2019-Day 109: mountain views and so many bear poos edition

August 10, 2019  

I slept okay despite the pain in my feet when I went to bed. Because of the sloped ground, there was about a foot of open real estate between my head and the top end of the tent. I finally had to put my shoes there to keep the bathtub from blowing around in the middle of the night. I tried not to turn over very much for fear of popping my sleeping pad or ripping the tent on the rock garden below me. I woke up for good around 5:30am. It was still dark, so I tried to go back to sleep, but odd noises and a dutiful whippoorwill kept me awake. The neighbor dog barked once, and then I heard crunching noises. I desperately hoped the noises were human. The dog barked several more times, and I finally gave in to the urge to shine my headlamp into the woods. The beam caught the glint of two eyes, but I couldn’t tell if they belonged to a deer or a bear. I heard more foot falls (potentially putting a point in the bear column), and then it was just the usual chorus of early birds.

There was no chance of me sleeping in after that excitement. I slowly sat up and massaged my feet, which felt like puffy cinderblocks. Then came the customary trip to the privy. I did my best to put on my anti-spider goggles because I had no intention of tromping around in the dark looking for a place to dig a cat hole. That idea gave me visions of squatting with a curious bear lumbering towards me to investigate.

With that stressful task out of the way (it’s hard to love the woods and be an arachnophobe), I went back to change clothes and pack up my gear. I have no clue how my tent didn’t rip, but three cheers for Zpacks. Their claims about not needing a ground sheet have definitely come true for me (so far). My feet weren’t as sore as I expected as I went to retrieve my food bag. I decided to be semi-social and eat breakfast at the picnic table. The lone shelter inhabitant was a nice person. We talked about his section hiking plans as a VA resident, and I shared the big picture elements of my hike. I made no effort to rush whatsoever because I had an average number of miles on the docket, and I knew that it would be foolish to expect much from my body after yesterday’s shenanigans. Here’s a picture of some of the collateral damage for spending so much time on my feet:

The morning started with a short climb to Blackrock summit. I hiked to the drone of cicadas with the occasional interjection by loud birds. I heard two separate crashing sounds that I thought for sure were going to be bears and definitely turned out to be squirrels.

The outside of my right knee was cranky in a way that reminded me of old IT band issues. The familiar tightness made me anxious about a full-on IT flare, so I tried to keep my steps short (an old trick that makes a big difference) and keep myself on this side of panic mode. As I approached the rubble that makes up the Blackrock summit, I laughed at how the left side of the trail looked like the romanticized idea of hiking in VA and the right side looked like just about any stretch of trail in NH or Maine.

When I got to the base of the summit, I dropped my pack and made the short scramble to the top to enjoy the panoramic views.

I was grateful that the trail didn’t lead down the hillside filled with pointy rocks. Instead, it took me back into the woods for a trip through the green tunnel. Despite the mild terrain, my left foot scolded me for yesterday’s decision to hike for 13 hours.

Not long after Blackrock, I lost my phone signal, which made me feel lonelier and made it even harder to ignore my chatty knee. I stopped to put on KT tape, which didn’t seem to do much besides change the sensation from muscle tightness to the sticky, pulling sensation of the tape when I bent my leg. I left it on there anyway in the off chance that it might help in some way.

I crossed Browns Gap and began the second climb of the day towards Loft Mountain Campground. My quads immediately said WHAT ARE YOU DOING. Thankfully, the elevation evened out for a bit before switching back to a gradual climb. The trail skirted and/or crossed Skyline Drive repeatedly on my way to Loft Mountain. Between the frequent interactions with pavement and a somewhat steady stream of day hikers, I felt like I was in an urban park.

At one of the road crossings, I sat on the rock wall to have my mid morning snack. As I finished eating, a passing car slowed down and the driver called out, “Are you okay?” I gave an enthusiastic thumbs up and assured them that I was fine. Back into the woods I went for another .4 of a mile to doyle’s river overlook.

I stuck around long enough to take a couple of pictures and continued onward through another green tunnel of varying density. I walked through a stretch of shoulder high jewelweed and hoped I wouldn’t come across any southbound hikers because there wasn’t any wiggle room for passing without stepping into the thick ground cover.

Around 11:45am, I started to see tent tops to the left of the trail. I could also catch glimpses of cars as the woods thinned out to reveal parts of the Loft Mountain campground. To my right was a series of small overlooks which didn’t compute with the amount of civilization happening to my left. I’d been on foot for so long that it didn’t make sense to see so many cars.

The stream of day hikers intensified, as did the number of cute dogs, one of which looked like a stuffed animal. My observation made the owners laugh as we carefully passed each other on the narrow trail. I cringe now at the thought of what I must have smelled like in such close quarters on a warm day.

The minutes crept by as I held out for the camp store to eat my lunch. Along the way, I saw several piles of semi-fresh bear scat. No doubt this area is a popular haunt for peckish bears.

