About Birch

After much hiking in my youth (Boy Scouts, working at Grand Canyon, and Army Infantry) and a long hiatus from the trails, I picked up my trekking poles again in 2014. I'm having a blast! . . . But, alas, so many trails, and so little time.

AT: VA-650 (Dickey Gap) to VA-600 (Elk Garden)

Day One: VA-650 to Old Orchard Shelter

Maple and I spent the night in Demascus, VA, at The Hikers Inn, right off of the A.T. We had a beautiful bedroom, and the owners, Lee and Paul, were very hospitable and gracious, although, unfortunately, we only got to meet Paul. In the morning, we were up early and, after a five-minute walk from the inn, were at Mojos Trailside Cafe before it opened. We had a hearty breakfast, and were ready to get on the road.

Our shuttle driver, who would lead the way to the A.T. parking at VA-600 (Whitetop Road), was Matt, a local woodworking artist and avid bicyclist, who shuttles part-time for Mt. Rogers Outfitters. Matt’s a really nice man and well-informed about the local area.

We were on the trail, southbound, by 9:00. For the first several hours it rained—not too heavily, but just enough to keep us in our wet weather gear. In such weather, it is sometimes difficult to decide whether one gets wetter with the gear on, from perspiration, or with it off, from the rain.

Comers Falls

There was no shortage of water on the trail. We crossed over a dozen springs, creeks,and streams. Despite it being a Saturday, with temperatures in the 60s, there was a shortage of fellow hikers. We ran into only four in a ten-mile stretch, but at Old Orchard Shelter, we had the company of five other hikers, all northbound. We were all in tents, perhaps because the shelter is notorious for aggressive mice. One of the hikers that we met along our way this day told us that the mice had eaten more than half of his bandana.

Day Two: Old Orchard Shelter to Thomas Knob Shelter

Despite a little rain during the night, the second day of our journey was beautiful. No wet weather gear needed. After an oatmeal breakfast, we packed our gear, and were on our way. Originally, we had planned to make an easy day of it and hike only to Wise Shelter, 5.9 miles away, in Grayson Highlands State Park, but Maple persuaded me to make our third day the easy day and, instead, push on to Thomas Knob Shelter, 11 miles away.

At one point, perhaps it was at a place called The Scales, we came upon a fenced-in area, in which were two trailers and a couple of cars. It appeared to be a private lot. Around it were signs giving directions to various trails. No sign gave any direction to the southbound A.T. Maple and I spent a half hour going one way, then another, then another, trying to find a white blaze. Finally, we gave up and decided to enter the gate of the private lot. Only then did we notice a faded white patch on the gate and a more distinct white blaze on the other side of the lot.

This way led us up Stone Mountain and to our first encounter of wild ponies. We would see many before the day was over.

After over three hours of hiking, we began to wonder why we hadn’t yet reached Wise Shelter. Our pace seemed to be good, so we should have made it. (I should mention here that we didn’t have a map or any guide literature, since I had forgotten them at home.) We finally decided to take a break at Wilson Creek, at a nice tent spot. Afterwards, we discovered that we were less than 100 yards away from the shelter. Anyway, we took another, longer break at the shelter, had a nice hot lunch, and got back on the trail. By that time, we were behind schedule, so we refilled our water bottles at a nearby spring—just in case we didn’t make it to the next shelter before nightfall.

At Massie Gap, we encountered a northbound hiker who told us that Wilburn Ridge had taken a lot out of him. It was a fair warning, but hardly prepared us for just how difficult that climb would be. At one point, one has to squeeze oneself between two boulders to get through to the other side. This is also part of the trail up Mount Rogers. When we, finally, got over the ridge, we came to the Rhododendron Gap. Here were a number of fine looking tent spots. If there had been water here, Maple and I would have camped. Instead, we pressed on and soon arrived at our destination for the night, Thomas Knob Shelter.

