Forested Watersheds

This is an excerpt from my photo journal after an annual camping and fly fishing trip in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania in late May and early June.

A seven mile descent into a narrow stream valley typifies the terrain and landscape of the Allegheny Plateau. This particular watershed of about 50 square miles is a tiny window into a much larger, mostly forested region of over two million acres of public land. Advocates of eco-tourism call it “Pennsylvania Wilds”. Decades of camping, fly fishing, sightseeing and research in PA Wilds have given me a foundation and perspective for virtually all matters of conservation and environmental health. That will no doubt be evident in this post.


The sweltering heat wave blanketing much of the U.S. and the latest issue of Nature Conservancy magazine (“Blue Revolution: Rethinking Water on a Thirsty Planet”; Summer 2017) led me to focus on one aspect of my annual trip that is becoming more and more precious with the passage of time: the clean, cold surface waters of forested watersheds.

Upon our arrival, we were not surprised to see that weeks of cool, rainy weather had resulted in water levels a foot above normal. But, the turbulent waters were nearly free of sediment due to the absence of development and continuous forest cover.


Small, freestone mountain streams recovered quickly and were well on their way to “normal” after just two days without rain – another wonderful feature of a pristine watershed.


Mayfly activity … as well as dry fly fishing … followed a more predictable pattern when temperatures rose and water levels receded.


A Green Drake mayfly spinner (Coffin Fly)

Spring seeps trickling over exposed rock enhanced the visual experience and supported lush growth of ferns and wild flowers.




Virginia Waterleaf thriving in the moist, shady microsite of a spring seep

“Hydrologists estimate that if all the water on Earth filled a 5-gallon bucket, just one drop of it would represent the clean, fresh water accessible to humans.” – Nature Conservancy magazine, Summer 2017.


Photos by NB Hunter. ©All Rights Reserved.






Eastern Elk Country

The springboard for my career was graduate studies of elk and other herbivores in the heart of a region that is now marketed as the “Pennsylvania Wilds”. The experience also spawned a 40-year friendship with my field research mentor, a retired forester and author of works on forest history and elk. Return trips to visit, hike, fish and photograph are always mutually rewarding and memorable. It is this connection that brings to mind a quote of Aldo Leopold: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”

Covering a dozen counties and roughly 2-million acres in the northcentral portion of the state, the PA Wilds region is largely forested and under State or Federal ownership. Outdoor recreation and tourism are the backbone of local economies. Historically, deer hunting was the main draw to the area, and may still be, but new outdoor recreation activities with growing participation rates are rapidly altering the landscape, and the experience.


Appalachian Mountains/Allegheny Plateau in northcentral PA

When visiting, I stay in my friends log cabin and seamlessly slip into a refreshingly different world of backcountry wildlife, mountains, tumbling brooks, endless forested landscapes and rich land use history. On a cloudy night the experience is enhanced by environmental qualities that are nearly extinct in the civilized world: the virtual absence of human noise and the disorienting, but enlightening, experience of total darkness.


Beaver, feeding on the bark of a twig (probably willow).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the region was a bustling network of logging camps, sawmills, tanneries and related industries. Extensive stands of virgin White Pine, valued for lumber and ship masts, helped one local city lay claim to being the “lumber capital of the world” in the late 1800’s. A pine log destined to be used as a ship mast had to be straight and at least 90 feet long and 18 inches across – at the small end! Using only horses, oxen, hand tools, the power of water (and later, railroads), loggers harvested and transported these massive timbers with incredible ingenuity. One example was the use of a series of “splash dams” to move large logs down small streams. Gated dams were constructed from nearby timber and rocky substrate to created a reservoir that was filled with logs hauled off the mountain. When the gate was opened, the logs shot downstream, buoyed and propelled by the artificial flood water. 


Remains of a 140-year-old splash dam on a small mountain creek; the foundation of Hemlock logs is waterlogged and remarkably well preserved.


Old, historic railroad bridge in the heart of the PA Wilds region

The last native PA elk was killed in the latter part of the 19th century. However, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the reintroduction of elk and a wild, free-ranging herd of several hundred animals has become the center piece of the PA Wild program.


Wild Pennsylvania elk: an immature bull in velvet; photo 1 of 3



Elk, deer, bear and turkeys are the main attractions for tourists and hunters alike, but the detailed landscapes of forest openings, beaver meadows, and the edges of sparsely traveled trails and roads are often rich in plant and animal life.


Porcupine; strolling along the edge of a beaver meadow and grazing on succulent, herbaceous vegetation

Three plants, or plant groups, that are spectacular in mid-summer are the daisies and daisy-like flowers, Bee Balm and Cardinal Flower. All of these photos are wild plants, growing naturally in the area being featured.


Crescent butterfly on Coneflower


Bee Balm (Oswego Tea); past peak bloom


Spicebush Swallowtail on Cardinal Flower; flood plain of a mountain stream

When available, both Bee Balm and Cardinal Flower are favored, natural food sources for hummingbirds.


Ruby-throated Hummingbird, preening

I stopped near the eastern border of the PA Wilds on my way home to break up the trip and photograph a mountain stream. This was my final capture of the trip.


Red-spotted Purple; gravel bar on the flood plain of a mountain stream.

Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.