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So, you want to be a backpacker? April 2, 2010

Posted by osyrn in Backpacking.
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This past weekend my buddy Cliff and I went backpacking.  We went out to the western part of Virginia (west of Staunton), into George Washington National Forest. We backpacked an area known as Ramseys Draft . We didn’t actually do the entire route shown. We did camp at Hiner Spring on Saturday night, but modified our route after that, choosing to go north instead of south, as shown on the map.

We got to the trail head Saturday morning, put our gear on and took off. Immediately we had to cross over the river. This was a 10 minute ordeal as we tried to decide the safest way to get across. With some nimble foot work and selective rock hopping, we finally got across, completely dry I might add. On the other side the trail disappeared back into the woods. From here the trail instantly went up, and we spent most of Saturday gradually gaining elevation. After several miles we were up on the ridge line and spent a good portion of Saturday’s hike going up and down the various mountain tops. The ridge line was great with some gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, but the weather was even better. Saturday was sunny, beautiful clear blue sky, and mid-50’s. We enjoyed it immensely. Good thing too, because Sunday was the exact opposite (more on that below). At one point, we were standing on top of one mountain and looking behind us we could see the four ridges we had just traversed. It was a pretty cool sight.

About three-quarters of the way through our hike on Saturday we suddenly came upon a clearing. To the right was a nice campsite, and to the left was a little spring fed pond. It was weird to see this all of sudden appear on the trail, but was a welcome relief. We stopped for a quick break, took off our packs, had a snack, explored the pond, and enjoyed the peace and tranquility that surrounded us. Shortly after this the trail turned down as we descended into a valley. Eventually we came to a point where another trail intersected ours. At the intersection was a carved wooden sign that read “Wilderness behind this sign.” We just looked at each other and laughed. Really? Wilderness “behind” the sign huh? Who would’ve imagined? Haha.

About a mile and a half later, after a short detour (the trail was not very well blazed in certain areas and a few times we kind of had to guess at where the trail went), and another short little climb we arrived at Hiner Spring, our campsite for the night. We’d hiked 11 tough miles and the campsite was a welcome sight. Let me tell you folks, after you’ve been on the trail for 6-7 hours with a 35-40 pound pack on your back, there is no better sight in the world than turning the corner and walking into a campsite (well, I can think of one thing, but I digress).

There was already a group at one of the campsites, so we found another fire ring (close to a spring), and began setting up camp. Now, just because you’ve gotten to a campsite doesn’t mean your day is done. There is still a ton of work to do. If you want a fire, you’ve got to gather wood, get the fire going, and then continue to gather wood to keep it going. A fire is a lot of work, but well worth the effort. Then you’ve got to set up your tent, get your bed roll and sleeping bag out, collect/filter water to drink and for dinner, make dinner, eat, clean up, and finally prepare for bed. By the time Cliff and I had managed all that, the sun was below the horizon, the temperature was dropping, and we were exhausted. By 8:15-8:30 Saturday night, we were sacked out.

Sunday morning we woke up, checked the time, it was 8:30. We’d “slept” 12 hours. I say that because you really only sleep in spurts. I’m not going to lie, it’s not terribly comfortable, even on a bed roll in a nice sleeping bag. So you sleep a bit, reposition, sleep a bit, reposition, rinse and repeat all night. Even without looking outside the tent, we knew the sun was up but there must have been some serious cloud cover. We were debating on getting up, cause seriously, it was cold, haha. It got down into the mid-30’s Saturday night. So Cliff says, “well, at least it’s not raining.” Jinx says what? Patter patter patter on the tent. Yep, it started to rain.

(Warning! Somewhat graphic description follows, hehe).
I was going to just lie there a bit longer, I was cozy and warm in my sleeping bag after all, but mother nature was calling, so I got out of the tent, walked up the hill a bit and found a nice tree to relieve myself. As I’m standing there I got the feeling I was being watched. I looked up, and not 30 feet away were four deer, just standing there. One of them raised it’s head and was staring at me. When it realized what I was doing it started walking towards me, yes!, towards me. I looked around and suddenly there was another deer to my right, coming towards me. I couldn’t believe it. As quietly as I could I looked over my shoulder towards the tent and said, “Cliff! You gotta see this.” Which he probably thought was a strange request, hahaha, considering what I was doing. “Cliff, get the camera, NOW!” He poked his head out of the tent, finally saw what I was talking about, and proceeded to start taking pictures. Never, have either of us seen deer that were this docile. It was amazing.

