Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Weekend in the Woods

In my rear-view mirror I watched the cop on the motorcycle make a U-turn. I swallowed hard and felt my stomach flutter. I might have been going a little fast, but surely I was still under the speed limit? Right? The motorcycle began to tail me and, not knowing the exact speed limit on the stretch of road I was on, I debated whether I should maintain my speed or slow down to an annoying crawl. I decided to split the difference. The flashing lights began to flicker and pulsate, so I slowly wheeled into a mostly vacant shopping center to await my fate. The cop told me I was, in fact, speeding. I apologized.

“Where are you heading?” the officer asked.

“Into the woods,” I replied.
After a verbal warning, Katie and I were on our way, again, to Shenandoah National Park. Our destination: The Overall Run/Beecher Ridge trailhead. Despite the stop, we made great time and found ourselves at the parking lot at a quarter to 10.

The sun was still low in the sky, but the air was warm. Even this mountain air. We began the eight-and-a-half-mile hike on a gravel road, but soon found ourselves in the cool, sticky forest. The shade. After a mile and a half of hiking, I realized we had gone the wrong way. It didn’t matter, because we were doing a loop, but I cursed my map for providing incorrect information. Naturally, it was the map’s fault. After walking alongside pleasant Overall Run, we crossed the stream and began a nearly four mile climb up Beecher Ridge. It certainly wasn’t the hardest hill I’d ever hiked, but the sweat was flowing and I continuously sucked down water and Gatorade. We crossed paths with a couple of groups, but it was fairly quiet in the woods. At noon, we reached an intersection and thought it’d be a good place to eat lunch. I tossed my sweat-soaked shirt on a bush to dry then lathered up a piece of Pita bread with peanut butter while Katie snacked on, well, snacks. A pair of hikers approached and, after some small talk, they asked whether or not we’d seen the bear. I quickly explained that we had come from the opposite end of the trail, then began to fire off questions about the bear:
“How far away was it?” “How many minutes?” “What side of the trail was it on?”

After receiving the answers, I grabbed Katie, my shirt, and quickly stowed the remaining items of food into my backpack. In my hand, I still fingered half of my peanut butter sandwich. As we race-walked down the trail, passersby warned us there was a bear along the trail. I peppered them for information while continuing to walk. They suggested he was moving away, so my pace towards the bear intensified. Ahead, about 50 feet above a 90-degree bend in the path, was a bruin slowly ambling its way over a rock field. My first impression was how large it looked, and I was amazed at how such a big black creature was still very difficult to see in the woods. One really had to look to see it. It was also as quiet as a mouse. We were at a safe distance, and the bear was doing its own thing so we walked along the trail and tried to get a better view. Eventually it slipped above the ridgeline and disappeared. Had we arrived a minute later than we had, we likely wouldn’t have seen it. We continue our march down the trail until we came to a spur which angled back in the direction of where the bear was heading. We decided to walk down the path to see if we could see the bear again. Other hikers began to walk towards us.
“There’s a bear up the path. It’s a cub, I think. Its mom might be around, so watch out!”

