by Brian Kane
Mid-Atlantic Regional Manager, Old-Growth Forest Network
Part of the joy of hiking is not knowing exactly what lies on the path ahead. An All-Trials tip might give us a sense of what we might encounter, but our boots on the ground are the only real way to experience the highlights - or the low points - of a hike.
Some surprises on a hike may be the vista revealed around a sharp turn in the trail where miles of a rolling landscape expand in the distance. Or it may be the rushing sounds of a creek, splashing its way over rocks and fallen trees in a tree-shaded ravine. Or the increasingly loud volume of a waterfall as it falls hundreds of feet from a rocky precipice.
When we enter an old-growth forest, something feels remarkably different.
There, fallen trees decompose with fungi clinging to its crumbling bark. Enormous tree trunks are embossed with lichen, beetles dodge under flaking bark of fallen trees, and dark crevices at the tree flare hint of some creature’s den. There are openings in the tree canopy against which we see tree antlers – those distorted, crooked limbs of trees misshapen by decades of wind, ice, snow, or lightning strikes. Or we glimpse the mysterious play of shadows from overhead limbs that animate the forest floor.
Scientists have much more to tell us about old-growth forests, as they have measured the carbon, counted amphibians, and dated the oldest trees. Ongoing research is immense in this time of climate change, as the power of old-growth forests to sequester carbon is astounding. These forests have been doing this work for centuries! Most of us recognize when we are under the aura of an old-growth forest without scientific verification - the earthy smell, the call of warblers, or battering beaks of the woodpecker confirm our suspicions. The ancient trees within support a deep and rich ecosystem. Plants, wildlife, insects, roots and fungi are intricately connected here,
While only 1% of old-growth forests remain in the Eastern United States, Pennsylvania is a national leader in protecting its old-growth forests. The state offers us abundant opportunities to explore them as twenty-seven of Pennsylvania’s old-growth forests are now registered in the Old-Growth Forest Network (OGFN), an national organization that recognizes publicly accessible old-growth forests protected from logging. State code protects these forests in its state-owned forests and parks.
The state’s Division of Conservation and Natural Resources has brought 15 of its forests in the national Network where we can walk adjacent to the ancient white pines (Pinus strobus) at Cook State Forest Cathedral Natural Area, or the Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga candensis) at Hemlocks Natural Area, or majestic white and red oaks (Quercus sp.) at Boyd Big Tree Preserve. On June 29, the National Park Service and the Old-Growth Forest Network will induct the old-growth forest at Delaware Water Gap in Monroe County (Details are here.)
Old-growth forests provide places of cultural and ecological significance. They also bring us moments of sheer wonder. To walk within trees that have witnessed centuries of time is sublime. Hiking through, we become aware that there is something different and larger than ourselves on this planet. To see and smell the richness of life within these Pennsylvania forests, visit an old-growth forest and enjoy the amazing and sometimes unexpected places on your next hike this summer.
Keystone Trails Association