(Sorry if I’m a bit late with this—I returned to work with quite a lot on my plate.)
So, I did have an inkling prior to this trip that maybe, just maybe, we should ease our way back into backpacking with something other than three 20-mile days (and 84 total miles). Oh well. Suffice to say that DC UL’s return to the trails was challenging, a little bumpy, but for me, at least, pleasant enough.
With quite a few personnel changes in the lead up, we eight, we happy happy eight—headed off to central Pennsylvania on Thursday, 5/21. The gang included me, Jen, Alex, Danielle, Mark, Kyle, Stephen, and Russ. In past iterations of this hike, I had us start at the northern portal and walk clockwise, but this time around I had us start (independently) at the Cherry Springs Firetower and walk counter-clockwise—mainly for a change. Of course any scheme needs to have people arriving at Deb’s in the afternoon.
Jen and I pulled in the afternoon, drank a beer or two on my tailgate in the afternoon sun. How nice was that? Then we traipsed north through the slanting sunlight. We went down Cardiac Climb, crossed a road, and then climbed again for the plateau. A last descent brought us to the wonderful campsites at Lyman Run—so nice to see them in the light. Seven miles. If the weather held up like this, I thought, this weekend would be a real treat. Russ had preceded us. We chatted with him, keeping our distance. The others, excepting Stephen Crane, came in shortly thereafter. We had a merry little fire, enjoyed some libations, and chatted. Mark made a comment about how decidedly non-trivial the splits would be, coming from quarantine. I agreed with him. What I did not mention was that my feet ached after just 7 miles! I had done a 20-mile day (maybe 19) in early March, but since then? … Normally by May I would have done six or more!
Friday morning dawned, Stephen walked in (dark had come upon him a little short of camp), and we started off around the northern periphery of the loop. The sky threatened rain above us. We made fast time over easy ground. But after lunch near Patterson State Park, the skies opened up as we reached more difficult hiking on the western side of the loop—Ford Hollow (where I’ve camped twice before), Prouty Lick (the climb coming out of there was steep!), and Wild Boy Hollow. I resisted rain gear for awhile, but eventually succumbed.
At the head of the column, Kyle did his best selecting a campsite in Stony Run Hollow. But it was wet and muddy and there was just not a very good spot. We speculated that the campsite marked on the map and in the guidebook was underwater. Alex dubbed this campsite “Fern Gully.” Kyle quipped, “Abandon hope all ye who enter.” Jen and I stayed up a little later, drinking whiskey and tinkering with my hammock. (A positive thing is that I have the new hammock system well dialed now. My setup handled the constant rain just fine.)
That day was 25 miles and I definitely felt it. The rain came down all night.
Saturday, we continued south, first along the Sinnemahonig, then sidehilling for miles in the Hammersley, which was beautiful, I thought. I enjoyed getting a good look at the Pool, which is unbelievably deep. Jen and I took practically an hour long break near the campsite I’ve used on previous trips. Then, it was up and over the plateau, with lots of other backpackers coming up from Crossfork, presumably headed to the Pool. I think I reached Deb’s at around 3:45 p.m. Everybody was sprawled out, drinking six-packs of beer. There was a lot of activity in Crossfork. Deb informed me that county was going green on Tuesday.
I was a little surprised to learn that Russ, Stephen, Alex, and Danielle were bailing here, all for various reasons. I was a little sad that they weren’t enjoying the STS, but the rain was definitely a challenge. When an ultra-marathoner tells you that the “fun factor” is too low, well, you know you’ve designed … something? We had a productive discussion of DC UL’s long, proud tradition of bailing in style, which all four definitely did.
Jen, Kyle, Mark, and I left Deb’s—in the rain, again— around 5pm-ish. I felt pretty good on the long climb out of Crossfork, but I was definitely ready to stop by dusk. Kyle and Mark selected a campsite that was tough for us hammock sleepers, so we walked a few hundred yards forward and ended up sleeping where the STS and the Donut Hole Trail cross. You may remember this campsite from 2015, which is where we plotted the rescue mission for Hua on the Donut Hole Trail.
That was 21 miles.
