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It’s in Your Nature: The Spirit Trail, its nature trove, and “Pap” Knauss

I strive to learn more each day and even though at East Stroudsburg State College (now East Stroudsburg University) I “took” Botany, Field Botany, and some summer workshops on flowers and shrubs, I needed to learn more. I thought I was quite knowledgeable regarding our local flowers/plants, but compared to a former high school classmate of mine, Dennis (Pap) Knauss, I have a lot more plants of which to be familiar.

“Pap,” as he’s been called all his life, was posting very informative photos and identifications of plants in Tuscarora State Park. I became a “Facebook” friend and enjoyed his posts. As spring approached, I invited myself along on a late April hike. I was not disappointed.

Thirty-three years ago Pap, now a Lansford resident, took his canoe to Tuscarora and found the tangled routes to get to the lake quite challenging. Soon he was trimming a few limbs here, moving a fallen log or two, and eventually he spoke to the park superintendent about creating some trails. The “Spirit Trail” had its beginnings. Today, nicely manicured trails, strategically blazed with color coding, leads him and many others through some of Pennsylvania’s finest woodlands.

Pap, over the years, used a pick and rake to level out some paths from steeper hillsides. He neatly trained rhododendrons limbs above the trail at spots creating rhododendron arbors, and regularly returns with a saw to cut up a tree that fell victim to strong winds or storms. Each spring Pap takes his leaf blower and rake and clears leaves from the trails so hikers and nature lovers can traverse easily and thoroughly enjoy their walks. There are a few small bridges that cross a spring or “mucky” area and I was really impressed when he said the “State” bought the materials but he lugged or dragged 6 x 6’s, planking, and tools to construct them himself. All total, Pap built and maintains a 4.5-mile trail system. A walk through these old growth forests showcase some massive red oaks, white pines, tulip poplars, yellow birch, and many other magnificent tree specimens. Bird life includes woodland birds like pileated woodpeckers, veerys, wood thrush, ovenbirds, and even migrating ospreys perched along the lake shores.

As a side note: Pap, at the end of our hike, knew he was informative by the more than dozen “wows” I uttered.

Pap has received a number of accolades for his many years of effort. These include: A great article in the Pennsylvania Magazine last year detailing all of his efforts, the Schuylkill County Conservation Volunteer of the Year (2009), Congressional Citation for his volunteer conservation efforts, and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources special recognitions as well.

Maybe his best reward was when the state made a plaque and had a special ceremony to officially dedicate the “Spirit Trail” in recognition of Pap and all his selfless efforts.

Tuscarora State Park, Tuscarora Lake, and Paps Spirit Trail are located 2.5 miles from Route 309 and Tamaqua on Tuscarora Park Road. It is worth the short drive, and heck, you might even bump into Pap taking care of the Spirit Trail.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: True/False: Rhododendrons thrive here because they are hydrophilic (liking water) and they grow well on north facing slopes.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Mute swans are our heaviest birds in Pennsylvania, weighing about 30 pounds.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

Dennis “Pap” Knauss stands beside the plaque erected to honor him and his outstanding volunteer work at Tuscarora State Park.
Some of the Spirit Trail leads you through rhododendron thickets that were trained by Pap Knauss to provide a living canopy on the trail. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
In late April and early May, hikers can enjoy finding beautiful red trillium growing at various places along their route. BARRY REED PHOTOS
Another rare find along the trails are the jack-in-the-pulpit plants - another spring arrival like the trillium.
About halfway through the Spirit Trail loop you will find its namesake, the Spirit Tree. It is the living remains of a very old silver maple that has since died and rotted away. You may see a “face” on the last living remnant of the tree.
Very close to the Spirit Tree is the headwaters of Tuscarora Lake where Locust Creek flows in. In these cold waters supporting wild trout, you can find Eastern Pearlshell Mussels. These mussels may be the longest living animals on this continent living about 130 years. They live in only a few places in Pennsylvania indicating great water quality.
Tuscarora State Park boasts some of the remaining old growth forests in our state. Here Pap Knauss stands next to a massive red oak that is close to 3 feet in diameter and probably 250 years or more old. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Certainly not as conspicuous, but very important are the smaller plants growing here like the dampness loving fern leaf moss. It can be found almost everywhere the ground remains moist year round.
The state park's bird life is varied, including the ovenbird, which will be serenading you while you take a summer walk on the trail.
Looking closely along the trail you can find an orchid relative, the fringed polygala, growing in late spring.
Smaller than its well known cousin, you can find dwarf ginseng growing along the trails. It has a tuber, but is only about 1 inch in size.