Alaska 2008

Almost Home – Pennsylvania and New York

Monday, September 15: Buckaloons CG, Allegheny National Forest (4 miles)

Historic graffiti Pennsylvania Petroglyph

More noisy neighbors, this time a stranded trucker who woke us at 3:00, banging on our door, drunk, and then spent two hours on his cell phone this morning just outside our room, telling his tale of woe to everyone he could think to call. (He needed money to bail his truck out of impound.) That was frustrating.

We’re heading north again to visit some petroglyph sites in Northwest Pennsylvania, then on to New York. I’ve never seen Niagara Falls or Watkins Glen; now seems like a good time to visit them. Neither of us is in a hurry to get back to Maryland. Yes, we’d like to see the kids and grandchildren, but we’re in a peculiar position right now. We literally have no place to go at the moment. None of the kids has room for us to stay. They all live in small townhouses that are already crowded. The past two winters we’ve lived with Jim’s daughter, but she now has a fiancé with two dogs. Added to her two dogs and a cat, the house is pretty full. I think we can stay for a week or so, but then we need to find a new place to live. Jim is intending to have surgery on his knee as soon as possible and the surgeon is in Bowie, so we need to find someplace to live that is not too far away, at least for a few months. Since I really don’t like living in suburban Maryland, it’s a problem. Neither of us is in a hurry to face the task of looking for an apartment in an area where we don’t actually want to live. Especially after the past three years of happily wandering out west, the idea of dealing with the traffic, the crowds, the attitudes, etc. is unappealing. So right now we are slowly wending our way back, detouring whenever and wherever we can. Northern Pennsylvania is more to my taste right now. It has big green forests, low mountains, farms and wildlife. Much better than the city, any day.

What is it? Deer on the bike path

Our goal today was a petroglyph site in Venango County. We had directions that said it was near Brandon, but Brandon wasn’t on the state map. So we drove to Oil City where we found a county map which showed the tiny community of Brandon. From the trailhead it was a two mile walk each way on a rail trail. There are several in the area. We started at 5:00, but the walking was easy so we made it back to the car before dark. Indian God Rock was a big disappointment. There were only a couple of real petroglyphs that we could see. The rock was covered in graffiti, lots of names and dates and modern carvings. Some of it was historic, with dates of 1849, 1869 and 1891, among others, but it was still defacement of the ancient rock art. We enjoyed the walk anyway, even though the rock art wasn’t what I was hoping for. I should have known: the site is openly and easily accessible, that invites vandalism. I just hoped for some real petroglyphs. There may have been some under all the moss that we couldn’t see, but I think all we found was one human figure that may have been old.

Modern or not?

I did enjoy the drive through Franklin and Oil City, which have some pretty Victorian houses as well as some really derelict ones. We did see some wildlife today – a deer on the trail and three others along the road, some mergansers, a woodchuck and numerous squirrels and chipmunks. We didn’t want another motel, so we drove to Oil Creek State Park. Turns out there is no campground there, only shelters that you backpack to. So we looked for a nearby private campground. It had lost power because of the storm and had no bathroom facilities, not even an outhouse. It was about 50 miles to the next campground, so we ate dinner then headed north. We stopped at another private campground near Correy, but it was late when we got there so the office was closed and all the lights were out. There were no instructions for after hours arrivals, so I didn’t feel comfortable staying there unannounced. It looked like the kind of campground that is mostly permanent residents, not intended for wandering campers. An hour later, Jim spotted a sign for a campground at Buckaloons and it turned out to be a nice Forest Service campground, nearly empty. It was almost 11:00 when we settled in, so we were pretty exhausted. The roads were slow, winding and passed through several small towns with 35 mph speed limits. We didn’t intend to go as far as we did, but I didn’t see that we had much choice.

Tuesday, September 16: Red Bridge Campground


It was a low key day, wandering around the Allegheny National Forest. Autumn is nigh: yellow goldenrod in the meadows, brown corn stalks in the fields, red and yellow leaves just beginning to appear in the forests. It was a mixed sunshine and shadows day. Black clouds threatened, but like yesterday, didn’t deliver much moisture. At least, not while we were passing by. It was cool but not really cold. We drove around for a while, then set off on the North Country Trail for a short hike that ended up being shorter than we intended when we lost the trail on top of a ridge. There was an old road or pipeline that we followed in both directions without finding any blazes, so we turned around. That’s okay. We got some exercise, between the 600’ climb and the trail work we did. The hurricane winds did a lot of damage up here. We moved the small branches off the trail, but a saw and loppers were needed to get several big blowdowns. It felt good to be doing trail work again, as little as it was. We got a campsite at Red Bridge, a National Forest campground with a shower, and settled in for a quiet evening.

