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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 23 - Duncannon and Port Clinton, Pennsylvania

Updated on September 16, 2013
Duncannon was a friendly Appalachian Trail town with an interesting and inexpensive victorian-style hotel that welcomed hikers.
Duncannon was a friendly Appalachian Trail town with an interesting and inexpensive victorian-style hotel that welcomed hikers. | Source

Duncannon fit the mold of the trail towns we had already encountered on the trip. It was a small, friendly town where all the places we needed to visit were close together.

Along the Susquehanna to Duncannon

On the 6th of June we woke up in our room at the Best Western in downtown Harrisburg, PA. We had stayed there during the previous afternoon and night to avoid a full day rainstorm that had lasted into the night. The sky was still overcast in the morning, but the torrential downpours of the previous day were over. We started out early and walked through the empty streets of Harrisburg to the Susquehanna River. Then we walked along the road that bordered the river and had views of many beautiful large homes on a promontory that overlooked the Susquehanna. Eventually we left the buildings of Harrisburg behind and we walked along the road with the river on our left and a wooded ridge rising up on our right. Our entire day was spent following the river northward. Other than a few sprinkles, the rain held off and late in the afternoon we crossed the bridge over the Susquehanna on route 322 which led us into Duncannon.

Duncannon fit the mold of the trail towns we had already encountered on the trip. It was a small, friendly town where all the places we needed to visit were close together. A place to stay, a restaurant, a store, and a laundromat were all within a few blocks of one another. We had heard about a good place for hikers to stay in Duncannon. It wasn't really a hostel – it was more like an old-fashioned boardinghouse called the Doyle Hotel. The rates were said to be extremely good and it was reputed to be a historic landmark. We were wondering if we would run into Mark there. On our way to the Doyle we passed the laundromat and we decided to peek in to see what it was like. Inside we saw Mark. With a laugh we went in to catch him up on our adventures in Hershey and Harrisburg.

The Doyle Hotel

Mark was glad to see us. He hadn't been sure when we would come through town or if he would ever see us again at all. He'd gotten a room at the Doyle for a week to rest for a while and see if we would show up. The rates turned out to be $7.50 per person per night, but you could rent a room for a week for $20. Now that we had arrived, Mark decided to change the rest of his reservation to one more night for the three of us. He must've been in a magnanimous mood, because he sprang for both our night’s stay.

The Doyle was a beautiful old Victorian-style hotel. I was reminded of my grandmother's house when I went inside. My grandmother's house had been furnished with several Victorian era pieces of furniture, much like the lobby and other common areas of the Doyle. There were no TVs in the rooms, and every floor had one bathroom for all the rooms on that floor to share. It was much nicer than the hostels in Damascus and Pearisburg. While it catered to all visitors in Duncannon, it was a place that was known to long distance hikers along the AT, and they were welcome. Since the price was right, many AT hikers stayed there. For those that did, the hotel added an early 1900’s flavor to the trip for a while.

It didn't take long for us to feel right at home in Duncannon. One of the differentiating characteristics of an AT trail town is how the townsfolk react to hikers. They recognize and embrace them. This was especially clear to us since we had so recently been off the trail in Hershey and in Harrisburg where people had not recognized us as AT hikers. There we had been largely ignored when we weren't being given suspicious looks. Not so in Duncannon. People there looked at us and treated us as though we belonged.

One incident framed the contrast in crystal-clear terms. As Dave and I were walking through the town with our big packs and walking sticks, we came across a bunch of young kids (8 – 10 years old) who were playing in front of a house on the sidewalk. They weren't the least bit shy, and they started asking us where we were going and where we were from. Dave and I started talking and joking with them. They said they wanted to try out our backpacks and hold our walking sticks. We ended up posing them with their shoulders through the pack straps while the packs actually were resting on the ground. They took turns holding our walking sticks and making funny faces while Dave snapped pictures. It was a funny and unique encounter and it could only have happened in an AT trail town.

