Tuesday, July 29, 2014

AT Project in VA: New Personal Record Yogi Berra Style

Appalachian Trail Project in VA - 5/25/14 - Morgan Mill Stream to Jim & Molly Denton Shelter – 22 miles

On the trail very early, before 7:00 a.m., 16.2 miles to cover today to Manassas Gap Shelter.  Two more ups-and-downs right out of camp, no easing into it, and we reached the southern end of the Roller Coaster.  There was still significant elevation coming, but the climbs are more gradual with luxurious flat stretches to lollygag on.  We paused at the side trail to Rod Hollow Shelter, where we could have pressed on to last night, and talked to the last people leaving there.  Sounded like it was a full house and I’m glad we opted for a quiet campsite beside a babbling creek.

Through a wet boggy area

Daisy fleabane

Rue anemone

On the AT through northern Virginia there is some noted feature about every half mile, and if you are the type of hiker that likes to keep track of your progress this is a dream section.  If you like solitude and a wilderness ain’t-nobody-ever-been-here-but-me feeling, you will be miserable.  I am more of the former, keeping an eye on the clues, but I also appreciate hiking alone in my zone.  Cathy and Anonymous stayed ahead of me and out of earshot all day, but I was only a few minutes behind every stop, and I thoroughly enjoyed the pace.  Crossing streams and roads and connecting side trails kept me oriented and wildflowers and rock walls kept me entertained. 

South of Ashby Gap (crossing US 50/17) the trail wanders into open meadows on a rutted road bed.  Ahead of me I could see a trail sign (couldn’t read it yet) and a trail coming in from the left.  This is the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail, which leads east to Sky Meadows State Park and gives easy access to the AT.  As I approached this intersection I noted other hikers, including three young men accompanied by a large unleashed dog and a couple walking toward them with a dog on-leash.  Something told me to slow down…sure enough, the unleashed dog attacked the other, whether in play or in earnest, I don’t know.  I heard lots of growling and barking and yelling.  The owners sorted the animals out, but I could see the law-abiding (aka leashed) dog owners were not happy with the clueless guys (who subsequently leashed their dog...I mean, why carry the thing and not use it?) 

Three-quarters of a mile farther I reached the main side trail to Sky Meadows Visitor Center, where the three of us had planned to meet up.  The bench was occupied and there were perhaps a dozen people congregating, but no Cathy and Anon, so I kept walking.  Probably they didn’t want to stand around with everyone and were just around the bend.  But I kept walking, walking, walking…surely they are still ahead of me.  Suddenly Cathy appeared walking toward me, a little bit kerfuffled because Anonymous wasn’t anywhere to be found. 

Within a few minutes we heard Anon calling and we were reunited.  He had unintentionally turned onto Ambassador Whitehouse Trail, making a mile detour for himself.  But he said the view was great!

One more mile and we reached Signal Knob parking area, significant because here marked Cathy’s completion of her 17-mile “missing link”.  She’s completed half of the Appalachian Trail!  And a trail angel had left a cooler of icy Gatorade. 

At 3:30 p.m. we reached our stopping point for the day, Manassas Gap Shelter.  Given our early start and with one eye on my watch and one eye on the trail map all day, I suspected that we would arrive very early and have a decision to make.  While 16 miles is a respectable distance for a backpacker, stopping at 3:30 p.m. with 5 hours of daylight to kill was not optimal.  So far the hiking had been moderate and my feet/legs/back felt pretty good.  We decided to push on another 5.5 miles to the next shelter.  Knowing that my personal distance record (with just a daypack) was 20 miles in the Great Smoky Mountains, this was a challenge to set a new personal best.

Still, Manassas Gap Shelter was a good enough place to take a break, put down the backpacks, use the privy and sit down for a few minutes.  But who is that walking up to the shelter?  Some familiar faces!  Brandon, from our Glacier NP trip, and his girlfriend Kris, a fellow Berg Wanderer, were visiting family in the area and squeezing in a dayhike on the AT.  Five minutes later and we would have missed each other. 

Another random stone wall


Throughout the day we encoun- tered northbound thru-hikers with regularity.  Near Manassas Gap (VA 55) we met a young man hiking with his favorite female companion, said she does very well when they take good rest breaks (don’t we all?)

Cathy and Anonymous following the white blazes under I-66

The last three miles of the day wound in and out of the woods, through open pastures, over railroad tracks, on footbridges and boardwalks over Goose Creek and up one more big climb (then down, of course, and a little bit more uphill) to Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. 

The shelter’s reputation precedes it, boasting a big front deck with Adirondack chairs, a separate covered pavilion with a fire ring, two levels of bunks, and a solar shower.  All true.  By 6:30 p.m. when we rolled in the shelter was nearly filled, room for Cathy and Anonymous to squeeze in, while I preferred to pitch my tent in a quiet spot.  The spring was a bit of a walk up the hill (aren’t I spoiled?) but otherwise it was a welcome respite at the end of my new longest day on the (any) trail.

Supper and a cuppa tea.  Ahhhhh.

