first overnight excursion was a two-day, two-night hike from Washington Monument
to Harpers Ferry and due to the fact we were still a bit unsure of ourselves,
Georgia did a recon mission the day before to confirm parking spots for our two
cars at either end of the trail. (pretty anal, huh?) Labor Day weekend came, and
we were off on our new adventure. Since we live relatively close to Harpers
Ferry, we drove there on Thursday evening and dropped off one of our cars at the
visitor center parking lot. It didn’t seem to be that far from the center of
town but it somehow moved unbelievably far away from town between Friday and
Sunday; which I will elaborate on later.
We had made dinner plans for Labor Day with friends so we knew that our
hike could not be as relaxed as we would ultimately find it needed to be. We
left from the Washington Monument parking lot on Friday evening and experienced
a rather easy hike, complete with deer right in front of us on the trail.
dusk we arrived at the Dahlgren camping area, one of, if not the only,
campground right on the AT that has showers. Obviously we took advantage of this
amenity and then set up our tent and ate dinner just before an evening shower
hit. There is nothing as cool as lying in your tent at night, after hiking all
day, and listening to the soothing tempo of rain beating on your tent. After the
rain stopped, the sky cleared and we spent the rest of the evening under a
gorgeous full moon. It made for a memorable first night on the trail. Several
other groups of campers also arrived just before the storm and their choices of
gear were as varied as their personalities. One group was made up of those
rugged individualists who simply crawl into a sleeping bag and cover their heads
with a small tarp and another was a family who brought enough equipment for 10
people. It was obvious that they had parked at a nearby trailhead and had not
walked too far because with the amount of equipment they had they would have
needed pack mules to survive a hike of any distance. Hitting the trail early the
next morning we walked through areas where the rhododendrons towered overhead
and babbling streams ran right alongside the trail. This is something that only
God could create and we were humbled to be able to spend time taking it all in.
All the stresses of everyday living were quickly gone and, as we walked, we
simply marveled at the scenery around us and talked about everything under the
of the wonderful things about the Maryland/Virginia/WV sections of the trail is
the many monuments and markers related to the Civil War battles that took place
along the trail. Hiking these sections is not only a chance to see spectacular
views but to relive history as you hike. You feel as if you are walking back in
time and that you are a part of the actual battles that took place there. As we
walked through Gathland State Park, which is an area a few miles south of the
Dahlgren camping area, we came across a huge memorial to the many news
correspondents who died while reporting on the war. These were probably the
first “embedded” war correspondents who reported from the front lines
without the aid of cell phones, email or satellite uplinks; just paper and pen.
the day wore on we began to realize that, with the increase in the temperature
and humidity, that fatigue was starting to set in rather quickly but we toughed
it out and arrived at the Crampton Gap shelter late in the afternoon. Since we
had quite a bit of time on our hands and were low on water, we set up camp and
then hiked the .25 mile back to Gathland State Park to refill our water supply.
While there, we took advantage of the several vending machines located there and
bought a couple of sodas and juice. Boy did they taste great! After taking some
photos and looking at the historical markers at the park, we headed back to our
campsite where we ate and turned in early. One of the interesting things about
backpacking is that, with no TVs, VCRs or other electronic diversions, you tend
to go to bed right about when the sun goes down (we call it “hiker’s
midnight”) and are generally up as the sun rises. For me, this was a major
paradigm shift seeing that I am a night person and I generally get my second
wind at about 9:00 p.m. But, with all the physical exertion of hiking, going to
sleep at 7:00 p.m. felt pretty natural and extremely welcome.
next day the heat and humidity persisted and as we came upon Weaverton Cliffs,
we knew if we didn’t pace ourselves and take more frequent rest stops the last
few hours were going to be brutal. We also knew that we had a deadline to keep
and that fact made us push harder than we should have. Note:
always give yourself more time than you anticipate so you can take the rest
stops that your body requires when it needs them. We were in such a hurry that
we didn’t even stop to enjoy the spectacular view from Weaverton Cliffs and we
did not take the few minutes to take the blue blaze trail to the Ed Garvey
Shelter. This shelter was so new that it did not appear on our map but later we
heard from other hikers that it is a truly spectacular shelter and we should not
have missed experiencing it.
we came down the numerous, knee-crunching switchbacks from Weaverton Cliffs to
the C&O Canal Towpath, we looked forward to a few hours of walking on the
flat, just to get our confidence back and give our legs a break. At the bottom
of the mountain we met a British couple who were on their way up. We chatted for
awhile and gave them some insight on what they had to look forward to heading up
to the cliffs. We did not give these folks much thought; just two other hikers
out of the many we saw on the trail. However, a week later we ran into these
same folks at our favorite local trail outfitters. We had never met them before
Weaverton Cliffs and will probably never meet them again but out of all the
people we met on the trail, we saw these folks twice in one a week AND they
lived not far from us in Maryland. What a small world.
as for the C&O Canal Towpath. For those of you who might think, like we did,
that walking on a flat unobstructed trail like the C&O Canal Towpath is a
“walk in the park”, guess again. Besides being visually boring and crowded
with local walkers and bikers, walking on sun-drenched, hard-packed sand is
brutal on your feet. We decided that we would rather walk on a rocky ridgeline
trail any day. The repetition of the impact on our feet, legs and backs hastened
the fatigue we were feeling and even a lunch break, where we stretched out on
our sleeping pads, did not offer the relief we needed. Marathon runners call it
“the wall”; that
LESSON LEARNED: We will take the shuttle next time!
