Saturday August 20th, 2011
Cara, Kaya, and I woke up and left from Lake Shore to head towards West Virginia. We stopped by NoVa to pick up our friend Tania and her dog Nyla.
The highway has been extended beyond Moorefield , so I took US 48 to the end and jumped over on to Rt 42 and State road 75 in short order. Going that way cut off a bit of time and mileage getting to Dolly Sods. Huge open highway that begins in no-where and ends in no-where! I like the lack of traffic and the speed in which I can get to my destination.
We followed the road up into the highlands, passing Bear Rocks to our destination, ready to begin the hike. I nosed the car into a spot across from Red Creek Campground. We climbed out, the dogs as excited to be out of the car as we were. We changed into our hiking shoes and put some last minute adjustments to our gear, finally extending our hiking poles and striking out down Blackbird Knob Trail. I had done this hike before, I had started in this location when I had solo hiked last October. The blue berry bushes looked to be beyond season, there were no more in evidence. This path starts on a wooden walk-way and quickly goes into a pine forest the coolness in the shadows reaching out to brush on my skin. Next the path opened into a meadow with views into the distance of the highlands.
The scenes change so quickly here. First the forest feels like the northeast. Close your eyes take a deep breathe and open your eyes and you are transported to Maine or New Hampshire - pine and birch abound. Around the next bend the meadow full of golden rod and purple and white wild-flowers nodding heads in the warm breeze. Marshes and established eastern forest, young new growth trees. All these biomes fly past in the course of just a few miles. Dolly Sods is similar to a arboretum things change as if designed.
We crossed a couple streams and arrived at the meadow where Upper Red Creek Trail comes in from the right; a few tenths of a mile later Red Creek Trail intersects on the left. We took a quick water break before descending into the top of the river valley where I know there are some good camp sites hidden down by the creek. After descending to Red Creek we came to the top of the creek and we began searching for a campsite, rather than following the trail down we followed the creek. The water and the trail diverge here for awhile, some of the best waterfalls and swimming holes are in this area, so it is well advised to check out the creek!
After skirting one likely campsite and bushwhacking a bit we found a spot that seemed like it could fit a couple tents. The site wasn't directly on the water but had a trail leading to the waters edge. We sat our gear around the campfire pit and unpacked some things before heading down to the creek to check it out. There stood a group of guys and girls trying to get a rope swing working over one pool, the rope was very thin and it seemed they had gotten the rope stuck in a spot they didn't want it. The whole thing looked like a broken head waiting to happen! Fortunately better sense took over and after a bit they got the rope unstuck and out of the tree! I did not want to have to carry an injured person out from this location, 3 miles up-hill to a road crossing or 4 miles down stream to Lanevill cabins - either way, not something that would be fun!
We went about setting up camp after not finding any better spots down stream, only waterfalls and lovely cascading water over the gray slick rocks. Cara and I found a spot to setup Maison du Noir... aka the 10 lbs 4-person Coleman tent I have for us. On weekend backpacking trips it's nice to have the room with Kaya, and I figure the extra weight is good cross training!
After our nights housing were erected, we elected to go exploring a bit. The dogs were antsy and needed some play time to be a bit more calm. Back down by the water Kaya happily chased the tennis ball. Nyla happily barked in Kaya's face as she was trying to extract herself from the creek. Meandering down the creek we came to a water fall with no easy way to climb down, we had to go up into the forest and do some climbing over roots and rocks and down a steep embankment to get under it. The climb was well worth it, a great swimming hole opened up below the falls. Kaya would run after the ball and fall head-long into the deeper part of the water. The falls itself had a deep shelf underneath. There was plenty of room to get behind the falling water and have a water-distorted view of the world. Tania got under the falls and let the water fall on her.
After exploring a bit further down the creek we returned to camp to continue the evening camp chores. The valley where the river resides is decidedly moist, nearly like a rain forest, the trees mostly river birch mixed with some pines. The popularity of the area in conjunction with the type of wood lying around made it very difficult to find any viable firewood. Most of the wood on the ground was spongy with rot and moisture, even the standing river birch were full of punky wood in a wrapper of white bark. The bark of the river birch is a great fire starter, even slightly damp - take a piece of the dry bark dunk it in water and hold to flame after dunking and it will still light and burn fiercely for a short time! Cara started and tended the fire as Tania and I went further and further up the steep hill behind camp, crossing the trail-proper and heading into the woods on the other side. After using the pocket chainsaw I got for my birthday a few times we collected enough good wood for the evening.
Firewood chore done, we sat and enjoyed a cup of Maryland Linganore Winecellars Mountain White wine from the Platypus wine preservation bladder. Cara and I had couscous with fried summer sausage for dinner, Tania enjoyed a Gluten-free stew of some type.
As the fire burned on, our eyes riveted to the dancing flames, we spoke of many things, as the campfire provides entertainment for the mind the conversation flows naturally from topic to topic. We speak of life, past experiences, present concerns, and hopes of the future. A fire as a centerpiece always brings out the most interesting talks.
