Hiking in the Promised Land
by Gerry Rowan
Promised Land State Park and Bruce Lake Natural Area, both in Pike County, are places where I’d hiked a lot when I was just old enough to have a driver’s license. Both are found on the Pocono Plateau, a high-elevation tableland characterized by thin soil and an abundance of large, glacially deposited rocks. This terrain—combined with a history of clearcutting, erosion, and fires—favors the growth of scrub oaks over large areas. Many parts of the plateau are now state game lands or state forest. The relatively flat surface of the plateau holds many kettle lakes, ponds, and wetlands (including peat bogs, which are rare in Pennsylvania).
The state park and natural area are in a region originally settled by a Shaker sect; hence place-names like Promised Land, Lords Valley, Egypt Meadows, and Blooming Grove. The hard winters and poor soil quickly drove the Shakers away, and the land was sold to logging companies and private hunting/fishing clubs. The state purchased much of the land early in the last century and established Promised Land as a state park. During the Depression, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was based in the park. The CCC planted trees to help reforest the park and surrounding area; it also built cabins, roads, a campground, and other park infrastructure still in use today. The park’s network of campgrounds is among the largest in Pennsylvania and, with around 550 camp sites, becomes a village of several thousand on summer weekends. Promised Land has evolved into a large modern park, with accommodations for RVs and all the services you would expect.
We chose to camp at the Pines Campground since it dates from the earliest years of the park. It might be labeled as a primitive camping area. No electricity, no water, and pit toilets. The campground is large and sprawling, with many sites having a view of the lake. Our plan was to pitch our tent, stay overnight, and begin our backpacking expedition early the following morning. We’d do a 3-day backtracking trek that entailed looping around Bruce Lake and returning to the Pines Campground, where we’d spend our last night before packing up and return home on Friday. One of our typical out-on-Monday-and-back-on-Friday trips.
Bruce Lake, within the Bruce Lake Natural Area of Delaware State Forest, is a glacial lake that is really deep at its east end and tapers off into a large bog area at its south end. In many places, the bog is inundated with water and is a floating mass several hundred feet from the real shore. Wild cranberry is among the most common plants in the bog. For this reason, the bog is a favorite hangout for bears from late fall through early winter.
The lake is defined on the east side by a low ridge and series of ledges rising from the lake’s edge. A trail loops around the lake, but with the large wetland to the south, approaching the lake directly is a problem. The water depth keeps the north end and east side of the lake free from bog development. Launching a canoe from the north shore is fairly easy but may be problematic elsewhere. Many fishermen choose to either wade the lake or pack in an inflatable boat.
Visiting the lake as a teenager, among my favorite places were the campsites on the ridge overlooking the lake on the east side. In the late 1950s, there was a hand pump on a well and a pit toilet there. Tents were pitched in the woods near these utilities and close to the edge of the ledges that define the lake’s east shore. We would sit in camp around a fire and watch the sun setting to the southwest over the bog. Our plan now was to pitch a tent at that site and spend 2 days exploring the bog and the nearby, man-made Egypt Meadows Lake and its surrounding wetland.
We divided the gear. One took the tent; the other, the tent poles. One took the cookware; the other, additional food. Our target was to have a complete gear set and divide the weight equally and not have to pack more than about 40 pounds. I packed a breakdown combo fly/spinning rod with the hope of catching a few fish to supplement our backpacked foods. Both Bruce Lake and Egypt Meadows Lake contain a variety of fish: panfish, perch, catfish, pickerel, and bass. A fillet or two, a square of foil, and several bacon slices form the base of a good trail meal. I know a butcher shop that will still double-smoke bacon on request. By vacuum-packing and freezing bacon, I can have it ready for hiking and cooking beans. Vacuum-packed bacon keeps nicely for about a week on the trail, though of course the temperature can make a big difference on how long ant food lasts without refrigeration.
Our strategy was doing the trip during the week to avoid the crowds that were sure to materialize over the weekend, since it was the second week of June and school was already out for the summer in some areas. Soon there would be wall-to-wall campers in the park. So we arrived on Monday, spent Tuesday and Wednesday night at the lake, and returned to our base campsite late on Thursday. This base probably wasn’t necessary, but it was a relatively safe place to leave the truck for a few days. If our plan worked, we’d be back home before rush hour Friday afternoon.
