Let me open with a piece of advice to all the hammockers out there. This should go without saying, but here it is anyway… When you wake up in the morning and begin to break camp, always make sure you take your tree-straps off the tree and pack them away properly. Having a panic attack 15 miles down the trail and tearing your entire pack apart isn’t good for morale, and it’s tough to hang your hammock at the next site without those pesky straps. I’m a relatively new hanger, and succumbed to a rookie mistake. Lesson learned.
I reached the trailhead of the Black Forest Trail (BFT) shortly after 6PM on Wednesday. Surprisingly, Amy’s car was absent from the trailhead. She was going to drive up and get an earlier start with Bob and Jerry. Since cell phone signal was nonexistent, I chalked it up to some minor change in plans and assumed everything was still OK. Pickle (my trusty trail dog) and I would have to hustle to hike 6.6 miles before dark.
MY group had decided to hike the trail in the reverse of the typical direction in order to avoid a wet crossing of Slate Run on the first day. The trail started out with two smooth miles of hiking parallel to Slate Run before making a small climb up to Slate Run Rd. As I crossed the road, I spotted Amy’s car pulled off to the side. That question being answered, I hiked on. On the other side of the road, I was treated to a killer climb (1000′ in a mile), which is pretty rare for a Pennsylvania trail. Before reaching camp, the BFT would drop me into a few dark hollows, which definitely helped explain how it got it’s name. Even though I should have had plenty of sunlight left, the topography and tree cover made these areas very dark. Once you climbed back to the ridge, it was light again.
I arrived at our rendezvous point along Little Slate Run, relieved to see that my 3 comrades had already arrived and set up camp. With the last remaining natural light, I managed to get my hammock hung. We all ate dinner by headlamp-light, agreed to get an early start in the morning, and were in bed shortly after Hiker Midnight. With the temps dropping to around 48, I got a little cold without bottom insulation on the hammock, so I shoved a small bit of closed cell foam pad under my butt and lower back. It worked well enough, and I managed to get some sleep.
We woke up Thursday, ate breakfast, packed up, and hit the trail around 7:30AM. (This is where that whole hammock strap fiasco began.) We had a short steep climb out of camp, but were immediately rewarded with a stunning vista of the Pine Creek Gorge. The early morning sun lit up the foggy valley, and it was truly energizing. From there, we almost immediately started a steep, switchbacked descent into a deep hollow along Naval Run. I filled an empty water jug, waited for the others to catch up, and then started another one of the BFT’s signature steep 1000′ climbs. We were all tired, but were revitalized by another vista at the top.
A few miles later: Callahan run and another 1000′ climb. This climb was different. It wasn’t a gut-busting steep climb up the side of the gorge, but rather a long, drawn out hump that followed the run upstream. The climb wasn’t as steep, but I think it actually ended up taking a lot more out of me. Luckily, the trail leveled out after this.
About 12 miles into this 20-mile day, I had a sinking feeling in my gut. I immediately stopped and tore my pack apart. As I suspected, my hammock tree straps were nowhere to be found. I began calculating the logistics of finishing the trail that day. A 36-mile day would be tough, but not impossible. As I was running the numbers, the other members of my group started to catch up. We decided that we had enough utility cord between us to make me some temporary straps and still hang proper bear bags. Feeling a bit relieved, we continued our walk.
We rolled into a huge campsite around 6PM. There were four college-age kids already there, but the site was big enough that we all had plenty of space. Turns out those kids were scouting campsites for a freshman excursion for Bucknell University, and we were lucky they were there. Amy was pretty beat up after our 20 mile day, and Friday morning she decided it would be in her best interest to bail. She hiked a mile with those kids, and they gave her a lift back to her car.
I overslept a bit on Friday morning, so Bob and Jerry hiked out while I was still eating my breakfast. Since I was the faster hiker, we all just assumed that I would eventually catch up. 20 minutes later, Pickle and I were on the trail. After a while, I started noticing that the blazes were very worn out and difficult to see in the morning light, and then I hit a wall of wineberry and thorn bushes. After tearing my legs to shreds, I finally found a landmark clear enough to find my position on the map. I was nearly a mile and a half off trail. I turned around, grumbling to myself about those blazes. As I came up to one, I walked over to it. It was very faded, but I quickly realized my mistake. This blaze was red. The BFT is blazed orange. In the morning light, I couldn’t tell the difference and followed the wrong trail (which wasn’t even on my map).
After losing an hour, I was back on course. Luckily, I had smooth trail ahead of me. Except for a steep rocky climb halfway through the day, I was able to average between 3 and 3.5mph for a pretty long time. By lunch time, I still hadn’t caught up to Bob and Jerry. With less than two miles to go in my 16(now 19)-mile day, I finally heard voices. There were my partners. We descended down into the valley together, forded Slate Run, and walked back to my car. Amy was there waiting for us. Mission accomplished!
The BFT seemed to be a bit bi-polar. When it is hard, it is VERY hard. Those 1000-foot climbs were no joke and were almost as tough as some that I have done in the Whites of New Hampshire. The easy sections of the BFT were also VERY easy. I ran parts of them, and I’m not much of a runner. All-in-all, I liked this trail and will probably hike it again sometime in the future.