Spring has been slow in coming this year, so it was with great enjoyment that I packed my lighter weight gear for this trip around the Chuck Keiper Trail. I led a group of six backpackers from DC Ultralight Backpacking, including some old friends and a new face. With a clear, but cool forecast, two groups of drivers set out Friday evening, one from DC, one from Baltimore, heading for the CKT, a 50ish mile loop in North-Central PA’s Sproul State Forest. We met by accident at a Sheetz north of Harrisburg, then again in the dark of the southern crossing of the CKT and Rt. 144.
Though this was billed as a spring trip, the season had, perhaps only just begun to spring in Northern PA. We trudged off in the dark, Victoria sporting a borrowed (and quite dim) headlamp. After a couple miles of descent and constant guessing at trail spurs that weren’t there, we arrived at one of the campsites foretold by the MidatlanticHikes map. It was underwhelming, and barely supported our little group, with Dave wandering upstream a bit to find a spot to pitch his solo tent. The night was clear, and with lows forecast in the mid 20s F, Heavy D and I decided to cowboy camp, while Holger, Sophie, and Victoria pitched tarps. We were asleep around 11 pm. At 6 am, I was up, waking the walkers with a modified version of The Beatles’ A Day In The Life. The temperatures did not feel much below freezing, and I doubt we even approached the forecast low. Holger appeared to be molting, and the trail name “Birdman” was proposed, which is fitting in many ways for those who know him.
About 7:15, we walked off, starting our clockwise CKT journey in earnest. Sidehills abounded. Steep sidehills. The trail seemed to avoid the often flat creek bank, and instead ascended 40-60 ft above the creek with little trail cut into the loose embankment, footing was treacherous. Loose rocks slid from underfoot and tumbled down the hill. Leaves covered the trail, so that footing was even more uncertain. At times, our pace slowed to a near crawl, as I shuffled through calf-high leaves, probing each step below the sea of last years’ foliage.
In spite of the treachery of the trail, the walking was pleasant. The weather was cool, and the sky had clouded in the wee hours, keeping the air chilled. Almost the entirety of our first day was spent within eye- and earshot of lovely babbling brooks. We saw a number of small falls and churning rapids. At some point, I had to stop stopping to take photos, to keep forward progress.
A few flowers and plants peeped out through the leaves: we saw many yellow, and some white, and violet violets; deep maroon trilliums, and beaming white asters of some variety; fiddleheads were just beginning to stretch up from the ground. No leaves were on the trees, though a reddish, almost autumn-like, hue blanketed the landscape as the oak trees began to bud.
Unfortunately, foliage was not the only wildlife springing to life. A brief detour into the rhododendron brush left me flicking off a few ticks, and after picking two off my calves that night, my count was at 6 for the day.
By midday, our group had spread out some, with Dave and Victoria in the front, as we rolled in to a lookout built up next to a parking lot (how else can you get a view in PA?). We ate lunch leisurely, wondering how far ahead were Dave and Victoria; then they arrived. Eager chatter had distracted them from cairns and blazes and they had a short detour before realizing their mistake. Holger decided he would take a shortcut to our campsite, to not strain himself too much after long months of matrimonial sloth. Dave decided to accompany him.
Heavy D, Sophie, Victoria, and I set out to complete the loop. Back across the road, down the trail, into the swamp… wait… swamp? That can’t be right… Out came the map and compass. Indeed, as has plagued me on past PA loops, a central connector trail for the CKT was also blazed orange. Really, PA, let’s fix this. Orange-to-orange intersections, yellow-to-yellow intersections. The madness must be stopped.
Back at the viewpoint, bonus miles achieved, Victoria decided to bail on the full loop, fearing another evening with a dim headlamp, and rejoined Holger and Dave for their shortcut. Sophie, Heavy D, and I set out again, undeterred. The sidehilling went on for miles. Many were mercifully uncovered by leaves, but the battering of knees, hips, and ankles was unrelenting. Nevertheless, we passed more beautiful streams, bubbling and burbling beside the path, the day now clear and almost too warm. We faced the first of our large ascents; it seemed never to end, getting steeper the higher we climbed. Eventually, we were in a leaf-strewn sea of loose rocks. Calf-deep in leaves, with each foot rolling on brick-sized loose scree, I laughed maniacally. Could it get worse?
