Savoring the last days of summer in Cook Forest

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Clarion River

During our final week of summer, it seemed like the sunsets were brighter and the last days were the hottest. The first day of school was looming in the near future and the long days of summer were getting shorter. 

We have never written a literal “bucket list,” but there are things we try to squeeze in every summer. 

The last Sunday before school started, we attempted one more adventure. The problem was that no one told the weatherman that we needed perfect weather conditions. 

The forecast looked sketchy. We had a window of time in the afternoon before the heavy rain would start. We could’ve stayed home and stayed completely dry, but where is the fun in that? 

Cook Forest

We opted to drive east along Interstate 80 to hopefully spend most of the day at Cook Forest State Park in Cooksburg, Pennsylvania. 

Eastern white pines and hemlocks create a forest canopy high above the ferns and fungi. Many of the towering trees are 150 years old or more and part of the largest old-growth forest in Pennsylvania. 

The Forest Cathedral old-growth area is designated as a National Natural Landmark. Other species such as white oak, American beech, and black cherry trees can be seen from the numerous hiking trails. 

River was calling

On many trips, we hiked far into the forest, losing track of time and enjoying our time of exploration. But the warm and humid weather made the river more enticing on our latest trip. For 13 miles, the broad and usually shallow Clarion River meanders through Cook Forest State Park. 

What my family considers a recreational sanctuary was once the most polluted river in Pennsylvania. The Clarion River was a critical link in the early timber industry. Felled trees were transported down the Clarion to the Allegheny, then the Ohio, and finally along the Mississippi River. 

Deforestation, along with run-off from tanneries and acid mine drainage, in the late 19th century severely impacted the river. The future of the polluted Clarion River looked grim. 

Happy habitat

Conservation efforts focused on restoring and improving the habitat of the watershed. Reforestation of the area was the catalyst for change. River frontage was protected, creating nurturing habitats for native animals to flourish. 

Over the years, we have had many close encounters with wildlife as we floated down the Clarion on our river tubes. One time, a mature bald eagle swooped down and grabbed a fish with its talons right in front of us. It’s really hard to render four children speechless, but that eagle managed to create a few seconds of stunned silence. 

Another evening float was the setting for a close encounter with river otters. Two playful otters popped their heads out of the water downstream of us. I was stunned when the elusive aquatic mammals continued to frolic in the water. 

In the late 1800s, the population of river otters in North America declined by almost 75%. River otters are again thriving in the restored waterways of Pennsylvania. 

Issues of the past, like strip mine run-off and industrial waste, are now prohibited by anti-pollution laws. 

A lack of management in harvesting otters also led to a decline in population. Trapping is now regulated to one river otter per license year and licensed furtakers can obtain one permit each. 

Sky opens up

Unfortunately on this trip, we were more focused on watching the sky than seeing wildlife. Dark clouds were approaching, and the wind was picking up about halfway into our river float. I said it would pass over. I was wrong. 

The sky darkened to the color of slate right before we heard the first rumble of thunder. A couple resting in lawn chairs along the riverbank waved and smiled at us. Little did we realize, we were about to become their source of entertainment. 

After the next clap of thunder, we hopped out of tubes and scrambled quickly over the rocks in the river bed. With far less agility than river otters, we made our way across the width of the river. 

Standing under a pavilion in torrential rain was not what I had in mind for our last day of summer. However, there was lots of laughter, and it was quite memorable. It gave us the chance to notice the color contrast rain created of darkened bark and bright evergreen trees. 

We didn’t see a rainbow, but we did see a sign for ice cream. We decided a sweet treat would be the perfect ending for an imperfect summer day.

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