Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Slogging Through the Sods - A Backpacking Adventure

This past weekend's backpacking trip through Dolly Sods was full of firsts. It was Shira and My first time in the Sods, and it was M and P's first backpacking trip ever. While we couldn't promise them that they would love the experience, we did promise it would be memorable. I explained to them that part of the joy of backpacking is the unpredictable nature - it's exactly because things can go wrong that it's so much fun. I hadn't quite expected things to go so wrong, so quickly though.

We arrived at the trail head and hit our first snag. While we had plugged in the Blackbird Knob parking area into the GPS, apparently, there are two Blackbird Knob parking areas. And we were routed to the one at the west end of the park and we wanted to be at the one on the east end of the park. In fact, this parking area was so incorrect that it said it required a permit (that we had not acquired) and was for day hikers only. So, alas, once some nice backpackers helped us figure out that we were at the wrong area, we piled back in the car for the 45 minute drive around the park to head to the parking area that was actually less than 5 miles away as the crow flies!

(As a side note: it would have still worked out OK. Dolly Sods is filled with campsites, and Blackbird Knob does connect up to the location where we had parked. We would have been confused for a few minutes, but with a simple compass reading would have figured out our conundrum and made yet another new plan. Dolly Sods is only 4.6 miles wide, so while we were in the wrong location, it was a correctable error.)

After reading the warning sign saying that Dolly Sods was used for artillery practice during WWII and that there may still be live bombs lying around in the park, we got under way. It felt good to finally be on the trail, even if the weather seemed to be rolling in.

Our trip to the campsite was mostly down hill and not particularly difficult. Though we did get a taste of one very common feature of the Sods: Mud. Over the weekend, we'd all become masters of reading the terrain and hopping from rock to rock to avoid the ankle deep sludge. I also learned that anytime we take folks backpacking, we're going to make sure everyone has trekking poles. Ultimately, Shira used one of her trekking poles and M and P shared the other. They were mighty handy for testing the ground and for keeping your balance as you hopped around the various obstacles.

We arrived at our campsite location and found that there were a good half dozen tents already set up. This would be a theme throughout the weekend: this place is busy! We've done sections of Shenandoah where we see only a hiker or two. This trip we saw tons of backpackers, all of whom were nice.

By the time we arrived at the site, we were definitely fighting against the clock for daylight. Though we encountered a small batch of rain on the hike in, it looked like bigger storms would hold off. At least the weather was on our side. We looked at the various camping options and got a bit nervous. We wanted to be near the picturesque creek because it would give us easy access to water. But the one site that was left, on an adorable little island in the stream, appeared to be too small.

After spending precious minutes investigating, we made the call. Shira would make the little island camp area our home for the weekend, and I'd go off in search of another, hopefully close by, campsite to use as a kitchen. To Shira's credit, she worked with the boys, and had our tents up in record time.

I crossed the stream away from our campsite, back to the main trail and started hunting for a cooking area. Turns out, there was a large campsite right off the trail that nobody had selected. My guess is that the lure of the creek caused people to pass it up. I poked around the campsite and to my absolute surprise, there was a large pile of wood next to, and a tinder bundle resting in, the fire pit. With the whole start-at-the-wrong-trail-head, we'd had our share of unlucky draws. But now, our luck had changed. Rather than needing to rush around searching for firewood, it had just been given to us.

I grabbed M and put him on rock hurling duty to setup the bear bag. It took him a couple of throws, but ultimately he nailed it. If M ever ends up pitching for a living, I'd like to think that it was this bear bag experience that got him started.

With the tents setup, the bear bag hung and the wood collected, it was time to get a fire going. I struck a single match, held it to the tinder bundle, and the cluster of small pine branches went up in flames. Bingo, we had fire! We cooked hot dogs and marshmallows over fire (and in the dark) and reveled in all that we'd accomplished and overcome in one day.

