Monday, January 17, 2011


I'm not entirely sure why it took me so long to discover the tiny village of Blackwell, Pa. in the upper Pine Creek Valley, but having now done so, I can't imagine a more idyllic place to shed the mechanized world and forget your troubles for a few days. I've camped at Colton Point to the north, I've fished in Cedar Run to the south but I never quite made it to Blackwell. It's a long way from anywhere. And for at least one sleepy winter's day I finally had the place pretty much to myself.

My latest head trip was to ski into the Pine Creek Canyon from it's southern terminus in Blackwell. The old Pine Creek Rails to Trails would provide easy access to country I've always wanted to see before. Snow cover was light but good enough to maintain a nice glide on a bed that was bike path smooth. The skies were extremely overcast, temps were in the upper 20's and it snowed off and on all day.

Now would probably be a good time to post our annual public service warning on freezing to death. It's a WRWT winter tradition.

Pine Creek Watershed Rivers Conservation Plan

As seen from the Pine Creek Trail which runs right through the middle of the village, it was built in 1892. Blackwell sits at the confluence of Pine and Babb Creek about 5 miles upstream of Cedar Run. It's founder, Enock Blackwell made his business in lumbering and a few of his descendants still inhabit the village today.

This house was originally built to house railroad workers in the late 1800's and is located right next to the PCT's portal into the canyon at the north end of the village. The last freight train passed through the gorge in October, 1988. After which the tracks were ripped up and the entire railbed from Ansonia to Jersey Shore was converted into a non-motorized trail. The first 20 mile section of trail from Ansonia to Rattlesnake Rock opened up in 1996, the entire length was completed by spring of 2007.

Just as I pushed off north out of the village the light snow that had been falling off and on all morning had picked up in intensity. The peaks of the mountains I had hoped to photograph were now lost in a whiteout of swirling snow and wind. The whole scene looked like something out of a Jack London novel. Suddenly I was on a cold, lonely and isolated stretch of the Charley River in Alaska's Yukon instead of a remote tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna. The silence was deafening.

Evidently the DCNR sets down groomed trax in the canyon. Being somewhat of a backcountry skier I don't recall ever having skied in groomed trax before. It's a guilty pleasure now, I guess.
Ok, there was that one time on the Madison River Trail in Yellowstone National Park, but in that case I was just following Bob Jacklin's lead and I didn't know it was groomed until I was already 100 yards down the trail. After that day I started buying all my stuff from Blue Ribbon Flies.

Stone Quarry Run
About every 1/2 mile or so there was some sort of side stream or hollow coming in to join the main trail through the canyon. Most of them had frozen waterfalls or some other hidden gems that were too risky to approach solo on the ice covered trails.

Some falls were closer than others. The light was pretty flat for photography in the gorge today but if you looked very closely there were little miracles like this all around you. This view of the falls on Stone Quarry Run is right from the Pine Creek Trail.

The National Park Service designated the Pine Creek Gorge a National Natural Landmark in 1969. Here at WRWT we're giving it three thumbs up!

There is trail access to some of the side hollows if you have your ice axe and crampons with you. We'll play it safe and take a pass. It would be a long slow crawl out of here with a broken ankle or a busted up head.

The Iroquois tribe once hunted & canoed along here after they pushed the Susquehannocks further south. Coming down from their longhouses at Big Meadows (near present day Ansonia) to one of the various salt licks they must have had their own private game reserve. This place was filthy lousy with elk back then.

Hatches are gonna be early this year. Saw a few male green drake duns mixed in with a sparse march brown emergence while I waited out the storm under this pine tree. Nothing rising. Seemed just a little bit early to me.

Since this is an old railroad bed the trail is extremely well graded and there are bridges across each side stream. A luxury I'm not at all use to. Next I'll be skiing golf courses.

No fishing from bridges allowed in the gorge. Dang, because otherwise...

With Water Tank Hollow Run. It has a frozen waterfall too. Pretty far back and I didn't want to change lenses while it was snowing. So this is all you get.

There's gotta be a story here somewhere. Only Benjamin knows for sure.

I've been skiing in the mountains around Pine Creek for going on 25 years now. Most of that has been up on the mountain tops of the Allegheny Plateau and for good reason. This is the first time I've ever skied down in the valley proper. While it's true that the valley floor doesn't hold the snowpack quite as long as in the mountains do, the Pine Creek Trail doesn't need a very deep base to be skiable. I didn't know what I was missing by sticking to the higher elevations.

We all miss the old historic Manor Hotel which burnt down in 2003. I pretty much grew up drinking in that bar. At night after I had my fill, I would stumble across the old trestle bridge across Pine Creek and sleep it off in the back of my Ford Econoline van (a friend of the devil was a friend of mine) parked down at the canoe access. Get up in the morning and go fish myself sober on Slate Run. The new Manor Hotel can still always be counted on for great food, drink and comfortable (but small) rooms. Parking is ample.

The following morning dawned clear and cold at 15F but would warm up to a balmy 22F. After an over indulgent breakfast buffet of cholesterol and calories at the Manor Hotel I made trax south out of Blackwell. My destination today will be Rattlesnake Rock and the Narrows above Cedar Run. If you're gonna visit a place named Rattlesnake Rock, I'm thinkin' that winter would be the best time to do it.

A beautiful morning along the trail and it's nice to see some blue sky for a change. That's Fork Hill in the background. The divide between Pine Creek and Babb Creek.

The track was fast this morning thanks to the cold temperatures. Free your heel, free your mind.

A brilliant blue morning, the kind of day where you wish you were alive. Then you see your exhaled breath condensed in front of you as an affirmation. Even here in mid January you can begin to feel the earth starting to tilt on it's polar axis.

No river otters or bald eagles or Yeti were spotted on this trip.

Once I hit Cedar Run the sun was now as high in the sky as it gets at this time of the year and the snow was beginning to soften up and stick to my skies just a bit. It was time to call it a day and start the long drive home. I only had two days to spend up in the canyon. I wish it could have been more. As soon as the next big dump comes our way we'll lay down a few more trax in the Pine Creek Valley.

Cedar Run is located about 6 miles above Slate Run. It's a popular destination for trout fisherpersons. Especially those seeking wild brook and brown trout. One of these days I think I'm gonna try that fly fishing thing and see what all the fuss is about...

This popular Pine Creek village had it'd beginnings in 1791 when pioneer Jacob Tome pulled his family up the creek in canoes to the mouth of Slate Run. Today fly fisherpersons pull themselves up PA 44/414 in their SUV's to fly fish for trout in the specially regulated waters of Slate and Cedar Runs. It's all good.

The first fork on Pine Creek.
Where it began.

Of course, we'll also revisit the Pine Creek Canyon again this year come spring and fall seasons when the temperatures are a little milder and I can leave my long johns with the drop down drawer in 'em at home.

"In seed time learn, in harvest
time teach, in winter enjoy."
-William Blake