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5.31.2016

Spectacular Birch Grove at the Marion Brooks Natural Area, Elk County, PA

So far, we have talked about the amazing wildlife including elk and eagles, in addition to talking about the scenic views, and wild waterways of the area. Today we talk about one of the many spectacular groves of trees in the PA Great Outdoors region, the stand of birches at the Marion Brooks Natural Area in the Moshannon State Forest and the Quehanna Wild Area. This is an extremely remote, quiet, and beautiful area. 

I always love seeing birch trees, thus this place has held a place on my bucket list for a long time. I am not a professional arborist by any means, but I absolutely love trees. This place is easily in my shortlist of favorite places to observe trees, which include places like the nearby first growth Cook Forest State Park, and forests further away such as the redwoods in Yosemite, Muir Woods, and Redwood National Forest. I hold the birch grove at the Marion Brooks Natural Area in similar high regard for its sheer beauty. This reserve was named after Marion Brooks, a conservationist that was born in Allegheny County. Marion moved up to this region with a concern about protecting the environment, fighting mine runoff pollution, protecting hunters and others with the creation of an ambulance program, and more. 

The Marion Brooks Natural Area is located within the Moshannon State Forest and the Quehanna Wild Area, just off of the Quehanna Highway, Route 2004 in Benezette Township.
This is one of the southernmost and largest groves of white birches. They are primarily found in the cooler climate areas of North America, with them being especially abundant in Canada. This grove is extremely rare for this part of the country. 
The grove spans over 900 acres, but it is the most densely populated right near the entrance to the reserve as you pull off of the road. There is no mistaking that you have arrived when you pull up to it.
The beauty is so spectacular that it almost seems unreal, as if you have walked into a movie set or something. Absolutely awe inspiring.


This dual trunked tree was one of my favorite specimens.
I've never seen birches this huge.

This one was my favorite specimen in the whole grove. This giant tree boasts four trunks and is at least fifty feet tall. It stood out to me like the giant Christmas tree stood out to Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation. No, the tree did not end up on the roof of the car. I stood in awe when I saw this tree.  
The trunks on this tree are huge. 
The forest floor was coming back to life with rich greens, reds, and browns from the previous fall and winter. There is nothing like seeing a forest come back to life in the spring.
If you want to see a spectacular stand of birches, be sure to visit the PA Great Outdoors Region and the Marion Brooks Natural Area. For more technical information about these trees, check out this survey done by the Native Tree Society.
The coordinates to the Natural Area
41.2763, -78.2879
It is located just off of the Quehanna Highway, Route 2004, in Benezette Township

5.30.2016

Kayaking the Clarion River with Country Squirrel Outfitters

We went on a kayaking adventure down the scenic Clarion River with Country Squirrel Outfitters in Ridgway. There was a steady drizzle for the entire float, but we still had a ton of fun. Additionally, our hosts were extremely kind and knowledgeable. We floated for nine miles down the river and saw countless species of birds and more, in addition to a number of fishermen pulling out some nice native brook trout. Everyone was having a great time on the river. 
Country Squirrel offers canoes, kayaks, bicycle rentals, bicycle repairs, outdoor supplies for fishing, hiking supplies, and more.  

There's Brit, way ahead, taken with a nicely splashed lens!
So we get a little downriver and Brit tells me something that I could not quite hear. She tried to tell me it again and was pointing.
I turned my kayak around and there was a large eagle that had flown from one tree to another, and was perched, waiting for its next meal. Sightings like this were once unheard of when industry ran unfettered and made this one of the most degraded rivers in the state. Great efforts have created a comeback for this river, with it once again becoming an excellent fishery and habitat for other species, and a hub for outdoor recreation.
Additionally we saw dozens of ducks and geese, and easily thousands of tiny birds flying and seemingly erratically diving and swerving through the air. You could also see trout jumping out of the water. 
We really enjoyed floating down this scenic river and observing all of the abundant wildlife and more. The folks at Country Squirrel Outfitters were also excellent hosts and we highly recommend renting any outdoor gear that you need when you are around the Clarion River.


Country Squirrel Outfitters and the PA Great Outdoors Region kindly hosted us and we have shared our opinions about these great accommodations. 

