Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Dolly Sods Day 3: Forks of Red Creek to Bear Rocks

This is the final installment of our three-day trek at Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in the Monongahela National Forest near Davis, WV.

Overnight, it was significantly chillier than it was the night before, dropping down to about 50 degrees, and causing me to pull on a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of wool socks in the night. Up at 6:00, while I pulled down the bear bag and made coffee for us, it became clear that the humidity was way up and that the sun was not going to make it through the clouds. The pea soup humidity indicated that rain was a definite possibility so I wanted to get the tent stowed before any potential showers. We were up and away twenty minutes faster than the previous morning.

The home stretch 6.5-mile trek back to the car took us north on 514 to the intersection of 511, the Blackbird Knob Trail. Fifty yards out of our camp site, we had to cross the Left Fork of Red Creek, which proved to be very easy, stepping from rock to rock. In fact, we had no problems crossing any of the creeks, probably due to it being July and more than a week since it had rained.

It was a bit of a problem finding the through trail on the far side of the creek because we ended up in one of those situations where trails fanned out in many directions, most headed to camp sites. The trail you want, once you cross the creek is due north and slightly left, not hard left along the creek, but left all the same.

The Humidity was No Joke
514 as it heads north starts climbing fairly steeply almost immediately. I had no chance to warm up or get my trail legs back under me before we were climbing hard. As we were leaving the camp site, Ann said to me that she was going to take my advice and start dressed so that she was cold, knowing that she would warm up quickly. Accordingly, she switched up her long-sleeved shirt for a short-sleeved one, but still left her long pants on.

She quickly found out that this was still too much clothing given the steepness of the trail and the choking humidity, so we stopped at a convenient rock while she took a layer break, even changing out her boots for Keen sandals. And she wonders why I have given her the trail name Layer Break. She claims it doesn't suit her, but I say if the name fits, wear it.

The humidity made photographing a nightmare. I was constantly wiping off my UV filter (when hiking I always have a UV filter on my lens for protection) with my bandana, but even so, the resulting shots were fuzzy and pretty gross. The humidity was so bad that we both wished aloud that it would just rain already. We wouldn't have (and didn't as it turned out) bothered to put on a rain jacket.

Layer Break in Action
514 climbs up and out of the woods and through several fields much more reminiscent of what we saw on Day 1 than Day 2. I was amazed at the vast patches of blueberries along the way. You could stand in one spot and pick all you cared to eat.

Vast Patch of Blueberries
Ultimately 514 dumps directly into 511, Blackbird Knob Trail, in the middle of the woods. On the signpost, one group had left a note for another group saying that there was absolutely nothing to see on the top of Blackbird Knob. No wonder I've never heard of anyone climbing it. We turned due east on 511 and then the mud really started, Vermud-style.

Vermud-Style Trails
After a quick half mile, we came to the intersection with 509, Upper Red Creek Trail, and we took that north through more open ground up to the intersection with 526, Dobbin Grade. Along 509, I had to do a double take. I started seeing trees that I don't see here in the east and that I associate with my time in the Rockies: Quaking Aspens. Go figure. We got to see a big stand of them quiver in the breeze: what a great sound!


Upper Red Creek Trail is Much More Open

Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides

Another Aspen, Covered in Rain Drops

Wild Basil, Clinopodium vulgare

Apocynum androsaemifolium, Spreading Dogbane

A Fern Unfurling
I just had to include a picture of this blue diamond blaze. Dolly Sods has no blazes. Except on this one tree. I wonder what this is all about?

Really, Dolly Sods? WTF
There are far fewer pictures in this post than there should be because the dial on my camera got turned to full manual without me spotting it, so I shot 30 or so frames thinking I was in aperture priority, and they ended up woefully underexposed. I imagine it happened as we were threading our way through some really tight beech copses.

When 509 dumped into 526, we jogged right for just a few hundred yards and then left on 521 which we followed up and up to the ridgeline and trail 522 on which we started. From there it was a mere 2.4 miles back to the car.

I know from past experience that 526 is to be avoided, though you can get to Bear Rocks that way. You are most likely going to get pretty wet in the bogs though. Taking 521 avoids this, but don't delude yourself into thinking that you're going to stay totally dry on 521 either. It has a couple really swampy sections and you are going to get your feet wet, no matter what, so just deal with it as part and parcel of the adventure.

