Preserving and Promoting Community Trails
in Western Pennsylvania

Trail junction sign near the Kiski bridge

Kiski River railroad bridge

A Big Step Forward for Trail Connections

By John Stephen

Armstrong County and Armstrong Trails have greatly boosted the RCTC’s efforts to connect the Baker Trail and Rachel Carson Trail. The Kiski Junction Railroad has been acquired by Armstrong County in the longest rail-to-trail acquisition east of the Mississippi in 2022.

The 14-mile purchase includes the three-mile Baker Trail stretch along the corridor between Schenley and Godfrey. More importantly, it also includes the Kiski River railroad bridge! Chris Ziegler of Armstrong Trails is laser-focused on constructing the new trail, including repurposing the bridge, in 2023.

This fall, Allegheny Township is extending the Tredway Trail north from beneath the Route 356 bridge toward the Kiski bridge along the flats of the Allegheny River. While this new segment in Allegheny Township is ideal for bikes and easy level walks, the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy will continue to oversee the Baker Trail route that hugs the ridge with views of Freeport and the Allegheny Valley.

All this action on the Westmoreland County side of the Allegheny River has led the RCTC to prioritize our efforts to extend the Rachel Carson Trail down the slope from Harrison Hills Park to the Route 356 bridge.

While amazing progress is being made, there's plenty more to do. The next challenge is to construct a safe rail crossing on the southern side of the Kiski river. Our trail building partners in Allegheny Township, Armstrong Trails, and Westmoreland County are leading the way on that project.

Connecting Neighborhoods to Our Trails

By Mark Eyerman

One of the core missions of the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy is connecting community assets via our trails. Looking at the RCT, we connect North Park, Hampton Community Park, Emmerling Park, Williams Street Park, Agan Park and Harrison Hills Park, with a spur trail to Hartwood Acres (extending to Beechwood Farms soon). A few years ago, we extended to the Harmony Trail and in 2023, we are endeavoring to reconnect to the Baker Trail and the budding trail nexus in the Freeport area. Our vision is not just for trails, but an integrated trail system that unites our community.

These parks and municipal assets form the skeleton, but the lifeblood of our community are the families and their homes. The trail already goes through some neighborhoods; Springdale Boro, Murray Hill Estates and Altemoor Drive to name a few. Going forward we will be working to greatly increase the number of people who can walk from their home to the RCT. Internal discussions continue as we establish policy and protocol, and many people will be needed to form the committee necessary to make this a reality.

Here is our vision.

We are looking to connect individual neighborhoods to the trail via spur trails connecting to public streets. This will allow residents of the neighborhood to access the RCT directly, while allowing adjacent neighborhoods to also enjoy the access. Building new trails is a time-consuming process. More often than not, it’s a multiyear process. Given this effort and expense, when we build these neighborhood connections, we want them to be permanent. Therefore, we will require an easement through any private land necessary to reach a public road.

We are fully committed to this effort, and the RCTC will guide and facilitate the connections as follows:

  • We will work with and support any/all groups wishing to connect their neighborhood.
  • We will build and maintain the trail.
  • We will assume any costs associated with procuring the needed easements and trail construction.

The neighborhoods closest to the RCT will of course be the easiest to connect, but even those further away can be connected, perhaps utilizing other partner trails and connections via our Many Trails One Community program.

None of this can become a reality without considerable help from you, our dedicated trail users. Step forward and join our committee, organize your neighborhood to start your connection, or advocate within your community to support this effort. For now, this is an idea, a plan. Help us to make it a reality and help us to connect our community.

Overlooking Freeport from a potential RCT to BT connector

A mattock is ideal for grading the treadway

Weeds, say hello to my little friend!

The Call of the Trail

By Levi Wilson

Being a trail steward, there are times you can hear the call of the trail, beckoning you to check your section.

Right after the snow begins to melt, you wonder if its weight has brought down any trees and branches across the trail. This is usually my first walkthrough of the trail section I take care of.

Then, there are April showers that bring May ... knotweed, Japanese rose, garlic mustard, and all kinds of weeds that are hungry to eat the trail and dampen your dry socks after the morning dew or spring rain. Fortunately, that steward sense kicks in and you remember that rain plus sunshine equals growth, so it's probably time to walk your section again with the string trimmer, knocking back the weeds 2-3 feet from the trail while at the same time taking care to avoid mayapple, trillium, and many other native plants.

Did you see and hear that? Yup, storm season is next. If you're like me and enjoy watching a good storm from the window or back porch of your house, you will know depending on wind strength you probably should check on your section. It's well known that if a tree falls in the woods, 90% of the time it'll go for any trail within its reach.

Then there is that loud calling in the weeks leading up to the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge and Baker Trail UltraChallenge. You can bet at any given time you'll find a trail steward hard at work getting the trail ready for the big event!

After that, as long as Mother Nature is nice, you only have to go out few more times before the leaves start to fall and, soon enough, the snow again.

After a few passes on your trail section you'll be familiar enough to notice areas where problems such as erosion are occurring and where improvements can be made, in order to make the trail safer and even more enjoyable for walkers, hikers, and runners.

