Monday, February 7, 2011

Sugar Knob Cabin

Friday February 4th
I rented a PATC cabin south of Great North Mountain, near Big and Little Schloss Mountains.
Jim and I left from Baltimore to meet Steve at the Park and Ride at the end of 195. We pulled up right at 5:30 and Steve was already there. He threw his gear in the back seat and we headed out. I stopped south of Laurel for gas and we joined the stream of traffic, most everyone else heading home - us heading for the mountains.
The traffic was not at all bad. Once we got into Virginia and onto 66 it slowed down, as is typical of the area. In short order we found a Chicfilla and the end of the traffic after that stop. We rode into the darkness toward 81.
Fortunately Steve was familiar with both the roads getting to the trail head as well as the trails themselves, so we didn't need to rely on directions to get where we were gong. After going south on 81 for a few miles, we headed west on 42 and then took a few side roads to get to the forest road to the parking area. Too bad the forest road was gated closed! We parked the car, knowing our hike just got 4 miles longer. We suited up, tossed on our packs to head out. My pack was very lite, as I had no tent and less warm clothing, knowing we were to be staying in the cabin with a wood stove.
The road walk was very easy, we stayed to the areas where tires had beaten the snow down so the walking was easy. We did the miles in around an hour, getting to the parking lot just after 9pm. The trail leading from the parking lot followed a stream for the first mile and a half, gradually gaining elevation. We didn't use our head lights very much and there was no moon out, making for a very dark, dream-like passage through the forest; the sound of the river to our rights, the sigh of the wind through the trees, the crunch of our feet in the snow. The areas that had no snow, under pines, were darker than dark, pools of inky blackness. Many times we stumbled and tripped over roots and rocks that were hiding in the pitch. Walking on the snow was generally ok, though we slid around a few times on patches of ice. The crunching noise of our footsteps lead to little conversation, without a lot of "what did you say?" so mostly I just walked in the ephemeral darkness, lost in thoughts of dreamlike quality. For a long ways the tracks of a cross country skier snaked through the darkness, leading us up the path. One of us mentioned how much more difficult the path would be to find without the tracks, and they abruptly ended  The trail lead away from the stream, steeper now, ascending the side of the valley. Some bear tracks meandered onto and up the trail for a bit. The cabin lay in a low spot between two mountains ahead of us. We climbed further up, the trail getting steeper, the snow getting deeper, and the tracks from other hikers becoming frozen and treacherous. Finally the spring for the cabin showed up on the right and we were close. We got to the cabin and I pulled out the key.

Inside the cabin was cramped but very well equipped. A bunch of axes, saws, pots and pans, chairs, blankets were out or in bins. A bin full of wood was prepared next to the little stove in the corner. We situated our gear and pulled down the fold up bunks. We decided not to light the fire and just hit the sleeping bags. I went to bed after 1 am.


The day was fog shrouded, with occasional rain showers and sleet. Hovering around freezing, the snow was slightly melty.

I slept well on the mattress, pad that I brought and provided wool blanket. We all got up at generally the same time. I was the first out of bed, and very ungracefully slid off the top bunk. We got up and moving and I made a fire as Steve and Jim got some more wood. Jim, grabbing the huge, and largely ineffectual splitting axe. After I got the fire going with some of Jim's fire starter, I put the perkalator on the stove - I eventually got tired of waiting for the stove and used Steve's stove outside to get it perking. After eating our breakfasts we looked at the map and decided to go to Half Moon Mountain as a day hike with our small packs. We tossed lunches and water and some other layers of clothing into our day packs and set off up the trail. At the intersection of the Tuscarora, we turned onto that and followed the trail around to another intersection. On the next part we started seeing bear tracks - first one set on the trail going one way, then another pair  and a third set. We pondered aloud if it was the same bear going in circles or a series of them - some pairs looked smaller or larger. It was really cool to be in the snow and see the tracks - with no snow we would have no evidence of an animal that large wandering around (well, except some scat).

We crossed over a bridge at the bottom of a hill, after a few miles, to a campsite an odd barbed wire enclosure to one side around a wetland. The Tuscarora went right, Half Moon went straight, still 1.7 distant. We continued on after a short break, making good time. The trail at the base of the final Half Moon summit rose for about .7 of a mile, not too steep, as it went all the way across the mountain side. Towards the top the trail switched back and got steep up to an old foundation of a fire tower. The wind was whipping over the mountain, making it very chilly. The woods were engulfed in fog and dripping. There were supposed to be some very good views, all that was viewed was a wall of swirling gray fog. We stayed for a short time, eating a snack, before heading off the peak and out of the wind. On the way down, we passed two guys that looked to be tent camping with full packs, we spoke briefly before heading on our separate ways. The trail ascend back by everything we had came down by earlier, as we were doing an out and back. The melty snow making it difficult going up the hills, as with a full length stride you would slip back a little bit with each step. Our strides shortened and I got very warm. I slowed my pace so I wouldn't be drenched in sweet at the top of the hill. There was an intersection that went steeply up to the right, or back the way we came straight on - for a varied view and to see where it went we opted for the other way - while it was substantially steeper, it was also shorter. At the top of the hill we followed the Tuscarora back to camp on an old wagon trail or fire road.

