2004 Fall Hike

Friday, October 22, 2004

For weeks I’ve watched the fall colors brighten the landscape.  The colors stirred me deeply, just as it stirs many who read this journal and who long to explore the forest trails.  But, my schedule showed no promise of change.  Then, without much notice my weekend plans changed.  Suddenly I found myself with the glorious realization that I had a Friday night and Saturday morning free.  To the woods – to the woods!

I raced home from my last work appointment and changed clothes.   With one eye kept on the clock I then quickly threw together a backpack.  Sunset on the Laurel Ridge today was officially at 6:28 pm. But deep in the woods sundown would feel much earlier.  I had hoped to be set up in camp before then.

I pulled out of my driveway with the Laurel Ridge map unfolded across my steering wheel.  Living in Somerset places me close to the trail at a number of convenient points.  But with only a few hours of daylight left I needed to pick a trip that would get me to my destination quickly.

Scanning the map I saw my trip.  Kuhntown Road crosses the trail behind Bakersville, Pa.  From there, the Turnpike Shelter is only about a two-hour walk.  There is no official parking along Kuhntown Road, and no Park Ranger patrol.  I’d just have to take my chances.

I knew of a small pull-off parking space just west of the trail.  I pulled into the grassy spot and began saddling my backpack.  I hoped that my vehicle would be safe from vandals – the trail’s worst nuisance.  My fears were not assuaged by the sight of a pick-up truck that wheeled past at a rate of speed too fast for these back roads.  In the bed of the truck was a small group of young boys who’s shouting was heard before the truck was seen, and lingered after it vanished.  I wished my vehicle good luck as I slipped back the trail.

The autumn colors were still in bloom, though they were significantly dulled.  Usually around the second week of October the fall leaves bring forth their best colors.  I had a trip planned for that very weekend but a bad cold kept me in bed.  Since then I have watched the colors fade and thin as the rain and wind, which marks the coming of winter, do their work to shake free the forest’s brilliant color.  If you backpack or hike then you will know how hard the lure of the forest tugs at the soul during this time of year.  It’s nearly a sacred season.

It was just before 4 pm when I started walking north through the woods.  It was only 50º outside, but the temperature was dropping.  The sky was autumn gray, and a cool wind was stirring.   It was a perfect day for walking. 

The smell of the forest greeted me immediately.  What a wonderful fragrance it is.  Red maple leaves dotted the forest floor, while golden yellow leaves, like faded parchment still clung to their birch parents.  Green could be seen in some of the leaves overhead, but was most prominently evident in the laurel, moss, and trailing pine near my boots.

I kept a steady pace.  I wanted to reach camp and get a fire going before nightfall.  But walking quickly would have its cost: a build up of perspiration beneath my clothing.  In these kinds of temperatures, hypothermia is a considerable threat.

This section of the trail is pleasantly level.  Some experienced hikers call the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail a “yuppie trail.”  They do so because of the clean lean-tos, hand-pumped water, and split firewood available at the shelter areas.  But even most experienced hikers will agree that the LHHT offers some challenging terrain and beautiful scenery.  Because of my time constraints, I was glad that I was not pushing up some difficult hills.  The level walking plane was gladly welcomed.

Before long I reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The trail crosses over top the Turnpike on a metal/concrete footbridge.  As I always do, I meandered slowly across the bridge, watching the motorists speed beneath me.  One trucker waved and sounded his air horn.  I wondered if perhaps he were an outdoorsman at heart and was wishing that he were spending the late afternoon hours walking through the fall forest instead of traveling down a macadam highway.

While pausing on top the footbridge I noticed for the first time that I could see my breath, which was still huffing from the last small climb.  This told me that the temperature was continuing to drop, and that I should probably return to my trek.

I reentered the woods and found the trail, which is clearly marked by yellow blazes.  The trail soon began to climb and the perspiration continued to build beneath my layers of clothing.  But instead of slowing down I picked up my pace – the day was already dimming.

