Finding My Wilds Side in Pennsylvania

The dirt lanes off the Quehanna Highway probably weren’t just what the doctor ordered. Sure, the solitude and silence of these winding paths was welcoming. The towering trees standing along the two-lane road, soundless sentinels guarding each turnoff as they give way to beautiful streams and bedrock outcroppings, make hiking worth the effort. The vast land, the collection of forest, a scenic advertisement of the outdoor playground set before me. Only I was pregnant with my second child.

Mornings were unpredictable and off-roading in an open-air Jeep with a sensitive stomach was questionable. But then I saw it.

And I felt perfectly fine telling my husband Steve to slam on the breaks so we’d come to a complete — and jerking halt — just to confirm what my eyes had seen. A baby black bear hugging the base of a tree, 50 feet away. The moment didn’t last long. He heard us and soon scurried away. Not even Steve caught the precious fuzzy ears sticking out through the green brush of the forest floor. The moment was all my own.

Tucked away quietly in an area between Interstate 80 and the New York border, is the Quehanna Wild Area, a 48,000-acre collection of recreational land and the most unpopulated region in the state. Large open meadows with exceptional wildflowers, give way to forest, streams, trails and a natural area so rich with openness — stillness — that Quehanna is really what you make of it.

And we were looking for adventure — or as much of it as I could endure. The bear spotting was enough to get my juices flowing. We’d had a restful sleep at the Victorian Loft B&B in Clearfield and now we continued on our drive from Karthaus to find Three Falls, a roughly 10-mile journey off the highway.

We parked and began our journey down the moderate slope, careful to maneuver over tree roots and rocks. And then we came to one of Clearfield County’s hidden treasures: Three Falls. I was just settling into the beauty of the site when Steve slid down the side of the ravine carefully, gulped a handful of the fresh, clear water and made his way up — and under — the first of the falls. He was as close to walking on water as he could be.

The adventure continued when we narrowly escaped a swarm of bees near the backpack Steve had strategically left up the bank. We made it back to the Jeep and even with the summer sun beating down, there was a coolness along the Quehanna Highway, borrowed gracefully from the surrounding forest. Then it was off to a fishing hole along Wykoff Run we’d heard about over last night’s dinner at Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield (try the honey maple BBQ wings and HillBilly burger — unless you are up for a 2-pound Pub Challenger!). Steve’s boyhood fishing rods had sat unused in his parents’ garage for years, but he was excited to step out on the rock and attempt to teach me form. Trout bubbled up from the stream regularly, but none took a bite on my line. At day’s end, we tallied our wildlife sightings: one baby black bear, one deer, one owl, a few grouse, trout and one rattlesnake (in the road). There were no elk to be seen from the seclusion of a wildlife blind up on the Elk Scenic Drive, but we considered our count impressive just the same. My goal now — after the baby arrives — is to make it to one of the Quehanna Wilds Jeep Runs, a thrice-a-year-adventure where getting stuck in the mud is part of the fun.

Visit Clearfield Visitors Center, 12 N. Front Street, Clearfield, 814.765.5734, visitclearfieldcounty.org, facebook.com/pages/Quehanna-Wilds-Jeep-Run/171539598593

Detour: Ramble the River Roads

Clearfield County is host to 102 miles of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has recently designated the West Branch Susquehanna River Byway. Running parallel to the section of river National Geographic honored as one of the “Ten Best Adventure Destinations for 2012,” the roads comprising the byway highlight major features as well as some of the county's most pristine attractions. Among these are Bilger's Rocks, McGee's Mills Covered Bridge and the Quehanna Natural Area. The Penfield Loop connects to the Elk Scenic Drive, and is an important gateway to the Susquehanna Wilds.

Paddle the PA Wilds

National Geographic ranked the West Branch of the Susquehanna River Water Trail as one of the “Ten Best Adventure Destinations for 2012.” One of the newest national recreation water trails, the West Branch snakes 228 miles through wild territory, historic towns and farmland. Its proximity to Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia also makes it perfect for day trips or canoe-camping excursions. Paddle the PA Wilds with canoe and kayak rentals from McCracken Canoe Sales and Rentals. For an extra shuttle service fee, McCracken will lead the more adventurous to Class 1 and Class 2 rapids, or offer suggestions for newbies. Check out other great paddling opportunities at pawilds.com

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