Hikers catch glimpse of pristine forest

BENNER TOWNSHIP — Rockview state prison opened Spring Creek Canyon to the public for three hours Sunday, and 140 people showed up for a beautiful walk in the woods.

The lowland between State College and Bellefonte narrowed from valley to canyon and the woods thickened as the hikers advanced.

Young and old made their way along a gravel, creekside road from publicly accessible areas to a stretch halfway between the Benner Spring and Bellefonte fish hatcheries that’s been almost always off-limits since the state bought the land for its prison system almost a century ago.

The newcomers looked up a lot to the yellowing treetop canopy over Spring Creek, and they looked to the creek itself for brown trout, mallard ducks and even for bald eagles rumored to make a home in the canyon but nowhere to be seen Sunday.

“It’s so beautiful — it’s so pristine and unique to this area — there’s nowhere like it,” said Bob Leonard, a kayaker and retired Penn State theatre arts professor. “We drive 50, 100 miles to paddle a canyon like this, and there’s one right here in our backyard.”

State College resident Sandra Gleason completed the three-hour round trip and declared that it ought to be more regularly available, not just on a special occasion.

“This would be a wonderful place to be able to come out for a nice afternoon walk along the creek,” Gleason said. “I think it would just be wonderful if that could happen.”

Benner Township and Penn State, together with ClearWater Conservancy, are trying to make that happen, but the process has been fraught with tension. Penn State stands to get most of the Rockview land north of Interstate 99, and conservation and sportsmen’s groups worry about what will become of it.

Releasing that tension has been one objective of occasional public meetings during the past four years since it was disclosed that Penn State was lobbying hard in state government circles to obtain the land for its College of Agricultural Sciences.

The next and perhaps the last public meeting before the General Assembly acts on the legislation will take place this month when the House’s 29-member state government committee airs House Bill 1657 at the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology in Pleasant Gap.

ClearWater Conservancy, which is negotiating to obtain a conservation easement from Penn State, sponsored Sunday’s Spring Creek Canyon walk and arranged for local experts to field questions on the history, the land-use management issues and the plants and animals in the canyon itself.

The canyon’s limestone frame has turned Spring Creek a fish-friendly waterway, and the surrounding area has become a natural hideaway.

“It’s sort of a last refuge for some of the plants and animals in the state,” Kathy Gipe, a ClearWater volunteer, told hikers before they set out. “It’s sort of a unique land formation — there’s a whole bunch of unique plant communities that are growing within the canyon.”

Sunday’s 80-plus temperature and still air made Sunday’s walk a sweaty one. But a steady trickle of fresh-falling leaves and the cadenced crunch of crisp ones underfoot tempered unseasonable warmth with more seasonable impressions.

Every now and then a breeze stirred and launched a full shower of yellowed leaves down at a slant, lit by a low sun into a shimmer of light against a shadowy forest. Then they reached the creek and were borne upon current.

The day reminded Leonard of his kayaking.

“Sitting right there in the water like ducks is really the way to see nature,” he said.

Mike Joseph can be reached at 235-3910.