by Gerald Rowan
We started our hike from Poe Paddy State Park, in Centre County, and proceeded north on the Mid State Trail. We’d chosen the park as both our starting and ending points so we could park our truck there. The weather was what you would expect for mid-June: warm days, cool nights, brilliant sunshine—perfect weather for backpacking and camping on the trail. We figured that we had about 2 weeks before the heat of July rolled in.
The forecast called for at least a few days of perfect summer weather. But by sunrise the next morning, the wind had shifted around from the south. By about eleven, the temperature was in the high eighties, the humidity was oppressive, and the insects were annoying. Our perfect hike was getting pretty hot.
The euphoria of the first day was settling into determination. We were determined to bag this hike and stay on schedule. By the end of the third day, we were at R.B. Winter Sate Park, in Union County, and exhausted from the heat and humidity. We decided a layover day was a good idea, so we stopped at the park office to reserve a campsite. It was Wednesday—not a peak camping day—and we were lucky enough to get a site in the shade next to a small stream.
After pitching out tents, we headed for the small lake at the center of the park for a swim. The water was wonderfully cool. We enjoyed the lake for about an hour as the sun went down. Eventually the lifeguard went off-duty and announced to us with a bullhorn that the lake was now closed for swimming. We walked the short distance back to our campsite, scrounging firewood left by previous campers. We built a campfire and boiled water to rehydrate our freeze-dried dinners. A second batch of hot water went for our first coffee in 3 days.
When the fire had burned down to coals we headed for the shower house for long showers; with a swim and a half hour under a shower we felt renewed. Then it was back to our tents and a long sleep. We did not awake at the first light. It was the work crew cleaning up the park that woke us about seven. We rolled out and built a small fire to cook our oatmeal and brew a pot of coffee. The humidity was already high and it was likely to be a worse day than yesterday had been. It didn’t take much discussion for us to decide that a day of R&R was what we needed.
Breakfast was leisurely, and by eleven, the sun was high and so was the temperature. Today would be a repeat of yesterday afternoon—swimming and sleeping on the beach until the beach closed. Tomorrow we would hit the trail again, but today would be a day of doing very little. The air was getting hazier all day, and the high-level clouds were giving way to cumulus clouds. Hopefully a cold front would move through, with high pressure and dry air replacing the soupy stuff we were currently in.
On Friday we would head back to the trail and our destination. The plan was to do 4 days out and another 4 days back to Poe Paddy. Our 8-day trip would now be 9 days. At first light, we packed and geared up and headed back to the trail. We retraced our path back to near the park entrance and turned left onto the trail. With a small lake and stream, it was obvious that the park campground was at the bottom of a valley, and with the mature forest canopy, we could see little of the sky.
We started the climb away from the park and up to the top of Bake Oven Mountain, which is more like a long ridge than a mountain. The forest toward the top of the mountain dropped away into a scrubby second growth, making for a much better view of the sky. The cumulus clouds of yesterday had given way to dark thunderheads rolling toward us from the horizon. Some in the distance were clearly shedding sheets of rain. Frequent lightning strikes were illuminating the clouds, as if they had giant lightbulbs in them. The cold front we were looking forward to was coming, and we were right in the way of it.
The wind was now blowing in gusts, and the smell of rain was on it. We heard the sound of thunder to the west of us, and that sound was growing louder. We knew were in the path of a line of thunderstorms. The question was, how long would it take for the storms to get there? We were now somewhere on the middle of Bake Oven Mountain. Should we turn back? Go forward? We knew if we’d find the valley on the other end, there’d be dense forest and likely some cover from the storm.
The calamity that is a summer thunderstorm overtook us as we were double-timing it to get off the ridge as fast as possible. Large raindrops began falling, the wind gusts turned noticeably colder, and the lightning moved closer to us. As we stopped for a few moments to dig out our ponchos, the front line of the storms hit us—a wall of rain and wind.
Then there was a sudden explosion. Lightning had struck a shagbark hickory about a hundred yards farther down the trail. There was a flash of light, and the concussion of the explosion hit us almost simultaneously. There wasn’t time to examine the results of the strike; we needed to get to a safe place—quickly.
The rain poured, and the storm raged for another good hour. By the time we crossed the right-of-way for the high-voltage electrical transmission line, the storm had passed, and the rain was slowly diminishing. The adrenaline rush of a near lightning strike had passed, and now we focused on getting to the next campsite. We pitched our tents and ate cold that night—everything was too wet to build a fire.
On our return hike, we took the time to look at the tree the storm had destroyed. The lightning appeared to have struck the tree about 40 feet from the ground, traveling down the trunk in the cambium layer—exploding that layer and the overlying bark with enough force to blow pieces some 50 feet from the tree. The strike had entered the ground along a major root, with the resulting explosion leaving a trench in the earth. The wood at the core of the tree had also exploded up to about 10 feet above the ground, blowing the shards of wood forward as far as 50 feet.
The damage the hickory sustained was amazing. More amazing was that, despite the damage, the tree was still alive. I never went back to see whether it lived beyond that summer. National Geographic estimates the odds of being struck by lightning at only 1 in 700,000 in any given year. However, over the course of a lifetime, your odds of being struck jump to 1 in 3000! Be safe—avoid standing out in open spaces during a storm. Also avoid standing under lone trees or other tall objects. And avoid mountaintops or high ridges, as well as large bodies of water.
Camp Potato Leek Soup
Two 1.8-ounce packages Knorr leek soup mix
2½ pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
One 5-ounce can evaporated milk
3 tablespoons butter
2 quarts water
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 chicken bouillon cube (optional)
Sour cream and chopped chives for garnish
Add the potatoes, black pepper, bouillon cube, and water to a saucepan or Dutch oven. Bring to a simmer; then cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the soup mix and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the milk and butter; then bring back to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are tender; then mash the potatoes to the degree of smoothness you like. Ladle into bowls and garnish with sour cream and chopped chives. Serve with a bottled hot sauce on the side. Feeds 4 as a meal or up to 8 as a first course.
Easy Chocolate Pie
One 9-inch prepared chocolate graham cracker pie crust
One 5.9-ounce box instant chocolate pudding
2¼ cups (1 pint + ¼ cup) melted chocolate ice cream
1½ cups chocolate chips
Whipped topping for garnish
Cocoa powder for dusting
Spread half of the chocolate chips on the bottom of the pie crust. Firmly and quickly whisk together the pudding mix and melted chocolate ice cream. The mixture will begin to thicken quite rapidly. Spread the mixture into the prepared pie crust and sprinkle with the remaining chocolate chips. Cover and place in the refrigerator or ice chest for 2 hours. Serve chilled, with whipped topping and a dusting of cocoa powder.
Substitutions: Vanilla or butterscotch pudding for the chocolate pudding; white chocolate, butterscotch, chocolate peppermint, or peanut butter chips for the chocolate chips; 1½ cups crushed Oreo cookies for the chocolate chips; vanilla pie crust and vanilla ice cream for the chocolate pie crust and chocolate ice cream; 1 pint ice cream and ¼ cup milk for the 2¼ cups melted ice cream.
Additions: 2 cups sliced, sugared strawberries as a topping.
Keystone Trails Association