The calendar proclaimed at the top that it was February, but the second half of the month found me walking out to get the mail in T-shirts. A little more than a week later, the thermometer hit the deep freeze with a low in the single digits. Thus far, March has been a thermal see-saw ride, with two disruptive snowstorms turning our woods into winter wonderlands.
With that said, I attempt to enjoy whatever Mother Nature dishes out.
It was cold and windy on March 4, but part of my family was up for a little adventure. My daughter Lindera, her husband John and I decided to brave the return of winter and hike the Moss-Hanne Trail at Black Moshannon State Park. This 7.7-mile trail winds around the west and north sides of the lake, going through the 1,592-acre Black Moshannon Bog Natural Area.
This state park natural area was formed in 1994 to give extra protection to a unique bog environment. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, this special area is one of the best examples of a bog on the Allegheny Plateau. Bogs are freshwater wetlands formed in depressions that fill with slightly acidic water. The water supports sphagnum moss, which in turn, makes the bog even more acidic when the plants decay. The decaying moss also acts like a tea bag and tints the water a brownish-black color; hence the name “Black Moshannon.”
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Young bogs have thick mats of sphagnum moss floating on top or the water. The bogs at Black Mo do not have floating mats, but they have sphagnum and a host of acid-loving plants, such as high bush blueberries, sundew, pitcher plants and rare orchids.
Most of Pennsylvania’s bogs are found in the northwest and northeast portions of the state, where they were formed by glaciers during the most recent ice age. However, the bog habitats at Black Moshannon are not the result of glaciation, but are due to the flat, nonporous sandstone bedrock of the Allegheny Plateau.
I left my pickup at the trailhead near boat mooring area No. 3 on the north side of the lake and climbed in with Lindera and John. We drove to the southern terminus of the Moss-Hanne Trail along Beaver Road near the southeastern corner of the park. Here, the trail begins in a hemlock forest, but soon the soil and leaf litter are replaced by a boardwalk across a wet area. For this first leg, the Moss-Hanne Trail follows the path of the much longer Allegheny Front Trail.
The Moss-Hanne trail is named for what is believed to be the Native American name for the area “Moss-Hanna,” which means “moose stream.” The word Moshannon is thought to have morphed from that original Native American term.
This is a great hike, but if you go there expecting panoramic views of the upper lake, you will be disappointed. The Moss-Hanne Trail takes you through mixed hardwood forest, hemlock forest and red pine plantations. However, its main attraction would be the boardwalks that provide access to several different marsh and bog habitats.
Even though much of the lake was covered with three-quarters of an inch of ice, we saw many signs of Spring. Migrating waterfowl — Canada geese, hooded mergansers, mallards, ring-necked ducks and others — populated the open water. The colorful red and green “hoods” of skunk cabbage were poking through the patches of snow, and we spotted some tree buds opening.
Skunk cabbage is always an “early riser.” It is one of the few plants that exhibits thermogenesis in its cellular mitochondria — it can make its own heat like a warm-blooded animal does. With this adaptation, it is able to thaw the soil around itself and emerge early. The heat in the flower-shrouding hood is believed to attract insects during cold nights, which aids in pollination. This wetland plant gets its name from the skunk-like odor that it emits when a leaf or stem is broken.
A little more than two miles into the hike, the Moss-Hanne Trail branches away from the Allegheny Front Trail and leads back toward the lake. A short distance later, the trail crosses Black Moshannon Creek on a wooden bridge. This creek is one of the seven streams that feed the lake. The view from this bridge — looking back toward the lake — provides the most open setting of the hike.
We encountered a small group of migrating fox sparrows in one thicket and were surprised to flush an American woodcock from a stand of towering red pines on the north side of the lake. The woodcock will likely stay and breed in the wetland habitat near the lake, while the fox sparrows are on their way north to Canada.
About seven miles into our hike — definitely in the home stretch — the Indian Trail joins Moss-Hanne and continues south toward the lake. It is here that you pass the site where a private airplane crashed on Dec. 12, 1974, killing the pilot and his two passengers. A plaque was erected to mark the spot in 2016.
Most, but not all, of the wetter areas of the Moss-Hanne trail have boardwalks. Some of these boardwalks were built by volunteers within the past year. Even with the boardwalks, it is still recommended that you wear waterproof footwear.
We finished our walk by adding the .3-mile Bog Trail. There, we studied pitcher plants and had a panoramic view of the ice-covered lake glistening in the afternoon sun.
Centre County hosts many beautiful places, and Black Moshannon State Park is one of them. As we pulled out of the parking lot, John spotted a mature bald eagle soaring in the blue sky over the lake. It was a fitting end to a wonderful family outing.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.