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Suggested Trip

Creatures of the Bog


A Note About COVID-19 and Visiting Parks Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

Black Moshannon State Park rests high in the mountains of the Allegheny Forest and, because of its unique location in a basin, stays cooler in the summer and colder in the winter than the surrounding wooded area. Pretty much located smack-dap in the center of Pennsylvania, it is a site of exceptional and picturesque bogs, swamps, and marshes.  I always visualize a bog as a place of fog, dark water swamps, and strange creatures. This bog didn’t disappoint.  Black Moshannon’s Environmental Education Specialist, Michelle McCloskey, our guide for a late September bog walk, explained, “Bogs are freshwater wetlands with layers and layers of sphagnum moss. The moss is alive on the surface and as you proceed downwards you have mats of decomposing moss. This moss is like a sponge – it absorbs water.”  McCloskey explained there was a depth of approximately four feet of dead and dying sphagnum moss in the bog’s boardwalk area we explored.

Many of us are familiar with this dead moss, commonly called peat moss. Yes, it’s the same peat moss we purchase at the local garden store. Once the water is removed, we mix it in garden soils and flower pots to help retain moisture for our plants. The bog’s sphagnum moss produces acidic and low-nutrient conditions – unlike the high nutrient matter found nearby on the forest’s floor. Decomposition of soggy sphagnum moss is a slow process, producing tannins which give the surrounding water a dark, spooky color, common in swamps. This condition, combined with the cooler temperatures of this high region of north central Pennsylvania, create an ideal habitat for specialized plants and animals.

We learned of a number of different species of orchids and carnivorous plants found in Black Moshannon State Park during our walk with Michele.  Our September visit was a little too late for orchid hunting, but our guide promised a peek at carnivorous plants!  Cool . . . now, this is how I envisioned a bog . . . flesh-eating plants in a blackwater swamp on an eerie day! Michele explained details of three species of carnivorous plants in the park, and it turned out they weren’t scary at all – and the day turned out to be sunny and bright! The three carnivorous plants found in the park are pitcher plants, sundews, and bladderworts. They are fascinating plants to observe and learn about.

The pitcher plant was beautiful! It captures insects by "imprisoning" them in a pool of water created by its tubular leaf. The insect falls into this tubular cavity containing digestive enzymes from the plant, losing balance due to the plant’s slippery sides and edges. Tiny hairs pointing downward making it difficult for the bug to escape. Immersed in enzymes, the plant digests the captured prey. I was surprised at the frequency with which the plant is able to capture food this way, but during times of less visiting bugs, pitcher plants – like many carnivorous plants – go long periods without "meat" in their diets.

Pitcher plant

The sundew plant is a very small creature-eating plant we also identified during our walk. It has sweet, sticky projections around the leaves that lure and capture tiny animals which are devoured by digestive enzymes.

Sundew plant, photo courtesy Pennsylvania DCNR

The third and final carnivorous plant called bladderwort thrives here as well, but the season was too far advanced to find one during our hike. We were told it resembles floating seaweed in the waters of the bog. This miniature carnivorous plant, much like the others, lures tiny prey with its flowers or sweet-smelling nectar. The bladderwort has small empty nodules – or bladders, if you will – hence its name. Small hairs around a vacant bladder are triggered by insects, opening these nodules.  They fill with water and flush the unsuspecting creatures into this chamber, capturing it for consumption. Wild! The diversity of all three of these tiny creature-devouring plants, including their morbid-but-beautiful methods for catching food, is amazing.  All can be observed at various times of the year if you are patient and mindful during a walk through the bog at Black Moshannon State Park.

Other plants in abundance were blueberry and leather leaf shrubs and, we were told, 80 different species of sedges (a grass-like plant – remember “sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses are hollow, what have you found?”).  Cattails and water lilies were plentiful within and around this beautiful 250-acre bog lake.  

The lake is perfect for paddlecraft activities. Kayakers, canoers, and stand-up paddle boarders were active. Electric-powered craft are also permitted on the lake. For the regular patrons, dry land mooring is available for approximately 90 boats.  These popular moorings provide a colorful array of craft, however, seasonal spots are hard to come by, as they fill a year or better in advance.

To see the plant life and wildlife from the water or engage in fishing, three boat launches are available along with a boat rental that is open seasonally with ADA-accessible launch ramps. Parking seems plentiful, but during the summer I would advise early arrival. If camping, reservations are recommended. We expected no problem with securing a camp, but when we arrived on Saturday, all camp sites were occupied. Fortunately for us, the neighboring Black Moshannon State Forest, which surrounds the park, permits primitive camping, and we found several open sites with stone campfire rings – perfect for a fall visit to central Pennsylvania.

We observed many distinct waterfowl floating, wading, and flying across the bog lake.  Common are mallards, Canada geese, mergansers, grebes, black birds, herons and assorted song birds. If you time your visit during migration, you may see snow geese, loons, buffleheads and other migrating varieties of waterfowl.

Four-legged critters also enjoy life around the bog. From our primitive campsite we were serenaded first by owls, then coyotes! Hearing coyotes in the dark of the night gave me an eerie feeling, with images of the bog and its imagined creatures as we slept nestled in our campsite below the stars.

There is much to see and do in this region of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I encourage you to check out all the sites and parks of this diverse and well-managed wild area deep in the land of Penn’s Woods.  It is truly a return to nature and days gone by.

Black Moshannon State Park

Black Moshannon State Park covers 3,394 acres of forests and wetlands and conserves unique, natural environments.

Virgil Chambers

Virgil Chambers is retired from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission where he was Chief of Boating Safety Education. Director Emeritus of the National Safe Boating Council and a life member of the American Canoe Association, he is published and recognized world-wide for his numerous contributions to boating and water safety. He enjoys paddling a wide variety of boats with his wife, Pamela and their dog, Zoe.

October 8, 2020

Main image: The bog of Black Moshannon State Park. All photos by Virgil Chambers, except as noted.
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