During most of my youth, when I was growing up on the south side of Jamestown, my family did not have a car. Our transportation was by bus, bicycle, or on foot, which Dad called “shank’s mare.” So it was a special occasion when, one summer day at age nine, I went with a group of boys from the YMCA to Panama Rocks.
Trails among trees are appealing to most of us, regardless of age, but when rocks – and those were house-sized rocks – are part of the scene, the appeal is multiplied many times over. For me, that childhood Panama Rocks experience set a new standard for adventure that included overcoming my fear of jumping across what seemed like a bottomless chasm along the upper trail. The level of adventure escalated a few years later when, as a junior high student, two friends and I hitchhiked to Panama Rocks to camp out for the night.
We knew that our destination was off limits to campers, so we entered from the road that runs south from Panama toward Niobe and the Pennsylvania line. It was spring and the owner had not opened for the season, so we were confident that we could camp among the rocks and trees along the lower trail without being detected. Our plan might have worked if we had not built a small fire to cook supper. The smoke, rising straight up in the still air, alerted the owner who, appearing over the rim along the upper trail, angrily shouted at us to get out or he would call the sheriff. We did, of course, stopping only to extinguish our fire and gather our gear. We ended up spending the night along Goose Creek a bit upstream of Ashville, watching the fireflies and slapping mosquitoes.
Those memories have come back to me during the many times we took our children, and now take our grandchildren, to Panama Rocks. Our visits have often included those stories, accompanied by a lesson or two about not trying to sneak into places and occasional benefits of eating a cold meal. The memories have also returned during each of the past two years when my lifelong friend Dan Anderson and I have stationed ourselves along the lower trail during Audubon Weekend at Panama Rocks.
During our time on station, Dan engages visitors with his presentation on the ecology of Panama Rocks, focusing on trees, a specialty of his. All aspects of the natural world are intimate and intertwined, and that includes trees and rocks, closely connected via the soil. The gradual weathering of the rocks influences the mineral and chemical composition of the soil in which the trees and many varieties of non-woody (herbaceous) plants grow. Deciduous tree species at Panama Rocks include ash, beech, birch, black cherry, red maple and sugar maple. Hemlocks are the dominant coniferous species, including some individuals over 300 years old.
The trees, in turn, provide abundant shade in summer for hikers and for the variety of smaller plant species on the forest floor, including flowering plants and more primitive species such as ferns, mosses and club moss. Lichens adorn the tree trunks and the rocks. The Animal Kingdom is also well represented, and those with keen eyes can spot chipmunks, salamanders, and a variety of bird species. Common invertebrates include insects, spiders and millipedes. Bring binoculars and a hand lens!
Most sojourners along the lower trail encounter Dan first, although some visitors, preferring the adventure of a shortcut, climb down from above and find me first, positioned at one of my favorite locations among several of the largest formations in the park. There, surrounded by trees amid rocks towering 40 and more feet overhead, I engage interested hikers with the geologic story of not only the rocks and the park as we experience it today, but of the ancient warm, shallow sea that covered this area during the Devonian Period, some 375 million years ago. It was then that the material that was to become Panama Rocks accumulated, carried there by rivers flowing down the slopes of the Acadian Mountains to the east. The weathering and erosion of those long-vanished mountains provided the sediments that were eventually compacted and cemented into the rocks that are exposed to our view today.
That, however, is just the middle of the long geologic story. There is much more to be learned by a close-up inspection of the rock surfaces. Of particular interest are the differences in size and composition of the sediment grains, especially the quartz pebbles that characterize this quartz conglomerate, sometimes called “puddingstone.” Quartz is a hard mineral, and the size and shape and color of the quartz grains can provide much information to those in the know. For those interested, much more about the geologic history of Panama Rocks is available on-line at panamarocks.com.
Sediment grains and their part in the geologic story are not the only interesting things to see by closely examining the rocks – there are biological specimens too! The small nooks and crannies created by the weathering of the rock surfaces have provided niches of both the spatial and the ecological kind, and many are occupied by a diversity of living organisms. The cool, shaded environment among the rocks provides the ideal habitat for mosses and ferns to grow from the vertical rock surfaces. Various fungi can also be found, and funnel-web spiders seem to be fond of spinning their domiciles in the deeper cavities formed by the slow, inexorable weathering out of the rock matrix.
I do not remember being aware of the ecological aspects of Panama Rocks during my first adventure there many years ago. Neither did I know then that I was not the first of my family to visit The Rocks. Although not nearly as long as its geologic history, Panama Rocks has a human history that goes well back into the 19th Century, and before if one includes Native American connections. The park itself was established in 1885 by George Hubbard, and it soon became a tourist destination. My maternal grandparents, George and Margaret Nelson Kofoed, visited Panama Rocks in 1907, and I have a photograph to prove it! I do not know if they enjoyed the same adventures there that their grandson did 41 years later, but it is clear from the photo that much about the rocks remains the same for visitors today to enjoy.
A special opportunity awaits visitors to Panama Rocks Scenic Park on July 29 and 30 this summer. Park owners have teamed with the Audubon Community Nature Center and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History to host the Wild America Nature Festival. A greatly expanded version of past Audubon Weekends, the Festival’s mission is to raise awareness of nature and the environment through education and art, encourage sustainable enjoyment of the environment, and promote conservation of our natural world. Featured events include a juried fine nature art and craft show, a local food cook-off competition, a farmer’s market, music, well-known speakers, and a variety of other activities. And those choosing to hike the trails between 10 and noon will find Dan Anderson and me at our stations, telling our stories and answering questions about the ecology and geology of Panama Rocks.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Tom Erlandson taught biology and geology at Jamestown Community College.