The first time I tried to go to Shenk’s Ferry, I nearly endangered my family.
The four of us — me, my husband, my then-6-year-old and my 9-month-old — were heading to Lancaster County, PA, for our annual farm stay vacation (see Bay Journeys, July 2012). I’d heard about this beautiful wildflower preserve on the way, and I thought it would make a great place for a picnic.
Shenk’s Ferry looked hard to find on the website for Pennsylvania Power and Light, the company that manages the 50-acre preserve. Mapquest wasn’t helpful. So I combined the Google maps directions to the general area with the map on the website and meticulously planned a route that took us from the back roads of our home in Towson and up the Susquehanna River. The drive was to be about 45 miles and take about an hour.
We were on schedule when we crossed the Susquehanna near the Holtwood Dam, but things quickly went south. There were a series of hairpin turns, rocky hills and washed-out road beds. We were all dizzy by the time I turned down Green Hill Road, a dirt path that was supposed to take us into the preserve. We were going down a hill, a curvy, dirt road with no end in sight. We passed a house with a driveway that said, “no turning around here.” I didn’t know what to do. I kept driving. But mid-hill, there was a little spot. My husband told me to turn around. I floored my Honda Civic Hybrid and back up the hill we went.
We were so eager to get out of the car we ended up having our picnic in the first place we could park — a sandy area overlooking the Susquehanna and an electrical transfer station.
We had given up. On our way to the farm, we did notice a hand-painted sign for the preserve on Shenk’s Ferry Road. The road in didn’t look quite as rocky, but we took a look at our sweet, sleeping baby and our happy 6-year-old and decided not to risk it.
A week later, I called PPL to let them know their website should come with a warning — do not drive a small car (or small children) to Shenk’s Ferry.
Terry McDonald returned my call. McDonald is the manager of Holtwood’s Environmental Preserve. Over the years, PPL has preserved more than 5,300 acres, much of it through the Lancaster County Conservancy. Those acres form a preserve of sorts around the dam. They include two popular campgrounds, various spots for hunting and fishing, and several picnic areas. (We could have done much better than the electrical station).
McDonald acknowledged that Shenk’s Ferry is hard to find. He offered to meet me at the Holtwood Environmental Center, about 10 miles from the preserve, and escort me there. But, our adventure would have to wait a year. By the time McDonald got my message, we had missed the peak bloom time. He told me to call him in February 2013.
Thus began a long-term telephone correspondence. The winter of 2013 was weird, vacillating between 60 degrees and 20 degrees in the same week. We had a late-March snowstorm and lots of rain. Every two weeks, I’d call McDonald. Then, in mid-April, he called me to say the flowers were blooming. Come on down.
Because I can’t tell the difference between a spring beauty and a spring weed, McDonald called in Jim Smith, who used to be the Shenk’s Ferry naturalist. Smith, now retired, agreed to meet us at Holtwood. Dave Harp, Bay Journeys’ photographer, said he would drive his Highlander.
Smith and his wife, Rita, showed up, field guides in hand, and led the three vehicles down a series of sharp turns and past country graveyards. About 25 minutes later, we saw the hand-painted sign and turned into the preserve. We passed through an old stone tunnel and into a different world.
Shenk’s Ferry has a long and colorful history. American Indians lived here, in three lodges. The Susquehanna River is just over the ravine, and a stream, Grub’s Run, ambles through the preserve.
European colonists established an iron ore mine and a charcoal plant. Later, Harry Shenk built a grist mill. There was a hotel here as well as a ferry to take travelers across the Susquehanna. At the turn of the century, a dynamite plant kept young men gainfully employed.
On June 9, 1906, the dynamite factory exploded, killing 11 young men and leveling all of the buildings in the village. The boys are buried in two graves at the Colemanville United Methodist Church.
After the explosion, the area lay dormant. It was a de facto preserve, and this is likely when the wildflowers blanketing the hills took root. They grow well here because the ravines cut deep enough to create a protected micro-climate that allows for a huge diversity of plants, according to Sean Solomon, a Philadelphia wildflower enthusiast who frequents the preserve.
There is no parking lot at Shenk’s Ferry — pull to the side of the road, and be sure to engage your emergency brake. There are two portable toilets, and our visit coincided with a pump out, so it didn’t smell that great when we emerged from the car. It was loud, too — a Norfolk Southern freight train rumbled overhead.
Soon, we heard a loud ringing. That, Smith explained, was the Louisiana waterthrush, a bird that likes low-flowing forest streams.
I wondered how I’d feel when we finally arrived at this place I had tried so hard to reach. It was pretty, but it didn’t seem that special — until we climbed the trail and I looked up at a hillside covered in trillium and Virginia bluebells. There were white Dutchmen’s Breeches, blooming violets and verdant ferns.
About a dozen people, mostly senior citizens, walked with their wildflower classification books in hand. More than a few borrowed our naturalist for confirmation. They’d come from the Lancaster/York area, and most were return visitors.
“This is a good place not to come on a beautiful Sunday afternoon,” said Robert Hunsicker, a retired pastor who lives in Lancaster. He and his wife, Hedwig, were celebrating their 47th wedding anniversary.
The crowds can be thick on the weekends.
Alicia Conklin and her friend, Gladys Lehman, were excited because the trillium and bluebells were blooming at the same time, which doesn’t usually happen.
“It’s not always like this, that you see everything out,” Lehman said.
Hedwig Hunsicker said she likes to come a couple of weeks before the peak.
“You hardly see anything — and then, across the bridge — hepatica. A very early, precious blue flower,” she said. “It seems different every year. Two weeks ago, I can tell you, there was nothing green here.”
As we walked, Smith pointed out delicate ginger flowers. We passed by a plant I’ve seen in my yard: dead nettle.
“Isn’t that a weed?” I ask.
Smith responded: “As far as I’m concerned, if it grows out here, it’s not a weed. It belongs here.”
As a person who generally doesn’t stop to smell the flowers, let alone notice them, I was glad for a calm hour at Shenk’s Ferry. But to me, the most beautiful sight was the high gorge and the rocky stream below it and the acres of forest and solitude. So much of where I live has been developed, so many of our green spaces lost. It was a pleasure to be in a place that looked better than it did 100 years ago.
PPL is in the process of transferring several hundred more acres to the conservancy. Plans call for a hiking trail that will connect the wildflower preserve to other popular Susquehanna spots. Still, I had to wonder if the company didn’t want many people to find what Smith called “one of the most unique wildflower preserves on the East Coast.”
As we ascended Green Hill on our way out, I asked Dave Harp that question. He thought for a minute and suggested that’s how it sometimes is with the best places. They’re hard to find, and that makes the joy of finding them all the sweeter. I had to agree that, if Shenk’s Ferry were five minutes off Interstate 83 and had a parking lot and a snack bar, it would not be nearly as satisfying a treasure. Still, if I decide to bring my children next time, I’ll probably rent a Jeep.
Shenk’s Ferry is open to the public daily from dawn to dusk. For information about it and other points of interest at Holtwood, visit www.pplweb.com/citizenship/environment/preserves/holtwood/points-of-interest.aspx