Monday, May 12, 2008
Section Hiking in Rocksylvania
Ahhhh, spring. Winter's grip on NJ is finally broken. Break out the t-shirts and shorts. Watch as the landscape gets a bit greener each day. Plan the next outdoor adventure.
Living so close to the famed Appalachian Trail, it inevitably acts like a magnet for those of us who are familiar with its pleasures. As soon as the mercury begins topping 60 degrees on a regular basis, we can feel it beckoning us to return and tread its well-worn path. Of course this year is no different than any other in that regard, so when the son of family friends informed me that he was going to be spending several days on the trail with some of his college buddies and invited me to come along, I jumped at the opportunity.
When "the plan" was revealed to me just prior to the trip's start, my first reaction was that 16-18 miles per day sounded like a bit much. I knew from previous experience that this particular stretch was no stroll in the park. The AT in Pennsylvania is well known among hikers as an extremely rocky portion of the 2175 mile trail. There are some sections where it seems you go for miles without your feet touching one square inch of soil. When you DO come to the occasional patch of "normal" trail, your battered soles breathe a sigh of relief, but these segments are teasingly short-lived. On the other hand, the added stress placed on one's lower body by this part of the trail is just another challenge to be overcome by those who are not easily discouraged.
Still, 18 mile days are always l-o-n-g days of walking with precious little time for an afternoon nap or other diversion. Could this 54 year-old guy still do that kind of mileage? And not knowing how experienced the others were, I even had my doubts whether everyone in this group would be able to handle that much distance per day. So, feeling obligated to at least note my opinion, I sent my concerns via email to Bill, the only one in the group who I knew personally. I was fully expecting to be ignored by the invincible young bucks, which is pretty much what happened. Don't get me wrong... I didn't mind at all, and I would have done the same in their position. This was THEIR trip, not mine. I was just the old guy who would be tagging along and probably slowing everybody down. Although I am often the one cast in the role of trip planner, that responsibility was being shouldered by someone else this time and I was actually grateful that I did not have to partake in the decision making process. I suppose that was part of the appeal for me... I didn't have to do anything but grab my pack and show up. If I couldn't handle it, then I'd simply hike at whatever pace I felt comfortable. I am no stranger to solo treks, and my pack always includes everything I need to be fully self-sufficient for the duration of any adventure. I was fully aware of and prepared for the possibility that I wouldn't see them the entire four days. Also, on some masochistic level I guess I looked forward to finding out how much punishment the old bod could still take.
The others began their hike on a Sunday afternoon in Wind Gap, which coincides with the beginning of section 2 of the trail according to the official Appalachian Trail Guide. They hiked about 4 miles in to the Leroy Smith shelter and spent the night there. The next day they walked their first full day, doing a grueling 17+ miles and ending up at the Outerbridge shelter. This is where I caught up with them. My wife dropped me off Monday evening at the junction of the trail and route 873 in Lehigh Gap and I hiked the 7/10ths of a mile up to the lean-to they had claimed for the night. I met the other two members of this expedition for the first time, Tyler and Patrick, both likable fellows.
After the introductions and some small talk, I continued to follow the white blazes in the diminishing light and then swung onto the North Trail, a blue-blazed path that parallels the main route but is far more scenic. I made my way up to the ridge and emerged out onto a bald overlooking the Lehigh River Valley. The sun had just set so I pulled the camera out to record the moment. Don't forget to click on the pictures to enlarge them!
I wandered around for the next twenty minutes or so enjoying the vista and looking for a place to set up camp. There were only a few scraggly trees that had managed to take root out on this exposed summit, so finding two appropriately sized and spaced trunks proved difficult. I could have easily found something suitable at the edge of the bald but preferred, if possible, to set up where I could enjoy the incredible 270-degree view from my hammock. Eventually I located what I wanted and strung up my perch for the night. After hanging my food nearby and changing out of my shorts, I stretched out on one of the bigger rocks that was still warm from soaking up the sun's rays all day. By this time it was completely dark and the lights of civilization were twinkling in the distance. I love campsites like this, they're always the highlight of any trip for me... very conducive to introspection and prayer. I sat quietly for nearly two hours gazing out over the surrounding landscape while enjoying my bedtime snack.