Hmm, I thought, was this the same bear we had just seen? It couldn’t be a second bear, or could it? The one we’d seen was much bigger than a cub, but one’s perception can be misleading when among the trees. We arrived at a clearing and saw a few other hikers staring into the woods. We followed their eyes and saw a bear walking slowly with its nose to the ground. Grubbing? The bear looked like the same one we had just seen, but Katie thought it was smaller; like a cub. I continued to glance left and right looking for other bears, but none materialized so I took some (terrible) photos and a video. The bear began to walk towards us on the trail, so we backed up and gave it plenty of space. I realized I was still holding the remnants of my peanut butter sandwich, so I quickly shoved it in my mouth and began licking my peanut butter-stained fingers. Eventually it walked across the path and slowly made its way into the woods, pawing small trees and rocks as it meandered. We debated whether or not it was the same bear, but I’m confident it had to be.
On the four-mile descent we happened upon numerous overlooks, including the impressive 96-foot Overall Run Waterfall, but the views weren’t as cool as seeing the bear. At least, that was my opinion. We eventually returned to the path along the creek and hiked until it emptied into a large pool atop a small waterfall. I was quite warm so decided to slide into the cold mountain water. My body temperature plummeted, or so it seemed. As I stood there, small trout pinged off my toes. A dozen other hot, sweaty hikers paraded into the site, so I decided to leap frog downstream to another cold pool. However, I couldn’t stay long, we had more exploring to do.
We arrived at the Old Rag parking lot shortly after 4:00 p.m. and frantically began fashioning our packs, because we’d taken nearly everything out of the packs to day hike the Overall Run loop. The sun was beating down mercilessly in the parking lot and I found it strangely hard to concentrate while packing, insomuch that I almost moved my car to shadier spot. I’ve done a lot of hiking in the Shenandoah during the past 10 years, but for some reason I had never done the most popular one, Old Rag. Perhaps that was why, but I think it largely had to do with the fact that it was typically done as a long day hike and I’d have to wake up, and get there, very early. In any case, here we were and I was excited to get started. As we walked the nearly mile up the road it takes to get to the trailhead, we passed throngs of red flushed faces parading down the road back to their respective cars. Some gave a smug look that suggested, “I already DID the hike.” Although the climb to our campsite was only three miles, the going was slow, because the Ridge Trail is entirely uphill and contains nine switchbacks. I was waiting for the contour lines on the topo map I had to widen; a sure sign that there was flat ground ahead, but we continue to march up and up and up. Eventually, we stumbled upon flat ground and began to set up camp for the night. Once the tent was built we made our way over to a large, whale-sized rock, which overlooked the trail, and prepared our dinner. There were no streams on the mountain, so I had lugged up three liters of water (in addition to the two large Nalgene bottles I’d carried) for cooking dehydrated meals and resupply. But it wasn’t water I wanted right now. I cracked open a PBR. Then I cracked open another and began to take in the evening air. Coming up the trail below me was old Petey Towpath and his girlfriend, Veronica. Before he even got to the campsite, Petey was bragging about the two bears he’d seen a mile or so back down the trail, plus a third bear he’d seen earlier in the day. I cursed his name under my breath, jealous – enraged – he’d seen more bears today than I had. I thought about lying, and telling him I’d seen four bears, but what would be the point? After they got settled, Towpath and his lady joined Katie on the whale rock as we ate our meals. We were surrounded by giant maple tree trunks that resembled brontosaurus legs. I sipped whiskey and waited for the sun to set; we’d been up early and on our feet for most of the day, so my eyelids were heavy.
When I woke the next morning, shortly after 6 o’clock, I was pleasantly surprised to see two does traipsing through our site. I was even more surprised that I slept through the night, as I never sleep well when I camp. The wind was howling way above our heads, as we crept from our bags, and we thought the maple trees, that appeared be a thousand feet high, would come crashing down on around our tents. But, they didn’t. I indulged in some hot coffee and began to slowly strike camp. By 7:37, Katie and I had our packs on our backs and were pressing onward – up to the summit of Old Rag. Petey and company would follow a short while later. Within 10 minutes Katie and I had reached the infamous Rock Scramble. It’s a challenging set of obstacles on a normal day, but carrying packs with sleeping bags and pads made negotiating the scramble all the more difficult. Our center of balance was completely off and I feared we’d tumble off the rocks into the dark forest a million feet below.

At times, we had to hand carry our packs up some ledges, but, ever so slowly, we grinded up and ahead. All told, the scramble took about an hour and a half. The views at the top were predictable awesome, but a cool wind was icing on the cake. During the five plus mile descent to the parking lot, we stumbled into additional deer as well as two eastern rat snakes, black as ink -- one of which was about four feet long and gave us a show by climbing out on a branch. Aside from the aforementioned encounters, the walk was fairly uneventful and I dreamed of coming back here sometime to run the fire road, because its grade is quite manageable.

By weekend’s end, we’d hiked about 18 miles -- much of it either up or down. I was quite content, because I’d done a couple lackluster hikes earlier in the year, so it was great to get in a hike with bears, snakes, views, waterfalls and cold mountain pools


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