Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Backpacking in Dolly Sods

Sometimes the easy things are hard and the hards things are easy. Imagine a group of 9 people converging from almost as many different cities over two days all hoping to meet up with each other in a wilderness area based only on the knowledge that the first arrivals had plans to make camp somewhere near the intersection of two particular trails. Finding each other turned out to be easy. Now, imagine a backpacker picking up a pack and hiking down a trail. Or, imagine experienced campers making sure they had the basic gear that they needed with them for the trip. Those turned out to be harder than one would have thought.

Here's the story: My kayaking friend Peter H1 (there are two Peter H's in this story) raised the idea of a backpacking trip into Dolly Sods and got a very positive response. Personally, I was a little hesitant because it had been many years and several orthopedic injuries since I had been backpacking, but after some hemming and hawing I decided to join in. The challenge was that not everyone could get there at the same time, so we planned for a staggered arrival. Peter H1 and our new friend Susan would drive up Thursday, make camp at the Red Creek campground Thursday night. They'd get an early start into the backwoods Friday morning to stake out a spot for the group. Nelson and Caroline planned to drive up crazy early on Friday and head straight for the backwoods site. Peter H2 and Gina would follow at some point on Friday. Suzanne wouldn't able to get away until mid-day on Friday and was hesitant about heading into the woods on her own, so Jen and I arranged to stay at the Red Creek campground Friday night and wait for Suzanne, who would join us Friday afternoon whenever she could get there. The three of us would backpack in Saturday morning and meet up with the rest of the group. This clever scheme had me backpacking only one night, which lessened my weight load and therefore my anxieties a little bit.

Jen and I set out early (but not as crazy early as Nelson and Carolyn) on Friday. While it was a little early for much conversation, I did ask her how the ongoing mid-West drought was affecting the part of Iowa where she's from, to which she replied, "it's so dry they might as well get out the silage chopper now." Boy, that said it all - or at least would have to someone with the slightest clue what she was talking about. This city mouse doesn't know much about farm equipment (didn't Silage Chopper teach motorcycle repair at Hogwarts?) but being a Mensa member was able to discern her meaning from the context.

The backwoods site
We arrived at Red Creek campground around 10:30 AM and snagged one of the last two available campsites. After setting up camp (including a plastic pink flamingo as a marker for Suzanne) and marveling at the cool, dry weather we day-hiked to where the rest of the group was supposed to be and - miracle of miracles - found them with no problem. Susan, Peter H1, Nelson and Caroline were already there with their tents pitched on a gorgeous plain along a mountain stream. Caroline pointed out the monarch butterflies flitting around the fire ring. A liturgical phrase from Numbers 24:5 came to mind. The pagan prophet Balaam, who was apparently a mercenary (a for-profit prophet?) was sent by King Balak to curse the Israelites, but when he came upon Jacob's encampment was so taken with the beauty and holiness of the place he instead blessed the place, exclaiming, "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters." At some level I may have started out intending to curse Peter H1 for getting me involved with schlepping a backpack, but it was hard to feel anything but Balaam-like joy and awe at the beauty of the campsite.

After hanging around a bit (and enduring a brief spell of rain) Jen and I hiked the 2.5 miles back to the campground in expectation of Suzanne's arrival. Along the way we bumped into Gina and Peter H2 (who was carrying such camping essentials as a four foot long saw and a sextant). They were heading for the backwoods site. We also took good advantage of the ripening wild blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries along the trail and ate our way back to camp. Suzanne arrived in the late afternoon, frazzled from an even more hectic than anticipated morning and a traffic-choked drive out. The three of us had a nice dinner (provided by Suzanne, courtesy of Wegman's) then spent the evening in our camp chairs looking skyward to catch the peaking Perseid meteor shower.

In the morning we fastened on our packs and set off down the trail. We made it maybe a few hundred yards when I realized something was amiss. My pack was hanging really low and felt uneven. I took it off and realized that my 23 year old backpack had suffered a critical failure - the top mounting point for the straps, a triangular plastic piece, had completely disintegrated. There was no way I was going to be able to hike with that thing. My first thought was to head back to the campground (we had paid for a second night at our campsite strictly as a place to leave the cars - all the other parking at the trailhead was full!) and send the two of them on backpacking. I'd turn around and meet up with them in the morning - or just spend the weekend on my own day-hiking. I also came up with some less useful options (e.g., hailing a taxi home on the forest road). My companions, however, would not abandon me. The three of us returned to camp to McGuyver a solution. We jettisoned whatever equipment we could, including one tent. They agreed to share Suzanne's two person tent and have me use Jen's one-person tent (this was judged to have fewer long-term negatives than either of the other possible permutations). I wound up carrying as much of my stuff as possible in a combination of Suzanne's daypack on my back, my daypack worn on my front like a baby in a Snuggli, and Jen's fanny pack. I also carried one item of group gear (the flask of single malt scotch). Jen took my sleeping bag and Suzanne added my sleeping pad to her already humongous pack. The two of them got in touch with their inner Amazons and carried the remainder of the group gear as well (cooking, water filter). Nobody had to worry about carrying the stove, which I had conveniently forgotten at home. And off we went ...
Pack Man

I suffered a lot of ribbing from Jen and Suzanne along the way about how they were carrying all my gear, but I held my head high as we passed other groups on the trail. In case anyone had asked about my odd combination of little packs I had a story prepared about how in our religion it was customary for my wives to carry the burdens, and another one about how I couldn't carry much weight because of a motorcycle racing accident, but no one questioned us so I never had to spin my yarns of high adventure and outdoorsy polygamy.

