Archive for the 'Hiking' Category

Jul 15 2015

Fossil at Ferncliff

Rock, path, with fossil at Ferncliff (photo by Kate St. John)

Rock with hashmark pattern across it (left to right) at Ferncliff, Ohiopyle (photo by Kate St. John)

Years ago when I first hiked the Ferncliff Trail at Ohiopyle I was puzzled by this pattern on the rock beneath my feet.

In those days there weren’t interpretive signs nearby so I tried to make sense of it as best I could.  I decided it was a motorcycle track, but I couldn’t figure out how the vehicle had gotten there and why it had run from the cliff into the river.

Duh!  Motorcycles don’t leave tracks in rock.  It’s a fossil.

Fossil at Ferncliff Peninsula (photo by Kate St. John)

Fossil at Ferncliff Peninsula (photo by Kate St. John)

This Lepidodendron is one of six kinds of fossils found along the river’s edge now listed on an interpretive sign as: Cordaites leaves, Lepidodendron scale, giant Calamites, Psaronius, a giant dragonfly and Sigillaria.

Though I’ve seen the other ones this is the fossil I like the best.

Lepidodendron was a tree-like plant with scales on its trunk that grew as high as 100 feet tall.

Drawing of Lepidodendron by Eli Heimans, 1911 (image from Wikipedia)

Drawing of Lepidodendron by Eli Heimans, 1911 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

It lived and died in the Carboniferous (coal making) era.  If the tree had fallen in a swamp it would have become peat and then coal, but it happened to fall on sand so the patterns of its scaly trunk were preserved in rock.

Not far away is one of Lepidodendron’s last living relatives: Lycopodium or groundpine. Only 6-12 inches tall, its tiny trunks and branches provide a visual hint of its ancestor’s appearance.

Lycopodium (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tree Groundpine, Lycopodium dendroideum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The past and present are near each other at Ferncliff Peninsula.


(fossil photos by Kate St. John. Drawing of Lepidodendron and photo of Lycopodium from Wikimedia Commons; click the images see the originals)

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Jan 18 2015

Natural Ice Sculptures

Published by under Hiking,Weather & Sky

Icicles along the Butler-Freeport Trail near Monroe Road (photo by Kate St. John)

A week ago I found beautiful ice formations along the Butler-Freeport Trail at Monroe Road.

Water’s constant drip made a curling fountain.

And some of the icicles accumulated frosty teeth.

Frosty teeth on the icicles (photo by Kate St. John)


The weather was warming that day and part of this massive ice cliff …

Cliff lined with massive icicles (photo by Kate St. John)

… had crashed to the ground across the trail.

Icicles crashed to the ground (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s one of the smaller chunks near my boot.  I’m glad I wasn’t there when it fell.  Watch out below!

Chunk of fallen icicle for size comparison (photo by Kate St. John)


This weekend the weather has been unseasonably warm.

I wonder what the icicles look like now.


(photos by Kate St. John — taken with my cellphone because I forgot to bring my camera)


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Jan 02 2015

First Day Findings

Published by under Hiking,Mammals,Plants

Wingstem seeds, North Park, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

What can you find outdoors on January 1 in Pittsburgh?  Nine intrepid naturalists from the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania and Wissahickon Nature Club hiked at North Park to find out.

Though yesterday was quite sunny the temperature hovered just below freezing and the wind was strong.  We bundled up to look at seeds, trees, dry weeds, and birds.

Above, a wingstem seed pod looks just like a dried version of the flower’s central disk.  Below, in the thicket we found juncoes, titmice and chickadees … and then changed our focus to identify the trees.
Participants on the New Year's Day hike at Irwin Rd (photo by Kate St. John)

Dianne Machesney found this still-red scarlet oak leaf.  I held it to take its picture.
Scarlet oak leaf, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The ground wasn’t frozen but the creek had glimmering white ice.

Ice on Irwin Run, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)

(photo by Dianne Machesney)

After the hike, some of the party drove up Pearce Mill Road to check on the beaver dams on the North Fork of Pine Creek.

The beavers were snug in their beds while we braved the cold.