The answer was “yes”, as we encountered another 40 degree sidehill covered in ankle-deep leaves. We staggered on, eventually regaining open trail, and saw the second set of trad-packers for the day camped next to a delightful stream surrounded by blooming trilliums. They told us that there was a nice spot about 2 miles ahead; we told them we still had 8 miles to go. It was 6 pm.
A few flowers and plants peeped out through the leaves: we saw many yellow, and some white, and violet violets; deep maroon trilliums, and beaming white asters of some variety; fiddleheads were just beginning to stretch up from the ground.
The miles flew by. I actually think the MidatlanticHikes site has the mileage splits on the northern end of the loop over-estimated. Given the deep and steep nature of the valleys in which the trail winds, inaccuracy in mileage estimates seems quite possible. After a final long slog up an increasingly steep hill, we had only about a mile downhill to the intended campsite, where Dave had promised a campfire. As we bottomed out in the valley, we saw smoke, and soon the flicker of a fire. I collected some firewood as I strode into camp to find… it was the wrong group. I scuttled on, and dropped my firewood awkwardly. A few hundred yards ahead we found our group with firepit ready, but unlit! We made such good time that they hadn’t expected to see us and were waiting on the fire.
As darkness descended, we all enjoyed our meals, the good company, and the crackling and popping campfire. Well, the popping got a little extreme. Apparently, one of the rocks in the center of the fire ring exploded rather violently a few times, flaking off large chunks of rock, and sending whole logs flying. No one was hurt, but we were puzzled and somewhat frightened.
Sleep was pleasant with slightly milder temperatures in the mid 30s, and before I knew it, I was waking in the dusk to a rustling sound near my food bag. Up I jumped, only to find Dave impersonating a bear again.
After a leisurely morning campfire, we stepped off rather later than intended, and got on our way. The miles on this second day were much nicer. We faced only a few hundred yards of sidehill on the whole day, as we passed even more pleasant streams, and walked along the plateau which reminded in places very much of Roaring Plains. Dave and Victoria got way ahead again, as those of us who had walked 28+ miles the day before toddled along in the back. Holger decided to walk a shorter route and get picked up at the end of the day.
The weather was perfect with not-too-warm air and blue skies scattered with little white puffy clouds. Some of the streams we walked along were gorgeous – perfectly clear water with wisps of white sand on the bottoms, and bubbling steps and falls beneath the shadows and sun speckle of a hemlock forest. I contemplated a swim. Apparently, ahead of me, Dave dipped into a particularly enticing pool. We walked, chatted about food, walked more. The compass came out once, when I was concerned about walking west instead of south, but in all, the trail was mostly easy to follow, and mostly easy to walk, very much unlike the previous day.
Calf-deep in leaves, with each foot rolling on brick-sized loose scree, I laughed maniacally. Could it get worse?
The slower group made it back to the cars at 4pm to find that Dave and Victoria had already embarked on the mission to retrieve Holger. After a brief chat with some incredulous day-hikers in the parking lot, we were reunited and off to find beer and food in State College. Happy Valley Brewing Company provided us with good (and cheap!) beer, but I think we all were somewhat underwhelmed by the food. Certainly, the vegetarian options were sparse. Victoria’s stories nearly earned her a trail name, but it seems urban dictionary ran interference. #ohwell
The CKT is a horrible trail. That, and a lovely trail. I thoroughly enjoyed my time out in the woods, in spite of an almost complete lack of vistas. The budding forest, the babbling brooks, and the lovely company all made this a delightful weekend. The sidehill is awful though, and from what Holger tells about summer ventures, the path can be totally overgrown in brambles. Given the number of ticks I encountered, I have to say that I would advise against a summer trip there. Then again, the leaf cover in the fall and spring makes the sidehill very difficult, and patches of ice and slippery footing on those treacherous stretches make a winter loop unappealing. Basically, only do the CKT if you don’t mind a bit of suffering!
Much of the information can be found at the DCUL Meetup page: http://www.meetup.com/DC-UL-Backpacking/events/221515873/
According to Dave, those who walked the full CKT loop should have had splits of about 2 mi – 27 mi – 19.5 mi.