Day 1 - Thursday 10/13/2011
It's just past 9 PM when I start to write. Inside the tent it's a reasonably comfortable 60 degrees. The rain has been beating a steady tatoo for some time now. Indeed, despite the fact that the forecast called for scattered storms (50%), there has been only a short dry period.
We arrived at perhaps 4:30, and the wife waited around while I pitched the tent. I was warned by a neighboring camper that last night was bad and tonight looked similar. Following his advice, I used every stake and line I had. The rat's nest of lines looks messy - I'm no expert - but it should hold.
After helping me get ample firewood, I bid the family farewell. I'm certainly excited for the chance to focus on nature, peace, and solitude, but this brief parting isn't without a touch of sadness.
The mountaintop is mostly shrouded in fog. During a lull in the rain the sun came through, which was greeted with cheers from the neighbors. I went out with m camera, but caught only foggy scenes. The foliage, though, seems to be at its peak, and is an absolute joy to behold. The golds and oranges seem to be particularly prevalent here.
Building a fire wasn't easy tonight, I had very dry firewood, but no dry kindling. I brought along tinder in the form of drier lint, but it took a lot of patience, judicious placement, and copious amounts of lighter fluid. I was despairing and prepared to eat cold food until the flames finally got the logs going. Hot dogs and baked beans blessedly followed.
I seem to be painting a bleak picture, but it's not bad, really. I'm dry and warm. Everything's where it needs to be. I'm well fed and ready to retire for tomorrow, with no responsibilities other than enjoying myself. I'm at peace.
Day 2 - Friday 10/14/2011
I rose at 7:10 AM to more rain. It was 55 degrees in the tent, and, curiously, a slug was above my head, just on the other side of the tent's netting.
Fear and awe. These emotions ruled my second day in Shenandoah. The fear came into play in a variety of ways. First was my fear of cold, which led me to pack more warm clothes than I would ever have needed. I took off most of what I was wearing and still spent the rest of my hike sweating bullets. The day, having opened as cold and wet as the previous night, quickly became clear and warm.
Fear also had me approach creek crossings and waterfall viewpoints with great trepidation. I've had my fair share of slips and near-misses so I'm quite wary. In fact, fear of falling into swollen Jones Run had me turn back. Most of the stepping stones were submerged, and I wasn't ready to take a leap-of-faith with all of my camera gear!
Fear's greatest presence in my day, though, was without a doubt felt on returning to my tent. The neighbors had been replaced, and the new man said I was "lucky your tent didn't turn into a parachute." He was quite right. While I'd been gone, the wind had been unceasingly fierce. Two of the stakes on the tent had pulled free. After fixing these, one with a large rock, I went inside to change. Soon I was actually bracing the windward wall of the tent with my arm! Here I was honestly afraid that the tent wouldn't surive much longer unless I stayed in to weigh it down. I did position a leeward line to better anchor the front, but still more lines were needed.
I figured that if the tent held all day then it would probably last a bit longer with my recent reinforcements. I made a quick trip to the camp store for six heavy stakes and fifty feet of line. Now, as I write, I feel fairly secure. The wind gusts and blows mercilessly without, but the blunt windward side is now tied down with eleven stakes which haven't moved a bit. It's also weighed down with rocks in outside pockets that seem to be meant for this purpose. With lines all over and the tent tied to a tree, I'll be OK. Next time I'll position the tent better...
It will surely be much more pleasant to write about AWE. From the first light on the golden leaves of my campsite to the tumult of boisterous waterfalls, today was truly an awesome day.
My site is right on the AT, and only a short walk down the trail (South) had me passing between countless stunted maples in fiery garb. Even in the rainy fog they were a glorious sight.
The Doyles River trail was also a marvel. The recent and ongoing rain meant that the river was much more impressive than on my last visit over a year before. Soon I was descending its narrow gorge, surrounded by a riot of color and serenaded by the river's chorus. Each fall that I saw last time with Scott was unapproachable. They had deep pools beneath and covered a much wider path.
When I came to the first fall the sun appeared. It had been greatly missed, but was actually unwelcome now! Photographing waterfalls is best done under an overcast sky. The diffuse light means less harsh reflection from the water, leading to better balance. It seemed like the perfect day for this, but instead the clouds rapidly cleared off! From this point on I'm sure that the woods in all of their colorful, sunlit glory fully distracted me from the falls.
When I emerged from the hard trek back to Skyline Drive I made a beeline for Big Run Overlook. The vista was simply stunning (see main image above). After being in the rain, fog, and deep woods for a day, a sweepingly majestic view was doubly appreciated.
With the end of daylight I was loitering on the cliffs adjacent to the tent, trying to get a decent sunset shot. I thought I failed, but I blame the intense wind for preventing me from fully taking advantage. As the necessary exposure time lengthened with the failing light, there was simply no way to keep the tripod steady. Reluctantly I stowed my camera and savored the dusky view for memory only. When I got home I found that I had managed a few decent shots.
