Cast Your Gold and Sapphires Upon the Waters

"The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness." - John Muir.

This week is my husband's and my wedding anniversary week, and we originally planned to take the whole week off and head to the woods. However, the weekend forecast was calling for rain to arrive mid-week, so while we may not get our whole week in the woods, we will do the best we can with whatever decent weather we get!

The weather for Sunday and Monday was to be gorgeous, sunny and beautiful, just perfect for heading outdoors. So we talked it over and my husband decided it was time for us to go backpacking in the Hammersley Wild Area, a place he loves but gets to visit far too seldom.

The Hammersley Wild Area, 30,253 acres in size, is the second-largest wild area in the state of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has 16 wild areas, the largest of which is the Quehanna Wild Area, which you've visited on occasion with me via these pages.

According to the Pennsylvania state code, "a wild area is defined as an extensive area which the general public will be permitted to see, use, and enjoy for such activities as hiking, hunting, fishing, and the pursuit of peace and solitude. Development of a permanent nature will not be permitted so as to retain the undeveloped character of the area." No new roads may be built and overnight camping is limited to primitive backpacking, hooray!

The Hammersley Wild Area is part of the Susquehannock State Forest in Potter and Clinton Counties, and it has the distinction of being the largest roadless area in the state. The Hammersley Fork, the creek that runs through it, is a tributary of Kettle Creek, which eventually flows into the West Branch of the mighty Susquehanna River.

So we packed up our gear Sunday morning, and by shortly after 10 am, we were on the road. It is about a two-hour drive to the spot where we park our car along the creek, pack up our gear, wade across the creek, and hike in several miles to our back-country campsite.

We arrived at our parking spot just a bit after noon, and it took us just under two hours to get ourselves packed up and to backpack into our campsite from there. No, we did not follow any formally marked trail. I wish I could tell you it is an easy hike to see the pretty things we saw, but sadly, it is not.

In fact, the hike was arduous, and I do not recommend it. Anything amazing that you get to see there, you will truly EARN, just as we did. We walked in along one side of the creek one day and out the next day along the other side, and both ways were quite difficult.

On the way in, we found that what passed for a trail had been flooded out by recent rains. And so we had to cross water quite a few times and wade through and around the muck. We had brought along both water shoes and hiking boots, so we were well set.

For the majority of the hike, I recommend a high boot and strong ankles; for backpackers, who are carrying more weight than just a through-hiker, I recommend exceptional skills at leaping, crawling, balancing, and recovery. If you have any sort of ambulatory issues at all, this is not a hike for you.

I've since looked up other people's recounts of their Hammersley adventures online, and I find them loaded with comments like "watch out for rattlesnakes" (none this time of year, alas; and I do adore a good snake sighting, from a respectful distance, of course), "demanding hiking," and "for expert hikers only."
And I admit I giggled out loud when I came across this description from that last link: "As a friend told me of these old CCC trails, expect to have good, well-defined trail about a quarter of the time; obvious but obscured trail a quarter of the time; partial trail a quarter of the time; and no trail at all the rest of the time." So yes, the remotest, wildest portions of the Hammersley are for expert hikers and navigators only.

All of these people are speaking the truth, and I would not venture into the Hammersley Wild Area without an expert in tow. And yes, my husband is one; his sense of navigation is extraordinary, as is his ability to lead a bushwhack cross-country and end up where he intended on the other side. (I myself have been known to lose my car in the downtown parking garage and have trouble finding it again, so it must be true that opposites attract!)

I would also add: watch out for the prickly nettle! For there you are, hiking along, when - WHAP! - you are whacked by prickly nettle, which instantly sets your skin stinging, burning, and itching. We were reminded at this juncture of a song our friend Jimmy - now departed, alas - used to sing; it went something like this: "O-o-o-ooooh prickly nettle!"

And it was typically sung in an anguished tone of voice while dancing around in discomfort. But really, if you can live through the first two minutes of the sting, it fades, and you will probably be OK. (Probably, I say. But those are a LONG two minutes . . . ) See note.*

The wild area is full of old growth forest, including lots of hemlocks and hard woods. The foliage colors, when we arrived in the afternoon, could only be described as "stunning." With the reflection of golden leaves and blue skies upon the waters, it seemed as though someone had strewn a box of jewels there, handful by handful.

I was reminded of Gustav Klimt's golden phase; yes, it was as beautiful as that, and you could have sworn somebody with great magic had attached gold foil to each and every leaf on every single tree. The colors shone as though capable of photogenesis: can tree leaves make their own light? It certainly seemed so!

There is a famous, huge swimming pool in the Hammersley Wild Area, but we did not make it that far. We backpacked in about three miles and pitched our tents. The big swimming pool is several miles further beyond where we stopped.

I have visited the much larger Hammersley swimming hole before, though not recently. And my husband reports that once while backpacking into that place with a childhood buddy, his friend (a fisherman) pulled a trout out of that pool, cleaned it, and cooked it over a fire, and ate it; and it was the best-tasting, freshest fish my husband had ever had in his life.

Our own campsite is at the juncture of the main stream and a side stream, and there is a small swimming hole there. The photo above shows the main creek below the juncture, and you are looking right into the tiny swimming hole. For the extra photo, I took about two steps to my right and shot up the little side creek, to the left of which we pitched our tents. (My tent claimed the primo spot closest to the creek; and what a view I had in either direction!)

I wish I could post twenty photos here, for I have several times that number that turned out just as well as the two I've shared. My husband and I are leaf-peeping fiends, and we drive (and hike, of course!) all around central Pennsylvania looking for the best foliage colors every autumn. Our biggest thrill is to get to someplace just as it hits "peak," which is to say the colors are the best they are going to get, but they have not yet begun to fade.

I would have to say that the Hammersley was at peak because I don't think the foliage colors - especially the bright yellows - could have gotten any better than this. And to get perfect, sunny, blue-sky weather on top of it: wow, how fortunate we were. What a spectacular pair of days!

I will save the rest of my backpacking adventure for tomorrow's posting. In the meantime, here's a song to go along with this golden and sapphire scene. This one is a favorite, as I'm a Dire Straits fan from way back when: Dire Straits, with Love Over Gold.

*Note: concerning prickly nettle . . . I have since read online that human urine is considered one of the treatments that may help ease the sting of prickly nettle. I am not responsible for what you do with this information!  ;-)

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