Monday, August 25, 2014

Another Adventure

I had quite the adventure this weekend. As is often the case, I didn't start out intending for it to be an adventure. I had spent a good part of Saturday morning editing and ‘processing’ the below bike video. Why, because it was there and it seemed a waste to not use all that wonderful footage. I will admit that the utube version is rather grainy and un-viewable, but you have to take my word for it that the original footage is Brilliant! stuff.

Realizing that a rare sunny and mild Saturday was just about to pass the point where I could squeeze in something epic, I folded up the laptop, got the dog up and out for a walk, and contemplated what I could do with the day. I settled on two options – both hiking adventures. The first was to venture up to Buzzard Rock, a small rocky crag located above Front Royal. While the view of the valley there is stupendous, the walk up is, for my healthier body, not the challenge it once was. The other option that came to mind was to return to Little North Mountain.

The Little North Mountain challenge is, I believe, a fanciful product of the Hiking Upward editors. You can tell it didn’t start out as a real thing by the way the trail is laid out on the site – all unnaturally straight lines to four corners… like this:

My wife and I had tried this trail previously and failed to finish last fall. At that time, we arrived with 50% power left on the tablet which I was using as a GPS, and started out on the wrong fire road. This was an understandable mistake as there was a shiny new fire road constructed just north of the abandoned fire road the site recommended. After wondering around for a couple of miles, we finally hit upon the correct abandoned fire road and proceeded on our way. We fought our way down to just about where the abandoned road gave out, and then lost our nerve. This turned out to be a judicious decision as the power available to our only GPS / tablet was also about to give out. If we had proceeded blindly into the forest, there was a good chance that we would have become lost. As it was, the return trip was a little tense when the tablet ran out of power and shut down half way back. We had to rely on my admittedly rusty paper map navigation skills to make it back to the jeep. My wife sportingly referred to that day as a ‘team building’ event, not the more honest moniker ‘scary hike where we almost got lost’.

Even though we did the right thing on that hike and turned back, the fact that we didn't complete the designated circuit continued to bother me. I knew that I had the strength, skills, and navigational acumen to complete that hike, I merely had to come up with the will. The trick was to not let my conscious mind (and my wife) learn that I was planning a rematch until it was too late for us all to back out. Thus, I had spent part of the morning looking at other hikes on the Hiking Upward site, but also refreshing my memory on the directions to Little North Mountain and verifying that the trail head location was still in my tablet’s road navigation app. When I started packing for the trip, I loaded up my backpack with way more power bars than was necessary for a simple 4 mile trek up Buzzard Rock, and placed double the amount of water bottles required for such a trip in the jeep. When we started out, I even insisted that my tablet be plugged in and charging – something that was not required for getting to the Buzzard Rock trail head, which I could drive to blindfolded.

So the conversation traveling on I-66 heading toward Front Royal went like this:

Me: “So I've been thinking, Buzzard Rock seems a little short for an epic Saturday hike.”Wife: <idly looking out the window>Me: “It’s only 4 miles. I think we need more of a challenge.”Wife: <mildly sensing something is coming, looks at me and starts paying attention>Me: “You know what would be great? We should go back to Little North Mountain and try that hike again”
Wife: <skeptically> “Isn’t that the place where we almost got lost?”Me: <warming up to the subject> “Yes – but we know the way better now! We are stronger now. We have the GPS charging, plenty of food and water; and are starting out earlier in the day.”Wife: <Worried look, grimace> “Sure.”

So we passed the exit to Front Royal, and crossed to I-81, taking the second Strasburg exit. Well, truth be told, since I hadn’t put the destination in the tablet to navigate to the trailhead, we took the first exit and pulled off the road. While I totally could have tapped and swiped to select the navigation program and enter the new destination with minimal swerving, my wife insisted that I do this while safely pulled over. Where’s the challenge in that? So after setting up the navigation app, we got back on I-81 and took the second exit. Following the all-knowing GPS, we made our way into the George Washington Forest foothills, past the quaintly name town of ‘Star Tannery”. 

I had to look up where it got that unusual name. Surprisingly enough the name is quite practical. According to the Facebook page the unincorporated town was named after the tannery that operated there in the 1700s. I guess it’s just odd to the modern American mind to have a town name made up of two proper English nouns. Sure “Las Vegas”, “Los Angeles” can get away with a two word town name, but they are Spanish derived. Finding an east coast town in rural Virginia with a two word English name? Too weird! Since its 15 miles from the ‘By God West Virginia’ border, one starts to think about scenes from ‘Deliverance’ and banjos. Oddly enough, since the trail head was located off the modern sounding ‘Zapp Road’, that image was slightly muted. I know, the road name probably came from some family named ‘Zapp’, but that name made everything ok for a domesticated Texas born suburbanite. It’s funny how the mind works, right?

