Bruce Sundquist 1936-2016

By Tom Metzgar

Pittsburgh area cavers active during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s recognize the name Bruce Sundquist. Bruce didn’t do a lot of caving, but he did a lot of work preserving cave-rich areas in Pennsylvania and in West Virginia. Indeed, anywhere and everywhere that outdoors enthusiasts met and played, Bruce seemed to turn up. Towards the end of his life, Pittsburgh’s regional print and electronic media frequently featured Bruce, a gentle and wise elder of the outdoors venerated by writers and reported a third or a quarter of his age.
Bruce was born August 20th 1936 in Lake City, Minnesota, son of Edmund and Marian Sundquist. His affinity for outdoors activities began during his childhood, skating and ice-boating on the Mississippi River backwaters. It’s a place where summers are short, with long days and short nights, enticing outdoors enthusiasts to every imaginable type of water sports. Conversely, winters are longer and colder than the place where he would live as an adult. His hometown’s notable residents include Ralph Samuelson, inventor of water skiing, and Tony Wise, a prominent early promoter of cross-country [snow] skiing.
After earning his PhD in metallurgic engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology, in June, 1960, 23-year-old Bruce moved to Pennsylvania to work for U.S. Steel’s research laboratory in Monroeville.
Transplanted from the Midwest, Bruce became enamored with southwestern Pennsylvania’s rivers, hills, forests, and especially with the Appalachian Mountains just east of his newly adopted home. In and around Pittsburgh, he found a culture of people from diverse backgrounds with a strong affinity for outdoors activities, much like the people in his home town. Traditional Pennsylvanians are hunters and anglers, and they cherish their woods and rivers. Even people who don’t hunt or fish like to get out and hike and boat and picnic and explore back roads.
Bruce joined the American Youth Hostels, Pittsburgh Council (AYH). Raised in Minnesota, “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” it’s not surprising that Bruce acquired a copy of the AHY’s Canoeing Guide, Western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. First published in 1961 by Monroeville optical engineer Lloyd M. Geertz, the AHY put out several enlarged editions edited by Katherine M. Spindt and Mary Shaw, later joined by Roy Weil in the 1980s. (In addition to creating the Canoe Access Development Fund, Shaw and Weil remain prominent advocates for rail-trails, among other things.)
Bruce observed the popularity of the AHY canoeing guidebook, and the absence of guidebooks to western Pennsylvania’s growing network of hiking trails. This inspired him to create his first hiking trail guide. Bruce developed his distinctive format familiar to everyone who has used or contributed to his later publications, and freely copied by other authors. Bruce’s goal was to promote outdoors activities, encourage land conservation, and boost his organization’s goals. He was quite pleased to share his ideas, and always sought updated information, as long as it fit into his well-conceived parameters. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Self-publishing, back before the era of home computers, was a labor-intensive task that required cumbersome equipment and lots of space. Just like certain cavers of that era (like Delmont’s Al & Do Haarr of SpeleoDigest fame), Bruce had a basement filled with his printing machines, boxes of blank paper, boxes of completed books, and projects at all stages in between.
Soon after moving to Pennsylvania, Bruce joined the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. Along with many others, he participated heavily in the processes leading towards the 1975 designation of the Dolly Sods Wilderness within the Monongahela National Forest.
The 1970s featured the unified efforts of old-timers fighting for traditional Teddy Roosevelt conservation principles, working alongside of ardent preservationists half their age, like the young Bruce Sundquist. Diverse groups of all ages and political beliefs came together. President Richard Nixon had just signed an executive order establishing the Environmental Protective Agency, which added enforcement to the efforts of conservation pioneers like John Burroughs, George Bird Grinnell, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Ernest Seton Thompson, and Allegheny County native William Dickson Boyce, founder of the Boy Scouts of America. (Boyce Park, just over the hill from Bruce Sundquist’s Monroeville residence, is named in honor of W.D. Boyce, who grew up on one of the farms now preserved within that county park.)