Beaver dam on the North Fork of Pine Creek (photo by Dianne Machesney)

(photo by Dianne Machesney)


(photo credits: wingstem, hikers and oak leaf photos by Kate St. John.
Creek ice and beaver dam photos by Dianne Machesney

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Oct 11 2011

Soon, Very Soon

Published by under Crows, Ravens,Hiking

Last Sunday I hiked the Vondergreen Trail at Beaver Creek State Park near East Liverpool, Ohio. 

The trail follows Little Beaver Creek as it cuts through the surrounding hills.  Along the way there are remnants of the channel and locks of the Sandy and Beaver Canal that ran for 73 miles through 90 locks and two tunnels from Bolivar, Ohio to the Ohio River at Glasgow, Pennsylvania.

Completed in 1848, 20 years after it was chartered, the canal operated for only four years.  It closed in 1852 after the Cold Run Reservoir Dam broke and ruined much of the canal.  By then competition from the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad made it uneconomical to rebuild.  The canal boom ended abruptly.

At Grey’s Lock I stopped to read the historic marker but I didn’t absorb what it said because my attention was snagged by the sound of crows.  Just out of sight, they were flying my way.  150 passed overhead and congregated somewhere on the north side of the creek, still within earshot. 

That flock is just the start of something big.

Right now the crows are gathering in the countryside.  150 here, 200 there.  Some have made it to town, but no great numbers yet.

Soon, very soon, the crows will come to Pittsburgh.  By winter we could have 10,000!

(photo from

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Sep 03 2011

Gone Hiking…

Published by under Hiking,Travel

… on my favorite trails at Acadia National Park in Maine.

This is the view from the top of Cadillac Mountain, 1,530 feet above sea level.

It’s an easy (long) climb from north or south but there’s an ice cream reward at the summit shop.

How civilized!

(photo by Ralph Roach  from Shutterstock)

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Jul 24 2011

Thinking Cool Thoughts

Published by under Hiking,Weather & Sky

The weather has moderated a little, but it’s still hot and humid. 

I’d like to go hiking but southwestern Pennsylvania has a 50% chance of thunderstorms today and I won’t hike in lightning if I can avoid it. 

Now it looks unavoidable.  The sky has become ominously dark as I write. 

If the weather was merely hot I’d visit Cucumber Falls, pictured above.  The falls are part of Cucumber Run in Ohiopyle State Park and they’re easy to get to.  There’s a parking lot near the falls for a quick visit, or you can get a better look at Cucumber Run by hiking the Great Gorge Trail.  Hike upstream to feel the cool air in the creek valley or walk downstream to the Youghiogheny River where you can watch the rapids.  Here’s a map of the park.   (The map takes a while to download.  If it looks black, change the zoom and the map will appear.)

Unfortunately Ohiopyle is a 90 minute drive from Pittsburgh and I can’t see driving that far to wait in the car for a storm to pass.

I guess I’ll have to stay close to home and merely think cool thoughts.

(photo of Cucumber Falls by Caleb Foster from

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Jul 20 2011

Cool Water

Published by under Hiking

Here’s a place that’s changed for the better in the last 200 years.

Hells Hollow Falls are part of the gorge cut by Hell Run, a tributary of Slippery Rock Creek in Lawrence County. 

At its headwaters Hell Run flows through farmland, then into the woods where the gorge and waterfall have been protected as part of McConnell’s Mill State Park.

It wasn’t always this beautiful.

In the mid-1800’s the valley was logged and mined for its iron-ore-rich limestone and the coal to fire its industry.  The Lawrence Iron Furnace, two coal mines, a quarry, and a lime kiln were all within a short walk of the waterfall.  It must have been a smoky, dirty place in those days.

In the 1870’s the local iron business collapsed and within 50 years the coal mines closed too.  The trees grew back, the buildings disappeared, and the brick-walled lime kiln became a curiosity in the woods. 

The only noticeable scar is coal mining’s affect on the water.  The abandoned mines release toxic, orange, acid mine drainage (AMD) into Hell Run’s feeder streams above the falls.  Fortunately, even in the dry month of July there’s enough fresh water to dilute it. 

