Trip Report: North Country Trail (94 miles)

Trip report by Michael Martin

I wanted to scribble up a quick trip report for our 2018 Memorial Day adventure. Since 2012, I’ve been doing these long hikes in Pennsylvania and I’ve been aware of the North Country Trail (NCT) for most of that time. So, I ordered some maps, blocked out the dates, and formed a group. After hearing from Jeff Mitchell (author of Backpacking Pennsylvania), we decided to start the trip a little south of the Allegheny National Forest, at Clarion River, to take in Cook State Forest. We figured the whole trip would be about 93-94 miles.

Thursday morning, 5/24, we headed out from DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Hampshire. The goal was to set up the car shuttle with the end point at 59, backtrack, and get started in the afternoon. I was a few minutes late as I had burned through all my denatured alcohol and needed to stop for some. I texted the group. Somehow, John (Doc) and Max (Everclear) ended up having lunch in Altoona with B~~~ and The Baconator. B~~~ called me with an idea for changing the shuttle. I think they were a little shocked to discover that I was already north of Altoona. Doc and Everclear got their food and hurried off at me. We were thus a little slow setting up the shuttle (we refer to this as “The Knickerboxer Incident”). But we got back down south to Gravel Lick Road by 4pm-ish.

And then we were off, hiking north on the NCT, first alongside the Clarion River, then through the beautiful groves of Clark State Park. I hiked into the twilight with Beastmode, talking politics. We arrived at the shelter just north of Clark State Park. We’d walked about 13 miles and Beastmode and I strolled in as darkness fell. The others trickled in and set up in the dark. It got rather cold that night: B~~~ said 45*F, which was a little colder than I was thinking it would. Nevertheless, I slept snug enough in my hammock.

Friday, 5/25, we were off early hiking north. We passed along a powerline cut, where Shuttle spotted a fawn holed up, waiting for its mother. Industry pounded in the distance. We crossed a crazy pontoon bridge. It became clear that we were going to see a lot of signs of oil and gas exploitation, more than we were used to. I know this detracted from the trip, for some. Certainly, the forest is marred, in places, by resource extraction that really has not been cleaned up very well. But, well, this is what our public land is often like and it may be a bit unrealistic to expect “wilderness” in the triangle defined by Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo.

To me, there were many stretches of beautiful, secluded-feeling forest, hills and gullies, and stream-beds, though they were often punctuated by stretches where the trail labored to stay away from the wells, where pipes competed with footpath (kudos to the trail maintainers for what must be really heroic work), and where natural gas smell overwhelmed the otherwise fragrant forest. The stretch from Salmon Run and 4-Mile Run into Kellettsville was especially picturesque, I thought. I really love this type of Pennsylvania landscape. We greeted a trail maintainer, regrouped at Cougar Bob’s for beers, and headed off in the early evening, making camp at East Fork Run. We called this 21 miles.

Saturday, 5/26, we set off north, again very early, this time encountering a few other backpackers. Another peculiarity of this trip was that we had some significant variance in the four or five different maps we were using. When I started planning for the trip, I ordered the paper maps which I assumed were authoritative. It turns out they have been superseded by a PDF, which I was aware of, but did not use. Shuttle had bought NatGeo maps, and then we had the various phones running Gaia and Caltopo. The result was constant debate about one thing or the other, though we figured it out. I know I should have looked at all the maps, but I’ve been quite busy. Mea culpa.

We pressed on through the heavily trafficked Minister Creek area, regrouped at Upper Sheriff’s creek, skipped a lovely campsite at Pell Run, only to settle for a less good campsite (a theme for us) at Lower Sheriff’s Run. That was 25 miles for the day.

Sunday, 5/26, and our last full day. I decided I would conserve energy and hiked with Shuttle—we were both feeling it a bit. We descended, crossed 666, passed through an area that really needs some rehabilitation from whoever made the mess, but then traveled through the rather wonderful Tionesta Scenic Area. There were several occasions where these rock gardens surprised and delighted (they recalled stretches of the Standing Stone Trail). Shuttle and I took a long break at Fox Dam, then crossed 6 before doing a little plateau walking. Weary, we trudged our way to Bliss Road, where we all wedged into a campsite that was too narrow and really not flat at all. Good thing we had four hammocks! The people who got there early walked down the road to Trader Bob’s. As we settled in, the Baconator was assaulted by a baby porcupine who did not want to leave camp. At last he climbed a tree—the porcupine not the Baconator. We all secured our things against sharp porcupine teeth. I’m sure we were all asleep by 9pm or 10pm. That was 21 miles on the day.

Monday, 5/27, we were up before dawn and moving fast for the end. Everclear had been sick in the night: I suggested he stay at Bliss Road and we’d bring the cars around for him. The weather started off foggy and wet, but became warm. We crossed the Red Bridge and returned to the forest and the plateau. Passing around the Allegheny Reservoir was a treat for me. It was wet, but I was hiking by myself and saw a number of snakes, salamanders, and other critters. It was hot as we started the climb up Hemlock Run. I passed a couple, fresh from their car, and thought, “How clean they smell!” I wonder what I smelled like. Nothing good, I guess. It seemed the climb would never end, but at least it did, around noon.

Wolverine, Zach, and Beastmode had preceded me. I hopped in Shuttle’s car, with Doc, and we went and got cold drinks for everyone. By 12:45pm, we were all at the trailhead. We set off, rescued Max, reversed the shuttle, and eight of us met up at Station North for after hike refreshment. And it was all over except for the driving.

So, splits were 13 / 21 / 25 / 21 / 14 … for a total of 94 miles. It’s been awhile since I did three 20-mile days consecutively, so I was glad I’m in tolerable shape to do it. Staying in shape has been a bit of trial recently. I bounced back pretty fast, too. Personally, I’m glad we did this stretch of trail, and I enjoyed it. It reminded me of the STS and the Donut Hole Trail, though I think the hiking was a little easier. I think the efforts of the trail groups should be commended: it can’t have been easy to keep the trail in such good shape given the resource rights pressures. It’s a good reminder of how endangered our forests often are.

Thanks, everyone, for hiking it with me. I look forward to next Memorial Day!

U-Turn

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