As soon as the sun broke above the top of the blue ridge the next morning, I was up and about. I made my usual oatmeal breakfast, packed up, and prepared to move on. First, though, I made a little side trip down to "Devil's Pulpit" to see if the view from there was any better. It wasn't, but it made for a nice half-mile (round-trip) leg-stretch. I grabbed my pack and headed southwest, leaving my campsite at precisely 8:45am.
The North Trail stays out on the exposed ridge for the next couple of miles, so there were many good views. I saw a wild turkey scurry into the brush when I startled it. Bill, who followed this same route a couple of hours later, actually got to see a bear feeding along this section. Somewhere around the 2.5 mile mark, this blue-blazed trail turns back into the woods and rejoins the AT. Around noon I came to Bake Oven Knob shelter, a smallish, older lean-to with water nearby. I tanked up, left a note for the others, and headed on.
The actual summit of Bake Oven Knob was a mile or so farther and offered a decent view. I stopped for a snack a short time after that along a power cut, then plodded on for another four miles and had a hot lunch up on Baer Rocks, another overlook. Next it was down to the Rt. 309 road crossing which marks the end of section three, then up the other side. Another four miles of fairly level walking brought me finally to the Allentown shelter, the group's pre-determined destination for this day. It was exactly 6pm when I arrived at the empty hut and I wondered how long it would be before the boys would show up. It had been an 18 mile day, plus or minus a few tenths, and I was exhausted. But I had done it! I recalled how a decade ago my wife and I had done 15 of those miles over the course of TWO days, and I had just accomplished 20% more distance in only ONE day. Yeee-haaaa!
My reveling was brief... Tyler and Bill showed up a mere ten minutes after me. Then I found out they had started more than two hours later than I did that morning! Pffffffffffft. Back to reality. But... but... they're at their physical prime. Plus I took a full hour for lunch while they took barely twenty minutes by their accounting. Anyway, we were all glad that we were done for the day. Patrick rolled in about an hour later, we ate dinner, then sat around comparing notes as the last light faded.
Speaking of notes, one point I thoroughly enjoyed making repeatedly on this trip concerns footwear. You see, after I cut some ten pounds from from my total pack weight last year, I discovered that I can now wear regular old sneakers on the trail instead of boots. I tried this for the first time last fall on a similar hike and knew from that experience that I could safely leave my vibram soles at home and travel in my comfortable everyday sneaks, plus I didn't need to bring a second pair of "around camp shoes", which further decreased my pack weight. Predictably, however, my bright white $12 K-Mart specials sometimes drew snickers from other hikers. In a setting where gear comparisons and pride in one's equipment runs higher than average, I'm sure many false assumptions were made regarding my level of backcountry knowledge and expertise as a result of this choice. But hopefully a few pre-conceived notions (likely derived from manufacturers' "need-generating" glossy ad pages) have been called into question by cold, hard, real-life observations. The interesting thing (for me) on this particular trip was that, of the four of us, I was the only one who never got even one blister. Indeed, I had the last laugh watching the others perform their nightly foot care routine.
The next morning I slept later than usual and barely got out of camp before the sleepyheads. Patrick hit the trail first and I left a few minutes behind him.
It was gonna be another big-mileage day, so I kept a brisk pace and took few breaks. As a matter of fact, I didn't rest at all until I got to Dan's Pulpit around noon. Patrick showed up about 10 minutes later. He had taken a short side trail up to Tri-County Corner and we figured that must be where I unknowingly passed him. After a 15-minute break here, he, then I, resumed our trek. I caught up with him a while later at a bridge over a good-sized stream. It was here that I learned of Eckville shelter which was not mentioned in my circa 1980 guidebook, but WAS in his. It seemed like a good lunch destination and it was only a half mile ahead, so I left him soaking his feet in the cool water and took the lead once again.
Patrick's guidebook indicated that the Eckville shelter was one of those that had a "caretaker", and even more of interest to a dirty, sweaty hiker, a SHOWER. I wasn't there but two minutes and I had my towel, washcloth, and soap out of my pack and was headed for the little outbuilding. Man, did that cold water feel good! As I sat at the breezy picnic table eating my peanut-buttered bagels, the others strolled up. Evidently, the prospect of a refreshing shower wasn't as appealing to the rest of the gang. They just snacked and rested a bit before we all resumed our journey back up to the ridge.
