A Quehanna Trail Hike: The Search for an Elk ExperienceSep 01, 2016 05:04PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
Elk on railroad grade. By Bil Bowden.
Pennsylvania contains an empty heart that goes by the name of Quehanna. The Susquehannock tribe donated its middle syllables. Then came the river, Susquehanna. Finally, in 1955, the Curtiss-Wright Corp. gave it the commercial designation of Quehanna. Today, its extent is delineated by the range of elk.
By Bill Rozday
The Quehanna Wild Area, at nearly 50,000 acres, is the largest official Wild Area in Pennsylvania. It was once known as the Pennsylvania Desert for its landscape post-logging, ravaged by brush fire 100 years ago. It then became Curtiss-Wright’s restricted nuclear research complex.
Finally, it reverted to original emptiness when it became the state’s first Wild Area in 1970. The Keystone Trails Association (kta-hike.org), recognizing the increased interest in Quehanna as a getaway, has organized a hiking weekend there for September 23 through 25. The reason for the hike is: emptiness. Executive director Joseph Neville cites the “vastness” of the area as the draw for hikers enduring the increased urbanization of their hiking environments.
What’s the draw?
Elk, reintroduced to Quehanna a century ago, have revitalized Pennsylvania tourism. Last June, we stayed at Misty Pines cabins (email@example.com), Sterling Run. Hostess Evelyn Keiter gazed at the immaculate cherry/walnut floor and told us, “Deer are not as much of a draw as in the 1970s. Hunting is less important. People come to see the elk.”
It was emptiness that led to the reintroduction of elk in Quehanna. The farmlands elsewhere in Pennsylvania presented too tempting a food source for such a large animal. Complaints of crop damage tend to be widespread with elk.
Neighboring Maryland rejected elk introduction for that very reason. The Quehanna herd now numbers close to 1,000 animals. Individual elk have made New York a technical elk state by drifting over the Pennsylvania border.
Views of nature
The segment of the KTA outing at the Elk Country Visitor Center offers a first-rate experience in ecotourism. The facilities there compare favorably with the country’s finest—a kind of Elk College in a splendid building. Outside, trails lead visitors to likely views of elk feeding on game plots created for the animals, which reach nearly 1,000 pounds in weight.
On our Elk Country visit, we followed Internet advice to Dents Run, near Benezette, in search of a private elk experience. This area received some of the last of the western elk transplanted in 1926. It was early evening, with the tourist traffic from Memorial Day gone from the crunchy dirt road we traveled.
Seeing elk in the wild
In the back of my mind I had stored Joseph Neville’s observation: “It is one thing to see an elk in your yard. It's a completely different thing to see one in the wild.”
I glanced up and saw it—broad, tan, still. Knee-high in May grass, it looked straight at me. I was surprised at its relative lack of wariness. A whitetailed deer would have immediately “high-tailed” it for cover when I stepped out of the car and asked it to raise its head for a better photo. An animal with that lack of guardedness needed big, empty Quehanna to last as long as it did, where the last original lived until 1867.
The elk’s grace of movement also impressed. It turned from me as smoothly as a figure skater. Three bull elk we spotted later glided as they moved, their tan horns scarcely bobbing as they fed along Dents Run.
Like being on another planet
Hiking into Quehanna presents an innocence borne of vastness. We first touched the Wild Area at Laurel Draft, near the village of Sinnemahoning. Wood sorrel and oak fern and foamflower spread a wild plant nursery at our feet. The water from Laurel Draft showed us a shaded clarity never seen in a bottle.
The emptiness allows nature to spread out freely in a variety of settings. Along Quehanna Highway, a two-lane blacktop breaking the forest, dense cabins of hemlock darken the headwater landscape. Tamarack trees stand like giant green pine cones, while white pines offer a carpet of soft needles to walk over. Much of the plateau section of the Wild Area is forested with soft maple, which yields the brightest of autumn colors. I envy the KTA hikers.
One of the featured KTA hikes will take in Crawford Vista. Along with the views come picturesque rock outcrops. Selected for comfort, it runs 5.5 miles over terrain with minimal climbing. It looks out over a meaningful emptiness.
Night at Misty Pines—it was like being on another planet, with the dark humps of hills blurred into specks and endless lights. Those humps of hills sheltered elk for centuries—and still do.
If you go
The Keystone Trails Association outing Sept. 23-25 encompasses several hikes, along with food and lodging. Friday the 23rd features a 1 p.m. hike, along with lodging check-in at Gunners Hotel in the town of St. Marys. Dinner is at 7 and a program follows at 8. Breakfast at 7 a.m. on Saturday is followed by a second hike, then lunch at the Benezette Hotel in the secluded village of the same name. Afterwards, the hiking party visits nearby Elk Country Visitor Center at 1 and hikes a State Game Lands with a former Game Commission employee and biologist.
The intent? To see elk.
More information is at (717) 238-7017 or KTA-hike.org.
Bill Rozday often writes about the relation between nature and culture.