Friday, February 21, 2014

AT Project in VA: Government Shutdown

Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 10/6/13 – VA 611 Southbound to VA 615 – 15.9 Miles

Early October, the best month of the year to visit an American national park for the comfortable temperatures, changing leaves and to give thanks for another season.  Shenandoah National Park awaits!

Unless the great American Congress decides to throw a hissy fit and shut down all government functions.  What?  You say that may have unintended consequences?  All actions have consequences, fellas. 

Our plans to spend Jim’s long birthday weekend at Shenandoah NP were scuttled.  We had reservations for a private cabin outside the park and the owner very graciously let us change our dates to the last weekend of October.  Surely by then the government would work out its issues.  The leaf color would be gone but the hiking and biking weather would still be favorable.

For now the national parks and all national public lands were closed.  The Appalachian Trail is a national park but impossible to “close” because of its multiple access points. So where else in Virginia can I get onto the trail?  Well, there’s an obscure section south of Pearisburg where state roads criss-cross the mountain ridges that the AT runs along.   

(By the way, National Forest campgrounds were also closed and day use areas were gated.)

Jim drove me to the area where the AT crosses VA Highway 611 (a gravel road), familiar to me from my first hike of this project when Don the shuttle driver dropped me off and asked me if I had read a book entitled “Murder On The Appalachian Trail.”  This time I intended to hike southbound along Brushy Mountain, cross over I-77 and finish at another gravel road crossing, VA 615.

As I got out of the car at the pull-out I narrowly avoided stepping on a deer carcass, neatly skinned just hours ago.  (I took a photo but have chosen not to include it here.)  The hunters didn’t trouble themselves to throw the remains into the woods.  A bit of a disconcerting start to the day.  For the first mile or so I kept thinking about hunters, swiveling my head around continually to see if I could spot any of them.   Then I convinced myself they don’t walk that far in and relaxed into the hike.  But…why did Jim let me go?  Later he said he was anxious also but reasoned, as I did, that hunters don’t go too far off into the woods.

Hhmmm…a nice warm day in the woods and no spiderwebs.  Are there hunters ahead of me?

The trees enveloped me and I soon was entranced by the familiar but ever- changing trail.  There was lots more color in the depths of the forest than appeared from the road, walking underneath the canopy of reds, yellows, oranges and browns.  I enjoyed nearly 7 miles of gentle undulating ridge walking, no intersections, no points of interest marked on my trail map.  I watched leaves fall and wondered if I was the only human who would take note of them before they turned brown and decomposed and became part of the earth that would generate a new cycle of growth. 

As I passed this lovely yellow tree in the previous picture, I turned around and saw a magnificent spiderweb a couple of feet above my head with a big fat fellow working diligently at his craft.  His movements shook the web but after many attempts I got a decent picture of him.

About 5 miles in, as I sat for a short rest break, a southbound thru-hiker passed by.  I asked if he saw the deer carcass at VA 611 and he said no, but he saw one at the road crossing before that one and he had seen some cross bow hunters earlier in the week.  He continued on past me, but at VA 612 I leapfrogged him and two other southbounders as they ate lunch.  Those two must be the ones who were ahead of me knocking down the spiderwebs.

At VA 612 the AT follows the paved road.  

The overpass for I-77

Target practice

More paved road leads up to cross US 52, then the AT follows a gravel road for a mile or so before dipping back into the woods for the last 6.5 miles of today’s route.  I texted Jim that I was moving fast and would finish early.  He replied that he might not reach our arranged end point before me because he had discovered the valley called Burke’s Garden, a cyclist’s paradise (more on that tomorrow).  

Trail Boss Trail is an old section of the AT named for a former member of the Virginia Tech Outdoor Club and leader of the ATC’s Konnarock trail crew.  You’ve got to do a lot of work to get a trail named after you.

My last couple of miles was a gentle downhill as I strolled to VA 615.  I noted some very nice campsites on the north side of the gravel road.  We were in the market for a campsite for the night since Stoney Fork Campground (part of Washington-Jefferson National Forest) was closed.  Did I mention that there was a government shutdown?

