The headless pumpkin, October 22, 2006


Quehanna Trail Backpacking
October 2006

Last updated October 24, 2006



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Day One | Day Two | Day Three

I spend many of my weekends kayaking and hiking but I only go backpacking about two or three times a year. This being the case, there is much room for improvement, both in my skills and my gear. Each trip is a learning experience. I learn from my mistakes and from the advice of those more experienced than me. This trip was no exception.

I signed up for this Howard County Sierra Club backpacking trip about two months prior and had been looking forward to it for quite some time. Kayaking season was coming to a close (for me) and it was now the time of year when one could sleep outside without having to worry about mosquitos. Unfortunately, it is often a fine line between no mosquitos and cold weather. With the latest weather report, there was some concern about this trip leaning towards the latter. I saw this as an opportunity to test my preparedness.

What makes backpacking so different from car camping is that if you bring too much gear, that just means more to carry. Of course if you don't bring enough, that may mean doing without something you may need...or desperately want. Finding that perfect balance is what separates the experienced backpackers from the novices. As with the weather, I was leaning towards the latter.

Day One: Saturday, October 21, 2006

I was up at 0430 getting packed for a weekend long backpacking trip. At 0645, I met Ken, Cavin, Ellen (Short Stack), Kathy, Greg, and one of the trip leaders, Mike J. at the Route 32 and highway 70 Park and Ride. We loaded everyone and all the gear in Ken's van then were on the road at 0700. Right on time!

I had the back seat of the van to myself and ended up sleeping most of the way there. During some of my waking moments, I heard Greg talk about some of his rugged mountaineering adventures which, by comparison, made all of my outdoor activities seem rather passe.

We stopped for breakfast at McDonald's then continued onward, crossing into Pennsylvania, then arriving at our destination, just northwest of the center of Pennsylvania, at 1130. At the trailhead, we saw Denise (Red) and Pat R. (Patsquach), the other trip leader.

I met Mike and Pat earlier in the year and joined them on a backpack scouting trip of Sproul State Forest. Both are highly competent leaders and good people. I think it is fair to say that Mike probably leads more club backpacking trips than anyone else in Maryland. With Pat's enthusiasm, leadership, and love of the outdoors, I wouldn't be surprised if one will be able to say the same about him in Pennsylvania in the near future.

As we drove up, Pat (a former Army artillery officer) greeted us with a cheerful smile while wearing a festive pumpkin Halloween costume. But the costume wasn't just to get us in the autumn also served a practical purpose. It was hunting season in Pennsylvania so to make sure none of the yahoos mistook us for whatever was in season ("wabbit season" or "duck season"?), Pat passed out day glow orange vests which we put on our packs. Pat had his costume attached to the back of his pack and occassionally donned it for silly photos.

We began our trek just off Quehanna Highway in Moshannon State Forest at about 1150. The trailhead was just east of Marion Brooks Natural Area and Marion Brooks Loop at roughly a 1600 foot elevation. Our group of 6 men and 3 women walked north on the blue blazed Quehanna Trail east cross connector. The day was sunny, and cool (about 50 degrees) with very little wind. We crossed Paige Run then climbed to about 2150 feet.

The Quehanna Trail is a 75 mile loop trail that passes through some of the most scenic country in Pennsylvania. The main trail is blazed in orange and there are an additional 30 miles of blue blazed cross connector and side trails. There are over 50 miles of trails in the 48,186 acre Quehanna Wild Area that are also marked for cross country skiing. A free camping permit and map of the state forest and trail can be obtained from the Bureau of Forestry office in Penfield or by calling 814-765-0821.
- from Pennsylvania Wilds information sign

Once we joined the main part of the Quehanna Trail (orange blazes), we moved east along Porcupine Draft. Not sure why some of the streams are called "runs" while others are called "drafts."

We followed Red Run south, down to about 1200 feet. See first photo at left. Though very scenic, the stream crossings were sometimes difficult. There were a few spills (see Ken in second photo at left) but mostly successes (see Ellen in third photo at left). Cavin was particularly helpful in getting me and some others across one part. He got to the other side relatively easily. Then us shorter folk handed him our packs and got across without all the extra weight (45 pounds for me) on our backs. Teamwork in action. Hooah!

In addition to the numerous stream crossings, the damp autumn leaves covering the sometimes slippery rocks made walking downhill slow at times. A significant part of the trail was muddy (see fourth photo at left). But at the base of the hill, we were welcomed by a short walk along a hard dirt vehicle road. This gave us an opportunity to walk and see the beauty of the area at the same time instead of having to either look down while hiking or stop and look up when we wanted to eyeball the surroundings. See fifth and sixth photos at left.

After crossing over a slippery (yes, I almost fell) wooden foot bridge (see seventh photo at left), we took a short break at 1445. The weather was still dry but the sun was playing peek-a-boo. I took photos of the stream that passed under the bridge (see eighth photo at left) and of Pat wearing his pumpkin suit (see ninth photo at left).

