clockwise: another day on the black forest trail.

Three fifty-three in the afternoon.

We'd been following the Black Forest Trail in the same direction as the hands of the clock for hours and it wasn't until nearly 4 in the afternoon, by accident, that I happened to notice the time, a healthy indication that a day of days had been unfolding and continued to unfold.

It had been just shy of 3 years since I last went all the way round the BFT in a single push (http://thisbeesknees.blogspot.com/2013/05/erithizon-dorsatum-day-on-black-forest.html) but the many conversations had about the trail and my stumbly-bumbly circumnavigations since then made it feel far less than that.  So recent had that last visit continued to feel, I didn't fret much over the fact that I hadn't really revisited maps or my own report about that trip ahead of this one, as it all seemed very fresh and my navigational oh-I-know-where-I'm-going naivete remained undiminished.

photo courtesy of pahikes.com

To be fair, the trail and its frequent orange blazes are rather easy to follow, but that hadn't kept me from getting turned around more than once back in 2013 and head-down running and trudging has a knack for luring me off even the most well-marked track.  Forty-two+ miles and thousands of feet of gain (and loss) tend to produce some head-down periods even in the most ideal conditions.

counter-clockwise progresses from right to left on this profile
The course was the same as had been on the May day of my first thru-run, but the temperatures and the state of the trail were quite different. While this final weekend of February wasn't serving up the worst of winter, it was still quite cold and blustery and the trail, showing little sign of winter use, alternated frequently between leaf strewn, iced-over, muddy, and full blown underwater.

Other than going around this time in a non-traditional (for the BFT) clockwise direction, the most dramatic difference would be having company.


A neurotic confession:

I often struggle to describe or even define in my own head my relationship with running and other runners.  Much of what I love about trail running is the solitude and the stepping away from, if only for minutes and hours at a time, the ever present presence of other people.  I'm not a loner in the most literal sense, but I've got my me-just-me streak and attending to it with time in the woods makes me that much more the people-person I am, genuinely, most of the time.  That said, many of my fondest on-trail moments have been spent with like-minded friends and those experiences are surely richer and more deeply textured because of having shared them.

Running group dynamics and their undefined tipping points are a source of anxiety for me and, once that anxiety surfaces, my fixating on it leads only to its amplification.  I don't want to be the one holding up a group anymore than I want to find myself, especially on long, challenging projects, pushing too hard, consciously or sub-consciously, and digging a physical hole that leads to a miserable experience or a total blow-up and possibly even an unfinished route.  Remove time limits and checkpoint cutoffs of organized races from the picture and, rest assured, I will get from point A to point B, but predicting the time (or how many times I throw up while getting there) is a bet not worth making.

Getting to the "finish" is one thing, but enjoying the getting there is something else altogether.  Including others means complicating logistics and requires time coordination. Politics, religion, differing personalities, even just simply not being on the same page are threats to the individual and the entire group being able to walk away with the feeling that whatever occurred really did happen together and the experience was better than it would have been on one's own.

It only takes one and you catch yourself wondering "what was with her (or him)?"

And it's not just about "them", it's also about me not wanting to be the "him" for anyone else in the group.  A read back over the preceding paragraphs makes me feel like maybe I really am a hermit-at-heart, but I don't believe I am.  As the years pass and I consciously and determinedly expend more energy getting "out there" to experience nature, the deeper grows the awareness of just how short our lives really are and how little is the actual time to spend recharging in the outdoors and what a terrible disappointment to find the time but have it be the exact opposite of a recharge.


Three fifty three in the afternoon.

Three fifty-three in the afternoon and the only wasted time was whatever seconds I had spent beforehand fretting unnecessarily and irrationally (I know these people...I LIKE these people...I should consider myself blessed--I do--that anyone tolerates me!) over group dynamics.


The alarm on my phone woke me around 6:00 AM after a cozy night of sleep in my makeshift back-of-the-car bedroom beneath the nocturnal watch of a moon shining brightly enough to glow through my closed eyelids.  I was sitting up, but still drowsily breakfasting from the comfort of my sleeping bag when Jeff and Ben pulled up alongside me on their way to the agreed upon rendezvous spot in the parking lot of the Hotel Manor in the tiny village of Slate Run. It was not even a quarter of a mile from where I'd parked for the night and we found Mary and Tom already waiting when we pulled into the lot a few minutes later.

Instead of immediately crossing Slate Run to start the loop as would have been the case in the counter-clockwise direction, we left the creek behind us and would reach it only at the very end of the run many, many hours later.  I grinned at the sight of the lovely new footbridge that eliminates the once unavoidable requisite soaking of that leg of the journey. While the cool of those waters was actually pleasant in May, it would have been less so to kick off a 20 degrees morning.