Day Three: Thomas Knob Shelter to VA-600

When we awoke on day three, the wind was howling in the treetops, and the temperature had dropped significantly. “At least,” I said to Maple, “it’s not raining.” We started packing, and then it started raining. Soon, it was raining in earnest and would rain throughout the morning. Wet, windy, cold weather is not our favorite. We quickly donned our rain gear, completed packing up, and went over to the shelter to eat a fast breakfast.

While there, we met Steve, who had just summitted Mount Rogers and was on his way to Massie Gap. Steve told us of his mission to summit the highest points of every state, with the exception of Denali. He had completed a good number of them. Maple and I would come within half a mile of summitting Mount Rogers, but we decided, instead, to stay on the A.T. and to get back to our car as soon as possible—which we did within two hours.

AT: US-11 & I-81 to VA-16

On this frosty October morning, Maple and I checked out of our hotel in Marion, parked one of our cars at our destination on VA-16, across from the Mount Rogers Recreational Visitor’s Center, and then drove to the Barn Restaurant, where we parked our other car and began our hike.

Soon we reached the Settlers’ Museum of Southwest Virginia, which was closed, but I took a photo of the 1894 Lindamood Schoolhouse. We pressed on and soon arrived at the Chatfield Memorial Shelter, which has a running piped spring. It would have been a nice place to spend the night, but Maple and I were on a day hike and had a tight schedule.

From the shelter it was uphill to the top of Glade Mountain, where there was nice overlook of Walker Mountain to the west. We could also see I-81 from this location and were surprised to see how far we had walked in less than three hours. Here, Maple and I took a short break to make ourselves a cup of pumpkin spice latte. Um, that hit the spot on this chilly morning!

A mile or so later, we arrived at FR-86, where we made ourselves a hot lunch of noodles with chicken. By this time, the outside temperature was comfortable. The sky was a rich hue of blue. And the trees were still green, for the most part. We took in the beauty around us and enjoyed ourselves.

On Locust Mountain we met the only fellow hikers we would see this day, a couple who had, over the years, section hiked from Springer Mountain to as far south as where we met them. Like us, they were hiking as their schedules permitted, a little at a time.

All to soon, our hike was over. But, as we had a 7-hour drive ahead of us, back to Maryland, we were glad to get back to our cars. Until next time.

 

AT: VA-52 to VA-42

Day One: VA-52 to Jenkins Shelter

Maple and I drove six hours in the rain on Friday to get to Wytheville, Virginia. There, at a motel, we called our shuttle driver (Bubba’s Shuttles) and arranged to meet him at the Subway in Bland, to take us to our destination on VA-42, where we would drop off our car, and then to take us to our beginning point just outside of Bland, on VA-52. All went as planned, and by 10:30 Saturday morning we were on the trail.

Our first day was cold and rainy. It mostly drizzled, but the drizzle will soak you, eventually, just as well as a downpour, so Maple and I wore our rain gear all the way to the shelter. I suppose the weather kept most section hikers and day hikers from the trail, for we did not see a single soul during the whole hike.

The trail was, for the most part, relatively smooth, without any major uphill or downhill, so we made great time, hiking between two and two-and-a half miles an hour, and arriving at Jenkins Shelter around 5 p.m.

There, we encountered L.A., (his trail name is his initials), a triple-crown long-distance hiker. He was doing the A.T. for the second time, this time as a south-bound section hiker. Shortly after we arrived, Atilla showed up, a north-bound section hiker who had started just 4.5 miles south of the shelter and was headed to Pearisburg. L.A. dried off and moved on, but we shared the shelter with Atilla.

Day Two: Jenkins Shelter to Chestnut Knob Shelter

Throughout the night it rained off and on, but by the time we rose at 7:30 the rain had passed, leaving only a cloudy sky and cool weather. The temperature would stay within the 50s throughout the day, despite the fact that the sun sometimes made an appearance.

We filled up our water bottles at a creek at Jenkins Shelter and, since there was reportedly no water at Chestnut Knob, we planned to fill up our bottles and dromedary at a piped spring at Walker Gap.

The A.T. was not at all the smooth path of yesterday. Today, it was a rocky path, largely uphill, and much more difficult. It slowed Maple and I down to just over one mile an hour.

