“Is there anything that can sting me?” our granddaughter Eva asked as she peered down at the lake bottom.
She and I were swimming in Lake Jean at Ricketts Glen State Park. It was a hot day in early June, and this was ten-year-old Eva’s first experience of lake-swimming.
Like her mother Luz she enjoys swimming, but at first she walked almost fearfully into the water. Because she was used to swimming in the warm water off the Bay Islands in Honduras, where she had gone snorkeling the previous year, or in swimming pools in Mississippi, where she lives, I had assumed that the cold water was bothering her.
I assured her that no harmful creatures lurked in the water or hid in the sand, and she relaxed. I performed my usual back and side strokes in my 45-year-old, two-piece bathing suit, while she performed the Australian crawl and back stroke in her newer, more stylish, two-piece bathing suit. The last time I had gone swimming was with her mother, Luz, at Whipple Dam State Park, when Eva was an infant. Where had the decade gone?
My husband Bruce and I had been eager to introduce Eva to our favorite place in all of Pennsylvania–Ricketts Glen State Park and specifically the Falls Hike, which we had always referred to as the Glen Hike. We had been hiking it for nearly half a century, through courtship, marriage, children, and now grandchildren. But we had never swum in Lake Jean or taken any of the other trails.
This time we had decided to rent a cabin and spend several days at the park. After our swim, we headed to the park office to pick up the keys for our cabin. But Bruce’s online reservation hadn’t gone through. We had no cabin, and after touring a series of increasingly dreary, privately-owned cabins nearby, we headed for the motels of Wilkes-Barre. Weary with searching and disappointment, we engaged a room in the first one we saw.
Imagine us, laden with a huge cooler of perishables, several cardboard boxes of food, backpacks, and suitcases, which we loaded onto a luggage carrier supplied by the Hilton Garden Hotel, and took up to our room. Bruce was not going to sacrifice our planned Falls Hike, and I was not going to sacrifice our perishables. We carefully packed them into the small, motel refrigerator in our room.
“Camping out in a Hilton,” we joked as I heated up our baked bean supper in a microwave oven, also thoughtfully provided by the Hilton. Still, it was a real blow not to stay in a state park cabin, something Eva had been looking forward to because she had never stayed in a cabin. But she rallied sooner than I did.
I was still glum the following morning as I prepared breakfast. I pulled out a bag of thawed wild blueberries, intent on putting them on our cold cereal, but the bag had sprung a leak. Blueberry juice dripped on my new jeans and the rug. Yelling an oath, I raced to the bathroom and drained the bag into the sink. While Bruce tried to scrub my jeans clean, Eva tackled the rug. Finally, we settled down to breakfast, the blueberries on top of our cereal, the stains more-or-less gone from my jeans and the rug.
It was not an auspicious beginning. But despite the warm, humid weather, our day improved once we reached the lower parking lot at the park. First, we climbed down to Adams Falls. Many folks consider that falls, a series of three cascades, 18, 25, and 10 feet high, that races through deep, narrow gorges, the most beautiful falls in the park. We followed a series of large plunge pools formed by the erosion of turbulent water, the most impressive of which is Leavenworth Pool, which is about 30 feet in diameter and eight to ten feet deep. Eva was sufficiently impressed by the wild scene.
Then we told her about the waterfall hidden underneath Pennsylvania highway 118, which we could not see. She was as incredulous as we had always been at what seemed to be almost sacrilegious–building a highway over a waterfall. We wondered if the highway engineers had thought that 22 named waterfalls were enough.
We had the place almost to ourselves that weekday. And those we passed on the trail didn’t take the whole hike, short-circuiting it either from above or below. They seemed surprised that we did. No doubt they were heeding the warning in the park brochure that it was a difficult hike and hikers should be in good physical condition. But we wanted Eva to experience the trail as we had for nearly half a century. I had always said, half-jokingly, that when I could no longer hike the Glen Hike I would be old.
The long walk through what used to be an intact old-growth forest, following the meandering Kitchen Creek, is the only level part of the entire walk. Despite the demise of the huge hemlocks, either uprooted by a hurricane or dying from woolly adelgids, the wildflowers put on a fantastic show–whole beds of maple-leafed waterleaf, jack-in-the-pulpit, Canada mayflowers, and white-twisted stalk bloomed. I even found a couple of faded painted trilliums. But the giants were gone, and we could not share them with our granddaughter.
