The West Rim Trail
Tens of thousands of years ago ice and water began the long process of carving an enormous gouge in the earth of what was to become Tioga County, Pennsylvania. Now, every year thousands of cars drive to the west rim of this ditch at Colton Point State Park. Here these folks get out of their cars, "oh" and "ah" over the view of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, and then hop back into their vehicles and roll away to the next scenic attraction on their list.
That's not how we did it.
Twenty-five miles south of Colton Point, near the southern end of the gorge, a long, long path known as the West Rim Trail begins. This place, called Rattlesnake Rocks, was where our walk to the top began. We were a group of nine Boy Scouts, ages 12 to 15, and three adults, ages 38 to 54. As seems to happen with greater and greater frequency, I was the old man of the crowd.
The last time I humped a pack was in Vietnam, thirty years ago, and before I had hiked 100 yards on the West Rim Trial, I knew that this would be a different experience from that. On the plus side, no one would be shooting at me. On the minus side, my body has softened more than a little over the years. If I was a lean, mean fighting machine back then, I am now a marshmallow.
Despite weeks of cunning preparation, my pack weighed 38 pounds, and as we entered the woods in the late afternoon and began the climb up to the canyon rim, I started to sweat. We knew from our maps that, for the first three miles, the path went upward along the course of a stream running through the dark pinewoods. The way was made darker still by gray clouds that periodically leaked small showers onto our heads. Under foot, the trail was mostly rocks and roots covered with moss. A small cloud of punkies soon swarmed around my head.
Our group of backpackers quickly stretched out. At the front were the fittest, chattering away and making good progress. I could hear them saying things like, "Pick up the pace!" and "I'm feelin' it, baby!" Me too, me too. Then came those who were not quite so enthusiastic, but who were, none-the-less, traveling well. Next came the Scouts who were having trouble, usually due to equipment difficulties like packs that were not properly fitted, or knots that came undone and dumped their sleeping bags onto the wet ground. I was at the tail of the column, where the unaccustomed weight of the pack chafed my hips and shoulders, the mosquitoes bit my ankles, and my lungs labored as I stepped slowly up the ever-ascending trail.
Occasionally I would catch up with someone with more immediate troubles than mine, and I then got to rest a little as we fixed a pack, or talked about the mental games you can play with yourself to tackle a hard physical challenge. I welcomed these interludes, since misery loves company, and also because this was to be my way of contributing something to the overall effort on this, our first backpacking expedition as a troop.
We never made it to the top that first day. Somewhere along the line the trail went one way and we went another. Along about 8 p.m. we found ourselves at long disused campsite, where we were all too happy to pitch our tents and eat a quick dinner before retiring for the night. As I prepared for bed, I consoled myself that this was the hard part, and that brighter days lay ahead. I slept poorly, and awoke at dawn to the sound of rain hitting my little tarp tent. I was happy just to lie there and listen until the shower slowly passed and all that remained was the sound of drips from the trees overhead hitting my tent.
By 8:30 we were climbing again. The hard charging group up front was smaller by one now. The kid who had not thought it necessary to bring a tent now knew better. My pack was heavier because a wet tent weighs more than a dry one. My shoes squished as I walked. My cloud of bugs had rejoined. I dug out a some trail mix to munch on and smiled as I made my way through the dripping landscape. Today had to be better than yesterday.
Shortly we came to a dirt road and marched northward along it to regain the West Rim Trail. The morning was overcast, but clearing. The temperature was bearable and the road rolled pleasantly through the high terrain. Walking the road was harder on our wet feet than the trail had been, but the firm surface and sure footing made for speedy progress. At noon we threw off our packs along side the road and broke out our cooking gear. My son Pete and I set up a little propane stove and made some Beef Ramen noodles for our mid-day meal. A chocolate-chip granola bar served as desert, and we washed it down with the last of our original supply of water.
The crew was busily finishing the cleanup when black clouds were spotted hurrying toward our location. Within minutes the sky opened up and the rain came pouring down. Some of the Scouts scrambled into their packs and slithered into their ponchos before the storm's true force hit. I helped one of these guys get bundled up, and thus missed my own chance at comfort. As the storm picked up, I just tucked my poncho around my pack on the ground, and then stood there in my Jimmy Buffet T-shirt and Scout pants, and took an unasked for shower. It wasn't so bad once you got used to the idea that it was unavoidable, if your pack was to stay semi-dry.
One of the Scouts tried the other approach --- wear the poncho and let the pack get wet. He was drier than I at the end of the twenty minute storm, but as he hoisted his pack, I saw water dripping out the bottom, and I wondered how much extra weight he must now be carrying, and how uncomfortable he would be later when it came time to sleep in his now sopping sleeping bag.
That afternoon passed in a blur, as I slugged along trying to keep up with the front crowd that still babbled constantly and cruised along with no apparent fatigue. Around 3 p.m. we stopped at a lonely spring along the road and used the two water purification pumps we carried to re-supply ourselves with clean water. A giant salamander was discovered in the spring, caught, examined and released. The watering break was too long for some, and too short for others, and, what with the long march and the many discomforts, people started to get a little testy.
