Frozen Desert

Frozen Desert

The contents of my pack lay scattered across the sidewalk. There’s a slit of sun cutting across the path and I’ve strategically placed myself onto this thin slice of warmth. I’m shifting items around into various piles, taking moments to enjoy feeling the sun creeping into the sky, slowly warming the frigid air around me. A park service truck pulls up behind Sanchez’s Sprinter, a man steps out, eyeing us, and he doesn’t seem to be pleased that we’ve decided to take over the entrance to the seasonally closed visitors’ center. He approaches us, and his look of discontent does not fade until after he gestures for a handshake, placing cookies into Sanchez’s palm while saying, “Merry Christmas.” It is indeed Xmas morning, and I’m starting off the day with the best gift- my recent tradition of camping and hiking on a day that I would otherwise dread.

Besides the cookies, the ranger also leaves us with a local map, safety tips, confidence that the Sprinter can handle the gravel road to the trailhead and his personal approval of our decision to hike and camp in the Needles region of the Canyonlands National Park in the winter. We flip through the charts for backcountry permit reservations, the boxes are all empty for the weeks shown; we mark off December 25 and 26. Soon after, we are on the trail- it’s a short climb in the beginning, the snow is packed down on the rocks forming a nice slick surface in all the wrong places. Moments later we are hiking across a large flat rock surface that must bathe in the sun for hours each day because the snow is absent and we’re throwing our packs down and peeling off our layers. After a couple of miles, we arrive to our campsite region and scout out a sunny spot with the least amount of snow, only to realize the next day that the sun wouldn’t hit this spot until the late morning.

canyonlands

Camp is set and we hike a few miles to Druid Arch and back. The path mostly follows the frozen creek and Sanchez finds joy in breaking the ice that has formed between the rocks. He searches to find a large patch that will have the perfect shatter as he jumps onto it, the sound of the crash echoing into the quietness around us. We become aware that we are close to Druid Arch when the trail starts to quickly gain in elevation. I over analyze each icy step as I make my way up the pile of boulders that tower in front of me. We are in the shadows, but gazing upward I can see sunlight at the top. Upon reaching this cast of light, I am also struck with the intensity of the arch. The sun is beginning to set and I’m placed between the arch and its shadow that is transcending upon the rock wall behind me.

Druid Arch Trail

shadow

Druid Arch

We return to our tent in the dark, the cold is quickly filling the night air around us as if the sun had never existed. I immediately add my layers back on before my body begins to feel the cold. Some tea and soup keep me warm for a bit longer, but then all I can think about is burrowing into my sleeping bag. My feet are already freezing by this point, and I realize there is no hope for them – forever doomed with my poor circulation. But let’s pretend that I slept great and I was warm all through the night. Nevermind that it was in the single digits, what mattered was that I was surrounded by the vastness of the Canyonlands and I would climb out of the tent the next morning to find a patch of sun to warm me once again.

Pond Mountain Wilderness

We try to control our surroundings everyday.  We hide in rooms where we control the temperature.  We attempt to control the sounds around us by drowning them out with headphones or closing our windows.  We turn dials in our vehicles to create sounds we want to hear and to cool or warm ourselves.  We turn on lights when the sun fades.  The door to our house latches shut, an attempt to keep out what we don’t want in our homes.

We shut out the natural world everyday, and yet we constantly try to manipulate it.  Our actions and daily routines have impacted our climate, but we cannot control the weather.  Everyday that I work outside I am reminded of this- and I respect this constant awareness.  Sure, I’ll admit that this summer has been full of frustrations as it has stormed and rained almost every single day.  We take the risk of setting everything up to catch bats for the night, only to have a storm rush in ruining our chances at a full night of bat surveys.  Rain is only a reminder that I’m not working in a controlled environment-  I am exposed to the rain, wind, humidity, heat, cold, insects…. I have no control, nor do I want to control the wilderness.

—–

We could see lightning off in the distance, perhaps too close, but we heard no thunder.  We keep the nets open, stretched out across the old gravel road, between two metal poles- 20 feet tall.  The lighting becomes brighter, more frequent and the rain is quick to follow.  We close up for the night, but by the time our gear is packed my clothes are soaked, plastered to my body, and my hair is heavy with rain.

We’re out at Dennis Cove, near the pond and the Appalachian Trail crosses our site.  My crew departs for home, but Kyle and I make our way through the field and into the tent.  The rain continues for hours, and when it finally lets up I catch the sounds of bullfrogs and spring peepers scattered through the moments that I awake through the night.

I’d hardly had time to even think about where we could hike the next day- my first true day off since the field season began.  I browsed over a map in a region I knew we’d have to work- immediately attracted to the Pond Mountain Wilderness.  The trail climbs up a ridge and we can walk to the trail head from my work site plus it deposits us back into civilization at Watauga Lake- a jump into the lake after our hike.  A quick internet search, revealed little information about Pond Mountain Trail- most of what I found of the Pond Mountain Wilderness was in regards to the portion of the AT that cuts at an angle across the western portion.  I wanted to avoid the clutter of people, a wilderness trail is always more intriguing.  All I knew was that it was 4.5 miles long and runs along the ridge top, seems easy enough.  I only took a quick glance at the topographic map.  Hey, why not add on a bit more- just a quick, easy hike before starting the Pond Mountain Trail.  Laurel Fork Trail (39) next to Dennis Cove Campground would lead us south, where we would connect with FS-50F to head back North.  It would end where FS-50 crosses, and on the opposite side is where Pond Mountain Trail (40) begins.

