A View from the Saddle

Outdoors: The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania is tailor-made for an adventure on horseback.

Cover Story

September 03, 2000|By Barbara Frye | Barbara Frye,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My guide to the area known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania was Strawberry, a short, white horse with reddish dappling on his back.

He tolerated the mistakes of an inexperienced rider and kept a gentle pace, although at times he seemed to want to cut loose. I thanked him frequently during our seven hours together.

Strawberry lives at the Mountain Trail Horse Center near Wellsboro, Pa. My day with him was the centerpiece of a weekend spent exploring the woodlands of north-central Pennsylvania.

The Grand Canyon (its real name is Pine Creek Gorge) and the surrounding state parks and forests are a magnet for fishermen, rafters, canoeists, hikers, bikers, hunters and equestrians. Pine Creek cuts through the foothills of the Appalachians north of Williamsport, carving a gorge that's 47 miles long and up to a mile wide at some points.

Unlike its namesake in Arizona, this canyon's scenery is more pretty than spectacular. Instead of multicolored clay walls, it's lined with fuzzy-looking, evergreen-covered mountains about 800 to 1,000 feet high. The charm of the area is that since the timber companies moved on, they've left a rural area full of rolling hills and farmland (but, alas, with virtually no old-growth forests) that's an outdoor playground, still free of any upscale resorts.

I didn't know all that when I made plans for my husband and myself to take a daylong horseback ride through the area. I just knew that I had received the horse center's brochure for a few years and had made a resolution to go someday, even though I hadn't been on a horse in 25 years.

Because our day with the horses wouldn't take us through the canyon itself, we made sure to visit Leonard Harrison and Colton Point state parks, which straddle the gorge, to get a view from above. The day before the horseback trip, we rented bicycles and rode the rail-trail on the canyon floor.

The straight, flat, gravel trail wouldn't make much of a horseback ride, but it was just right for bikes. We rode for 18 miles, round-trip, alongside Pine Creek, passing canoeists and fishermen angling for trout.

Pine Creek flows at a leisurely pace, forking around grassy or marshy islands that pop up here and there. A thick forest covering on the far side of the creek gives way occasionally to shady, flat, green spaces that were the camping spots of my dreams.

Indeed, Tiadaghton, the halfway point on the trail and our turnaround spot, was such a place, set up for camping with pit toilets, but no showers, nearby. A couple of fishing parties had pitched their tents here, and we stopped to lunch on muffins and water. What a difference from the trails we'd take the next day.

Warned and ready

Our horseback day started at 9:30 a.m., with two hours of instruction on safety and horse behavior.

Jill Maier, who has owned the 52-horse center for nearly 18 years with her husband, Patrick, led our group with the help of two other guides, Lee Golden and Laurie Snavely.

Maier told us that horseback riding is one of the most dangerous recreational activities there is -- the 64th most dangerous, to be exact, according to some report she cited.

Remember, she told us, horses are thinking beings, and the trail can be unpredictable.

"We've had branches blow down, grouse flying up, deer jumping out. ... When things happen, a lot of times they happen like this," she said, snapping her fingers.

Along with tips on finding our "deep seat" on the saddle, sitting up straight and gripping with our thighs, Maier warned us never to let go of the reins. If we did, then, "whatever happens to you is up to your horse, and that's not a good position to be in."

We picked our horses. I stayed away from the likes of Commanche, Cherokee and Black Star. Instead, I made friends with Strawberry by stroking his mane for a few minutes.

Properly warned and acquainted, we headed out at 11:30 a.m. Most of the early riding was spent climbing hills, crossing a few streams and making our way back down those hills. It was quiet and slow enough to get a look at some of the forest.

Growing up, I had spent many weekends riding motorbikes on woodland trails in rural Virginia. I often wondered how that would compare to being on a horse.

What I realized now was that on a motorcycle, I came to know the trail well -- with its dips, mud puddles and fallen branches -- but only the trail. On a horse, I got to see the forest. And I was able to develop a relationship, however temporary, with a gorgeous, intelligent animal.

I felt, as rider Deb McGrail put it, "that joy of being outdoors on such a beautiful creature."

The forest floor was thick with low-lying shrubs, and we could see in the distance to ridges and valleys beyond.

Our ride took us through a maze of logging roads as well as barely discernible trails. At times the horses would have to make their way gingerly over rocky slopes and at others they could amble through grassy meadows. We ducked a lot to avoid what one of our party called "face plants."

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