World we all share is given to us in trust. Every choice we make regarding the
earth, air, and water around us should be made with the objective of preserving
it for all generations to come.”
October we set out to explore the 10-mile section of the AT from Wolfesville
Road to the Rte. 70 crossing near Greenbriar State Park. With the cooler
weather, we experienced just a wonderful “walk in the woods” though I was
still fighting cramping in my feet from ill-fitting boots. We can not stress
strongly enough how important it is to have boots that fit you perfectly but if
you have short, wide feet and as many other foot problems as I have, locating a
great fitting boot can be frustrating. Finally, during a trip to Boulder, CO, in
2005, we visited a Montbell outfitters and I found a pair of Lowa boots that fit
me great and that I had never seen this model in any store before or since. I
also found, at a local HTO store a pair of Salomons that fit great as well. 2005
was a great year for boots, it seems but needing 5 years to find a pair of great
fitting boots was a bit frustrating.
Two of the
great viewpoints on this stretch of the AT are Black Rock and Annapolis Rocks.
On a clear day, at either of these places, you can see for “hundreds of
miles”. We were blessed with awesome weather so the views were awe-inspiring.
Unfortunately, because Annapolis Rocks is so close to a trailhead, it is
frequented by a multitude of day hikers on weekends. Finding the solitude there
that we so desired was a rarity. In fact, this area is so heavily used that in
late 2003 the camping area was closed down and moved to a different location
until the fauna could regenerate itself.
time getting boots that fit!
ask for a light load, but rather ask for a strong back.”
It is not very often that we get to New Jersey or New York, so our hikes
on the AT there have been, thus far, non-existent. But with my daughter,
Harmony, graduating from Concordia College, we chose this as an opportune time
to make a side trip, though a rather long one, to the Delaware Water Gap to hike
the AT to Mt. Minci.
Since this town has plenty of places to stay, eat and re-stock we
took a cursory drive through town and then located the local post office in case
we needed to use it for a future mail drop. Since the weather was beginning to
turn toward the cool and wet side, we visited the local outfitters, The Pack
Shack where Georgia picked up a fleece pullover. We then went to Wal-Mart to get
a daypack and 2 ponchos just in case it rained. Then we were off to locate The
Church of the Mountain. This facility is a welcome haven for thru-hikers with a
place for them to sleep downstairs and an open invitation to attend Sunday
services, despite the fact that their smell might be anything other than holy.
Several years ago we provided some funds to this church so they could upgrade
their hiker amenities so it was neat to finally see the place knowing that we
may very well be stopping there in 2006.
off to locate the trailhead for a leisurely 5-mile round trip walk. What
immediately struck us was the rhododendron that lined the entire trail and we
soon came across two waterfalls, one of which was part of Eureka Creek. We also
came upon a small lake and beside it was a memorial for a young man from
Delaware Water Gap, PA who evidently was a marine killed in Iraq on March 4,
2004. This was a sobering reminder that life on the trail can insolate you from
the goings-on in the world but, at some point, you are wrenched back to reality,
be it good or bad.
we climbed higher we came to the Council Rock overlook where we took a short
break to view Delaware River below and the spectacular mountains on other side
of The Gap. We had lunch at the top of the trail and, since this is a very
popular venue for day hikers, we ran into quiet a number of people out enjoying
the beautiful weather.
had lunch at the top of the trail and headed back down. We made exceptionally
good time, considering the many breaks we took (2 hours), and most of the trail,
though steadily up, was easy hiking except for one spot near the top that was
virtually straight up.
now had one more section of the AT that we could check off our list. Oh, that
not consist in pastimes and amusements but in virtuous activities."
Gathland State Park is one of our favorite places to hike to, or from,
because of its rich Civil War history and the many informational plaques that
surround the area next to the Gapland House. Even if you are not a hiker, this
is a great place to visit, have a picnic lunch and visit the museum there, in
season. Gathland State Park was once the mountain
home of George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War journalist. It is the site of a
unique collection of buildings and structures that he designed and constructed,
some of which have been restored. A large, stone monument dedicated to war
correspondents is an outstanding attraction at this day use park. The park
includes all of Crampton's Gap, which was the southern most gap fought over
during the battle of South Mountain. Fought September 14, 1862, it was the first
major battle of the Civil War fought in Maryland. Gathland State Park is located
in Washington and Frederick counties, one mile west of Burkittsville, off MD
We left Gathland State Park early on Saturday morning for a brisk walk
to Weaverton Cliffs. When we say
brisk, we are not kidding. It was so cold that the water in the hoses of our
hydration packs immediately froze and we had to stop to figure out a way to
alleviate this problem. After thawing out the hoses with our hands, we decided
to stick them inside our coats to keep them from re-freezing.
