2003 Late Summer

Thursday, September 18, 2003

The television crackled with reports and images of Hurricane Isabel, as it struck the east coast with unmitigated fury.  Meteorologists tracked the projected path of the storm, and predicted that a weakened form of it would pass through Western PA.  With some time off I naturally thought to myself, “Why not experience the storm from the Laurel Highlands Trail?”  So, I placed a call to the Laurel Ridge Park Office and spoke with Donna who told me that only one other hiking group would be at Grindle Ridge for the evening – if they showed up at all.  I reserved Shelter # 1, and quickly packed my backpack, making certain that I had my rain gear.

At around 3 PM, I reached the parking lot near the Park Office, just off of RT 653.  The skies were frighteningly gray, in a beckoning sort of way, and a steady wind was already blowing.  Fog lay thick at places, soaking the air so that it was difficult to determine if it had actually started raining.  I locked my van, and set off in a northerly direction on the LHHT.  After crossing 653, I paused, as I always do, at the Unnamed Cemetery, just 20 yards north of the roadway.  Judging from the two paths leading to and from the cemetery, it looks like I am not the only person who often stops to look at the old grave markers.

Moving north again, I found my steady pace easy to keep.  This section of the trail is one of the smoothest, and most effortless to hike.  If one were looking for a great day-hike, I would highly recommend this section – from RT 653 to Seven Springs.  In addition to the agreeable terrain, the scenery is beautiful in any season.

By 4:30 PM, I reached Bears Rocks, overlooking Middle Fork.  Initially, the view was obstructed by the thick fog, but as I waited, the view changed.  Strong gusts of wind pushed away the wisps of fog, and for a few fleeting moments, the valley could be clearly seen.  Then, like a curtain drawn between the scenes of a play, the fog poured back in, and the rolling hills were no longer visible.  This peek-a-boo game continued as long as I cared to watch.  But, sensing that the impending storm was not far off, I decided it was best to move on toward the shelter area.

I passed no one as I hiked north.  Fresh tracks in the muddy trail provided evidence of recent southern movement on the LHHT – perhaps earlier today.  Donna had told me that the group supposed to be staying Grindle Ridge this evening had been on the trail for several days.  If these were their tracks, it would seem that they may have changed their plans, and might have left the trail since the tracks were moving away from the shelter.

The intensity of the wind and rain picked up slightly as I walked.  However, I remained comfortably dry, and did not mind the increased precipitation.  The air was cool, and the thought of a warm, inviting fire fueled my steps.

I saw two birds taking flight from a bush as I tramped past, but spied no other wildlife.  I think the lack of visible wildlife, in an area normally teeming with small animals, was likely a good indicator that they could sense the approaching storm, and were battening down their own little hatches.

At around 6 PM, I reached the Grindle Ridge Shelter Area.  I did not inspect all of the shelters, but had a pretty good sense that I was the only one present.  Immediately, I set to the task of building a fire.  Outside of the lean-to, I discovered that someone had fashioned a crude litter out of sticks and rope.  It was about 8 feet long, and resembled a makeshift ladder, slightly wider at one end.  I felt confident as to the purpose of the design.  One of the most tiring chores of camping along the LHHT is to gather firewood.  The woodpile at Grindle Ridge is located about 100 yards from the nearest lean-to.  Carrying several armloads of firewood, after a long day of hiking, is about as appealing as a mud sandwich.  A litter like this one would make that task easier.  So, I dragged it to the woodpile, filled it with firewood, and pulled it back to the shelter.  I was coming along quite nicely when the litter suddenly broke apart, spilling my heavy load.  I had to abandon the inspired, but faulty device, and carry the wood the remainder of the distance, the old fashioned way.

By the time I set to build my fire, the wind was really picking up.  In almost no time I had a magnificent blaze going.  The wind supplied plenty of oxygen and ventilation, allowing the fire to burn with incredible fury.  It was so hot, and was shooting out so many sparks, that I had to break it apart a bit to slow it down.  Even then it created a small blast furnace, heating the air inside of the lean-to so comfortably, that I changed into my shorts and T-shirt.

