5:00 a.m. Thursday morning. My alarm went off and I jumped out of bed. It wasn't a normal work morning, oh no. It was the beginning of my final trail segment of the Mid State Trail, Section 7 as hiked by DC UL, and I couldn't wait to get to the trail head. I picked up Sharon, darted through DC to snag Dan up in Glover Park, and snuck out of town before the traffic even began. Four hours later, we pulled in early at Tompkins Campground on the shores of gorgeous Cowanesque Lake -- located right near the New York border and end of the trail -- and saw that our newest veteran member, Steve, was already parked, packed, and ready to go. We waited a bit for noon to come around, our anticipated rendezvous with the Pine Creek Outfitter shuttle to drop us off at the start of our trail journey in Blackwell, PA, about 75 miles south. I called, realized that Pine Creek was on track for a 1:00 p.m. arrival because of a planning mixup, and was a bit grumpy with the good folks of Pine Creek Outfitter until the dude on the phone simply said, "Sorry about this, but I hope that once you get on the trail everything will be great." And boy was he right. We had plenty of time in the day, a short 9 miles to go that afternoon, and once on the trail things were better than great. It was the Mid State Trail, after all. The weather was cool, unseasonably even, and we lucked out for the most part with temperatures in the 50s and low 60s for much of the week. The hot and sunny slog of the DC UL team over this same section in May 2016 seemed almost to be from a different trail altogether. While driving up, I also noticed on the MST Facebook page that there were Labor Day fireworks at Cowanesque Lake the very night we were finishing up. How amazing and serendipitous!
Sharon (MacGyver), Dan (Heavy D), Evan/myself (Whiskey Fairy), and Steve (who has a PCT-earned trail name we'll get to shortly) started out on the MST near Blackwell at 2:30 p.m. after a roundabout van journey through the rolling hills and lakes of northern Pennsylvania. After a stroll along the rail trail following Pine Creek, we darted up the ridge and began our journey. Steve quickly showed off his strong hiking skills by inadvertently knocking a dead tree over as he vaulted a blown down tree, and darted off up the trail. He was born for this group. But with a little twist. After chitchatting a bit on the trail, Steve revealed that he didn't really bring food for the trip (four-nights, three full days, and 75 trail miles, mind you), just a bag of beef jerky and some bouillon cubes to give his body a small sense of food. You see, Steve had trained his body over the last several months to consume its own fat rather than recently ingested food. Steve seemed pretty slim, actually, so I wondered how much body fat he had to spare, but he noted that he hiked some of the Colorado Trail using this new method and that he maintained an active lifestyle successfully, so it would all work out. I shrugged and took him at his word, and on we went.
Though I hiked a couple MST sections (Hairy John's to Blackwell) with Michael and company on the 2015 section hikes, most of the rest of the trail was done after the DC UL team hiked it first, which gave me an excellent opportunity to peruse their trip reports and adapt a bit based on what they saw and did (or didn't do). For this section, I decided to focus the first couple trail nights on scenic campsites based on Michael's trip report musing about passing these great areas: the Stony Fork/Roland Run waterfalls and pools for our first night and Sand Run Falls for our second night camp. Oh, and this put the Duncan Tavern in Antrim conveniently on the way for lunch between. Thursday evening, after dinner and a swim by the huge pools of Stony Fork, proved to be just what we needed. It was gorgeous, different than other areas we've hiked over the years, and provided a great way to slowly settle in to our MST hike. Sadly, however, I realized that I -- the esteemed Whiskey Fairy -- did not bring enough brown liquid to keep us happy for the entire trip. I had picked up a special bottle of Baltimore-made small batch Sagamore Spirit rye for our journey but simply didn't bring enough of it. And my hiking mates were counting on me as the sole supplier of our evening grog rations. I limited our sips for that first night and began to plot. Steve, it turns out, was okay getting some liquid calories in as an exception.
The next morning we continued through the Tioga State Forest, and began to transition into land a bit more marked by human activity. A lot of activity. Our first sign was a rushing stream of cappuccino-colored and frothed water in an area where all the other small creek beds were pretty much dry. We then came out at the Anna S Mine Haunted Vista and looked down over the busy highway and valley below us. Sharon figured out that we were staring across the way at Antrim tucked up at the top of the far away ridge across the valley and we sadly noted that our first road walk looked like it would be on a busy one. And boy was it busy. As we marched up to Antrim, truck after truck after truck roared past us, some carrying water, some carrying other loads, and all heading to some very busy waste management area right near Antrim. It was intense but let up as we crossed into Antrim proper. It seems there were limits to where the trucks could go.
