Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — November 2007

SCOTIA BARRENS: A Lesson in Healing

by Gary Thornbloom

A chill in the air, air that is routinely ten degrees colder than in the surrounding area, may be the first thing you notice as you arrive at the Scotia Barrens. The thermal sink results in part from some of the characteristics that define the barrens, a naturally occurring bowl with a soil type that defines the moisture holding capability and determines the plant communities.

The unique ecological makeup up of the Barrens leads to two different forest types, a mixed oak forest and a boreal pitch pine/scrub oak forest. The latter rarely occurs in Pennsylvania and perhaps no better than here.

The next inescapable thing that you should notice is that this is a disturbed area. Long trenches with soil mounded up at the edges, many signs of excavation now being reclaimed by the forest, and stone and cement ruins, are among the unnatural occurrences.

Iron mining and processing, a railroad, and a town blanketed the Barrens throughout the 1800’s although by the next century a ghost town was all that remained. The land was then given the time necessary to heal. Under the protection of the Pennsylvania Game Commission for almost seventy years the land has continued to heal and to thrive, even as housing developments have surrounded it.

State Game Land 176 includes a large portion of the Barrens. As more of Central PA is developed and State College, Bellefonte, and Altoona are sewn closer together such publicly owned green space will be better appreciated. At 6,400 acres the Barrens are ten times the size of Central Park in New York City. This acreage is a small part of the 1.5 million acres of Pennsylvania State Game Lands.

State Game Lands are purchased entirely by fees that hunters pay, but PGC regulations do not exclude anybody. In fact, hunters are excluded many days of the year while non-hunters may use the land everyday, although it is certainly sensible to be aware of the various hunting seasons and to wear safety orange at the appropriate times.

The Scotia Barrens includes 13 miles of designated trails open to hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riding. The PGC website has a map that you can download. The map will help, but I experienced a maze of both marked and unmarked trails on a recent hike there. I have friends, experienced outdoorsmen, who have been temporarily lost while cross country skiing there. Another friend told me he always carries a compass whenever he is exploring the Barrens. And part of the appeal of the Barrens can be in exploring the many trails. Scotia Road provides a convenient backbone for setting up loops, although when in doubt hiking out a trail and then retracing your route is the prudent alternative.

Each season brings something special to the Barrens. The explosion of amphibian life in the numerous vernal pools scattered throughout mark each spring. Many of the vernal pools are in holes left from mining iron ore. Two larger ponds, Scotia and Ten Acre, are also worthy of exploration. The sound of spring peepers can be deafening; roads and paths alive with newts and salamanders, engrossing. The grassy areas, brush, and varied forest structure provide habitat for songbirds, including the many warblers whose song can brighten an early summer hike.

Bold yellow aspen trees, encouraged in part due to the ongoing ruffed grouse study, glow in the autumn woods. The deep bass drumming of the male grouse echoes through the woods in late fall although it is even more common during early spring mating season. Late fall is also the time when buck moths are flying. The black moths have red body markings and white patterns on their wings. This is one of the rarest moths in the eastern United States, and the Barrens provide the perfect habitat for them.

And come winter, the minimal relief of the area will make for some gentle trails for cross country skiing. Winter is also the time to read the story of animal tracks in the snow, and the rabbit tracks you see may be those of the rare Appalachian cottontail.

The Barrens conceals many small delights, revealed to those who know where and what to look for. A convenient introduction to the Barrens is being sponsored by ClearWater Conservancy today. This is your chance to explore, and to enjoy one of central Pennsylvania’s unique treasures in the company of some folks who are familiar with the Scotia Barrens.

If You Go: While the Barrens are accessible from many points the following directions will get you to the heart of the Barrens.

From State College: Either take SR 45 west to Tadpole Rd. Turn right on Tadpole Road. Follow Tadpole Road for about 4 miles to the entrance or take SR 322 west, to the Grays Woods Exit. Go _ mile to Scotia Road, go _ mile on Scotia Road to the entrance. Note that either access will get you to the Firing Range; a locked gate sometimes keeps you from going further in either direction. Scotia Road is not a thru road — you cannot get from Tadpole Road to SR 322.

The PGC website has hunting season dates and a map you can download: www.pgc.state.pa.us.

ClearWater Conservancy is sponsoring today’s hike and talk: noon at the Firing Range at the center of SGL 176. A short talk about the history of the area will given be by Bob Donaldson, and the ecology of the barrens by Mike Ondik, PGC land manager. Mike will also be leading the hike. We will be carpooling to several different parts of the Game Lands. At each stop Mike will lead us on a hike of about a mile or so showing us areas of interest either historically or from an environmental perspective. We should be back to the Firing Range by about 2 or 2:30. Then depending on the weather we can come inside for a warm drink or we can go our own ways to hike. Since the hike is on a Sunday, there will not be hunters in the woods.

Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of Sierra Club Moshannon Group, and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net.