erithizon dorsatum: a day on the black forest trail

Hugs and kisses for the wife and kids saw me off and on my way north toward the village of Slate Run in the Pine Creek Gorge of northern Pennsylvania.  Home to a thriving hemlock sawmill in the late 1800's, Slate Run has long been forgotten by industry and is now most beloved by fly fishermen seeking native brook trout.  It's also well known by backpackers who come to travel the Black Forest Trail's rugged and remote 42.4 mile loop.

Consisting of one ascent and descent after another, the Black Forest Trail (BFT) normally takes backpackers 3-4 days to traverse and many hikers have had to take advantage of available cross trails to beat retreats when the terrain and the demands proved to be more than expected.  As someone who lives in Pennsylvania and sells backpacking equipment, it isn't the trail, despite its incredible beauty, on which I'd encourage newbies to attempt their first multi-day excursion.

That said, I was going to try and run it in one push as a training run for both the Laurel Highlands Ultra in June and, more distantly, my pacing gig for good friend Kelly Agnew at Leadville in August.  Everything I thought I'd need was packed into my Gregory Tempo 8 hydration pack.  This wouldn't be any "fastest known time" attempt and I fully intended to enjoy every second of my day outside of the confines of the office.  Rather randomly, I'd decided on taking a fairly pedestrian (from a running viewpoint) 12-15 hours to get all the way around.  If I could drag myself from sleep at the appointed 5:00 or 5:30 AM, that would surely get me back to my vehicle before the sun went down.  Hedging my bet, I'd carry a small headlamp to be safe.

But first I needed to sleep.  I pulled the car in behind another few vehicles parked just beyond the Slate Run trailhead, turned off the headlights and cut the engine.  It was just past eleven on Thursday evening. Ten minutes later, I was settled into my makeshift bedroom in the back of the Element and nodding off.  Just before passing out, I remembered to crack open a box of mothballs and slip them underneath the front of the car.

For those of you scratching your heads, mothballs are a pretty good way to ward off salt-seeking porcupines that prey upon vehicle undercarriages that have accumulated residue from the department of transportation's weather-fighting efforts during the winter months.  It might sound crazy, but it's true.  In case you're questioning my claims about the odd critter's cravings, here's a quote from the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Mammals:

"Fond of salt, the Common Porcupine has a great appetite for wooden tool handles that have absorbed human perspiration through use." 

Some folks harbor fears about bears, mountain lions or half-crazed woodsmen, but my only concern was returning to the car on Friday evening to find cooling hoses or fuel lines gnawed through.  Mothballs on watch, I slept soundly.

I slept so soundly, in fact, that I had a tough time talking myself out of bed in the morning and was off to a later start than I'd planned.  I discovered that my Ambit was a bar short of being fully charged but decided against starting up the car for a full recharge as the day was already getting away from me.  I signed in at the trail register with a jovial "back before dark" and hit "start" at 6:22 AM.

Having decided on a counter-clockwise course that mirrored the direction taken by Chuck Dillon, the author of The Black Forest Trail: A Backpacker's Interpretive Guide, I was going to have to cross Slate Run right away which basically ensured that I'd have wet feet all day long.  DryMax Socks = no worries.

Just before wading in the water, however, I came upon a quartet of backpackers who'd banged out the loop in just 2.5 days but decided to spend one last night outdoors before heading back to civilization.  They seemed tired out but were in excellent spirits and had clearly had a wonderful trip.  I learned of a rattler encounter they'd had at one of the many rocky overlooks and swapped it's-a-small-world stories with Kathleen who turned out to be a trail runner herself.  It was a great way to start the day and a fine omen to go with the perfect weather.

There had been rain earlier in the week and water levels in all of the creeks seemed strong.  My initial water crossing was thigh-high and there were many places throughout the day where small opportunistic trickles of water snuck across the trail.  Despite the high streams and Spring runoff, however, the trail itself was in great shape.  With the exception of a few swampy spots here and there, the footing was ideal for the entire loop.

The day before, I'd made up my mind to not even check the time until well into the morning, as, once I've glanced at my wrist for the first time, I can get in the tiresome habit of checking it in what gets to seeming like 5 minute increments.  When that happens, I find myself wishing I'd never worn the watch in the first place.