Off we went, the five of us, up the short stretch of road along Pine Creek and into the woods. I didn't "write" a trailhead log entry, so much as I "pressed" one into the paper with a dry tip that refused to summon frozen ink from the bowel's of a feeble pen.  Tom's assurances that rescuers could always make rubbings to determine that we'd been there convinced me it had been an effort well made.

After a nice gradual start for the first mile-and-a-half, the Black Forest Trail rose aggressively into one of the steepest climbs of the day, but fresh legs and early-in-the-day enthusiasm got us quickly to the first sweeping vista. It had been quite dark and I had been in get-this-over-with mode the last time I'd stood here and it was a treat to soak in the view and get the first visual indication of what we we'd set out to tackle.  The wind blew tiny flakes of snow that seemed to emanate from the forest itself and dance in the air around us with no threat of developing into anything more than a nice aesthetic touch to the sweeping landscape all around us.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin J Mazur

The remainder of that climb followed a knife edge ridge and stayed exposed before the trail topped out and ducked in under the canopy of trees as it does for much of its length.  Up high there was still some remnant snow but it was losing ground to melt, evaporation, and the permanent blanket of rocks, roots, and dead leaves beneath it.  Snow-turned-water was on the move wherever able and in other places pooled within perimeters it could not escape, leading to wet and muddy shoes and feet.  Northern and western aspects of the trail held a thin and not always evident coating of ice that made for second-guessing especially when the trail tilted away from sidehills or bent around contours with open-air exposures for unsuspecting footfalls.  This slowed progress but none of us seemed to mind amidst shared conversation and scenery ideal for time taken to enjoy it.

Within a few miles, we reached Little Slate Run, the site of my strange encounter with a salt-scavenging porcupine three years ago.  I'm not a big believer in spirit animals, but am convinced that porcupines are for me whatever the opposite of a spirit animal would be considered.  Either it's that or perhaps the porcupine very much is my spirit animal and I'm just denying it in hopes of discovering a more inspiring alternative.  Either way, there was no sign of my nemesis today and that was oddly reassuring.

Another solid climb and a few more miles brought us down to and across a rushing Naval Run. I remembered, painfully, having not drawn water here on my first visit in the frustrated haze of getting turned around and adding bonus miles.  Trying to push hard and make up for lost time had led to dehydration and exhaustion as punishment for my haste.  This same recollection, however, also reminded me, that water had been plentiful leading up to that point and considering how much more wet conditions were this time around, I was encouraged that staying hydrated wouldn't be of issue today.

The views up above Naval Run are some of the best on the entire trail but hard-earned coming clockwise, as there is one long, seemingly endless Pennsylvania "up" required to get there.  Topping out together, we were rewarded with the postcard-worthy southeasterly views of the Pine Creek Gorge far below.

We'd reached the point on the trail where the calamity of my solo run was now behind us and perhaps not surprisingly the surroundings became a little less familiar for me, as the vivid details of the stretches of trail where the wheels had come off had overshadowed the memories of mile-after-mile of relatively smooth sailing. Long stretches of the trail now felt brand new as if I was traversing them for the very first time.

Hours passed like minutes and despite slippery footing and the hard work of another sneaky long climb, I was stunned to find that we'd come more than 20 miles and arrived at Route 44 and the location of the Halfway House aid station (mile 51.8) on the Eastern States 100 course.  The location itself is rather nondescript, an otherwise un-noteworthy unpaved roadside pull off, but it was where Mary's car was parked and where she and Benjamin had planned all along to call it a day.  Mary produced from her car a thermos of wonderfully hot black tea and an array of muffins and homemade energy clumps or balls or whatever-they-were...and whatever-they-were was delicious!  Delicious and invigorating.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin J Mazur

Solitude shmolitude.  At this stage of the adventure, it was sad to see any member of the group go, but it was time for our now group of three to get moving so we bid farewell, crossed Route 44, and returned to the BFT.

As nice as it was to have gotten some warm beverage and food into our systems, the sitting around had let the cold sink a little deeper into our collective bones and each of us agreed that the chill had set in.  Unsure of whether or not the winds would soon pick up, as the weatherpersons had predicted, and what might become of the temperatures as the late day sun eventually fell away entirely, none of us was yet willing to dig into the extra layers that we were carrying as doing so would leave us without the psychological boost of additional warmth to turn to later.

Movement brought about healthier internal temperatures even as the footing became increasingly wet and muddy.  Our feet certainly weren't getting any warmer or any more dry, but above the ankles, we were moderately comfortable.  The three of us speculated over the location of a high, open, boggy section of the trail and had half convinced ourselves that we'd somehow already crossed it when the trees suddenly grew more sparse and the broad meadow we'd been waiting for appeared.  Sure enough, it was a shallow sea of muck that offered no alternative to simply gritting teeth and getting through and across it in as direct a fashion as possible.  In the end, it was only a couple of hundred yards across and didn't live up to the full foreboding of floundering wallow we'd feared.  Still, it only ensured that our feet remained anything but dry.