After pumping and filtering enough water for the evening, and following day, I cooked supper, and from the shelter floor, ate in silence while the forest above me shook with each passing gust of wind.  The tempo of the storm was steadily increasing, yet rain fell only in brief spurts.  Pretty soon I heard crashes in the forest, as branches and limbs were knocked from the trees by the unseen hand of the wind.  Some branches fell close by, and for the first time the thought actually struck me that this may not have been such a grand idea.  This shelter is sturdily built, no doubt, but it probably would not repel a giant Red Oak, or withstand a hardened Locust thrusting down upon it.  And so I sat with a careful eye cast above me, watching the giant trees sway back and forth, like pendulums running on springs wound too tightly.

The evening passed slowly.  The whipping wind caused the fire to consume, with an insatiable appetite, each log I threw on, while the belching smoke remained trapped inside of the lean-to by a screen of turbulent air.  I lay down on my sleeping pad to stay as low as possible, but found it difficult to find a position where my eyes would not tear up from the smoke.  I also tried different places in the shelter, until finally discovering that by lying with my head near the rear of the lean-to, near the small opening at the back, I could breath fairly well.

No other guests came to the shelter area.  The Park Ranger did not stop by either.  I was alone with my fire, and ill-tempered Isabel.

Sometime after 9 PM, I put away my gear for the night, and turned off my headlamp.    The tempest was growing more violent.  The intensity of its wrath seethed incredibly.  This, then, is what I had come to witness: The ungoverned passion of a raging storm set upon an innocent forest – the undisputed power of a williwaw, facing the stanch defense of a towering fort of trees.  Brute force was being unleashed against an ancient hillside, and I had a ringside seat.  The light of my small fire could not reveal the struggle taking place above me, yet, by the sound of creaking wood, crashing branches, and howling wind, I sensed a heavy battle being fought.

Eventually, I crawled into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.  Like a jealous creature, however, Isabel howled above me, warning off sleep as it made several attempts to cautiously approach.  Eventually, I passed into that semi-conscience realm, but only until a nearby crash, or assailing howl shook me from my uneasy slumber.  Then, I would lie awake, and listen, while wondering at the fury and strength nature has to offer, and feeling awfully small in the midst of it. 

I awoke often during the night, feeding the fire small tidbits of wood so that the smoke would not overwhelm me.  Sometime after 3 AM, the wind seemed to relax.  Its noise was then replaced by the sound of rain falling – not hard, but steady.  The fire died down, no longer being fed by the bursts of oxygen that it had been accustomed to all the night, and it became more manageable.  In the middle of the changing elements, I fell deeper asleep, and achieved the rest that had been eluding me.

Friday, September 19, 2003

The birds did not greet me with their singing as I arose from my sleeping pad, and the forest did not seem its usual self this morning.  The trees were still moving with the scolding wind, and rain was falling in what seemed to be the final throes of Isabel’s passing.  Stirring the fire, and tossing the last few pieces of wood upon it, I renewed my blazing companion, and set a filled water pot atop of it to get breakfast underway.  Before packing my things, I walked around the shelter area.  Branches and limbs, were scattered everywhere, resembling the leftover debris of a battlefield.  Many of the branches were green, with green leaves still clinging to them.  The wind had ripped these small members from the trees, though they were yet vibrant, and still attached to the trunk.  A very large, dead branch had crashed upon the men’s privy.  The edge of the branch struck the privy’s roof, breaking off a piece of the Plexiglas that covers part of the roof structure.  But, no significant damage seemed to have been done to it, or any of the structures – most noteworthy to me was the undamaged structure that I had slept in.

After breakfast I packed my things and set off on the LHHT, heading south toward my vehicle.  Along the way I removed small limbs and branches that reached out across the pathway, but found only two trees, having fallen during the night, now blocking the trail, and too heavy for me to move.  Otherwise the trail seemed in good shape.

Rain fell as the invisible wind blew by, knocking the water free from the trees above.  I heard no birds, but listened to some crickets as I passed an open field.  That was the only sound of animal life until I nearly reached RT 653, and flushed out a very large bird – not seen well, but presumed to be a type of hawk.

Returning to my van, I drove to the Park Office and paid my overnight fee of $3.  I also reported to Donna the position of the two downed trees, and of the condition of the privy roof.  I then returned to my home.

Each season brings its own uniqueness to the forest.  Each day dawns with its own unique occurrences.  Sunshine and warmth, cold and snow, rain and wind: each displaying something unique in the living forest.  I am always and forever grateful to my God for the privilege of witnessing some of those unique happenings.



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