Christy and I traveled to Pennsylvania for Christmas this year to visit her family.  Getting there proved to be quite an event.  We left on Monday, but made visits to my parents on the way.  As a result, we didn’t start the 6 ½ hour drive to Clearfield, PA, until 7:30 Tuesday evening.  This proved to be a mistake.  Shortly after leaving, we heard that freezing rain was expected throughout western Pennsylvania that night.  We hoped we could outrun the storm, but the first rain drops started to fall when we were in Maryland.  With temperatures in the upper 20’s, we knew that conditions could deteriorate rapidly.


We made it most of the way to Altoona before it started to rain hard.  Before long, ice was forming on our windshield.  By this point, every minor hill became exciting.  We reduced our speed to a crawl, and we still had 50 miles to go.  Unfortunately, some of those 50 miles would be on a winding mountain road.  By the time we reached Altoona, we had conceded defeat.  We got off the highway, and found a room at the Motel 6.


Luckily, the temperatures rose the next morning.  The rain continued, but the ice started to melt.  It’s a good thing, too – otherwise, we might’ve been stuck at the Motel 6 in Altoona for Christmas!  A Tuna Christmas isn’t what we had in mind for the holidays!


The highlight of our time in Altoona was breakfast at the Eat’n’Park.  While we were eating, a family came in with a particularly boisterous woman.  We could clearly hear everything she said from the moment she entered the restaurant.  Christy and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.  As luck would have it, they were seated at a table across from friends of theirs.  When they sat down, she waved to her friend and said, “it’s great we got this table, now we can chat!”  Christy spit omelet out her nose.  I laughed and said, under my breath, “lady, you could chat with them even if you were sitting on the other side of the buffet!”


We made it to Clearfield that afternoon, and endured another day of cold rain.  The weather was relatively decent on Christmas day, but family obligations eliminated any chance of getting out in the woods.  The highlight of Christmas day was spending time with the family, and giving and receiving gifts.  My favorite new toy is a game for my Playstation – Cowbell Hero IV: More Cowbell.


The forecast for the rest of the week looked nasty.  My only reasonable hiking opportunity would be on Friday morning, before the next wave of freezing rain moved in.  I decided to take advantage of the opportunity, even though I would be forced to get up early.  I needed to go hiking in the worst way, and I knew that Boone would benefit from some exercise, too.


I left the house at 7:30, and reached Parker Dam State Park by 8, despite having to stop for gas.  It was a refreshing change not having to drive 2 hours or more to get to a trailhead!  Parker Dam State Park is the trailhead for the Quehanna Trail, which is 70+ mile loop route along the Quehanna Plateau.  I had done several sections of the Quehanna Trail on previous hikes, but I’d never visited the Parker Dam area.


At Parker Dam, I found a small lake, a campground, a visitor’s center, and a network of trails.  Getting to the actual Quehanna Trailhead proved to be difficult though, as the road leading to the parking area was closed due to ice.  Instead, I parked at the Visitor’s Center, where I picked up a park map and signed in for my hike.  According to the register, the last person to hike the Quehanna Trail from Parker Dam was a month earlier!


I grabbed my pack, leashed Boone, and hit the road before 8:30.  It was nice to get an early start, even though it was only 26 degrees.  We followed the road down to an ice-covered bridge over Little Laurel Run.  I followed the road for few more minutes before reaching the actual trailhead parking area.  The parking lot was a sheet of ice, and I couldn’t even make it over to the start of the actual trail!  Fortunately I’d brought my Yaktrax ice cleats.  I slipped them on, and walked across the ice like it was dry pavement.  Today’s hike would’ve been real short without the ice cleats.  I ended up needing them for over 90% of the hike.


Boone followed me, slipping and sliding all over the place, despite having “4-wheel” drive.  He had a tough time with the ice all day long.  Even mild grades were an adventure for him.  At one point, I was descending a sizeable hill, moving cautiously.  Boone came jaunting by, but then started to slide.  With all four legs out stiff he skated on past me, a look of puzzled horror on his face.  He eventually came to a stop at the bottom of the hill.  On another occasion, he knocked a stick loose at the top of a hill.  It started sliding down the slope, and he chased after it.  It was hysterical watching him try to retrieve a moving target, despite the fact that he was sliding out of control.  Going uphill wasn’t any easier for him.  He basically had to power his way up each slope since he had very little traction.


Fortunately, most of the hike was flat.  Despite the gentle terrain, we made horrible time.  We only averaged a little over 1mph for the first half of the hike.  This was largely due to the conditions.  Even with ice cleats on, care was needed.  Also, I spent a bit of time taking photos of Little Laurel Run.  The best spot was at an island in the stream.  A trail bridge leads out to the island, which might make for a nice campsite (although it was hard to tell under all of the snow and ice).  Shortly after this, the sun actually made an appearance.  This was a pleasant surprise, as I was anticipating freezing rain by early afternoon.  With the sun coming out, I had reason to hope that I might finish the hike dry.