Having finished my business I tip toed back to the tent to get my camera. When I turned around two of the deer were over munching on the leaves where I had just relieved myself. Talk about strange. So I slowly moved back up towards them. A few of them standing around were skiddish, but I was able to get about 10 feet away from the ones eating the leaves, I could almost reach out and touch them. It was incredible. Four of the deer were juveniles and the other was a fawn. They were so beautiful. Finally we left them alone so we could begin preparing breakfast and they eventually left, bounding away into the mist filled woods. That, was the highlight of the entire trip! Absolutely amazing!

By now it had begun to rain a little harder, so we had some coffee/hot chocolate, ate breakfast, and broke camp. There was a heavy fog/mist lying like a wet blanket on the mountain, it was very surreal. We knew it was going to be a long wet day. The rain let up as we left camp and we disappeared into the fog. We headed north, not south as the map shows, and a few miles later connected with the Shenandoah Trail where we turned south to head back towards the trail head. The woods were amazing, especially with the fog, and would go from a hardwood forest with hardly any underbrush one mile, to a densely packed grove of pines the next.

Around 12:30 we stopped for lunch. At this point the rain came back, and this time to stay, luckily it wasn’t too cold, around 40. A bit of history here. This is the fourth backpacking trip Cliff and I have taken since we started backpacking last summer, and we have been rained on every single trip. I’m not talking about, oh it’s sprinkling a bit we’re going to get a bit damp. I mean, we’ve been rained on. We are four for four. Batting 1.000. Folks, that’s a Hall of Fame career. Cooperstown here we come. Guaranteed induction, no five year wait after retirement, hell, we’d be inducted now. Absolute insanity. You don’t need a weather man to predict the weather, just send Cliff and me backpacking, guaranteed rain.

After finishing lunch we got back on the trail and what did I do? Taunted Mother Nature (brilliant I know!). Told her to bring it, a little rain wasn’t going to stop us, and bring it she did. With each passing mile it rained harder and harder. By the time we reached the turn off for the trail to take us back to the car, we were soaked, even with our rain gear on. I led the way those final two miles back to the car, and I put the hammer down. We were humping it. With the exception of the sloshing water in my right boot (still not sure how that happened) I couldn’t feel anything. Not the pack on my back, rain running down my face, nor the ache in my feet and legs. Needless to say I was focused and ready to get out of the woods. Cliff was just as focused and right on my heels every step of the way. We were in the zone.

We finally got to the car around 3:30, changed, and started making the drive back to DC. We were two tired pups, and who wouldn’t have been after backpacking 22+ miles in two days. Even though we came out a day early and even with the rain, it was a great trip overall, and we can’t wait for the next one, even though we’ll probably get rained on again, hahaha, but hey, that’s backpacking. Periodically, as we’re going down the trail and the hiking is particularly hard, whether it be a really steep climb, or if it’s raining to beat the band, Cliff and/or I will look at the other and say “so, you want to be backpacker?” Hahaha, or, “who thought this was a good idea?” It always elicits a hearty laugh and we plug on.

It’s hard to describe the joy we get from being in the woods, most people think we’re crazy, and maybe we are. Yes, it’s a lot of physical work, a lot of pain in your feet, legs, back, shoulders, etc., but the benefits far outweigh the pain. For one thing it’s challenging, physically and mentally. Also, the solitude and the chance to get lost in your own thoughts as you hike down the trail is not something you can find in a city. The chance to get away from civilization, completely unplug from the world. Being totally reliant on yourself, your backpacking companion, and your gear to get in and out of the woods safely where realistically anything could go wrong and you could find yourself in some real trouble real fast. Plus, we get to see some pretty amazing views, beautiful woods, and incredible wildlife. For us, it just somehow makes sense! 🙂

Check out my FLICKR page to see the pictures from this and other trips. Enjoy!

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