We were back in the cabin by 4-something. I got the fire going, Steve and Jim cut firewood enough for what we were going to use plus a bit more. The wind picked up even more than when we were up on Half Moon, a freight train running over the mountain in the distance, though the cabin seemed sheltered. We opened the cupboard in the cabin to find a small library and candles and other various sundries.I took a short nap on the lower bunk, enjoying the warmth of the stove. After waking, I walked down to the spring and pumped 2 liters of water. Right after I came back the sky opened up, a few minutes of heavy rain, loud on the tin roof, then it changed over to a silent snow fall. A while later, right at dusk, the clouds blew away and cleared, the moon and stars popping into view, a brief respite from the clouds, the temp dropped as the clouds dissipated, dropping to the high 20's. The wind still howled and an occasional puff dark cloud hurried to catch up with the large mass that already had gone on it's way. We started on dinner and the coffee finally perked on the stove top - I was patient this time. Dinner was a stew with fresh carrots, potatoes, beef cubes, celery, and onion. It took a long while to cook up, but well after dark when it was finished, it went down so good.
We sat around for awhile, listening to NPR on Steve's little HAM radio, sipping whiskey and beer - Jim abstaining from drinking. I got tired in short order and climbed into my bunk. After an hour of sleep I was sweltering, the temp near the ceiling had to be in the 80s, I ripped off a layer or two and unzipped the bag a little to get some air flow and went back to sleep, sleeping through Steve's (and apparently my own) snoring.


The day was nearly cloud free, the temperature above freezing. We packed up and ate cold breakfasts. I slammed a 5-Hour Energy rather than brew coffee. We swept the cabin, refilled the fire wood bin, emptied the ashes, and re-latched all the windows. We locked up and headed down the hill. The ice was the worst directly in front of the cabin and the re-froze tracks for a few hundred yards.
We hit our tracks coming up and made great time down the hill, seeing all the sights that were hid by darkness on Friday evening. The sun shone through the trees, eventually we heard the creek as we took the trails only switch back. We followed the path by the river, the snow having melted quite a bit, the trail muddy in some places. We made it to the road and began the road walk. We hadn't noticed, but the road walk was now all uphill - no wonder we made such great time Friday night! We made our way up the shallow grade with a very fast pace, knowing that a car with a stop at Arby's was close at hand. We saw the clear cuts, and the mountains in the distance that were shrouded before. The sun beat down, making the day very pleasant. It only took just over an hour to get back to the car. The gate was still closed, and the car was still there. We tossed the gear in the car, changed our muddy boots, and headed back to Baltimore.

I really enjoyed the trip, especially the cabin. Next time I know that the cabins are well stocked I can bring a day pack with food clothing and a summer sleeping bag, I figure pack weight could be in the teens. We came over prepared as it was, even though I hardly felt like I was carrying anything. Steve Jim and myself got along great, plenty of inappropriate jokes and laughter. We hiked nearly 30 miles, all told - it really adds up quick! Especially on roads and with day packs.

Edit: I talked to Steve last night and he did some research about the area we were hiking through. On a tree by the stream we saw 'LS' spray painted, turns out that is where the forestry folks start dumping lime so the pH of the creek will allow for fish to live in the water, then they stock the creek for people to trout fish. I haven't heard a mention of Acid Rain in a decade or more, for all I knew it was a resolved issue as much as the media covers it, when it used to be all the rage. That is a failure on the environmental groups. Obviously it's a problem, why has it been swept under for the global warming cause? Seems acid rain is a bit more... immediate and uncontested.
Other signs nailed to the trees said something like 'S25'. Steve looked that up and these are birding stations for certain times of the year.
The cabin was built in the 1920's, as a relaxation, recovery, and resupply base for the folks that would man the fire towers in the area. Apparently, it used to be tent based until one day a bear came in and stole a huge slab of bacon - the next day the cabin started getting built!
Lastly, the path by the creek we followed was an old wagon road that lead to places in the woods that made charcoal; a campsite we passed still had evidence of the pits and mounds from the 1860's.