Wednesday, September 17: Willow Bay Campground (6 miles)

Allegheny National Forest

I slept late this morning and woke to a beautiful sunny day. We decided to spend another day exploring the Allegheny National Forest. There is a trail system called Tracy Ridge which has 33 miles of interconnecting marked trails that make good loops for day-hikes or backpacking trips. We did about six miles of up and down through the woods and had a grand time. We cleared trail as we went, since Ike’s winds did some damage. The North Country Trail section was recently cleared, so it was easy to follow, but the other trails in our loop badly need a chainsaw as there were many old blowdowns and a few new ones. We lost the trail in one bad section, then found it again more or less by accident. We saw a deer on the highway, but none on the trail. Temperatures were in the mid-60’s, perfect hiking weather. I really enjoyed being back in the Pennsylvania woods. The trail reminded me of several areas we have hiked in the past: the open forest of mixed hardwoods, with hemlocks along the streams, ferns and moss.

We got a campsite at Willow Bay, then discovered they had locked our bathroom. They left the handicapped toilet open, but locked the showers and regular bathrooms. We drove to the “premium” loop next to the reservoir and took a shower there, then went back to our campsite in the low rent district.

Thursday, September 18: Four Mile Campground near Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls Rainbow in the mist Rainbow Into the maelstrom

It was an excellent day, all around. We woke to fog, but it soon burned off, leaving only wisps of cloud, like puffs of smoke rising from the mountains. We entered New York, passing Allegany State Park with more views of the reservoir and autumn-tinged hillsides.

Maid of the Mist Gulls on the river

By noon we had reached Niagara Falls. Jim has been there a couple of times, but it was my first visit. We parked the car ($10!) and began to walk to the various viewpoints. I didn’t realize that there are actually three waterfalls. The biggest is Horseshoe Falls, which is u-shaped and touches both the US and Canadian sides of the river. The mist from the falls almost hides them and creates a cloud 200-400’ above the top of the falls. On the American side is American Falls and narrow Bridalveil Falls. You can walk to the edge of both and the view from the island between them is a nice one with a good rainbow when the sun is shining. We decided to splurge ($25 each) on the Maid of the Mist boat tour, which goes upstream past the three waterfalls, lingering for a while at the base of Horseshoe Falls.

Gull Cormorants on the river

Despite the plastic ponchos they gave us, we got soaked from the spray. It was a warm sunny day, so everyone just laughed and enjoyed it. We walked to the base of American Falls, but didn’t pay for the tour that goes below and behind it. We were wet enough.

We wanted to leave our car and walk across the river to the Canadian side, but the pedestrian bridge was closed for repairs so we had to drive across and pay the toll plus another $10 to park. It was worth the money though, since the views from the Canadian side really are better since you can look at the falls straight on rather than from the side. There were a couple of rainbows that moved as we moved. Pretty. The falls really are spectacular.

The towns are overcrowded tourist traps, but we ignored most of the lures and just enjoyed the walk and the views – though we did succumb to the temptation of an ice cream cone.

The  Falls are impressive Horseshoe Falls

When we had finished playing tourist, we continued north to a state park on the shore of Lake Ontario called Four Mile Campground. We have a tiny view of the lake from our campsite, though we didn’t pay extra for one of the lakeside sites. The campground is a nice one, green with trees (huge weeping willows and oaks) and acres of grass. After dinner I went for a short walk along the lakeshore. It was very peaceful listening to the waves and watching the orange sunset. Back at the car, we heard the ubiquitous chirr of the peepers in the woods and the honking of geese flying overhead. Last night two different owls vied for our attention. That was a much quieter campground than this one. Yesterday we had the loop to ourselves, though several RVs were parked there, empty, awaiting the weekend.

