At the Top of the World

The Winter Queen is imperious and aloof, demanding and notoriously fickle. This year she opted to remain far to the north, leaving us in the gentle arms of Lady Autumn until late in January. Then Her Majesty swept in on howling winds of ice, and buried us in feet of snow.

She is beautiful, and her passage leaves a photographer is eager to get outside to admire the winter wonderland. But first her demands must be met: two days of shoveling, and the passage of enough time for the roads to clear.

Many are the photos I have of the lowlands wreathed in snow: Heinz Refuge, Valley Forge, Ridley Creek. Lacking are any images of snowy scenes from on high. Nearly a week after the blizzard, I set forth on a journey to visit the Winter Queen in her mountain fastness.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8336acsCardinals kept me company as I hiked up the narrow channel of compacted snow where others had walked before me. The soft sigh of the wind in the trees whispered above the rhythm of the wet crunch of my footfalls and squishy creak of my trekking poles.

I wondered what I would find when I reached the Pinnacle. How would the Susquehanna River below be dressed? Open dark water? Or would it be garbed in Her Majesty’s mantle of white?

The wind quickened as I neared the Pinnacle. The first glimpse through the trees made me gasp.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8339acsMy heart soared and I hurried to the overlook.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8355aYes! The Winter Queen has indeed been here!

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8453acsThe evidence of her frigid touch is everywhere, frosting the hills rising above the river…

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8461acs…and tracing the surface of the ice in intricate swirls and waves.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8373acsOn previous visits to the Holtwood Gorge Pinnacle, we discovered a wondrous place just down the trail.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8376acsIt’s a place where pine trees and rhodendrons stand guard over a garden of rocks.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8385aIn dry weather, it is a fun boulder scramble to the farthest of the rocks to look straight down to the water. When the Winter Queen is in residence, it requires much more caution. I clambered carefully down the rocks, often on my butt, very tentative when on my feet. Sometimes my foot plunged through the snow to my knee.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8393acsThere was the point beyond which I would not go. The Winter Queen cares nothing for the safety of her admirers.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8383acsBut, oh, what there was to admire! I sat on a dry boulder for a long time, soaking in the sights and sounds of the Gorge in snow. The wind howled through the trees, a whisper no longer. I felt it stinging my face, as the cold seeped into my legs from the rough rock below me.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8419acsBoulders loomed above me, their surfaces braided in stripes of dark grey, white and rust, dusted with lichens and puddles of snow. Three Bald Eagles circled past, and a kettle of Turkey Vultures.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8427aA flock of Robins passed through, flitting noisily through the shrubs. Did the Winter Queen take offense at the cheery presence of these harbingers of spring in her frozen domain?

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8448acsSlowly I made my way back up the boulders.

The climb was tricky; I had learned the hard way not to trust that there would be solid ground beneath every patch of snow.

I used my hands and knees more than my feet.

Walking the trail was easier.

160129_PA Holtwood Pinnacle Snow_8478acsAt the top, I turned once again to drink in the wonder of the Her Majesty’s creation, the pearly white ribbon winding through dark hills and twisting out of sight.

As if to remind me of the Winter Queen’s capricious temperament, when I reached my car, it began to snow.

In the Garden of Stone

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0328aHold on to your hats, folks, as the Wild Edge takes a sharp detour from the Great Smoky Mountains of the South to the Piedmont of Pennsylvania. We’ll return to the Appalachians soon. But sometimes a trip so excites me that I just have to share it RIGHT NOW.

And what could tear me away from the Smokies? A simple kayak trip Robb, Don and I took to the Susquehanna River. At least it looked simple. Guide books and satellite map research only hinted at a river dotted with rocky islands. That didn’t come close to preparing us for what we found.

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0214acsNeither did our initial half hour on the river. We paddled across to Lower Bear Island, a wooded island in mid-stream whose southern end sports a series of power lines.