After reading that most of the group had missed the eating/bar opportunity of the Duncan Tavern on their 2016 trip, we made sure to triple check how to get there. It was glorious and everything a lived in country tavern should be: friendly old locals at the bar, a smiling bartender to welcome us, a pool table and memorable signs decorating the interior, and lots of Yuengling. After a round of beers, we grabbed another pitcher and kept drinking. Steve, you see, was surprisingly the most excited to be there. He ordered a burger and onion rings and matter-of-factly announced that finding food for sale on the trail was different than packing it, so it was okay. The rest of us packed food and were also happy to order and eat, so that seemed to make sense. I certainly wasn't about to pass up fried pickles and hot wings. We realized that when we got bottles of water with our meal that the waste management plant we walked by probably had an adverse affect on the area. We took note. Toward the end of the meal, I executed my plot from the night before and asked if I could buy a few beers to take with us. Ashley, our friendly waitress/bartender, told me she could only sell a six pack. So a six pack it was . . . of glass Yuengling bottles. Not, um, UL. But I wouldn't let the crew down on this trip! We would have our libations. I loaded them up and we set off for another ten miles to Sand Run Falls.
Sand Run Falls was everything and more. The falls are the most spectacular I've seen on a Mid Atlantic hike. A few locals were also out enjoying the campsites near the falls, including a precocious, energetic black lab puppy named Sasha. We settled in, swam, drank, and built a lovely fire. The beers, not surprisingly, were a hit. After we went to bed, several more locals joined one of the nearby campsites. Steve, cowboy camping in the middle of the trail, directed them in the right direction. I estimate we did about 19 miles for the day, with the long lunch break at the Duncan Tavern.
The next day, Saturday, was our first big mileage day of the trip. Based on tales from the previous group, we girded ourselves for 26 tough but somewhat flat miles, many of which we thought would be unimpressive road walking. Our first pleasant surprise of the day was that the road miles, in the cool 50s that we were graced with, were lovely and near-perfect. Also, the trail kept leaving the roads to traverse pastures and fields. So, about these pastures. On one hand, the views and friendly animals of the farmland fields were unique and a definite treat after all the cool experiences we already have had on the MST. I loved it. On the other hand, some of the trail wasn't easy to follow or was completely grown over with thorns and weeds taller than we were. We bushwhacked quite a bit and even lost the trail completely at one point. Poor Sharon and Steve cut their exposed legs up quite a bit pushing through this particular patch. I giggled my way through, though it was definitely tough going. I couldn't help feeling 12 years old again and cutting through property and fences I had no business being in. The others had a variety of reactions to this trail quality adversity. Steve tried to get us to stay on the roads (nothing but orange blazes for me, thank you very much). Between our maps, the guide book, and Gaia tracks, we kept finding our way back on trail. We also met a really nice local property owner who was excited to see us and encouraged us to sign the register on his property. Not being the type of hikers to ever skip a register, we made sure to sign in and thank them.
The miles wore on and we approached, after another serious bushwhack, our first lake on the trail itself and more signs of civilization. Steve, it turned out, wasn't exactly satisfied with his no-food trail planning. We discovered why he earned his PCT trail name, That Guy, at this point in the trip. When it became clear that a possible concession stand was on the other side of the lake from the trail, Steve abruptly declared, "I need a Coke!" and left the group. The three of us realized he was indeed That Guy, and continued on. Honestly, I didn't think we'd see him again. He had his own car at the end, was clearly a fit hiker, and if he needed to go after a soda and some food and leave the trail, so be it. We traversed the west bank of the lake through scenic pines, left the trail ourselves to get water at the state park, and came back to the same spot on the trail to keep going. We saw a sign for 15 km (about nine and a half miles) to go for the day, and marched forward. A light rain began to fall. Luckily, a mountain biker going the opposite direction told us that Steve/That Guy was up ahead on the trail about 15 minutes in front of us. We then encountered a register that noted That Guy was more like 25 minutes ahead of us a bit later, and after a few hours we came out at Lake Hammond and our destination for the night. That Guy welcomed us to the campground with an exclamation that he had no idea how he got an hour ahead of us after eating chicken nuggets and a milkshake at the concession stand he detoured to, and then revealed that he had squared away two campsites for us before the Ives Run Campground office closed for the day. Super fast, super hungry, and super reliable -- That Guy was our hero for the evening (though I did have a stern moment to note that intentional off-trail side adventures weren't really a group behavior norm).