Even though the path was not always obvious due to the fallen leaves, the trail was well blazed and easy to follow. Additionally, intersections had signs stating the trail names and distances.

Next, we followed Sanders Draft east. The forest changed from dark bark trees to white birch. See tenth photo at left.

Pat, Greg, and I arrived at what we hoped would be our campsite at 1605 after a day's road march of 8.5 miles. Unfortunately, the site was already occupied. The area harbored the ruins of some old stone house (see eleventh photo at left). Uphill of the house, we saw a fortified spring while downhill was a hole which was once the location of an outhouse. Respecting the privacy of those who beat us to the location, we set up camp at a clearing near the birch trees.

The three of us set up our tents as the others rolled in. I then took out my bag of dryer lint (my firestarter), pulled out my saw, and got things set up for a blazing campfire. Pat gathered much more wood which I didn't think would burn. Much to my surprise, I learned my first lesson.
Lesson One: Logs that are wet on the outside and dry on the inside will burn if hot coals are present.

Ben and Silandra joined us. They hiked from the opposite direction and had apparently communicated with Pat via e-mail earlier so they were expecting to see each other. Now our head count was 11: 7 men and 4 women.

I ate pepperoni and cheese tortillas. That would be what I would be eating for much of the trip. I also brought protein bars, nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, and beef jerky. This kept me from having to pack a stove.

After eating and brushing our teeth, we stored our food, trash, and toothpaste in a bear bag hung by Mike. Greg introduced me to a novel idea for storing food. It is a mesh wire cage that collapses. One can use it to store food then tie to something secure. While it may not keep a hard working bear from getting to it, it would certainly protect food from rodents...which he claims is a bigger threat to food. This contraption would be particularly helpful in the desert, where trees may not be present.

Mike told us about the porcupine he saw on the trail earlier in the day. Sadly, I did not see it. That reminded me of my experience picking up a porcupine when I was an animal care assistant at the Sacramento Science Center. I was thinking about it earlier in the day when Ken told me about his work at the Maryland Science Center.

I often bring a camp tripod chair but I decided to try and minimize weight this time (45 pounds is minimizing?). But I didn't need to give up comfort if I was clever...and I'm not. The options were to sit on the wet ground, sit on some cold rocks, or sit on some log-shaped logs. I chose the latter. But if I was smart, and I'm not, I could have brought one of my Thermaseats that I use for kayaking. They are soft, insulated, and almost weightless.
Lesson Two: Don't sacrifice comfort when trying to minimize weight. Bring a Thermaseat or some other thick cushion for sitting.

Around the campfire, we told jokes, heard coyotes, and a screech owl. After hearing it, I know now how the screech owl got its name. I demonstrated my knowledge of Bugs Bunny and the Brady Bunch. The stars were out in full force. I was off to bed by 2200.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Day Two: Sunday, October 22, 2006

With the forecast calling for a low of 37 degrees, I wore polypropylene long johns and top, wool socks, wool cap, wrapped a poncho liner around me, and slept in my Brigade Quartermaster sleeping bag. Not sure of its rating but I wasn't going to take any chances. I'm a cold weather weenie, I'll admit it. Fortunately, I was warm...or as they say on the Quiznos commercials, "Mmm, mmm, mmm, toasty!"

I was up at 0715. Someone, I'm guessing Pat, set a nice morning fire aglow.

The weather was overcast and windy. It rained a few drops then stopped. Then we saw a rainbow. See first photo at left. Ken told me how the wind often blows from west to east in the United States and that seeing a rainbow in the morning often means rain later in the day whereas seeing a rainbow at the end of the day often means rain has passed. The dawn was red. Denise commented that red skies are a warning to sailors. While we weren't sailors, I expect that meant bad weather.

I took down my tent and noticed that one of the tent poles in my Eureka Solitaire snapped. Fortunately, I brought duct tape. Interesting how the night before I spoke about how small, lightweight, and inexpensive my tent was.
Lesson Three: Lightweight gear is often fragile. Lightweight, inexpensive gear is very fragile. Handle with kid gloves.

The previous night, Pat said he wanted to be on the trail by 0900 and by golly, we were ready at 0900. Just a quick group photo (see second photo at left) and we were off. Interesting how the sun seems to be shining on me in the picture. Possibly a sign of good things to come?

We walked east on the Quehanna Trail North Loop to 2087 feet then moved down along Laurel Draft down to 1200 feet. Along the way, we passed the scenic Little Fork Vista and saw some nice fall colors. See third photo at left.

The rain was off and on for a good bit, not deciding what it wanted to do. This left me a little confused too. Should I wear full rain gear? I did for awhile but found the rain pants too hot. Cavin walked with an umbrella while Denise used a poncho to cover both her and her pack. With most of us now covering our packs with waterproof material, our day glow hunter vests were now hidden. Don't know if we thought about that...I know I didn't.