"Congratulations. I knew the record would stand until it was broken."  ~Yogi Berra

Monday, July 28, 2014

AT Project in VA: The Roller Coaster

Appalachian Trail Project in VA – VA/WV Border Southbound to Morgan Mill Stream - 5/24/14 – 10 Miles

How many reasons do we need to go back- packing on Memorial Day Weekend?  

(1)    Just two more weeks until Cathy and I leave for Peru and intense training is needed
(2)    Cathy is missing a mere 17-mile stretch in Virginia to claim completing the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, GA to Pine Furnace State Park, PA
(3)    Good weather window
(4)    We feel like it!

Cathy and I and a hiker whom we'll call "Anonymous" left Charlotte at 5:30 a.m. for a six-hour, no-room-for-detours rendezvous with our shuttle driver at noon.  Some background in the “isn’t that interesting” category:  Our shuttle driver, Tom Johnson, is very talkative and informative, old enough for retirement but still works for a contractor on jobs for the CIA (so he can’t name his employer).  Earlier in his career he worked directly for the CIA and wrote a report in several volumes about the NSA’s Cold War spying (American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945-1989, partially released about six years ago).  Even better, Tom is an avid hiker, the current secretary for American Hiking Society and maintains a 3.5-mile section of the AT.  He knew right where I wanted to start our hike, as close as possible to the WV-VA state line, and took us there via beautiful country roads, entertaining us with tales of spying and hiking.  What a combination!  We hadn’t walked one step and it was already an awesome day.

Tom dropped us off at the American communication tower, a .25-mile side trail intersecting the AT.  Judging from the number of cars parked helter-skelter along the road, we knew we were in the right place.  Although 99% of the people would walk no further than Raven Rocks, we were ready to hop on the famous Roller Coaster of the AT, a 13.5-mile section of non-stop ascents and descents.  Each one separately is not strenuous, 300 feet up, 200 feet down, 500 feet up, 300 feet down, but strung together relentlessly for 13.5 miles adds up to a lot of elevation change and makes for tired hikers.

First stop, Raven Rocks, a dozen+ people sitting, standing and avoiding the edge.  A great first photo, then moving on.

Oops, walked right past the VA/WV State Line.  Cathy had to point it out or I would have missed it

Cathy and Anonymous stepping carefully over one of many streams

At Snickers Gap, three miles into our hike, we crossed busy roads VA 7 and VA 679 - not too much wilderness here in Northern VA.  A half-mile further we passed the side trail to Bears Den Hostel, a popular thru-hiker stop.  A furry bearded backpacker was leaning on the sign at the intersection and as I passed him he said, “You’re the best thing I’ve seen all day!”  I said, “Well, you must have just started out!”  Nope, he had completed 18 miles and was looking forward to a big meal and a soft dry bunk.

At Bears Den Rocks we stopped for a quick lunch.  We had only hiked 4 miles but we had left home 9 hours ago, so our food intake timing was a little off.  We chatted with a 40-something mom cringing as she watched these two young fellows playing in the rocks.  Did I wince when my kids jumped off things and got scraped knees?  The world seems different now, parents are more risk-averse.  It is well documented that children spend less time outside now and their playtime is more closely supervised than in generations past.  What are the consequences of that?  Read Last Child In The Woods by Richard Louv.

Weaving in and out of boulders as we go up and down the Roller Coaster – ten peaks in ten miles.

A lesson in poison ivy and Virginia creeper:  poison ivy has 3 leaves and will give you an itchy rash.  Virginia creeper has 5 leaves and is harmless.  They love to grow together and climb trees.  They both turn a lovely red-orange color in the fall. 

Testing, testing:  which is which?

Although seemingly plentiful, good camping spots and shelters are not always where you want them to be on the AT.  Our stopping point for the day was at a campsite near Morgan Mill Stream designated in The A.T. Guide about 10 miles from our start.  Ten miles may not seem like much of a hike, but after a seven-hour car ride I knew that would be my limit.  We reached our campsite at about 7:00 p.m. and I was not agreeable to hiking another 3+ miles to a shelter.  As we looked over the site, it appeared to be seldom used and sloping toward the creek.  After a lot of searching and moving fallen branches and debris, we each found a sliver of almost-level ground to put up our tents. 

Anonymous got the best spot

During our cooking and eating and house- keeping chores a pair of young back- packers arrived and set up camp.  As dusk descended, I called it a day and retired to my pink fortress to practice sliding sideways down the slope throughout the night.  As I drifted off, I heard Cathy laughing as she and Mike played cards…Tomorrow is going to be a BIG day.

 “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” ~Nelson Mandela

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Glassy Mountains, Goats & Poetry - Where Am I?

Big Glassy Mountain & Carl Sandburg Home – 5/2/14 – 4.5 Miles

Time to do my part for my local hiking club, Carolina Berg Wanderers, and offer to lead an easy hike.  Let’s see, where can I find an interesting attraction, not too far to drive to and from and return home with some afternoon hours left over?  Flipping through Danny Bernstein’s books again, I found just the ticket in Hiking The Carolina Mountains:  The Carl Sandburg Home.

