Hike 37, It’s the Humidity, Not the Heat

Shewee! Do you see that sheen on my shoulders and forehead? This is some serious sweat’n weather. It probably isn’t even over 90 degrees, but the humidity is out of control. I took this last dog free day to get in one more hike on a path that doesn’t allow dogs. Today I hiked the Fox Hollow Trail in the Shenandoah National Park.

I have repeatedly glanced at this trail on the map wondering what its appeal is, and why dogs aren’t allowed. It’s a short short at just a little over a mile. I picked it up from the Dickey Ridge parking lot at mile marker 5. It turns out that this was once someone’s home. There is an old well and a family cemetery. My guess is dogs are not welcome because they want to minimize the disruption to the property and the land.

As I said, this trail is short, so I continued walking to the Signal Knob Overlook on the Snead Farm Loop to increase the mileage. If you love traversing lands that were once worked by man, discovering all of the little relics left behind, you will love the Fox Hollow Loop. And if you want to make it a challenge, throw in the Snead Farm Loop for a great overlook and an old foundation and farm. You can’t go wrong here, but you might sweat like you’ve never sweat before.  The humid Virginia summers can be even more brutal when you hike at a moderate pace in what feels like a humidor. I’m certainly not in the desert anymore.

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Let’s Talk About Bears

I’ve been seeing a lot of these big fuzzy creatures lately. I’ve lived, walked and driven in this county for 11 years, and during that time I would see a bear here and there with big spans of time in between sightings.Occasionally one will stroll through my yard, (by occasionally I mean once every one or two years) and my dogs will scare it away with their barks and yelps. Since last October the amount of bear sightings I’ve experienced has increased drastically. It’s probably due to my increase in hiking, excursions into the Shenandoah National Park, and the times of day I have been out and about. Whatever the reason, it’s becoming more common place for me to see one, two or even five in one short hike.

A few days ago I decided to head out to complete a short section of the Appalachian Trail along Skyline Drive that I had yet to do. While driving to the parking area I spotted the two in the photo above, heading straight for a trailhead along my path. I was a little concerned that rather than running from my car, they turned and walked toward me. Weird. I figured they’d be long gone by the time I reached that trailhead. And if they weren’t, I would have my pepper spray in hand and dogs by my side. Flash forward about ten minutes, I park the car and the dogs and I begin our hike. Within steps we pass a couple of thru hikers who quietly exclaim, as if to not startle too many other forest creatures, that there is a momma and cub on the trail just around the corner. My first reaction is “Hike Canceled!” Then I get ahold of myself and tell them that my dogs will likely scare them off, but it’s startling none the less. So we march on. I touch my pepper spray a couple times to remind myself where it is, and I dart my eyes around with each cautious step. I start messing with my camera settings just as something moves in my peripheral vision. I turn to the right, and there she is, about 20 feet away, standing in waste high shrubs with one arm down and one bent up as if she had just used it to place food in her mouth. She’s watching me. We make eye contact. I think, “Camera,” then “Get the dogs out of here before they startle her and she comes at us.” The dogs never saw her, though they did smell her. We never saw her cub. I squeaked out a few commands to my dogs to get them to move along faster as I gripped their leashes a little tighter. Momma bear never moved.

Later we reached the stretch at the trailhead where we saw the two crossing the street. The dogs could smell them, and I could certainly hear them. They were lost in the tall shrubbery, but they were there. They hadn’t made it far from where we had seen them some time ago. Continuing to hustle along, we reached the end of the section that I intended to complete, and I decided we should continue on. There are some beautiful overlooks up ahead, and I wouldn’t mind staring off into the vastness of the Shenandoah for a bit. Within a tenth of a mile we round a bend and there is another one right on the trail. What is going on? We made eye contact. I made lots of high pitched noises to try to scare him off (I say him because it looked huge). He did not budge. So we turned around. I can only tempt fait so much in one day.

