by Gerald Rowan
Traditionally, we would gather in early March at a diner somewhere for breakfast to plan our summer activities as a group. Our group varies from time to time but is usually 4 to 6 guys who fly-fish together. We’re not limited to just that activity, though. Everyone has a list of summer activities, including family outings. Our objective is to work out a schedule that accommodates most of us and not interfere with family time.
This year, Charlie, one of the guys in our group, suggested that we plan a July trip to Cherry Spring State Park, in Potter County. Charlie’s day job is teaching astronomy in the state university system, and he spoke in glowing terms about Cherry Springs being among the darkest places in the state and, therefore, great for star watching. He even volunteered to do a little teaching while we were there to sweeten the deal. He also asserted that the best time to visit would be during the “dog days,” since the celestial viewing would be ideal then. He suggested mid- to late July. Sirius, the Dog Star, would be visible then.
The ensuing discussion led us to believe Cherry Springs might be a great place for a family outing instead of just the guys. Some of us had children; others, grandchildren. The idea seemed like a fresh approach to our outings. We’d each get a campsite and be responsible for his family; we’d have a cookout (or maybe a couple of cookouts) as a group. The final count was 5 guys, 2 wives, and some 13 children and/or grandchildren. With the count at 20, it was a big crew.
Camping at Cherry Springs is rustic camping. Water and restrooms are available, but no electricity. With only 30 sites, the park is small and fills up quickly when the sky conditions are favorable for viewing. Nearby are 2 other parks nearby that accommodate campers: Patterson, a no-reservations, primitive camping park, and Lyman Run, with a modern campground featuring a lake with a swimming beach, as well as electricity and a shower house. Both are at a hub of available hiking trails.
A number of attractions and recreational activities are in the area: star gazing, the Susquehannock Trail and numerous other hiking and backpacking trails, fly-fishing streams, swimming, crayfish chasing, elk watching, the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, historic Route 6, bicycling paths and trails, and bald eagle viewing, to name a few. For our group, there certainly seemed to be enough to keep the kids busy for the better part of a week.
Cherry Springs was made from 82 acres of land in Susquehannock State Forest. At 265,000 acres, this vast forest offers numerous recreational activities and miles of hiking and backpacking trails. This is the heart of the “wilds” of Pennsylvania. The Susquehannock Trail System is the jewel in the crown and a good trail for both first-time and seasoned backpackers. Night skies are as breathtaking on the trail as they are in the park.
We wove our way through the week pleasantly enough. There were sunburns, splinters, a few cuts, loads of insect bites, a few fights, some tears, and more than a few scratches, but nothing major. Each day we started separately and then gathered for dinner at night, taking turns hosting a potluck dinner for the group. By then everyone was full of experiences and stories to swap. We hiked, fished, boated, swam, took nature walks, looked for eagles and elk, and just wandered in the woods. After a big meal, we’d wait for nightfall and the stars to make their entrance. Some of us even bagged some miles on local trails.
As a kid growing up in the northeast part of the state, I remember lying on the grass on warm summer nights, looking up at the millions of stars that shown so brightly. I couldn’t appreciate how far away they really were. (This was when the farthest from home I had been was the mile to the one-room schoolhouse we attended.) I imagined traveling to those stars and what I would find there looked like—even looking back at planet Earth. I imagined that fireflies floating up into the night air were stars being born and drifting off into space.
For 4 nights that summer at Cherry Springs, I was 7 years old again, and the stars were magic. The kids felt the magic, too. It was great that Charlie was there to talk to us about stars, planets, constellations, astronomy, how stars were born, and where dead stars go.
Midweek, I was fortunate enough to get away by myself for the day and take a hike. I chose the Susquehannock Trail for its convenience. The Susquehannock Trail is an 85-mile amalgamation of old Civilian Conservation Corps fire trails, logging roads, and railroad grades through the Susquehannock State Forest. Hikers and backpackers will find a well-marked (orange-blazed), rugged trail system, with some steep grades, in a secluded, backcountry setting. To my taste, this was close to perfection for a hiking trail.
My regret was that I had only a day to hike it. I started at the Cherry Springs Fire Tower, off Route 44, and headed south, hiking for about 3 hours. I broke for lunch and a short rest, then retraced my steps back to where I parked. I admired the woods through which I hiked. Although logged off a century ago, the forest had grown back magnificently. I’ve developed a deep love of the state’s forests, along with its mountains, valleys, deep runs, waterfalls, wetlands, and lakes—places that have become my refuge from the “civilized” world of everyday life.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Here’s a quick recipe (about 20 minutes preparation) that serves 4:
1 pound hot dogs, cut into pieces
Two 14-ounce cans baked beans
2 to 3 tablespoons bacon fat or canola oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
One 4-ounce can green chilies
2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
½ cup ketchup
2 to 3 cups shredded cheddar cheese, served on the side
Hot sauce to taste
Add the bacon fat to a Dutch oven and heat to hot. Add the hot dog pieces and sauté until browned. Add the onion and continue to sauté until translucent. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
Substitutions: 1 pound ground beef, pork, chicken, or turkey for the hot dogs; 1 pound chicken thighs, beef chuck roast, pork shoulder, or turkey breast cut into cubes; 1 pound cooked ham, diced; 1 pound knockwurst, kielbasa, smoked sausage, or Cajun sausage for the hot dogs; barbecue sauce for the ketchup.
Additions: ¼ cup brown sugar; 2 tablespoons molasses; ½ pound bacon, fried to a crisp and added with the beans (use the bacon fat to sauté the onions or fry potatoes); one 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with peppers and onions.
1¼ cup all-purpose flour
1¼ cup yellow cornmeal
¾ cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1¼ cup milk
½ cup canola oil
Lightly grease a Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet; preheat to 400F. In a large bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Stir in egg, milk, and vegetable oil until well combined. Pour batter into the Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cornbread comes out clean.
Trail-Friendly Version: At home, combine the dry ingredients and transport in a 2-quart ziplock bag. In camp, add the wet ingredients to the bag, knead into a batter, and transfer to a Dutch oven or skillet.
Substitutions: Light brown sugar for the sugar; ⅔ cup evaporated milk and ⅔ cup water for the milk; bacon fat, lard, or butter for the canola oil.
Additions: One 4-ounce can green chilies, drained; ½ cup red or green bell pepper, chopped; ½ cup green onions, chopped; pimento stuffed olives, chopped; 6 sliced bacon or turkey bacon strips, fried to a crisp and crumbled; ⅔ cup ham, Canadian bacon, or Spam, finely diced.
Flat-Top Dutch Oven Method: Place the pot on top of a bed of hot coals or charcoal briquettes and top with additional hot coals or briquettes. Add additional fuel as necessary. The heat is controlled by the amount of fuel placed under and on the top of the pot—meaning you can control the top and bottom heat independently by adjusting the amount of fuel. Rotate the oven periodically over the bed of coals, and the lid in its position on the pot, to avoid hot spots. You may need more coal in windy or cold weather. Be sure that the bottom is not too hot to avoid burning the food. Turn the Dutch oven and lid a quarter turn in opposite directions every 10 to 15 minutes. It’s hard to judge how long cooking will take in a Dutch oven, so just eyeball it. Use the conventional oven time as a guide.
Note: Preheat the Dutch oven or skillet for faster baking and a crispier cornbread.
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Keystone Trails Association