Nine creek crossings followed by a 2.2 mile hike up a winding gravel forest service road was my definition of a “quick, easy hike.”  Well, it was actually easy but the whole taking our boots and socks off to cross 9 portions of the creek within a couple of miles- surveying each crossing for the least sketchy area to cross- made things not so quick.  The rain left the creek high, hiding any rocks that may have once been available for scurrying across with our boots on.  Other crossings found the creek to be up to my thighs.  With each crossing, we became more careless.  Looking at the topo maps now, it’s so clear to see that the trail crosses the creek many times- perhaps when it’s not a summer full of rain, a shoeless entry may not be required.

Trail 39 and 50F meet up near an open field- we filter water and what we had hoped to be our final creek session knowing that finding a water source on the ridge would be unlikely.  As we reach FS road 50F, the clouds begin to darken but only a small amount of rain finds its way down to us.  We pass the only two people we see on the trails, as they casually stroll through our last creek crossing with their fancy boot gaiters.  The next couple of miles were drowned out by the sound of gravel crunching under our boots with each step, our pace steady as we followed the road that would take us up along Rough Ridge and to Pond Mountain Trail.

We reach an open gate, 50F ends at FS-50, I point directly across the road, “That’s our trail.”  Kyle is doubtful as he looks across the gravel into the forest, no evidence of a trail to be found.  We look again at the map, Pond Mountain Trail should be directly in front of us.  It’s a wilderness trail, so I’m not really surprised that as we look ahead we see only vegetation- we hike in.  Maybe I saw a faint blue blaze, but soon enough we come across a post confirming that we are on the right path.  Suddenly it’s quite obvious, as we are on an old timber road, faded into a two track- the clearest portion of the trail.  It’s, of course, in the easiest portion of the trail that I trip over a downed tree sending myself flying through the air and slamming into the damp but still hard ground.  The fall is only a reminder that we skipped lunch, my head feels light but I’m laughing at my fall. Handfuls of almonds, pecans and some dried fruit allow me to regain my energy.

The trail narrows as it climbs the ridge.  We hike through rhododendron tunnels along the sloping slides, the path is relatively clear, the blue blazes are solid and bright but as we ascend both the blaze and the path begins to fade.  The steepness of the trail is suddenly a slap in the face as we bear right with a clear view of what lies ahead.  There are no switchbacks.  We climb the steep grade, our steps slipping on the forest floor full of decaying leaves that have absorbed weeks worth of rain.

Kyle pauses above me, periodically to wait for me to catch up to his pace.  We continuously check to make sure we are still on some sort of trail but all of a sudden we are on these large bolders, covered with lichen and surrounded by brambles with a few trees that have managed to squeeze life between rock.

The blazes are gone, there is no path.

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Alone in the Wilderness

It’s 21:00 Wednesday night and I’ve just pulled my Toyota into the dirt drive of the trailhead to Big Beechy trail off of WV150 Scenic Highway.  I turn off my car, and then the lights.  Everything goes dark around me.  I panic for a moment, a long moment and a million thoughts go through my brain:  What am I doing? Why am I so stubborn and why am I at this trailhead at night and most importantly- WHY AM I ALONE?!  Why did I think this was a good idea?!  What if someone saw me pull into this drive and they know I’m alone and they are going to wait until I get out of the car to attack me? WHY AM I ALONE?!  No phone service. Ahhh, I totally have to pee and now I’m too freaked out and don’t want to get out of the car.  CALM DOWN! Turn on your dome light, no wait, don’t- then people can see in and you can’t see out.  WHAT PEOPLE?!  Ok, turn on your headlights… but wait, that’s when it happens in movies: you turn on your lights and BAM there is someone right in front of you!  Just do it, Vanessa.  Ok… no one is around.  Calm down and get out of the car.  How do you plan to go into the forest alone if you can’t even get out of your car at night. OK! OK!”

I eventually got out of my car, headlamp on and knife in hand to pee right outside my car.  Don’t worry, I didn’t start hiking right away.  I decided to sleep in my car and wake up at sunrise to start my adventure.  It was a long drive and I figured it best to just be there at night and ready to go in the morning.  After folding up my back seat giving me enough room to lay down in the back of my car (Toyota Rav4) I got out the map printouts, copies I had made from a trail guide and my hiking GPS.  Something I’ve always done before wandering off into the forest:  take a GPS point of the vehicle.  I reread through the trail info I’d copied from a pretty awesome book I recommend checking out if you are going to hike the Cranberry Wilderness: Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide.  Looking at maps and reading trail guides calms me.  An outline of the hike, followed by a bit of details and photos:

Sept. 13

  1. Big Beechy Trail:  2.0 miles
  2. District Line Trail:  2.8 miles
  3. County Line Trail:  4.0 miles

Sept. 14

  1. County Line Trail:  3.0 miles
  2. Middle Fork Trail:  2.5 miles
  3. Big Beechy Trail:  3.0 miles

Sept. 15

  1. Big Beechy Trail:  3.5 miles

Total:  20.8 miles  (I’m going to call it at least 21 because I wandered and check out some things off trail.)

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