Heading Home or Playing in the Creek?

Paver Stone Mosaic Effect on Trail 522

Sibbaldiopsis tridentata, Three-toothed Cinquefoil

Jeep Dead Ahead: Back at the Start
After being pea soup humid for the first hour of the morning and sprinkling for the second hour of the morning, the sun decided to blaze for the final couple miles. Thanks, sun. As I walked up to the Jeep, I spied several brilliant Deptford Pinks blazing away in the sunshine, pinks that were not blooming there on Monday.

We packed it up and headed back to Winchester to try to find a beer on July 4. Everywhere in Davis and Thomas was closed, Lost River in Wardensville was closed, PaveMint in Front Royal as well. We finally rolled in to 50/50 Tap House in Winchester after salivating for a beer for the duration of the two-hour drive. And so ends the story of our 24.5-mile weekend at Dolly Sods. Is Ann still up for thru hiking the AT after all this? Never more so.

By the Jeep, Deptford Pink, Dianthus armeria
I'm following up with some gear notes and some lessons learned as basically a reminder to myself.

Tent. Our tent is a Sierra Designs Flash 2FL. We bucked the trend here. Where a lot of people are going for the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 or the MSR Hubba Hubba or even the brand new model of the REI Quarter Dome, all fine tents, we definitely went the less popular route. We chose the Flash for its livability, the vertical side walls, the perfectly rectangular footprint, the vast mesh doors, and the awnings overhanging the doors. This tent comes in at roughly 2.5 pounds for one person and 1.5 pounds for the other carrying the poles and stakes.

I love the ease and speed with which it goes up and comes down; it is really well engineered. I also love the roominess. I had some concern about the size of the gear closets (quasi vestibules on each end, accessible via a zippered hatch from inside the tent), but that proved unfounded. With a full AT thru-hike gear load, everything fit nicely, but snugly, in the gear closets.

A downside is that because of two wire stays that support the awnings, this tent needs to be rolled, precluding you from stuffing it in your pack. When rolled, it is rather long and leaves placing it in your pack vertically as the only option. I bought this tent on sale at under $200 so I have to say that it is a huge win at that price.

Sleeping Pad Show Down: Thermarest NeoAir XLite versus Nemo Tensor Insulated. I bought a NeoAir for my wife last fall and by the time I scraped together the cash to get one for myself, I spotted the Nemo Tensor, which I ended up getting because it was $30 cheaper than the Thermarest pad. The Tensor weighs 4 ounces more than the NeoAir for the same long length, largely because the NeoAir is mummy-shaped.

We tried them side-by-side and the differences are glaring. The NeoAir inflates quicker because it has less volume, but deflating is a different matter. Deflating the NeoAir is a time consuming pain in the ass. Deflating the Tensor is as simple as pulling the plug: whoosh! And you're done! We fell off the edges of the NeoAir, but not the Tensor. The Tensor is quieter than the NeoAir. Sleep quality is better on the Tensor. Nemo has done a hell of a job. Anyone want to buy a slightly used XLite?

Pack Brain. The top pocket, the so-called "brain", on our Osprey Exos packs is removable with a not inconsequential savings in weight. At 58 liters and 48 liters respectively, we both have plenty of room inside the packs without the brain and removing it might be an option. Except, that it provides very handy storage that we can get to quickly without having to open the pack proper. Storage for toilet paper, first aid kit, lunch, maps, water filter, and so forth. I believe that I will accept the weight penalty for the convenience.

Water Treatment. In the old days I was a Nalgene and iodine tablet guy. Today our system is a Sawyer Squeeze, two one-liter Smart Water bottles apiece, a 2-liter Evernew collapsible bag for dirty water, and a coupler that lets us thread the Smart Water bottles onto the output (clean water) side of the Squeeze. As long as you back off the Smart Water bottle a fraction of a turn so that the air can escape as the bottle fills with water, this is a great and super lightweight system. Even so, Ann wants to explore using her water bladder and rigging a way to refill it in situ in her pack via the Squeeze. I see lots of options out there in the hiker forums for doing just that.

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