For the record: (1) “Davis Farm Campsite” is a field of rocks, just about the worst campsite that Maple and I have ever seen. (2) Most important for us, the spring at Walker Gap was completely dry.

Dry spring at Walker Gap

Maple and I had about a cup of water each left in our bottles. Much dejected after reaching Walker Gap, we decided to hike beyond Chestnut Knob to what the A.T. Guide identifies as a pond, 1.8 miles beyond the shelter, with a “spring at north end, best water source for Chestnut Knob Shelter.” We were on our way when, five minutes beyond the shelter we saw a small pond that looked fairly clear. We filtered our water from this source, but the water was still brown after filtering, and the process clogged our filter. Fortunately, we were able to return to the shelter and spend the night within its stone walls.

Three southbound hikers, all young men, joined us before nightfall. One had the trail name of Bruce Wayne. They were all hiking 20+-mile days and had begun together at Katahdin in June.

Day Three: Chestnut Knob Shelter to VA-42

In the morning, we found a hunting dog outside the door of our shelter, shivering. We let her in, gave her some cheese and water. She had a gps antenna on her, so we put her back out before we left and hoped for the best.

Our travels this day were, despite the constant uphills and downhills, easier than on the previous day. The trail was, simply, not as rocky. This reminded us of how much more difficult Pennsylvania had been.

We never saw the pond that the A.T. Guide listed. Our first decent water source since Jenkins Shelter was at Lick Creek. This means, essentially, that there is a 17.4 mile area that is virtually dry—unless, of course, you include the small pond of stagnant water that we had filtered from. After Lick Creek (going southbound), you go up and down a hill. At the bottom of that hill, there is a stream that appears to be constant. There was no other water source that we encountered on our way to VA-42.

Bridge over Lick Creek

With our clogged water filter, Maple and I were able to get a few extra ounces of water from Lick Creek, but by the time that we arrived at Knot Maul Shelter, we knew that we had to carefully ration our supply. We were already exhausted. But with two miles to go, we were also motivated to continue.

We arrived at our car before 4 p.m., and made it to Staunton, VA, where we spent the night. What a great trip it had been!

Cascade Canyon to South and North Forks, Grand Teton National Park

Birch and I woke up early on July 22 so that we would be on one of the first boats to cross Jenny Lake. This crossing was the best way to get to the Cascade Canyon trailhead and it had the added bonus of providng us with a beautiful view.

Cascade Canyon is one of the more popular day hikes in the park, but few people make it much past inspiration point, a spot that affords a nice view of Jenny Lake. We were on the trail by 8:15 am so it wasn’t crowded. The first mile or so was very steep, with a 1000 ft. ascent through a canopy of pines. The trail was wide and easy to navigate. Several times we had the chance to look down at Jenny Lake and we took our time going up the trail, stopping at spots to enjoy the cascading water and the river that roars through the canyon.

At the Jenny Lake boat dock.

I must say, Birch and I have finally found our trail legs. We are now used to the elevation and to carrying heavier packs. This made the ascent pretty easy and it wasn’t long before we were on a fairly flat trail. At one point we ran into a Park Ranger who warned us about the Marmots. Apparently, they like chewing trekking pole handles, backpack straps, and other things that taste salty.

At around 4.5 miles we reached the fork in the trail. We turned south to go on the “South Fork”. Finally, we were on the Teton Crest Trail! We began a steep incline and crossed several rapids/rivers. Luckily, the trail was in good shape. There was no snow and it was dry.

Immediately upon entering the camping zone we saw a great camp site. Without hesitation,we took it! We had amazing views of several peaks, including Grand Teton itself. The site was on a river that lived up to the “Cascade Canyon” name. As we looked out our tent, we could see a waterfall on one side, and the mountains on the other. We arrived pretty early (around 11:30 am) so there was plenty of time to relax.