Tonight the campground is about half full. It will probably fill up tomorrow night, since it’s another weekend. The campgrounds are so quiet during the week, but can be madhouses on the weekends, either with party groups or mobs of yelling kids. I’d rather listen to owls and frogs.

View from the Canadian side There's a rainbow visible from the Canadian side too Watching the water fall Sunset over Lake Ontario

Friday, September 19: Letchworth State Park

Dry riverbed at Letchworth SP The Genessee Valley at Letchworth

We followed the scenic highway along Lake Ontario through apple farms and cornfields, with occasional glimpses of the big blue lake. We needed to do some shopping, but didn’t find a grocery until we reached Geneseo around noon. Jim wanted to do an oil change, so we spent a couple of hours at Walmart, buying groceries, while they took care of the car. Then we found a used bookstore with a good selection, trading in some of our books for a new pile. That was also good since I’m almost out of reading material. The long days have meant lots of time to read. I just finished a really good book I picked up in Alaska called “Arctic Wild” about a couple who filmed caribou and wolves in the Brooks Range for two years. I love used bookstores!

An Evening Hike at Letchworth The Genessee River at Letchworth

Finally, late in the afternoon, we reached our goal for today, Letchworth State Park. It is known as New York’s Grand Canyon (seems like every state has one). The Genessee River has carved a deep gorge through the rock layers. There are waterfalls and lots of hiking trails. Tomorrow we’ll visit the falls. Today we did a short hike out of the campground along a narrow wooded ridge above the canyon. The views were mostly overgrown, but we caught glimpses of canyon on both sides of the ridge. It was a nice walk in the woods in any case. The campground is huge, with eight loops, but I like it because the sites are wooded and it isn’t very crowded. Like most of the campgrounds we’ve visited this week it has showers – a welcome amenity. We’re getting spoiled, since we have had both electricity and running water most nights. The only thing missing is WIFI. We even found fuel for our butane stove in the camp store, which we have been looking for for a long time. I used the last bit this morning.

Saturday, September 20: Watkins Glen (3 ½ miles)

Low water Letchworth waterfall Another waterfall at Letchworth waterfall at Letchworth

Today was a waterfall day. Letchworth State Park has three major waterfalls that are visible either from overlooks along the road or via short walks. They were very scenic – not Niagara Falls, but pretty. There was a smaller fall at Wolf Creek that was less spectacular, but still nice. The water levels are low right now. We saw a rafting group on the river that looked like they were about to portage past a low rocky stretch. A wedding party was taking photos against the backdrop of Middle Falls; they looked surprisingly grumpy. It was another beautiful day, cool and mostly sunny with some light cirrus clouds. The park was hosting an Indian Heritage Day, which sounded more interesting than it was. Mostly it was just a chance for local Native Americans to sell jewelry and some fairly expensive art. We didn’t stay long.

Middle Falls The view inside a waterfall

From Letchworth we headed southeast to the Finger Lakes region. We drove along two of the narrow lakes to Watkins Glen State Park, a waterfall site Jim told me about several years ago. Since I love waterfalls, I've wanted to see it ever since, but it's a long drive from Maryland so this was my first chance to visit. Glen Creek has cut a deep but narrow gorge in the sedimentary rocks. Letchworth was wider and deeper (up to 600’ deep) but less spectacular in that Watkins Glen features a series of waterfalls and cascades over a short 1½ mile stretch that drops 500’ total. There are supposed to be 19 waterfalls, though I couldn’t tell which were waterfalls and which merely cascades. The biggest single drop is 65’. The main Gorge Trail is paved and has over 800 steps, a couple of tunnels and bridges, and passes behind two of the falls. It was quite a walk. We headed up the Gorge Trail then returned on the easier Indian Trail. That one had fewer steps, though obviously the descent was the same. It was less scenic than the trail along the creek. Still, it was a nice peaceful walk with a lot fewer people than the very popular Gorge Trail.

There was room at the campground nearby, so we picked a site then drove back to town a mile or so to get dinner at the Broken Rooster Brewpub. It was good and we were very hungry. The campground is very quiet, no big groups with loud voices tonight. It was a really good day. I’ve really enjoyed our swing through western New York; it has been fun.

