Askew on Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands Trail

Poet Robert Burns wrote “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew.” When I recently called it quits after just three days and nights and twenty-four miles into a planned seven day, six night, seventy mile backpacking trip on Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, I felt like a mouse than a man.

I had been one of the first to backpack the entire Laurel Highlands Trail after it officially opened in 1976. My scheme this time was to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of that hike by doing it again, forty years later, but in the opposite direction. My 1976 trip was a solo trip south to north and I intended to mark that occasion by again backpacking alone from Seward to Ohiopyle.

Camping along the Laurel Highlands Trail is restricted to designated Shelter and Camping areas where one has reserved either a shelter or a tent site. Starting at the northern end of the trail, I had the choice of hiking five miles to the Decker Shelter and Camping area or thirteen miles to the Rt. 271 Shelter area. Since I would be getting a late start and gaining 1,200 feet in elevation over the first four and a half miles, I opted for the shorter distance.

The first day went well. The elevation gain was not as dreadful as I had expected. I In the unseasonable warmth, however, with an afternoon temperature in the mid-seventies, I worked of quite a sweat even though I was wearing a short sleeved shirt and shorts.  I went through almost two liters of water and could literally ring the sweat out of my bandana and shirt. Fortunately, I made camp and dinner before it rained and the overnight rain stopped before I broke camp the next morning. I still ended up stuffing a wet tent fly into my pack in the morning, however.

Day two, an eight mile day, was just as uneventful but just as warm. I drank just as much water and once again could ring the perspiration out of my shirt and bandanna. I made it to the shelter area with enough time to rinse out all that sweat from my clothes and hang them up to dry, along with my still wet tent fly, before turning in for the night. When I checked the weather forecast on my cell phone that evening I learned that it was to rain that night, so I opted to stay in a shelter rather than pitch my tent and once again have to pack up a wet tent in the morning.

It didn’t t rain overnight but the forecast that third morning called for increasing chances of rain throughout the afternoon culminating in thunderstorms later that night. With an early start I hoped to cover the eleven miles to the next shelter before the rain moved in and I managed to do so. By the time I reached the Rt. 30 Shelter area, however, the forecast had deteriorated. It was now calling for severe thunderstorms later that evening and up to two inches of rain over the next twelve hours followed by a major drop in temperature. I was prepared for the rain but not the temperature drop.

With the sound of thunder in the distance and possible severe thunderstorms on the way I opted to once again stay in a shelter rather than setting up my tent.  I am glad I did. When the storms finally arrived, they came with a vengeance. Rain blew in sheets as thunder boomed across the ridge and acorns pelted the shelter roof. It rained off and on throughout the night, sometimes quite hard. I was glad not to be hunkered down in my tent.

By the following morning the forecast replaced sever storm warnings with a call for continued rain and newly issued flash flood warnings. Temperatures were predicted to drop from the mid-seventies the afternoon before to the mid-fifties by that afternoon and down in the thirties that night. They were to reach only the mid-forties the following day.

I was not as concerned about hiking fourteen miles in the rain with temperatures in the mid-fifties that day as I was concerned about another fourteen miles in the rain with temperatures in the mid-forties the following day. I simply had not anticipated such wet weather and chilly temperatures. When I last checked the forecast the morning I left on my trip, it had called for a chance of rain but not severe thunderstorms, flash floods, or daytime temperatures in the mid-forties.

After covering just twenty-four miles in a little less than seventy hours, I decided to call it quits and bug out. I did not want to flirt with hypothermia. My planned fortieth anniversary solo thru hike of the LHT had run askew and would have to wait for another time. At least that is the way it seemed in the scheme of things.

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Comments 2

  • Daniel Pehrson : Nov 10th

    Smart move John! Always live to hike another day, most of the time the view will still be there.

    • John Edward Harris : Nov 10th

      I was really second guessing my decision to bug out until the local driver of the shuttle back to my car said he had never seen local streams so high and we had to stop for two different Pennsylvania Department of Transportation work crews cleaning off debris washed onto the road by the heavy rain.


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