At about 5 pm, a hiker named John and two of his friends joined us in camp. They had been on the trail many more days than us and John was carrying quite a load, including 40 ft. in rope, an ice axe and about 30 pounds of camera equipment. He told us that the rest of the South Fork was not to be missed. So, after dinner, Birch and I took a long hike (sans backpack!) up the trail. We took water and bear spray and went as far as we could while still being able to get back to camp before dark. The side trip was well worth it because we saw an enormous water fall that must have dropped thousands of feet down the side of a mountain.

Sunday morning was chilly! We had coffee and breakfast, then packed up and descended the South Fork until we came to the North Fork. This trail had many open expanses that enabled us to see for miles. The views were breath-taking! The trail is well maintained with stairs in many spots. Before long we encountered bolder fields. Then we saw snow! The snow was mostly off the trail until we got to within a mile of Lake Solitude. The last few yards up to the lake were snowy and icy.

We arrived at the lake just in time for lunch. What an amazing sight, to see so much snow and ice in July! The trail is not well marked so I can see why the park rangers were cautious about people backpacking in this area. Lake Solitude is at 9100 ft. in elevation and we would have had to go another 1300 ft or so in elevation to cross a pass under difficult conditions.

Fortunately, our plan was to camp on North Fork. We went back down the trail and found a spectacular site about halfway down the mountain. The camp had a nice stream for water. However, the best thing about it was that it had a large boulder/ledge with a fallen tree for seating. This had a view that was jaw-dropping. And we had it all to ourselves! Birch made coffee and be basked in the sun while enjoying our surroundings.Late that night we woke up to star gaze. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a night sky!

The view from our campsite.

The next morning was bitter sweet. This would be our last day on the mountain. As we descended, I took time to take enjoy my surroundings. Before long we were at the fork that brought us to the Cascade Canyon trail. The farther we descended, the more day hikers we saw. We were back at the boat before lunchtime. It was done all too soon!

Death Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

Maple and I had planned to backpack the Teton Crest Trail since before we made our backcountry reservations in January, but a late June heavy snow made our plans all but impossible. Two Park Rangers in GTNP informed us that residual ice and snow made the higher passes treacherous and that hikers were turning back because they could not make out the path. The rangers suggested alternative routes.

The first such route that we managed to secure was an overnight in Death Canyon. Athough terribly disappointed, at first, in our change of plans, I must admit that this hike proved to be both challenging and rewarding.

Not having a 4-wheel drive vehicle, we had to park our car where the pavement ended and begin our backpacking venture a mile before the trail officially began.The trail, once begun, was uphill, and would remain uphill most of the way. The only significant downhill was from Phelps Lake Overlook to where the Death Canyon Trail splits off from the Phelps Lake Trail. All told, we climbed 2,000 feet in elevation, despite the downhill section. Definitely, the hardest section is the ascent up to Death Canyon itself. Once inside the canyon, the ascent becomes more moderate until one reaches Fox Creek Pass, and we made our camp under Fox Creek Pass.

Maple and I crossed over water numerous times, usually on halved logs, that had their sawed, flat side facing up. Once, we had to take off our boots and socks, roll up our pants, and wade across the stream. Even the deepest water that we had to walk over was so clean that we could clearly see the bottom.

Death Canyon has nothing in common with Death Valley. In July, it is green, lush, filled with foliage and wild flowers. We saw many marmots. One, after we set up camp, came quite close to us and checked out our gear. On the return trip, on the second day, we saw two moose, eating close to the trail. One surprised us as he crossed the trail 8 to 10 yards ahead of us.

Before we set up our camp, in the upper reaches of Death Canyon, it began to rain. Maple and I knew that we were approaching our chosen tent site, so we kept going. We were fortunate. No sooner had we set up our tent, than our gentle rain turned into a downpour, a thunder storm and a hail storm. An hour and a half later, the sun was out again, and we laid out our gear to dry.

Death Canyon was awesome. Behind our camp was a racing stream, and in front of us were wide open spaces, with clusters of pine trees and boulders, hemmed in by tall cliffs, down which poured run-off from the snow. No other person was in sight, and it seemed that we had the whole canyon to ourselves.

AT: VA-632 to VA-606

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.

6-2_1256At 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

thumbnail_6-3_0912 (1)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 thumbnail_6-3_1306a 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!