It is with some regret that I plan on not making campfires regularly while hiking the Appalachian Trail next year. I am sure some other hikers will insist on the fire ritual, at which point I will feel an obligation to bring an arm-load of sticks to sacrifice to the inferno, my tithe to enjoy the fire alongside whomever created the warming chemical reaction having as much life as any living thing. I will not often make a fire for myself though. Between not having the energy or gumption after a full days hike, I do not need a fire to cook by or read by or even warm by. I will have my tent, sleeping bag, and stove. Drying boots after a wet slog may be a reason to lay some sticks. I will instead hike until I am tired and sleep and rise and hike on, leaving the dead and dried wood for the weekend camper, the ones whom need the fire ritual, the ones that have time to appreciate it, the ones that will sit around it having deep possibly life-changing conversations and revelations.
We hung some very lame bear bags, but hung they were, more to keep the skunks, opossums, raccoons, and mice out of them. Considering just up the creek I had brazen little mice running across the torso of my bivy, I knew how ignorant the creatures are in Dolly Sods! Bears, though, would have had a blast batting the swinging morsels this way and that spilling the contents in every direction... Fortunately that did not happen and our food stuffs remained intact. Cara and I retired to the Big Agnes double-wide sleeping bag she got me for my birthday. I am really a fan of this sleeping bag - it packs down to the same size as my cold weather sleeping bag, as a Big Agnes it has the integrated ground pad sheath, and pillow sack as well as 2 zippers that go down to the feet for ventilation. There was still plenty of room for us to sleep comfortably apart not requiring constant cuddling.
Sunday August 21th, 2011
We rose to a very leisurely morning. Eating breakfast slowly and just generally enjoying moving slowly. Cara offered to get some water from the creek. A few minutes later she comes back laughing at herself, and soaking wet. She fell in! She took it better than I would I think - I would laugh at myself, but my initial reaction probably would have been choice words... followed by kicking a tree or a rock, thus stubbing my toes followed by more choice words and THEN laughing at myself. Kaya of course jumped in to try and "save" her... and by save Kaya tries to drown anyone in the water with her by climbing on top of them.
After breakfast, coffee, and enjoying the campfire a bit more we broke camp and packed. Looking to the sky I decided to don my pack-cover just in case. We looked at the map and decided to take the long way back, going up Breathed Mountain Trail and then back across the top of the ridge to Blackbird Knob Trail back out to the car. Just as we began the ascent a peal of thunder gratingly rolled across the sky. It seemed the pack cover may have been a good call.
The ascent was not too tough, probably not as bad as the descent we had come down on Red Creek Trail the day before. As the trail began to level out we camp upon a large field, and in this field blue berry bushes on every square foot, and on these blueberry bushes a plethora of berries perfectly ripe! The berries were sweet and full of flavor. I could have eaten every berry in that field if given the chance. We stopped often under the gray nearly dripping sky, trying to move on but moving at a crawl. I dropped to the back so I could sneak more and then hurry to catch up. Even the dogs figured it out and cleared the lower bushes of the crop of tasty morsels.
At one of these clearing as we hiked along the splatter of rain began. Quickly becoming a deluge. I should have put my contacts in! And this is why I will bring contacts on the AT! I could hardly see where I was plodding as water ran off my face and landed on my lens, distorting everything including the ground in front of me. A bit further on my ankle turned and really hurt. That turning of the ankle, happened so fast, and not on a particularly rocky patch has made me re-think my shoe choice. I had my trail runners on and I have come to the conclusion that they do not provide enough ankle support. A twisted ankle could be a Trail ending injury of which I must be careful! Boots it is.
After the height of the storm the temperature went from warm to a slightly chill breeze back to warm. We stopped and ate a couple Clif bars and more berries, finding some taller huckleberries bushes also loaded with fruit. As we turned onto Blackbird Knob Trail, 4 miles into our days' hike, the rain stopped and the clouds began to break up. Over the next hour the sun came out, the breeze became pleasant, the sky blue. The world was apologizing for the thunderstorm and certainly making up for it! If we had decided to go out the same way we came in we would have arrived at the car about the time the rain had stopped! Many times the longer route has many unforeseen benefits, like a bounty of fruit and blue skies!
On the top of the ridge we passed some trees that had to be some kind of planted fruit tree. The regularity and spacing showed they were planted. I surmised by the unripe fruit and the bark and leaves that they were planted cherry trees. I would love to come back when those are ripe! There seems to be something for every season on this West Virginia Highland.
Cara set a brutal pace, averaging 3mph back to the car! My legs were definitely feeling the pace. She impressed the heck out of me, being that this is her second time backpacking, the first being a few weeks ago following the relatively flat trail next to Seneca Creek. Later she confessed that she was getting a blister on her heel that was painful and her feet were damp - she claims she was walking so fast to get back to the car and get out of those shoes and into flip-flops! That girl can move, even in discomfort.
We arrived in sunshine and dropped our packs with smiles. We loaded the packs and the dogs into the car, after a brief stop at Bear Rocks we headed back to civilization. All in all a fun trip with great companionship!