The Copperhead we saw near Earl Shaffer shelter was a little smaller than this one.
The Copperhead we saw near Earl Shaffer shelter was a little smaller than this one. | Source

When we approached the rocks we glanced down and saw a small snake curled on a flat sunny spot.

Earl Shaffer Shelter

We spent the next morning in Duncannon topping off our supplies. We finally left around 1:00 PM. We only hiked about 9 miles to Earl Shaffer shelter which we found to be occupied by a couple guys from Georgia. They were hiking the trail in sections with their current section being from Harpers Ferry West Virginia to Port Clinton Pennsylvania. Since the shelter was occupied, Dave and I stayed in the tent. The shelter was named for a famous Appalachian Trail hiker. Earl Shaffer was the first person to ever thru hike the entire trail. He had returned from World War II and had been looking for a challenge that would help him forget the war. He hiked the trail and he wrote a book about it called “Walking with the Spring”. During the evening Dave, Mark, and I were checking out a small rock outcropping near the shelter. There was a bit of a view to a Valley below us. When we approached the rocks we glanced down and saw a small snake curled on a flat sunny spot. We all saw it from a distance so there was no surprise. It was a beautiful snake. It was a few shades of brown, black, and white. It had an hourglass pattern on its back that extended to its sides. None of us were experts on snake species, but we believed it was a copperhead - a poisonous snake. Dave wanted to kill it. He must've figured it would be better to have it dead if we were going to be camping in the vicinity. He told us not to disturb it while he went to get his walking stick. I wasn't too keen on getting very close to it and I don't think Mark was either. The snake must've sensed something or it was just lucky, because a few moments after Dave left to get his stick, it suddenly slithered away across the rocks. When Dave came back with the stick, he thought we had chased it away to keep him from killing it. We assured him that the snake had left on its own accord. Happily we weren't disturbed by him or any of his relatives that night or the next morning before we left. His presence might have influenced us to set up the tent that night. We were in a circumstance where everything else being equal, we had slept out under the stars plenty of times in the past.

Strength in numbers: thousands of these little catepillers can defoliate whole sections of forest.
Strength in numbers: thousands of these little catepillers can defoliate whole sections of forest. | Source

Each crushed caterpillar left a squirt of green goo ...

Caterpillar Encounter

With excellent weather on our first full day back on the trail in over a week, we finally broke out and had a really big day. We hiked 27 miles. Not only was the weather nice, but the trail was easy. It was mostly flat ridge running. Late in the day we hit Greenpoint general store, where we enjoyed our usual assortment of snacks. It was 21 miles from Earl Shaffer shelter. After the snacks we wanted to keep our momentum going. We pushed on as far as we could, hoping we would find a water source before darkness fell. We made it another 6 miles, but we didn't find any water so we just did what we had done in the past. We took a few swigs of what water we were carrying and laid our sleeping bags out on a flat spot just off the trail. In the morning we would wake up, take another couple swigs of water, and head straight on down the trail until we could find a water source. There we would stop for breakfast. With such a clear day we didn't think there was much of a chance of getting rained on during the night.

All day long we had noticed the effects of Gypsy Moth caterpillars. We saw a lot of them on the trail – more and more as the day went on. Many of our footsteps crushed one or more of the fuzzy, 1 to 2 inch long strip –backed caterpillars. Each crushed caterpillar left a squirt of green goo – the chewed up remains of the leaves the caterpillars had devoured. We also noticed as we hiked along, that there were many on the tree trunks that bordered the trail. Also, we started seeing the surface of the trail littered with leaf fragments that had fallen due to the appetites of the countless Gypsy Moth caterpillars crawling through the forest canopy. They munched furrows through the leaves that eventually intersected with other furrows and detached portions of the leaves from the rest. The result was that the fragments littered the ground like confetti. As we hiked through the day, we noticed more and more trees that were defoliated. By evening time we were hiking through the hardest hit area. Many trees had been stripped bare of their leaves by the voracious caterpillars. Dave and I were familiar with Gypsy Moth caterpillars. We had them in New York. We knew that there were some years that were worse than others and that there were some areas that got hit harder than others. It just so happened that we ended up throwing our sleeping bags out alongside the trail in the hardest hit area of Gypsy Moth infestation that either of us had ever seen. After a 27 mile day, with no shelter or campsite nearby, and darkness closing in, we weren't too concerned. We just wanted to sleep through the night, wake up at first light, and move on to the next water.