Saturday morning we awoke and quickly proved Shira right. I'm used to summer camping in Shenandoah where the temperatures turn your tent into more of a sweat lodge than back country shelter. Dolly Sods is at a higher elevation and has a reputation for being quite a bit cooler. When driving to the trail head we passed through a large rain storm which brought the temperature down to 64°F; it was 94°F when we left DC. On these summer camping trips, heating up oatmeal in the morning is more a chore than anything else. But after sleeping out of 58°F weather, waking up to a hot breakfast was essential. Shira had insisted we bring hot chocolate and oatmeal for breakfast, and boy was she right on to do so. The boys thoroughly enjoyed their hot meal and for my part, I can't recall the last time a cup of hot tea was so delicious.

We'd planned this trip so that in theory we could do a long hike Saturday and return to the same campsite in the evening. Doing this meant that we wouldn't need to tear down and carry camp with us. This plan worked out perfectly (finally, a plan that worked!) and was definitely the way to go. Everybody carried their backpacks filled with day hiking gear and other essentials, but they were far lighter than if we had brought everything.

We did about 10 miles of hiking through the Sods. We saw waterfalls, awesome rock formations, expansive views, an interesting infestation of spittle bugs and mud. Lots of mud. The weather was glorious, with mostly sunny conditions without the scorching heat of DC. The trails in the Sods aren't blazed, but we had no problem navigating them. The kids took regular compass readings to confirm we were on track.

After the fire experience the night before, M had a very healthy appreciation for finding quality tinder and kindling. As we hiked along, he'd point out especially dry pine branches, birch bark and other possible sources of tinder. We stashed much of this in the stretchy outer pocket of his pack, so he looked like was carrying half the forest. This all came in handy when we decided to make a quick fire for lunch to cook some couscous. We played a quick game of how well does it burn?! and found that the dry birch bark was best tinder, while the dried pine branches were the best kindling. As for the couscous, I don't know the scientific explanation but fire made it good! Seriously, best couscous ever. Incidentally, I had brought the couscous, but left our backpacking stove back at camp, hence the need for the fire. Was this smart? Uh, no. Will it happen again? Not if Shira has anything to say about it in the future.

I'd brought some fishing gear along, but alas, the creeks we encountered were too shallow to offer up fish. Oh well, fishing will have to be part of our next trip.

After more than 8 hours of hiking we made it back to our campsite. It was time to celebrate with dinner and marshmallows over the fire for dessert. I worked with M and P to create the tinder bundle and to plan out the fuel that would go on once we got the fire going. This time, M lit the bundle with a match, with the fire coming together with relative ease (again, thanks in part to M collecting wood along the trail).

With 8+ hours of hiking and a full dinner, nobody had any problem going to sleep. Though, the evening was even colder than the first, getting down to 51°F. I had a sort of improvised sleeping setup, using my summer sleeping bag liner and a Cost-Co down quilt together. This worked very well the first night, but was pushing it on the second. So I put on my buff and added a heatsheet on top and was fine.

The next morning, we again started with oatmeal and hot tea. Though the stove ran out of gas before I could make hot chocolate. How Shira let me get away with bringing only one small canister of gas is beyond me (I believe she cautioned me but I ignored the warning). In the future, I'll bring two. An Esbit Stove is also a handy addition because unlike the canister stoves, it's trivial to see how much you have left. Knowing that one tablet will boil at least a cup of water means you can plan and track your usage with relative ease.

After breakfast, we packed everything up and made our way back to the car. We encountered mud on the way of course, but because we'd had a day without rain, and more importantly two days of practice navigating it, it was hardly a concern. We changed back into clean clothes at the car, got on our way, and most importantly stopped for a post-trip meal. Shira and I had pizza, M and P had pasta and meatballs. It was glorious! Not as good as our trail couscous, but still quite good.

I couldn't have been happier with the trip. Sure, we overdid it in terms of mileage for the kids' first time. And yes, Dolly Sods was chillier than Shenandoah would have been. But the route was great, and because Dolly Sods is a plateau (the highest in the Eastern half of the US!) it's relatively flat. There were some ups and downs, but none of them were killer. The trail was interesting with far more than forest canopy to see. Most importantly, the trip was memorable, as promised. It showed that a good backpacking trip isn't one that goes exactly to plan; the very same unpredictability that causes setbacks, also delivers joyous victories. In this respect, this trip was far less about logging miles and far more about living life.

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