Halfway Done…ish, with Virginia Behind Us
1,000 miles hiked! No wonder our feet hurt. The scale of this journey is hard to ignore when you cross the 1,000-mile mark and still aren’t quite halfway through.
Since last writing we’ve walked through Shenandoah National Park and beyond, finally leaving the state of Virginia behind. Between the rain and the Rollercoaster it feels like those milestones were hard earned.
You may remember from our last blog that we were cursing the heat and almost praying for some rain to cool us down. As if to remind us to be careful what you wish for, two days into Shenandoah the heavens opened and stayed open for a good four or five days. Even now that the rain has stopped, it’s impossible to stay dry. The trail has been turned into a muddy river, with lots of standing water and swollen streams slowing our progress and keeping our feet wet all day.
The first couple of days of Shenandoah were very different. We entered the park on a bright, sunny, and hot day with a little over 20 miles between where we started and where we were going to stay that night (anywhere between 18 and 24 miles a day has now become our standard). In the middle of the day we knew we had a 12-mile stretch with no water sources on the trail, so before we got there we filled all the water containers we had and tried to ration our drinking. We failed miserably. It was so hot we were drinking often and only five miles into the waterless 12, we were already starting to question if we had enough to get to the next source. Luckily, with Shenandoah being a national park and attracting a lot of day hikers, you run into a lot of parking areas while you’re hiking. As we passed one, two cars pulled in and Robin went over to try to yogi some water from them. I should explain; yogiing is a hiker term for when you shamelessly try to encourage someone to give you some trail magic. Usually it’s done by appearing as hopeless as possible and convincing a day hiker or a family having a picnic to take pity on you and give you one of their cold sodas. The first car had no spare water to give us, but the driver of the second car told us he had one spare bottle. Expecting something smaller than a liter to be produced from the boot, we were thoroughly surprised and pleased to see a three-liter jug emerge.
We drank greedily and refilled our bottles and water bladders. Now with a huge empty bottle that I really didn’t want to pack out it fell to me to go back to the family and try to return the jug. Thankfully the conversation quickly moved to where we were from and how long we’d been hiking, rather than any perceived cheekiness of taking their water and then returning the trash for them to deal with!
The rest of the day felt long and hot, but we made it to the shelter as planned. Being a Saturday we weren’t too surprised to find the shelter very busy, with lots of locals out hiking for the weekend. The shelter was full and all the tent sites around it were already taken. We searched around and eventually found a flattish spot some way from the shelter, down a steep hill. Beast, another hiker we know, and his brother who was joining him on trail for a few days, were already down there and we set up next to them, our three tents making a triangle.
As we began setting up Beast gestured into the trees. Thirty meters or so away a mother bear and her cub were foraging through the undergrowth. The trees were densely packed so we couldn’t see a huge amount of detail, mostly just a black mass moving around. Our plan was to stay quiet, let them get closer, and then try to give them the biggest scare we could, to deter them from coming our way. Whether that was a good plan or not, I don’t know.
Unfortunately, the weekend hikers were much too excited by the bear sighting and made a lot of noise while trying to get photos. The mother and cub didn’t come any closer and eventually headed off in the opposite direction. That night we made the strictest bear bag of the trip so far. Anything that gave off a scent went in, which is what you’re supposed to do anyway, but normally we don’t bother hanging the sunscreen and hand sanitizer. Having seen bears so close to camp, we made sure to get everything.
In the early hours of the morning we wake with a start. Beast was shouting, “Hey! Get outta here!” Immediately I knew it must be a bear coming into camp. “I’ve got to go help,” I said to Robin, who, clearly unimpressed, just said, “OK, stay safe” while rolling over and going back to sleep. I jumped out of the tent, scooped up my hiking poles that I’d left by the vestibule, and flicked my head torch to its brightest setting. Rushing over to Beast’s tent I found Beast and his brother already up and out. Banging my hiking poles together to add to the noise we shouted into the woods and could hear the bears running off. Beast picked up two rocks, banged them together a few times, and then hurled them into the undergrowth. We talk for a while and Beast says he thinks it was the mother and cub from earlier; he’d been listening to them getting closer for a few minutes and thinks they were around 15 feet from his tent before he started shouting. If his and his brother’s tent formed the base of our tent triangle, the bears had tried to come into camp straight through the middle of base, presumably drawn in by the smell of our bear bags hanging farther uphill, between us and the shelter. We decide we’ve done all we can and head back to bed. I check my watch: 2:18 a.m..
