Day One: John’s Creek Valley Road (VA-632) to Pine Swamp Branch Shelter.
The night before this hike, Maple and I stayed in the Motel 8 in Radford. We arranged to meet our shuttle driver, Don Raines, at 8:00 on the morning of Friday, June 2, at the AT parking spot off of VA-606. Although I saw the trail crossing, I could see no parking space. I pulled over to call Don, but we had no cell service. Upon carefully retracing the route, we spotted a little nook covered with foliage that was to serve as our parking space. Don was waiting for us. He suggested that, in the future, we meet with our shuttle driver at a place that has cell service and follow him from there. Good advice!
By 9:00 we were on the trail. Rather early on we made the acquaintance of the loquacious “Man of Many Words,” who took our photo for his Facebook page. He was doing a day-hike, trying to get in shape for a thru-hike to begin in March 2018. Good luck to him!
Shortly thereafter we passed a woman our age, a delightful section-hiker from Chicago, “Just Susan,” who, like us, was southbound and planning to hike to Pine Swamp Branch Shelter and, from there, to Rice Fields Shelter. We were glad to know that we would see her again.
At about 12:30 we stopped to have lunch, and “Just Susan” caught up with us and passed us by. It turned out that we stopped too soon, for shortly afterwards we reached Wind Rock. There we met “Barefoot,” who told us that his ex would have put a stop to his hiking, so he is thru-hiking with his divorce papers, I suppose to remind himself of his liberation. We also met “Furiosa,” who also took our photo.
After nine miles, we stopped at Baileys Gap Shelter, refilled our water supply, had conversation with the other hikers stopping there, and made coffee. Rejuvenated, we pressed onward, crossed over Stoney Creek, and continued onward. We had heard from “Roub” that we should stop at the “Captain’s” place to enjoy his renowned hospitality, but, unfortunately, the zip-line to the Captain’s place was shut down due to the fact that he had recently undergone mouth-cancer surgery. We pressed on and, in the growing darkness, after ten hours of hiking, found our tent spot just across the trail from Pine Swamp Branch Shelter.
At the shelter’s picnic table, where we always like to make our dinner, we met thru-hikers Dave, his adult son, Darren, and veterinarian student “Golden,” with her dog ironically named “Killer.” “Just Susan” never showed up, and we wondered where she had stopped and whether we would see her again.
Day Two: Pine Swap Branch Shelter to Rice Fields Shelter
Day Two started with a steep hike up to Pine Swamp Ridge and Peters Mountain. Birch and I followed a rocky ridge that had beautiful views and a nice breeze. This area is right on the Virginia-West Virginia state line. It is the season of mountain laurel blooming, one of my favorite plants! One really fascinating aspect of the ridge is that there were many HUGE table rocks.
Before long we entered a meadow that was once an apple orchard. The direct sun was quite a shock after time in the woods. After entering the woods again we finally came to a spring that was 1.5 miles from Rice Field Shelter. This was our last water source before the shelter so we filled up and had coffee while there. Springs are like any water hole. It attracts a ton of hikers! One thru hiker told us that he was desperately trying to get out of the “bubble” and away from some specific hikers. I can just imagine how unpleasant it would be to be stuck with the wrong crowd.
Once we approached Rice Shelter we were amazed by the breath-taking view. Wow! This is a shelter worth visiting. We set up our tent, made dinner, and enjoyed the beautiful vista. We knew that “Just Susan” was hoping to get to the shelter but we were not holding up much hope to see her, given the 16-mile trek. However, she made it!
Day Three: Rice Fields Shelter to Doc’s Knob Shelter.
Our itinerary had called for us to make it only so far as the spring and campground on Pearis Mountain, a quarter of a mile south of Angel’s Rest, at the peak of Pearis Mountain. But if we decided to stay there, that would necessitate another 13.5 mile trek on the following day, Monday, and since the forecast for Sunday night and Monday was continual rain, Maple and I decided that we would re-evaluate, upon reaching the spring, whether we could press forward and, perhaps, commit to making it to the next shelter and water source.
The downhill trek, off of Peter’s Mountain, to the bridge over the New River on the outskirts of Pearisburg took us longer than we had expected. We paused and enjoyed a snack after crossing the bridge, near Pearisburg Cemetery. From this point on, we were a little confused about our path, for the AT had been relocated since our Data Book had been printed. For example, we never arrived at Layne Street, Pearisburg, but instead, almost immediately began our ascent up Pearis Mountain.
