Appalachian Trail Across MD, '07
(Click on photo for larger version, or select "medium" or "large" links below each image).
A 40 mile hike along the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail, from North to South, from the Pennsylvania border at Pen Mar, to the West Virginia line at Harper's Ferry. The trip was "conceived" in July, but it took some time to learn a little about how to do this kind of trip, and accumulate the bits and pieces of "stuff" we didn't have yet, and to do some practice hikes to get in shape.
We figured on doing the trip in September, but after a few postponements, it somehow ended up being the second week in November, so the weather was a little different from the "initial plan", and we had to accumulate and pack a lot more cold weather stuff. On the plus side, "leaf" season would be providing a pleasant backdrop for us, and, really, if you're going to go 5 days without showering, walking all day under the hot sun isn't necessarily desirable.
Day 1: Pen Mar to Devil's Racecourse ShelterWe dropped off one car at the Harper's Ferry Visitor Center parking lot, our ending point, and "registered" with a chatty old guy with the obligatory civil war re-enactor facial hair configuration, then drove up to a gravel parking lot just outside of Pen Mar Park, our starting point. Driving the 40 miles took about an hour, it would take us considerably longer to walk back.
With the temperature in the high 30s, and a constant light rain, the trip got off to a good start, with me reminding Angelique that this trip was her idea, and her making false, baseless claims that it was mine.
After getting all booted up and suited up and packed up, we were soon on our way. Since Pen Mar Park is actually a little ways inside Maryland, we had to start the trip by walking in the wrong direction, to take us North to the Pennsylvania line, to make the cross-Maryland trip "official". After about a half-mile, our trusty GPS assured us that we were in Pennsylvania, so we started back to the South towards Harper's Ferry.
This is "High Rock". Based on the signs, it appears that this site is used as a launching point for hang-gliders, though I gotta confess that standing on this slippery rock and looking down at the trees below, jumping off with a kite strapped to my back wasn't my first inclination.
As we climbed a bit, the rain turned to light snow at times. It wasn't really cold enough for the snow to last long on the ground, but the flurries didn't do much to mitigate the "this seemed like a good idea when we planned it back in July" thought.
The rain never let up through the rest of the day, which didn't really inspire us much to stop for lunch, so we hiked on until we got to Devil's Racecourse Shelter to stop for the night, roughly around nightfall, which at this time of year was only around 5:30pm. We had "planned" to go a fair bit farther this day, but as usual, we got a much later than hoped for start, and so only made it about 5 miles on this first day, putting us a bit "behind pace" for reaching Harper's Ferry in the 5 days we had available to complete the trip.
Figuring it would be warmer and drier inside the tent than in the semi-exposed shelter, we set up our tent in the rain, got all our gear tucked in underneath the rain-fly, and hid inside. Not being very motivated to get back out into the rain, we skipped the traditional campfire, and were too lazy to fire up the stove, so we had our lunch for dinner, huddled inside the tent.
Day 2: Devil's Racecourse Shelter to Pogo CampsiteThe rain continued non-stop throughout the night and into the next morning. It was hard to get motivated to pack everything up and head out in the rain, so we "slow-started" a bit, hoping the rain might taper off later in the morning, which it eventually did, and we finally peeked our heads out of the tent around 9:30am. We packed up our gear, filled our water bottles from the nearby stream (using a hand-pumped filter to catch anything evil, like giardia), and were back on the trail around 10:30am. We were already behind pace, and getting a late start this morning, but were hopeful that we could hustle along and make up some time during the day.
On the first day of the trip, Angelique acquired a walking stick, err, I mean, "trekking pole", which we named "Stan", as it seemed like a nice Polish-sounding name. I thought Angelique's backpack looked like she was being attacked by something.
The section of trail past Devil's Racecourse was a little hilly, and with wet, slippery leaves hiding wet, slippery rocks below, it was slow going both uphill and downhill.
