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In The Country

Ready for a Walk?

Ian Clarke
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(9/2014) In his essay "Walking," Henry David Thoreau suggests "we should go forth on the shortest walk . . . in the spirit of undying adventure." In that spirit I got up one mid-August morning to walk right here in the local area in the woods of Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve outside Fairfield, Pennsylvania.

Strawberry Hill encompasses 609 acres (almost exactly one square mile) off of Mount Hope Road about three miles west of Fairfield. It preserves the watershed of tiny Swamp Creek, a tributary to Middle Creek, and in turn Toms Creek, the Monocacy River, and the Chesapeake Bay. The preserve offers educational programs and membership opportunities, but my subject today is the ten miles of hiking trails that are free to the public throughout the year. Unusual for a nature preserve, they even allow pets, as long as they are on a leash and their owners clean up after them. The trails have colored blaze marks, and a brochure with a map is available online and at the trailhead. I wore hiking shoes, though most people will be happy enough with sneakers on these trails. My plan was to cover the low ground and the high ground by combining the Nature, Swamp Creek, and Bakerís Knob trails.

I arrived on a cool morning with mist rising from the small pond and disintegrating into a breeze. A turtle-basking platform some distance from the bank was empty, and a few birds sang Ė titmouse, wood pewee, and crow. My trail began with the white-blazed Nature Trail just behind the log and pink-painted cabin that sits on the north side of Mount Hope Road. It dates to the 1700s. The trail headed into the shade of a forgotten evergreen plantation bordering the pond. Beyond the pines, the path emerged into a more familiar mid-Atlantic woodland. Spicebush, with the berries still green, bordered the trail, and the surrounding trees were mostly beech and oak, with a few hemlock and hornbeam mixed in. Before going a quarter mile, I came to Swamp Creek. As youíd expect in August, the water was low, but it was still flowing around rocks and between banks lined by ferns, moss, and exposed beech roots.

The main trails on the upstream side of Mount Hope Road are arranged in three expanding loops. From the shortest trail (Nature Trail) you can access the next larger (Swamp Creek Trail), and from Swamp Creek you can access the longest (Foothills Trail), which fits in a full five miles. Spur trails can take you to a hilltop (Bakerís Knob) or an abandoned quarry. Not long after crossing Swamp Creek on a wooden bridge, I hopped onto the pink-blazed Swamp Creek Trail. At this point, the footway narrowed to a single file track and meandered upstream along the creek. After just about a half mile, the pink trail crossed another trail and began to climb through an open area of blow-downs and snags, where I heard Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers calling.

To really find the high ground at Strawberry Hill, you need to head up a tougher trail - the blue-blazed Bakerís Knob. Itís a fairly wide old woods road, tough only in the sense that it is steep. Local cross country teams train on this trail, and itís part of the annual Twisted Turkey trail race in November. With Thoreau in mind, I walked without a concern for finishing time. As I turned onto the blue trail and climbed up the slope on the east side of Swamp Creek, I could see the sun beginning to shine on the western side. The trees were changing too: fewer beeches, more Sweet Birch and Chestnut Oak. This last tree is one that thrives in the poor soil of rocky hilltops. The trail forked, but both blue-blazed paths joined again before the final climb to the summit. The high point is marked by a kiosk and a picnic table. I have seen turkeys here before, especially when alone, but not this day. The hilltop is forested and does not provide a big view, though when the leaves are down you may catch some glimpses of the countryside below from rocky outcrops nearby. A wood pewee and a nuthatch were the only birdsong. It was a good place to pause the adventure, rest, and take stock.

Taking a walk in the "spirit of undying adventure" could mean a few things - finding new places, new things, new facets of yourself. New for me on this day were fungi. Maybe it was the cool days, or recent rains, but there seemed more than usual along the trail. I learned two new ones with bizarre shapes: Horn of Plenty, with its dark ragged trumpets; and Calocera viscosa, Yellow Stagís Horn. The example I found was bright orange, like a tiny coral reef on the forest floor.

After descending from Bakerís Knob, I turned right to continue the Swamp Creek loop. Though mainly fed by runoff, Swamp Creek has a few small springs, one of which I passed. The trail soon passed under a stand of huge Tulip Poplars and then back toward the creek, which it crossed on a lovely new wooden bridge at just under 2.5 miles into the hike. Here I scared up four or five deer, too quick for a photo. A few racoon tracks marked the streambed. Then the trail widened and began to climb the western slope of the watershed. By this point the day had begun to warm up and the late summer cicada noise was growing. This trail only climbs the shoulder of the slope, and at just over three miles I descended to a wooden bridge and a trail hub where I rejoined the Nature Trail and continued toward my starting point. I passed a woman and a boy of six or seven exploring. She pronounced the Preserve "heavenly," so maybe she had read Thoreau as well.

Near the "pink cabin" I came back into the sunlight and walked over to the pond. I had covered 3.6 miles in two hours and twenty minutes at what I would call a "nature pace," a relaxed walk with many stops. An exercise walker would go faster; the Preserveís brochure says youíll go slower. Your results may vary. The Bakerís Knob spur, by the way, added about a mile to my walk, and of course, a better sense of the varied terrain. This total was still only about a third of the trail mileage available at Strawberry Hill, to say nothing of the fact that the 2010 transfer of former private tree farm lands to the state means that one can hike from the Preserve parking lot right into Michaux State Forest. But those are hikes for another day.

On the pond, the morning mist was long gone. Dragonflies were now cruising the banks, as robins and a Carolina Wren sang from nearby wood-edges. The turtle platform was no longer empty. Two Eastern Painted Turtles were basking. As I approached the bank, one slid off into the water. Perhaps I spooked it, or perhaps its leaving was simply part of a daylong cycle of basking for warmth and foraging for food. The other turtle stretched its head and looked my way. I was only one of many pond-watchers to walk by during its long life. The ever-changing landscape had shifted with the rising of the sun, and the forest waited to welcome the next traveler.