The Forest Experience

You cannot hike the same trail twice. Sometimes there is a fawn, others a caterpillar, perhaps a fox.

There is something amazing that happens when you camp in the same place year after year. My family has a Father’s Day tradition of camping in the Allegheny National Forest. Each year, we haul all of our gear to the same campsite in the same campground on the same weekend, and yet it is never the same.

There is an old proverb that you cannot step in the same river twice. The river is always moving, always changing from one moment to the next. It is never the same. It should be added that you cannot stay in the same campsite twice. Every year, the campsite changes dramatically.

The first year we were there, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers nested in a tree next to a giant rock many times larger than our tent. These loud birds neatly knock lines of holes in trees to make the sap run, then visit to gather insects that come to eat the sap. We watched the parents travel the campground in search of insects to feed the hungry mouths that were poking out of the nest, screeching for food.

A small tree below the site was covered with grape vine. This was not only harvested for kindling, but became the base for kids play. It was a fort, a castle and a secret hideout. Kids only, no adults allowed.

The next year, the large oak tree that shaded the site had fallen down, leaving the site open to the sun. The stump left behind had a hidey cave under it, where toads and craneflies hid. Sunlight changed the site completely, creating wild thickets of blackberries next to the site. The grapevine spread too, creating an impenetrable mass of vines and thorns between the two.

Massed butterflies can sometimes be seen puddling in one space.

Today, the grapevine house is too hard to get to, but small trees are poking out of the top of the thorny tangle. Small maple trees are now twelve feet high, growing quickly into the sunny spot left open by the felling of the giant oak.

Every year, new wildlife appears. Four years ago was the year of the firefly. Wandering out in the middle of the night to respond to the call of nature, the campground filled with the light of Synchronous Fireflies. These unique fireflies come out later at night and seem to be brighter than other species. They blink five times at the same time. That night, the campground was pitch black and the fireflies filled the hillside with bright glowing specks that would suddenly go dark, before starting up again.

Fireflies have become more and more interesting every year as my children are able to stay up later and later. A couple years ago, my Father’s Day present was a hammock to hang in the forest. This past weekend, my son and I ventured to the hammock after dark. The hammock swung back and forth under our weight as we watched the firefly show. There were so many colors of firefly: green, yellow, orange and red. As they blinked in the darkness, the hammock felt like a swinging chair over a floating night sky of stars that blinked on and off.

The hammock is one of the best presents I have ever received. Hammocks change your perspective, forcing you to look straight up. There is a lot that happens in the treetops that I rarely stopped to notice. Tiny birds flit up there, looking for caterpillars and other insects to feed their young. Bright yellow and black Tiger Swallowtails flutter past high above, on indecipherable missions of their own. The trees, if you watch long enough, have their leaves spread out to take advantage of the sun at different times of the day.

Every year is different and every year provides different opportunities. One year, a fawn curled up near the trail to the bathrooms. Another, a caterpillar with a fake eye like a cyclops was on a grape leaf next to the cars.

The Abbot’s Sphinx moth has a fake cyclops eye and resembles as cluster of grapes. Photos by Jeff Tome

This year, my son started screaming at me while he was swimming in the reservoir, knowing that he had found something that would make my day. In his excitement, he had no words to describe things. He swam along the shore ahead of me until I could see what he saw: dozens of Tiger Swallowtail butterflies fluttering about the trees and landing on the shore in a mass of black and yellow.

You really can’t visit the same campground twice. Some years there are huge green Luna Moths. Others have fawns. Some have bright, rusty capped Chipping Sparrows cleaning up the fallen popcorn on the ground. Same place, different experience.

One of the campground hosts summed it up best this year. “It’s like coming to a different world out here.” It truly is, and we are lucky to live so near such a fantastic resource as the Allegheny National Forest. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Jeff Tome is a naturalist with the Audubon Community Nature Center. Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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