This two-mile ascent up Pearis Mountain exhausted all of our energy. Near the top, in a grove of rhododendrons, we spotted a doe with her newborn fawn. We passed by Angel’s Rest and soon reached the sign directing us a quarter of a mile off the trail to a spring and campsite. As our water was depleted, we followed the sign, and at the spring filtered our water and made a hot lunch. This helped to restore us, but the trail had taken its toll. We were tired. Even so, as we didn’t want to carry extra water, we committed to making it to the next water source and shelter, Doc’s Knob. This would be a 16.1 mile day—the farthest that we had ever backpacked in a day.
We passed by at least a dozen thru-hiking NOBOs, all intent on making it into Pearisburg to escape the rain. Were we foolish, hiking into the coming storm? Perhaps, but Maple and I were on a tight schedule, and we had already committed ourselves to the trail, despite the weather.
When we finally arrived at Doc’s Knob we found the shelter occupied by a very pleasant man, “Loon Seeker,” and his dog. As there was no place to set up a tent, and as we expected rain, we requested a place in the shelter, and he gladly made room for us. Afterwards, there showed up “Tent Pole,” named for having broken one, and “Loner,” who wasn’t too happy about sharing a shelter with a dog. Given his attitude, we figured he wasn’t too happy about sharing a shelter with anyone.
Doc’s Knob was situated in a very wet and muddy area. Fortunately, there were plenty of rocks around the shelter to step on. This was the first time that Maple and I shared a shelter, but we had little choice, and since we were so exhausted, we fell asleep early and slept soundly.
Day Four: Doc’s Knob Shelter to Wapiti Shelter.
Overnight, it seemed we had dodged a bullet. The rain never came. Then, around 6:30 am, we began to hear the pitter patter of rain on the shelter roof. Birch suggested that we take off to avoid a swampy trail. As we were about to leave, who should come to the shelter but “Just Susan”. She had decided to slack pack going north from Woods Hole to Pearisburg. She was full of energy and that energized us. We wished her well and began our short 9 mile hike to Wapiti Shelter.
At first, I was quite pleased. Despite the rain, I was pretty dry. Much of the terrain was rocky and slippery. This made it slow going. By the time we passed Big Horse Gap and got to the sharp descent to the shelter it began to pour…a deluge! The trail turned into a river and all hope of staying dry was lost.
By the time we reached Wapiti Shelter it was surrounded by a moat. Two hikers had just finished up lunch and were continuing on their way. All afternoon, hikers came in to get out of the rain. Each one took off their boots and rung out their socks. We met many wonderful folks, including “Radar” and her dad who were on a south-bound 5-day section hike, like us. Many hikers came in to have a bite to eat. It wasn’t long before the shelter smelled like a combination of smelly wet socks and Mountain House lasagna!
One of the best parts of the afternoon was spending time with “Red Bull”. “Red Bull” was dressed in a kilt with patriotic socks and a flag bandana. He had a serious speaker system that played music for us while we waited for the rain to stop. Despite playing “Hear Comes the Sun”, it didn’t work. We had fun anyway.
By 6 pm the rain stopped. We were joined by “Loon”, a women from Minnesota who hiked 24 miles in the rain. “Down Hill”, “White Sands” and “Paint Brush” joined us. “One Pole” was also at the shelter. He had broken a trekking pole on one of his first days on the trail and we couldn’t quite imagine how one could do that! It was a fun group.
Day Five: Wapiti Shelter to VA-606.
In the morning, Maple and I packed up our wet tent, prepared an oatmeal breakfast, to which we added dehydrated peaches, and said goodbye to “Downhill,” “White Sands,” “One Pole”, and “Paintbrush.” Our backpacks were still wet, and despite the threat of continued rain, we decided not to put on our wet rain gear.
How can I describe how wet and muddy the area was through which we hiked? Between Wapiti Shelter and VA-606 there were sixteen bridges, fourteen of which were within 2.5 miles south of Wapiti. There were also several small creeks, which we crossed over by the help of rocks and logs. The mud was pervasive, and there was no avoiding it, however hard to tried.
We decided not to go to Dismal Creek Falls, since we had heard that the Blue Trail leading to it got one only so far as the rear of the falls, and that one had to cross the deep and swift creek over a log in order to arrive at the front of the falls. Maple and I are not great risk takers, and we were anxious about the condition of our car and about getting home. So, we passed up the Blue Trail.
What we had accomplished on this trip was noteworthy: We had hiked several consecutive days more miles than we were accustomed to. We had hiked a 16.1 mile day, by several miles the farthest that we had ever backpacked. And, we had hiked five consecutive days, which we had done only once before—in the Grand Canyon. Moreover, we had hiked nine miles in the pouring rain and had learned what it means to hike when thoroughly soaked. This was a great trip for Maple and I, and has given us confidence for our upcoming hike in Grand Teton National Park, next month.