The area was originally part of the hunting grounds of the Lenape Indians. They hunted the area for deer and bear, fished the streams and lakes, and developed trails as travel and trading routes. Early European settlers built wagon roads through the area. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the lumber became economically valuable, a network of logging roads and skidways was cut through the forests. Many of these Indian trails and logging roads became the hiking trails now crisscrossing the park and natural area.
The park location makes it popular with popular with campers and other visitors from within and outside the state. Add to this the large size of the park, and the trails get a lot of use. That’s why we chose to use a number of different trails in our hike north from the park to Bruce Lake, skirting the village of Promised Land. Bruce Lake is somewhat isolated and not directly accessible from any road, making it less popular. The terrain is not challenging in term of vertical change, but it is rocky, and the rocks can be mossy and slippery. Even in the summer, the trails can be wet and boggy in areas and demand waterproof hiking boots. The forest is a mix of northern hardwoods (reduced to scrub in some areas), while the boggy areas are forested with dark groves of hemlock, spruce, tamarack, larch, and white pine. The boggy areas can be impenetrable, so bushwhacking should be left only to very experienced hikers. The area was always infamous for its numerous rattlesnakes, but the rattlesnake population has been down in recent years.
During our visit, most of the trees were fully leafed out, but the wetlands were still open to the full sun. The mountain laurel, swamp azalea, eastern redbud, and dogwoods were in bloom. In places, the blueberries and cranberries were still in bloom, too. Little splashes of color floating against a green sea. Below the understory of the woods, violets and jack-in-the-pulpit were blooming, and mayapple fruit was beginning to ripen. The fawns we saw were about 3 months old and still strongly spotted, but they were running with their mothers rather than hiding.
Those 2 days camped on the ledges overlooking the lake were transcendental, providing the same sense of magic I felt when I visited as a teenager. The water of the lake was so clear and deep, you could look down many feet into it. The encroaching bog had a combination of low sedges, cranberries, blueberries, scrub trees, tamarack, and larch. The tamarack had a special, unique green color—lighter and more pastel than the surrounding broadleaf and hemlock trees. Their needles gave the trees a soft, foggy look from across the lake—a kind of a light green froth surrounding the dark lake water. The woods had that special smell of spring transitioning to summer. Each night, the sun set over the southern end of the lake, where a small stream—Shohola Creek—drains it. This stream gathers more water and becomes much larger as it heads east, forming an impressive waterfall in State Game Land 180.
The sunsets were long and drawn out. We were approaching the summer solstice. As nature turned down the light level, she turned up the volume on the night sounds. Frogs emerged to their croaking ritual, hoping to attract mates. Birds, roosting for the night, were calling each other from their perches. I imagined their conversation:
“Where you at?”
“I’m over here in the oak. Where you at?"
"I'm over here. Have you seen Hank and Bertha?” “We’re over here, high up in this sassafras.”
So went the calling, at least until the birds tucked their heads under their wings as darkness overtook them.
Other than an occasional vapor trail high in the stratosphere, we saw no signs of civilization. At times, the landscape seemed to be a stage set rather than a real place. Being in nature at the right moment is a magical experience. Interstate 84 was just to the north of the lake, but the topography and forest cover buffered the traffic sounds. The park campgrounds were several miles to the south, but by the lake, there was nothing but trees, leaves, and water.
There was about a 3-hour delay between nightfall and moonrise. A magical time between the heavens and the earth. The fireflies were rising out of the grass, floating up to the trees and, all the while, flashing to attract mates. The stars emerged slowly in the darkening sky—a deep blue at first, then purple fading to black until the stars shown brilliantly. The heavens and earth seemed to be a continuum from the sparkling grass to the polar stars.
Creamy Mushroom Soup Mix
1 cup dry whole milk powder
¼ cup coffee creamer powder
6 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ cup dried shiitake mushrooms, finely chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable bouillon granules
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
1 teaspoon dried onion powder
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine and mix well. Store in an airtight container (a ziplock bag works well).
To make, add 5 tablespoons of the mix to each cup of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. The soup is done when the mushroom chunks are tender.
Substitutions: All-purpose flour for the cornstarch; chicken bouillon for the vegetable bouillon.
Additions: 1 to 2 tablespoons butter.
Suggestions: Try sautéing 1 onion in 2 tablespoons of butter and then adding the water to make the soup. Reduce the amount of water to create a mushroom sauce.
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Keystone Trails Association