We're standing among Cook Forest State Park's ancient trees, walking down the hillside toward the Clarion River. All around us climb ancient hemlock and pine. We pause at a hemlock with a four-foot-thick trunk soaring form a base of splayed roots, a mini-cathedral among the lichens and ferns, spark my curiosity about all that must have lived here - biological and mystical.
To be among the ancients, aware of their centuries-long lifespan, was unbelievably peaceful. I swooned for these majestic giants, and wanted to know their story.
Dale J. Luthringer, the environmental education specialist at Cook Forest State Park, and I hike the Hemlock Trail through virgin forest. Luthringer has worked at Cook Forest for 16 years and is well-versed in the art and science of estimating the height and age of these trees.
Luthring explains Cook Forest's claim-to-fame year-round forest recreation, the Clarion River and some magnificently tall trees. The Northeast's tallest American chestnut, black cherry, Eastern hemlock pitch pine, white oak and witch hazel all live here, along with Pennsylvania's second tallest American beech, big tooth aspen and Eastern white pine.
Cook Forest attracts foresters and scientists, tree geeks, lovers and huggers - and travelers unaware they are in a forest virtually untouched since its birth after a 1644 wildfire.
Luthringer explains how the loggers would have taken these trees if not for the foresight of the Cook lumbering family. John Cook, the first permanent American settler and logger, his son Anthony and grandson Anthony Wayne Cook, all protected some of the forest as John found it. Anthony Wayne Cook led a national, 17-year campaign to save more than 6,000 acres, purchased by Pennsylvania in 1927.
On a ridge top along the Hemlock Trail the result of this history is striking. Luthringer and I walk out of the dark, ancient forest of evergreen pine and hemlock into bright sunshine. This spot - likely clear-cut 100 year ago - now grows oaks - white, red, chestnut and black - among other hardwoods. The only green this winter day is in the curled-up leaves of a domant rhododendron and some moss on the ground. It's a lovely young forest.
Along with multiple layers of canopy and standing and fallen trees, these buttressed roots, explains Luthringer, are a sign of an ancient forest. My identification is far less scientific a sensation of smallness and awe. I imagine Cook Forest is magical in any season, but I find winter's stillness the richest time for an annual pilgrimage, a ritual of renewal.