Monday, February 10, 2014

AT Project in VA: Sinking Creek Mountain & The Keffer Oak



Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 8/31/13 – Labor Day Weekend – VA 630 to Craig Creek Road – 10.5 miles

Glacier National Park was great but there’s no place like home, Dorothy!  And I have a personal hiking challenge to continue pursuing and a helpful husband willing to go along.  So just a few days after arriving home from The West, a plan hatched – starting with Virginia Tech football.  See, the Hokies were playing Alabama at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday and we didn’t have tickets.  What is the next best place to watch the game?  At Hokie House in Blacksburg, VA.  And what is near Blacksburg?  That’s right – the Appalachian Trail.

Very early on Saturday morning, with Jim’s bike and my backpack in the car, we drove the scenic route to one of the many places where the AT crosses the back roads between Pearisburg and Roanoke, VA.  We love cruising these country roads past farms and fields, me gazing at the nostalgic scenery and Jim evaluating the asphalt rolling up and down with the ungraded terrain.  A good old-fashioned road map is essential because a GPS won’t find a pull-off on narrow pavement after the third one-lane-wide bridge crossing.  Since we’re starting a little late in the morning and hoping to finish in time for a shower before kickoff, a 10-mile hike seemed just about right.  And while I’m hiking Jim will be pedaling past the pastures.

Thar she goes, hiking trail north – right?

The late summer flower show was in full swing both overhead and underfoot

Lobelia

Wingstem or yellow ironweed

At the first half-mile I reached a majestic old sentinel of the forest called the Keffer Oak.  Named for Rex Keffer, a former landowner, the oak is one of the largest living trees on the AT, estimated to be more than 300 years old and between 18 and 20 feet in circumference.  Nobody here to take a picture of me beside it, but its size in relation to the fence says it all.  My hiker friend Judy likes to hug big trees and thank them, so I patted old Keffer and thought of her.

Next the trail passed through open pasture with stiles over fences (no cows today but evidence that this was their territory) and entered the woods again at the base of Sinking Creek Mountain, where it switchbacked steadily up, passing under power lines where more field flowers bloomed in profusion.

New York ironweed

A thistle makes a good rest stop

Whorled wood aster






The climb felt great, all that Glacier condition- ing paying off, heart pumping, legs working, sweat dripping, soaking wet (sounds like fun so far?)  At the top I settled into the rhythm of a long ridge walk along Sinking Creek Mountain, called an unofficial continental divide because the waters that flow down the western side of the ridge flow via Sinking Creek Valley and the New River, ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico, while the waters that course down the eastern side enter Craig Creek, combine with the James River and eventually reach the Atlantic Ocean.  Isn’t nature perfect?  

Don't have an explanation for this stuff laying beside the trail - I guess someone will be less comfy tonight?

Along the ridge I passed a pile of rocks, not randomly scattered but inten- tional…then another… then another.  My ATC Trail Guide calls this area Bruisers Knob and explains that farmers cleared fields on the mountaintop, stacking them to make way for crops and for other uses.  I’ve seen long stacked stone walls and fences in the woods before, but not dozens of piles of rocks in such close proximity. 

Some stacks were quite neat, as though they had been completed recently.

Very early fall color

Hikers have strong opinions about Sarver Shelter.  I had planned to stop at the shelter for lunch, but the distance from the trail and the commentary convinced me to continue to a more inviting location.  With a growling stomach I walked on. 

Soon a view opened up as I climbed up a 10-foot rock scramble onto a slanting rock ledge, and as I glanced left I saw the black body of an animal – a dog?  No, its hind foot clearly looked like a hand, not a dog’s paw  – a bear!  Not a cub, but not super large either.  Its rear end was toward me and I don’t think it detected me.  I slowly inched forward as the bear walked around a curve in the rock.  (No photos, just trust me.)

I sat down right there to eat lunch.  Let’s give the bear time to move on – and hope his mama and siblings aren’t here for the buffet. 

A hazy long distance view into Craig Creek Valley

This rock slope continued on for a couple hundred yards with small trees popping out here and there and many white asters and yellow late summer flowers.  Lizards darted around and I was startled by an owl taking off close by, unusual for the middle of the day.

At the end of the ridge, the AT gently and steadily sloped downward.  I lost track of my progress a little because I couldn’t find a particular stream crossing noted on the AT guide.  Finally I concluded that it was dried up here in late summer. 

Speaking of late summer, the fungus crop was gearing up – this is chicken of the woods, easy to
identify and very edible



It wasn’t until I passed the Niday Shelter that I got re-oriented to my route and knew that I was about a mile from the parking area on Craig Creek Road where Jim was waiting for me.  (An interesting side note:  back in June 2011 I set up as a trail angel at this road crossing, handing out doughnuts, bananas, soft drinks, etc.  I even had a couple of comfy tailgating chairs for hikers to rest a while and I collected their trash.  It was a little late in the thru-hiker season, but about a dozen hikers stopped and chatted.  Fun stuff.)

Half a mile to go and the thunder began to rumble so I picked up my pace.  As I put my pack and poles in the car, large raindrops began to plop plop plop.  Perfect timing.  Ready for a shower, a beer, a burger and a kickoff.

(P.S.  Jim had a biking adventure that included a flat tire, a lift in a pickup truck and some good old country boys.)


"What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it's all about?"

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