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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.

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“Just Susan”

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.

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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.

AT: VA-311 to Craig Creek Road (VA-621)

Day One: VA-311 to Camp on Sawtooth Ridge

VA-311 to Pickle Branch Shelter is a strenuous 12.5 miles, particularly since it involves climbing Cove Mountain and Dragon’s Tooth. Maple and I decided to make the stretch a little easier by dividing it into two days, starting our hike on the same day that we drove out to our destination. When we arrived at the parking lot on Craig Creek Road after 2 p.m., our shuttle driver, “Roub”—whose acquaintance we had made at Bryant Ridge Shelter—and his wife “Mama Roub,” were already there, waiting for us. They had very graciously offered to shuttle us, and they were wonderful company. On our way to our starting point on VA-311, they pointed out a popular dining spot among AT hikers, the Homeplace Restaurant, on Catawba Valley Dr. We hoped to go there after our hike—but, alas, it does not open until later in the afternoon. We’ll have to try again.

We knew that it was going to rain, but Maple and I had hoped to make it four miles before camping. That didn’t happen. After two miles, it began to sprinkle, and we found a great tent spot on the ridge. As it turned out, the rain did not begin in earnest for another hour, but by that time we had had coffee, had eaten our dinner, and were comfortable inside our tent.

Day Two: Sawtooth Ridge to Pickle Branch Shelter

In the morning, we awoke to find ourselves above the clouds. The sky had cleared, and it was promising to be a beautiful, though hot, day. We postponed breakfast and got back on the trail by 7:30. Once we got off the ridge, in Catawba Valley, we found the trail muddy and slippery. At one point, a gathering of steers approached us and threatened to block our path. When we arrived at Catawba Creek, we found that the recent rains had made it deep. As there was no bridge, Maple and I had to remove our boots and roll up our pants before crossing. Once across, we rested at a tent spot and had our breakfast.

After crossing Route 624, Maple and I began our ascent up Cove Mountain. Half way up, the trail became quite rocky and began to demand a bit of scrambling. We were told, especially by those going down, that the scrambling would become increasingly difficult and dangerous, that our backpacks would make balancing precarious, and that I might have to use a rope to assist Maple on her ascent. Well, in truth, the scrambling did become more difficult, and Maple and I were both exhausted when we arrived at the top of Dragon’s Tooth, but the ascent was not half so difficult and dangerous as we had been led to believe. We actually made it more treacherous than it had to be, as we made the mistake of getting sidetracked by a false trail that led us up and over several rocks before disappearing

View from Dragon’s Tooth

The combination of heat and physical exertion left us exhausted, and though we stopped for lunch shortly after leaving Dragon’s Tooth, Maple and I still found ourselves plodding along for the last 4.2 miles of our day’s journey. We stopped, probably, every twenty minutes, but eventually found ourselves going downhill toward the shelter. And, once at the shelter, a short but steep descent brought us to the plentiful and cold water of Pickles Branch. There we refilled and cooled off before setting up our tent.

Sharing the shelter with us was a small and pleasantly sociable group of students from Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, led by their teacher, the university’s Library Director, Robbie Bolton. They were enjoying the end-of-semester culmination of a one-credit course called Backpacking and Wilderness Experience. Like us, they were southbound, but there was a second group from SAU that was northbound and that we would cross paths with on the next day.

Day Three: Pickle Branch Shelter to VA-621

Our third day out promised to be another hot one, in the upper 80s. Having had to ration our water the day before, I decided to carry about 1.5 liters extra. We had a four-mile uphill stretch to get to the top of Brush Mountain, where there is a monument to WWII hero Audie Murphie. Surprisingly, there are also two park benches, probably built by the Roanoke ATC.

After three miles downhill, we finally crossed the swift and deep currents of Craig Creek and made it back to our car. What a rewarding adventure!