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0350acsThe Susquehanna River is punctuated here by three hydro-electric dams. Between the dams is the Susquehanna Gorge. At one time it was 400’ or more deep, where the river carved through bedrock of Wissahickon schist, forming spectacular sculpted rock formations, potholes and three levels of terraces. Now much of it is below the still, lake-like waters. Only where the water is shallow, just below the dams, do the geological wonders appear.

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0219acsThese wonders revealed themselves slowly as we paddled upstream along the shore of Lower Bear Island. At first we saw islets no more than a foot high. Even the smallest had some sort of vegetation on it. Gradually the islets became larger islands, and the shores became steeper and rockier.

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0289acsWhen we reached the channel between Lower Bear and Upper Bear Island, we began to really appreciate this amazing place. Islands of stone were everywhere. Fantastical sculptures lined the cliffs on both sides of us. I started to give the formations names.

2 Susquehanna - Mount RushmoreMt. Rushmore.

3 Susquehanna - Robb at the Fist of GodThe Fist of God. Robb in devout worship.

4 Susquehanna GorgeAbove Upper Bear Island, about a mile and a half from the dam, we began to see signs of trouble. Or rather, we didn’t see trouble, which came in the form of shallow rocks just below the opaque surface. You’d be paddling along, admiring the scenery, and suddenly find yourself spinning sideways and threatening to tip over. Getting unstuck was challenging, and left me with wet shirt sleeves.

Another quarter mile up, the water got too low for our kayaks. We tried a cross channel around Crow Island, but had to turn back. By this time we were hungry and itching to stretch our legs. But where to land? There were no soft beaches in this garden of stone.

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0303acsWell, yes, there was, just one. When we passed it earlier it had been occupied by two kayaks, with two kayakers above on the rocks. Now the beach was empty. We stopped, picked up our little lunch sacks, and threaded our way through the trees to the top. I was first to arrive, and this is what I saw:

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0381acsOh, my goodness. Yes, this will do quite nicely.

6 Susquehanna - Robb & Don at the Lunch SpotRobb, Don and I spent a lovely siesta eating, admiring the scenery, taking photos of butterflies, a snake and each other, and taking care of other (ahem) necessities.

Or not. I  really have to put a bell on Don.

(There you go, Don. See how nice I am to you? I put this photo in at your request, even though you insist on continually disturbing my (ahem) solitary moments.)

1 Susquehanna GorgeThe little pool formed by the rocks below our lunch spot made for a serene place to explore.

7 Susquehanna  - Don & Robb in SyncIt’s rare that I put people in my photographs. The gorge requires it, to give a sense of scale. Don and Robb paddled on, dwarfed by the surrounding stone walls.

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0444acsMany of the rocks show a strong tilt, the result of thousands of years of geological forces far beyond my comprehension. (Really. I read a scientific paper about the gorge. Didn’t understand a third of it.)

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0464acsFor something completely different, we took the channel (right) between Upper and Lower Bear Islands to the other side. Here we found the river even wider, and not nearly so rocky. The main channel passes close to the far shore.

By the time we passed Lower Bear Island, Don was ready to call it a day and headed in.

Not Robb and I. He’d been talking all day about some cove on Big Chestnut Island he’d spotted on a satellite photo. I thought he meant a small beach. Little did I know.

150417_PA Susquehanna Conowingo Pool_0494 acsThe approach to the cove was narrow, and nearly invisible. It took some deft paddling to wind through the tight and twisty opening. A couple of Bald Eagles flew close overhead, a good omen if ever there was one.

We found ourselves inside a small hidden lagoon, a secret garden. Wooded rock walls towered above us on all sides, cool and green and shady. It was amazing.

8 Susquehanna - Robb in the Secret GardenWe wanted to linger awhile longer, but needed to press on. The exit was far too narrow for passage, so we left the way we came, and crossed the river to the boat launch. Our day was over, and we were tired but elated.

It’s taken me a while to find a place as awesome as the Smokies. Hard to believe I’d find it so close to home. Even harder to believe a landscape as dramatic as the Susquehanna Gorge exists so close to home.

I can’t wait to wander again through this watery garden of stone.

5 Susquehanna - Lunch Spot