I think I speak for all trail stewards when I say that seeing people getting their feet on the trail is the biggest sense of joy for us! And while you're out there, if you happen to encounter a problem please report it to us at info@rachelcarsontrails.org.

As always, happy hiking!

Courage is Contagious: Women and Ultrarunning

By Amy Nelson

Originally published in UltraRunning magazine

On August 27, 2022, in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, women toed the line for the 18th annual Baker Trail UltraChallenge in unprecedented numbers. For the first the time in 18 years, the 50-mile race surpassed the stagnant ratio of 80% men to 20% women, and instead, saw 35% female entrants.

As a board member of the nonprofit that hosts the race and an ultrarunner myself, I examined our registration database and observed an obvious disparity.

Bucking a trend that has held for nearly two decades doesn’t happen overnight, but with perseverance and the right strategies, meaningful change can occur in a matter of months.

We started with a series of raffles where complimentary entries were earmarked for 15 women. The raffles not only raised general awareness, but perhaps more importantly, they planted seeds in the minds of many females. A wide range of women who would not have considered racing this distance found themselves pondering the notion of a 50-miler. “I did the raffle to push me to register because I was afraid, not necessarily because it was free,” said one woman. And courage is contagious.

With the help of social media, we were able to shine a light on the raffle winners, creating visibility and awareness. The catch phrase, “If she can see it, she can be it,” trademarked by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, speaks to the importance of role models in all aspects of life. Gillian Anderson’s role in The X-Files inspired thousands of girls and women to pursue careers in science and medicine, a phenomena now referred to as “The Scully Effect.” Female participation in the sport of archery doubled after the movie The Hunger Games.

“Seeing other people, including women, doing ultras showed me that I could, too,” said Julia Mericle, one of this year’s Baker Ultra contestants. From another runner, “Representation matters. Once I saw an everyday athlete like me competing, not elite at all, I thought about racing at that distance.”

Another important initiative included hosting and promoting training runs, which were free and open to anyone. Covering all 50 miles of the course, spanning three separate runs, women and men alike were given the opportunity to gain the required confidence. In some cases, these runs tipped the scale and led to a registration. Lori Malazich serves as a prime example. Initially, when asked about her 50-miler hesitations, Malazich quickly ticked off her concerns, “It’s too hot, I’ll get lost, too much vert, I won’t make the cutoff. How do I even train for a distance like that?” After the third and final training run (and lots of coaxing), Malazich registered. And despite an unseasonably hot day and relentless climbs (officially 7,000 feet of vertical gain), she beat the cutoff by nearly two hours, with dozens of men and women finishing behind her.

Shannon McKenzie was another raffle winner new to the 50-mile distance. With no prior ultrarunning experience, (a marathon in 1999 was her longest race coming into the Baker Ultra), McKenzie was the top female runner and placed third overall in a time of 9 hours and 23 minutes. Without the incentive of the raffle, McKenzie said she would have been less likely to consider the race.

But even with free entries and positive role models, some barriers are hard to break, with roots that go deep. The biggest roadblock, by far, was women contending with age-old gender norms that saddle them with the bulk of domestic labor and childcare, severely restricting training time. Even in 2022, the dilemma is normalized and often goes unnoticed.

A recent online poll conducted on a female-only ultrarunning group yielded a litany of testimony on the topic of domestic barriers to training. One respondent commented on the difficulty of engaging in longer runs due to a husband who insisted on her help “watching the kids.” More generally, another observed the long-standing imbalance between men and women. “Most men seem to do what they want when they want, and their wives hold down the fort at home.” Another theme was women needing to feel 100% “qualified” before tackling any major endeavor. One female ultrarunner who happens to work in the STEM field pointed out, “A lot of the men I work with aren’t smarter or better prepared. Plenty show up because they think they belong and assume they’ll figure out the details along the way. The parallels between ultrarunning and STEM gender distribution are striking.”

The vast majority of women who won an entry to this year’s Baker Trail UltraChallenge indicated they will come back in 2023. Increased female participation can serve as inspiration to others and work to assuage general self-doubt. Our takeaway this year: role models matter. Visibility leads to the realization that we can do hard things. And as first-time ultrarunner Lori Malazich would say, “Success begins with the decision to try.”

2022 Baker Trail UltraChallenge start line

Marshall Township Pedestrian Master Plan

Marshall Township Plan Cover

Marshall Township Receives Trail Grant

By John Stephen

Earlier this year the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County awarded $1.4 million to Marshall Township for trail construction. The grant will enable the Township to accelerate building more trail segments as set forth in its Trail Plan.

The County grant was centered on creating new trail opportunities, expanding and enhancing existing trail facilities and facilitating local connections to existing trail and multimodal transportation systems. As the RCTC extends the Harmony Trail north from Bradford Woods to Brush Creek and beyond, Marshall Township's work will close some of the existing gaps on the route. One trail project on the list is Shenot Road from the School Campus Driveway to Perry Highway and Northgate Drive. This section could be the first connection for the Harmony Trail in Marshall Township.

