November 12, 2016
We had just finished a wonderful tour of eastern Canada in our lovely Airstream. We had done a lot of day hikes and bike trips, and I was anxious to do more. My initial thought was to hike the Smokies, but they had forest fires, bear problems and very dry conditions where most of their springs were dry. I decided to hike in our back yard in the Shenandoah National Park. That way, Martha could drop me off, and if I wanted to quit at any time, she could come and get me. It was more miles here (110), but the mountains aren’t as big. It turned out to be a Godsend, because I never would have made it through the Smokies.
The week I had was perfect. The weather was in the 60’s during the day with lows in the 40’s, and it was a full moon. We were past peak leaf season and we had a few frosts, so the ticks and snakes would be gone. I hate heat, and I could never have done this in July or August.
I went to the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Barracks Road Shopping Center, where Andrew helped me put the necessary items together. I had read a good article about how to pack light, staying below 35 pounds, and that was my goal. http://bucktrack.com/Appalachian_Trail_Gear.html. Andrew was a big help. Of course they didn’t have the same stuff recommended in the article, but a lot was similar and you could touch it, feel it and try it on. Nothing, however will prepare you enough except by going out and doing it. Then you will know what you really need. Andrew hikes and camps, so he knew what I needed, especially the little things. I’m a greenhorn, never having done anything like this before. OK, we camped many times in tents growing up, mostly trout fishing in these mountains, but we drove to the sites. I had never carried gear to camp. However during our hikes in Canada I always carried camera gear, a camera backpack, water, some food and some emergency medical supplies. I had taken a great trail first aid course sponsored by this outfitter, but to really be prepared to help an injured person on the trail, you would have to carry a pack totally dedicated to that.
I was two weeks short of turning 70 years old, no spring chicken, and a greenhorn at that. What was I thinking? I bought two pairs of shoes, one low-top and one with ankle support. There was an Osprey backpack, a down sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees, an air mattress, a bag to stuff clothes in, a little wood burning stove, a pot and pan and water filtration system. I didn’t think I needed this as I was sure there would be lots of places along the way to fill up. Andrew suggested some food bags where you add boiling water, and I went to Bed Bath and Beyond for some Cliff bars and other breakfast bars. Andrew also suggested a water-proof food sack to hang at night. I was ready!
Using a luggage scale, I weighed each category to try to stay as light as possible. Once I thought I had all the elements under weight, I packed the bag, but it wouldn’t all fit. I took out half the food, a lot of the first aid supplies, a light, a lighter and some clothes. I tried to weigh the bag with the luggage scale, but it groaned. I think I was about 35 pounds. Then there was the camera and extra pair of shoes.
I wanted to be on the trail at 7:30, but we were late. We couldn’t tell where to start at the south end of the park. Driving through the gate, there was no one there. You need to fill out a permit telling them how long you will be in the park and where you are staying. Apparently there is a place at the beginning of the park, but we didn’t see it, so I asked Martha to stop back at the entrance building on her way out and fill it out. She hiked with me for the first two hours, starting where the trail crosses the parkway. It was thick in the beginning, and a beautiful buck stopped just feet in front of us. He looked at us majestically, then slowly walked across the trail in front of us, looking at us again before disappearing. It was a very cool feeling. At Calf Mountain, Martha turned back. This is a beautiful spot, one of the prettiest I had seen, and it would be a great camp site in an open field. As I watched Martha disappear into the trees, I got chocked up. It surprised me. My buddy was leaving me. I was by myself. Was I crazy? I pushed on.
I must say, I wasn’t that impressed the first day. I thought the trail was a fairly boring hike through the woods. No trout streams, no waterfalls, but another beautiful deer seen. By 4:30 I was nowhere near a hut and I was tired. I passed what looked like a nice campsite just below an overlook somewhere south of Riprap overlook. I hung the food over a limb as Andrew had instructed me. I’m glad no one was watching though. I have had one shoulder operated on for rotator cuff repair, and the other one needs it. Throwing a line over a limb in the woods with bushes grabbing the end of the rope was an adventure, but finally I got it done. I ate some dinner and set my bag against a log about 20 yards away. I hadn’t bought a tent, thinking I would be staying in huts the whole time, but the sky was clear with no chance of rain, and the low was supposed to be 43 degrees, so no big deal. The snakes were in their holes. As it got dark, I started writing in my journal the events of the day with Martha’s headlamp lighting the page. A nice through-hiker headed south stopped to chat. He was in shorts with two walking sticks. Having been on the trail since the middle of August, he was well-seasoned. He said he liked to walk at night. It was cooler and there was no traffic, but he commented on the “rivers of leaves”, sometimes half-way up his thighs. They disguised the rocks underneath, so he had sprained an ankle, but he said he had a few sprains along the way. He seemed quite happy about the whole thing, wished me well and headed out.
Something walked in the dry leaves on the other side of the trail, a deer I’m sure. Looking over I couldn’t see anything. Unconcerned, I started writing again. More footsteps. Looking across the trail, I could now see it was a bear. I got up and shooed him off. He came back. I got the bear spray out and the more powerful light, shining it in his eyes. Running at him and yelling for him to go away, I was now more serious. He came back. I decided to just see where he would go. He walked around my camp, heading for my backpack. I shooed him away. That’s when I heard another one on the other side of camp where I hung the food. The crunching footsteps were confusing now, but I was pretty sure there was a third one. OK, I am never going to get any sleep here no matter what happens, so I started packing up while keeping my headlamp looking around. It is rare for a black bear to attack a human, although it does happen. They don’t want to eat us, but they would like our food. One bear got a little close and I shooed him off again, but he wasn’t happy this time, flapping his lips together. I don’t know what this means, but I don’t think it’s good. I had walked up to the overlook earlier to watch the sun set, so I knew where to get through the brush. Bear spray at the ready and light in the other hand, I almost broke out when I saw two eyes looking back at me. He wouldn’t move, and there was more lip flapping. OK, OK, I’m going around. I think this was his path and his home. I think the family lived here, and I was the intruder. I think they go up to overlook and search for leftovers, and eat some grass in the field. I was right in their highway to the field and overlook, and here I was telling them to get lost! I wound my way around the right flank and just bulled my way through the bushes. Breaking into the open, I quickly looked around, not seeing any bears. Whew!
I went up to the overlook and sat on the wall in the giant moon’s excellent light. I pulled out the map to see where Blackrock Hut was. It was a long way. I decided to walk up the parkway. I don’t care what my through-hiker friend said, I wasn’t walking the trail at night tonight! I was surprised to see cars on the parkway at night. One big tractor trailer flatbed almost ran over me. Several times i considered putting the sleeping bag against one of the rock walls in the grass, but I walked on. Finally the trail crossed the parkway and I headed up it, flashlight and bear spray in hand, and looking back regularly. I found the post marking the trail to Blackrock Hut and headed down. I could see a fire going and laughter. What a warm, welcome sight! As I wound my way down, there was no fire at the hut. It was behind, and there was no movement at the hut. I called to see if anyone was there, but no answer. Shining my light in, I could see someone in a sleeping bag on the upper level. It was 9:30 and I was exhausted. As quietly as possible, I blew up my air mattress, put out my sleeping bag, hung my food, hung my bag and crawled into bed. Never have I been so happy to sleep in an open air building with strangers.