We passed through a beautiful stretch of hardwood forest shortly before the junction with the Cut Off Trail.  We followed this trail back towards the park, strolling through another lovely stretch of woods.  After this, the trail got a bit more rugged.  On two occasions, one of my ice cleats came off.  Each time, I was quickly reminded that this hike would’ve been impossible without them.  There were also several marshy areas that were difficult to negotiate without getting wet boots.  At one point, I reached a crossing of a frozen puddle.  Jumping across was out of the question, and marshy areas made going around it impossible.  I was pretty sure the ice would hold, but I didn’t trust it.  I sat on the icy bank, planning to give the ice a good hard kick to test it.  Regrettably, once I sat down, my feet were in the air, and my feet were the only things with any traction.  I immediately slid off the bank, down into the gully.  At that point, I could only hope that the ice would hold!  Luckily it did, but climbing out the other side proved to be a challenge.


A bit later, I reached the first significant downhill of the hike.  For some reason, the trail drops down into the gorge of Saunders Run.  After following the creek briefly, it promptly climbs back out.  I considered bypassing this section by bushwhacking around the gorge.  I was reluctant to leave the blazed trail in the snow though, so down I went.  The descent wasn’t too bad, although Boone did a fair bit of sliding around.  Saunders Run was nice, and I stopped for a quick lunch near the creek.  Clouds were thickening to the west, and if rain was inevitable, I wanted to at least finish lunch first.


A few minutes later, we had to cross a tributary.  Normally this is a small stream, but all of the recent rain turned this crossing into a tricky rock hop.  I made it across, but Boone froze on the far side.  He could’ve stepped through it easily enough, but for some reason, he seemed alarmed.  I called to him, trying to get him to follow me, but he wouldn’t budge.  Bribing him with a doggie treat didn’t convince him, either.  Going back wasn’t an option, and I didn’t want to try to carry him across.  Even though Boone is only 6 months old, he already weighs 50 pounds!  My only other option was to continue without him to see how he would react.  I walked ahead a bit, before turning and calling to him again.  This time, Boone went for it.  He made a flying leap that was effective, if not exactly graceful.  He came running to me, his little stump of a tail wagging faster than I’d ever seen it!  Then he remembered the treat I’d left on a rock next to the creek.  He tried to go back for it, and started down a steep icy slope towards the creek.  He was about one step from a fast ride ending in an icy bath when I grabbed him.  I went down and recovered his treat for him, and we resumed the hike.


Before long, we had to climb out of the gorge.  The climb wasn’t very long, but it was steep. Initially the grade was reasonable, but then we reached a 30’ climb up an exceptionally steep slope.  Yaktrax ice cleats are great, but they aren’t designed for mountaineering.  This spot was definitely testing their limits, and I had to pick my way carefully uphill.  Unfortunately there wasn’t any vegetation here, so I had nothing to hold onto.  Boone tried to follow me, but he kept stopping on the side of the hill.  Each time he did, he slid back down to the bottom.  Finally, I was getting close to the top when Boone went bounding past me.  He was almost at the crest of the hill when looked back at me and stopped.  “NO BOONE, DON’T STOP, KEEP GOING……”, I yelled, but it was too late.  He started sliding backwards, and this time, I was directly in his path.  His bright blue eyes were the size of hubcaps as he started rocketing towards me.  I only had time for one thought.  Oh shit.


He hit me in the knees, and my world turned upside down.  At first, we seemed to be hurtling towards the creek far below.  Then we actually seemed to gain speed.  I was on my stomach, sliding backwards, and somehow Boone had ended up on top of me.  I’ve been sledding many times over the years, but this was the first time that I was the actual sled!  I saw a sapling pass by in a blur, and made a desperate grab for it.  I caught it, but couldn’t hold on.  At least my attempt slowed us down a bit, right before we ran into a stout tree.  Having that tree break my fall wasn’t pleasant, but it was better than the alternative.  If we’d missed it, we would’ve slid all the way to the creek!


The good news is neither of us appeared to be seriously injured.  The bad news is that we were back where we started.  I surveyed the area for a better ascent, but didn’t see many options.  I didn’t want to spend the rest of the winter in the Saunders Creek gorge!  I made my second attempt a few feet to the right of the actual trail, where a scattering of weeds and saplings provided mediocre handholds.  This time we reached the top, although I had to give Boone a hard shove to get him over the hump.  The climb continued from there, but the grade was reasonable.  Near the top of the hill, I reached a trail sign, and the blazes on the trees switched from blue to orange.  I was puzzled by this, but continued ahead.  Before long, we crossed a forest road before eventually reaching a large field.  From here, we followed a logging road down to the park road we had hiked in on.  We followed this road back past the original trailhead, and on to the car.  We reached the car around 2pm, having covered 6.5 miles on trail and perhaps another mile on the road.  7.5 miles in nearly 5.5 hours isn’t impressive, but given the trail conditions, it was understandable.  Luckily, the rain held off until late that afternoon.  It was a great day to get out in the woods and enjoy the crisp air, the peaceful woods, and the snow.  As usual, I’d seen nobody on the trail.  My only company had been the occasional squirrel and the frequent deer tracks.  I didn’t see any deer (or elk, which were reintroduced to the area some years ago), but that isn’t surprising.  After all, it was hunting season!    

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