Lake Hammond was pretty but we were beat and the light rain we had most of the late afternoon continued to pester us. A strange euphoric moment came when I happened upon some abandoned firewood at an empty nearby site, and appropriated it for our uses. Though it didn't burn too well in the wetness, we huddled around it to finish our meals and the last of my lovely rye whiskey that was carefully saved for this occasion. That Guy pulled out his emergency 3 ounce tarp and set up an actual shelter for the first time this trip. It rained harder during the night but cleared up in time to let us pack up the next morning.
Our final day of hiking, with an expected 22 miles, started off much the same as the day before: extremely pleasant road walking with the occasional rain and bushwhack. One of the highlights was the discovery of the remnants of a varied apple orchard. We snacked on a few different types and grabbed a couple for later. That Guy was very happy to be living off of the land. Food, it turns out, is okay to eat if you find it along the way. More to the point, we happened by Scenic View Campground later in the morning (where the previous team had camped their last night on the trail) and darted over to the camp store. That Guy was eager for a cup of coffee and a snack. We got to the store and though the bathrooms were open, it was locked up. No problem, I thought. There was a sign on the door that read "Call Kevin if you need anything." I texted him that a few MST hikers were curious to use the store and waited a couple minutes to see what would happen. Sure enough, Kevin showed up in a golf cart and began to chat with us. He asked what MST stood for and I pointed to the Mid State Trail sticker on the store window. He then seemed to get it and pieced together what the orange blazes on his property were for. After a few awkward moments standing outside, we asked if we could, you know, buy something. He then revealed that he didn't actually have keys for the store. The other owner had them . . .
So we continued on, saddened by our inability to get refreshments. That Guy stopped by another office building to see if there was anything to buy there. No luck. But as we all know, when you need trail magic, the MST will provide. Around lunch time, after hitting the long southern shore of Cowanesque Lake, we happened upon not only a concession stand at a boat club, but saw that they were preparing for a big lobster boil later that evening. We feasted. That Guy ordered an Italian sausage, chicken fingers, tater tots, and struggled over whether or not he should get ice cream too. More interestingly, and it would have gone down in DC UL legend, That Guy began to realize that he needed to get home that night to see some family members and noted that he probably wouldn't finish with us. He investigated renting a one-way kayak to paddle across the lake to where our cars were located. Unfortunately, one-way wasn't a possibility so we failed to have that epic moment as That Guy paddled off to complete his trip. On we went together.
Next up on the rather long journey around Cowanesque Lake, we entered the Nelson ghost town area and became a little squeamish to step on some very strange things on the old roads. For the life of me, I had no idea if they were plants, rotting remains of something, or what. It was weird, but the whole area was incredibly scenic and one of my favorite parts of the trail. Eventually we came out near our cars and the final two-mile road walk to the New York border to finish the trail. We said goodbye to That Guy and the three of us began to march up the hill to finish the MST and then backtrack to the lake for the evening. Midway up the road a nice local man stopped his car to say hi to us, and then returned a few minutes later with his wife to invite us to camp on their property that night. He was very eager to host a few MST hikers. We turned him down as our car was already at the lake and we had our campsite reservation waiting for us as well -- and the possibility of some fireworks.
As we approached the NY border, definitely weary from our 75 miles and a little wet from the rain of the past day, That Guy heroically appeared yet again, in his car, to welcome us at the end of our hike, and to drive us back to the campground and save us from a featureless two-mile backtrack. He's a great addition to the group and a fast, UL kindred spirit -- whether or not he is fasting or feasting. Sharon, Dan, and I got some ice, firewood, and sandwiches from town, settled into our gorgeous lakeside campsite, and cracked the sparkling wine and pumpkin beer I had stashed in the car for us. It turned out we didn't quite have a firework view, but we didn't care. The fire was warm, the beverages good, and the Mid State Trail Associations's Pete Fleszar stepped away from his own family firework viewing to chat with us for a bit. It was a gorgeous, fitting way to end the MST for me -- and to encourage Sharon, Dan, That Guy, and everyone else to keep on hiking it. The MST is an adventure. A great one.
Great trip report, and a fitting end to your MST adventure.
Foraging is the true UL, anyway.
I recall that the trail was fairly dense back when we did it over Memorial day. I can only imagine how much worse it would be in September. Kudos to y'all brave folks!
Evidence of the "density": https://www.meetup.com/DC-UL-Backpacking/photos/28129662/464273259/