Only the Shadow Knows: Waiting on a Groundhog in Punxsutawney, PA


A mural of a dog with a hat on it's head.
You’ve got to love a town that celebrates its rodents.

So it’s 4 a.m., and I’m waking up to see a rodent. A famous one, but still, I have to ask myself if it’s worth getting bundled up in massive layers of clothing and hiking up a hill to Gobbler’s Knob to see if a groundhog will see its shadow.

Of course, that groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil, and he’s not just any marmot wandering about outside his burrow. He is THE groundhog—you know, the one that gives Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel a run for his money when it comes to predicting when winter will end.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, for the past 134 years, a Punxsutawney groundhog has prognosticated whether there will be six more weeks of cold and snow, or whether an early spring will give us all a reason for hope at the end of a long winter–based on seeing his shadow. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

Worshiping the Whistle-pig

Surprisingly, when I went on the sojourn to see this wondrous whistle-pig, Terri was not with me. She probably had to be in Paris or Trondheim or something, not realizing that she was missing THE event of the season. She was also missing the chance to imbibe wines from the Groundhog Wine Trail, which is quite out of character for someone who not only appreciates quirky celebrations, but the chance to stay warm by imbibing in the early morning hours.

So, there I was, the night before the marmot moment of truth, sitting in a hotel bar. Beside a semi-drunk groundhog, or at least, someone in a groundhog costume.

Me: Wow, you really get into this!

Personified Groundhog: What do you mean?

Me: Wearing the costume even before the big event.

PG: What do you mean?

Me: Do you always dress like this?

PG:  What, you don’t like it?

At this point, I gave up, which is just as well because more groundhog-clad celebrators showed up. I was pretty sure that the conversation was going to be just as frustrating as Phil seeing his shadow, extending a PA winter far past its sell-by date. The good news is that this group, along with 32,000 other people, were up and ready to go before the 5 a.m. fireworks the next morning, providing the perfect atmosphere for what is truly one of the most bizarre yet strangely apropos events ever to grace the Pennsylvania woods.

Two people in bear costumes posing for a picture.
Why not wear your furry finery on Groundhog Day? At least you’ll stay warm!

The Benefits of Body Heat

There’s a reason that so many people dress up for the morning revelry. When I was there six years ago, it was 17 degrees, and you had to find your place in the crowd before the sun even came up. Suddenly all of those massive fur costumes and groundhog heads made sense. I might scoff at their fashion sense, but I did it while shivering uncontrollably. Of course, the celebratory flasks hidden under masses of faux animal fur might also have had something to do with their cheeriness.

(Just a note: Alcohol is not allowed at the event, though I expect it’s difficult to thoroughly search thousands of people in dozens of layers. Be respectful and leave your booze back in the burrow.)

A man in top hat and coat holding a stuffed animal.
Phil has his own entourage, who carry him through the cheering crowd. I need this groundhog’s life.

Welcoming the Seer of Seers

Phil’s arrival onstage was heralded with as much pageantry as you’d expect for a foreign dignitary or a duck-lipped Kardashian. He was ceremoniously carried through the crowd by a fleet of men in top hats and tails, with the crowd parting as if Moses himself were clearing the way. He was held up in front of the roaring crowd, and he surveyed his minions, knowing how easy it would be to dash their hopes by seeing his shadow, resulting in another month of exorbitant heating bills and bad backs made worse by shoveling.

I was lucky that during my visit, Phil did not see his shadow, causing the crowd to reach such a frenzy that people were calling in sick to work even before the announcement made it to the back row. After much celebration, everyone headed back down the hill into town. The crowd included a herd of deer running down the center of the street that were probably totally put out by that many crazy strangers coming to visit at such an inconsiderate hour.

A bunch of wooden bears are sitting on the ground
Everywhere you look, there are groundhogs. And you can even take one (or a bunch) home with you.

A Community-wide Celebration

Whether or not you believe that a groundhog can predict the end of winter, it’s well worth it to attend this eclectic event just for the experience. The whole town—which numbers about 6,000 people—goes all out to welcome visitors, hosting pancake and sausage breakfasts, holding souvenir sales in the historic Pantell Hotel, taking part in an outdoor festival in Barclay Square and an evening banquet in the Punxsutawney Area High School, and in general, just having a huge amount of fun in honor of a world-famous woodchuck.

For those truly committed to the cause, there’s also the opportunity to get married on Groundhog Day in the Civic Center by the mayor of Punxsutawney. While I was there, I watched five couples tie the knot. No word on whether they came back to the same place every year and did it again (ala Bill Murray’s famous movie.)

A statue of a bear wearing a top hat.
There are 32 Phantastic Phils all over town. It’s selfie heaven!