This was actually our first cold weather hike so we were trying
out some of the new winter clothing we had just purchased. Our Patagonia R-1
pants along with silk long johns and wind-stopper balaclavas, work fantastic and
we were comfortable and warm all day. We highly recommend all of these garments
for cold weather trips. We arrived at Weaverton Cliffs, overlooking Harper’s
Ferry at lunchtime and we searched for a convenient place, out of the wind, to
eat our lunch. The views from this overlook are absolutely spectacular and as
many times as we have been to this spot, we are repeatedly blown away by how
magnificent they are. This is another place that even non-hikers can enjoy since
it is a relatively short walk from Harper’s Ferry although it is a very steep
ascent and descent.
As soon as we finished lunch, we headed back the way we came, past
Gathland State Park and on to Crampton Gap Shelter where we planned to set up
our new REI Quarter Dome tent and spend the night. We made a quick stop at the
Garvey Shelter, since we had never seen it before and it was everything that
people had raved about. When we arrived at Crampton Gap, we were fortunate that
there was no one else in the shelter that night because we were totally
unsuccessful in setting up the new tent. Whether or not it was a design flaw we
were never able to determine. But, we just could not get the front ends of the
poles into the grommets in the straps on the front corners. We were assured,
during a subsequent call to REI, that there was nothing wrong with the tent,
though they also found it extremely difficult to set the poles. Georgia later
modified these straps, making them an inch longer, and we have had no problems
since. Since we could not get the tent set up we relegated ourselves to spending
the night in the shelter which, as it turned out, was a very pleasant
experience. We are so glad that we took this tent on a trial run before we took
it out on the trail for an extended period.
This trip was also a chance to try out some of Georgia’s latest
dehydrated concoctions. For dinner we had dehydrated spaghetti sauce with that
ole’ trail staple, Ramen noodles. It was awesome. Along with that we had hot
cocoa and sugar free chocolate pudding and by the time the sun started to set we
were full, content and ready to call it a day. Our new Marmot helium EQ bags
were the bomb and we were cozy and warm all night despite the cold temperatures.
On Sunday morning we left early for the Tumbling Run Shelter and
it was a absolutely beautiful walk, though very rocky. We made some stops at the
various overlooks, took numerous pictures and then headed to what we knew would
be the most difficult last mile of this journey; the steep and rocky descent
down Lambs Knoll. Now there was a time, not so long ago, when we were adamantly
opposed to using hiking poles. Why carry that extra weight and add the extra
physical exertion of picking them up and putting them down at every step? At one
point, we made the conscious decision to give them a try and now would never go
out without them. The incline down Lambs Knoll was a prime example of why hiking
poles are a good thing. This section is incredibly steep, narrow and is
comprised of nothing but rocks. Without our poles, we would have been at the
mercy of this treacherous hill, our knees and feet forced to maintain a very
With the temperature steadily dropping, again, we reached the
shelter in the late afternoon. As we approached on the long access trail, we
noticed two young men already at the site. But what is this? They are in shorts
and sandals! But it’s 34 °F! Ah, to be young and
foolish again. They were both relatively quiet and difficult to carry on a
conversation with but we were able to find out that they had been playing around
in a stream and thus the reason for the six pairs of socks hanging up next to a
roaring fire to get dry. They did have a backcountry permit from one of the
national parks attached to one of their packs, so we assumed that they had some
level of hiking expertise. However, their actions certainly belied that fact.
They were not dressed for the cold, washed their dishes in the spring that we
used for drinking water and, as they were ready to leave the next morning, we
had to admonish them for leaving trash in the fire pit; contrary to “Leave No
Trace” practices that any seasoned hiker would adhere to. We spent an entire
evening with these guys and barely spoke with them at all. It was weird!
The Tumbling Run Shelter had to be the most interesting and
historical shelter we had stayed in so far. It was extremely old and run down
and was a somewhat odd design. At some point, there must have been electricity
in the shelter because there were several, non-working, light fixtures on the
walls. There is also a very small opening to the front of the shelter and a
raised floor, in the middle of which, is a trap door with a padlock on it. We
would only surmise that under this shelter, beneath the door, was a storage area
for trail maintenance tools. Curiously enough, this raised floor, in conjunction
with the small entranceway made for a very cozy and warm environment in which to
spend a cold night. There was also a very nice deck, complete with chairs out
front near the fire pit. Unfortunately, because this shelter is also near road
access, it is a stomping ground for weekend revelers so the chairs are chained
to the deck railing and there is significant vandalism to the surrounding
structures. What a shame! But, the good news is, that this shelter will be
replaced in 2006.
