The Life Aquatic

The morning’s run actually began with a walk, just trying to loosen up the legs after last night’s speed lap around North Park here in the Pittsburgh suburbs. The run also began with rain.

Pavement passed under my feet through the first mile and a half, the rain splashing loudly and heading quickly to the storm drains that would send it all, by the swiftest route possible, into Pine Creek. All the rain falling around me today would end up in Pine Creek, the flowage that acts as the last real significant tributary of the Allegheny. Rain falling in the next valley west drains directly to the Ohio. But I’m running away from Pine Creek, the Allegheny and the Ohio now, up into the woods.

The forest of North Park covers about 3,000 acres and all of those acres were inundated with water today. Unlike the water rushing along the road curbs, the water landing in the forest is slowed by the canopy, the understory and humus, allowing absorption into the soil and recharge for the vital groundwater. Approaching the first peak in the mossy hardwood forest, I was thinking more about exhausted calves and hamstrings than a percolating understory.

The tall red spruce forest becomes a joy to traverse, now high up in the park and gradually getting higher as I wind my way up toward the old church. The thorny shrubs are alive with songbirds, rain or no rain. I weave around the muddiest holes and lunge through others. Then I’m at the pinnacle looking for a trail to take down the other side. Finding none, I leap some thorny barberry and plunge down into the woods. This is still North Park and there”s a road somewhere below; I won’t wander off the map only to be found by dedicated searchers weeks later.

Inevitably, I end up in a woody marsh before reaching the road and my feet are genuinely soaked for the first time today. Just as well – I can’t come home from a long trail run with dry feet. The marsh between the trees is a good thing too. It’s a part of the North Hills that isn’t sending its runoff in a torrent down Pine Creek but rather collecting it in a place where plants, insects and amphibians will be nourished.

On pavement again, I finally cross one branch of Pine Creek, already a little rain-swollen. I know the wily creek chubs will take the opportunity to ascend toward their June spawn sites today. Trout are plentiful too but they’re not wild and few will respond to the muted impulse to rise with rising water. They’re hatchery products and choose their station by its approximation of a concrete raceway. But, like the trees I enter again on the facing slope, all seems natural at North Park and little is really natural at North Park.

I climb up through the woods at something less than a running pace now and then step onto a trail running at a more reasonable grade. Erosion is happening here, an inevitable by-product of trails but far from environmental calamity. Mostly it’s just a movement of soil and minerals, a re-distribution of the humus that’s ever in a state of flux. Small rooted plants will lose their footing and succumb and just downhill a bit seeds will find new nests. I lose my footing, leap the root and recover.

An hour and three long climbs later, I’m along Rinaman Run, headed downstream and back home. This rambling Pine Creek Tributary would have been largely exposed to the sunlight fifty years ago, judging by the trees that shelter it today. It would have been warm and silty. Not so now. It carries its extra water weight elegantly, hardly more turbid than yesterday afternoon. It’s a cool, spring-fed healthy stream nowadays like so many of Pine Creek’s tributaries. Almost looks like a place where we could do better than stocked trout; maybe a place where the natives could take hold again.

There’s no better way to make such a survey than during a high-exertion run around the watershed and a I can’t help but feel that life just flows better with an aqueous perspective.


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