Waterfall at Watkins Glen Watkins Glen waterfall watkins Glen Watkins Glen

September 21: Corning, New York

Glass sculpture From the glass museum

A tourist day, but fun. We spent several hours wandering through the Museum of Glass in Corning. It was really fascinating to see the history of glass-making and the glass arts from 2000 BC to the present. There were thousands of beautiful pieces of all types, from ancient Egyptian art to modern glass sculptures. We watched a few demonstrations: a glass blower created a big vase, a woman blow-torched a little glass dog, and there was a show on how glass, especially safety glass, breaks. There were exhibits on innovations like fiber optics and telescopes. I never expected to enjoy the glass museum as much as I did. I’ve always enjoyed glass and have collected or been given a few nice pieces, so this was really a treat. It is an amazing art form.

Glass sculpture at the Museum of Glass in Corning The glassmaker's art

We still didn’t see everything, but by 3:00 we were getting tired so we decided to get a motel and do laundry. We have tickets for the Rockwell Museum, a western art museum in town, but figured we wouldn’t be able to do it justice if we were in a rush and exhausted at the end of the day. Fortunately the tickets are good for a year, so we can wait until tomorrow.

Monday, September 22: Camp near Blackwell, PA

I enjoyed the Rockwell Museum of Western Art. It wasn’t as large as the one in Cody, Wyoming, but it had some very nice paintings and sculptures. At the gift shop we were tempted by a t-shirt that said, “The best way to avoid housework is to live outside.” True enough. Jim bought me some earrings with the pictograph we saw at Hueco Tanks of Tlaloc, the rain god. Odd to find it in New York of all places.

Deer at the campground

It was a beautiful day, despite the forecast, as we headed south to Pennsylvania. We wanted to walk the section of the Midstate Trail that we maintain to see how much damage it sustained when Hurricane Ike passed by. We’ll do that tomorrow. Today we enjoyed the autumn colors, just starting to appear in the northern forests. We drove along Pine Creek for a while. I wanted to see if they had rebuilt the Inn at Slate Run that burned down a few years ago (yes) and there were a couple of new campgrounds shown on the map that we wanted to check out. Turns out they are intended for users of the Pine Creek Bike Trail or for boaters – not for us in our truck. So we turned around, headed up a gravel road into the state forest, and soon found a nice car camping site next to Big Run. The moving water was a pleasant soothing trickle. An owl flew off as we drove in, then a gray hawk circled us. Someone was shooting nearby who startled three deer that bounded past our campsite. When darkness fell, we began to hear odd squeaks and scurrying by the creek. It took a while, but eventually we saw a little white possum scurry past our bed. Only one car passed all evening, so it was very peaceful, aside from the wildlife. Nice!

Tuesday, September 23: Midstate Trail – camp at Little Pine State Park (7 miles)

Autumn colors

It was a very different sort of day, but a satisfying one. We finally were able to do some routine maintenance on our section of the Midstate Trail. Usually we try to get out twice a year, but with our travels lately that hasn't been possible. The trail overseer told us last year that he had gone through the section with a chainsaw and it was okay, but we knew it would need some work. I have felt guilty at not fulfilling our responsibility, even though the trail was still passable. I suggested we just give up the section and let someone else take it over, but Jim resisted. It’s a lovely stretch of trail with waterfalls and a great variety of vegetation. Mostly it follows old logging roads, up one stream and down another. It isn’t difficult to take care of, but the vegetation grows in quickly so we do need to keep on top of it. There were few downed trees, since Ike had little effect there. Jim had a handsaw, but the loppers got a lot more work. We ended up trading off, since bending over cutting brush gets tiring after a while. By the time we turned around we were both stiff and sore. Jim’s knees were hurting a lot from the up and down and my lower back was a mess.

Still, there was a lot of satisfaction in finally taking care of the most urgent problems. There is more trailwork we’d like to do, like putting in steps and reblazing, but since it is a seven hour drive from Maryland to the trail, fine tuning hasn’t been our highest priority. If we move to Pennsylvania, we’ll have our work cut out for us, and if we don’t, with the high price of gas, we’ll have to pass the section on to someone else.

One surprise: I tossed a fallen branch off the trail and it landed on or near a very irate rattlesnake. He was a fat one, with a black tail but brown speckled liver spot type markings. He buzzed for at least 15 minutes. We saw several deer on the road and two in the river bed, drinking from the creek. The water is very low right now. Only one of our waterfalls had water, though the spring was running. Yet vegetation was lush, with lots of ferns and nettles in the damp spots.