5.26.2016

Observing Pennsylvania's Majestic Elk Herd in Elk and Cameron Counties

One of the most awe-inspiring sights in Pennsylvania is seeing the majestic elk roaming free across the rural countryside within the PA Great Outdoors region. To think that these stately animals once flourished state wide is pretty amazing. It is great that conservation efforts were able to reestablish a herd after our irresponsible hunting and management of the environment in the past. The majesty of these grazing elk is reminiscent of the buffalo in Yellowstone, and the moose in Denali. 
As I said earlier in our article about the awesome Antler Shed Cabins that we stayed at for this visit, thanks to conservation efforts by visionaries like Gifford Pinchot, most of north-central PA consists of public lands. More than two million acres are public lands, comparable to the size of Yellowstone National Park, with 29 state parks, 50 state game lands, eight state forests, one national forest, and many public trails and waterways. You could drive for hours throughout these lands and see many natural wonders, the most spectacular of which is the elk herd that was reintroduced from Yellowstone and other places in the west. Benezette is at the heart of PA's elk herd. 

The weather was cloudy and misty, yet we still had a great time during our visit. This is the Gilbert Farm Elk Viewing area on Winslow Hill. This hill is noted for being the finest place to observe the elk herd. 
We saw upwards of fifty elk just in this observation area alone. The rolling hills, covered in wildflowers, are perfect places for these stately animals to roam for they offer lots of forest edge vegetation and nearby wooded areas to retreat into.
"Let's hang out with the geese!"
"Eating time!"
"Ehh, let's go for a walk"
"Eh, I want to trot!"
"What's that? The drizzle is letting up?"
"Hmmmm, maybe not!"
"Can't make heads or tails out this!"
"Hey! Let's see what's going on over there!"
"You looking at me?"
"I hear you!"
Duck duck goose goose elk goose goose goose!
  
"Let's all trot!"
"Back into the woods!"

We then headed up to the next viewing area on Winslow Hill,  the Dent's Run area.
There were not any elk out in this spot, but the views were still spectacular. This entire region is worth a visit for the scenic overlooks alone, not to mention the spectacular elk. This is one of the most scenic places in the state.
We continued along the Elk Scenic Drive to the Hicks Run Wildlife Viewing Area, another place with a spectacular vista. The ride here follows along the Sinnemahoning Creek gorge, one of the most beautiful gorges in the state. 
The misty weather created some sweet views towards the tops of the cliffs, making it feel as if we were cruising through the clouds.
I was impressed with the viewing platform. It had openings that you could view the wildlife through, without spooking the animals too much. Additionally, the openings are at eye level with some benches, making this an ideal place to sit and relax while you observe wildlife, wait for wildlife to appear, and/or take in the views. It is also fully handicap accessible, something that should be greatly valued in areas with spectacular beauty. Everyone should have the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of a place like this.

Nearby, the legendary actor Tom Mix, originally a silent movie star in western movies, and a star in early "talkies," was born near this location. His influence upon Hollywood as an actor is immeasurable. He was labeled the "King of the Cowboys," and was responsible for getting John Wayne into the business. He was essentially the predecessor of John Wayne, a pioneer in the old westerns. His legacy has sadly been largely forgotten. There was once a museum in his honor here that was a labor of love by an old couple, but they fell on hard times and eventually passed away. The museum is no longer around and a historical sign is the only thing left to remember his legacy in the area. The beauty of this region influenced one of the most legendary western actors, and that says a lot. 
This location was once a farm. It was given for the purpose of having an elk viewing area. It is difficult to imagine that this tranquil place was once a lumber boom town. It is now one of the many ghost towns across the state. The only vestige that remains that gives any clue of the past of this spot is found in a small cemetery that is located right in front of the viewing area towards Route 555. 
This photo was only taken about a minute or two after the last photo. You can see how quickly the cloud views changed.
Now we head back the way we came through Winslow Hill. I decided to turn right onto Porcupine Road into the State Game Lands Area, in between the two observation sites on Winslow Hill. We went through here multiple times and always found some elk. The Thunder Mountain Equestrian Trail runs through this area.
These two guys were munching on some greens when we came up to them. We probably hung out with them for about twenty minutes, with them as relaxed as can be, unfazed by our presence.  
The one in the background was huge. 
This guy was a ham for photos. 
"YUM!"
Brit insisted that we include this one........
After driving through the pristine woods of the game lands, we decided to head back up Winslow Hill. These guys were hanging out on a nearby farm.
"Time to relax!"
We highly recommend taking in Pennsylvania's elk herd, one of the most stunning, humbling, and awe-inspiring things in nature to see throughout this great state. The Winslow Hill area around Benezette is also home to the Elk Country Visitor Center, a tremendous interpretive center with terrific displays, an interpretive movie, animals, observation areas, and a gift shop. We will cover that in an upcoming article. 

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