Our plan was to make it to Pogo Campsite, ten miles along the trail, but after 2 hours of slow going, we were only 2 miles further down the trail. Doing the math, this wasn't looking too good, as a late morning start had left us with only 7 hours before dark, with 10 miles to cover, and given the slippery footing, it didn't feel like it would be safe to keep hiking at night.
In Maryland, camping is only allowed at designated places along the trail, so if we couldn't make it to Pogo, our only other option for camping this night was Cowell Shelter, about 5 miles from where we camped the night before.
If we stopped at Cowell, then we would have moved only 10 miles in 2 days, and still have 30 to go in the remaining 3 days, which at our current pace sure didn't seem likely. This would probably have meant giving up on completing the planned trip across Maryland, which was now looming large as a very discouraging possibility, and feeling a bit like a failure.
About 4 hours into the day's hike, at about 2:30, we had only made it about 5 miles, reaching Cowell Shelter. Once we got there, it was a beehive of activity, with a dozen people scurrying around, chain-saws buzzing, and ATVs pulling trailers around. Apparently volunteers were doing some work around the shelter.
We had planned to stop at the shelter for lunch, which would have killed at least another half hour, but in a "pivotal" moment, probably motivated by a lack of interest in hanging around the noisy commotion as much as anything, we skipped our planned lunch stop, dug out some Clif bars, and just kept moving, with 3 hours left to cross the next 5 miles before dark.
The next few miles were much flatter, and we got back to a reasonable pace, finally reaching Pogo around nightfall, just in time to scope out a campsite, and quickly get the tent setup and a small fire going. We setup the stove, and had a hot dinner and some hot chocolate, and all was right with the world. We were a bit worn out, but we had gotten ourselves "back in the game", with a shot to finish the trip as planned.
Day 3: Pogo Campsite to Rocky Run ShelterWhile we were the only souls around at Devil's Racecourse (probably due to a lack of weekenders interested in heading out into the rain), there were at least 2 other groups of campers at Pogo. At the neighboring campsite was a couple, similarly dressed as fleece-skinned "modern dancers", though we took great pleasure in comparing our little campfire to their failed attempts to get one going (a little air of superiority fueled by memories of our own past fizzly fires paling in comparison to the raging campfires of past neighbors). Another large group was setup across the trail, and based on their high-pitched chatter all night, I determined them to be teenage girls.
This night was the coldest, with a forecast of about 30 degrees, and in the morning, the tent's rainfly was covered with a paper-thin layer of ice. All bundled up inside sleeping bags, it was warm enough to be comfortable, but there wasn't much to be done about the frosty exposure of the tiny bits of face that peeked through the "mummy-style" sleeping bags, cinched tight around our heads in a fashion that I had thought was dorky a couple days earlier, when I hadn't camped in temps this low before.
Determined to get an early start this time, we started to stir shortly after dawn, and I headed off to the "spring" alone to refill our water bottles. When hiking, we each carried a liter-sized Nalgene bottle, and I usually carried 2 or 3 liters in a water "bladder" stuffed inside my backpack. This was usually about enough for 1.5 days of drinking and cooking and a modicum of hygiene.
The alleged spring was a short hike from the campsite, but despite all the rain from the day before, there wasn't so much as a trickle. There was, however, a little puddle of water just in front of the spring. I certainly feel a lot better about running water than "standing water" from a puddle, but we had no alternatives at this point, so I pumped up the water from the puddle with our water filter. I "somehow" neglected to mention the whole puddle thing to Angelique (who was not enthusiastic about this whole "water from the ground, giardiasis, animals pee in it" concept), until well after the trip was over.
Since this wasn't exactly a primo water source, I just siphoned up enough puddle water to get us along to the next water source, knowing that we would be passing through 2 places with "municipal" water later that day.
All 3 groups of campers seemed to pack up and leave at exactly the same moment, making for an awkward and improbable traffic jam leaving the campsite. My group of teenage girls turned out to be 12-year-old boys and their Dads. Ooops, sorry, fellow outdoorsmen.