On the south side of VA 615 is Laurel Creek and a huge stone and wood bridge crosses it to continue the AT south- bound.  Jim was there to meet me after all and we relaxed by the creek, evaluating our options for the night.  Jim didn’t want to camp right there, didn’t trust leaving the car by the road.  We went in search of a commercial campground I had found online – Deer Trail Park Campground near Bland, VA, a nice little mom-and-pop operation.  Since it was a Sunday night, we were the only campers.  We set up our tent, took hot showers, and went into the town of Wytheville for supper.

We didn’t prepare as thoroughly for camping as we should.  Jim had no headlamp, no towel, and I forgot flip-flops, a long-sleeved hiking shirt.  I guess we never fully committed before the last-minute change of plans because we kept hoping the shutdown insanity would lift and we could get to our cabin in Shenandoah.  Oh well…

Rain forecast for tomorrow – what to do?

“I am rich today with autumn’s gold.” ~Gladys Harp

Monday, February 17, 2014

Smokies Retreat: Do-Re-Mi

Smokies Retreat – 9/16/13 - Thomas Divide Trail/Stone Pile Gap Trail – 6.2 Miles

Recently I was invited to lead a mid-week hike sponsored by the Friends Of The Smokies.  I snuck away a little early for an extra day and night of serenity in the mountains.  Since I am working on my second go-round of hiking all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains NP, I chose a simple half-day hike to connect a few trails in the Deep Creek area. 

The hike may be interesting if it starts with a hawk feather stuck in a bratwurst at the gate

A short distance from the Thomas Divide Trail trailhead is the well-kept Watson Cemetery (also called the Wiggins Cemetery).  I especially liked the nickname Fate, who probably had some interesting stories to tell.  I hope he had a good 84 years.

 This portion of the Thomas Divide Trail is nothing to write home about, a wide road bed that climbs steeply to the intersection with Indian Creek Motor Trail.  I turned around there, but Thomas Divide continues for another 10 miles all the way Newfound Gap Road.  It’s much more enjoyable when it gets up on the ridge line and narrows down to trail width. 

I backtracked to Stone Pile Gap, a delightful little trail that few people bother with.  Today I had some company.  Forgive me in advance for my appropriation of the “Sound Of Music” selection, I couldn’t help myself.  I hummed the tune for the rest of the day.

Doe, a deer, a female deer

Standing in a Ray of sun

Me as quiet as can be

‘Cause Far away I knew she’d run

So I held my camera high

La …I had to hold my breath…

Has-Ty, she’s going to get away

Then I scored this photo of that Doe
After my hike I set up home-away-from-home in the Deep Creek Campground, almost deserted on a Tuesday.  It was still mid-afternoon.  I dragged my camp chair down to the water, read my book, and perhaps I dozed off.  Nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do.  Sublime.  More people need to try this.  I am certain that this world would be a better place if everyone took a nature break every once in a while.

"Keep close to nature's heart, yourself; and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."  ~John Muir  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

AT Project in VA: Accidents Happen

Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 9/1/13 – Labor Day Weekend – VA 613 to VA 630 – 14.2 miles

Thick fog is the nemesis of a great hike or bike ride:  Will I get to see the view (hike) and will I be seen by motorists (bike)?  How long will it take to dissipate and is it worth the risk to even begin?

We woke up to a blank slate outside our hotel room window and a dismal weather forecast.  I certainly didn’t want Jim on a bike in those conditions and I didn’t particularly want to hike all day in rain and fog while he waited for me.  So we ate the free breakfast, dilly-dallied around…and does the sky seem a little lighter now?  Jim convinced me to shorten my hike so as not to lose the whole day, offering to drop me off at the start, drive to the end and hike in to meet me (no biking for him).  As we drove out, the fog seemed to be lifting and I ultimately decided to go with my original planned route.  It would mean a late drive back home, but hey, we’re already here…

The access point was on VA 613, gravel Mountain Lake Road, and the end point was where I started yesterday in Sinking Creek Valley, so hiking trail north.  This section is part of Mountain Lake Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in Jefferson National Forest.  Its main feature is Mountain Lake (formerly called Salt Pond), the only natural lake in western Virginia, fed by underground springs and known for its cyclical emptying and filling over years.  We drove by the lake, lately looking pretty empty, but it is said to be filling up again.  There is a lovely resort with a stone lodge and cabins that was used as one of the locations for the filming of the movie “Dirty Dancing.” 