I fall in and out of sleep for the next while and am awake enough to register my watch beeping at 3 a.m. A few minutes later Beast and his brother are shouting once more. Again we all jump out of our tents and scare away the bears.
Later that night we hear them a third and final time. This time it’s from our pointy end of the triangle. I get out of the tent and am soon joined by Beast’s brother. We can’t see anything, so I take a walk up to the bear poles and find nothing there too. Maybe they’d finally got to the poles and realized they couldn’t get to the food and left.
The rest of the night is uneventful, but in the morning we’re tired from a disturbed night’s sleep. Much of the talk over breakfast is, of course, about the events of the night. As I’m filtering water Beast’s brother comes over to collect his own. “What a night” he says. “Yep, that was a first,” I reply.
We hike off and it’s not long until we get our next bear encounter. Robin, who is hiking just in front of me, stops abruptly on the trail. I look past her and there’s a bear cub right in front of us. Perhaps the same one from the night before.
Our first thought is, “Where’s the mother?” While we feel close to zero threat from bears out here, we don’t really want them hanging around our tents at night and we really don’t want to get between a mother and her cub. We keep our distance and try to scare the cub away. We shout at it in commanding voices and bang our hiking poles together. It turns out the most commanding voice I possess ordering the cub to move on isn’t so intimidating to a bear. It looks up at us every now and then and then returns to nosing around in the foliage. Eventually it… trots? I’m going to go with trots. Eventually it trots off a little way, then stops, looks over its shoulder at us, and returns to foraging for grubs. It feels like we’ve got some time to kill, so I get a photo.
Fiiiiinally, the cub runs off trail and we assume it’s going in the direction of its mother, so we get back underway. We hear voices off to the right and find two hikers cutting through the woods back to the trail. “Did you see the bear?” they ask. “Yeah,” we reply, “the cub.” “No, we saw the mum, she was huge!” they answer, one of them raising a flat hand up to their shoulder to indicate the bear’s height. “Well, the cub went off that way. Anyway, have a good hike.”
That’s our last bear encounter of Shenandoah. The next few days are spent hiking through constant rain and I imagine they’re all taking some shelter like we should be doing. Everything gets wet. We get wet, our kit gets wet, our tent gets wet, there’s just no keeping anything dry. Often the thought of getting warm and dry inside our tent is what pulls us through the last few miles of a long, wet day, but when you know the inside of your tent is still wet from the night before, that idea loses its appeal and validity.
By the day we cross the 1,000-mile mark the rain has finally stopped, but we still have to face the Rollercoaster. I think we called a section of trail we talked about in an earlier blog the Rollercoaster, so I must have got that wrong. It turns out this section is the actual Rollercoaster and it sucks really, really bad. It’s like walking over the teeth of a saw. Up, down, up, down. Zero flat. None of the elevation gains and losses are particularly big, but it’s just continuous for 13 and a half miles. It’s a 21-mile day in total and we finish it significantly later than we finished the 24 miles we had the day before. So much later we arrive at the shelter with our head torches on. The sun having well and truly set.
Thankfully we have Harpers Ferry to look forward to the next day. Harpers Ferry is the spiritual halfway point of the trail, the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters, and we’ve only got nine miles to do in the morning to get there. Brand New (formerly known as The Squid Kid) lives in Maryland, just an hour from the ATC headquarters, so for a while now we’ve been planning to go back to his for the night, where his mum is going to cook us our first home-cooked meal in two and a half months. Crab cakes are on the menu, a Maryland specialty.
Ahead of us
The next big challenge is undoubtedly going to be the 230 miles through Pennsylvania. Almost everyone we talk to about it uses words like hellish or grueling to describe the rock and boulder fields we’ll need to scramble through. Were told it’s a big drop-off point for potential thru-hikers, with plenty of people calling it a day and heading home rather than continue through the awful terrain. I’m not really looking forward to it.
Robin’s Two Cents
With regards to the bear camp invasion – I’d just like to take this moment to say that I am a woman who likes my sleep, and no bear will get in the way of that! Plus I knew that Buck and Beast could handle them – so no need to have another hiker spoil their good work. 😇
Sadly, I must admit that my feet have really started to feel the miles recently, so the thought of going into Pennsylvania and adding rocks into the equation does not thrill me. Not only do rocks add to the risk of going over your ankle, hurt the soles of your feet, and make you stare at the floor all day, they also seriously slow down our hiking pace – none of which I’m a huge fan of. Also, one AT veteran described Pennsylvania as Dante’s Inferno. Are you kidding me! So yes, not hugely thrilled to start that challenge, but I know that we’ll get through it and I very much look forward to writing our next blog having completed it.
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