Tuesday, July 30, 2013

AT Project in VA - Spy Rock Road to Maupin Field Shelter Is How Far?

AT-VA Backpack – Day 1 – 5/3/13 - Spy Rock Road to Maupin Field Shelter – 19 Miles

“Because of the way the shelters are spaced we need to do 19 miles the first day, about 16 miles the second day, but only 5 miles the third day.  Sound okay?”  Sharon, if you’re going to hike the Virginia section of the AT, better find some like-minded partners.  Cathy, a Berg buddy who was also working on this section, presented this ambitious plan for a long weekend. 

Note:  This is the weekend where Sharon learns that 19 miles with a loaded backpack and not much conditioning hurts.  A lot.

But here we go.  Cathy and I drove to Waynesboro, VA on a Thursday evening, excited to see yellow- green trees marching up the mountainsides.  After a chilly, wet, dreary, dragged-out winter, spring is finally here! 

We met our shuttle driver bright and early Friday morning at our ending point at Rockfish Gap, the entrance to Shenandoah National Park and beginning of Skyline Drive.  The driver was very friendly and talkative but had never been to our dropoff point before, so we all learned it together.  From the fish hatchery near Montebello, VA, gravelly Spy Rock Road allows hikers (not cars) access to the AT near Spy Rock.  The very steep .75-mile approach trail got my heart seriously pumping and my head seriously thinking about what the heck I had signed up for.  At the AT intersection we turned left and climbed a little more to a side trail to Spy Rock.  But with such a long day ahead of us, we skipped the view and continued on.  

Lots of tree burls in this section.  There are several theories on what causes them, but seeing so many concentrated in one area makes me subscribe to the idea of a common fungus.

It didn’t take long for Cathy to get ahead of me; she is a much faster hiker than I am and carries less weight with ultralight gear.  We are kind of like the tortoise and the hare (guess which one I am) only in this story the hare always finishes first.  Cathy was carrying the water filter that we shared so we needed to stay in touch, and she was very patient to wait for my check-in at pre-arranged points. 

Our hope for spring was premature.  The new leaves we had enthused about on our drive had not yet emerged on top of the ridges and we walked along beneath mostly winter bare branches. 

However, many spring flowers were emerging

Purple violet – so common that I often don’t take pictures but that’s really not fair, is it?

Large-flowered bellwort

Bloodroot getting ready to bloom – the leaves are very distinctive


Great chickweed


Also saw toothwort, wild geranium, rue anemone and spiderwort
 Make sure the sign doesn't get stolen

Our second significant climb of the day (but not yet the biggest) was ascending The Priest.  Together we crossed the summit - a little bit of fog coming through.  Cathy and I met up 4 miles from Spy Rock at the turnoff to The Priest Shelter.

Northbounders on the AT enjoy a reasonably gentle ascent of The Priest but then must negotiate a challenging 3,100-foot descent in 4.3 miles.  The good news is that trail builders built 37 switchbacks to minimize erosion and help out hikers’ knees. 

At the bottom Cathy and I met again at the bridge crossing over the Tye River.  While we were having a snack, two very handsome young section hiking hunks stopped to say hello.  Sadly, they were southbound and we soon parted ways.  We were old enough to be their moms but who cares?  What happens on the AT stays on the AT?

Ready for Three Ridges Wilderness?  Lots more wildflowers

 Showy orchis

Fire pinks

 Flame azalea

Pink phlox

So 3,100 feet down to the low point of 970 feet elevation at Tye River, then immediately the trail ascends up Three Ridges Mountain, summiting at 3,984 feet, with a slight dip along the way for Harpers Creek and another shelter.  This is one tough day.  My feet, knees and quads were feeling the strain.

This is the trail?  Seriously?

But look at the view

I was drinking lots of water and a little concerned about running out.  At my next meet-up with Cathy she gave me the extra water she had been carrying (why doesn’t that woman drink more?) since she could filter more along the way.  Then I cut her loose to go on to our ending point for the night.  I felt comfortable with the frequency of trail signs and now it was just a matter of one painful footstep after the other.