On the drive we noted about a dozen well-worn pickup trucks at various pull-offs.  It’s not hunting season yet but perhaps some dogs are out for some practice?

Very close to the road crossing is Wind Rock, a nice view out over Stony Creek Valley (see, the fog did lift!), then I enjoyed a nice walk along Potts Mountain.  The AT blazes are important through wilderness areas as the trail crosses many old woods roads and other trails.  It seemed to me that the mileages on the trail signs didn’t match up with those listed in my AT guidebook, so I was mindful to check often to keep my bearings straight.  

Cameras set up by the Virginia Tech Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society to capture wildlife movements.

Ferns lining the way

My noisy presence flushed out several deer.  Two were about 30 yards off the trail, but one was a fawn with white spots that attempted to hide in the underbrush very near the trail, but got spooked when I passed within a few feet and bolted.  Didn’t see a mama anywhere. 

‘Tis the season for fungi

After the pleasant walk I endured a steep downhill to War Spur Shelter, time for an energy bar break because I see what’s coming next…

…a brutal climb for a mile up to Rocky Gap where the trail crosses gravel VA 601.  On the way I knocked down many spiderwebs, including one that enveloped my face like a shroud and caused me to dance a jig while trying to scrape it off.  Thickest spiderweb I’ve ever encountered.  YUCK.

At 601 I ran across several pickup trucks and their friendly owners standing around, and a little girl about 6 years old.  They were obviously waiting for something.  One fellow asked me in a casual-but-not-really voice:  "Seen any snakes or bears or dogs around?"  Answer:  "Nope."  As I had guessed earlier, they were (illegally) running their dogs with radio collars to practice for hunting season.

The ascent wasn’t finished yet.  I had another half-mile and 500 feet elevation gain, this time an old jeep road full of half-buried large rocks and small boulders.   Reminded me of the Spy Rock road approach to the AT. 

Cardinal flower

Erect goldenrod

A very nice bridge

Around this time, 8.5 miles in, I started anticipating Jim catching up to me.  I had told him that if a shelter or viewpoint was not within sight along the trail (i.e. I couldn't see the item of interest) that I wouldn't stop at it but would stay on the AT.  I passed the side trail to Kelly Knob, a major feature of this section.  As I continued on and still didn’t meet Jim, I began to second guess that maybe he had detoured there and we missed each other.  I stopped for another rest break.  Soon after, I met two hikers coming from the end where Jim would have started.  They asked if I was Sharon and told me that Jim had stopped to help an injured hiker and he would meet me at our designated ending point. 

Good to know!

I picked up my pace a little, kept churning out miles, passed the side trail to Laurel Creek Shelter without stopping.  Another couple met me with the same message and a few more details, that Jim was taking an injured hiker to the hospital.

Well, that could take a while.   By now it was raining and I wasn’t sure where Jim would be when I finished.  There was no cell phone coverage.  The surest plan was for me to wait where the car was supposed to be and eventually Jim would return.  I assumed the injured person was able to walk out with assistance so hopefully it wasn’t too serious.  (Turns out she was a woman in her 60’s hiking with her son in his 30’s on day one of a week-long backpack trip.  She slipped and fell at a low stream crossing and cut her hand.  I realized later I had slipped at the same crossing.)

The trail opened up from woods to pasture and I saw Jim walking in to meet me with a bottle of Diet Mountain Dew (aka nectar of the hiking gods).   As the trail wound through the pasture toward the next road crossing it became boggy and then just a small pond about ankle deep, no way to avoid wet feet.  Jim had parked at this road crossing, Hwy 42, to intercept me, and then I continued on the last mile to our original meeting place.  

Day's end - or not?

We drove back toward Blacksburg.  Once we returned to cell phone range, Jim called the injured hiker’s son for an update on her condition and learned that she had 18 stitches in her hand.  There was no way for her to continue their week-long trip that they had been planning for a year.  Also, they had been dropped off by a shuttle driver that morning and had no way of getting back to their car about 60 miles away in Daleville, so we completed our good deed by retrieving them at the hospital and driving them to their car.  I would want someone to do that for me. 

Hiking today was the right decision after all.

“I cannot do all the good that the world needs.  But the world needs all the good that I can do.”  ~Jana Stanfield