AT: Bearwallow Gap (VA-43) to Troutville (US-11)

This past weekend Maple and I continued our southward journey on the AT in Virginia, hiking 20.1 miles, beginning at VA-43, east of Buchanan, and ending in the town of Troutville. Once again, we relied upon a shuttle service provided by Homer Witcher, who is the supervisor of all the shelters under the care of the Roanoke A.T.C. He dropped us off at our beginning point at 10 a.m. on a beautiful, but cold, Saturday morning. The temperature reached up into the 40s in the late afternoon, but with the constant wind, it rarely seemed much above freezing. A beautiful day for hiking, if dressed appropriately. And we were.

We crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway several times on Saturday, and the trail stayed fairly close to it always, until we reached Taylor Mountain Overlook. Here, after having our lunch, we crossed the parkway one last time, westward, and then parted ways with it. From here it was another 2.8 miles to Wilson Creek Shelter, where we were to spend the night.

Our water source.

We knew that Wilson Creek, an abundant water source, was a half mile south of the shelter, and since we weren’t looking forward to adding a mile to our hike (back and forth from the shelter), we took advantage of what appeared to be a small spring that crossed the trail about a quarter mile north of our destination. We filled our dromedary, continued our hike, and arrived at Wilson Creek Shelter before 4 p.m.

Seven young people had arrived before us. Among them were four north-bound thru-hikers, the first that we have come across this year: Hot Rod, Alpine, Sub-Zero, and his partner, Golightly. They had begun their journey in January and were presently accompanied by several college friends on spring break from Illinois–friends who were getting a taste of the backpacking life. At dusk, Maple accepted their invitation to make smores. They were all quite friendly, and it was a real pleasure to get acquainted with them. My only real concern is for Alpine, who has made it a habit to hike at night using his headlamp. Already he has had several falls, and I fear that it is only a matter of time before he injures himself.

Maple and I retired with the sun, played a game of backgammon, and then slept well, bundled up in our long underwear and sleeping bags with liners. When the Sunday morning sun woke us up, we made our breakfast of oatmeal and coffee on the picnic table in front of the shelter. When we packed up, we forgot our sporks on the table. It was an oversight we wouldn’t discover until we stopped for lunch at Fullhardt Knob Shelter. Eating Lipton’s Cup-a-Soup noodles with our fingers reminded us of our dinner along the “Roller Coaster” in northern Virginia, when I had forgotten to pack our sporks, and we had to manage macaroni and cheese with our fingers.

Fullhardt Knob Shelter

Fullhardt Knob Shelter has a cistern from which we were able to filter water. We had planned to spend Sunday night here, but we had made good time, despite the thousand-foot elevation gain between Curry Creek and Fullhardt Knob. And, since we didn’t have sporks with which to eat dinner and breakfast, we decided to hike the remaining 3.8 miles to our parked car on US-11.  Interestingly, after descending from the shelter, we had to pass through some privately owned land, including a cow pasture and a grass covered hillside, which is very steep and not represented on the AT map.

 

AT: US-501/VA-130 (James River) to Sunset Field, Blue Ridge Parkway

This was the last autumn backpacking venture that Maple and I would have for the year, and (as it turned out) it was also our first hike for the winter of ’16/17, for winter surely descended upon us on Saturday, November 19. But I am getting ahead of myself.

11-18_1532Maple did some preparatory research for our backpacking trip and was told that a dry season had left Marble Spring spent, and that we should expect no available water at Marble Spring Campsite. So, in addition to packing our usual water for the hike, I filled my 4-litre dromedary. Unfortunately, on the way to our beginning point, one of my Camelback bottles leaked, and I found it to be completely empty as I prepared to begin our hike. The situation placed Maple and I in a quandary, but just then a mobile home pulled into the parking lot. I asked the driver if he had any water to spare, and his wife happily refilled my bottle. Afterwards I found that they were there with the intent to be of service to hikers—that they were, in fact, traveling trail angels.

Our hike began by crossing the James River on the longest footbridge on the entire A.T., and then walking westward alongside it for nearly a mile, until we reached Matts Creek. 11-18_093711-18_0938Then we followed the creek to Matts Creek Shelter before crossing it and beginning our ascent up to Hickory Stand. There Maple and I took a break for lunch, and proceeded about a mile before running into two trail workers, Buckeye and Grateful, with the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club. They invited us to sit with them a bit, and we learned that they were also section hikers.

