THE WASHINGTON POST – The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania is a destination for time travel – a place to explore history on both geologic and human scales.
Once this was the shoreline of a wide, shallow sea, where giant mosses and 40-foot ferns flourished in a tropical climate. The ancestors of land animals waddled about on primitive legs, slick-skinned and sprawling.
Eons of tectonic bashing and bumping lifted the land as high as the Himalayas, then time and the elements wore it away.
Encroaching ice sheets scoured the mountaintops. Water carved the plateau into a miles-long, thousand-foot gorge.
A record of the region’s turbulent past is still written on the canyon’s walls. The gravel and silt of the ancient seafloor became rippling layers of sandstone and shale.
Prehistoric flora was supplanted by swaying birch, dark, dense hemlock and lustrous sugar maples. Those early animals evolved into the otters that today splash in Pine Creek and the eagles that nest in the cliffs.
Native Americans lived here for thousands of years, but it was the forces of a growing, rapacious nation that rapidly transformed the landscape more than geology had over millennia. In centuries-old white pines that covered the hillsides, settlers saw roof beams and ships’ masts. Hemlock trees were stripped bare, their chemical-rich bark turned to dye for leather workers.
Railroad tracks were laid to supply the boom towns that sprang up around the timber industry.
It only took a few generations for boom to become bust. By the turn of 20th Century, the forest was obliterated. The otters and trout vanished from the creek; deer fled the barren fields. What little wood remained provided quick kindling for sparks that flew from passing trains. Wildfires ravaged the denuded earth.
A different evolution then occurred, said Jim Hyland, who has lived the entirety of his 55 years in central Pennsylvania and manages what is now the surrounding Tioga State Forest.
“We learned to think of these forests as something to appreciate, not just make a profit from.”
In 1905, Pennsylvania established its first forestry department and began to buy up the blighted land around the canyon. During the depths of the Great Depression, young men employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees and plotted hiking trails.
Pine Creek was made one of America’s first “wild and scenic rivers,” and slowly newts, eels and weasel-like fishers returned to its banks.
The abandoned train tracks became a path for hikers and bicyclists.
Yet the area’s human history remains evident to those who know to look for it. A former logging site, Tiadaghton, has become a dreamy riverside campground; from its open, grassy expanse visitors can listen to the croaking conversations of toads and watch the courtship rituals of red-winged blackbirds. The remains of an old CCC latrine stand amid a meadow of tiny, violet flowers called bluets.
Even the trees tell stories. Occasionally, hikers will come across a row of pines or maples growing in a too-straight line.
These, Hyland said, are the product of seeds planted decades ago – a long-ago forester’s gift to the future, another means of travelling through time.