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(Link at bottom with a photo tour)
I was inspired by blackbeards report to share mine and my wife’s first backcountry overnight experience.
We have been die hard car campers for years, you know, back it up, dump it out, and set it up. It really is great when you are hauling three boys along all under the age of 12. We have had a desire to push a little deeper and challenge ourselves more. However you want to look at it, we are in the unfortunate, fortunate situation of having been previously married. I have 2 boys, 8 and 11 and she has one boy 7. The fortunate part of that situation is that we found each other and the children get along great and appreciate the stability of the new family. The boys other parents are still very involved in their lives. This gives us the chance every other weekend to strike out on an adventure of some sort or another on our own.
We have been gearing up for several months now and last weekend was the big day, our first back country overnighter.Some things I noticed right off the bat. We take way to much crap when we car camp. We had everything we needed, nothing more and maybe a little less. I was
excited to put my new Janesport Whitaker XLR to the test and Michelle was excited to test the fortitude of her Kelty Coyote. Both packs were tough and handled the gear well.
I burdened my pack with the Kelty Radiant 4 season tent (11 lbs) the Alps sleeping pads, my new down sleeping bag, 4 - 16oz water bottles, an MSR Firefly cook stove and canister. We also packed in a few servings of Mountain House meals. I had my water purifier and some clothes... a headlamp and it seems I must have momentarily lost sight of my pack because when I picked it up it felt like someone sunk in a number of large boulders. Michelle Carried another sleeping bag all the water, our titanium pots and pans, 2 books to read (she snuck in a people magazine) wet/dry matches and more clothing. She also carried our little "necessity" shovel along with some bio-degradable necessity paper. I ended up with a little more weight being 6’3 and 230 lbs and she was burdened with a little less at 5’4 and 115 lbs.
The second thing I noticed is that starting an 11 or 12 mile hike with a 1,000ft accent with a 50lb pack is knocking on deaths door for a 41 year old guy. Who needs fancy tests and wires hooked up to you to figure out if your ticker is good or not?
At Noon we departed the Elk Wallow wayside on a trail to the north of the lot which in about .1 connected to the Appalachian Trail (.8) we crossed over Skyline drive left civilization and made the first rapid 400ft accent. My heart kept chugging along with no major complaints however my brain was thinking "you big wuss, you just started and you are already winded with 6 miles to go before you PITCH YOUR TENT" Truth be told, it was my first hike with a fully loaded pack and I had done ZERO training. We made it to the top of the ridge (.8) and made a turn to the right onto the Piney Ridge Trail (1.9miles), this trail was a welcome relief from the steep climb as it gently descend the ridge line toward the valley we were headed. Scenery was plentiful with scant wildlife; However the bears must use the trails as their woodland highways as it was littered with bear bombs, one of which is featured in the slide show below. We were excited about a potential sighting deep in the woods with all of this activity. We had been to the park many times and have seen and photographed as many as 7 bears in a 2 day period. It is a much more visceral experience to come into contact with a blackie in the backcountry.
We stopped for a quick lunch and the MSR was a champ boiling the water for our meal in 3-4 minutes. Lunch was needed sustenance for what lay ahead.
According to my altimeter we made a 1,400 ft decent into Thornton Hollow. We bore to the right and took the Fork Mountain Trail (1.1miles) where we connected with the Hull School Trail (We ran into 2 other hikers, our first sightings of a human since crossing skyline drive) (.7miles) and went right to the Thornton River Trail (2.7miles).
This is where it got interesting for a little while. We were feeling the weight of our packs after 6 miles of accents and descents and needed a place to pitch the tent. It was later in the day, around 5PM. We found ourselves in a steep river valley with limited or no feasible place to pitch the tent. It was getting dark as we were in a hollow with tons of tree cover. The terrain was rocky, densely covered with brush and not the least bit level.
( NOTE TO SELF: buy a topo map for the next trip and plan ahead on campsite) soooo what does genius do, the worst thing anyone could possibly do in the backcountry. I saw what looked like a flat area about 50 yards off the trail and we made our way up there. It turns out it was rocky, wet, and home to lots of noseeums. We made what we though was an about face and headed in the direction we came from....or so we thought... after a frantic 5 minutes of the wife panicking and me figuring out the solution to our predicament, I had he plant her behind on a fallen tree, I took off my pack and made several out and backs until I found the trail again. It just goes to show how easily you can become disoriented when tired and inexperienced. We were not far from the trail but in those 5 minutes the trail may have well of been on the other side of the state. We ended up finding the perfect spot, settled in, took a little rest and got to cooking dinner with my new favorite toy, the MSR stove. After a hot meal and some reading we were fast asleep, around 6 miles into the backcountry with not another sound or soul nearby.
We woke and broke camp to some pretty sore muscles. Thank god we were more than halfway done and only had 5 miles to go...with a 1,400 foot assent ahead of us, uhg!! This day was great though, after we settled in and walked off the aches the pack felt like part of my body. We saw artifacts from the days when mountain men inhabited the area, we saw our bear, a yearling cub. The last part of the hike we continued along the Thornton River trail to a short (.3) trail across Skyline Drive reconnecting with the AT(2.1) We encountered so many Bear Droppings here, fresh, that we had a good feeling we would see another. It happened around another mile in. This was a mature bear looking to weigh around 400 lbs. quite exciting! This was some of the most beautiful open pine forest in Shenandoah, the forest floor was carpeted with emerald green grasses with some late summer flowers still in bloom. We continue on the AT for another .6 miles to complete our loop. All in all an excellent experience for our first. We encountered a total of 4 other trekkers on the trail which is pretty amazing for having covered 11+ miles of trails in Shenandoah.
We are in the beginning stages of planning a 3 day 15 - 20 mile trek in a couple of weeks.
Hope you all enjoyed reading about our adventure.
Click the link to see pictures
Greg & Michelle