In 1970, Bruce was among the founding members of the Sierra Club’s Allegheny Group. During the next four decades, he chaired the Club’s Outings Committee, an active segment of the organization that garnered considerable publicity, and introduced many Pittsburgh area residents to the area’s cornucopia of outdoors activities. Those of us who submitted information about our trips fondly recall Bruce’s close attention to details, and his demanding expectations for conforming to his unique template.
In 1972, Bruce left U.S. Steel for a job at Westinghouse in Blairsville, where he worked in the breeder reactor division. It’s an easy commute from Monroeville to Blairsville on U.S. Route 22. His Monroeville residence provided an easy drive into Pittsburgh, so Bruce chose to continue living in Monroeville throughout the rest of his life, midway between work and the region’s cultural center in Pittsburgh, but also not too far away from the Laurel Highlands.
NOTE—Today’s readers might perceive a conflict. How could Bruce Sundquist spend all of his free time advocating for wilderness areas and outdoor recreations, while working for a company making and servicing nuclear power plants? During the 1970s, many conservationists and others promoted nuclear energy as a popular alternative to fossil fuels. Bruce Sundquist and others researching breeder reactors felt that the difficulties associated with nuclear waste disposal were a temporary problem. Many years ago, Bruce told me, “Nuclear waste is concentrated and well managed. Fossil fuels emit diffuse wastes from numerous sources that are widely spread out and diluted into the environment. Mining the coal for one power plant disturbs a lot of the earth, relative to the small amount of ore that’s mined to run one nuclear power plant.” He also observed that many people flagrantly consume excessive electricity with little regard to the environmental damage done when it is generated and distributed. No doubt, Bruce would be pleased with today’s trends towards energy efficiencies. Nuclear power generation will continue to be one of the diverse energy sources in most countries. Indeed, it doesn’t release much carbon dioxide, except during the power plant construction phase, and the transportation of materials in and out of the plant. Nuclear power will probably return to favor in the future.
Like many residents of southwestern Pennsylvania, Bruce was drawn northward to the Allegheny National Forest and surrounding areas. By the late 1970s, he became a vocal advocate for another wilderness area, this time in Pennsylvania. Along with many others, his efforts led to the designation of the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area in 1984.
In 1974, Bruce produced a hiking guide to the Allegheny National Forest, partly to help fund the organizations he belonged to, and partly to promote the area he was working to conserve.
Within three years, along with Allen deHart, Bruce published the first edition of their Hiking Guide to Monongahela National Forest and Vicinity. He used his well-developed and popular format familiar to readers who had purchased his 1974 Allegheny National Forest guide.
Besides the AHY and Sierra Club, Bruce was also active with the Keystone Trails Association. He also continued his life-long interests in cross country skiing, and inner-tubing the Youghiogheny River (“The Yough.”) If Bruce participated in an activity, he also wrote about it. His name became synonymous with western Pennsylvania’s outdoors guidebooks. Newspaper writers frequently contacted Bruce for information, thus spreading his name. Bruce did not seek publicity for the sake of promoting himself, but instead, preferred to promote the outdoors.
Membership and management of many of Pittsburgh’s outdoors clubs overlapped. This is reflected in the joint efforts of publishing and distributing Bruce’s guidebooks. The AHY receded in prominence, and the stronger and better funded Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club took control of publishing and distribution.
As his books went into new editions of thousands of copies, Bruce worried that he might be attracting too many people to his beloved trails. Indeed, his concerns were prescient. By the 1990s, some park and forest recreation managers were discussing ways to curb trail erosion and divert hikers onto lesser used trails. But much of the trail degradation arose from uses that Bruce did not foresee. This included a rising popularity of horseback riding, improved bicycle technology that resulted in mountain bikes, and the proliferation of motorized dirt bikes and all-terrain-vehicles.
In 1991, Bruce retired from Westinghouse at Blairsville. Released from the burden of devoting a quarter of each week to earning a living, Bruce diverted his talents and time towards topics that attracted his attention during his early days of advocating for the conservation of blocks of land that we humans could not disturb.
