One For the Photo Album

I travel Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey with my trusty sidekicks, Bella and Bond, searching for the best hikes in the area. This weekend, we found one for the books.

French Creek State Park near Reading, Pennsylvania is a bit of a hike (pun intended) for us. I was excited but after the day prior (See Tyler State Park) I wasn’t getting my hopes up. We pulled into the parking lot near Turtle Creek Trail. It wasn’t near any picnic pavilions and it was close enough to the Fire Tower that we wouldn’t have to hike all day to make it to that landmark. Bella and Bond were raring to go after the long drive. We set off, my brother accompanying us on this hike.

Chris and Bond

There are several different trails to choose from and coming up from the parking lot, we immediately decided on Turtle Trail, because it was close, it was about four miles, and we figured we could hop onto other trails from Turtle. The hiking is fairly easy to start with, which was a great warm-up. We quickly realized that Turtle Trail is only a very short section (white blazes) before it moves to a combination of Horseshoe and Boone trails (yellow and blue blazes, respectively). This was fine with us, it was a beautiful day and we were headed for Scott’s Run Lake. Along the way we ran into some interesting plants and fungi so this is definitely a great place to be if you’re an avid naturalist. Unfortunately, with the drive we had arrived a bit too late for the morning bird rush. Boone trail turned to the left (follow blue blazes) but we decided to stick with Horseshoe Trail so we could see the lake.

We made it to the lake and crossed a small dam. Here we found the first evidence of fellow humans for the day. We had the opportunity to chat with some families about the fish in the area and then we continued on, easily picking up our yellow blazes on the other side. I was extremely pleased with how well these trails were blazed. Though we had a map and compass, it’s never easy to get Bella and Bond to stay still long enough to consult these, so the blazes made life a lot easier.

We continued wrapping around Horseshoe trail, hitting a few roads on our way, which aren’t heavily traveled but worth looking out for. An hour and a few water breaks later, we reconnected to Boone trail, which we decided to take, so we could head up towards the fire tower. This is where the real fun began. After an easy hour or so hiking Horseshoe trail, Boone trail provided a great challenge. In the southward direction we were heading, Boone is all uphill and very rocky. I would make sure you’re physically fit to tackle this one – all of us were winded by the time we reached the next marker. At marker eight turn east and you’ll find yourself in a parking lot. At first I was disappointed, because it looked like a service area. But keep walking and you’ll find the fire tower, which has been dedicated to the folks who help keep our forests safe from fires (excluding fire ecology necessities, but I digress). There are some shaded picnic tables in this area so we stopped for a photo op and to eat a quick snack.

Back down Boone trail, using a cut-over onto Horseshoe trail, back onto Turtle Trail, and we were back to the car; all in all, an easier hike then the way up. There are a few downhill portions that make me strongly recommend a good hiking boot. Otherwise, beware twisted ankles. In all, our hike was 4.5 miles long and we still only saw less than half of the park. I am seriously considering making this trek again and camping this time, to give us more time to explore. French Creek State Park offers several campgrounds and one is open to dogs. If you’re not much of a primitive camper, no worries, cabins are also offered and bathrooms are available at all campsites. Bella and Bond love to rough it – no, I’m sorry, correction, they will be snuggled up in their doggy sleeping bag inside the tent, with their Collapsible Kurgo food and water bowls, topped off to the brim… My dogs aren’t spoiled, I swear.

This was such a beautiful late summer day, temperatures were in the high 60’s, low 70’s, and the leaves are just beginning to hold a hint of gold. Though I love summer, fall and spring are best hiking seasons, full of colors and interesting flora and fauna. I was lucky to spend this day at French Creek State Park with my brother, Bella, and Bond, and I hope to do so again very soon.

Click here for a PDF map to French Creek State Park.

 

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One to avoid

My typical workweek is Tuesday through Saturday and it was too beautiful this past Saturday to pass up on a hike! I rushed home from the office, loaded up the dogs, and away we went to Tyler State Park in Newtown, PA, an area I had been interested in trying for some time. The Neshaminy Creek runs through at least part of the park and I was anxious to get Bella and Bond out onto their 25 miles of trails. The drive was beautiful, passing through woods and farmland and even a little covered bridge.