It wasn't just the landscape that awed me. From the doe that moved aside on my way to the bathroom to the small snake I stepped over, there seemed to be interesting creatures everywhere. I saw a small walking stick bug between the tent and fly. I paused to watch a salamander, and a monarch butterfly landed on my shoe, which had to be gingerly removed after several steps. Even the spiders have proved to be interesting, though perhaps they should be under Fear. In particular was one that a ranger pointed out to me near the phones. As I was leaving he said, "Look at this monster." An apt description - it had long brown legs and a bulbous, black-speckled yellow body.
Also notable is what seems to be an above average leaf size here, especially on saplings. I've seen the biggest oak leaves in my life here, as well as some others I haven't identified. Using a new tree guide, I've also been happy to identify tulip-poplar and sassafras.
Finally, the wind! It's going to make sleeping quite difficult. It has made both of today's campfires quite difficult to start, and then ravenously hungry for fuel. There are many ups and downs to mountaintop camping...
I was in bed just before 10 PM, reading in the lantern light.
Day 3 - Saturday 10/15/2011
I first woke at 5:52 AM, but decided to snooze because of the incessant wind. A sunrise pic would be impossible. I woke again at 7:15, with the temperature inside the tent right at 50.
I got a later start after fighting to cook in the wind, but I set off on the AT, northbound from the campground. It was a beautifully mild and clear day, though still quite windy when in the open. The first highlight of this walk were the fine views from the peak of the Frazier Discovery Trail. I tried to make a panorama here but I later learned I wasn't fully successful.
Next I was taking a break near a spur to the Ivy Creek Spring, three miles from camp, at 12:03 PM. Not much further along, I was hungry enough to stop for lunch behind the shelter of some stubborn table mountain pines. From this point I've taken what are sure to be some "keepers." I thought I was close to Ivy Creek Overlook, and two hikers later told me it was 15 minutes away. The guess was easy enough - I knew I had just climbed high above the valley of said creek. This spot was fantastic, so I decided to loiter here for a while before returning to the campsite.
I'm a bit annoyed that I forgot my filters on this hike, but this has led me to use my widest lens in ways I might normally forego. I hope the results speak for themselves.
The wind continues to be absurd on the ridgetop. I'm confident that my tent will hold since nothing budged overnight. It's strange that I must wear all of my layers on the ridge, but shorts down below. It's a fine place, though - it reminds me of North Fork Mountain in West Virginia. The wind, pines, upturned rocks, and thick beds of pine needles all resemble that place. Even though it's October, it's only slightly warmer now than our visit there in February! I certainly would love to see that part of West Virginia in Autumn - I bet we'll go back.
Ivy Creek's valley was probably even nicer than that of Doyles River or Jones Run. It's narrower, and the creek has many pleasing tumbles, though no real falls. Autumn has made it a riot of color, but there is more of the pleasant deep green of conifers.
I was back to the campsite at 3:40 PM. "Monsieur Mistral" was still at it (I had just finished a book set in Provence at the time). I made dinner and tried to position myself in the lee of my tent to stay out of the wind while reading a tattered paperback copy of Centennial. I didn't bother trying to photograph the sunset with the wild wind, but it made for a soft, gradually darkening sight that reminded me of what I call the "Cali Gradient Sunset."
From musings that night: It's probably even colder tonight, though possibly just slightly less windy. I went to the ranger's campfire program and saw a summary of the park's history. Not too much new to me, but seeing it all at once in the charming ranger's presentation was pleasant. Her personal landscape photos were definitely a treat.
The amphitheater where the program was given is a marvel. It's situated high on the mountain and affords a wide view to the west. With the Big Dipper hanging over Masanutten and the lights of the Shenandoah Valley, I was spellbound.
On this final moonlit night, wearing all of my layers and using handwarmers, I built a raging campfire and finally made some 'smores. Only a few marshmallaw torches resulted.
Now it's 10:30 and I'm going to read again. Hopefully the wind'll die down for tomorrow's last attempt at sunrise photography!
Day 4 - Sunday 10/16/2011
On the last morning the moon was bright enough to walk under, and the constellations were easily visible. There was less wind, but still quite a bit. I got some lovely soft and clear sunrise pictures. After this, it was quite cold building a fire!
And that's the end of my notes on the trip. Sure, it was just a short camping trip, but it was a valuable escape from my normally hectic lifestyle. For three days I got to live without distraction, appreciate nature, refine some camping skills, and create some art.
Of course, after three days I missed my family a lot! It was wonderful when they pulled up in the car right on time! We had a great time playing in the amphitheater grass before leaving the park.