The leader of our expedition was Clay Williams. Clay is very fit, but the rain had wet his boots, and the long afternoon's march over the hard surface of the road produced the beginnings of a blister on his left foot. Clay is as nice and easy going a person as you could ask for in a traveling companion. Still, there are limits to everything, and when the night's final destination had changed four times, he finally had had enough. Stepping off the road, and 100 yards up a path called the Ice Break Trail, he announced, "We sleep here tonight!"
Half the group was happy and half was not. Many people were starting to limp, and I for one had walked enough for one day --- ten miles carrying 45 pounds of sodden gear was enough and more than enough for this old man.
We set up camp in a ferny meadow under beech trees. Pete and I had Lipton's Rice Mix and a Summer Sausage for dinner. Then we did minor first aid on feet, and stretched clotheslines in the damp air and festooned these with wet socks, shirts and underwear in a vain attempt to dry out. One bunch hiked out to the end of Ice Break Trail, to where it intersected the West Rim Trail. When they returned, they reported that we were camped in the wrong place and that with a move of just a half-mile we could be camped in the loveliest place under heaven. All their talking could not convince the rest of us however, and so we stayed put and spent the evening trying to dry boots and socks around a small campfire.
By ten o'clock we were in bed, and once again I had trouble getting to sleep in these novel surroundings. An owl hooted close at hand, an eerie animal scream moved from place to place in the near distance, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, it was dawn and time to do it all again. I smiled wanly as I ate Strawberry Pop-Tarts for breakfast --- surely the worst was now behind us.
The spirits of the group were brighter that morning. Maybe it was because the sky was blue for the first time, or perhaps it was because a breeze blew through our part of the forest and carried the bugs and humidity away. The clothes that had hung out were just as sodden as they had been the day before, and our boots were just as wet, but something had changed overnight. Pete had awakened to find snails crawling on his sleeping bag, but reported the fact with only mild regret rather than with fear and loathing.
By 9 a.m. I had hefted my 55-pound pack, containing an ever-expanding collection of wet and smelly clothes, onto my back, and we were marching up Ice Break Trail to the canyon rim. A nice 10 minute walk brought us the end of this short trail, and there before us lay the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. This is nothing at all like the real Grand Canyon, but for this part of the world, it is impressive indeed. Pennsylvania has hundreds of steep hillsides with small streams in their bottoms, but this is the best of them all. The hilltop here is about 800 feet above Pine Creek, and from this point we could see for miles up and down its canyon.
We examined the scenery for some time and then started our march
north on the West Rim Trail. Clay had replaced the front group with
two Scouts who better understood the instruction to set a slower
pace and to stay together. This caused some hard feelings, but from
that time on I felt that I was part of a tough but interesting hike,
rather than an unwilling participant in some insane, woodsy test of
The trail had a pattern to it that morning. First it would follow the canyon rim for a while, and would then trend to the west and down to cross small tributary streams that eventually went plunging down the steep side of Pine Creek Gorge to the main stream far below. After each crossing, we would again climb up to the canyon rim and then walk northward to the next little tributary stream.
At noon, we stopped on one of these branch streams that we thought to be Horse Creek, cooked our midday meal and re-supplied ourselves with water. After lunch we continued on in the same way until we came to a fork in the trail that should not have been there. Somehow we had gotten out of sync with our maps, and now saw that we would have to walk another hour to get to the bridge that would take us over to Colton Point where we planned to spend the night in the luxury of a state maintained campground.
So we went chugging up the trail until we rounded a point and could see Colton Point across a very steep and deep ravine in front of us. It took us twenty minutes to decide that what I had taken to be a bridge was instead just a property line on the map, and that we would have to do 3 miles of road walking to reach our destination. This was very frustrating. We could see our destination clearly in front of us, but there was absolutely no direct way of getting to it. We talked of enormous rope bridges. We talked of hang gliders and hot air balloons, but in the end we put one foot in front of the other and did what we had to do.
By the time we arrived at Coulton Point, we were hot and dusty, but our spirits survived and a new phrase had been added to the folklore of the trip --- "We're not as far as we thought we were, but we're doin' good." This said with a sweet mixture of sadness and surprise.
We set up in the group camping meadow and took life easy for the rest of the night. The men did a little car shuffling to get ready for the final part of our journey, and some hot dogs magically appeared to flesh out our noodle diet. Then, with a fat moon rising, we all crawled into our beds and went to sleep, pleased with the sights of the day, and looking forward to the last leg of the hike on the morrow.
It was about midnight when I was awakened to my name being called in the night. It was Mike, who, having eaten too fancy a meal and then retiring too quickly to bed, was now paying the price with indigestion. I got up and got him to come out into the moonlight with me, and then we took a little walk to settle his stomach. Initially, he wanted to light the way with his flashlight, but I talked him into doing without on this brightly moonlit night. Together we made our way though the darkness, along park roads to a nearby overlook. The canyon was now lit by the full moon. With its southern end plugged up with clouds it looked surreal and timeless in the night. After a bit, Mike was feeling better, and we shambled way back to camp. He said he was sorry to have wakened me. I didn't mind at all.