We tried out our new recipe of dehydrated chili and red rice,
which was great! And as darkness began to fall, as did the temperature, we
decided to call it a day knowing that tomorrow morning we would most likely be
waking up to a snow-covered trail.
One of these days I am going to go on some type of kidney exercise
regimen that will allow em to get through an entire night’s sleep without
having to get up and heed nature’s call. But, then again, if I were able to, I
would miss the truly amazing sights that can only be taken in during the wee
hours of the morning. When I got up and stepped outside, it was taken aback by
how bright it was. The moon was out and the ground was covered with a film of
ice and everything just glowed with an incredible light azure blue tint. If it
hadn’t been so darn cold, I probably would have stayed out longer to just
drink it all in.
Early the next morning we heard a peculiar sound on the roof of
the shelter; a sound similar to that made by an ice storm. We awoke to find that
this was exactly what it was; an ice storm and everything was covered making
even the trip to the nearby privy an adventure. We expected to wake up to snow,
which is navigable, but not ice, which makes walking extremely difficult if not
downright dangerous. And we had Lamb’s Knoll to look forward too!
Our shelter mates were up and off early, still dressed as if they
were on the beach in Cancun and after our breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we
headed back to Gathland. The initial climb up Lamb’s Knoll was incredibly
treacherous and tiring and now the ice had turned to a steady light rain. Once
we reached the summit, the rain began to let up and we picked up the pace so as
to get back to our car at a reasonable hour. We stopped at one of the overlooks
for a snack and had a nice conversation with a couple that was just out for the
day. One of the true growing experiences of our time on the trail is that of
learning to strike up conversations with folks we do not know. Both Georgia and
I are introverts, so one-on-one interactions with people is outside our typical
comfort level. But when we are on the trail, there is always something that we
immediately have in common with the people we come across, and that is our love
of the trail and nature. From these mutual passions grows conversations that
allow us to probe more deeply and we always find out incredible things. So,
despite the fact that the trail offers us an environment to experience solitude,
it is also a way for us to grow in our inter-personal relationship skills.
We arrived back at Gathland late in the morning and headed for
home. All-in-all, it was a very successful winter hike and we learned a great
deal about dealing with the cold; though most of it was learned the hard way.
Always try out new equipment in an environment where if it does not work
to your satisfaction, you have a safe and acceptable alternative.
indispensable first step to getting the things you want out of life is this:
Decide what you want.” (author – unknown)
It was unusually hot this trip, especially for late June in Virginia and
it never got below 92-95 °F with an equal dose of
humidity. But despite the heat, it was an enjoyable hike on a section that we
had, as yet, to explore.
We left the trailhead at Ashby Gap, crossed Rte. 50 and were
immediately thrown into a beautiful and lush section of trail with several
wooden bridges that took us through a marshy area unscathed. Our goal was to
reach the infamous Dick’s Dome Shelter for lunch and then proceed on to the
Manassas Gap Shelter for the evening.
Right on schedule, we arrived at Dick’s Dome Shelter for lunch
and met a young man there by the name of John. Seems, as Georgia and I get
older, the age group that we consider “young men and women” is getting older
and older. John was probably in his late twenties or early thirties and is a
photography professor at the University of Florida. He explained that he was on
this section of the trail to take photographs of thru-hikers that he met there.
His goal was to put together a photojournalistic coffee table book of the
“faces of the trail”. At the completion of this project he was returning to
Florida and was getting married to a young lady who just finished getting her
Masters degree in poetry. Interestingly enough, John hiked with us on and off
all weekend and we never saw him take one photo, despite the fact that we ran
into any number of thru-hikers during these two days. We have to think that
being along with us interfered with his creative flow and his desire to be
discrete and take only “candid” shots. He eventually finished up the hike
with us and we gave him a ride back to his car at Sky Meadows State Park on
If you have never been to Dick’s Dome, it is one of the most
unique shelters on the AT. It is a geodesic dome covered with grey shingles and
is parked right next to a soothing, babbling brook. It is in desperate need of
repair and we were not sure if we would ever spend the night there but it was a
wonderful place to stop for a break.
After lunch, we bid farewell to John, fully anticipating that we
would run into him again before the weekend was out, and continued our journey
to the infamous “snake pit” known to thru-hikers as Manassas Gap Shelter. We
arrived at the shelter late afternoon and met up with “Pumpkin’” who was
on her way to Katahdin, though seriously behind schedule considering when she
had left Springer. We had a nice chat and she showed us her pack which was of a
very unique and efficient design. Georgia fell in love with the dual zippers
that ran parallel to each other from the top of the pack to the bottom allowing
for easy access to the entire contents of the pack without unpacking it. The
only problem was its weight; it was not made for hikers desiring to travel
Now Manassas Gap Shelter is well-known on the trail for having a
large continent of snakes that inhabit the shelter and patrol the surrounding
grounds. So much, in fact, that there are pictures hanging up in the shelter
describing the appearance and habits of the black snakes, rat snakes and
copperheads that call this shelter their own. And if anyone was to think that
seeing one of these creatures would be a chance encounter, all you needed to do
was read the entries in the shelter register to find that seeing them was a
regular occurrence. Since we had yet, in all our travels on the AT, to see a
copperhead, we were excited about the prospect of possibly finally seeing one.