The Hike
We pulled into Tyler State Park and I was stunned by how many people there were. But, I reasoned, it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and I had parked in a picnic area. There was no way the trails would be this crowded. We crossed a bridge (open to vehicles) and made it to the dam, where I took advantage of the crowds of people and asked a family to take a picture of Bella, Bond, and me. I was impressed by the dam but instantly decided that Bella and Bond would not be going into the water. The entire place smelled like a sewer and I spotted fishing line and hooks just lying around. This sort of burned me, especially because the parks had set up recycling areas for fishing line! We walked a little ways past the dam and I spotted a trail – Neshaminy Trail, bordering the creek, and blazed bright red. Perfect!

Now, I typically look up trails beforehand, but I was in a rush after work and I just didn’t this time. If I had, I would have known that Neshaminy Trail is largely set aside for horses. I don’t mind a little muck and mud (and Bella and Bond really don’t mind) but this trail was destroyed. There was rarely a dry foothold and by the end of it, I felt like a giant mud monster. Not my idea of a fun time. The red blazes only continued for a short distance before I lost site of them entirely. Afterwards I relied solely on my trusty compass and frequent maps scattered throughout the park. Unfortunately the unpaved trails ended, giving way to asphalt. I don’t mind some asphalt sprinkled into a hike but I don’t hike with the intention of plodding along on a man-made feature the entire way. I also then worry about burns and scraped pads for the dogs. I just could not find any more dirt trails, which really disappointed me. I also can’t tell you which way we went, other then north, then east, then south, to head back to the parking lot. The trails were not marked and while we followed Covered Bridge road for at least a little while, that’s the most descriptive I can get.

Another big disappointment with this hike was the sheer number of people, which I had not managed to escape. They were everywhere. I am notorious for letting Bella and Bond off-leash when we’re on the trail, because they enjoy it and their recall is superb. But I don’t like doing this when there are other people around because I don’t know if their dogs are friendly or if they themselves are friendly towards dogs. So poor Bella and Bond were forced to remain leashed, essentially for the entire hike. They do well on a leash, but I could almost hear their screaming disappointment in the way their big brown eyes stared at me and their drooped tails.

We only managed two miles on this hike, just because I was so disappointed that I ended up turning us around early. There is apparently a covered bridge that is a huge draw and there are certainly some old farmhouses on the park property that are nice to see (but do not photograph these; they’re owned by private landowners, which I found strange for a state park). We also spotted some white-tailed deer, all does. The only birds I saw or heard were a few sparrows and a blue jay. We got back to the parking lot, loaded up, and headed out. At least Bella and Bond got a few pieces of steak with their doggy dinner, so the day wasn’t a total wash.

Unfortunately, I feel like this is a park that you can safely avoid without missing much, which is not my typical attitude regarding hiking at all. Then again, we do them so not everyone has to! After getting home and doing some digging, I found that most of Tyler’s trails are open to horses, with only a small 1-mile portion sectioned off for humans. There are plenty of trails where horses and humans and dogs can co-mingle quite happily, but this wasn’t one of those times. The popularity of the park was too much of a draw and Bucks County is full of farmland and horses. Add this to the fact that a horse trail was constructed along a low-lying watershed, with plenty of opportunities for water to pool; the combination wasn’t a good one. Luckily, we had much better success the following day, but that is a tale for another time.

Room for Two

I’ve decided to postpone my chat about hiking gear (by only a day or so) to talk about something very important to me.

Bella was my first dog. She was extensively planned for, shopped for, ogled over, and adored from the day she was born. The breeder sent us pictures of her from day one. I had never dreamed, as a young teenager, that I could love a little creature so much. I obsessed over her name, her bed and bowls, I painstakingly selected her collar. I played with and dogsat her dad in the eight (long, long, long) weeks it took for her to be weaned. When she came we were ready.

Not so with Bond. Bond was a surprise in every way. He was purchased and raised as a show dog. He lived in Texas. He was not planned for. He was not shopped for, ogled over, or adored. Bond ended up having a genetic condition that halted his show career. I’m not sure if he was disappointed or not – it seems to me he enjoys his meals a little too much to maintain that show stud figure. But his owner was certainly disappointed. So disappointed, in fact, that they decided against keeping him. Our family friend rang us. Could we possibly have room for one more?