We made it to the backwoods campsite just in time to see the group heading out on a trail for a hike. We called out, they turned around and set to work helping us make camp. Our tents were set up in a jiffy (and I once again chose not to curse the encampment). Suzanne and Jen, tired from carrying All My Gear chose to limit their Saturday afternoon hiking to a short walk to a spot with a view (and lots more blueberries), while I joined Peter H1, Susan, Nelson and Carolyn on a longer day hike up to Harmon Knob where we were treated to a fantastic view. Peter H1 was ready to keep going, and going, and going in his Energizer bunny fashion, but at the peak of Harmon Knob Susan staged a sit-down, plopping down to soak in the view. Caroline and I soon joined her (Nelson had turned back earlier). Peter, characteristically unable to sit still, ran around taking pictures.
Harmon Knob Panorama

Saturday night we made dinner (for our part, Jen's awesome rice curry dish - other dinners ranged from pre-fab pouches to gourmet trail food), hung around a campfire, and once again watched the meteor shower and the gorgeous stars. A couple of the meteors were quite spectacular, shooting a wide trail across the night sky. Spotting the meteors triggered plenty of group "ooohs!" and "aahs!" There was a general giddiness at sitting around a campfire bundled up in fleece in August. When you live in the hot humid muck of the mid-Atlantic, a cool summer evening is something to be truly savored.

Around 2 AM I bolted awake to the sound of footsteps outside my tent: there was an animal walking around the camp, making huffing noises as it went. Given that we were in bear country (and that Gina had mentioned earlier that bears "huff") I jumped to the conclusion that it was a bear and spent the next half hour in an adrenaline panic figuring what to do when the inevitable bear attack came. Interestingly, I never for a moment considered that it might be a smaller, less lethal animal and I had trouble convincing myself that even if it was a bear it might not attack. Finally, after a while of quiet I managed to convince myself that the giant rabid grizzly had left us and was able to get back to sleep. In the morning I found out that other people had heard the animal too, though no one poked their heads out and took see what it actually was. Jen guessed our visitor had been a fox. After returning home I listened to animal sounds online and my conclusion is that it was a bobcat. Or a sasquatch.

Sunday we gathered for breakfast and then broke camp. Peter H1 and Susan headed out to hike a long, circuitous route back. Peter H2, Gina, Nelson, Caroline, Jen, Suzanne and I headed more directly back towards the campground. At camp I sorted out my gear and we ate lunch as a group before heading out.

It turned out that none of us was quite ready to give up the beauty of the Sods. Suzanne's feet were chewed up from her hiking boots and so she declared she was done with hiking and got into her car to head home. Jen and I headed up to Bear Rocks to do a short day hike where we immediately ran into none other than Suzanne - she had pulled over to take a quick look at the scenery. Up the trail a bit we ran into Gina, Peter H2, Nelson and Caroline.
Bear Rocks Panorama


Finally, we all tore ourselves away from the view and the cool, fresh air and headed back to muggy DC, vowing to visit this wonderful place again soon.

My pictures are here.
Susan's pictures are here.
Nelson's pictures are here.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Another New York Run

As is usually the case when I stay at my mother-in-law's in NY, I took the opportunity to go for a run in Central Park. As I walked over to the park I noticed a pair of crutches abandoned against a tree. Had there been a miraculous healing on 79th Street? Like the single abandoned shoes one sees on the streets of NY, it is a mystery.

The streets of New York were quiet at 7 AM on a weekend day. I have lived so long in Washington's early morning culture (it's the military/government influence) that I'm no longer used to the late-to-bed, late-to-rise schedule of NY.

My run was uneventful. I started out heading downtown, keeping my eyes open for signs of an outdoor Zumba class that was scheduled to be held in the park that day and that I knew my friend Alison would be attending. As I expected, since it was two hours before the start of the class and it's a big park, I didn't spot anything. The park's main roads are reserved for pedestrians on weekends, so when I hit a road I joined the flow of runners back uptown, finishing with a loop around the Onassis reservoir, past the Metropolitan Museum and back out of the park. I gave the doorman a friendly hello and tried not to drip too much sweat on the lobby floor, then Valerie and I went out for a little post-run carbo-loading at a wonderful local bagel place. A nice start to the day.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Leesylvania to Mattawoman

Last Sunday I participated in another kayaking trip with the NoVa Kayak Meetup. This trip was led by two of the organizers of the group, Randi and James, who it turns out are husband and wife. Both seem like competent kayakers, however the group as usual contained a range of paddlers from someone in a Tsunami 12 (one step above a rec boat) on up.

The first part of the trip involved a roughly two mile crossing of the Potomac in somewhat choppy conditions - nothing dangerous, but enough to keep you on your toes. The woman in the short boat had a slightly hard time of it but perservered and made it across. Once on the Maryland side we headed into Mattawoman Creek where we met up with another trip from the same Meetup. This group, headed by Andy (the Meetup's other organizer) had taken a shorter route starting on the Maryland side. The two groups stopped and chatted for a while then parted ways. We continued on to a park where we took a lunch break; Andy's group headed towards the river. 

Our group of six took a leisurely lunch break, ending when we saw the sky start to darken a little bit. We passed Andy's group again then headed back across the river. Fortunately it was calmer as we were all a little more tired. Still, one paddler wound up with a very achy shoulder. He made it back under his own power, but barely. 

It was nice to revisit this route, which had been the maiden voyage of my CLC wooden kayak a few years ago (that time was with Kingsley and Jen under much rougher conditions). The stated goal of the trip, to see lotus blossoms, was a bust - we were way past bloom - but it was a nice outing nonetheless. 

About 14 mi total distance