Shortly after 5 pm, I reached the Turnpike Shelter area.  I had made good time but was soaked in my own sweat.  As I lowered my backpack I felt a cold wind strike my back.  I shivered in response but needed to get some work done before changing clothes.

I assumed Shelter No. 1, which is closest to the firewood pile.  It was going to be a cold night and I needed to gather enough wood to last until morning.  It was a laborious, breath-taking job that left me completely drenched in my own sweat.  The temperature had dropped into the mid-40s, but felt much colder on my wet body.

When I had sufficient firewood for the night I changed my undershirt and put on a nylon sweater.  My drenched hat was exchanged for a dry bandanna, and instantly I felt warmer. 

Building a fire became a race against time.  Darkness was griping the forest and I still had water to gather and dinner to make.  To my chagrin the fire did not leap to a blazing inferno.  Instead, it smoldered, smoked and puffed.  I blew onto it until nearly faint; yet saw no sign suggesting that it would live.  Finally, when I was beginning to wonder if the fire would not make it, a strong wind shook the trees above me.  The same wind also created a vacuum over the chimney, creating the draft I needed.  The fire sprang to life.  My night would be bearable.

The Turnpike Shelter is notorious for its iron-brown water.  However, hikers for years have made use of a spring located about 100 yards from the hand pump.  I found the spring and filtered fresh, clear water for my canteens.  I small frog leaped out of the spring as I was drawing water, but then stayed nearby to watch me.  I asked it out loud how it was going to make it through a cold night with no blanket to lie beneath.  It did not reply, but stared unblinkingly back at me.

With a blazing fire before me, wood stacked beside me, and brim-filled canteens of crystal clear water behind me, I finally sat back and relaxed over a hot supper.  By the time I finished eating, the sun had set, leaving a dimly lit sky that was quickly ebbing away.  I slipped on my headlamp and organized my camp for the night.

A fog rolled in covering the blackening forest with a thick dampness.  My fire cast dancing shadows across the lean-to’s wall, and provided me with excellent companionship.  There was no one else at the shelter, and I did not expect to see anyone.  Although I had phoned in my reservation for the shelter to the Park Office, I did not expect to see a Ranger at this hour.  I would be alone with my fire.

The mercury continued to drop but finally seemed to find a foothold in the upper 30s.  Not only was the fire keeping the lean-to warmer, but also a lot dryer.  The fog was so thick that I could hear the condensation drip from the trees as if it were raining.  I crept in closer to my warm blaze.

Sometime after 9 pm I threw a bundle of wood in the fireplace and crawled inside my EMS 25 Down Under Sleeping Bag.  Made of goose down the bag is light and incredibly warm.  This was what the sleeping bag was made for.  It was like watching a Husky dog in the snow, or an eagle take flight.  The bag was in its element – and I was in the bag.  I was warm, dry and glad to be on the Laurel Ridge.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Though I slept well, I woke up numerous times to feed the fire.  Crawling out of my toasty bag into the cold, wet air was not inviting.  But, I had to serve the fire if I wanted it to serve me.

Eventually my eyes blinked open to find the light of a new day.  The fog had lifted and the temperature was already in the low 40s.  I stirred the coals of the fire and rejuvenated the blaze.  Breakfast was hot coffee and oatmeal.  I was glad that I chose a hot breakfast over a cold one.

Gathering my belongings I filled my backpack and set out.  My new fingerless wool gloves were working well to give me warmth and dexterity.  They made the cold plastic handles of my trekking poles easier to hold.

The walk through the morning forest was absolutely delightful.  The colors were more brilliant from the dampness of the night, and there was newness to everything I saw.  It is hard to imagine that more people do not make a trip like this – and see these kinds of things.

I crossed the Turnpike and paused to watch the vehicles.  The traffic was lighter than the evening before, but no one waved or beeped at me. 

My walk was so enjoyable that I was startled to have reached I Kuhntown Road so soon.  Thankfully my vehicle had remained unmolested.  I placed my pack into it and climbed aboard.  Within a few minutes I was driving home on RT 31.  Laurel Hill loomed behind me; thanking me for my visit, and welcoming me to return anytime that I could.



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