I paused at nearly every available vista (which are frequent), stopped for 15 minutes to watch the least shy Pileated woodpecker I've ever seen go about his ham-ham-hammering and eventually ate a leisurely breakfast by an old forestry service cabin.  Finally I caved and was surprised to learn that I'd covered just over 13 miles before 10:00.  I hadn't seen another person since saying goodbye to the party at the trailhead. Without paying much attention, I was right on track for a daylight finish despite giving into just about every distraction the forest offered.

The temperatures were in the highest 40's/low 50's to start the day and perhaps climbed as high as the mid-to-high 70's later in the day.  Best of all, there was a merciful lack of humidity for a Pennsylvania May day.  What clouds were in the sky were few and almost cartoonishly non-threatening.

I'd checked the guidebook a time or two along the way and was pleased to find that my GPS was corresponding almost identically with the trail description.  The orange blazes were hard to miss and spaced evenly enough that I wasn't too concerned about a wrong turn, but it was still comforting to find that the guidebook was so on point.

Footbridge over Little Morris Run (mile 7.65)
As nicely as things were progressing, I had to remind myself that the most difficult sections of the trail would come later in the day.  The eastern side on which I'd started had begun with a 1000+ foot climb over the first 3 miles but except for a rocky descent between miles 6-8 and a fairly steep climb back up again over the mile that followed, much of the trail was smooth and rolling.  Once I got 25 miles into things, the downs would get steeper and so would the ups.  With no aid stations, drop bags or crew members to look forward to along the way, I needed to diligently monitor my condition and make sure that I had reserves in the tank.

By early afternoon, I'd taken a ton of photographs, enjoyed a second "meal" and was still feeling really strong.  I couldn't believe how many miles had passed without any discomfort or incident.  Water remained abundant and I had been able to refill and treat the water in my 2 liter hydration system and separate .75 liter Platypus bottle after having emptied them both while seemingly eating all day long.  My nutrition was good, I was well hydrated and I was past halfway.

All systems go.

An unsettling sound shook me from my gee-everything's-great midstride musings and I spun on my heels to see a rattler as thick as my forearm on the trail right where I'd run above it a second earlier.  Whether listless from what for the snake would still have been fairly cool temperatures or simply lacking any fear of my scrawny ass, the snake didn't show any intent of moving from its sun-dappled resting place and shook its rattle to tell me so.  I snapped a couple of photos, considered myself lucky and continued on my way with a bit more attention cast downwards than had been the case up to that point in the day.

After a long descent that crossed back and forth over Callahan Run followed by a steep climb up onto a rolling plateau, I was nearing the 50K mark of the run and though there was some initial fatigue, I still felt really positive and was holding to a 12-hour pace.  I came upon three weary backpackers at a sweeping vista looking south over Pine Creek.  We chatted for a bit and they attested that I was about to hit a long, steep downhill, the cause of their weariness as they were travelling in the opposite direction.

I was soon off again and ready to dig into the descent.  It began almost immediately, but after just a few switchbacks, I seemed to be moving across rather than down the ridge.  I was perplexed but assumed that the trail would again turn downhill before too long.  Strangely, the blazes continued to climb or at least hold the same position on the ridge for much longer than I would have expected.  There was no mistaking the orange blazes, however, so on I pushed.

Several minutes later I came upon an opening in the trees that looked identical to the overlook at which I'd conversed with the three backpackers.  If that was true, I was now headed in the wrong direction.  That didn't seem possible, so I kept going...until I heard voices that I recognized.  I slowed to a walk and continued just long enough to visually identify the bodies that belonged to those voices.

Angry with myself, I turned around and picked up my pace to try and make up the time and ground I'd just given away.  I soon discovered another backpacker nearing the top of the ridge and he assured me that the trail headed only downward from there and I soon saw where I'd made my mistake.  With head down the first time through, I had continued on past a switchback and, I'm guessing, stumbled through dumb-and-bad luck onto old blazes that preceded the existence of some of the current switchbacks.  Not only had I gotten off track, but I had also ascended the ridge in a steeper fashion than if I'd have been coming that direction in the first place.

Not cool.  And no one's fault but my own.

I was probably still chastising myself for my mistake when I made my next one.  There are a number of different colors of blazes in this section, as several trails overlap and share real estate. Having reached the bottom of the climb and the intersection with Naval Run, I blasted right by the spot where the BFT breaks away to the left and instead kept heading down the ridge.  One of these trails had red blazes and I somehow convinced myself that those red blazes were orange.

They were not.