Once the trail narrowed and started up North Mountain, we could share the water that still drips from the moss-covered rocks along the trail, the wild gardens of wildflowers, tree saplings and both common and rock polypody ferns that grow atop the giant boulders overhanging the water, and the Louisiana waterthrushes and winter wrens that sang above the roar of the water.
Best of all, we could share the waterfalls. Because of the endurance of rock, they hadn’t changed either. Only their setting had diminished. Recently, the park had repaired and rebuilt the superb series of rock steps that employees of Colonel Ricketts had constructed back in the nineteenth century for trout fishermen. We even glimpsed the famed brook trout in a few pools.
I don’t think that Eva actually believed me when I told her that we would see 22 named waterfalls on the hike, but after we passed three more waterfalls before Watersmeet and started up Ganoga Glen, she was more than convinced, especially when I began pointing out unnamed waterfalls as well.
“In Mississippi, they would be named,” she told us. They don’t have many waterfalls in that state and they cherish every cascade.
After passing seven more waterfalls, all named for Iroquois Indian tribes, we reached Ganoga Falls. Ganoga means “Water on the Mountain” and, at 94 feet, it is the highest waterfall in the park and the second highest waterfall in Pennsylvania. But large or small, each waterfall has its unique architecture, here a long, narrow one, there a shorter, wide one–all sculpted by water over rock. Often, we stood close to a fall and welcomed its fine spray as the day warmed up.
At the top of the mountain, we took the Highland Trail that connects Ganoga Glen to Glen Leigh. But the huge American beech trees, once prominently marked by black bears, are also gone, dead from beech bark disease. In their place are spindly, young beech trees that will never reach the girth of their parent trees.
Once again the rocks remained, a jumble of huge glacial boulders, some showing glacial scratches, halfway along the trail. At one place we walked through a five-foot-wide gap between two rocks aptly named “Midway Crevasse.” After the roar of the water, the silence along this trail was broken only by the singing of black-throated green warblers and American redstarts. And then we started down Glen Leigh. Although it has only eight waterfalls, two less than Ganoga Glen, it is steeper and has always seemed wilder to me. After finding a scenic lunch spot overlooking 30-foot-high Shawnee Falls, we told Eva the history of the park, including the two glens known as the Glens Natural Area, which is a National Natural Landmark.
Ricketts Glen State Park was originally part of an 80,000-acre estate owned by Colonel Robert Bruce Ricketts, who led Battery F during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. In the 1920s the Ricketts family sold more than half the property to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and today the adjacent SGL#57 and the nearby SGL#13 add considerably more wild acreage to the 13,050 park acres in Luzerne, Sullivan and Columbia counties, acreage that we had hoped to explore had we stayed in a cabin.
Most of the park, including the waterfall area, was approved as a national park site in the 1930s, but World War II intervened, and the area was sold instead to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by Ricketts’ heirs for a state park. Lake Jean and the now dry Lake Rose, where we had once picnicked with our sons, were named for Ricketts’ daughters. Those waterfalls not given Native American names such as Mohican, Cayuga, Delaware, Seneca, and Huron, were named for Ricketts and his relatives. We pointed out the 40-foot-high R.B. Ricketts waterfall to Eva as we continued on down Glen Leigh.
In those early days, the local people called it “Kitchen Crick,” according to Bruce. As a young boy, he had gone once to Ricketts Glen with his Uncle Gilbert and great Uncle Byron and remembers them walking through the old-growth and identifying the trees. Eva likes to hear family stories so we also told her about her Grandpa’s people who had come down from Connecticut to settle at the base of North Mountain and farm, about his Grandpa Ide’s apple farm and how every year Bruce and his family, who lived in New Jersey, went back to visit family at the old farm.
Once we reached Watersmeet, rumbles of thunder hastened our walk back. Eva and Bruce had easily hiked all 7.2 miles of the Falls Trail, but I struggled during the last descent from the last waterfall, sweat pouring off me. I’ve never counted the stone steps that lead from waterfall to waterfall, but I suspect they number in the hundreds. And the elevation drop is 1,000 feet in a little over two miles.
As Eva and Bruce forged on ahead, I welcomed the level rerun through the remnants of the old-growth forest and walked slowly, because, as usual, I was loath to leave the peace of the trail. The rain held off until we were back in our car and headed for home. Nature, at least, had not let us down even if the park reservation system had.
All photos taken at Rickett’s Glen by Dave Bonta on May 14, 2007. To see the complete photoset, click here.
Leave a Reply