Well, what’s one more, after all?

After a long flight from Texas, Bond arrived. I had some reservations. First, I adored Bella. She was the center of my universe and for the first time, I was putting another being first. I wasn’t sure if I had enough room in my heart for Bond. Second, he was a boy and he seemed so timid and what the hell where those things hanging between his legs?

I didn’t warm up to Bond very quickly. It happened slowly, over many days. He was very different from my Bella, who seemed to know what I was thinking before I did. I did, however, notice a gradual shift. As he was neutered, I worried about him. I put him on a diet because he was getting chubby and I knew that couldn’t be good for his poor joints. Bond was terrified of thunder and yelling and gunshots. At first I pushed him away because I was disgusted by his panting and shaking. But one night, as I was reading with Bella nestled between my legs, Bond came into my room. He was scared. He was shaking, a storm was rolling in. And he came running to me for help.

I called him onto the bed and wrapped him in one of my blankets. I pulled him against me and whispered into his ear as the thunder boomed outside. He still shook and panted and I got covered in drool, but for the first time I didn’t mind. Bond was relying on me too. And how could I have thought I wouldn’t have room in my heart for this flawed creature that had come to me begging for help? I fell for Bond then as hard as I had fallen for Bella months ago. He was mine and he would be mine for the rest of his life.

As the thunder slowly faded, Bond let out a sigh and let his head drop onto my heart. He fell asleep like that, his head nestled under my chin.

Bond still isn’t the perfect dog. He still doesn’t know many commands; he can’t follow my thoughts with a gesture, the way Bella can. He will steal food from you before you can blink, and he follows his nose more often than a dog should. But I like to think that Bond is me, if I didn’t have to go to work and be a responsible adult. He loves belly rubs, goes crazy for breakfast and dinner-time, and is so excited to see you come home that he’ll jump five feet into the air to give you a kiss. He makes me smile when I’m down by army-crawling across the floor or by grabbing a toy and wiggling so hard that he knocks himself sideways. He only needs his two best girls (Bella and me), food, and a hike to be completely content with his day.

Bond was unplanned for in every way. In a world where so much is planned for, often down to the smallest details, I’m so glad my family decided to be impulsive. It led to the best pair of dogs I have ever known and no, not perfect, but perfect for me.

An Easy Trail – Getting Started

The first thing you need to do before hitting the trail with your best friend is to make sure they (and you) are physically fit for the journey. Bella and Bond always have their yearly checkups with their vet, who is well-informed about their activities. When I’m on the trail, I make sure to keep a close watch on them. I know all of my aches and pains as soon as they start, but dogs are great at hiding their woes. The best thing you can do as an owner is to know your dog’s limits.

Testing the Limits
We live up north, where winters can be brutally cold. Bella and Bond are short-coated dogs which means that the coldest months, January and February, we’re largely at home, dreaming longingly of warmer days. March is a month of slow, short hikes, to work Bella and Bond back up to the point they were at, physically, the previous year. This is important no matter what age your dog is but it is especially important for younger and older dogs.

Sterner Mill Trail
One of our favorite short hikes is Sterner Mill Trail at Nockamixon State Park. This trail has no address so set your GPS for Nockamixon State Park, main park entrance, and this trailhead will be about three miles before you reach the main park. There is a little brown sign but it can be difficult to spot because traffic moves quickly in this area.
There is a large parking spot in this area which is nice because on weekends it is heavily frequented with hikers and trail runners. I would come prepared with a few towels and a set of waterproof boots; the trail heads down towards the lake and it can be very muddy.
Sterner Mill is a 1.8 mile loop and is fairly easy hiking, with few inclines. The trailhead starts by a sign post at the edge of the parking lot, where you can pick up a map of the area (perfect for planning hikes later on!). The most difficult parts of the trail are because of tree roots which readily trip up paws and human feet alike. The trail is well-blazed (yellow) but it can be confusing – if you continue straight all the way down the trail, it will eventually lead to a set of wooden stairs at the base of the bridge, which lead to the road. The first time we tried this, it was fall and there was a lot of lifting involved to get Bella and Bond up the steep stairs. It then leads out to the road, which is not safe so we bushwhacked our way down a steep incline. Bella and Bond managed like the MVPs they are, but I don’t recommend trying this unless your dog(s) is/are very well-behaved on a leash and know to stick close to your side. Once figuring out which way to head, this hike will meander past the lake, up through some old growth forest and a pine plantation. Opportunities for bird watching are abundant here, if you can get the pups to stay still long enough (I usually can’t). As you turn away from the lake, you’ll pass through the pine plantation and onto a wide, grassy tract. This is my favorite spot to let Bella and Bond have fun. I usually lessen my pace in this area, soak in the sunshine through the trees, and let them gallomp around wherever they may. If they’re lucky they’ll find a mole to chase (doggy nirvana). The trail is a loop and whether you choose to shorten it or not by taking an early right-hand turn, you will end up back in the parking lot you started in. If it looks a little confusing, swing right as you come out of the trees and you’ll see the same sign post you started by.

