Thursday, September 10, 2009

French Creek State Forest, PA: Pennsylvania Wanderings

Pictures only tell part of the story, and it is difficult to convey all the details of bike touring with pedaling down the road and smelling the distinctive odor of road kill...the welcome coolness of a tree canopy on a hot day...the burning of leg muscles on the first big hill after lunch...the intense hunger that hits mid-morning so hard that I can't concentrate till I get my "snackie"...the feeling of near flight of a long downhill...the constant looking at maps, planning the next day, and worrying where the next grocery shopping opportunity will be.  Our first few days in Pennsylvannia included all of the above, and a few more interesting events that we could not fully capture in pictures.

The Sunday of Labor Day we were on the road early. The best times to cycle are the early mornings on Sundays and holidays. And on this morning it was no exception, quiet and traffic-free, with the partiers like those occupying the campsite next to us on the last couple of nights still snoring away somewhere. We followed the Delaware River most of the morning. Later we approached the National Recreation Area, and most of the cars had inflated tubes or kayaks strapped to their roofs, on their way between river access points.

We crossed over the river into Pennsylvania using a dedicated bike lane, alongside a four-lane highway choked with traffic. John commented on the way over that he now knows how Washington crossed the Delaware -- he took I-80. We rode our bikes, despite the sign stating to walk bikes across the bridge. A day later we crossed over and back again, also ignoring the directive, but that time our action was observed by an officer that stopped us on the other side. We did not know it was the law on interstate bridges, and our contrite attitude saved us from being fined.

The Delaware River flows through a narrow area called the Gap, and we got all excited because we saw a rock outcrop.
We found a wonderful campground, luckily with an open site, right on the river. They greeted us with smiles when we arrived and made sure we found a site to our liking. What a contrast to the last place, where they purposely put us on a sub-standard site so they would have room for the higher-paying RVers.

Labor Day was quiet, too, on really small country roads along the Delaware River, often crossing old rail bridges now covered in overgrowth. The small roads are nice, but sometimes they have some lung-busting, unrealistic grades that go straight up.

As we traveled downstream we saw more signs of industry -- abandoned steel mills, a Superfund landfill, and a power plant. We decided that swimming is not an option on this part of the river. We arrived in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where environmental blight intersected urban blight. It is a historic town with beautiful brick buildings, but some stretches along the main street are not ones we would choose to spend time in. Unfortunately, we got disoriented and we had to retrace our steps along a mile stretch three times before we got back on route.

We arrived at Bull's Island Recreation Area late in the afternoon.  The throngs of Labor Day revelers were gone, although you wouldn't know it from the "Campground Full" sign at the entrance.  We have learned  that there is often a disconnect between the front desk clerk and the park personnel cruising the grounds in a golf cart.  We were assigned a walk-in site right on the river.  While setting up our tent, who walks by but our French-Canadian friend Nathalie!  Exclamations and hugs were exchanged all around.  We were thinking of them all the time, wondering how they fared after their frustrated departure from New Jersey and not knowing if they were ahead of us or behind us.  Luck brought us together again.  We shared a table that night in the sunset slanting through the trees along the rolling waters of the Delaware River, making plans for the few nights.

Our friends decided to stay another night, but we were anxious to move on.  We made plans to meet again at a designated campground in a couple of days.  We pushed on, staying one night in an armpit of a hotel in Norristown.  It was $60, an outrageous amount for sticky carpet that stained our socks and mold that made John sneeze for a couple of days.  We were consoled by a feast from our first Trader Joe's since we left California.

Our route took us through Valley Forge on a gloomy day dominated by overcast skies. We made a decision to camp at French Creek State Park instead of the campground for our planned rendezvous with Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie.  We emailed them, in hopes they would get the message and meet us there.  The State Park is next to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, a wonderfully preserved remnant of the industrial age.
The complete cycle of iron production happened here -- charcoal was produced in great piles from the nearby forest and was used in the blast furnace that extracted the iron from ore that was mined nearby.  The process is brought to life with on-site demonstrations by volunteers in period clothing.

At the height of production, the operation created intricately decorated sand cast plates that were sent to far away places for assembly into stoves.

The technique of making the cast iron lives on today, using the tools of the period by dedicated people who preserve the arts of the past.

It was our good fortune that the State Park had yurts, and in the post-Labor Day lull, they were unreserved and inexpensive -- $39 per night during the off-season.  We ended up staying two nights so we could wait out some intense rains.

Although there were no running water or bathrooms, the yurt was comfortably equipped with a stove, refrigerator, electric lights, and bunk beds. We waited and waited for our dear Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie to arrive -- there was plenty of room for all of us, and we had extra wine, too -- but  they never showed up.  And as water poured from the sky, we wondered if they had found as nice of a place to stay dry as our little yurt.
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