13.4 miles in, 5.6 miles to go – yeah, still smiling

I hiked through the area called Chimney Rock but barely looked up to notice the rock formations, just kept climbing up and over Three Ridges Mountain.  No more photo-taking for today.  From there it was a 1,200-foot descent to Maupin Creek Shelter, our overnight stop.  I realized I was going slower and slower and it became difficult to judge distance by timing.  As I walked through a rare flat area, I became concerned that I had missed the side trail to the shelter.  As I contemplated turning back, I walked up one short but steep bump, thinking “this isn’t even big enough to show on the elevation profile but it feels gigantic”, and on the other side I saw the shelter turnoff sign. 

I rolled into camp at 7:30 p.m., 10+ hours of hiking, still not too bad for 19 miles and over 5,000 feet elevation gain.  Several other section hikers were spread out in the shelter or in tents nearby.  One was a young German guy, trail name Waldo, and two were middle-aged women called Cowgirl and Cover Girl.

Maupin Field Shelter does not look inviting to me

Cathy had been there a while, had made herself comfortable in the shelter and treated water for us.  I was carrying the back- packing stove and fuel so she was waiting on me to cook supper.  As soon as I could, I prepared for the next day, set up my tent, crawled inside so I could collapse and whimper in privacy, and crashed.

Backpacking:  An extended form of hiking in which people carry double the amount of gear they need for half the distance they planned to go in twice the time it should take.  ~Author Unknown

Friday, July 19, 2013

AT Project in VA - Murder, Miles and a 5K

AT Birthday Backpack – 4/12/13 – Day 2 – Dismal Falls to Woods Hole Hostel – 12.8 Miles

Chattering early birds woke me before 6:30 and I was packed up and back on the trail by 7:10 a.m.  My tent footprint left a dry spot in my hidden sanctuary but the only lasting evidence of it is my memories (and this photo).

I took a last look at the creek and noted the contrast from last evening.  Before the rain, clear water gently flowed over rocks in mesmerizing patterns.  After the rain, the water was muddy, the once visible rocks were completely submerged, and the place where my feet rested was now underwater.  Water is a powerful thing.

My 12+ miles today were slick and muddy.  There were a couple of brief showers when I pulled out my rain jacket.  Bridges are nice when you have ‘em.

And the trail is a river with accompanying waterfalls when you don’t have bridges.

So what’s the story with my shuttle driver’s ominous “Murder On The Appalachian Trail”?  Two words:   Wapiti Shelter.  I stopped here for a quick snack break during one of those brief rain showers. 

Back in 1981 a man named Randall Lee Smith befriended two hikers on the AT and the three stopped for the night at Wapiti Shelter.  During the night Smith killed them both, one with a gunshot to the head and the other by stabbing during a fierce struggle.  He was convicted of second-degree murder via a plea deal.  He was paroled in 1996, after 15 years in prison, and he returned to live in the area.  In 2008, a few miles from the location of the Wapiti Shelter crimes, Smith befriended two men who were hiking and fishing and attempted to kill them.  Despite multiple gunshot wounds to the head, neck and chest, the two managed to escape.  However, as Smith fled the scene in a truck, he crashed and sustained grievous injuries.  He died shortly after being captured and taken to jail.

So there you go.  An internet search tells you everything you want to know about that.  I haven’t read the book.

Immediately past Wapiti Shelter the AT heads steeply uphill without switchbacks.  The psychological stress of going straight up a hill rather than switchbacking can be intense.  Raising your gaze and seeing that continued head-on climb is daunting.  I have grown to rely heavily on David “Awol” Miller’s publication of “The A.T. Guide” to get up those tough climbs (and steep descents, too).  Seeing the distance and elevation change of a section and matching it with what you are experiencing on the ground is so important.