The caretaker had assured us that it was an easy hike up to "The Pinnacle", billed as the best view to be had on the entire AT in Pennsylvania. He was right that the route was mainly along an old mountain road, but the relentless uphill that went on for hours made the task brutal. With the others safely out of earshot way ahead of me, sometime during the third hour of this long ascent I began to hallucinate and pester myself verbally, "...are we there yet? are we there yet? are we almost there? how much longer till we get there?..." Just as I was concluding that there was something unnatural going on and this trail would never get to the top of anything, I was assured by a hiker traveling in the opposite direction that "it" was only another quarter mile or so ahead. "Yeah, sure... that's what I told me about an hour ago", I muttered to myself after he had passed.
Eventually there was indeed such a place as The Pinnacle and the view was very nice. Even better was the breeze that offered some welcome relief from the persistent gnats and helped evaporate some of the new sweat which had accumulated since my shower at Eckville. Bill and Tyler were here, having arrived at least 20 minutes before me, and they were cooking up some mac and cheese. Patrick had opted to take a blue-blazed shortcut which eliminated a few miles of walking, including this overlook. The others packed up and moseyed off, headed for their last campsite of this trip, the Windsor Furnace shelter.
Inclined to avoid sleeping at shelters whenever possible, I stopped a mile or so before Windsor Furnace at a place called Pulpit Rock. (Those Keystoners sure have a penchant for naming places, don't they?) I like to camp on high ground and preferably where there is a view. Shelters rarely have one since the primary factor in selecting a site for building one is, logically enough, the availability of water, and you won't find many springs up on the ridgeline. There is also the relative lack of privacy at shelters, combined with the fact that I am now a confirmed "hanger", preferring to sleep suspended in a hammock rather than on the ground or even the smooth floor of a lean-to. Anyway, I found a suitable spot not far off the trail to pitch my rig, grabbed some food, my phone, and a pint of water, and laid out on the slab of stone to enjoy the view and call home. My wife and I talked for over two and a half hours. She caught me up on the latest weather forecast and checked out some pictures taken previously by others from this remote location which are available through google earth. Of course my view was at nighttime which looks much different from the daytime version. Still, it was nice that she could get an idea of what I was seeing. She told me there was a chance of rain before daybreak, so before retiring I pitched my tarp above the hammock for the first time this trip. It was a warm night and I hardly even needed my sleeping bag.
I awoke at first light to the patter of rain on the tarp, so it was a good thing I got the updated forecast the night before. Everything was completely dry under my 12 foot by 10 foot waterproof shield, so I was able to pack up without getting wet at all. My hammock system is designed for very fast setup and break-down, employing straps, cords, and carabiners with lightweight, quick-adjust hardware. I can have my hammock out of its stuff sack and fully deployed in about a minute (without hurrying at all). Prolly half that if I tried to do it fast. Break-down takes only slightly longer... basically as quick as I can re-stuff it. The tarp goes up and down with similar ease, and I only use it if there is the possibility of precipitation.
Using google's satellite view before departing on this trip, I had discovered a network of access roads in this area that passed very close to both my campsite and the shelter where the rest of the crew spent the night. When I departed my camp Thursday morning, I decided to travel the mile between my location and the Windsor Furnace shelter on these roads and see what there was to see. I arrived at the shelter a short time later at 7:45am. After using the privy located there, I headed off on this last stretch of trail between us and Bill's Jeep which was parked in Port Clinton. Tyler and Bill caught up and passed me a couple of miles before the road. After they sailed by, I picked up my pace enough to keep them in sight until we finished up around 10:30am. They jumped in the Schuylkill River to cool down and clean up, while I chose instead to take an alcohol bath to accomplish the same. By the time we three were done with our respective personal hygiene and refreshment, Patrick rolled in and we drove away, another memorable hiking adventure behind us.
Thanks to all the guys for making this an enjoyable trip, especially Tyler for putting it together and Bill for the invitation and ride home.