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By and by we herded the porcupine out of camp. The sniskers quieted down and we finally got some sleep. The next morning, when we were talking about the events of the evening, Lyn came down with another laughing seizure. "I wasn't going to tell you, but I have to. It's so funny—about why you had to keep yelling to tell me the porcupine was here."
"I'm not scared of the animals but I am scared of noises at night. If I get thinking about them I can't sleep, so I stuffed Handi-Wipes in my ears. I could just hear you, but I didn't want to take them out because I thought you had a bear."
Lock Haven is a town of some 11,000 stretched out along the West Branch. Swimming, fishing, floating on inner tubes and sitting along the banks in gazebos seem to be popular entertainments. Lock Haven has a state college, the Piper aircraft works and probably many other points of interest, but from the restricted view of itinerant canoeists the best thing in town is the Fallon Hotel.
The Fallon has a long and exotic history. Spain having sold Florida to the United States, Queen Maria Cristina had some ready cash. This came to the attention of two Irish brothers, John and Christopher Fallon, who were—how shall it be put?—international entrepreneurs. In the 1850s the Fallons convinced the queen that building a fancy hotel in Lock Haven would be a splendid investment. Maria Cristina, bless her, agreed to bankroll the Fallons, who put up a big baroque structure with brick walls, high ceilings and gaudy chandeliers. It was the talk of the river.
In recent times the Fallon has been modernized and toned down but it is still an impressive building. An annex has been added at riverside. Guests can step directly from their room onto a wharf-patio and sun themselves, or go swimming or go boating. This is also the best commercial canoe landing spot on the West Branch.
Paddlers are not a large percentage of the Fallon customers but they appear often enough (another pair had stopped by just the year before) so that the staff is not-alarmed by them. No rude remarks are made to guests who drip water on the carpets. A bellman will assist with muddy duffels, and a desk clerk advises that since the security of parked canoes cannot be guaranteed, it is advisable to take paddles to the room. All in all, the Fallon is a great place to catch a hot shower, nourishment from the salad bar and some soft sheets, quite in keeping with the Perfect Camping Spot tradition of the West Branch.
Below Lock Haven, fed by such fast-water tributaries as the Sinnamahoning and the Pine, the West Branch changes from a mountain stream to a big valley river. The ridges recede and farmland becomes conspicuous. The first morning out of the Fallon, opposite Great Island, we saw cows for the first time on the trip. It was somehow appropriate to meet them there. Two centuries ago this big island served as a ford for herds of migrating wood buffalo. According to witnesses the sound of the big herd bulls bellowing challenges at their rivals was deafening around the island crossings.
Good camping places are less frequent on the lower shores, but fortunately the river has become of a size and temper to create a number of isolated islands, too vulnerable to flooding to be of much permanent use. One of these on which we stopped was half a mile long and had a classic river-island profile. The upstream end was still growing from accumulations of silt and debris. It was low, marshy and covered with wet thickets of mallow, sedge and river-birch saplings. As we drifted along its shore the land became drier, firmer, higher and older. The downstream end where the first land had been made was 30 feet above the water, with a sharp bluff at the very tip.
There are seven or eight level acres on top of this bluff, and they support an extraordinary variety of trees, some growing more than 100 feet tall, representing both highland and lowland forest types. In this small area we identified four species of birch—gray, yellow, black and river—three species each of hickory and maple, two oaks, walnut, black cherry, ash, tulip, poplar, basswood, sycamore, locust, cottonwood, elm, sassafras, white pine and hemlock. Such diversity and proximity is unusual, since many of these species are not generally compatible. Big oaks, maples and tulip poplars, for example, will shade out and eventually kill smaller trees, evergreens and sun lovers such as locust and sassafras. The fertility of the moist but well-drained island soil contributes to the special circumstances. And the island is narrow—50 yards or so across—which permits light to enter from both sides rather than only from above, as would be the case on the mainland. The trees must have taken seed at about the same time on the island—from the looks of the bigger ones, about two centuries ago. With no species having much of an initial advantage, they have grown together, stretching upward in competitive unison.