Monday, June 26, 2017

AT: Keys Gap to Buzzard Rocks

Shenandoah River and Valley From Buzzard Rocks
We're back!

After a month off for Annie's knee, we are back on the trail and while we had hoped that this weekend would see hike number 24 for the year, it is only number 21 and we find ourselves behind again in our quest to get in 52 hikes this calendar year. After her MRI, Ann found out that she tore both the meniscus and the MCL in her right knee. But luckily, the surgeon decided not to operate and sent her for PT instead.

And so Sunday we took a short hike near the house to get back in the swing of things and to start shaking down our gear for next weekend's excursion to Dolly Sods. We spent the early part of Sunday morning after coffee packing up our gear. The vast majority of our gear is new to us (some of it is used), Annie never having backpacked before and me having lost all my (then ancient) gear in my divorce almost ten years ago. Realistically, my 6-lb Jansport D3 pack, while a classic, weighed more than my current tent and sleeping quilt. I really did need new gear.

It took about an hour for us to go through all the gear that we have assembled since last fall and get it packed into our new-to-us gently used packs. I have a 58-liter Osprey Exos and Annie has the 48-liter version. Even with a three-day supply of food, we both have a lot of room left in our packs, which tells me they are going to be just fine when we have to gear up for cold weather and/or haul a 6- or 7-day food supply.

Under beautiful blue skies, we made the quick drive to Keys Gap on the border between Jefferson County WV and Loudoun County VA, about 20 minutes from the house. We came in from the WV side having just crossed the Shenandoah River and parked at the lot on the north side of the gap, where at 11am, we got the very last parking spot.

Set up just outside the parking lot trailside was a woman doing trail magic, bananas, drinks, and I'm not sure what all else as we had both just eaten and cameled up on water, so we refused her kind offer. We chatted for a second and when she found out we were heading south, she asked us to keep an eye out for her daughter Pigpen who is through hiking. Mom was slackpacking Pigpen from Snickers Gap to Keys Gap and was waiting with her gear and grub. I think mom was getting a little anxious because her daughter had estimated a 4-hour hike between the two gaps. Four hours would be hauling on this section which is 13.6 miles. It would take me about 5 hours and Annie and I together would make it in about 5-1/2. We ran into Pigpen about an hour south among a constant stream of NOBO through hikers.

Keys Gap, A Tough Road Crossing
Not being a frequent user of Route 9 between Charles Town WV and Leesburg VA, I had no idea how much traffic this road carries. Until we tried to cross it. There are no good sight lines for hikers or motorists and the vehicles are flying at 55-60 mph. It's a lot worse than crossing Route 7 one gap to the south at Snickers Gap. Even though Route 7 is two lanes of very high speed traffic, you can see for hundreds of yards in either direction.

What's Different?
In this picture, two things are different. Annie has on her big girl pack loaded for a three-day hike and she has on her fancy Italian knee-brace. She did very well under the circumstances.

Blackberries Starting to Ripen
The hike was really uneventful and now that the trail is full-blown green tunnel, there really aren't any wildflowers to speak of to photograph as there were on our last hike a month ago. But the berries are starting to ripen. I'm hopeful that we are going to get a lot of blueberries next weekend at Dolly Sods. And that the bears will be willing to share.

Most of the way south down the trail to the Buzzard Rocks overview, a trail cuts out to the left (east) and quickly arrives at the David Lesser shelter. The signage up on the AT points merely to the spring and the shelter is not visible from the AT. At the shelter, which is one of the very nicest that I have seen on the AT, Annie left me for the spring which is a long quarter mile down the hill and another hard quarter mile up the hill.

David Lesser Shelter, a Hilton Among Shelters

Another Shelter View

How Many Shelters Have Decks?
PATC keeps this shelter in great shape and among shelters on the AT, this is a Hilton-class property. The shelter has a deck out front with seating and a double Adirondack chair and a few yards to the east is a separate cooking shelter complete with porch swing. I must admit that I took a few minutes in the swing while Annie was away cooling off at the spring. The only downside to this shelter that I see is that water is a long way off.

Or Swings?
Rested and watered, we left the shelter continuing south on the trail for a few tenths until we came to an obvious fork, the AT going left and the blue-blazed Buzzard Rocks trail going right. The blue-blazed trail itself forks and we stayed right on the more obviously used fork that dumped us in a scree field with exactly no view.

Black Cohosh, Actaea racemosa
I backtracked and took the left, less obviously used, fork and ended up with a slightly underwhelming view of the Shenandoah River and the valley. I texted Annie to come join me and we stayed on the rocks for a few minutes.

Looking South from Buzzard Rocks

Checking out the View
While on the rocks looking out over the valley, I spied a nearby tree in bloom that looked very much like an American Chestnut. I have never seen one in bloom or more than about 6 feet high: they never make it very long before the blight kills them. This one was about twenty feet high and was covered in blooms. I was thinking initially that it couldn't be a chestnut and that it had to be a chinkapin, a close relative, but when I got up to it, I could see that the undersides of the leaves are smooth. Chestnut leaves have smooth undersides; chinkapin leaves have hairy undersides.

Surprise! American Chestnut, Castanea dentata, Catkins
Between the shelter and Buzzard Rocks, there is a steep rockpile to ascend heading south and on the way back north to descend. Trail maintainers have carefully built steps into the hillside which makes the going easier, but it is still a bit of a workout.

Negotiating the Stairs
Not having been on the trail in a month and carrying full gear for three days, this 8-mile walk was all the walk we wanted this weekend. We were both happy to see the car and to head back into Winchester for a celebratory beer.

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