Taking a ride with the ‘Godfather of the Pine Creek Rail Trail’

David Ira Kagan is known as the “Godfather of the Pine Creek Rail Trail” because of his knowledge about the site.
David Ira Kagan is known as the “Godfather of the Pine Creek Rail Trail” because of his knowledge about the site. Photo provided

Bike trails, particularly rails-to-trails, are for everyone. You do not have to be a competitive cyclist or athlete to enjoy bicycling on these trails.

Pine Creek Rail Trail — 62 miles from near Wellsboro to Jersey Shore — follows Pine Creek on a railroad grade from the 1800’s and has a 2 percent grade. Which way the wind is blowing will have the strongest impact on your peddling.

After seeing the trail from the stream while paddling, I knew I had to try biking it. I reached out to David Ira Kagan. I had met him a couple times, knew he lived near PCRT, and knew that he biked on it.

What I did not know, but soon learned, was that Dave, a retired English and mathematics teacher, had written a book, “Pine Creek Villages,” rides more than 4,000 miles a year on PCRT, and is referred to by many as the “Godfather of the Pine Creek Trail.” What followed was an informative, interesting day on the trail.

The nearest access from State College is the Jersey Shore terminus, or 3.4 miles farther along at the Whitetail access area — both include parking and toilets. Our day on the PCRT began a little north of there at Dave’s home. Dave was an excellent guide and began a narrative that continued off and on as we peddled north, describing Torbert and then subsequent settlements.

If you are not riding with the “Godfather of the Pine Creek Creek Trail,” his book “Pine Creek Villages” and his friend Linda Stager’s book “The Pine Creek Rail-Trail Guidebook” will be rewarding trail companions.

Pine Creek is an area rich in history.

Native Americans used the stream and valley as a highway. The earliest settlers also gravitated to this natural corridor. Logging, stone quarrying and the railroad are included in this past. The PCRT from Jersey Shore to Waterville includes three steel truss bridges from the railroad era of more than a century ago. The bridge at Torbert is a three span and includes an interesting slant to the top of the structure.

Stone monuments that include a number and the letter “L” are also relics from the railroad days. The number is the miles from the company headquarters in Lyons — “L” — New York.

Not long after we started riding we came to a tree that had fallen across the trail. Dave predicted that the tree would likely be cleaned up by the time we returned, and it was! Dave and others who are familiar with the trail praise the work done by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in keeping the trail in prime condition.

As we peddled north, the trail community became obvious as Dave greeted some of the many people he has met while peddling five or more times every week, year-round as long as the snow remains below an inch or so. Betty is one of the colorful characters we stopped to talk with. She is a motivated septuagenarian, who was riding 20 miles on her three-wheeler that day. After moving from a farm with horses that she enjoyed riding, she has settled into riding a three-wheeler on PCRT.

A class of elementary school students were also biking on the trail the day we were there. The children were at the Bonnell Flats camping area taking a break from biking and engaging in a discussion at a picnic table where they were looking at samples of organisms in Pine Creek water. They caught up to us later as we finished lunch and they stopped for ice cream.

Dave told me about an nonagenarian who will soon turn 91 and regularly rides the PCRT. Trail riders develop a sense of camaraderie. My sense is that while they ride alone much of the time, they enjoy meeting on the trail, and that they have gotten to know each other.

Opportunities for viewing wildlife are plentiful. Betty described a close, enchanting, encounter with a fawn a few days earlier. The PCRT Facebook page is the place to go to learn what is happening on PCRT, including what wildlife people are seeing.

Eagles, geese, bears, deer, and snakes — timber rattlers get a lot of attention — are some of the recent sightings. One rider recently encountered a dozen timber rattlers. Riders should always keep their distance, respect the snakes, and give the snakes their space.

Wildflowers are also abundant along the trail. Two that are often the most admired by riders on this section of trail include dame’s rocket and greater celandine, both which are beautiful but invasive. Another exotic introduced flower, forget-me-not, flows in mounds of tiny blue flowers along a short section of the path.

Native flowers include mayapple: umbrella leaves with bold white flowers concealed beneath the leaves, which spreads by an underground root system and forms what it is easy to imagine as miniature forests for pixies. Wild columbine also grows in small patches. Some flowers, such as jack-in-the-pulpit, have already bloomed. And others, such as Turk’s cap lily and bee-balm have yet to bloom.

Periodically, echoes from the past called out to Dave.

We stopped at Catharine Bonnell’s gave site — she died in 1852 at the age of 1; the site of Camp Kline, which for more than 50 years was the home to the bustle of Boy Scout busyness; and then there is the Waterville Tavern built in 1825, where log drivers once made the place ring with their rowdiness. Today, however, it was likely a cold Yuengling and a delicious corned beef Reuben that called out to Dave from the Waterville Tavern. Dave is a regular here and the proprietor knew his order before he placed it.

As we threaded off the trail into and then out of Waterville, Dave pointed out a church that is now a private home and the cemetery in back of it. Back on the trail we peddled several miles farther north to Jersey Mills, where we left towns and homes behind. We were surrounded by Tiadaghton State Forest and the possibility of seeing wildlife increased. We saw a water snake stretched out on the trail.

Occasionally there are benches where you can stop and take in peaceful views of Pine Creek. Mountains, side streams with waterfalls, water rivulets dropping over rock faces, wildflowers, wildlife, fog from side streams — the views change daily, by the mile, and even hourly. There is always something to engage your interest.

“A day on the Pine Creek Rail Trail is a day well spent,” is how Dave summed up his feelings toward riding on the trail. And those days include a wide range of weather, and encounters. Dave spoke of some of his favorite rides, which included riding through an unprecedented number of lightning bugs, beneath a full moon, through a snow squall with a full moon, and experiences you will garner only by riding the PCRT again and again.

The Jersey Shore terminus is an easily accessible entry point to the PCRT. The trail is well maintained, and it offers something for everyone. All you need to do is to get on the trail, and this section of the Pine Creek Rail Trail is worth looking into.

Gary Thornbloom is co-chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club; he can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net.

If You Go

Directions: I-99 north to I-80; I-80 east to Exit 178 for U.S. Route 220 north; take exit 120 for PA 44 north toward Pine Creek; in about 1.75 miles the Whitetail parking and trail access is on the left.

To get to the Jersey Shore Parking Area, you’ll want to travel Interstate 220. From Interstate 220, you’ll take the Thomas Street exit and head into town. At the bottom of the hill, as soon as you get into town, you’ll find Railroad Street. Turn right at the light and just a bit down you’ll find the Jersey Shore Parking Area for the Pine Creek Rail Trail.

From the Jersey Shore Parking Area, you will want to turn left onto Railroad street and head toward Avis. You’ll come to an intersection where you’ll see W&W Body Shop on the left hand side. Turn right and you will turn onto State Route 44 north. Continue on 44 for the following rail trail parking areas: Whitetail — 3.4 Miles from Jersey Shore

Resources: The DCNR Public Use Map of the Pine Creek Rail Trail includes details such as trail access points, distances, restrooms, water, and food — all essentials for comfort while on the trail.

“The Pine Creek Rail-Trail A Bicycle Ride Through History” by Linda Stager has trail information including distances and access points. It includes interesting history and natural history of the area, as well as some of Stager’s photographs.

“Pine Creek Villages” by David Ira Kagan takes a look at the history of Pine Creek Valley villages. Each chapter begins with a one page essay on a village and is followed by numerous historical photographs with descriptions of the people, the buildings and the landscape of that village. The photographs are from several collections. They offer a glimpse of what was and this will help you to see what is there today.