During the night, all was peaceful. As usual, I would wake up and turn from one side to another then fall back asleep. During a few of these moments I heard a pitter patter on the surface of my sleeping bag. "Oh no," I thought, "it’s starting to rain."

I turned my head to look up at the sky and saw stars above. "That's funny," I thought, "how can it be sprinkling when the sky is clear?"

The sprinkles were not very loud or hard so I drifted back to sleep. That happened a couple times during the night. Finally morning came and I called over to Dave before I got out of my sleeping bag. I asked if he had heard it raining during the night. He said he had, but there wasn't anything wet. We both wondered what could have been making the pitter patter. It was then that we noticed a bunch of tiny pellets lying on the surface of our sleeping bags. With our heads so close to the ground, we could see that the pellets were all over the ground in amongst the leaf litter. The pellets were very small – maybe a couple millimeters long. It didn't take long for us to piece together the mystery. The phantom raindrops had actually been caterpillar poops falling from the trees. We quickly arose, shook out our sleeping bags, tied them to our packs and moved on. Not long after that, we descended the ridge and found water. When we left that ridge we left the worst of the Gypsy Moth caterpillars behind.

A view of a road going through Port Clinton, PA
A view of a road going through Port Clinton, PA | Source

Port Clinton

The weather was good for the second consecutive day. It was sunny and hot. We didn't have the ambition for mileage that we had the day before, but we still hiked 15 miles to reach Black Swatara Gap shelter. By our calculations we would reach another town, Port Clinton, on the next day. Port Clinton was a town we had chosen during our planning for the trip as a place that our parents could send a package for us. We knew that in the Port Clinton post office there was a package being held for us and that it would be filled with letters and goodies from home. Since we had so recently stayed in Duncannon we didn't intend to lodge in Port Clinton, even though there were opportunities. We decided we would wait until further down the trail, before we spent our time and money on more lodging.

The next day turned out to be an easy hike of 13 miles into Port Clinton. We picked up our package without incident from the post office. Then we took it to a park at the edge of town. The park was deserted. The day was overcast and rain was threatening. We found a large pavilion in the park with rows of picnic tables sheltered underneath. We sat at some of the tables and opened our packages. We read the letters a few times over and shared our cookies and other goodies with Mark. After a while we got up and looked out from under the pavilion. Low clouds obscured the top of the ridge that overlooked Port Clinton. We simply didn't want to hike any further for the day and the pavilion offered great protection from the rain we believed was coming that night. Since there was no one around, we didn't see any harm in sticking around until nightfall, then just sleeping on the tops of some of the picnic tables. In the meantime we killed the rest of the afternoon by goofing around in the park. We didn't have any athletic equipment with this, but we did have our walking sticks and we found a used soda can. Dave's walking stick was straight and it had the right thickness and weight to serve as a bat. The soda can became our ball and we spent a long time taking turns pitching the crushed up canned to each other and knocking it as far as we could with Dave stick.

Later on in the afternoon we were unexpectedly joined by a couple other thru hikers we hadn't met before. They were a couple guys from New Jersey who were hiking the trail together. We talked for a while. They had been seeing our names in the shelter logs for months and had caught up to us. They were in their upper 20s, both big guys, and both had beards. They carried big Kelty external frame packs. After talking for a while they went off to another part of the park to set up for the night. After they left, we made ourselves dinner. When darkness fell and still no one had come around, we followed our plan and slept on the picnic tables. As we had expected, the rain came during the night. The sounds of the drops splattering on the roof and the surrounding grass lulled us to sleep.

This is the style of picnic pavilion that we stayed at just outside Port Clinton.
This is the style of picnic pavilion that we stayed at just outside Port Clinton. | Source

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