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At 7.8 miles we reached Marble Spring Campsite and found that no one else was there. 11-18_1531The first order of business was to check the spring, just in case, and we found that it was producing a steady but slow current. Once again, caution had prompted me to carry a heavy load of water unnecessarily. Still, better to be cautious than sorry. After setting up our tent and enjoying a cup of coffee, first a young woman (Grizzly) and, later, an older man (Leprechaun) strolled into camp. They both had the “gift of gab” and proved sufficient company for one another, so Maple and I called it an early night. During the night another southbound backpacker (who had sent home his tent!) came into camp.

It had been a warm day, reaching sixty-nine degrees, and the night was cloudless and comfortable. But the following day, during the late morning and early afternoon, the temperature dropped thirty degrees, and a powerful wind came into play, knocking down branches and scattering a fresh layer of leaves over our trail. In addition, dark clouds blew over us, threatening rain. Although Maple and I had 9.5 miles to hike, most of it uphill, we took few and short breaks, as we were afraid we were going to get pelted by freezing rain. Fortunately, we stayed dry and the clouds were blown away in the early afternoon.

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Thunder Hill Lookout

The Guillotine

The Guillotine

We passed Thunder Hill Shelter without visiting it, nor did we spend any time at the lookout on top of Thunder Hill. But we did pause briefly at the Guillotine. Who would not pause before walking under a boulder supported by two granite walls? That boulder may have been where it is for centuries, but it nevertheless looks like it is waiting to fall—just like the blade of a guillotine.

Appalachian Trail: VA-56 (Wye River) to US-60

9-23-842Day One: VA-56 to The Priest Shelter

Maple and I stayed at the Amherst Inn on Wednesday night, so we could get off to an early start Thursday morning. The weather was perfect. In the upper 70s, with clear skies. What we were more concerned about was the availability of water on top of The Priest. Maple and I had both made inquiries, and what we were told left us thinking that, to be sure of water, we had to carry it with us. (Thanks Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club!) So I packed on an extra 4 liters, and Maple carried an extra 1.75. That, plus four days of food and clothing, made us feel that we were carrying the heaviest packs ever.

We had seen The Priest mountain before, when descending to VA-56 through the Three Ridges Wilderness one month ago. It was an imposing sight, with a peak stretching upwards through a canopy of clouds. “That is what we have to climb on our next outing?!” we said, with no little anxiety. Yet, we did it. One step at a time. Having experienced a rather calamitous fall during that former backpacking venture, I was especially careful to keep my eyes on the ground before me, so as not to get tripped up. Maple and I made a game of counting the switchbacks: roughly, 35. (What counts and does not count as a switchback is a consideration that will lead to varying results.)

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We stopped to have lunch on some rocks about two-thirds of the way up, at an overlook, and took pictures. A little snake seemed to take an interest in us, and came so close that it peeked up at us from under Maple’s backpack. She screamed and sent the critter scrambling under leaves. From here on the hike seemed to get more difficult. Ultimately, we were pausing every ten to twenty yards to catch our breath. Finally, we reached the top, where, over the rocks to our right, 9-22-1351was the last overlook. Maple insisted I check it out, and since it was level ground, I consented. But, I got careless, and my boot got caught on a root, sending me diving face-first into the dirt. In the presence of The Priest, I cursed. I confess I was pissed off at myself, since I had tried so hard to be careful before taking this short detour.

F9-22-1657inally, we arrived at The Priest Shelter. There, we found that we had carried the extra water unnecessarily, that the spring was flowing, however so gently. We set up our camp, made coffee, filtered water, and relaxed. After making dinner, we played a game of backgammon, retired, and day one was over.

 

Day Two: The Priest Shelter to Seeley-Woodsworth Shelter

Day two was expected to be an easy, 6.7 mile jaunt. This area was once a logging area, and much of the larger trees were wiped out in the 1930s or so. It did seem like there was more new growth than some areas we’ve hiked before. However, it was beautiful. It was far enough away from main roads to be very quiet and peaceful.

