Monday, September 11, 2017

Backpacking with David: Bearfence Mountain, Conway River Loop

This past weekend I hit the trail with my brother David to complete the Bearfence Mountain, Conway River Loop. The route was attractive because it was a reasonable length (12 miles), promised a rock scramble and views and allowed us to camp in Rapidan Wildlife Management area which unlike the neighboring Shenandoah National Park, allows open fires. On the map, the route couldn't have been simpler: park at Bootens Gap, walk down Conway River Road, pick up Conway River Trail, then pick up the Slaughter Trail to trudge back up hill to the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah Park, and finally finish on a short section of the AT which would bring us back to the car. Easy.

Our plan went awry almost immediately. The problem: when you use Google Maps to to route to Bootens Gap, it takes you up Conway River Road, which to Google is merely US Route 615. The problem, which only became apparent when on site was that Conway River Road is seemingly a fire road and not intended for general traffic. Upon closer inspection, it appeared that we needed to ask Google to route us to the Shenandoah Swift Run Gap Entrance, and then we could make our way 9 miles on Skyline Drive to Bootens Gap. But yeah, we didn't catch that until it was too late.

While we weren't anywhere near Bootens gap, we were at the entrance of Rapidan Wildlife Management Area (WMA). So, new plan: we'd leave the car there, hike in on the other end of the Conway River Road, and search out the Conway River Trail. We'd have to shuffle what section of the route we did when, but we'd essentially be able to loop in a new place.

Neither of us had ever been in Rapidan, so we didn't know quite what to expect. We found ourselves on a fire road that had other unmarked roads leading off in various directions. There was no signage or trail markings to be had, though we did find a number of fire pits which led us to believe that camping was prevalent in the area. With map in hand, and bit of bush whacking we found our way to the Conway River Trail and eventually to a spacious and well used campsite. The campsite had a burly fire pit, a number of primitive leantos setup, and a sturdy lashed and nailed table. Using the table made us feel like we were camping at the height of luxury If the campsite weren't enough, it also had easy access to the Conway River which provided us with drinking water, fishing opportunities and a source of relaxing white noise.

We set up our sleeping arrangements (David in a tent, myself in a bivy under the stars), and divided up the other camp tasks. David would take care of the fire, and I'd take care of the bear bag. When I got back from hanging the bear bag up, I found David had a picturesque log cabin fire arranged. How cute I thought, but I had my doubts as to whether it would light so effortlessly. It's been years since I watched my brother light a fire; and I know that my first trip out I'm always rusty. David struck a match, dropped it in place, and moments later the fire was going strong. Holy crap. He did it and he did it effortlessly. David would repeat this again the next night with the same level of ease. As the older brother, I just assumed our fire building skills were on par with each other, and that lighting a fire was supposed to be a hurried balancing act. I was wrong on both accounts. Apparently, I still have some gaps in my fire skills.

After a terrific dinner, which included a freshly baked pumpkin muffin (I only brought enough mix to make one muffin, but it sure was tasty!) we set off into the dark to find our bear bag. We found the hang without a problem and with minimal fuss, got the food hung. We started walking back to camp and after a few moments, realized something wasn't right: we were walking uphill. Uh oh. While our internal compasses insisted we were heading in the right direction, the terrain begged to differ. We stopped and calmly looked around in the dark. Behind us, David noticed the flicker of our Shabbat candles back in camp. We were going in the exact wrong direction. With the lights as our destination, we made it back to our campsite. While the entire incident lasted only a few minutes, it was a humbling one. It made me appreciate just how quickly things can go wrong, especially in the dark. It also gave me a fresh appreciation for Shabbat candles!

After a restful night sleep, we tore down camp and hit the trail. We slogged up hill on the Slaughter trail untill we found the familiar sites of Shenandoah, including the AT and Skyline drive. Once on the AT, we made the short hike to the Bearface Rock Scramble. With a healthy fear of heights I wasn't quite sure how I'd do on the scramble. On one hand, if it was too gentle I might be disappointed that promised high point of the hike wasn't so high. On the other, if it was too crazy, my body might just decide to freeze up and not let me function at all.

What we found in the Bearface Rock Scramble struck the ideal balance. This was definitely a legit scramble, on par with the trickiest parts of say Old Rag Mountain. The perfect weather that day made the 360° views even more perfect. There were a few obstacles where my worry-voice chimed in to report that I'd almost certainly fall to my death if I continued. Thankfully I was able to tamp this voice down and proceeded without incident. The fact that we encountered a handful of little kids and at least one senior on the scramble made no difference to my worry-voice. In the end, it was fun and a worthy high point of the hike.

After the scramble, the rest of the AT was a breeze and before I knew it we were at Bootens gap and the parking area that was our original start point and the top of Conway River Road. The 'road' was roped off and filled with grass. We chuckled again at Google's foolishness that it thought this was a legit route.

We walked the 1 mile down the road and hit the obvious border between Shenandoah and Rapidan. What we found on the other side of the border surprised us: Conway River Road was quite clearly a viable road and there was even a parking area there. What the heck?

We continued down Conway River Road in search of Conway River Trail. At some point we came across a side road where a truck was parked and a family was hanging out. I struck up a conversation with the Dad and got quite an education. The fellow explained that the roads that we were so sure were impassible, were actually in heavy use by the public. In the same way that I might describing taking friends out for a hike, he explained that he had driven his truck up in the mountains with the family. He was amazed that were 'on foot' and were roaming the area without a car. As we continued along Conway River Road in search of the trail, we found more folks in 4x4's and even one courageous fellow in a BMW hatchback. Turns out, Google was essentially correct. While we couldn't get to Shenandoah on US 615 (aka: Conway River Road), we could get within 1 mile of it, and there was even parking to be had there.

With our new understanding of Rapidan in place, the various campsites we'd seen now made sense. This location effectively offered back-country car camping. You could drive your truck right up to your spot, yet have the solitude of a backcountry trip. The whole prevalence of cars blew our minds, but is a terrific resource none the less.

After a full day of hiking, we made it back to our campsite where I did a bit of fishing. I managed to find some bait--worms and an unlucky crayfish--but the fish were having none of it. They could completely see through my pathetic attempts to catch them. We had dinner, waited a bit till the sun went down so we could do some star gazing and then hit the sack. It was yet another chilly night (around 50°F, but it felt way colder than that), but both of us were snug and warm.

Sunday was uneventful, as we did little more than tear down camp and hike out.

While I was driving back to DC, David was in charge of finding a place to stop for breakfast. He told me that he wanted to stop at a local diner, and preferably one so small that it was a cash only establishment. We made our way to Charlie and Litsa's Main Street Cafe. What we found was a tiny, iconic diner, that served breakfast all day, and yes, took only cash. The food was delicious and the whole experience felt conjured up from David's description.

This 12 mile loop turned out to have everything we could have asked for and more. Great camping, amazing views, a rock scramble, a chance to fish, time around the campfire and most importantly a weekend of adventure. What more could one possibly ask for?

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