At 12:15pm, I finally took a left turn past a group of people flopped on the ground in various states of tired, and I walked up an overgrown, flower filled path. The woods receded to reveal a building that looked to be on the newer side.

It was split into two halves connected by a breezeway with benches and electrical outlets(!). The left half contained massive, modern bathrooms and the right half was a large mini-mart packed with all kinds of supplies. I left my pack in the breezeway and took my wallet and phone with me to explore the food options. The bright lights gave the store a technicolor feel compared to the low-fi experience of walking in the woods. I investigated the ice cream machines, but decided against that form of chemical sugar bomb. Instead, I opted for an orange soda and a handful of postcards.

I put my lunch together and ate a peanut butter wrap in the dark, cool breezeway while I charged my electronics. I would much rather have sat in the sun, but I knew I would fry after like 5 minutes without shade. I also didn’t trust the influx of car travelers not to steal my unsupervised phone. Several people asked about my hike, and I did my best to give short, informative answers. One of the inquirers had two adult children that have done some or all of the PCT. She was a chatty older woman who also told me that she’s Italian, and she learned to play the accordion because that’s the instrument her Italian parents would let her play. She’s more into square dancing these days, which led to an amusing conversation about our mutual love of the activity. She told me she would be in Shenandoah with her family for two weeks, which felt like an eternity to me given the monotony of the hiking. I left that opinion to myself and wished her well when her family was done with their shopping.

As she walked away, another person approached with his partner and two kids ambiguously under the age of 12. He told me that he’s from Maine and he’d overheard me talking about the AT. We talked for several minutes about the trail. One of the kids was really into the discussion, and he asked a flurry of his own questions before ‘helping’ me fill my water bottles at the automatic filling station. Before they left, the mom offered me a sandwich or some trail mix, both of which I graciously declined having no need or desire to carry extra food.

I wrote a few postcards and dropped them in the mailbox inside the store. By the time I had re-packed my bag and used the bathroom, my phone had charged up to 75%. I felt full and triumphant as I headed back to the trail. The extended lunch break was a nice change after the rush of yesterday’s mileage mania. A handful of people ambled ahead of me with a dog. They turned right at the intersection while I took a left.

I hiked for about half an hour before lolly gagging at a set of cliffs with this view:

A hiker with a Philadelphia half-marathon t-shirt arrived, and we had a short chat about the full marathon course, which I’ve run 4 times. Then came another set of cliffs about 15 minutes down the trail. The day started to feel warmer, but the occasional breeze kept me from sweltering. I couldn’t stop thinking about being done with the trail, which made me feel as if I was barely paying attention to my present experience. I didn’t want to rush through the end of my hike, but I also didn’t enjoy the crowded feeling of SNP or the constant evidence of bears. What I did enjoy was the sunny weather that I had been lucky enough to have for the third day in a row.

I contemplated tomorrow’s mileage as I hiked downhill through another green tunnel making the occasional stop for interesting mushrooms. I missed Oakland every time I stooped down to take a picture.

I eventually passed a rocky stream named Ivy Creek. I had my sights set on a 16-20 mile day, depending on the cooperation of my legs. A group of guys splashed around with a cute dog that I ogled as I walked by (not pictured yet). Then I sweated my way up a rock strewn hill as the tree cover dwindled.

When I got to a rocky outcrop, I decided it was time for some water and a short break. I took a video and sent a few texts before the gaggle of day hikers from the creek caught up with me and settled on the surrounding rocks.

One of the hikers was on the chattier side, so I humored him because I wasn’t quite ready to hike. He apparently just got a job in the area and was doing some weekend exploring. I felt a pang of jealousy that he now lived so close to the trail (albeit a very crowded section). The cute dog from the stream lay panting in front of me while we talked. I took a couple of pictures of him before I decided I’d had enough small talk.

The trail sent me downhill over loose rocks with views to the right. Then I went back uphill towards the Ivy Creek Overlook. Along the way I saw a tiny new wildflower with purple spots.

Just before the overlook, I saw a large bird fly out of a tree. I reflexively assumed it was a crow or a buzzard because they’re both so plentiful, but it turned out to be a pileated woodpecker. I saw it land in a new tree and caught a glimpse of it sitting still before it moved again, and I lost it in the leaf cover. The smattering of people milling about the overlook had no idea they were like 50 yards from a flying dinosaur (unless they happen to know the characteristic cackle).

I took some pictures before I sat on the rock wall to call Oakland for a few minutes (one of which is today’s top photo). I turned my legs away from the sun to try to keep my sad, splotchy skin more protected (oh, the futility). Oakland and I talked for about 20 minutes, during which the guys from the overlook emerged with their dog.

It was hard to leave the land of guaranteed phone signal, but I said goodbye to Oakland so I could hike the last 45 minutes of my day. The trail climbed for about a half mile before sending me back downhill towards Pinefield Hut. The sun shone through the trees from the left and tall plants lined both sides of the trail making me feel like I was hiking in the middle of a hot field.