9-23-842The trail descended sharply going south from the Priest. Then, it offered a series of ascents and descents (overall going up about 1,000 ft.) before reading “Spy Rock”. Spy Rock is a very popular day hike. It was fun to see people ooh and aw over our “big” backs. “You are obviously professionals,” someone said. Yeah. Right.

We had lunch at Spy Rock but never did get to the top. I’m sure it must be possible but it required a bit too much effort for our liking. Apparently, this was once a great place for the Confederate troops to track the forces from the North. I’ll have to take others’ word for it.

In about 2 1/2 miles we reached Seeley-Woodsworth Shelter. It has a tremendous, well-running spring that enabled us to fill up to our heart’s content with water. There, we met “Star Man” and “Fire Starter”, two brothers who valued fellowship over tough hikes. They had skipped the Priest but had experienced other fun adventures on the trail. A surfer/massage therapist/Costa Rican named Todd joined us at the shelter and we had a blast sharing stories. Overall, it was a wonderful day.

Home Sweet Home at Seeley!

Home Sweet Home at Seeley!

Day Three: Seeley-Woodsworth Shelter to Cow Camp Gap Shelter

Day three was, potentially, our hardest venture, with 10.2 miles to hike to get to the blue trail leading to the shelter—another .5 miles. It was the furthest we had ever committed ourselves to hiking with full backpacks. Having been previously informed that the spring at Cow Camp Gap was dry, we stashed a water supply off the trail at a clearing two miles north of Cow Camp Gap. So, at least we didn’t have to carry extra water as far as this clearing.dscn0631

The hiking wasn’t too difficult, and we arrived at Hog Camp Gap at about noon. There we rested under apple trees, had an apple with our lunch, and were about to begin our descent up Cole Mountain when I suddenly realized that this was the place that I had stashed water. I hadn’t known exactly where I had stashed water, only that there was a sign indicating that it was two miles before Cow Camp Gap. When I saw the sign, I realized that Hog Camp Gap was the place. So, we retrieved our water, and with the added weight, climbed Cole Mountain.

On our ascent, we encountered a woman with a melodious southern ascent who assured 9-24-1326us that Cole Mountain rewarded its climbers—that it was like that hill that Julie Andrews climbed in The Sound of Music that inspired her to break out in song. Well, Cole Mountain did, indeed, have a wonderful panoramic view (not quite 360 degrees, but still rather impressive for a hill—not quite as majestic as The Priest). We did not sing, not that we did not want to—perhaps, we were out of breath. A little ways south, we encountered a father and son team who volunteered to take our picture.

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Finally, we arrived at Cow Camp Gap Shelter and discovered that the spring was flowing. Once again, we had carried extra water unnecessarily. The good thing about it was that we had no need to filter water. We had plenty of water to spare. As there was a small family inhabiting the shelter and playing their music, we decided to hike further down the creek. There we found good tent spots and quiet. Todd, the surfer dude that we had met at Seeley-Woodworth, had made it here before us, but there was ample space, and Todd hardly made his presence known.

Day Four: Cow Camp Gap Shelter to US-60

Our campsite.

Our campsite.

We awoke in the middle of the night to rain. By morning, everything was soaked, especially (for some reason) the inside of our tent. Birch was kind enough to get up and make coffee. After warming up with the cup ‘o Joe, we decided that the best thing to do was to eat a power bar and get moving. We packed up quickly and put on a bit of rain gear. However, by the time we went the 1/2 mile back up to the AT we decided that wearing the rain gear wasn’t worth it. We were too hot!

The fresh, cool, rainy weather was just what we needed to ascend the 2 miles to the top of Bald Knob. There are no overlooks here, which is just as well since we were fogged in. The descent is long (over two miles) and steep (a 2000 ft descent.) We made great time and were back to the car well before noon. US-60 has plenty of parking and the wayside was full of cars, many with AT bumper stickers. I guess it is a popular spot. I can’t wait to get back here for our next adventure, as we continue south on the trail.