By the time I realized that they weren't, I had a good bit of backtracking to do.  So much, in fact, that I talked myself into believing that I must have been on the right course in the first place after having retraced my steps ALMOST far enough to actually be back on track.  Finally, after wasting the better part of an hour or more, I managed to get back to where I should have hung a left if I had been paying the proper attention.  The intersection was clearly marked and the blazes couldn't have been more evident.

The Ambit told me that I was 34.5 miles into my journey.  The guidebook, which had been spot on all day, said 30.5.  I started the long climb up out of Naval Run with a lot of giddy up gone.

It wasn't until about 2 miles into what turned out to be a 3 mile climb that I realized I'd made yet another mistake, and a big one, down in Naval Run.  I was now nearly out of water and I'd passed up a perfect opportunity to refill.  I had ample food but gels, chews and energy bars don't digest very well without liquids.  There had been water, water everywhere all day long but I wouldn't see another drinkable drop for 4 more miles and by then I'd be in an all too familiar place, dehydrated and calorie-deficient.

When I did at last reach Little Slate Run, I refilled both water receptacles, dropped in Aquatabs and settled down on a log to wait the half hour for the water to be potable.  Sitting wasn't going to get me to the car any faster but asking much more of my body without some food and water seemed foolish.

Minutes passed.

I glanced over my shoulder at a rustling in the leaves and watched a porcupine finish its step down from a tree onto the floor of the forest.  Bemused, I grinned at its clumsy waddling...until I realized that it wasn't waddling all that slowly and was heading directly toward me.  I rose to my feet, moved several yards away and watched as the porcupine quickly filled the very space I'd just vacated.  It sniffed and scratched at the log before stepping off and making another step in my direction.  Realizing I didn't know nearly enough about porcupine behavior, I yelled something along the lines of "hey, hey, no!" and the creature halted immediately.  I have a suspicion that poor vision kept it from ever really seeing me in the first place, but the salt that I'd been excreting all day long and that by then clung to my dehydrated skin in white flakes had pied-pipered that quilled beast my way.

I was no wooden tool handle, but the next best thing.

Deciding not to linger any longer, I began the ascent up from Little Slate Run as the daylight began to fail.  I checked my GPS soon thereafter to find that I'd traveled more than 40 miles over the course of just over 13 hours.  Had I managed to avoid my earlier detours, I would have been right on schedule for a pre-sunset finish.  The battery's charge eventually died completely at 41.5 miles and left me in the dark in more ways than one.

It had stayed active long enough to confirm that enough time had passed for my collected water to be safe to drink.  I took several gulps, choked down half an energy bar and washed it down with a few more sips.  While the water may have been effectively treated, my stomach was already way out of whack and within 10 minutes it emptied itself out.

A seasoned puker, I let the spasms pass and then continued to slowly make my way along the trail.  After several minutes had transpired and aware of the fact that I needed to get something into my system, I sipped a little more water.

Out it came.

The sun was down and the GPS was dead.  I'd chosen the headlamp I had packed on the merits of it being lightweight and compact and I found myself wishing that I had been smart enough to tote a few extra ounces for the brightness it would have afforded me.  On the bright side (ha!), I was pretty sure that I was on the final climb with just three miles of flat and downhill to the finish.  I continued to puke up whatever I put in my body, but I was still making forward progress.

The trail began to descend and my spirits lifted slightly.  Those two flipped positions soon after as the BFT began climbing again and I realized all too clearly that I was only NOW reaching Foster Hollow and the start of the final creek-straddling half-mile climb.  I threw up again and this time it was just spasms and discomfort.  There wasn't anything else.

I paused in mid-trail for several minutes, bent over my trekking pole perch, before beginning again to shuffle forward.  The footing in this section was wet and uneven and I was struggling to pinpoint blazes in the feeble beam of my headlamp.  I was flat out exhausted.  Frustrated and exhausted.  If I could just rest for a bit, I knew I could knock out the last climb and stagger the last 3 miles.

It was then that I remembered the emergency blanket that was a required item for participation in the TransRockies Run (http://transrockies-run.com/).  I'd carried that thing for every step of those 120 miles and had continued to throw it in my pack ever since even though there'd never been any call for its use.  With temperatures probably hovering somewhere in the 40's, I wasn't sure I needed it now either but it sounded wise.  I peeled open the packaging, chose a relatively flat spot just to one side of the trail, again sipped a bit of water and lay down for a quick (I hoped) nap.  I don't even remember giving it much of a second thought or offering up any counter-argument.  That was the new plan.  Period.