Thankfully someone had weed whacked the trail, so I didn’t have to touch much of the ground cover. I turned my hat sideways to shield my ear from the bright sunlight. The tree cover quickly filled in making for a shadier trip down to the Pinefield turn-off. Long fern beds lined the trail until it switched to a laurel tunnel that skirted the road before bearing right.

According to a sign at the shelter intersection, the turn-off was only 300 yards from the road, which was far too close for my taste. I hadn’t realized that when I’d made the choice to stop there, but I had no intention of searching for a backup option at 5pm. I doubted one would be easy to find even if I had the energy for it. To make matters even better, I had no phone signal whatsoever.

I turned down the wide fire road towards the shelter, which sat just on the other side of a barely trickling spring. The privy was within sight, but it was at the top of a steep hill. A small stand of pines grew behind the shelter with open, but deceptively slanted ground between the trees. I technically wasn’t supposed to pitch a tent there, but I had read in guthook about hikers being pestered by a bear in the tenting sites at the top of the hill. It also seemed like I might be the only person stopping here for the night, and something about tenting in the distant sites made me feel too isolated. I didn’t even check them out. I just dropped my pack and fussed over which plot of land had the most functional set of disadvantages. I finally decided on a spot that seemed to have the best of the slopes and began pitching my tent. The ground was riddled with roots making it nearly impossible to get even my thin ultralight stakes more than a few inches into the earth. I very nearly gave up, but the shelter looked like a spider haven, so I persevered. I had to switch to my smaller peak stakes and used large rocks to reinforce several of the stakes. All of the corners were at odd angles because I had had to hunt around for gaps in the roots, but the tent was standing and totally functional for one person.

I pulled out my food bag, GPS, and cooking gear, and I combined my water into one bottle for my dinner needs. Then I tossed my pack in the tent and grabbed my iPod so I could have harry potter for dinner company in the eerily silent woods. The shelter had a picnic table and a large fireplace out front with a sizeable woodpile to the right of the shelter. Hello spiders. I set my water to boil and sent my location to my cadre of parents and Oakland. Then I forced myself to set up my bed while my food cooked. I could already tell from the angle of my body that it would be another night of sliding towards the foot of my tent, but at least I wouldn’t be sleeping on a small rock quarry.

I ate dinner (good ole chili mac) with HP on low while I jumped at nearly every sound in the woods. I also browsed the shelter log to see if there were any bear reports, but there wasn’t anything recent enough to matter. I saw a comment from my friend Runa who had ended her day early at this shelter because she hadn’t felt well. I did my dishes and ate some Fritos followed by a mini snickers for dessert. As I puttered, I heard a prolonged rustling noise behind the shelter and went to investigate. A squirrel was cavorting in a treetop causing all kinds of falling debris to make a bear-sized racket. Damn squirrels.

I shook my head and went back to the table to brush my teeth and floss. Then I hung my food bag on the bear pole because it was farther away from my tent than the bear box. Next came water collection, which is always tedious but even more so when left to the morning. The spring was very low, but functional with the help of my trusty scoop. Mosquitoes hovered around me as I filtered water, and I managed to get my first bite in three days. I was both annoyed at the now itching spot on my leg and amazed that I had gone that long without a mosquito bite. I could barely go 3 minutes without a mosquito bite in Maine, and I had assumed that VA in August wouldn’t be much better, especially around dusk. I filled both of my bottles and stored some extra water in my sawyer to replace my breakfast usage.

I left my water gear on the ground outside my tent and crawled into my sloped palace. I changed my clothes and did some map checking for tomorrow’s plans. I’m not sure if I can make it 19.8 miles to Lewis Mountain Campground or if I should even try that kind of mileage on another day of sawtooth elevation changes. I decided I would call the park phone line in the morning to see if they take reservations. Having a guaranteed site would alleviate the time pressure of arriving before the campground filled up or closed for the night. I switched from planning to making cursory notes about the day’s events. I didn’t have the energy or the battery power to waste on drafting complete sentences. I tried my best to ignore noises while I tapped away on my tiny screen. It was hard to imagine relaxing enough to actually fall asleep while camping alone in the land of bears. At some point, I heard crunching footsteps nearby. I gave my loudest ballpark whistle because it made me feel safer even though I have no idea whether it scared away the maker of the sounds. I’m finishing this to the din of crickets getting louder as the light dims, bugs chewing on wood, a plane passing overhead, bugs popping off the tent walls, and the occasional snap from the woods. Wish me luck on sleeping tonight!  

Mile 884.4 to mile 897.6 (13.2) – Pinefield Hut

Checklist total miles: 1118.7 

Creature feature: day hiking dogs everywhere, the happy lab in the late afternoon, robins, pesky squirrels, butterflies, the pileated woodpecker and loads of bear poop 

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