Sunday, September 6, 2015

Backcountry Report: Potomac State Forest

Until last weekend, I had forgotten that Labor Day weekend was looming; it just kind of crept up on me. Last year at this time, I ventured out West to conquer Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness. This year, without a big trip planned, and without and races on my schedule, I decided to head out to western Maryland to explore Potomac State Forest. Most times I venture out for a local overnight, I end up traveling to Shenandoah National Park or George Washington National Forest (2-3 hours southwest of the Beltway). On Saturday, however, I decided to trek (3+ hours northwest) to Garrett County on the border of West Virginia. The destination - The Lostland Run Trail in the Potomac State Forest.

I left Montgomery County shortly before noon on Saturday. With windows rolled down and sunroof open, I blasted music from the '60s and the '80s (literally going back and forth between 60s on 6 and 80s on 8 -- two different Serius XM channels). The drive was gorgeous and it felt as if autumn was about to pounce. I stopped just twice; once to grab a double cheeseburger, fries and coke from Burger King, and the other to drive aimlessly around the town of Cumberland for no particular reason other than to check out this particular dot on the map. After I left, I realized I should have looked for the end of the C&O Canal Towpath, just for fun. Later, I drove past Deep Creek Lake. I shuddered as I recalled running 3 x repeats up Wisp, the local ski resort's monster hill, which I did as a freshman at UMBC, 17 years ago this week (good god). I also recalled running 10 miles around the lake in 57- or 58-minutes. We raced every run and workout back in college...

I arrived at Potomac State Forest shortly after 3pm. The ranger station was closed and I didn't see a fee box, so I quietly locked up my car, heaved my pack over my shoulder and proceeded into the cool, dark woods. I felt a bit silly driving all the way out here alone to hike 8-9 miles round trip, but Katie was busy getting accustomed to the new school year and I figured there is really never a bad day/night of hiking/camping and I didn't mind a long drive on a nice day.The trail was very rocky, at times, but it was mostly easy going. The forest was oozing with moisture and the moss and vegetation reminded me somewhat of New Hampshire and Maine.

Although it was cool, it was also humid, but the thick tree cover sheltered me from the sun. Still, I found myself constantly mopping my brow. At times, the trail wandered too close to the dirt road and I caught glimpses of folks car camping in gravel parking lots. I felt foolish for not researching the trail better; I certainly didn't want to hear cars, let alone see them, on my overnight hike. I passed a couple of shallow swimming holes and a redneck, at least a 6-pack in, who had lost his kids somewhere along the creek (don't worry, they were safely seen down stream frolicking in the water). The trail ended at the North Branch (of the) Potomac River 4 miles from where I parked my car. I proceeded past the end of the trail and conversed with a middle-aged couple in the parking lot. I inquired about a camping spot, but they didn't know much about that. I looked at the ground and saw a mud-splattered Trojan wrapper. I decided I'd move on.

After taking in the views, I pivoted my body to the north and proceeded back the way I came. It occurred to me that there were no overnight camping spots. Hmmm. The options were to head to the road, make some friends and car camp, or hike back to my car...and drive back home. Or, I could simply hike off trail and make my own camp spot. I wasn't sure if this was permitted, so I wanted to find a spot where I couldn't be seen from the trail. About a mile later, I happened upon such a spot. I tucked myself behind a natural rock wall. Then I grabbed a long stick and "raked" away the smaller sticks and rocks all the while being mindful of copperheads and timber rattlers. The campsite wasn't ideal, but it wasn't bad either; I had a gin-clear gurgling stream at my feet and forest to my back.

I quickly set up my tent and moved my food and stove down to the creek. I wasn't hungry, yet, but I was thirsty. Inside my pack were two ice cold pale ales (I'd wrapped them in fleece). I quickly polished off one of the suds then took it all in.

Suddenly, upstream, a black bear sauntered down to the creek for a drink. Normally, I would have heard him (this bear expert believed it to be a 1-2 year old male, approx. 100-125lbs) approach, but the sound of the creek made that impossible. It's perhaps why he didn't hear me, too. I huddled down behind a rock and proceeded to film it with my phone. He left the creek then headed uphill. I shut off my phone. Moments later, I realized he wasn't walking away from the creek, he was walking along the creek...right towards me. I began to film again. He had no idea I was there, but it looked as if he was following his nose. Perhaps he smelled my food. I felt perfectly safe, but I didn't want to surprise him if he got too close. Then, the bruin turned to its left and it looked as if it was going to either take another drink or cross the stream, about 30-feet away, directly across from where I was crouching. I immediately jumped up from behind the rock and shouted at the bear. It, in turn, hauled ass up a hill on the other side of the crick (sic). I started on my bear bag, which comically took about 30 minutes to rig; because the woods were so thick, it was damn near impossible to find enough room to throw a rope above a tree limb. Eventually, after pulling a muscle in my stomach, I did it. Then I made dinner - dehydrated chicken and noodles and a chunk of French bread I'd hauled in from Giant - and sipped on cognac. Before it got too dark, I ventured across the creek to see if I could spy the black bear. He was long gone, but I did see signs - rocks and logs flipped over in search of grubs, and the like. I decided it was getting late, and before I got lost in the inky blackness that is night in the middle of the woods, I retired to my tent -- early. I read a chapter or two, sipping spirits as I turned each page.

I woke up numerous times that night - something that often happens when I camp - but jolted awake a quarter after 6 when I large branch came crashing down on to my tent. At first, I assumed someone had thrown something at me, but I began to realize how ridiculous that would have been -- way out here, early on a Sunday morning. Still, the commotion got my heart racing and I was up. It was still dark when I struck camp. I brewed some delicious black gold, but opted to not boil up any breakfast (oatmeal) and instead got started on the hike out. The hike out was eerily quiet, or the way a hike is supposed to be. I didn't see a soul, but I did see a barred owl placed peculiarly on a perch.

I returned to my car, applied some deodorant then doused myself in some warm water, and got in my car. It was time to go home.

On nearly every VA/MD area trek I do, I utilize Leonard D. Adkins hiking books. Check it out.

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