When I visited Hells Hollow Falls last Sunday I marveled at the miniature slot canyon upstream.  Geologists say this channel was formed when the creek ran inside a limestone cave just below ground level.  Eventually the top of the cave fell in and revealed the flume, pictured below.  If I was the size of an ant, this would be the Grand Canyon.

If you’d like to see these wonders for yourself, click these links for information on Hells Hollow and McConnell’s Mill State Park.

The waterfall looks cool … especially in this heat.

(photos by Kate St. John, taken on 17 July 2011)

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Apr 14 2010

An April Hike

Published by under Hiking,Plants

Last year, WQED’s Web Department made three videos for me to post on my blog:  An April Hike at Raccoon Creek State Park, the Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch, and a third (not yet edited) film of Marcy Cunkelman’s garden in August.

Though it was filmed last year on April 23, the Web Department had to wait until their summer intern, Christa Majoras, was available to edit it.  Christa did a fine job and completed the video in July, but by then these scenes of April were out of season so I saved the video for this week.

My plan was to show you a preview of flowers-to-come but life is full of twists and turns.  Who could imagine we’d have a spring so warm that the plants would be two to three weeks ahead of schedule?  This video is again out of season — late by two weeks.

Use your imagination as you watch.  Go back in time to March 31 and remember what the landscape looked like.  Or watch this video for signs of just how far ahead this spring is compared to April 2009.

Sit back and enjoy An April Hike.

(video filmed by Joan Guerin, edited by Christa Majoras)


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Aug 30 2009

To Acadia

Published by under Hiking,Travel

Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park (photo by Doug Lemke via Shutterstock)

Hello from Maine.  We’re at Acadia National Park as usual at this time of year. 

I’m hoping to see some new birds and new places.  Will it be a good year for a warbler “fallout?”  Will the crossbills be at Acadia this fall?  What new sea birds will I see on the Whale Watch?  Will I finally see a moose?  (Can you believe I’ve never seen one in 26 years of going to Maine?)

We plan to hike some new trails and visit some new-to-us towns.  I’ll still be blogging while I’m here but less frequently.  After all, it’s a vacation!

(photo by Doug Lemke via Shutterstock)

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Mar 15 2009

Happiness is a Clear Sky

Published by under Hiking,Water and Shore

Ring-necked Ducks (photo by Kim Steininger)
This morning at dawn it was cloudy again – actually, I’d call it overcast – but I could see clear skies to the north and west so I figured we’d have a sunny day soon.  Two hours later it was still oppressively gray and the good weather was just as far away as before.

Since the edge of the clouds hadn’t moved I decided it was time for me to move out from under them so I headed north to Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park.  Reports on Friday said there were tundra swans at Porter’s Cove and though I didn’t expect to find them two days later, I went there anyway.  Halfway to the park I passed the cloud boundary.  Clear skies ahead.

What a great day for a hike!  I headed into the woods, picking my way through the mud to the sound of spring peepers.  Deep in the woods I encountered a red-shouldered hawk calling and doing such obvious flight displays that I found its nest. 

The trail ended at a campground so I headed back.  To avoid the mud I tried a hilltop path that started off in the right direction but ended abruptly in a wall of brambles in the middle of nowhere.  Where am I now?  Maybe I’m lost.  I retraced my steps – over the mud – to Porter’s Cove.

I was rewarded with a view of two beautiful white birds across the water.  Swans, but not tundras.  It was pair of trumpeters, one of whom was banded.  Trumpeter swans were reintroduced in Ohio so perhaps that’s where these came from.  I hope they stay to nest.

As a further reward I sat by the lake in the sunshine and scanned the distant birds so hard to see through the heat shimmer.  Slowly I identified ring-necked ducks (pictured here), ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, buffleheads, a common merganser, a pair of American wigeons. 

At 5:00pm a huge flock of scaup rose from the lake, circled up and headed north, their bodies winking white in the clear blue sky.  Time to head home.

Back in Pittsburgh the clouds remained.  The western horizon showed a gleam of light as the sun set.  Only three minutes of sunshine at home today and then it was night.   So glad I went to the lake!

(photo of ring-necked ducks by Kim Steininger)

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