His thoughts expanded far beyond western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. We don’t have space for these topics in a caving newsletter, so we’ll direct readers towards Bruce’s part of a website:
Bruce was particularly fond of Fayette County’s Quebec Run Wild Area in the Forbes State Forest, best known to cavers for Barton Cave. Bruce didn’t do much caving in his later years, but he still had his helmet & headlamp. About two years before his death, I stopped at Bruce’s modest Monroeville residence, a tiny 1950s red brick house, to replenish the MAKC’s supply of sales items. Bruce and I chatted for an hour, and then, unexpectedly, he said, “I set aside something for you. Take my caving helmet and light. I don’t need them. I’m 77. You know what to do with them.”
Bruce’s helmet and headlamp are on display in the map room at the MAKC’s headquarters, along with other items associated with well-known cavers, such as survey gear used by cave mapper Bernie Smeltzer, and a leather belt made and worn by cave historian Peter Hauer.
Bruce died at home in his own bed during the early morning of April 15th, 2016, passing from this world as quietly and modestly as he lived.
The Sierra Club’s Allegheny Group published most of Bruce’s classic hiking guides. They remain in print to perpetuate his deep love of the outdoors. These books continue to encourage the preservation of beautiful and wonderful landscapes in western Pennsylvania and in West Virginia. By promoting his books, we honor this humble, peaceful and unassuming man, whose wide-ranging efforts assured that his generation would leave a legacy that transcends our wasteful society’s increasingly materialistic values.
By Bruce Sundquist, Carolyn Weilacher Yartz, and Jack Richardson.
Includes 250 miles of hiking and skiing trails in the 800-square-mile Allegheny National Forest. Cavers have cataloged just a few of the sandstone rock shelters and crevices in this area. Buy a copy, and plan to find and document a previously unreported Pennsylvania cave! 6” by 9”, soft cover, 192 pages, 49 pages of topographic trail maps, 35 photos. $10.00 + $3.00 postage.
By William R. Brice, William J. Curry, Uldis Kaktins, Barbara S. Thorne, and Bruce Sundquist.
This 70-mile hiking trail extends along the crest of Laurel Ridge from the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle State Park to the Conemaugh River Water Gap near Johnstown. The guide interprets botanical, cultural, and geological features along the trail. A copy in your backpack will greatly enhance your experience, whether you’re doing a trail segment as a day hike, or making a vacation out of a trip end-to-end. Cavers have not yet thoroughly investigated all of the Loyalhanna limestone exposed along this trail, so there are still opportunities for finding previously uncataloged caves. 6” by 9”, soft cover, 128 pages, 24 pages of topographic trail maps, 25 photos. $7.00 + $2.50 postage.
By Bruce Sundquist, Monika Vucic, Mark Christy, Jan Fissora, Tom & Kim Metzgar, Tom Beebee, Palvina & Chavaya Beebee Galuao, & Judy Rodd.
This guide includes 446 miles of hiking & skiing trails on Chestnut Ridge, Laurel Ridge, and the Allegheny Front. Features favorite foot trails in the Forbes State Forest, including Quebec Run Wild Area, Roaring Run Natural Area, plus some of the sprawling Forbes State Forest’s less-traveled trails where your mammal observations probably won’t include Homo sapiens. A few trails are in Ohiopyle State Park & Lynn Run State Park. Also includes the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Bear Run Preserve surrounding Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece at Fallingwater. 6” by 9”, soft cover, 288 pages, 36 pages of topographic trail maps, 32 photos. $8.00 + $3.00 postage.
By Allen deHart and Bruce Sundquist.
The words “West Virginia” transform the chair you’re sitting in—it becomes your OTR camp seat, with this book in one hand and your favorite beverage in the other. None of us will live long enough to see all of the wild and wonderful things where “Mountaineers are Always Free,” but we sure can sure fantasize about it while paging through this guidebook. Describes 847 miles of trails within 1,436 square miles of West Virginia’s magnificent and cave-rich National Forest. 6” by 9”, soft cover, 368 pages, 86 pages of topographic trail maps, 57 photos. $15.00 + $3.00 postage.
Order by mail for $40 postpaid. Limited quantities. While supplies last.