These animals are in the middle of foraging and putting on weight, and it seems no human is going to stop them from doing so. Today, several days later, I went on a 10 mile hike in the George Washington Forest. Not a single bear or human was spotted. It seems there is plenty of room for them to roam here, and a lack of human activity and trash to invite them away from their natural comfort zone. I prefer my bear sightings from the car, far and few between. I hope the bears in the Shenandoah National Park aren’t being purposefully fed by people, but it would explain their lack of concern with my moving vehicle, hiking approach, and dogs. No matter how often we cross paths, I will never feel unafraid, but I will always feel like I won the lottery when I make it safely back to my car.

Have you had an experience with a bear? I’d love to hear about it.

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Have You Seen Spring?

I have been watching, listening, and smelling the signs of spring. Every bit of green that has popped up through the forrest floor of my favorite places is engrained in my brain as bits of springtime happiness and joy. It began before the official vernal equinox, which just so happened to take place on the day the above selfie was taken. That’s right, it snowed a heavy wet snow that day. I pushed myself out the door and into what started as a cold rain, to do a hike I had never done, on rocky terrain that was moss covered and slick, with two dogs in tow, and the pay off was worth it.

Since then I have had the fortune to hike in warmer temps, increasing hours of sunshine, and blooms of native flowers. I thought certainly Buzzard Rocks was the last cold weather challenge. I began planning to push myself in distance for warm weather challenges. Little did I know that we would be hit with a cold blast the first weekend of April.

It began simple enough, my camping companion and I discussed a mutual desire to spend a night in the woods. We picked a day and time to meet, packed on our own without discussion of weather. Our only concern was that it might rain. I was bringing my dogs for their first back country camping experience, and I was nervous for so many reasons. The last thing we needed were two wet dogs in our faces all night. When we met up I asked what he was bringing to keep him warm. He said a fleece. We chatted briefly about the possibility that it might get below 30, how it was forecast to rain for an instance at 11pm, and how our elevation would probably mean it would snow briefly at 11pm. And we left it at that.

We started  on our way in the Shenandoah National Park, registered to back country camp, got a few miles up the drive when I realized that I left my cell pad at home!!! Having to turn back meant delaying us by an hour. He asked what I would use in place of it. As I responded, “I’ll gather leaves” I turned the car around realizing that gathering leaves would make me miserable. So home I went, and it turns out to have been the best decision ever.

We make it to the parking lot and begin our descent. It was a gorgeous day! It must have been in the upper 60s. By the time we sought out and decided upon a campsite I was out of my fleece and down to a tank top. We made sure to set up in a spot that provided some shelter from the wind, because we had heard that it would be a windy night. I wish we had paid more attention to HOW windy it was going to get. The dogs had done great with their packs, but it took them a while to settle down while we made camp. Up went the tent, and up went the hammock! A first for us both. If you haven’t tried the Eno hammocks, you should. They are super easy to put up, and being suspended above the ground after a hike with a heavy pack on is one of the most wonderful feelings in the world. (See hammock behind tent in image below.)

There we were, perched just above the falls at Big Devil Stairs. This spot was perfect. It had the sound of rushing water, trees to break some of the wind, and an amazing view. Just steps away was a large concave rock wall that could be used for shelter if needed. We had a little rest in the hammock, then went out to explore for a bit.

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We sat around for a while eating dinner and chatting. We discussed our sleeping strategy. I would sleep with my dogs in the tent. He would give the hammock a try, and if it got too cold he would join us in the tent. The wind started to pick up around 9pm, and the gentle sound of a waterfall was no longer audible. Not long after, the rain started, so we took shelter. The dogs, who I worried wouldn’t be too keen on sleeping in a tent, were happy to huddle in place and fell asleep immediately. It took me a few minutes, but exhaustion got the better of me and I was out like a light…until 1am. The wind started to get wicked. I checked on the dogs. They seemed fine, although the blanket I brought them was soaked. Did they pee in the tent? 4am rolled around and O.M.G!!! The wind changed directions and picked up. I could hear my friend yelling expletives and something about snow. I asked if he was okay. He said yes, and he was going to stick it out. I think we are both hard heads when it comes to being safe vs. pushing ourselves to the limit. Turner, shivering, snuggled up next to me. I put my winter coat on top of him, and he fell back asleep. Lilly never budged. Lucky dog. I was mostly awake the rest of the night. The wind never let up. I emerged at 7am to get the dogs a pee break. We went for a short walk as my fingers began to freeze. Then we headed back, and curled up in the tent again. Finally, at 8am, it was time to get up for realsies. The wind was still obnoxious and the sun had yet to warm anything up. It had definitely snowed, and I was having a tough time making my hands work. Oh yes, I finally realized that the dogs hadn’t peed. The wetness came from the condensation resulting from the warmth of their bodies against the cold ground. What a relief! Also, poor puppies…

