The Devils Highway Ends at a 19 Hour Long Field Day

Drafted by Devin Beck, Jada Hackman, Allison Lutz, Chris McLimans, and Nick Weit. The authors are Juniata College summer research fellows from the Lamendella and Grant Labs.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

wapiti

Wapiti, more commonly known as an Elk, we observed while hiking to our first stream site.

After a rough start to this week’s expedition with thunderstorms and heavy rain on Monday, Tuesday started out as another typical field day in the Wapiti’s Woods. A light drizzle fell as we inhaled our breakfast and crammed the van with our equipment and bodies at the Homestead in Benezette, PA. As we careened along the winding state forest roads, swaying left and right from the sharp turns, the rain started to pick up, but this wasn’t going to stop us from acquiring some water samples at Bear Creek, Little Wolf, and Indian Run. Unfazed, we worked collecting water samples, taking water chemistry measurements, and then electrofishing once the rain subsided. We found white suckers, redside dace, blacknose dace, fantail darter, slimy sculpins, creek chub, and the most exciting catch at this stream was mountain lamprey. After processing the brook trout from this stream, it was time to load the van back up with our waders and equipment. We had grown accustomed to the pungent smells of stale sweat, fish, swamp mud, and wet feet from our work, so they didn’t bother us as we proceeded to gobble down our lunches and snacks on the way to our next stop.

En route to Camp Run we traversed The Devil’s highway, Pennsylvania Route 666, or ‘Triple 6’ as the locals call it. In the cramped van we suddenly heard a consistent and concerning popping and banging sound coming from the front end. Thinking it was a flat tire we pulled off, parked the van, and looked for the flat tire. (Brandon was excited to show off his tire changing skills.) It turned out, however, that the sound had originated from the engine.  The smells of gas and combustion hit our faces as we approached to open the hood, and we inspected the engine and underneath the van for anything that looked problematic, but did not observe a menacing looking problem. It was 3 pm, we had no cell reception from any of 3 different carriers, and the closest towns were nearly 18 miles in either direction. We started walking in hopes of finding a residence, cell reception, or anyone to help out. Quoting the infamous survivalist Bear Grylls, we “took positive steps” to bring some humor to our predicament and also passed time by chewing and spitting sunflower seeds. We walked down the road not knowing how long it had been since we passed the last sign of civilization.

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View back at Juniata College van sitting alongside triple 6

Few cars passed us as we walked, but none stopped to check on our condition or why a group of seven people were walking in the middle of nowhere—although we couldn’t really blame them as we looked quite weathered. Finally, we reached a bridge and saw an older fellow fishing with his grandkids. Dr. Grant approached him and introduced himself, the group, and explained our situation. The man, Jim, agreed to drive Grant to his camp in order to use his landline to arrange for the van to be towed and for us to hopefully be rescued. We watched as our professor rode away with this bearded man in sandals and a Harley Davidson muscle shirt and stayed behind at the bridge to keep an eye on his grandkids who were fishing. After nearly an hour and a half of waiting, Grant and Jim returned with only a small bit of good news—that the van would be towed the following morning—but still no pick up for us. We hiked back to the van once again, wondering what we were going to do and questioning whether we would have to sleep in the van for the night.

Once we arrived back at the van Grant weighed the options and decided to try to drive to the nearest town, 18 miles away. The van ride to Tionesta was disturbing with the eerie sounds and acrid smells coming from the engine; it sounded like it was continually backfiring. At one point the van was shaking a lot and smelled of strong gas fumes. The gas pedal was pegged most of the way, but we did not break 45 mph, and were unsure if the van would make it. After an arduous climb up to a ridgetop, we were able to coast into Tionesta, PA around 6 pm. We stationed the van at a Farm Fresh grocery store parking lot and made numerous phone calls to figure out who was coming to “save” us. Since it was approaching 7 pm, Grant decided we should go eat before everything closed for the evining, so we walked to a local gas station. The subs, while simple, tasted amazing after our excruciatingly long day.

After dinner, we sat on an old church pew bench outside of the gas station awaiting rescue.  A passerby we met while waiting resembled Uncle Si from Duck Dynasty.  He pulled up on his nifty electric scooter to talk to us. Grant’s attempts at humor were not received, because when Grant asked to buy the scooter to drive it nearly 90 miles to Benezette, “Uncle Si” answered with all seriousness, “Well, I’ll have to check the charge on the battery first.” After a few more minutes “Uncle Si” left, peeling out of the parking lot with tires squealing and almost ditching it after hitting the curb… we all tried to restrain ourselves, but couldn’t help but laugh at the scene.  Another gristly onlooker from an open car door nearby chuckled and said, “That little bugger is pretty fast, huh”. We went back into the gas station, grabbed some ice cream and coffee, and finalized plans to get back to Homestead:  Nick, a recent Juniata College grad, was coming to “save” us.

Nick had just sat down in the Huntingdon Cinemas Clifton 5 to watch the new Jurassic World movie, when he received a distress call from Grant. This call stated that the entire field team and all of our samples and supplies were stranded in Tionesta, PA. Grant asked if he could immediately drive up to Tionesta, locate the field team in the Farm Fresh Foods parking lot, and transport us to the Homestead. So, Nick urgently left the cinema (and his two friends to drive home), pack, and make the 2.5-hour expedition to Tionesta. Nick arrived at the Farm Fresh Foods parking lot around 10 pm to the sound of barking dogs and a star filled sky and found the entire field team hanging out around the van in the dark.  Upon arrival, we swiftly packed Nick’s car with as much equipment as possible, only allowing small spaces for Grant and two team members (Kelsey and Jada) to barely squeeze into seats. After stuffing the car to the gills, Nick began the 1.5-hour excursion from Tionesta to the Homestead. This drive was filled with very little signs of human life; however, there was a multitude of animal life, including deer, elk, possums, and foxes. Finally, they reached the Homestead at 12 AM.  Grant unlocked the front door and immediately left in his car to travel the 1.5 hours back to Tionesta to pick up the remaining members of the field team.

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Research team waiting in parking lot to be picked up by Nick

While waiting for Nick to complete the first leg of the relay, and drop off the first few team members, the remaining team members waited in the van knowing it would be at least 3 hours until their pick up. Allison, Brandon, Chris, and Devin passed the time by napping, talking, and testing Brandon and Chris’ falsetto while singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. Around 1 am the headlights of Grant’s car came flying into sight as he entered the parking lot. Everyone quickly packed up his car and squeezed in for the trip home. It was after 3 AM when we finally returned to the Homestead and pulled out the essential gear that was packed in the car.  We paused to take in the clear cold night and the brilliant stars in the sky before collapsing in bed.  The thing about field work is, you can have every little detail planned out, but the unexpected is always a possibility—a 19-hour field day filled with marginal scientific data collection, but tons of experiential learning.

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