I slept fairly well, but woke to find hundreds of ants crawling over my head and pack. I had brought a thin 4-inch square of cloth-covered foam to use as my pillow, and sandwiched this between my head and pack for use. In my pack were all of my "smellables" --- food that can attract the attention of the beasties of the night. In lonelier campsites smellables were put in a "bear bag" and hung in a tree to be out of the reach of critters. Here at Colton Point, I had just left them in my pack, and now I paid the price. At least it was hundreds of ants and not hundreds of bears that I awoke to find crawling around my head.
It took 15 minutes to remove the mashed candies, damp trail mix and crumpled granola bars from my pack. Then, I picked off all the ants I could find and re-stowed my food. Sure, there were crushed ants on some of it, but I needed more protein in my diet anyway, and so I whistled as I worked.
Leaving our packs behind, we took a leisurely stroll around the Colton Point overlooks and enjoyed another nice morning. Then about ten o'clock, we wriggled into our packs again and marched off toward the end of the trail.
Now we were headed down hill along the most frequented and scenic portion of the trail. The way often led for hundreds of yards right along the true rim of the canyon, where a misstep would send you crashing down the steep mountain slope until you fetched up with a thud against boulder or tree trunk. For me one of the unexpected miseries of backpacking was the necessity of looking at my feet so much of the time. I did this because it made my pack ride a trifle easier, and because a poorly placed foot could cause a fall or a twisted ankle. Usually there was not a lot to see down there, but here, on the rim of the world, just off to the right was an awesome drop that made me want to hug every tree I passed. It was great!
After a mile or so, the trail swung away from the rim and started its decent. We followed it down and down for most of the morning, stopped, had some lunch, and then continued the march. Going down was easy on the lungs, but tough on the toes as our feet mashed forward in our boots. Also you had to resist the tendency to go faster and faster down the slope. If you didn't, a misplaced a step quickly landed you on your knees or back.
At two in the afternoon, we reached the northern end of the West Rim Trail, and our long five-day trek was over. Some of the Scouts had no troubles at all and will probably not remember this week of walking in a few years time. Others had lots of physical problems and now know what it is to be handicapped, and how to cope with unavoidable pain. A few had not thought they could make this long hike after the horrible first hours on Monday. Yet, here they were at the end of the trail. It is these guys who have learned some mental toughness who will be most changed by our little walk in the woods.
As for me, I stood at the end of the trail taking inventory of the damage done. My feet were fine, even if they did look like prunes. My ankles and arms had about 30 insect bites on them, some few of which itched like crazy. An angry red welt circled a quarter of my waist where the hip belt of my pack had rubbed it raw on the second day, but this had now quit bleeding and was scabbed over nicely. I also had nine bruises of mysterious origin.
My head, though, was just fine. All the cobwebs of civilized life had been blown away, and I knew that for weeks to come I would see my everyday world in a different way. Every meal made by my wife would be a special treat. A ride in my car would be a magic carpet ride. My return to work in my comfortable air-conditioned office in Clarion would be no work at all. And, my duty to write up a summary of the adventure would allow me to relive it all in memory, and to smile at the strangeness of my doing something so unnecessarily hard, just for the sake of a few Boys Scouts, and for the fond memories of hardship and adventure.
It was now Thursday afternoon. The walk was over, and it was time for a little fun. We got in our cars and went back along part of our walking route as we headed for Pine Creek. The car glided along and everyone was very impressed with the rapidity of our progress along the same road that had taken hours to traverse that morning.
At Pine Creek we went wading and splashed away the sweat of our travels. Some fished a little, while others caught and released handsome crayfish. After an hour we drove over to Wellsboro for dinner at McDonalds. Imagine the smiles on the faces of this Ramen fed crew of trampers as they confronted their first burgers in a week.
After dinner we drove to Leonard Harris State Park, on the east rim of the canyon opposite Colton Point. There we set up in a manicured campground and wandered about at our leisure. Most of the Scouts headed down the Turkey Path, a trail that leads down to Pine Creek and then up to Colton Point on the other side. They didn't have time to do the whole thing, and I was content to skip this little hike, but I gather that they decided to just go straight down the steep slope rather than sticking with the trail. This was a bad thing to do, but they all survived their error and came back exhilarated from the experience.
By 11 p.m. we were all in our tents, awaiting the arrival of a storm that the park ranger had warned was coming. It plowed through early in the morning, bringing high winds and heavy rains. All those tiny tents that had remained more or less dry during the past week now leaked like they were made of cheesecloth, and by dawn more than half of our group were soaked. I had little trouble under my tarp tent, but my flashlight did give out and I was reduced to pawing through my pack by feel every time I needed something. No one cared very much. We were by now inured to hardship, and anyway, this was the day we were heading for home!
By 10 a.m., we were on the road. After making a short side trip to climb a tower to see a view of the Grand Canyon area, we visited Animaland to buy souvenirs. By noon we had returned to Wellsboro, where we devoured Canyon Burgers and waffle fries.
p.m. we were on the road for Clarion.