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Note the snow on the ground. It’s not much, but brr…

 

Side note; my camping buddy is the best. He put up the tent with little help from me because I was dealing with my fur monsters. He did all of the cooking. And, he did most of the packing up because I couldn’t feel my hands. Spoiled I was.

We started our hike out as the sun really started to make the outdoors feel livable again. During our hike back I stated that waking up to that kind of cold, or the cold we dealt with on our prior camping trip, is what makes me second guess being able to accomplish a through hike. I’m glad to have had the cold weather experience to be realistic in my future endeavors.

It turned out to be another beautiful, albeit windy, day. We were both so tired from being up for much of the night that we went to our respective places, took hot showers and napped. I eventually heard there had been gusts up to 65mph recorded in the park. I hate thinking about what could have happened, and I’m definitely feeling lucky. So, when is spring getting here? I see snow in the forecast this coming Saturday. I think I’ve had my fill. Or should I go for one more cold weather challenge?

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Straight Off of Compton Peak

I am an avid hiker, finding myself on a trail three or more times a week. Until this year, I never thought to track my mileage. To keep myself focused on that goal, I joined in the #52hikechallnge. I’m counting my bigger weekend hikes toward this goal.

This weekend I hiked with a friend to Compton Peak on the AT in the Shenandoah National Park. We went a little beyond the overlook, and, because we have both lost our minds, we set up camp. Somehow we decided we both wanted to try winter camping. Daytime temps in town were forecast for the 40s. Nighttime was to be in the low 30s. We thought those were good temps to get us started. What happens in town is not always what is happening on the Drive. It got very cold and windy that night. It was likely in the teens. I did a lot of hiking back and forth to keep warm, which turned my 3rd hike of 52 from a short 1.5 mile hike into a 5 mile hike. I also did a lot of reflecting. It’s so easy to get lost in thought when social media, television and the distractions of the day to day, aren’t available.

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So I thought and thought, and admired the sunset, and experienced the ground freeze beneath my feet, and we conversed about life, and I thought some more. I felt my body change as the temperature dropped. I went numb, readjusted clothing and position, felt the blood flow return, and got lost in thought again. We poured water into a pot to boil so we could make dinner, and ice crystals instantly formed. It was cold, and it was exciting, and I felt a little bad ass.

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Sleeping was a challenge. There was a tarp below the tent as one barrier, a sleeping pad, and down mummy bag. I climbed into my bag with all of my clothes, socks, coat, gloves and hat. I stayed pretty warm, except for my feet. Oh my god my feet! The tent was vented at the head and foot, and a major draft was coming in at the foot. I didn’t develop frostbite, but the chill made it difficult to get a decent amount of sleep. I awoke off and on throughout the night. The dog offered us some extra warmth, but the poor thing was shivering too. We emerged an hour after sunrise to discover that it hadn’t warmed up all that much. But within an hour the sleeping bags were packed up, we were drinking coffee, and I was feeling toasty.

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We got word from my folks that snow was heading our way, finished packing and headed back down the trail. The snow began as we reached the overlook where this photo was taken. After the featured photo above, I laid down on that rock and, feeling downright warm in my skin, watched the snowfall with an overwhelming feeling of happiness. This park has become my playground, my escape, and my studio for meditation.