Sunday, March 25, 2012

Backpacking on St. Patrick's Day

We took the easy route. Rather than fight to get up blearily on Saturday for a three hour drive down to George Washington National Forest, my friend took off work early Friday and we drove down that afternoon. I'm currently employed as a through hiker in training and as such had no time constraints of my own.

Our plan was to use the Massanutten Trail to connect Strickler Knob, Duncan Knob, a hang glider launching site, and Kennedy Peak. The hike works as a point to point excursion so we set up one car at each endpoint. It was to be two nights and two days out in the forests of George Washington for my last great trip in Maryland before I head out to Springer Mountain.

First night's camp at Big Run.
By 1900 hours Friday we were on the trail. It started as a fire road and continued so for the first mile before turning off to a hiking trail. The going was easy and I was happy that it was for I needed the warm-up. My buddy has been climbing two to three times per week for a number of months and it showed - that first night he dusted me with ease. We soon reached our campsite for the night, a nice little spot next to Big Run. It was decidedly on the small side but that was no issue for us since each had a hammock.

Red hammock being put through its paces.

Waking refreshed from being sung to sleep by the burbling brook, we started climbing up the ridge towards Strickler Knob.. The forest was very reminiscent of favorite places - the Cascades for my friend and the Catskills for me. Soft pine needles underfoot, the gentle light of the morning, and the scent of trees flitting by on cool breezes made it one of my favorite parts of the hike.
I would include a photograph but they really don't do justice. So paint your mental image and enjoy.

Once we reached the top of the ridge, we headed right for our first peak bagging of the day. The trail to Strickler Knob is technically a bushwhack. It's no longer cleared and the red blazes have been painted over with brown to better blend into the surroundings. Nevertheless it was easy to find our way. We hopped across rock outcroppings and scaled some small walls en route to the final obstacle: The Vulture. Now it would be cool to say that there's a rock shaped like a vulture and you have to climb out onto its head to summit. But the fact is, near the top you have to pass by a shallow depression, almost a cave. And in the entrance a vulture was perched. As we approached, he took up residence in the only way forward effectively blocking our progress.

My buddy and I had the following exchange:
"I don't know if we should go any farther. He looks serious."
"He looks fierce but he probably only weighs as much as my arm."
"But he has talons and a sharp beak!"
"Eh . . ."
And so we went forward anyhow. We did not get to audition our vulture fighting prowess because as we approached to within a couple of feet he decided that we really were too big for him and he retreated just enough to let us pass.

My buddy at the summit.

I found my shadow.

After escaping a mauling by a distressed vulture we descended along the Massanutten trail to get to our next cutoff. This part of the trail was rather boring and muddy; next time I'll take the Scothorn Trail to bypass this section. But after a muddy while we arrived at the Gap Creek trail and started our way up to Duncan Knob. The top of the knob is a fairly stable collection of large rocks although some specimens do move. At the summit was a campsite not suited to hammocks (no trees) and a rock ledge awesomely suited for a bivy. Sadly we had to move on, but not before catching a nap on the warm rock in the patchy afternoon sun.

Rock pile to scale at the Duncan Knob summit.

Back on the Massanutten Trail we hiked along for only a short while before finding a large campsite right on the creek. Unfortunately, three tents were proudly standing in the clearing. Fortunately, we knew the occupants.

Even as I had been frantically planning this trip (the same week as my last day of work), we learned that one of our meetups was running a backpacking event to the same area. Since our timetables were slightly different as was the amount of ground we planned to cover, we didn't join up. But we kept our eyes peeled and it payed off.

Our friends invited us to stay the night at that campsite and make merry. So we did. The inveterate fire craftsman built a burning pyre not too tall and not too small and we all gathered round. Roasted sausage, roasted marshmallows, tequila, and whiskey made the rounds merry indeed. Then, well after the stars came out, we heard a CRASH.

What was that?!
Did you see it?
Where is it?
Sounded like it came from over there near your tent. Some kind of animal.
Better hang the bear bags.
Where's our food bag?
It was right here a minute ago!

Mysterious crash followed by a missing food bag? Yep. From the glinting eyes near the ground we could tell that it wasn't a big varmint. We found the food bag 30 feet away mired on the opposite bank of the creek. The culprit was worrying it, trying to get it free.

Afterwards we pieced together what had happened. The raccoon snuck up to the tent, found the food bag and started dragging it away. We heard none of this. But the thick vegetation at the creek and the subsequent dunk gave the raccoon away. We retrieved the wet food bag and strung it up in the approved PCT method. Still we kept hearing an animal roving just outside camp. The raccoon was circling us, trying to figure out a way in to eat some of our vittles. By this point all of our edibles were hanging in the trees, but it was still slightly unnerving to know the invader was really not afraid to approach your shelter with you in it. I watched for a few minutes from the comfort of my hammock and got a really good view of him. He probably weighed 25 to 30 lbs and, as long as you didn't chase him, was content to slide slowly out of my headlamp's light. We figure that it was a pretty camp savvy raccoon who had probably profited from campers' food in the past.

Our final day dawned with all of our food still intact. It was a good thing too because we were going to need it. First was a jaunt through more storybook forest. This part of the trail was as good if not better than the trek up to Strickler. The hush of the pine forest was palpable. We were still in shade as we steadily climbed to the ridge.

At the top of my ridge was the car. We offloaded our camping gear, ate the last of our food, and continued on towards Kennedy Peak. The trail changed nature at this point to more of a fire road. Fire rings and camp sites abounded on the ridge run. Two deer skeletons decorated the path.
Ridge run heading towards Kennedy Peak

Past another two fabulous campsites we finally reached our destination. Wend your way around the peak before finally climbing straight up the ridge. At the top is an observation tower. Some of the wooden stairs were decidedly sketchy but the platform was sturdy enough - as long as you stayed away from the railing.

The author at the observation tower atop Kennedy Peak

The view from Kennedy Peak

Although we looked for it, we were not successful in finding the hang glider launching site. It could be that the map I have is wrong or it could be that we simply missed it. Either way didn't matter because we had a great time.

All that was left was to head home.


1 comment:

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