Another contrast from yesterday to today:  Yesterday the sound of dry, rustling leaves accompanied each step (remember the black snake “rattling” his tail at me in the leaves?).   Today brought wet muffled footsteps and dripping water from the trees.  I’m glad for both.

A couple of blowdowns to navigate around

Although not as spectacular as some hikes I have had, I enjoyed my gentle ramble through the woods with the occasional climb to keep me on my toes.  But hello there – here is something to look at!

  Looking into the valley of Sugar Run

My favorite sign – my car is a quarter mile away

So ended my birthday backpacking trip, but more excitement lay ahead.  I drove from Pearisburg to Blacksburg, VA, home of Virginia Tech, my alma mater, and also where my two daughters attended college.  The next day was the annual “Run In Remembrance” 5K and other activities to commemorate the deaths of VT students on April 16, 2007.  I met my girls there, they bought me a lovely birthday dinner, and on that flawless, blue sky, Hokie Saturday morning we ran the 5K together.

Today, we are all Hokies.

Ut Prosim ~ That I May Serve.

Friday, July 12, 2013

AT Project in VA - Snakes, Waterfalls & Town Boys - Another Birthday Hiking Project

AT Birthday Backpack –Day 1 – 4/11/13 – VA 611 to Dismal Falls – 11.7 Miles

I believe in celebrating birthdays in a big way.  A special dinner with those you love is great but you can do that any time.  A picnic in a local park?  How about mountain climbing or whitewater rafting or ziplining or biking on the beach?  Challenge yourself with something new.  Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  With that advice, your birthday should be terrifying!

On my 50th birthday I started a challenge to hike all the trail miles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I completed the challenge on my 51st birthday, hiking about 1,075 miles in that year.  I have hiked somewhere on my birthday each year since then.  This year was my 55th, so it seemed a good idea to set a new challenge similar to my 50th, more than just a day on a trail.  After some pondering, I decided to spend a year hiking the Appalachian Trail section in my home state of Virginia, about 550 miles. 

When your birthday is on a Thursday it’s hard to find hiking buddies, so my new project started with an overnight solo backpack near Pearisburg, Virginia.  Why there?  Two big reasons:  Woods Hole Hostel and the Virginia Tech “Run In Remembrance” 5K.

Woods Hole Hostel has been operating for 28 years, established in 1986 by Tillie and Roy Wood.  Roy passed away a year later and Tillie continued fulfilling their dream for the next 22 years.  When she too passed away, the dream continued with their youngest granddaughter, Neville, and her husband Michael.  The hostel is a short walk from the AT and a favorite of all hikers, section or thru.  It is also a wonderful weekend retreat offering massage, meditation sessions and farm-to-table meals.  Please take the time to look at the Woods Hole website here.

Bunk House

Leave shoes outside

Enjoy the porch

I was a little nervous about staying at Woods Hole during thru-hiker season, so this fit right into Eleanor’s edict.  Would I seem too old?  Too inexperienced?  Turned out there were 12 thru-hikers, most of them young’uns staying in the bunkhouse (20-somethings) and one 70+-year-old man staying in the main house along with me, a long distance section hiker and cancer survivor named Dynamo Joe.  Prior to our evening meal (which everyone either helped prepare or clean up) Neville asked everyone to join hands, introduce themselves with their trail name and express gratitude for something.  There was E-Slide, Shake&Bake, and I forget the other names.  There’s a story for each name.  Conversation was trail-centric, weather, mileage, food.  I asked if anyone was carrying books to read, and those who were named heavy subjects like philosophy or history of architecture.  I realized the world is in good hands with the coming generation.

My bed in my private room was comfortable; nonetheless, I spent a restless night thinking about the coming two-day hike.  The weather forecast was serious for a bad thunderstorm and most of the thru-hikers planned to wait it out at Woods Hole or hike into Pearisburg.  This was the only window of time I had, though, so worrying about it through the night made it better (not).

