by Gerald Rowan
Three of us in our fly-fishing group gathered one Saturday night in late March to plan a trip for the first week of trout season. Where to go? Where to fish? How long to stay?
That night, we gathered at Shack’s house to work out some common ground for the trip. We agreed on the location—north-central Pennsylvania, in keeping with our group’s first-week-of-trout-season tradition.
But we had some different preferences. Ross and I were all for doing some hike-in fishing; Shack was in favor of establishing a base and day-fishing the streams in our camping area. Shack also planned to take his oldest son along.
How to work out the dates? Shack called his son so he would be in on the choice of dates. But his son had other plans. Then Carolyn, Shack’s wife, interjected that she wanted to join the trip. Carolyn had grown up in a family that loved the outdoors; she was an occasional fisherwoman but as good at fly-fishing as any of us. How to accommodate her? Normally Ross and I share my trailer; the other guys sleep in my dome tent on an adjoining campsite. (Our rule: the oldest guys get the trailer.)
For this trip, Ross and I planned to hike the Mid State Trail (MST) from R.B. Winter State Park, in Union County, down to Poe Valley State Park, in Centre County. Then Shack would pick us up and ferry us back to R.B. Winter. Poe Valley was our destination because of the bathhouse and hot showers. Its location is a bit awkward—just below the dam at the lake—but after 4 days on the trail, a good, long, hot shower gave it an advantage over Poe Paddy.
We carefully laid out our activities to fit into the week we’d set aside for the trip. Day 1, traveling and setup; day 7, packing up and going home; the remaining 5 days, hiking and fishing. We estimated about 43 miles on the MST. We could do about 10 miles a day, with a remaining day at Poe Valley. We’d leave the morning of the second day, arrive at Poe Valley the afternoon of the fifth day, and hike back on the sixth day through the old railroad tunnel to Penns Creek, where we’d fish for the day. Later that afternoon, Shack would pick us up at our campsite in Poe Valley. We’d return to R.B. Winter for a hot shower, a hearty meal, and a night’s sleep; then we’d pack up for home.
Those plans meant we’d not be using the trailer, since most of our time would be on the trail. It only made sense that Shack and Carolyn take the trailer and we’d take the dome tent. Great—everything was worked out, and everybody seemed happy.
With our trip date approaching, I assembled food packets and carefully gathered my stuff and packed my backpack, checking my prep list several times. I included a small selection of dry flies and a packable fly rod. The plan was to get the hiking stuff ready so I could focus on the trailer-related packing. I loaded the dome tent—and everything needed to pitch it—in the truck well ahead of time. An easy pack. I had sleeping bags in the trailer. With the trailer, there was no need for camp-cooking gear, and my backpack was self-contained.
We met at the Hickory Run Service Plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; from there, Shack and Carolyn followed us. We timed our trip to arrive midafternoon, with plenty of time for setting up the trailer and tent, plus dinner at a small mom-and-pop place in Mifflinburg.
The forecast was for a cold week with some wintry precipitation. Possibly too cold for a lot of stream wading—maybe hiking would be a good choice for the week? Shack and Carolyn planned to hit the catch-and-release sections of White Deer Creek, Rapid Run, and Halfway Lake and considered adding the fly-fishing stretch below the Halfway Lake outflow in Bald Eagle State Forest.
Early the second morning, we enjoyed a full hiker’s breakfast—eggs, home fries, bacon, fresh biscuits, and a lot of hot coffee—before setting off on our hike. But just after breakfast, I made 2 bacon-and-egg sandwiches and wrapped them in aluminum foil. Later, after eating the sandwiches at lunch, I carefully folded and saved the foil to make trail bread—roasted wrapped in the foil over hot coals.
We exited the park entrance, crossed Rapid Run on a footbridge, and headed south on the Brush Hollow Trail (synonymous with the MST). I’d hiked the MST many times but always in the summer, with the leaves on the trees—meaning that except for the overlooks, all I’d see was the trail immediately in front of you. At times, I’d feel I was hiking in a green tunnel. Not now; the trees had not yet leafed out. The maples were in bloom, though, and in the boggy places, the skunk cabbage was just emerging. I could imagine that sugaring was in full swing.
The forests in this part of Pennsylvania have a certain gentility about them. The hills aren’t too steep; the trails aren’t too rocky (for the most part), and the forests are mostly mature without the scrub understory of the woods through much of the Poconos. The woods have the feel of having been lived in for a long time—they’re both ageless and timeless. They project a homey, comforting quality.
The forest opened up without its cover of leaves. I could see the skeleton of the landscape—ridges, outcroppings, and ledges. Springs were evident, as were wetlands and streams. The wetlands seemed to be the first to green up; they were, in fact, noticeably greener than the ridges. What I found especially interesting were all the old, long-abandoned stone walls, logging roads, wagon roads, and skidways still evident. They were the scars recording past battles between the settlers and nature.
Many old Native American trails were there—a networked trail system, worked out over centuries, for trafficking goods from place to place, hunting, exploring new territory, and making war. The early settlers turned a few of these trails into post roads and colonial turnpikes. Today, hikers, ATV riders, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and others continue using some of these trails, and some of our modern highways follow these early routes.
One day during my hike, taking a break and munching on turkey jerky and trail crackers, I imagined a bull elk making his way down one of these trails, leading a harem toward water or better pasture. Their Native American name came to mind: wapiti. A single bull might have provided as much as a thousand pounds of meat for a family. Munching on my jerky, I imagined the big pile of jerky that bull would have made, as well as smoked elk in the cooking pots of those early settlers.