Carl Sandburg was a renowned American author and poet, awarded three Pulitzer Prizes (two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln).  Born in Illinois in 1878, he and his wife Lilian ultimately moved to a rural home property called Connemara in Flat Rock, North Carolina, now known as the Carl Sandburg Home, a National Historic Site.  There they raised their daughters while Carl pursued his writing and Lilian operated a very successful  goat dairy farm.  Shortly after Carl’s death in 1967 Lilian generously gave the property to become a National Park Service unit.  The home is preserved almost exactly as the Sandburgs left it, piles of books on nearly every surface, cigars in the ash tray and Lilian’s purse on a chair.  In addition to a hike on the property, our group toured the house and the still-operating goat farm.

Read more about the Carl Sandburg Home here. 

Our destination was about a two-hour drive, arriving about 10:00 a.m.  From the parking area it’s a short walk to the edge of Front Lake and a first view of the house perched on top of its little mountain.  Disclaimer:  intermittent rain began the moment we got out of the car so I didn’t pull my camera out for key moments such as this.  I scavenged this sunny photo from the website.

We walked around one side of Front Lake and then turned left toward the house.  At the Menninger Loop Trail we turned left again and began the gradual climb around one side of Little Glassy Mountain.  Halfway along this trail we turned right on Little Glassy Mountain Trail to go to the summit (no view).  (Imagine a stretched out oval shape with a line through the middle of it.  Halfway along the middle line is the top of Little Glassy.) 

The big excitement was pink lady slippers, bunches of them, more than I’ve ever seen on one hike.

More pink ladies

We continued on Little Glassy Mountain Trail to the opposite end of Menninger Trail, turning left once again toward our main destination, Big Glassy Mountain.  The rain continued to come in short bursts and leaves were dripping, yet it was too warm to walk with rain gear.  Gonna get wet no matter what. 

New mountain laurel growth – love the bright spring green against the dark green old growth

Another 1.25 miles brought us to the summit of Big Glassy Mountain at a whopping 2,783 feet.  Here we had a view…of the black clouds gathering.  I think it was about this time that we heard thunder.  We edged back into the trees and ate a quick lunch as the rain began to increase.

View from Big Glassy with flowering black cherry tree

Fringe tree blooming

Shortleaf pine, new cones emerging

Time to put the camera away and go tour the house and grounds.  Flip through the photo gallery here on the website to see what we saw.

A baby goat from Connemara Farms Goat Dairy

“A rainy day is the perfect time for a walk in the woods.”  ~Rachel Carson

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Linville Falls Day

Linville Falls Day – 5/2/14 – 4.2 Miles

So I’ve paid good money down for a four-day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru in early June.  I’ve seen the pictures of the steep stone steps, heard some stories, and I need to do some training.  Being the goal-setter and list-checker-offer that I am, the motivation for me wasn’t just “get on the stairmaster.”  I challenged myself to run/walk/hike 100 miles in May.  That’s only 3 miles a day, right? 

And I’ll choose hiking whenever I can.  Itching to get on a trail somewhere on a Friday, I thumbed through Danny Bernstein’s guidebook, Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and found her writeup of Linville Falls.  Went there years ago with small kids in tow.  Time to go again. 

Linville Falls is accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Milepost 316.4 and marks the beginning of the Linville Gorge Wilderness, part of Pisgah National Forest.  The Gorge itself is 12 miles long and 1,400 feet deep with steep cliffs.  There are many hiking trails, most unsigned as per wilderness regulations, and it’s easy to get lost.  I've hiked along its eastern rim on the Mountains-To-Sea Trail and gotten "very confused for a while."  However, the Linville Falls vicinity is well-signed and heavily used. 

From the Visitor Center (closed today – no funding?) the Linville Falls Trail goes right and crosses the Linville River on a wide concrete bridge.  From there three side trails to the left go to different viewpoints.

The Upper Falls View

Chimney View

Painted trilliums along the trail

Erwin’s View.  The calendar says early May but spring hasn’t quite sprung here.  This view during fall color is epic.

Lots of people around today, including two families with a crew of seven very small children.  Home schoolers?   I also passed a busload of Hispanic children and adults.  School field trip?  The kids were full of energy, running up the trail, hiding behind trees.  I hope their adults caught up to them before they reached the overlooks. 

Back at the Visitor Center, the trail to the left leads to the Plunge Basin Overlook and then down to the Linville River’s edge.  I encountered only one person on this section.  The trail to the Plunge Basin is moderate.  Then continuing on the Linville Gorge Trail down to the river, the going is much rougher and steeper with a little bit of rock scrambling, giving an idea of the character of the backcountry trails. 

Plunge Basin Overlook

Zooming in – see how the powerful water has carved into the rock before spilling out into the pool

Ladder on the trail to the river.  Once I reached the water’s edge, I carefully picked my way around and over large boulders to get as close to the waterfall as possible.

Front row seat.  What a wonderful place to be on a warm spring day!

After a lovely day on the trails, driving home was pure punishment, brutal workday afternoon traffic.  Note to self:  never to try to re-enter urban life on a weekday.  Next time I’ll take a tent.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in tune once more.”  ~John Burroughs