Tragedy on the Tuscarora

By Gary Knipling

Tuscarora Starters -- Click for LargerIt has been almost a year since the infamous week-long Tuscarora Trail adventure , the brainchild of Clapper & Horton in March, 2003. It seems the only runner to have benefited from the 250 mile trek in snow, ice, rain and cold was Bethany. All the other participants, to my knowledge, spent most of the year recovering in one way or another from their experience. Jeff Wilbur’s ankles are still showing scars from the cutting ice on the northernmost section of trail that first day.

I witnessed another tragedy on the Tuscarora Trail – one from Nature. Scott Mills and I joined the twenty or so runners for just the first day of their adventure. We hiked in before daylight on the AT from some remote Pennsylvania road crossing to the start/junction of the Tuscarora Trail. The weather was clear but cold and the snow, knee deep in some places, was covered with an icy crust. As the day progressed, it became apparent that the trail was much slower than anticipated, and an after-dark finish was imminent. I was positioned in the back of the pack which made following the trail easy from the leader’s tracks in the snow. About 4:00 PM I was alone on a section of trail, making a lot of noise in the snow like all the runners. I looked off to my left about 25 yards from the trail and I came to a quick halt. I saw the back of a large bird that I first thought was a wild turkey. It didn’t fly or run, and as I looked closer I could see red tail feathers and recognized it as a red-tailed hawk. It was about two feet off the ground and motionless. Still baffled by the setting, I approached the magnificent bird. What I saw was very sad. The dead hawk was suspended by its neck in the tight fork of a small sapling. The talons were dangling in air having been unable to push off or grasp any portion of the small tree. Both wings were extended above the head and each wing tip was caught in the extended branch of the tight fork. The symmetry of the corpse was precise, as if positioned by hands in a spiritual sacrifice. Along with the terrible sadness of the sight, I felt a sense of reverence toward this beautiful bird in such a distorted, unnatural death pose.

The HawkMy theory as to what happened is this: Chipmunks and squirrels comprise well over 50% of the diet of red-tailed hawks. I believe the hawk was diving down to capture some prey and its head and/or shoulders hit the forked sapling. When it tried to flap its wings to elevate itself, each wing tip got caught at the same time in the awkward position over its head. Unable to push off with its feet or flap its wings, the weight of the bird and the struggling to free itself caused the neck to slip deeper and deeper into the fork. Death was most likely by strangulation, and hopefully was quick.

I felt like an intruder in this eerie sacred space that I was sharing with this tragic scene. I looked skyward as if to ask God how this event was allowed to happen. I wondered by what time frame I or the other runners missed the opportunity to have possibly saved this bird if we had seen or heard it struggling in its death trap. I felt through the breast feathers to the chunky, firm muscles where there was no warmth at all. I then realized that the red-tailed hawk may have been dead for as long as a couple days there in nature’s refrigerator. I waited for several minutes, hoping to deflect some of my sadness onto another runner coming along the trail. I remembered that I had my camera with just a few pictures remaining. I debated in my mind whether or not to even document such a sacred setting. I took out my camera and finished the roll. Before leaving the scene I thought about plucking one of the beautiful tail feathers. I chose not to. I thought about removing the body from the sapling and laying it on the snow. I chose not to.

At the end of the long day, I asked several runners if they had witnessed what I had on that section of trail. To my knowledge, no one else did. One of my favorite trail sayings is an aberration of a quote from John Muir: “Whenever you go on a trail run, you find more than you seek.” That was certainly true for me that day on the Tuscarora.

Addendum: If I offended anyone by this report or the accompanying pictures, I apologize. It took me almost a year to decide to share this with my VHTRC brethren. Thank you, Anstr, for putting the text and pictures together for me.

Sometimes sad trails, Gary    

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