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April 2016 Trail Bytes: Chilling out in Shenandoah National Park
April 29, 2016
A few days after my youngest daughter got married in late March, with the newlyweds bound for Cancun, Mexico, Dominique and I drove six hundred miles north from our home in Georgia to Front Royal, Virginia to hike the northern half of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. We left spring behind; the blooming cherry and dogwood trees in our front yard and along the interstate gave way to the windy, leafless slopes of Old Man Shenandoah. After spending the first night in a hotel, we got a shuttle to Lewis Mountain Campground near the center of the park the next morning. Our plan was to hike fifty miles north, back to our car, which we had left at the home of our shuttle driver.
For the first two days, we walked near the top of the mountain ridges with moderate gains and drops in elevation between three and four thousand feet. On the third and fourth days we descended into the two and three thousand foot range. Skyline Drive was rarely far away, but we hardly noticed that it was there. Walking mainly along the western facing slope, the views to our right were often uphill to rock formations ranging from craggy cliffs to boulder fields. To our left, we often looked out over the bare forest sloping down to the green farmland of the Shenandoah Valley. The colors surrounding us were brown and grey – hardwood trunks, branches, soil, rocks – and the predominant sound was of our boots swooshing though last year’s leaves. We noted approvingly any emerging weed or patch of moss.
Wind and cold chased us up, down, and ultimately off the trail. Old Shenandoah howled, roared, and whispered to us in gales, gusts, and breezes. We had packed all the requisite layers – polyester undershirts and leggings, fleece tops, down jackets, rain jackets, and rain pants. A quarter of the time, we wore all our layers, opening zippers to ventilate when we built up heat on the ascents. The rest of the time, we took off, or put back on, one or two layers as conditions changed frequently. Regulating body temperature was a challenge because the cold wind quickly chilled us through evaporation of our sweat when we took off our wind-breaking rain jackets.
We slept three nights in the park instead of the four we had planned. The first night, after hiking nine miles, we camped at Big Meadows Campground. It had been cool and breezy during the day, but strong wind arrived early evening. There was a bear box next to the picnic table by our tent, so I set up the canister stove inside the bear box and cooked Hawaiian shrimp and rice out of the wind. A sign at the campground entry gate forecasted high winds with a seventy percent chance of rain. The wind blew all night, but the rain held off until 7 AM. It only rained for an hour, but that was long enough to cause us to pack up a wet tent. After rehydrating mango-pineapple yogurt using the squeeze bag method for breakfast, I boiled water for our thermos lunch of unstuffed peppers. Back on the trail, we hiked under blue skies with a more congenial breeze.
Our second night in the park was spent at Skyland Resort after hiking seven miles. We aired out our tent on the porch of our cabin and it was dry by the time we returned from the restaurant. In the morning, we ate dinner rolls and butter from the night before plus bagels, jam, and cheddar cheese that we had brought with us. Once again, I boiled water for lunch using the coffee maker. It had rained during the night and the temperature had dropped. We left in light precipitation with gusty wind. By the time we hiked a mile to Little Stony Man Cliffs, some of the precipitation hitting our faces was frozen. But, the sun emerged optimistically from the clouds while we were up there, causing a rainbow to form over the valley.
As we descended from the cliffs, water droplets on tree branches glistened when the sun passed through them. It was a pleasant day with continuous views of the Shenandoah Valley. We covered the eleven miles to Pass Mountain Hut by 4:30 PM. Dominique swept out both levels of the hut which were covered with ashes that had blown in from the fire ring. We passed the next two hours doing the usual camp chores: fetching and filtering water, blowing up sleeping pads, washing up a little, and cooking supper – saffron & mushroom risotto with chicken.
Our hot thermos lunch on the third day.
Our third night in the park at Pass Mountain Hut was a shivering affair. After supper, the air cooled dramatically and the wind blew directly into the open front of the hut. We bundled into our 10° F and 20° F sleeping bags before it was even dark. Two men from Florida arrived a short while later. Even though they were hardy men, the cold, howling wind had put a noticeable chill into them. One cooked a meal and the other quickly sought warmth in his sleeping bag. The hungrier man gathered leaves in a garbage bag which he sandwiched in between a folded foam sleeping pad for extra insulation. The temperature dropped below freezing as the night progressed and the wind whipped the tree branches furiously. We just barely hung on to our body heat. Dominique said she was cold; I assessed my cocooned body temperature as cool.
The plan for Day Four was to hike thirteen miles to Gravel Springs Hut, so we wanted to wake up early. Truth be told, I was half-awake or half-asleep the whole night. At 5:30 AM, I put on my rain jacket and rain pants over all the other clothes I was wearing and went out into the dark to fetch the food bag from the bear box. A large hardwood near the shelter creaked from its inner wood resisting the force of the wind. Despite the wind, the sky was clear and filled with twinkling stars.
I boiled water with dried apples and cinnamon at the edge of the sleeping platform while Dominique began organizing our gear. The output of the canister stove was significantly reduced by the cold temperature. I added the boiled water and apples to our oatmeal in two bowls, and there was enough hot spicy water left over for us to take a few warming sips. Then I boiled more water for coffee and a thermos lunch. Dominique cast a concerned eye at me after breakfast as I shivered while filtering water that I had fetched the night before. We got on the trail before the other two men shortly after sunrise. The ground was dusted with snow and small hail. Along the way, ice formed in our water bottles.
After hiking eight brisk miles with stoic determination, we stopped at a picnic area near Elkwallow Wayside to eat lunch. The sun was shining on our picnic table, but it was still cold and windy enough to keep our gloves on. The BBQ beef stew from the thermos warmed us inside, and we were happy to have the cheddar cheese and tortillas to go along with it. For dessert, we rolled up a couple more tortillas with raspberry and apricot jam.
We assessed our situation over lunch. The weather forecast was for even colder temperatures that night followed by rain the next day. As much as we wanted to finish the last fifteen miles of Shenandoah National Park, we also wanted to enjoy the rest of our time in the states without catching pneumonia. We decided to call it quits, but since we had no cell phone service, we were not out of the woods yet.
Checking our A.T. Guide, we saw that Elkwallow Wayside, a few hundred yards up the trail, had a pay phone. What a wonderful sound it was to hear Mike Evans, our shuttle driver, on the other end of the line. He picked us up an hour later. While we waited, we traded stories with the two men from Florida who also ended their hike early and were waiting for their shuttle driver. Though we had to endure Old Man Shenandoah’s last lick of winter, Dominique was exhilarated by the experience. We didn’t regret getting off the trail a day early – better to stay healthy for the next hike.
I had intended to also write about spicing up dehydrated shrimp with a recipe for shrimp linguine in this newsletter, but since we didn’t get to eat that last meal on the trail, I’ll save that for the next newsletter. It didn’t go to waste; we ate some of it for lunch on a day hike back in Georgia and I took it along on an overnight backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia after Dominique flew back to Switzerland. I’m heading back in a few days.
We wish you good hiking wherever your trails lead.
Chef Glenn & Dominique
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