After an enormous communal breakfast of farm fresh egg frittata and other stuff, I stumbled out to meet my shuttle driver, Don.  The shuttle was expensive ($60) but that is how it’s done in the section hiking biz.  Don was congenial and talkative as we drove to my starting point crossing gravel road VA 611.  He warned me about the weather forecast calling for rain and high winds during the night and suggested that I stay at a shelter.  But the shelters are spaced wrong – one is too close and the next one is too far – so he advised me to camp at Dismal Falls, pitch my tent at the base of the tall rock wall near the base of the falls.  The big concern was a tree falling on me.

When he dropped me off, Don took my photo and then asked me an odd question.  “Have you ever read a book called “Murder On The Appalachian Trail?”  Well, no, Don, and if you are thinking of writing one, everybody knows that you drove me here.  He told me to look it up after my hike.  Gee, I can’t wait.  

Mid-April, a warmish day but the trees were still bare.  I had four miles of smooth strolling, descending down to Lickskillet Hollow, where I crossed VA 608 and trail angels had left a cooler full of (now empty) soda cans. 

The trees were not leafing out yet but wildflowers were emerging.  I think this is anemone hepatica.

White hepatica

Woodpecker buffet

Trail maintainers have also been hard at work, cutting an accommodating step through this downed tree trunk

Another five miles brought me to a suspension bridge over Kimberling Creek.  

Look who I almost stepped on right beside the trail.  I noticed the fat part of this fellow as I stepped within a foot of him.  I didn’t scream or jump, just walked on a few feet past him and then turned around to take a picture.  He was certainly paying attention to me and even rattled the end of his tail at me.  I didn’t know black snakes would do that.

This way to Dismal Falls, a .3-mile side trail.  There were several very nice campsites along the trail down to the falls. 

Plenty of water flowing in Dismal Creek and a robust waterfall

It was only 3:30 p.m., seemed much too early to stop for the day, but I was very concerned about being protected from possible high winds and felt that this was my best option.  I pitched my tent and explored the area but didn’t attempt to cross the creek.  On the far side I could see a couple of footpaths going up the embankment and I spotted a gravel road.  Not a good sign.  Then I noticed a couple of campsites close to the water’s edge and fire rings with trash.  Double not a good sign.  This was a locals hangout.

No one else was around and I was a little bored.  One thru-hiker stopped by, a young guy from Raleigh, NC, but he planned to press on to the next shelter.  After he left I set up my backpacking stove and prepared my delicious Mountain House supper.  While I ate, I heard a car drive nearby, stop, and then voices coming down the path.  Three teenage boys walked down to the creek’s edge, talking loud and laughing.  One pulled off his shorts (had on a bathing suit, thank you Lord), waded into the creek and began to climb the waterfall while his friends took pictures and hollered encouragement.  They saw me sitting by my tent on the other side and waved congenially.  I waved back but got a sinking feeling in my stomach. 

The guys played for a while, then went back to their car and returned with another guy and two dogs.  The dogs ran around but fortunately were not interested in swimming across the creek.  However, two of the guys crossed at the top of the waterfall and said hello again as they came near my camp and crossed back over downstream.  My stomach was still churning.  I decided that if they brought a cooler down from the parking area I would move on.  I even walked back up the trail to look at the campsites I had seen coming in.

After about an hour I decided to pack up.  I didn’t really think the guys would hurt me, but they might think it was funny to come back in the dark and scare me.  They knew I was alone.  I realized I didn’t need to justify leaving to anyone, just followed my gut feeling and moved on. 

I hiked back up to the AT and after another quarter mile I found a nice campsite literally hidden under the rhododendrons, beside the creek, a lovely spot.

I felt cozy and safe and utterly relieved.  I sat creekside and watched the water flow by for more than an hour, almost like meditation, until dusk turned to dark. 

During the night I heard a little thunder, saw a flash or two of lightning, some rain but no wind.  I put in ear plugs and rested well.  Happy birthday to me!

“I try to end each day saying,
‘I am glad I did,’
rather than, ‘I wish I had.’" ~
Barbara J. McMorrow

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”  ~Satchel Paige