We had intended to eat dinner at the Blackwell Inn, but it was closed (with a “For Sale” sign), so we drove on to Slate Run for a burger at the Inn there, then continued to Little Pine State Park to camp and take a very welcome shower. It was a good day.

Wednesday, September 24: Clearfield, PA

Elk meadows in northern Pennsylvania Yes there are elk on the Elk Trail

A low key day, a respite after yesterday’s hard work. We wandered through the woods, following the Elk Scenic Drive, past several familiar hiking areas. Elk were reintroduced several years ago and have thrived in north-central PA. Pennsylvania is trying to promote tourism by advertising the wild areas where the elk herd can sometimes be seen. They’ve created several wildlife viewing areas near open fields with viewing blinds and published a map and brochure describing several wild areas and trails in the area. We saw nothing at the big viewing areas, since elk feed in the open mostly at dawn and dusk, but we did end up seeing some elk in the woods. We saw some cars parked by the side of the road with people peering into the trees. Sure enough, a bull and two cows were resting in the shade. Actually the females were resting, the male was busy bugling. We had heard one earlier at one of the view spots. We also saw a deer standing in the middle of the highway and three turkeys. This part of Pennsylvania has a lot of autumn color already. It was beautiful.

I’ve been dealing with some poison ivy for over a week now. It started with a tiny spot on my knee, then one on my stomach then my hand, then my face, then my thigh. I don’t know how I’m spreading it, but I wish I’d stop. None of the patches is very large, only the size of a nickel, but they do itch.

Shenandoah deer Shenadoahs Shenandoah Ridges Autumn in the mountains


We took a couple more days to get back to Maryland, but essentially our day with the elk herd was the end of our touring. We did one more short trip down to the ALDHA Gathering in West Virginia in early October and enjoyed beautiful autumn color in the Shenandoahs and lots of wildlife, but for the most part the wandering is over for this year. Now comes the hard part, adjusting to life in the suburbs, finding a place to live for the winter while Jim is recovering from his knee surgery, and trying to make sense of our travels this year.

Autumn in Virginia Got an itch?

It has been a really good year for both of us. Nothing happened quite as we had hoped back in January, but we were aware that our plans were likely to be subject to change at a moment’s notice. We knew that Jim’s knees might be a problem; we didn’t expect them to be a complete showstopper. The broken ribs and Morton’s Neuroma were icing on the cake – or more like mud on the cake. When faced with the question, “What do we do now?” we knew the answer was “We’ll figure out something.” And every step of the way we made our plans on the fly, one step at a time. We never looked more than a week ahead, if that. Usually we just drifted where the winds blew us. It was a lot of fun and only a little confusing. Sometimes it seemed that we were moving too fast, missing too much and never really relaxing for more than an hour or two. But then, I’ve never been one for a restful vacation. There is too much world out there, too little time to explore it all.

Deer Autumn

We both agreed that our priorities would be beautiful scenery and lots of wildlife. In our wandering this year, we experienced both, in abundance. We spotted over 40 bears, at least that many moose, innumerable bighorns, bison, elk, and deer, a scattering of mountain goats, foxes, porcupines, wolves, coyotes, birds of all kinds, some sea lions, otters and other marine life, etc. etc. I can’t complain. And the mountains, forests, lakes, and waterfalls have been a constant source of awestruck wonder. Our archaeological searches have taken us to many fascinating and memorable places. I wouldn’t have missed them for anything.

SNP Waterfall Autumn colors

So, all in all, it has been an amazing and incredible seven months on the road, with some 28,000 miles of driving through 30 states and western Canada. No wonder we’re tired. Still, it really was terrific. If I could, I’d do it all over again. No regrets, just gratitude at this opportunity to experience so much beauty and remote wild country and to spend so much time observing wild animals in their homes. I would say the year surpassed our expectations, even though we couldn’t do the hiking and backpacking we had hoped we would do. Happiness is – a world to explore and time to enjoy it.

Jim: 28,000 miles - 26,000 photos. I think it'll take us a while to get this one together. But it's not a trip either of us are ever likely to forget. The only problem with it was the huge number of places that we want to go back to. That could take the rest of our lives. Cool....

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Created: 1 Jan 2009
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
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