Since we were going to be in the area after the Trail Dames Summit, we decided to add a few more miles to our Appalachian Trail hike. Our friend Paul, aka Bear Bag Hanger, offered to join us, so we made our plans. We’d leave his truck in Damascus, spend the night at Black Bear Resort in Dennis Cove, and leave our car there with resupplies.
Day One: 19E to Mountaineer Falls Shelter
Summer hiking in the not-so-cool mountains
While at Black Bear Resort I learned that the new owners had moved from the town where I grew up and went to school. Our host and shuttle driver had left her teaching job at the high school I graduated from several decades ago.
The nice folks at Black Bear dropped us of the next morning at 19E. Which is where – with the help of a few friends – we jumped ahead last year to Harpers Ferry to avoid the party crowd.The trail is not marked well along the road. It’s easy to follow on foot, but almost hidden from view as you go whizzing by in an automobile. And for good reason. This is the one place where you do NOT want to leave a vehicle. It is notorious as being the worst place for vandalism on the trail. Once we were on the trail, we came to signs warning you not to leave a vehicle here. It’s along this section of the trail that the locals may not be as trail friendly. There’s still a little bad blood about how eminent domain was originally used to route the trail through these woods.
After a year away from the Appalachian Trail, our legs and lungs had forgotten about how hard the uphills were. When we were here last year we had already hiked nearly 400 miles, and our legs, heart, and lungs had become conditioned to the ups and downs of the trail. But not now.
With our hearts pounding and our lungs gasping for air we knew that we were going to have a tough time. What we didn’t expect was the heat and nearly 98% humidity. Even at the top of a mountain with a view in every direction.
The highlight of the day was Jones Falls. Two lady hikers walking south told us not to miss it. Taking the side trail to see it, we agreed that they were right. It was a must see! With all the rain this season it was spectacular. It’s sights like these that make me feel good about being on the trail. This is the kind of view that you have to earn! There’s no parking the car and catching a quick look at these falls.
By the time we reached the Mountaineer Falls Shelter I was drenched in sweat. Sitting on the bench I left a puddle. I was beat and my spirits were low.
As Paul went to find two trees for his hammock, I went in search of a flat place for our tent. Sandy had noticed the signs of mice being in the shelter and preferred the privacy and comfort of our newly modified Lightheart tent.
We had shipped our Duo to Judy for the addition of a second wedge to give us more ventilation, and picked it up from her while at the Trail Dames Summit.
After much searching, I had only located a single flat space with room for our two person tent. If it wasn’t for that great big dead tree leaning above it, partly snagged in some branches, it would have been a perfect place. I was so frazzled that I asked Sandy to join me in looking for a tent site. Even with the two of us looking there was nothing to be found that was flat and without overhanging dead trees.
Back at the shelter, I tried and tried to rig up our non-freestanding tent inside the shelter, since it was obvious we wouldn’t have to share the multi-level space with anyone. The harder I tried, the more frustrated I became. After moving it to the top sleeping shelf, running a line through the top, and stuffing our sweat covered packs in the two ends, it looked like it might work.
Looking closer, we agreed that there was a very good chance that one of us might snag or pull on the floor just right during the night and destroy the tent. Then we’d really be in trouble. Little did we know how happy we would be to have a dry functioning tent tomorrow afternoon!
Our water source was at the top of Mountaineer Falls. Another unbelievable waterfall in its full glory. The trail from camp took you up the backside to the top of the falls.
While filtering our water, I learned that our new thinner and lighter water bottles were harder to fill. The old ones could be propped against a rock, freeing both hands to operate the filter. The newer ones required that third hand. Struggling with the bottles and filter, my glasses fell into the water.
With the bottles full, on my hands and knees I began looking and feeling for my glasses. They had become nearly invisible blending in with dirt and rock bottom. While searching for them, I realized that for this hike I didn’t bring a spare pair.
Just as I found them, Sandy came walking up, concerned about me being gone for so long. The nearly lost glasses had stripped me of what little energy I had left.
We spent the night alone in a shelter for the first time since Plum Orchard early last year. No mice or bugs to join us, thankfully, just a quiet night.
Day Two: Mountaineer Falls Shelter to Laurel Fork
Racing the Storms
Back on the trail the next morning we were really feeling that first day, our legs and knees were already talking to us. We took slow uphills and more breaks to catch our breath as we climbed farther away from Roan Mountain, Tennessee.