Or, at least, I was excited.
Since this section of the trail was where a lot of thru-hikers
would be this time of year, we ran into quite a few. As we were putting our gear
in the shelter to settle in for the remainder of the day, we were immediately
inundated with hikers, both thru and day hikers, who had also reached their
destination for the day. They had trail names such as York, Hitman, and 6
Stringer. 6-Stringer was familiar with the recording studio where I work and his
dulcimer band had actually recorded several years ago at one of our competitors.
York was thru-hiking for a charity called “Steps for Stanley” (American Lung
Association). Stanley is his dad and he is suffering from emphysema. He was one
of the first male hikers we had come across that was wearing the popular hiking
skirts. He found the skirt to be very comfortable and it relieved him of having
to wear underwear in the heat of summer. He did admit, that he had to be careful
of how he sat, though. Hitman was from Florida and works for Wal-Mart. And, last
but not least, came John the photographer.
It seems that the older we become, the smaller the world gets. A
couple arrived at the site in time for dinner and as we chatted, we discovered
that they were from Ringoes, NJ, near where I had grown up. So we talked about
Ringoes, Hunterdon County and the surrounding areas and I was able to get an
update on what that area was like now. Seems that progress, if you can call it
that, had forever altered the landscape of that rural, agricultural area to the
point where I would probably not recognize it were I to visit there.
By the time we had finished dinner, we had, at least 8-10 people
vying for a spot in the shelter. As is the custom on the trail, we were more
than happy to make room for anyone who needed space. As everyone gravitated
toward the shelter, Hitman got up from the table and headed toward the fire
ring. Suddenly we heard him shout, “Whoa”, and as we all turned to look,
there, coiled up next to the ring, was a copperhead. So cool! Everyone
scattered; some to get their cameras and some to just get away! Georgia got some
great shots and we all just sat there watching until he slithered away into the
rocks around the ring. Needless to stay, most of our comrades immediately
altered their sleeping arrangements and set up their tents on the sites far from
the shelter. Hitman and we decided to stay in the shelter but we chose, out of
self-preservation, to set our tents up inside the shelter as additional
protection. (Georgia likes taking pictures of snakes but doesn’t want them
curling up with her as she sleeps.)
I was breaking in my new
Soloman boots and, so far, they were the most comfortable pair I have ever
owned. Georgia’s feet were doing equally well so this hike was becoming even
more enjoyable. Snakes and comfortable boots! What more could you ask for?
Early Sunday morning we set off, in beautiful weather, and quickly
caught up to our photographer friend John, still with his camera in his pack.
The trail in this section was made up of a set of mild, scenic ascents and
descents and before we knew it we had arrived at the beautiful Molly Denton
Shelter where we took our scheduled morning break. This is a remarkably
wonderful shelter; new, large and with an expansive deck on the front. Since
John decided to go sit on the deck and talk to some other hikers as they puffed
on their cigarettes, we chose to stay at the covered picnic table and enjoy our
trail mix. It has always struck us as odd that folks who consider themselves
active, healthy athletes who use hiking as a means to keep fit, would also smoke
at every rest stop. It just seems so contradictory to the spirit of healthy
activity. One of the nice aspects of this shelter is the fact that it has a very
unique shower complete with a wooden enclosure for privacy. If we were staying
here overnight, after a long hot day, this shower would be a welcome oasis of
refreshment; especially since the water was ice cold. There is also a “One
& One Half Thumbs Up” privy. The cleanliness and great appearance of this
shelter is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the person who maintains
it. If we ever get to meet that person we will certainly let them know how much
we appreciate it.
One of the other memorable aspects of this trip was how much
damage still remained from Hurricane Isabel several years prior. The number of
blow-downs along the trail was astounding and yet, we understood that in the big
scheme of nature’s regeneration of itself, that this is the way that it is
ultimately the way it is supposed to be.
As we neared the end of our journey we suddenly came upon a
seemingly never-ending expanse of tall chain link fence that bordered the trail.
As it turned out, this fence enclosed the reserve center for the National
Zoological Park in Washington, DC. I suppose that we expected, upon learning of
its existence, that we would have seen some time of wildlife within its borders
but there was none. We had to wonder, “What is this area really used for?”
Perhaps some day we will find out.
At the end of this fence, we exited down a grapevine-laden hill
out onto Rte. 522 and to the welcome sight of our car. We loaded up and we were
off to drop John, the photographer, off and then home to get a welcome shower
and a glass of white Merlot.
