Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — February 2013

Devil’s Elbow Natural Area

by Gary Thornbloom

Devil's Elbow Natural Area Bog

Devil’s Elbow Natural Area Bog
Photo by Gary Thornbloom

Devil’s Elbow Natural Area is home to a diverse bog community as well as beautiful forested wetlands, thick with hemlocks, which in the winter provide prime shelter for wildlife. On my recent visit there it was a perfect day for enjoying and exploring the winter woods. Clear blue skies, not too cold, but with great powder for skiing — well, that is until the trail turned into a stream. Most of the time it was easy to avoid the wet spots, but not always. And then there was the bridge that dips almost into, but is also the easiest crossing of, one of the headwater streams of the North Branch of Rock Run.

Devil’s Elbow is located at the northern tip of the Loyalsock State Forest in Lycoming County, near the border with Sullivan and Bradford Counties. The trailhead and parking lot are along the Ellenton Mountain Road. Sand Spring Trail is a three-mile loop that follows the edge of the Natural Area and then bisects it. It can be both a delight, and a challenge to ski there!

After a short entrance trail, we skied the Sand Spring Trail loop clockwise. This meant that we saved the easiest skiing for last. We were soon in the magnificent hemlocks that are one of the main features of this forest. The hemlocks were large, tall and old, and the hemlocks were thin, short, young, and also thick to ski through! The trail was at times blocked by young trees bent under the weight of snow — snow that often ended up covering us as we wove our way onward.

Devil's Elbow Natural Area Bog

Some skiiers may welcome a jump, we chose another strategy · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

In one-half mile the trail crosses a stream. There is/was a bridge. The bridge dips to almost touching the water; well, it actually does touch if you are standing on the bridge. The far end rises and ends abruptly, a couple of feet above the ground. Certainly there are some skiers that may welcome a jump, but not us. We removed our skis, slowly walked to the end, tossed our skis onto the far stream bank, and carefully lowered ourselves to firm ground.

The trail continues through the hemlocks, and soon passes by the first bog. Look for an open area not far to the left of the trail. We bushwhacked over to the bog, and ventured a short way into it. A bog is gorgeous in winter!

In Natural Pennsylvania — Exploring the State Forest Natural Areas, Charles Fergus describes visiting here as summer was giving way to fall. He describes the variety of incredible plants — sundews, rare orchids, pitcher plants, and the rich colors as the greens of summer gave way to maroons, orange, and red. In winter, the bog lies covered with a white blanket of snow. Mounds and drifts cover the tufts of sleeping growth. A mixture of deciduous trees and hemlocks surround the bog. In winter, the bog is a silent landscape defined mostly by white, some gray and brown, and the dark green of hemlocks.

Natural Areas protect ecological communities that are in a natural condition, and part of what is protected is the freedom for that system to exist on its own terms. That means, for the most part, humans step aside.

Back on the trail again, many young beech trees with faded gold leaves still clinging added some color. The trail now varied from snow-covered ground to snow-covered water. At times we broke through, and at times we were smarter and skirted places that looked wet. Within an hour we ventured into a second bog area, as beautiful in its wintery slumber as the first.

We then returned into the hemlocks, and the trail until it became a stream. As with the earlier bridge crossing, it became necessary to remove our skis and walk along the stream/trail. Only a short walk and we were back to skiing.

Once the trail moves out of the wetlands, the skiing improves. Sand Spring Trail ends with two long, straight sections — old railroad grades — that were great for skiing. After seeing tracks of several species of animals, we had our first glimpse of wildlife far out in front of us. First one black silhouette, and then another moved across the path. My first thought was, bears! And then as five more joined the group, and their movement pulled everything into perspective we could see the source of many of the earlier tracks — turkeys.

Deeper snow would have made skiing easier. With limited snow, hiking would be easier. Snow shoes are another option that would also allow more bog exploration.

Ralph Kisberg, a founding member of the Responsible Drilling Alliance, was my guide. RDA along with Penn Future and the Sierra Club have tried to get the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to commit to protecting this and adjacent land in the Loyalsock State Forest from shale gas development. After skiing through this area, and encountering all the wet spots you would think that would be an easy decision. So far DCNR, which has complete control over these surface rights, has remained silent, and surveyor stakes and ribbons are moving closer to this Natural Area.

The time to explore and enjoy this special place is now — before it is too late. Every season of the year is a great time to get on or off the trail, and bogs are always interesting for exploration and quite often a challenge!

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