Not that it would have mattered much.

Soon thereafter we hit the spot on the trail where a "High Water" alternate route is offered for instances where storms or runoff have elevated the creek that the trail cuts back-and-forth across repeatedly (I lost count somewhere around 12 or 13 and didn't bother tallying the many more that came after) over the next couple of miles.  We'd come to do the entire Black Forest Trail, so there wasn't a moment's hesitation or any discussion, as we ignored the alternative.

While I hadn't bothered to track our time or mileage at any point in the day, we'd made steady progress, especially when the trail was more or less runnable.  Here, though, our pace ground to a halt as we sought out downed trees, rocks, narrow gaps, shallow pools, or other, all-things-being-relative, safe passages from one bank to the other.  We nearly considered just sticking to one side of the creek, but with no clear indication of exactly how many times the trail crossed before peeling away from the creek, it seemed unwise to stray far from the orange blazes.

At one point, Jeff even did an upside-down, hand-over-hand maneuver across one of the broader sections of creek that I was sure would end in failure.  It wasn't me who'd had the idea, however, but a far more competent adventurer and it was actually one of the only "dry" crossings that happened in that entire section.

We were losing light quickly and while getting wet was inevitable, mitigating the time spent shin-to-thigh deep seemed worth the sluggish yards-per-hour pace to which we'd dropped.  Finally and with the sun now off to shine on other hemispheres, we put the last of the high water behind us.

Pausing just long enough to dig out the headlamps that would from there on be our guides, we worked our way down into the beautiful Algerines Wild Area, one of my absolutely favorite sections of the trail and a spot high on my list of "creek stomping" destinations for me and my daughters.  The only downside to going clockwise was reaching this area in the darkness but even without the sun to illuminate it, this lush, pristine cut is lovely.

Jeff relayed a story about the derivation of the term "Algerines" as a reference to pirates who thieved timber from the lumber companies in the 1800's by stealing logs before they reached the mills, sawing off the sections that held the company's claiming brand, and replacing it with their own before selling the logs off for their own profits.  I had no idea of whether or not that was true and even Jeff acknowledged that it was a "so I was told" type of tale, but I have since dug up the following from William James McKnight's A Pioneer Outline History of Northwestern Pennsylvania: "Along the lower end of our creeks and on the Allegheny River there lived a class of people who caught and appropriated all the loose logs, shingles, boards, and timber they could find floating down the streams. These men were called by the early lumbermen Algerines, or pirates."

While this doesn't quite live up to the swashbuckling images I concocted in my head upon hearing Jeff's story, it does seem to lend credence and I quite like that this truly wild remnant place in Pennsylvania bears such a name.

On this night, the only pirate we ran into was, you guessed it, a porcupine, and it didn't stand its ground, departing the side of the trail in a hurry (by porcupine standards) as we passed by.
borrowed, respectfully, from the interwebs

Other than late miles on cold, tired legs, the only real remaining obstacle was the challenging climb up along Red Run leading to the final ridge that parallels Slate Run and eventually leads to the namesake village. Coming counter-clockwise, this descent, done on still energized legs, is a super fun, technical bomb.  The "trail" here consists mostly of boulder hopping and route-finding with the occasional visual confirmation of a nearby orange blaze to confirm that you haven't strayed too far off course.  On exhausted legs and with runoff-turned-to-ice tucked here or there to complicate footing, the clockwise ascent is pretty punishing. Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as long a climb as I had remembered and, at this point in the day, going up felt a lot better than going down.

Topping out, we knew we were within 10 kilometers of the Hotel Manor parking lot and had nothing but rolling ridge top ahead of us until the final long descent to Slate Run.  With no ambient light to mask its glory, the clear sky rained down starlight and welcomed gawking at the Milky Way in all its splendor.  Were we not so depleted and the cold air not so capable of bringing on hypothermia to the unwary, we would have loved to perch up on the many rock shelves to spectate.

As had been the case all day long, stories continued to be swapped and laughter remained ever present as we power-hiked along. While the warmth of the car, a cold beer, and a hot meal were beckoning, these last miles weren't wrought with the desperate how-much-farther, how-MUCH-farther! that often accompanies the end of a long endeavor.

We joked of turning around at the cars to finish our out-and-back and even as we and our worn out knees clambered stiff-leggedly down the final quarter mile of hillside with the sparse lights of Slate Run in plain view, I couldn't help but think that going back out again didn't sound all that bad.

Next time, friends (if you'll have me).