Our only recommendation for this section of trail would be to have
a port-o-john placed somewhere near the Rte 522 trailhead since this particular
section of trail is rather open to public scrutiny which made it hard to answer
nature’s call with any amount of privacy.
was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Our emotions went up and down
more than the path we walked on and, despite the apparent failure of being able
to complete this section, it was a most valuable learning experience with
regards to winter hiking. Let me elaborate.
Wednesday evening, 11/23, we arrived at the trailhead in Front Royal after
filling up with sweet & spicy chicken at the local KFC. We called the LC Cab
Company to shuttle us to the Lewis Mountain Campground, along Skyline Drive, in
the Shenandoah National Park. It was an interesting drive in that the young lady
who was our driver, and had lived in Front Royal most of her life, had never
been to this part of Skyline Drive. And even though it was only a 50-mile trip,
we needed to provide her with directions to get back so she didn't get lost. As
we approached the park, we noticed that the tops of the mountains were already
covered with snow and, despite knowing that this might happen later the next
day, we exited her car at the campground, with a bit of apprehension.
was equally disturbing was that the Lewis Mountain Campground was apparently
closed for the season; a fact that was not mentioned in any documentation we had
read prior to planning this trip. We fully expected to have access to the store
or, at the very least, the bathrooms. We were beginning to sense that this was a
harbinger of things to come.
was rapidly getting dark, so we quickly set up our tent on one of the sites near
the trail, hung our food in a tree to protect it from the infamous black bears
roaming the park and then turned in. The wind was relentless and it continually
came up from the valley sounding much like a 747 passing overhead. If you have
ever taken the opportunity to sit at the end of a runway at a major airport and
have the planes take off right over your head, you have a sense of the velocity
and sound of this wind.
had a good night’s sleep but when we arose in the morning it was a mere 37
degrees in the tent; not exceptionally cold but a bit uncomfortable. Deciding to
hit the trail to get warm and to eat breakfast a bit later, we started out at
7:00 a.m. for the 1-mile hike to the Bearfence Hut. Now this is a beautiful hut,
complete with a spring right nearby and numerous metal bear poles from which to
hang your food. This was actually the first time we had seen the poles that we
had heard so much about. As for the privy, based on my rating system, it gets a
“Two Cheeks Up”. Our only regret was that we wished we had arrived at the
park earlier on Wednesday so we could have hiked a bit and spent the night here.
deer followed us down the trail or simply walked across the trail as if they
belonged there, we traveled on until, at 1:00 p.m., we reached our first
destination, the SNP wayside at Big Meadows. We spent about an hour here having
a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. To remain true to the day, I filled up on
turkey, sweet potatoes and cole slaw. Georgia had a veggie sandwich. As we
looked out the window, we could see that the wind was picking up and a ranger
told us that it was expected to be 9°F in the mountains that night. Adhering to
the rules of the park, we stopped by ranger station and got our backcountry
permit. Now, some might think that having to have a permit, which is free by the
way, is just another intrusion by the government establishment on a hikers
freedom to hike the AT. The bottom line is that with the abundance of black
bears and the unpredictable weather on these mountains, it is in a hiker’s
best interest to have the rangers know where you are going and when you figure
on being at a given point. It is just good common sense.
full stomachs and unflinching determination, we headed out toward our
destination for the night, the Rock Spring Hut, some 4 miles away. As we walked
we were awed by the vastness of the landscape below us as we passed the many
mountain laurel-lined overlooks along the way. But, our emotions were constantly
tempered by the fact that it was obviously getting colder by the minute.
reached Rock Spring Hut at 4:30, set up our tent in the shelter to get out of
wind and hung our drop cloth over doorway to try to block some of the wind. I
went to get water from the nearby spring while Georgia set up the inside of the
tent. I think she got the better end of the deal because, by the time I had
filled our bucket, I was pretty darn cold. One unfortunate circumstance was that
our water bag sprung a leak so I took off my gloves to pinch off leak while we
filtered water and filled our cooking pots and hydration packs. This was a bad
move! My fingers were becoming frozen. We sat in the back of the shelter, out of
the wind, and had a wonderful and warming dinner of soup though our butts did
get incredibly cold from sitting on the wooden shelter floor. As Georgia cleaned
up I made my first attempt at hanging our food bags and ditty kits from the bear
pole nearby. Not being very tall, it took me several attempts but eventually I
got them safely up and out of harm’s way. At 6:00 p.m., with the temperature
still plummeting, we crawled into our bags and had to envy the two guys in PATC
cabin just below us. The smoke coming out of the chimney looked so inviting and
we could easily imagine how warm it was inside. As for the privy – it was, by
far, the most disgusting one we had ever seen – definitely “Two Cheeks
Down” for this one.
in the past she had been a “musher” in Minnesota, Georgia experienced an
immense problem with getting warm and I had to massage her legs and feet to warm
her up. Cramping was an indication that possibly she was becoming hypothermic
which scared her and concerned me greatly. Eventually she put on her Frogg Toggs
plus all the clothes she had with her and eventually that did the trick. With
the incessant wind, we estimated that the temperature went well below zero
during the night and, even though we had them inside the tent, the water in our
Nalgene bottles froze as did the water in our hydration pack hoses.