There were also foundations of log cabins and remains of half-underground charcoal-making huts. I could imagine the early settlers clearing land and building cabins. First some timber would be logged and supplied to sawmills and tanneries that sprang up along the streams. Sawmills and tanneries meant that the streams would be dammed to impound water. Then the charcoal burners would cut the big treetops and smaller trees and fire the wood into charcoal for feeding the growing demand for iron.
After the land was stripped of any saleable wood, the homesteaders would move in—pulling or burning out stumps; building stone walls, cabins, and barns; and plowing and planting the land. The beginnings were modest, but new acreage of cleared land was added each year. Subsistence farms grew over time into self-sufficient farms. Grains were planted as cash crops—corn, oats, barley, wheat, and buckwheat. Some of those grains were fermented and distilled into whisky. A few gallons of whisky were easier to transport than hundreds of pounds of grain.
Times changed, though. Coal eventually replaced charcoal as the fuel of iron mongering; what little remained of the forests had no commercial value. Over time, the forests recovered, reclaiming the land and hiding the scars of the past.
The Industrial Revolution soon caught up with farming. Larger, faster, more sophisticated machinery demanded a relatively flat landscape. The slopes and tops of ridges were abandoned or used as pasture. The soil, at any rate, was rocky and marginal for farming. Farmers moved away, seeking better land. Into the old homesteads came the forest; into the forest came deer, grouse, turkey, rabbits, bear, and other wildlife. The circle was complete.
What was fascinating about our early spring hike was that we were on the quilt of the landscape. We could see the stitches those early settlers had sewn into it. But nature is resilient and relentless in reclaiming its own.
Sure, the fishing in Penns Creek and the comradery of friends was great. But I’m still struck by the history lesson I got from a land surface that is normally hidden—and getting reintroduced to nature again on her terms was good for the soul.
8 ounces bacon, diced (can be precooked and vacuum-packed)
4 ounces freeze-dried hamburger
3 tablespoons onion flakes
1 cup freeze-dried red kidney beans
1 tablespoon oregano
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ to 1 teaspoon salt substitute*
⅓ to ½ cup barbecue sauce
¾ cup water
Combine beans, onion flakes, salt substitute, garlic powder, and oregano in a ziplock plastic bag. Store the freeze-dried hamburger in a separate ziplock bag. Store barbeque sauce in a small, lidded plastic container. Add bacon to a pot and sauté until crispy; drain all but 1 tablespoon of bacon fat (reserve the extra for other purposes). Add remaining ingredients; simmer for 30 minutes. Serve over ramen noodles, biscuits, rice, or pasta.
*Salt substitutes usually contain both sodium and potassium salts. It’s good to limit your sodium intake when hiking. Salt makes you thirsty and causes you to drink more water. Remember, water weighs 8 pounds a gallon.
Fresh alternatives: 1 pound ground beef, chicken, or turkey for the dried hamburger; two 15-ounce cans red kidney beans with liquid for the dried beans; 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped, for the onion flakes. Reduce water to 1 and 3/4 cups.
Substitutions: Any flavor beans or lentils for the dry or canned beans.
Additions: 1 to 2 tablespoons chili powder; ½ teaspoon garlic powder; 1 to 2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes; 1 to 2 teaspoons ground chipotle.
Note that this recipe can be turned into a soup with the addition of 2 to 4 cups water.
Creamy Ramen Noodles
1 package ramen noodles with chicken- or beef-flavored seasoning packet
2 cups water
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup powdered whole milk
3 tablespoons coffee creamer
3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
At home: add milk powder, cheese, creamer, and seasoning packet (unopened) to a small ziplock plastic bag. On the trail: bring water to boil in a small saucepan. Add noodles; cook 3 minutes until tender, stirring occasionally. Drain; retain about ½ cup of the cooking water. Add butter, seasoning packet (optional), and contents of the ziplock bag; stir in. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring often. Let stand for a few minutes and enjoy.
Additions: 2 to 3 tablespoons powdered cheddar cheese; 1 single-serving foil pack of Spam, diced; one 4- to 7-ounce foil pack of chicken, tuna, or salmon; 2 to 4 ounces hard salami, julienned; 1 green onion, diced; 2 tablespoons dehydrated chives; ¼ cup dehydrated vegetables added to the noodles when cooked.
Note that this recipe can be turned into a soup rather than noodles.
2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons powdered whole milk
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar
⅔ to ¾ cup water, butter, bacon fat, or shortening
One 24-inch square heavy-duty aluminum foil
Place all the dry ingredients in a ziplock bag; mix well and seal. Build a fire; allow it to burn down to hot coals. Add water to the ziplock bag; close and kneed into a dough. Butter or grease the foil. Shape dough in center of foil 3 or 4 inches wide and 6 inches long. Carefully wrap dough into a campfire-friendly packet (see illustration); roast over the coals, turning every few minutes. You’ll know it’s baked when the steam coming from the packet smells like baked bread. Cool for 10 minutes; then unwrap and enjoy.
Among my guilty pleasures is a breakfast sandwich made by splitting a trail bread “cake” and filling it with 2 fried eggs and several slices of bacon—and always with a cup of trail coffee. Try shaping the dough into ⅜-inch-thick to ½-inch-thick cakes and frying in a bit of bacon fat or butter.