Of course, you can’t be in Punxsutawney without posing with one or more of the 32 six-foot-tall artistically painted groundhogs (known as Phantastic Phils) that can be found around town. You might even make it on TV if you stop in the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center. There you can pose in front of an AccuWeather green screen and make up your own forecast to compete with the furred weather watcher.

While I missed Terri on this trip, I have to say that surrounding myself with thousands of whistle-pig worshippers made it a pretty fantastic experience on my own. So what does the future hold for this Feb. 2? Only the groundhog knows.

A crowd of people gathered in the snow.
Even if you don’t like crowds, you’re going to appreciate all of that body heat in one place.

If You Go:

Dress warmly…I mean really, really warmly. Typically, temperatures range from -5 to 32 degrees. And wear good shoes! You should plan on hiking all over the place because the easiest way to get anywhere is by walking.

Most of the nearest hotels sell out way in advance (especially when Feb. 2 falls on a weekend), but there are a number of close-by towns, including DuBois (check out Doolittle Station—another of our favorites!) and other locations in Clearfield and Indiana counties where you can still find reasonable rooms just a short drive away. Plan ahead on where to park (a lot of the streets are closed off), and purchase a ticket in advance for the shuttles ($5) that will take you up to Gobbler’s Knob from numerous sites around town. Note that the shuttles stop running at 6:30 a.m., so you’re hoofing it after that, and Gobbler’s Knob is a 1.5-mile uphill hike.

And if you want to dress like a groundhog, go ahead! You’ll be the warmest people standing on that windswept hill.

For more info:  www.groundhog.org and www.pawilds.org.

A painting of two men and a bear
See you next year!

 

Sink or Swim: Houseboating Adventures on Raystown Lake


A train is traveling down the tracks near trees.
Seriously. It’s so big you can’t even get a photo of it in the frame.

By Vanessa

As Terri and I stood on the shore watching our houseboat slowly float away, we realized that we had made two grievous errors. The first being that at least one of us should have stayed on board. The second, thinking that the two of us could ever handle a 54-foot houseboat on our own, considering that neither of us has either boating experience or common sense.

Our adventure started when we were offered the use of a houseboat on Raystown Lake from Seven Points Marina, who had far more faith than us that we could handle the vessel after watching a 30-minute video, answering a short quiz, and getting a fast but thorough tutorial on how the boat worked by one of the marina crew. After taking us out of the dock and walking us through how to steer, what to do if the generator didn’t work, and showing us the most important aspect of the boat—the large cooler—our guide jumped off the houseboat onto another boat, and we were on our own.

A speedometer with instructions on how to read it.
This should have just stopped at “You may not operate this boat.”

Terri: What are we supposed to do now?

Vanessa: Steer it, I guess.

Terri: Do we know how to do that?

Vanessa: I’m not sure. I know we’re supposed to keep it away from the shoreline until we’re ready to dock. Then we run it aground and tie it to trees.

Terri: We run it aground?

Vanessa: That’s what he said.

Terri:  I thought we weren’t supposed to wreck the boat.

Vanessa: And I thought we were smart enough not to take a 54-foot boat out onto a lake when there are other people whose lives are now at stake, but here we are. So the world’s gone crazy.

A body of water with trees in the background
Note that there were no boats within miles of us. With good reason.

Who Runs Aground on Purpose?

I took the first try at steering the houseboat, which is kind of like steering my Jeep, Lucille. Neither of them goes where I want them to go. After a lot of cursing and yelling at Terri to stop taking my picture while I was focused on trying to keep us alive, I finally got the hang of it. Mostly. I was still struck with abject terror every time we came within a half-mile of another boat, though I think most locals are used to the fact that there are many beginning house boaters out on the lake, so they act accordingly and flee the area, choosing to fish somewhere safer like in another state.

Brimming with false confidence, I agree with Terri that we should try to dock our behemoth new home.

Terri: There’s a cove! And some trees! Let’s stop there.

Vanessa: No problem. How do we stop?

Terri: (madly rewinding her recording of our instructions as the island gets closer and closer). Give me a minute.

Vanessa: We don’t have a minute. We have an island. And it’s getting larger. In a hurry.

Terri: (clicking back and forth on the recording) I think it was sometime after he talked about the kitchen…

Vanessa:  Which won’t exist if we hit this island. WHICH IS RIGHT THERE.

A snake is walking on the ground in the dirt.
Even the snake knows this water is way too shallow. He and I were both screaming. (FYI, water snakes are harmless.)

In a sudden flash of inspiration, I pulled back on the handle (throttle? Magic boat-stoppie thing?) and we were able to gently drift into shore. And then the wind and current turned us sideways, where the water was getting shallower by the second.

Vanessa: This can’t be right.

Terri: But we’re on the island.

Vanessa: We’re supposed to be perpendicular to it, not parallel.

Terri: So just…um…move it.

Vanessa: How?

Terri: (pulling out her recorder again)

Vanessa: For the love of….