Interestingly enough, the water in the hydration packs themselves did not
freeze. We also kept the gas canister for our stove inside and despite the cold
temperatures, our Pocket Rocket performed perfectly. My only issue during the
night, was that I am very claustrophobic and with the tent fly pulled down tight
against tent for added retention of body heat, there was no visible light
getting in. I had to reach pretty deep inside and have my headlamp close by in
order not to succumb to the stifling fear I had experienced in the past when
that closed-in feeling tried to overtake me like when I had MRI’s done.
a fitful night’s sleep, we rose at 5:15 to get an early start so we could make
it to the Pass Mountain Shelter, 15 miles away, before dark. When we awoke, we
found the temperature inside the tent was 27°F and the walls of the tent were
covered with a thin film of ice. While Georgia packed up stuff in tent, I melted
the ice in the pots from water I had put in them the night before in
anticipation that all our other water would be frozen. Despite the bitter cold,
I made coffee, hot cereal and oatmeal in the hope that these would help to warm
us up a bit. However, it was so cold that oatmeal began to freeze before I could
finish it. Now I was so cold that I was becoming hypothermic and fear set in. It
is amazing how quickly the cold can affect your senses and the ability to think
rationally. However, while emotionally spiraling downward, I thought about Jack
on the show “Lost”. In one
episode he describes a time when he was performing an operation on a young girl
and inadvertently nicked the sack at the base of her spine that held all her
nerves, causing them to fall out. He went on to describe how fear began to take
over and how he made a conscious choice to only allow the fear to be in charge
until he counted to five. I decided to do the same and the borderline hysteria
knew that the only way we could get warm was to start walking. However, with the
cold, no water, except for sucking on cubes of ice from a Nalgene bottle, our
focus was on getting warm and not coming up with an obvious solution to our
water problem. Even in winter, water is crucial and dehydration brings on
hypothermia even quicker. Not until later, when we were warm and had our mental
capacities back, did the answer to our water
dilemma problem seem obvious. Water could have been poured out of our hydration
packs into our Nalgenes. Shortly after leaving the hut, we passed the highest
point on the SNP, Hawksbill Summit at 4,050 feet and it occurred to us that this
altitude was adding to our breathing problems.
the relentless wind, no water and diminishing resolve, we both agreed to make it
the 4 miles to Skyland Resort and call it a day. Since it was already 10:00 a.m.
by the time we got to Skyland, we knew we would not be able to complete the
remaining 11 miles to the Pass Mountain Hut before dark. The feeling of failure
quickly set in and our spirits took a nosedive. There were a few high points
during this section as we stood on the trail and traded glances with an 8-point
buck a mere 25 feet from us and we finally saw bear tracks as we walked past the
horse stables to the resort.
decision to stop our hike was a good one and God blessed us with a room at the
inn – a small miracle considering that only minutes later they were fully
booked for the weekend. Not only that, we mentioned to the young ladies at the
check-in counter that our car was parked in Front Royal and we needed to go pick
it up since we were done hiking. One of them, Allesyn, lived in Front Royal and
she volunteered to take us to get our car when she got off work. God is good –
all the time!
we were quite cold and hungry, we dropped our packs in the office lobby and
headed over to the restaurant for breakfast. It was so good. Eggs, pancakes,
home fries, muffins and coffee. We were feeling somewhat better already. One
curious thing happened in the restaurant and only later did we realize why it
happened. Hikers tend to smell after several days on the trail without a shower
but the hikers themselves are generally unaware of this because they live with
it on a daily basis. Initially, we were seated right in the middle of the dining
room amongst a large group of other diners. Before we could even order coffee,
we were asked if we would like to sit next to the windows, extensively getting
our apparent offensive smell away from the other diners. We just thought that
the waitress was being considerate in letting us sit where we could have a
better view of the mountains but the bottom line was, we think, that our odor
would cause people to be turned off by their corned beef hash and biscuits and
gravy. The staff obviously just wanted to assure that the customers would stay
and continue to eat and spend money.
languishing in the joy of warm delicious food, we picked up our gear and headed
to our room, content to hold up inside, nurse our physical and psychological
wounds and take stock of what we had done right and what we had done wrong.
in the day, we joined up with Allesyn to head for Front Royal to get our car.