Pat pointed out a remarkable sight. A tree had fallen on top of another tree, splitting it in half. See fourth photo at left. It reminded me of the story of an archer shooting a bullseye then another archer shooting the arrow already in the target, splitting it. Evidently, mother nature is an archer too.

Lunch was at 1120 after about 5 miles. From the road that crossed over Laurel Draft, I caught a nice view of a nearby mountain. See fifth photo at left. I think we ended up climbing at least part of it.

I like to take notes about the areas I hike and paddle. I've learned not to trust my memory so it is important to write things down while they are still fresh in my mind. Somewhere during the day's hiking, I managed to lose one of my nice space age field pens. Denise had one on a retractable string that attached to her pack. Great idea but it was out of ink. Pat loaned me his.
Lesson Four: Bring a spare pen and secure it to the pack.

The weather cleared up.

Ben and Silandra left.

Our group followed Wykoff Run south to Pine Hollow Stream southeast. Pat, Greg, and I took the lead then waited for the rest at Old Sinnemahoning Trail, elevation 2000 feet.

Mike, Cavin, Ellen, Kathy, Ken, and Denise took Old Sinnemahoning Trail southwest while Pat, Greg, and I took a longer, rougher, more scenic route, continuing on the Quehanna Trail. We three crossed Upper Jerry Run (see sixth photo at left) while moving south. This stream was much too wide for rock hopping across so I changed into my sandals. The cold water was refreshing but it also made my feet numb. See the seventh photo where I'm trying to not look cold.

Pat and Greg kept a fast pace that kept me breathing hard.

The rain was back. Despite my constant movement, I was getting cold and starting to cramp up a bit. I noticed I lost a boot band. I had a misfit replacement that I used to secure my emergency medical team (EMT) scissors to my pack. It lost most of its spring and I had to wrap it twice around my ankle to prevent my trouser leg from dragging on the ground.
Lesson Five: Bring extra boot bands.

I donned my rainsuit, ate a quick snack, then continued. After about a mile, the salt and sugar from my snack was in my system and I got my second wind.
Lesson Six: Never underestimate the importance of a light snack and salt replenishment.

Pat, Greg, and I crossed Three Runs Road then traveled west on Number 15 Trail (not a very original name) then west on Big Spring Draft Trail. The trail was now scenic and narrow. It felt like we were in a jungle with all the dense foliage. We met the rest of the group around 1700 after walking 11.68 miles. The others hiked 10 miles. Reaching the campsite after the others, Pat, Greg, and I arrived to a nice roaring fire.

This campsite was totally unlike the last one in that instead of being in an open field, we were now in a tree covered area right next to a stream...a "run" or a "draft"?

There were a couple of interesting looking rocks and some pretty trees in the area. See eighth and ninth photos.

Despite not having fallen in any streams and changing into sandals for doing the more serious crossings, my socks and boots were soaked. I'm guessing the rain and the wet grass got my trouser bottoms wet, my trouser bottoms got my socks wet, and my socks got my boots wet. Maybe I should have worn gaiters...nah, those things remind me of leg warmers from the 1980s. Anyway, it was now time to dry them so I took out my SuperFeet insoles and placed both them and my boots on the rocks of the fire ring. My boots were drying nicely but the toe area of my insoles were curling up like that one witch who died when Dorothy's house fell on her.
Lesson Seven: When drying your boots, take out your insoles but keep them far from the fire.

Greg, who is used to carrying heavy loads at high speed, brought a large container of wine which he shared with the group. If he carried this to slow himself down, it wasn't working.

I spoke to Kathy about her post-doctorate work. Ellen was quiet then off to bed early so I didn't get to hear her spunky Brooklyn accent that evening. Cavin told us about Army Special Forces training and I talked about kayaking.

I was in bed by 2200 with dry boots and happy feet.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Day Three: Monday, October 23, 2006

The nighttime low forecast was 35 degree. Again, I wasn't cold though I did wake up several times during the night. But each time I was asleep again after a few minutes. The nearby stream was a soothing sound.

I got out of my tent at 0650. As I purified water from the stream, I noticed that doing so was more difficult than when I first started using the device. Mike suggested I clean the pre-filter and run a mixture of bleach and water (a tablespoon of bleach per liter of water) through the purifier after each trip. I don't think I ever bothered to clean it before. No wonder my arm was getting sore.
Lesson Eight: Clean the pre-filter and run a water/bleach mixture through the water purifier after each trip.

After breakfast, we were off again at 0900. I don't think I've ever camped with such a prompt group.

We traveled west on Big Spring Draft Trail. A few minor stream crossings.