Within an hour or so (I think), I woke up puking.  Whether it was from one last spasming of my stomach or from a nightmare of rattlesnakes crawling in under the space blanket and porcupines licking the salt from my face, I couldn't say.  I got up on an elbow, then to my knees and finally onto two feet.  I folded the blanket, slipped it back into my pack, flicked on my headlamp and began moving.

Locating the blazes during that climb was a challenge but even on shaky legs and with poor lighting, a half mile is still only a half mile and eventually it was behind me.  From there, the trail was remarkably easy to follow and, as promised, flat to start and then almost entirely downhill.  I was surprised at how much my head had cleared from that little bit of sleep and I actually spent less time feeling poorly for myself than I did pondering the resolve of any backpacker who had to start her or his 42-mile trek hiking up the steep trail that I was descending.

It was during that descent that I finally began to notice discomfort at the point where my shoes rubbed against my feet just before the toes and at the top where the tongues came into contact with the lowest portion of my legs, but I wouldn't really understand the extent of that carnage until the next day.

Otherwise, I walked away unscathed.

Back at the car, I turned on my cellphone.  I'd used it to set the time on my Ambit and it read 12:36 AM.  My back-before-sunset trip had ballooned from a lackadaisical 12-hour venture to an 18+ hour bumblefest with 4-5 bonus miles.  A better, more focused, less daydreamy runner could have done it in 7 hours, maybe even faster.

My amateur status, never in question, was reconfirmed.

But I was still intact, still grinning and, judging from the purr of the engine as I turned the key in the ignition, still in possession of a vehicle untouched by marauding porcupines.


  1. Leon,
    Thanks for sharing another grand adventure. I was just camping with my family in Cedar Run a month ago and canoed the Pine Creek down to Slate Run with the kids. That area is truly one of the most beautiful in the state and one of my favorites.
    the mothball tip is most interesting. I have heard of porcupines licking salt off of vehicles, and having seen the damage they do to sign post and even the signs themselves, I have no doubt they could do serious damage to ones vehicle. I guess I will need to now add a box of mothballs to the wilderness kit.

    Take care,

    1. That sounds like a fantastic family outing, Mike! Not sure if the mothballs worked or the porkies were busy with other vehicles, but it's a cheap enough expense to be worth the try, right? I've heard of them making off with salty boots if/when backpackers leave them outside the tent. Laurel approaches...you ready?

    2. I've never had a bad outing to the PA Grand Canyon area. We've been going on our annual canoe trip for 18 years now...same campground meeting up with the same friends (most are from your area and that the one of the only times of the year we get together). We used to canoe the entire canyon, and will again once the kiddos get a little older and can appreciate spending 5+ hours in the vast wilderness, taking in the sights and sounds and natural nourishment that Mother Nature provides for us.

      As for Laurel, I think I'm ready. I have been on the LH trail nearly every weekend for several months now. I backed off my plan to run the full 70 this year and decided that I wanted to enjoy my progression to longer races so I'm running the 50k. In order for me to run the full 70, the training load and the ramp up of miles was just too much to be enjoyable. I'm sure it will be there next year....and the next. I saw Jefferson was signed up for the 50k as well. He and I ran quite a bit of our relay leg together last year. Afterwards, he ask if i had any interest in running any of "that crazy long stuff". After a good laugh, we agreed that we were leaving that to you and Kelly and the rest of you crazies and that 15 miles of the relay was plenty for us, yet here we are....both running an ultra. :)

    3. And you'll be awesome...can't wait to congratulate both you and Jefferson!

  2. Leon - this was exceptional. Saw you on the trail throughout. Thank heavens for mothballs, space blankets and the color orange. Well done trail runner ... a great read and adventure

  3. Great write up, sounds like a grand adventure Leon. A case of the Class III pukes is a tough way to finish off a long day on the trail. Happy to hear you were spared a wake up call by the prickly little beast. Good luck at Laurel Highlands and look for my Leo, who I'll send your direction.

    1. Thanks, Christian! I look forward to meeting Leo. I'll be out in Salt Lake in August for OR and Jupiter's Peak...hope our paths cross!

  4. GREAT Read. Thanks for sharing your adventure Leon.

  5. Do we know the course record for the BFT?

  6. Awesome Post! I have been considering a BFT run this coming spring - possibly even Feb or March trying out segments before a full loop attempt this summer - I don't live too far away, so easy to drive down in the morning and take it on. Awesome read!