I pull the magic boat-stoppie thing again, and now we’re going backward. Which is good, because we were out of other directions. I make a second attempt to head straight into the shore and gently bump up against the land. SUCCESS!

A woman holding onto a rope tied to a tree.
Terri trying to tie up the boat. Does she look scared? We both were.

Watching Our Hopes Float Away

Terri grabs the rope and not so gracefully climbs over the two kayaks we have at the front of the boat to make it to shore. In her defense, she’s only 5’2†and the kayaks are stacked about four feet high. She ties one rope to a tree and begins singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘round the Old Oak Tree,†not realizing that while she’s performing, the currents are once again moving the boat parallel to shore.

Vanessa: Terri, tie the other rope!

Terri: (still singing and now dancing) What??

Vanessa: The other rope!

Terri: (going full-on Broadway)  What??

So I leap out of the boat since I can’t wait for intermission and grab the other rope to tie it to another tree. As I’m doing this, Terri finally stops her performance long enough to realize that the boat is slowly drifting away from us, and since our knots pretty much suck, the ropes aren’t stopping it.

Terri: GET ON THE BOAT! GET ON THE BOAT!

We both start to scramble toward the boat, and I get a leg on it before it gets too far away. Hoisting myself back over the kayaks like a broken-legged giraffe, I pull or push some mechanical thing, and stop the boat from leaving us ashore. Terri, after retying the ropes, gets back on board. And we hold our breath and wait. And nothing bad happens. The boat stays where we put it.

Vanessa: I think we’re docked.

Terri: (opening a bottle of wine) I think we’re drinking.

Vanessa:  Can you imagine if we’d had to call to tell them that we lost the boat on the first day and needed to be rescued?

Terri: I’d drown myself first.

Vanessa: We’re out here four more days. There’s still time.

I’m happy to report that the next four days were absolute heaven, and that no boats or humans were harmed during our excursions out on the lake (or into town). We started the mornings and ended the evenings basking in the hot tub on the roof of the houseboat and spent the days hiking wherever we were docked.

A hot tub with a view of the mountains.
Aw…bliss! Talk about the perfect escape!

We even discovered a cell signal at the top of the mountain, which is one way to force us to get exercise.

A woman in black shirt walking on trail near trees.
Need a cell signal? Start walking! (We did later find a signal on the water, but let’s face it; a little hike isn’t gonna hurt us.)

The two of us also loved our time exploring the beauty of Raystown Lake, where we tried unsuccessfully to motor to the dam, which we never could find. I’m pretty sure that was because of our inability to read a map and not the fact that they might have moved the massive, many-ton structure.

If You Go:

Because we visited in April, it was a little chilly for swimming, but the houseboat is the perfect home base for families who want to spend all of their time on the water—it even has a two-story slide for the kids. The four bedrooms offer plenty of room, and a fully stocked kitchen, including a microwave and grill, means that you can bring your own food and never have to leave this vacation paradise. And you can change the scenery every day—just use the magic boat-driving thing to take yourself to a new location as often as you like!

A boat with a slide on the side of it
How much fun is this?

We were especially pleased with the wonderful Seven Points’ staff who not only bring you bags of ice if you radio in, but also take the boat in and out of the dock for you—saving untold thousands of dollars of damage in our case. They are always right at the other end of the radio, which adds a level of confidence much needed by newbie boaters like us, and they didn’t even laugh (too hard) as they watched Terri at the controls of the boat, which she drove like a drunken sailor on a four-day binge before deciding her talents lay in navigation (did I mention that we never found the dam?)

A row of boats in the water near some trees.
See that teeny tiny space between the boat on the right and the next one over? That’s where you’re supposed to fit your boat. Time to call in the experts.

If you do decide you want to go ashore, Huntingdon has a charming downtown area. Make sure you go to Mimi’s for dinner—the martinis and Italian food are delish! —and you should also stop at the Isett Heritage Museum atop Stone Creek Ridge to learn more about, well…everything. A collection of everyday items from at least the last 100 years, you can find everything here from toys to miniature railroads to barbed wire collections and Fred Harris’ barber’s chair. And that’s just in one building (there are three).

A room filled with lots of different items.
There are so many cool things at Isett Heritage Museum that you could spend a month wandering the aisles! My personal favorite was the poisonous baby doll. Seriously.

I also loved Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks, which was discovered 88 years ago during the construction of Rt. 22. Unfortunately for Terri, she missed this part of the trip (I think she was still looking for the dam), but it’s well worth a stop to see not one, but two stunning natural attractions.

A cave with many small holes in it
Stalagmites, stalactites, bacon….so many awe-inspiring structures to see at Lincoln Caverns & Whisper Rocks!