After a break at a bench with a view near the Vango Abbey Memorial Hostel – where we could still see blue sky and mountains in the distance – we were back into the rhododendron tunnels, which got darker and darker as the skies that we could no longer see clouded up. By early afternoon we could hear the thunder in the distance. The race was on. Could we get to the next campsite before it hit?
Camp was right off the trail, and the drops slowly started as we quickly put up the tent. By the time we were both inside the rains had begun. We inflated the Thermarests and fell asleep.
Judy at Liteheart Gear had added a second wing to our Duo tent. Last year on the AT, with only a single wing, we realized the benefit of having one on both sides of the tent. The wings allow more ventilation, and more covered storage space outside. With this trip’s very humid environment we were glad we made the upgrade.
Along with better ventilation the new wings allowed us a better view from inside. With it, we noticed movement under Bear Bag Hanger’s food bag. It was hung below his tarp, since there wasn’t time to bear bag before the storm.
It was a trail rabbit! He looked pretty harmless, we figured the food was safe. When it returned later to watch us cook dinner, it brought back jokes of Monty Python killer rabbit fame. Lucky for us it didn’t have a ‘mean streak a mile wide’.
When the rains slowed and we finished dinner, Bear Bag Hanger and I began our search for a tree to hang our bear bags from. Every tree that looked promising already had the remains of the previous campers’ ropes. The ropes were so stuck in the trees that the bags had been cut down, leaving numerous immobile ropes just out of reach. After several throws, and what possibly my be my new record height toss, Bear Bag Hanger demonstrated the PCT method of bear bagging.
The next morning, the rain paused just long enough for us to get the tent down and our pack covers on the packs. Our food bags were wet, but the PCT method had protected them from bears and killer rabbits.
Day Three: to Laurel Fork to Dennis Cove
In the Storm
Our final morning on the Appalachian Trail this July started with us stopping to filter water in the rain. We sent Bear Bag Hanger ahead of us. Not wanting to sweat to death, I decided to try going topless. Sort of my own hike half-naked day. At our lunch break, Sandy noticed one small blister on each side where my hip belt had rubbed on my back. So ended my shirtless hike.
It started raining. Little dribbles, not enough to worry about, yet. But the rains of the night before allowed a large maple tree to uproot and slide down the mountain. We had to climb through its roots at the top of the switchback, and there it was again at the bottom of the switchback, a mess of branches across the trail. Sandy tried to step through them and fell over the side of the trail downhill into the wet greenery. It was the first time she’d ever fallen with a backpack on, and she wasn’t happy. But she got back up and on the trail again.
Again we began hearing the thunder in the distance, and the rains in the upper trees. Flash, and I’d start counting…one thousand one, one thousand two. With ten one thousands between the flash and boom, we started hiking faster.
Soon it was raining sideways. Neither of us had rain gear on since it was too hot. We were hiking up hill in water over the top of my boots. It was like walking in a stream with the trail nothing but rushing water.
We quickly made it across the top of the ridge and started going down. The water was now running downhill around our boots. Soaked and getting chilled, Sandy needed something to keep the rain off. It was a struggle to get to her rain jacket, which she draped over her head.
We moved on, and told Bear Bag Hanger to go at his own pace in the pouring rain. He vanished from sight.
Then there was a flash bright enough to blind Sandy, then a boom. She froze. We weren’t on the top of the ridge, but that didn’t make her feel any better, because she couldn’t see. She said her eyes were stinging. Slowly I got her moving along again. I knew that she did not like lightning, and now I could see how it terrified her.
We quickly moved farther and farther down the mountain. The rain and storm moved past. But we were still walking in ankle deep water, in the rain. We were both soaked to the skin, as if we’d jumped in a lake. When we saw the old barn we were both relieved, knowing that we were almost at the end of this journey.
At the trail head we started the short road walk back up to Black Bear Resort. On the way, we noticed a hand-painted sign warning us to beware of the killer rabbits.
From 19E to Dennis Cove Road, we put in 25 miles and we were done. We’d learned our lesson and at least had a bail-out point. Summer is not the best time to hike this section! We’ll be back again to get that next fifty miles to Damascus, but not in July!
Driving away Sandy spotted our friend Richard, just pulling into the trailhead. He’d come up from Florida hoping to hike with us. We told him that we were finished. We didn’t want to push six or seven more days in this weather to make it to Damascus.
The four of us enjoyed a nice steak dinner in Elizabethton. Richard headed for NOC, Bear Bag Hanger headed for Vermont, and Sandy and I headed towards home. The extra week back home would help us focus on getting the Florida Trail Guide done sooner. There was really much to do, and we knew taking the time to spend more time on the AT would put us farther behind.