While the schedule for trail building has not been finalized, other walkway segments the Township is hoping to construct include along Warrendale Bayne Road from the park ‘n ride to Warrendale Village and Wexford Run Road from Manor Road to the entrance to Highpoint, among others farther west of I-79.

In Memoriam: Paul Hicks

By Patty Brunner

Paul Hicks, age 78 of Marion Center, Indiana County, passed away on Friday July 1, 2022 at his home. Paul was a longtime volunteer for the Baker Trail and the Evergreen Conservancy. He worked long hours monitoring water along the Mahoning and keeping our trail open and navigable. He enjoyed benching and spent many hours on the first and second phases of the Mahoning reroute.

Late in his life, he quit smoking and took up running, competing in 5K races into his 70s.

He was quiet, protective, kind, and just easy to work with. When he spoke he usually had something profound to say. He will be missed!

Paul Hicks

Sarah Heppenstall & family finishing the 2021 Friends & Family Challenge

In Memoriam: Sarah Heppenstall

By Kate Fissell

The RCTC community was saddened by the passing of ardent hiker and RCTC supporter Sarah Heppenstall. Sarah died peacefully at age 62 on Oct. 15, 2022 after a short, courageous and spirited struggle with cancer. As her husband Tal said, “For Sarah, her glioblastoma was never a 'War on Cancer', but rather more like her last hike. There were steep hills and slippery slopes with disappointing falls but there was also beauty: the daily views of Colton and of Emma and frequent sightings of a wonderful set of six children and the other seven adorable grandchildren. There was a hike support group full of family, friends, wonderful nannies, UPMC healthcare heroes and devoted Shady Side educators there every step of the way. This was a typical Sarah hike, grueling and longer than she planned, but she was always thankful for the journey in spite of her disease.”

Sarah's zeal for hiking and nature included completing the RCT Full Challenge in 2016 and 2019, backpacking and hiking on the Baker Trail, volunteering as a Rachel Carson Trail steward in Harrison Hills Park, volunteering as a Tree Tender with Tree Pittsburgh, and usually getting in about five miles a day walking to errands and activities in the city, green hiking poles tapping away. Sarah's deepest love, joy and dedication was her family. They always came first, and they did hike! We were delighted to see Sarah and her grandchildren, three and four year old Emma and Colton, successfully complete the Friends & Family Challenge in 2021 (with many stops to play in Crouse Run!). Our hearts go out to Tal and all of Sarah's family.

How I Got Involved

By Kelly J. Wilding

From the Rachel Carson to the Top of Africa

Since I was five years old, I'd dreamed of going to Africa. Growing up, my father and I tuned in every week to watch Wild Kingdom, and seeing lions in the Serengeti became the number one goal on my bucket list. So, when a friend was talking about going to Tanzania, I jumped at the opportunity. But we weren't just going on safari. We were going to tackle the single highest freestanding mountain in the world.

The ascent to the highest peak on Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet. As we planned our training for the climb, we asked ourselves how three western Pennsylvanians could train for that altitude, with the highest point locally only reaching roughly 3,200 feet.

We found our answer on the rigorous and steep climbs along the Rachel Carson Trail. Aside from a few overnight backpacking hikes in the Laurel Mountains, most of our training was along the beautiful RCT. Our trip was delayed a year because of the pandemic. It gave us extra time to build stamina, particularly by carrying weighted backpacks while scaling the RCT's wicked Burtner Hill. I invited anyone willing to train with me on countless hikes along the RCT and introduced many a Pittsburgher to her primitive yet well-maintained 46 miles.

All three of us training on the RCT climbed to the Kilimanjaro summit. When I returned from my month in Africa, it was important to me to figure out how I could introduce more people to the RCT and contribute to its preservation and mission. When seats opened on the Rachel Carson Trail Conservancy board in early 2022, I applied and was excited at the possibility of volunteering with the people dedicated to making the trail experience a positive one. The RCTC was specifically looking for board members with experience in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), and as a current doctoral candidate in Point Park University's Community Engagement Department, the opportunity piqued my interest.

Since I was elected in June, I've seen how committed the board members are to the organization's mission. What an amazing group of people! I am currently a co-leader on the DEI Committee, which works to cultivate diversity on the trails and within our organization. We are also addressing barriers to trail accessibility by collaborating with diverse groups that positively impact our communities. This semester I've introduced some of my Point Park students to the RCTC  mission, and we collaboratively hosted a hike with the honors program. Many of our students are housed downtown and want more opportunities to get out and enjoy nature. Getting out of the city is an issue since most students do not have cars. The DEI committee is developing a guide to accessing trail points through public transportation. It could make a difference for students and other city residents.

I look forward to the coming year as a board member and as a hiker on all of the RCTC trails. Last, I'd like to note that although I made it to the top of Africa, I have doubts about completing a Full Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. Now that would be an accomplishment.

In front of Mount Kilimanjaro at daybreak on Dec. 31, 2021, the third day of hiking toward the summit

At Kilimanjaro's 19,341-foot summit on Jan. 5, 2022

Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy, Inc.
P.O. Box 472
Wexford, PA 15090-0472