Life Before Fracking

Before the natural gas boom brought fracking, the Pennsylvania wilderness had a life of its own.

| March/April 2014

  • We followed a rickety hand-drawn map scrawled by my 82-year-old grandmother: Pass the shattered-window filling station, the oddly-shaped Kissing Rock sitting in the sharp road bend; go over the creek on a small wooden bridge that may or may not be there, depending on whether the water had washed it out in the spring.
    Photo by Francisca Pageo
  • They will restore the Pennsylvania wilderness, they promise: after 40 years it will be just like it was before. Those whitetail, those bears, they won’t notice a thing.
    Photo by Francisca Pageo
  • We just frack here, we don't live here. Some people live in houses and others behind trailer walls. Some grow old and others don't. Let the forest, the Dark Shadow, swallow them all.
    Photo by Francisca Pageo

The mountains of the Pennsylvania Allegheny Plateau are the rolling afterthoughts of the Appalachians. In 1989, when Dad left the Navy for the Reserve, we moved to a county with more deer than people, deserting Virginia. Three hours north of Harrisburg on a two-lane road, I thought we had reached Switzerland. I was seven years old.

Soon after we settled in, my mother and aunt took me on a hike. They wanted to look for eagles in Pine Creek Gorge, at the nearby state park. We weaved between oak and walnut trees along the rim, scanning between branches over the 800-foot abyss, hoping to see the gliding black cross with a telltale white head.

The gorge began as sediment, settled, and compacted into shale 400 million years ago. Then, during the last ice age, glaciers carved out mountain drainages and left behind endless accor-dion ridges. A river runs through the chasm. The Iroquois called it Tiadaghton, meaning either “The River of Pines” or “The Lost and Bewildered River,” nobody knows which. Until the end of the Revolutionary War, the river—today called Pine Creek—marked the fissure between white lands to the south and Indian lands to the north.

The Seneca called the area around the gorge the “Dark Shadow,” because the hemlock and white pines grew so dense that light barely filtered through the branches. Early white explorers struggled to break through the forest, which was filled with ravens, elk, wolves, black bears, mountain lions. Just 10 or so years ago, north-central Pennsylvania marked the darkest spot of night sky on the East Coast, the last patch of wild sky, so black that the Milky Way cast a shadow, staving off the lights of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Modern Pine Creek is an exercise in extraction and “renewal.” By the turn of the 20th century, the canyon lost its old-growth conifers; endless board feet had gone downriver to the Chesapeake Bay for ship masts, leaving slopes of tree stumps behind. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees in the 1930s to replace the wasteland, and now there stands a second-growth deciduous forest. An infinite monoculture carpet of hay-scented ferns makes up the understory, overgrazed by predatory whitetail. Deer rule the woods. That’s the state motto: Virtue, liberty, independence, and whitetail. I didn’t know the forest floor could look any other way. I always thought it was fine because it was green.

Coal mines came and went, and a lumber boom, leaving half-inhabited villages around their deposits. Locals remember what mining brought to the state—jobs, followed by ghost towns, acid runoff, and hundreds of miles of sterile river. The state spent millions to stop the runoff; now our streams offer some of the finest trout fisheries in the East.

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