jim Thorpe, known as the "Gateway to the Poconos" and the "Switzerland of the Americas". I'd always been confused by town's name, which was renamed last century as a marketing ploy (bad move if you ask me). But now that I've learned the town's original name was actually Mauch Chunk, named "Bear Mountain" by the native Lenapi people who once called this place home, I feel much better about checking this place out.

6. Hiking French Creek State Park: Chestnut Hill-Mill Creek Loop

Beyond the Wissahickon, French Creek State Park in the Pennsylvania Highlands seems to be one of the best places to hike near Philadelphia. I'm hoping to get some friends to join me on this hike and possibly whet their appetites for longer, more strenuous trails, but unless I can make some local hiking buddies quickly it looks like I'll be doing this and the other hikes listed here all by my lonesome.

7. AT-North Trail Loop on Blue Mountain at Lehigh Gap

I had the opportunity to hike a few miles of trails here while doing trail maintenance with the Philadelphia Trail Club. What a great experience. I plan to return soon to do some real hiking soon. The best thing about this area is the exposed north face of Blue Mountain so hikers experience nearly two unbroken miles of views of the Lehigh River and valley beyond.

Roots that are deep in the forest - something we all share!
There are several other Eastern Pennsylvania hikes on my radar, but these are the most accessible for the time being - each is within just a couple hours' drive from Philadelphia, making them ideal day hikes. As I get more confident with camping, I would love to plan a backpacking trip to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon to do the West Rim Trail. But I will have to tackle that in a future blog post when I'm ready.

Thanks for reading!

Brian Schwarz is an award-winning journalist whose career was derailed by super obesity. He fought his way back to health - losing 165 pounds in the process of his "fit-life journey". A professional communicator by trade and activator by nature, Brian's personal mission is to inspire others live their fullest lives. Follow Brian on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.