Arriving at the trail head, we prepared ourselves for the journey. Backpacks loaded with foodstuffs and water, tablet charged at 100% with trail navigation program tracking, we were off. The abandoned fire road was easy to follow at first. The roadbed was clear, and distinct. As we progress, the road bed became harder and harder to find due to the downed trees and tall grass. Eventually it mostly disappeared altogether, with only the occasional 50 year old cut log to mark its presence. I can’t say at what point I lost it, but I can say it was definitively gone at some point. The valley we were following began to branch and branch again. What gave me hope (falsely) was that the in scramble through the now unremarkable woods, the terrain began to incline upward. This was both good and bad. It was good as I knew that the Tuscarora Trail that we were seeking ran across the saddle of the valley we were ascending. It was bad because as we ascended, the brush got heavier and all evidence of the faint stream bed I was following disappeared. With it gone, I was forced to either keep my tablet navigation display powered and draining, or rely on navigational skills learned too long ago. This consisted of spotting a tree a distance away along the desired bearing and walking toward it. After all, the trail we were shooting for couldn't be that far away, could it?

In a word, yes, it could be. I began to get frustrated. I knew I must be getting close, but where was it? I sat down and looked at the tablet satellite view. There was a faint line that looked like a trail in front of me on the imagery. Rather than load the GPS track from hiking upward and dropping a way-point to shoot for on the trail intersection from that, I opted to just drop a way-point on the visible trail and hook and follow the GPS to that. The GPS said this way-point was ½ a mile away. “Good” I thought, I can do that, even a ½ mile is not a problem. Of course while fighting our way through stickers, mountain laurel, and the occasional boggy seep, it was a different story. At this point that my wife, sensing my uncertainty became, er, concerned. She asked what I would rely on if something happen to the tablet. Well, in my efforts to fool my conscious mind into taking on the challenge, I had somehow forgotten to pack along my trusty old ETrek GPS. I had to acknowledge that my backup solution should we have to turn back and not rely on the tablet would be my eyeballs and brain. She was, not satisfied with that answer.

We proceeded with me getting more and more frustrated that the trail was not appearing and we were apparently wig-wagging our way toward our mythical path, closing the distance way too slowly. It also didn't help that we began to spot bear scat. One pile was so big and (apparently) so recent, that we were sure we not far from a huge predator. I continued to use my tree to tree navigation. We had agreed that if we hadn't come upon the trail by 430pm, we would make a decision then about turning back and attempting the sketchy effort to retrace our path back through the woods to the stream and the non-existent fire road. At about 420pm, I stumbled over yet another sticker bush and found myself in a clearing. It took a second for it to sink in, but looking to my left I could see a real, honest to goodness discernible trail, and looking to my right it extended there too. 

My wife, still in the woods behind me but sensing my now immobility, probably fearing I was face to face with a menacing mommy bear, asked “Is something wrong?” My reply: “Not a damn thing!” This was followed by her emerging from the brush and both of us sitting in the middle of the trail in relief. As we ate our sandwiches, my wife pointed out the faint blue blaze on a nearby tree, confirming we had at last reached our targeted trail. The way-point I had hooked earlier was actually a road at the base of the mountain still almost 0.4 miles away. Close enough!

The walk down the trail for the return circuit was mostly uneventful. The trail was badly in need of maintenance with tall grass sometimes obscuring the path. The faint blue blazed trees and rocks continued to guide us on our way. At one point I sensed something moving in the bushes ahead of us, but by the time we arrived at the location, whatever it was had disappeared. We continued to find bear scat; dark piles with all manner of partially digested berries, but no bear ever actually appeared. We did get a start when we heard something cackling and moving in the undergrowth, and then, as we backed up a family of pheasants exploded into the air one by one.

Would I do this again? Well probably, though with a backup GPS, a radio for emergencies, and perhaps more preparation for being stuck in the woods overnight. Coming back to Little North Mountain would not be as intimidating a third time as we know what to expect, and how long it will take us to get to the trail from where the ancient fire road completely disappears. The experience itself was liberating though. I learned that I can rely of my navigational and woodsman skills. Did I make some mistakes? Sure, but we kept calm, pushed through, and did what we needed to do to make the best of my short comings. Most importantly, we walked on the wild side and pushed just a little past our comfort zones. That’s what made the trip epic.. and a real adventure. Oh, here’s a screen shot of our actual path:

The waypoint for where we intersected the trail? It’s 38 57.210 N, 78 33.817 W. It’s up to you whether or not to use that should you ever decide to make this trek also…

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