It is hard to imagine today, but there was a time not so very long ago when nobody wanted to live on the Clarion River. It was a time when wood pulp mills to the north were dumping their acids directly into the river. Slags and sulfurs from strip mining were washed directly into the Clarion, too.
It was said to be biologically dead. It was foaming at the mouth. You didn’t want to walk in it and you sure didn’t want to swim. The water was an ink dark color and folks around here called it The Black River.
Our folks, the late Robert and Patricia Hawkins, were either amazingly optimistic or naïve, but in the mid-1960s -- when the river was at its lowest point, environmentally speaking – they bought 22-acres on the banks of the Clarion.
Perhaps it was the 21 wooded acres that connect seamlessly to thousands of other acres of forest. Perhaps it was the mountain stream that runs down one side of the property. Or the old logging trails that crisscross the back woods. Maybe it was the potential they saw in the two aging houses on the property. Perhaps it was the deer, turkey, bear, porcupine, pheasant and many other animals that cross the land like something out of an animated Disney revue. For certain, the incredibly pure spring water that our father would haul home in jugs just to make his coffee was an attraction.
What they did know at the time was that with eight growing sons and a daughter, those long family camping trips were a thing of the past. Rather than haul this sprawling brood to a sylvan campground hundreds of miles and many car arguments away, why not own the campground?
They named it Pine Run.
And it became the place to stay on weekends and long summers. After all, it was less than 20 miles from our home in Brookville.
And we loved it. As kids we explored the forest, the brook and massive rock formations at the top of the hills. Some of us took up hunting. Some didn’t. We picked berries in season and we swapped stories about the size and number of deer we saw on our outings. Even with nine kids, Pine Run could be a peaceful place. The forest was easily up to the task of absorbing all that youthful energy and noise.
Just across the river is Clear Creek State Park. Just down the river is Cooks Forest State Park. Just up the river is the Allegheny National Forest. We were surrounded by the ancient forests and stepped back in time when we traveled to Pine Run. Down that unpaved road, there was no television, very little radio reception, no mail delivery, no newspaper delivery. The phone was a party line. (Modernity does intrude. Mail delivery arrived just a few years ago, as did satellite television and a WiFi connection for computers.)
Today, we think of our parents as visionaries. They couldn’t have known that the federal Environmental Protection Agency would be formed a half-decade later and would initiate a decade-long campaign to restore the Clarion River. But our parents knew that this sprawling family, as it grew and migrated across this country and around this world, would always need a place to return to, a place to call home.
And so it is. Pine Run is the home that we return to -- and now our children and grandchildren do, too.
It has grown, as we have.
There are now three houses on the land. The original two have expanded some over the decades and have been modernized, remodeled, restored and improved upon endlessly. There are a couple of small cabins set back discretely at the woods’ edge. The old farm pond was filled in many years ago, when there were way too many young children running amok. And besides, we now had the river in which to swim.
The once dead river is now a colorful freeway filled with canoes, kayaks, inner tube floaters and fishermen. American bald eagles soar up and down the Clarion in search of food. Ducks and other migratory birds find respite in the river’s sheltered coves. You can float on your face and clearly see the teeming aquatic life below. Deer drop down to its shores at dusk and dawn for a cool sip of fresh water.
Even the road that brings us to camp is now paved, mostly.
So much has changed, and yet so little. The forests have been carefully and sparingly harvested to ensure that new tress can grow as straight and tall as their elders. There is a nice fire pit around which generations sit and swap stories, legends and lies and even sing some songs.
But Pine Run is still an island. Time moves faster than ever but Pine Run has kept up only as necessary and needs dictate. It is still and will always be a camp in the woods.
And home. It will always be home. For our families and, now, for our guests.