A Bit of a Challenge
If you’re feeling adventurous and your pups are up to it, there is a challenge to be had in the form of a stream bed. This stream bed will be on your right-hand side as you head towards the lake, and there is a small path to get to it. The stream bed is dry as long as it has not rained recently and you and your dogs can have some fun in and among the rocks. The stream bed flows down towards the lake and there are paths to exit the stream before you hit the lake water. The rocks here will only last a few hundred meters but it is fun to challenge yourself and your dogs with a slightly easier climb (before we get to the hard stuff!). I highly recommend a secure harness with a good hold, so you can steady your dog if necessary. Your dog may also require boots, depending on how tough their pads are. If your dog seems nervous about the whole venture, immediately call it off. The worst thing you can do is force your dog when they aren’t prepared. I actually discovered this bouldering path because Bond seemed so interested in it. Once we started moving, I found that both myself and my dogs had a great time navigating the stream.

End of the Road
After cleaning off muddy paws and loading in to the car, I always check Bella and Bond for ticks and for any cuts or tears in their pads. Ticks should be removed immediately and you should have a pair of tweezers on hand to accomplish this. Grab the tick as close to the head as possible. I prefer a long, slow pull, to ensure the head is completely removed. Some people prefer a twist but I’ve found this can leave the head of the tick embedded in your dog, leading to potential infection later on. Avoid trying to remove the tick with your fingers. It’s bad for you due to potential bacteria and if the abdomen of the tick is squeezed, it can inject saliva into your dog, which can increase their risk for disease. I always treat the area with a disinfectant once the tick is removed. In a later blog post I’ll discuss the first aid kit I keep on hand for treating pupper’s injuries.

Now go home, relax, and kick up those muddy feet. Maybe give a dog a bone. They earned it.

Bella and Bond hike
Hiking Sterner Mill Trail, Spring 2016.

My next blog post will feature gear – because half the fun of hiking is all the fun toys for you and your dogs!

About This Blog

This blog will feature me (the human), Bella, and Bond, my two trusty Rat Terriers, and will follow us on our hiking adventures. We will predominantly focus on the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware areas, with occasional forays into other states.

By writing this blog, I hope to accomplish a few things. First and foremost, I want to be able to document the times in nature with my dogs, who are by far my favorite travel companions. Second, I hope to encourage others to take the trail with their best friends and appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds our homes. Third, I hope to be able to educate people, based on my experience in the bush with my dogs, as to the safe and proper way to bring canine companions along. Nothing is more important then safety for our best friends.

A few disclaimers for this blog. First, I am not an expert. Second, I am not a veterinarian. I am an enthusiast, which should never be mistaken for a professional. If you have any concerns at any point, you should consult with your veterinarian, human doctor, or other applicable expert.

Bella and Bond
Finally, I would like to point out that my dogs are my best friends and I do treat them like my children. As with any parent, the ways in which we raise our children is astoundingly different. I ask that everyone would refrain from critiquing the way I raise my dogs. I am always open to other ideas but I don’t want or need malicious messages. My dogs are happy, healthy, and well-cared for. For the purposes of this blog, I will never bring up my dog’s diet except in the broadest of terms, although if you are genuinely curious I would encourage you to contact me.

Happy Hiking!