Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Flats

A while back I took a long walk on an area of the Big Woods that we’ve always called “The Flats”. At about 2,000 acres The Flats is pretty good-sized, but not huge. It acquired its name because, compared to the rest of the Big Woods, it is quite flat.  The terrain gently undulates until it reaches the several deeply incised stream valleys that border The Flats. Cross those valleys and the rolling terrain stretches on, covering well over 8,000 acres in total.

The Flats were logged long ago using railroads to haul the larger logs to a sawmill. Even the smaller trees occupying The Flats in those long-ago days were also of value to the loggers. After the small trees were cut they were put on the logging railroad, hauled to a spot where they were transferred to a main-line railroad and then transported to the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. There they became props and lagging to hold up the roof of many miles of underground mine shafts.
The grades of the old logging railroads wound across The Flats and into the valleys. Although no adequate records remain, logging of the old-growth forest apparently ended here before 1916, perhaps even before 1908. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed some of the old grades to roads in the 1930s; since 1980 others have been used in logging the second-growth timber that has grown since the original logging. However, many of the grades were abandoned and forgotten; those are slowly being lost through frost action and the growth of vegetation. The CCC also built foot trails across The Flats, some of which have been used as part of a recreational trail network.
The forest now growing on The Flats would impress few people, the trees are not large nor are they very tall. Beneath the trees are extensive patches of witch-hazel and the evergreen mountain laurel; below those higher shrubs grow several species of huckleberry and blueberry and a groundcover of teaberry. Photographs taken during the logging railroad era show a forest very much like the one we see today, not the inspirational old-growth that was found in other places.
From Benj. Kline

Along one of the old CCC trails, just beyond the end of one of the railroad grades, is a pile of four-foot long American chestnut bolts. Almost all of the chestnut in this part of Pennsylvania succumbed to the chestnut blight fungus around 1920, but chestnut is amazingly resistant to decay and the bolts remain where they were stacked. So, might these chestnut bolts have been cut for use as ties for the logging railroad or were the CCC fellows perhaps cutting dead chestnut for firewood?

The Flats tends to be a place where few people spend much time. The forest itself is not inspirational; the soils are acidic and infertile; except for ubiquitous songbirds like black-capped chickadees, wildlife sightings are few and infrequent. And yet, and yet, there is something hauntingly beautiful about The Flats that brings me back occasionally. This time it was the autumnal reds of black huckleberry leaves – 

and the scarlet oak saplings that hold their leaves long after the leaves of larger trees have fallen to the ground.

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