Now, Allesyn is from Brisbane, Australia and has spent most of her life
globe-hopping as a missionary and doing seasonal work around the U.S. In several
days she would be heading home to spend Christmas with her family for the first
time in five years. She and Georgia had a wonderful conversation, talking about
everything under the sun, and before we knew it we were in Front Royal.
we still had so much food from the hike and eating at the restaurant would be an
expensive proposition, we cooked dinner on the balcony outside our room. As we
ate we discussed, at length how we were feeling about our lack of success on
this trip and what we needed to do to assure that it did not happen in the
future. We made a list (gotta love those lists!) of additional gear we would
need and techniques we should employ next time out. Georgia had developed a bad chest cold due to the breathing
of so much cold air the previous day and a half and this only reassured us that
staying on the trail could have been catastrophic. Still, we felt dejected.
as to not have the rest of the weekend be a total loss, we decided to do some
short hikes on Saturday to get our spirits back up. We headed back to the Big
Meadows ranger station to let them know we had pulled off the trail. Georgia had
lost her balaclava somewhere between Big Meadow and Rock Spring so we did this
section to try to find it. It was a drastically different day, weather-wise, and
the walk was totally enjoyable; especially since all we had were fanny packs and
no 30-lb. packs. While on a snack break, we met Alli and V.J. who were on their
way from Big Meadow to Skyland. They own a vegetarian restaurant in DC called
“Java Green” so we talked about life as a vegetarian. They offered us a
wonderful tasting soy tea that they pulled out of their packs along with
business cards so we could visit their restaurant some time in the future. These
guys were the exact opposite of us when it came to winter gear – they had
everything but the kitchen sink. Both had 60 lb. packs, 3 sleeping pads, 0
degree sleeping bags, a heavy winter tent and enough winter clothes to survive a
week in Denali. They had done this section before in the cold so they came
prepared. We were envious when they told us that the inside of their tent was in
the high 40s when they woke up. We chatted for some 30 minutes and they were
off. Georgia later saw them at Skyland loading their gear into a car to head for
home. We never did find the balaclava but did have a nice walk. We wondered;
where do all the things go that people loose while on the trail? It is sort of
like not knowing where your missing sock went to when you pull your clothes out
of the dryer. Somewhere out there, in a cave high on the mountain, has got to be
a bear with an entire outfitters’ store worth of hiking gear.
drove a bit further up Skyline Dive, taking in the awesome views made available
by the fact that all the strong winds over the last two days winds had evacuated
the pollution, which is notorious in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We had a great
view of Old Rag and all the other mountains within 30-40 miles. I had this
desire to see a waterfall so we stopped at the Dark Hollow Falls pull-off, and
hiked the .7 mile down to the falls. Now this doesn’t sound like much of a
hike, but there is a 440 elevation change in this .7 miles, and with Georgia’s
labored breathing, brought on by an increasingly severe chest cold, it became a
quite a strenuous journey. She is a trooper and, with several stops along the
way, so we could both catch our breaths, we made it. And it was worth it! The
falls were beautiful.
several years ago we went on a cruise through the coastal passage of Alaska and
were excited about the fact that we would get to see wildlife in it’s natural
habitat. We thoroughly expected to see moose, eagles, bear and the like
everywhere we looked. Unfortunately, we saw none of these in the wild. In fact
the only moose we saw was in front of a gift shop in Ketchikan. Our ongoing
private joke is that the Alaska Tourist Bureau uses the wildlife as a come-on to
get people to come to Alaska and that the wildlife that everyone else saw were
just holographic representations strategically placed in the path of the cruise.
So, to think that we would actually see the notorious black bears we had been
hearing so much about, was but a fleeting dream. With this mind-set, I was
astonished and considered our trip a total success when we spotted not only one,
but two black bears along Skyline Drive. One was rather hard to see but the
other was only about 40-50 yards off the side of the road. Camera in hand, I
jumped out of the Jeep and climbed up onto the stone retaining wall to take some
pictures. At one point I decided to sit on the wall to steady my hands for a
better shot and thinking I was going completely over the wall to get closer to
the bear, Georgia came flying out of the car with a very forceful, “Don’t
you dare!” Assuring her I was going no closer, I finished up my shots and we
headed out. We saw wildlife; the trip was a success!
drove around on Skyline Drive for a few more hours and then headed back to our
room for a wonderful dinner and a movie. We continued discussing our failings
and tempered our disappointment with the fact that we did the right thing by
coming off the trail for safety and health reasons. We will be more prepared the
next time – for sure.
morning, as the resort was getting ready to close for the season and we were
packing our gear into the Jeep, Georgia located here missing balaclava, oddly
enough, stuck inside her pack cover. Wow, a totally successful hike – Georgia
found her balaclava and I saw bears! We can go home now!
bid farewell to our friendly Aussie, Allesyn, had a nice breakfast at the
restaurant, and took a leisurely drive home. As we left the SNP, we were
provided with an appropriate farewell as a huge hawk majestically hovered above
us. We were more determined than ever that winter would never do us in again.
Looks like another trip to REI or HTO for winter gear. Oh boy!
were actually too many to list but the one that stands out the most would have
to be that old Boy Scout motto,
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