Over the next few hours, we had a mix of sun, rain, snow (see first photo at left), sleet, and cold wind. Not just cold wind but bitter cold wind...I mean "cold as a well digger's ass" cold. I don't think I would have enjoyed sleeping another night in such weather.

At one rest stop, I noticed the red bungee cord I use to keep my Camelbak water carrier case from flapping around was gone.
Lesson Nine: Find a more reliable means to secure my Camelbak than a bungee cord...perhaps a nylon strap with a clip?

Shortly after the rest stop, my sandal fell from my pack. I had been securing it using one of the shoulder straps of my Camelback water carrier.
Lesson Ten: Find a better way to attach the sandals to my pack...perhaps a carabiner?

A buck and some does were spotted hopping across a field near the edge of some woods. Some of the open areas had colorful contrasts that reminded me of my Dolly Sods Wilderness backpacking trip with Norma on September 9-10, 2006. I'd have to say this was the most scenic part of the trip. See photos two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine at left.

The open field of brownish, dry brush contrasted with the yellow leaves in the trees, making the cold overcast day seem cheerful and bright. At least it brought a smile to (left to right) Pat, Greg, Ellen, Ken, Cavin (hiding), Mike, Kathy, and Debbie. See tenth photo on left.

As we crossed another open field, we saw evidence of beaver activity. It seemed this particular beaver might have been trying to create a spindle. See eleventh photo at left. I frequently see wood gnawed on by beavers yet I've never seen a beaver in the wild. This area was also known for having bears, elk, bald eagles, and bobcats. Unfortunately, I saw none.

We passed a sign mentioning that we were in Pennsylvania Wilds, a rural region larger than Connecticut. We also passed by the Elk Scenic Drive. Made me wonder why anyone would want to see the beauty of the outdoors via car instead of foot. So much for thinking...time to pose for a photo. See twelfth photo at left.

My camera was constantly being taken out of and put back in its case. Being a kayaker, I'm very particular about keeping things dry so I carry it in its own personal dry bag. But keeping my hands free while still keeping the camera within reach is a problem. I secured it by the clips of the dry bag to a strap on my pack's hip belt. This was awkward.
Lesson Eleven: Make the camera easily accessible with one hand on the move...again, consider a carabiner.

At another information sign, I learned that the name Quehanna was derived from the last three syllables of Susquehanna, the river whose west branch cuts through the Allegheny Plateau nearby. The area was once an industrial research complex for jet engines and nuclear powered airplanes.

As we neared the finish of our adventure, I thought about what I should have brought. Then I thought about what I brought that I didn't need to bring. Mike commented on the first night about how much food I brought.
Lesson Twelve: Bring less food, enough for a big breakfast and dinner and two light snacks each day.
That will be a tough one for me since I always prefer to err on bringing too much food than not enough

We walked past a lake and the Beaver Run Dam Wildlife Viewing Area. See thirteenth photo at left.

Next, we moved west on Wykoff Trail to Quehanna Highway. We stopped at more signs then continued. I'm not exactly sure where we went from here. Somehow we got off the desired route but still headed in the right direction. We made it to the Beaver Run Shallow Water Impoundment (see fourteenth photo at left) then back to Quehanna Highway and finally to our vehicles. We were done by mid-afternoon (1400 or 1500), having walked about 10.5 miles.

I then thought about what I did right. I studied the weather forecast and packed clothes based on those predictions. I don't think I could have packed better. I brought a change of socks and underwear for each night, a light fleece top, a full set of polypropylene underwear, gloves, a bandana, jungle hat, and wool hat. I also brought two pairs of field trousers and shirts. With all the precipitation and wet foliage, it was nice to have something to wear that was dry at night and the following day. But what I didn't plan for was the trip home. I brought a towel to sit on and a warm fuzzy top but I should have brought a change of trousers since mine were soaked by the time we reached the van. I took off my boots and socks and wore sandals on the way home. I felt bad about my dirty boots in Ken's van. Next time I need to make sure I bring a grocery bag to store them.
Lesson Thirteen: Plan for a full change of warm clothes and a bag to store the dirty clothes for the trip home.

But wait, the adventure continues! Ken tried to start his van but the battery was dead. He got a jump start from Pat. After driving about 10 minutes, Ken's right windshield wiper blade malfunctioned. While he and Mike couldn't fix it, there was no problem since the rain/sleet/snow never got to be more than a light sprinkle/dusting and didn't obstruct visibility very much.

We stopped for some hot food at Sheetz and filled the van with gas. Though I didn't sleep, the trip back wasn't bad since now this van, which was once full of strangers (except Mike), was now full people I knew and felt comfortable with.

Over three days, we backpacked either 29 or 30.5 miles, depending on which group was followed on the second day. We hiked in rain, sleet, and snow. We made countless stream crossings and probably did a few thousand feet of elevation change. Best of all, we had a good time.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.