Angelique was a little hesitant to walk out onto the edge of the cliff, this is a photo of her being a wuss:
You can climb to the top of the monument (several tens of steps), and have a nice view to the West:
The State Park surrounding the monument has restrooms and running water ... but apparently only during the summer time. When we arrived, the restrooms were locked, and a helpful spot-a-pot placed outside. A spot-a-pot is a poor substitute for indoor plumbing in many ways, but the most apparent short-coming at this moment was its poor use as a water source. I was counting on refilling our water bottles here, as we were close to being officially "in a bind", and contemplated, momentarily, pumping some dollar bills into the vending machine there to refill our supply with Dasani. This somehow didn't seem in keeping with the spirit of this adventure, so I figured we would just pick up some water a couple miles down the road, at Dahlgren Campground, which was also billed as having real restrooms (and even showers!)
After hiking about 7 miles for the day, we reached the Dahlgren Backpacker Campground, and found that its restrooms were closed for the winter too. A sign there mentioned that there was an all-year-round water source a short ways up a gravel road. We trudged up there, and found the "faucet", and no water was forthcoming. Both of the water sources I figured we would pass today had turned out to be a bust, and we didn't have very much left.
It was 2 miles to the next campsite, Rocky Run Shelter, which has a spring that was described as "seasonal" in one trail guidebook and "reliable all year round" in another. Hmmm... By this time, I was starting to have some trouble with my feet and boots, both blisters and just general "hurt real bad", and was half walking and half limping along. We had about an hour and a half to go those 2 miles before nightfall, and while I wasn't real keen on trying to hustle those extra miles, and was skeptical that we'd find water there, we trudged back to the trail, and headed onwards.
We had barely enough drinking water to get through the night and morning, and only if we didn't use it for anything else, no cooking, no washing, etc. The following day we were to hit another State Park that was reported to have municipal water (hmmm, heard that before) and also a vending machine, and if I had to, this time I wouldn't hesitate to load up on Dasani! Or Mountain Dew, if that's all they had (EXTREME CAMPING!)
We finally reached the side-trail to the Rocky Run shelter a little before dark. The shelter itself is actually sort of "condemned", as it is falling apart, and construction of a new shelter was in progress. As we headed down the side trail, it was a little spooky, as it was getting dark, it was eerily quiet, and there were weird piles of construction stuff lying off to the side of the trail, "hidden" under tarps, which made for dark, nebulous, shadowy shapes. The side-trail descended deeper and deeper into a sort of "bowl", which I think accentuated the creepiness of the place, as the rising hills around you lead to the feeling that you were being watched. I think Angelique was a little creeped out, and hung back a bit, thinking we would pitch our tent higher up the trail, but I continued down the trail to scope things out, looking for some sign of where the spring was supposed to be. I got down to the end of the trail and noticed the old shelter up the next hill a ways. Then I noticed something else, I could hear the faint but unmistakeable sound of trickling water! I had stumbled onto the spring, and unlike its crappy predecessors, it was actually spitting out some water, and it wasn't hidden behind locked doors, allowing itself to be replaced by a spot-a-pot. I can't remember ever getting excited about water before, but I had really felt like our situation was getting close to "serious". Not taking any chances, I filled up every water bottle to capacity.
Since this was Sunday night, there were no weekenders about, and we had the place to ourselves. We set up our tent in a big open area downhill from the old shelter, got a fire going, and had a hot dinner. This whole experience had gotten us so down to basic "food, water, shelter, sleep", that I was all excited about having some water to cook with. Water rocks! "Who's up for tooth-brushing and hand washing! Yeah! Partyyy!"
As I recall, it was some time during this evening that I first noticed that I could smell myself all the way through a t-shirt, 2 fleece pullovers, and a heavy fleece jacket.
Continue to Page 2.
Harry Mantakos / email@example.com