To learn more about renting a houseboat in Raystown Lake, contact Seven Points Marina at www.7pointsmarina.com or call 814-658-3074. To learn more about all there is to do in Huntingdon County and the Raystown region of Pennsylvania, visit www.raystown.org or call 1-888-RAYSTOWN.

Stalking Bigfoot through Bilger’s Rocks


A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.

Hearing Terri scream on a trip is not unusual. In fact, it’s usually par for the course when she falls up a set of stairs or tumbles off a compost toilet* or trips over, basically, most anything. And since I’m about as coordinated, we rarely get alarmed when the other one lets out a yell. But I admit I was a bit taken aback when we were climbing through Bilger’s Rocks in Clearfield County, PA, because her husband, Greg, was on the trip with us. Unlike me, he doesn’t think it’s that funny when we hurt ourselves trying to act like we’re still 20.

Terri: OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!

Vanessa: What’d you do?

Terri: DID YOU SEE THAT?

Vanessa: What??? Snake? Bear? A snake and a bear? A snakebear?

Terri: It was Bigfoot!

Vanessa: Oh, for the love of all that’s….nope. You did not see Bigfoot.

Terri: I totally saw Bigfoot! It was right up on that rock. And then it ran.

Vanessa: Did you get a blurry picture?

Terri: No. It was too fast. It was just there…and then gone.

Vanessa: Like your common sense.

Despite my best efforts, I could not convince Terri that she had not seen Bigfoot. I was a little surprised, in fact, that Greg agreed that something resembling the elusive Sasquatch had just run through the forest. I took this with a grain of salt, however, since having been born and raised in New York City, I didn’t quite trust his animal identification skills. And Terri is not a reliable source for animal encounters, either. She’s been known to chase after wild baby tapirs to pet them, thinking that no harm will come to her from the “little pig’s momma,†that will, in fact, disembowel her.**

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Not everyone is tall enough to scale the rocks. At least that’s what she says.

Climbing, Hiking and Claustrophobia

We continued on our climb through the rocks, and we learned a lot from our guide, who I’m sure was shaking his head at these city-folks—or just at our general lack of climbing ability. Bilger’s Rocks is a truly spectacular place to hike, consisting of 316- to 320-million-year-old sandstone formations that tower above the forest floor, some rising 30 to 50 feet overhead. Visitors can crawl through small openings, wander through barely-body-width passages underground, or just enjoy resting in the cool air. Bilger’s Rocks is actually cooler than the rest of the forest, which is wonderful surprise on a hot summer’s day.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
The view looking up from the ice cave. Otherwise known as the stuff nightmares are made of.

Being somewhat claustrophobic and more than somewhat wide, I didn’t jump at the opportunity to tour the ice cave, a pitch-black passageway that wove underground for about 25 feet. You can see down into the labyrinth from up above, and trust me, that was as close as I’m ever going to get, except in my nightmares.

My favorite part of the hike was seeing where the trees took root and clung to the outside of the rocks, forming intricate patterns of natural art. And humans had left their mark in the area as well. As a history buff, I was fascinated by a map of the Americas that someone had carved into the rock shortly after World War I—you can still see the 1921 date, as well as the message of solidarity left behind.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Talk about clingy! Pretty sure that tree isn’t going anywhere.
A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Legend has it that this was carved by a soldier recently returned from WWI. Respect.

And while there is so much there to see in what’s known as “Rock City,†what there is not…is Bigfoot.

Maybe Bigfoot Got Eaten by a Dinosaur?

Sasquatch hunters should not despair, however, as there is another place in the county where you can see the ape-beast, or at least his likeness, as well as other incredible creatures. Doolittle Station, located off Rich Highway, not only has Bigfoot replicas eating ice cream, but an entire animatronic dinosaur display that makes it a must-stop while in the county. The history of this place, owned by Dr. Jeffrey Rice, is actually a whole ‘nother story, which we’ll be telling you about soon (we can only write so fast). What you need to know right now is that it’s got dinosaurs, Elvis, Bigfoot, craft beer, train cars, amazing food, mini-golf, scratch-made pizza and more…and you can even stay in a renovated caboose overnight.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Maybe stalking Bigfoot wasn’t such a good idea?

*Want to read about the toilet incident? https://everyroadastory.com/a-night-on-the-jaguar-preserve-a-k-a-the-toilet-incident

**Seriously, never travel to Belize with Terri.

 

If You Go:

Bilger’s Rocks is an amazing place to spend a day, and they also offer overnight camping. Learn more about this natural wonder, including how it was formed (you know, the science stuff) at http://www.bilgersrocks.net/.

If you prefer to spend the night indoors, hanging with Bigfoot statues while listening to live music and sipping on a local beer at a nano-brewery, check out Doolittle Station at http://www.doolittlestation.com/.

For a look at all of the cool things to do in Clearfield County, from monsters to mating elk (seriously—it’s a whole thing there), visit http://www.visitclearfieldcounty.org/.