The next morning, my feet were already on fire from the moment I put weight on the them. Jen also had a complaint. I didn’t want to bruise my feet up unnecessarily, so when Kyle and Mark pulled up, I told them we’d just walk back to Cross Fork. We did. Hitched a ride back to our cars and got the heck out of dodge. I got to do some extra video gaming Monday.
I’ll say a bit more later, but first Kyle’s narrative of the remaining miles. Much kudos to Mark and Kyle—the two backpackers with the cojones to finish the route.
Ascending the hills behind Cross Forks after our indulgent afternoon (burgers, beers and sandwiches were enjoyed by all courtesy of Deb’s) was a slog to the top of the ridge after which Mark and I endeavored to find a campsite for the group. After a fruitless few miles, we found a campsite similar to Friday’s in appearance, but better in almost every way. A flat, low rising section of land within the larger creek bed–this spot was both dry and didn’t have rocky soil like Friday’s “campsite.” Unfortunately, it also was essentially devoid of any trees stable for hammocking and Jen and Michael had to proceed onward to the junction with the Donut Hole Trail to find an effective spot. Fitting 8 people in along this stretch of trail would have been a challenge.
The next morning Mark and I regrouped with Jen and Michael to find that our party of eight, then four, was again decreasing by half to two. Michael graciously gave us his paper map since Mark and I each only had a semi-accurate Caltopo and we parted ways with Michael encouraging us to finish the trail for everyone. Sunday saw us with a very pleasant morning following a beautiful stream along a wide, well established trail, a valley that looked quite a lot like an alpine meadow, and gentle walking along a pipeline cut and then some forest roads. The elevation made all the more easier by the well cut roads and trails. After an easy morning we ascended a hollow not on a trail, but by basically walking straight up a steep climb in a dry rocky stream bed–PA trails creators remain undefeated in their utilitarianism. After the treacherous ascent and about a day and half of being otherwise damp, we were also finally able to totally dry out our gear, feet and shoes in the emerging sunlight along the ridge.
We passed through Spook Hollow, glad that the ominous signs were placed to be seen by hikers hiking in the opposite direction–it was exactly how you’d imagine a section of haunted forest to look. After taking a brief break at the Spook Hollow Shelter, we ascended the ridge leading up above Ole Bull State Park. It was nice to finally be on a trail with switch backs rendering the climb pretty pleasant in addition to the several deer I saw on the way up. The long switchbacking descent into Ole Bull had Mark and I both ready for a reprieve on already sore knees. We took and extended break at Ole Bull from about 3:30-5 already 18.5 miles into our day.
Finally gathering the motivation to do one last climb, we ascended out of Ole Bull. Walking along the plateau, we were surprised by the lack of established sites and fire rings–a reoccurring theme on this trail it would seem. We finally reached Hungry Hollow Road, our last place before the trail began to descend into a steep hollow. There we found a large grassy car pullout where Mark and I set up camp and had a nice campfire. Our final tally for the day was 22 miles and about 4800ft of vertical gain. But most importantly, we were under 10 miles from our cars and defeating the STS that had wiped out so many of our fellow travelers.
We awoke bright and early anxious to finish. Descending the hollow we saw no obvious campsite for several miles until we reached Cross Fork Creek where our nice walk along trails and then dirt roads highlighted plenty of flat camping areas along the stretch. It made complete sense that the STS Trail Maintainers were planning on putting in another Shelter at Mile 18 of this stretch. We finally came upon our last hollow and last ascent back to the Cherry Spring Fire Tower. We signed out last log book and finished back at the cars we had seen so long ago. Michael and Jen had left a surprise under Mark’s car and we enjoyed our victory beers at the ripe old time of 10 a.m. We also got to meet the head of trail maintenance for the STS and provide some direct feedback about the obvious trail maintenance we saw throughout the trip and a couple of muddy spots and the steeply angled trail through Hammersley. Overall, it was a fun trip with many challenging moments and an above average attrition rate. I think that the rain on Friday really derailed a lot of people’s enjoyment and comfort–I know the ongoing wetness was an issue for me for several days after the rain had stopped.
Again, much respect to Kyle and Mark. Did y’all find the third full day harder than the other two, or easier?
A few closing remarks. First, about my conditioning, which I hope will be useful for others coming back from quarantine. Actually, I feel pretty good about my splits of 7/25/21/5—getting a back-to-back 20 in was a good result for me, even if I was not able to finish the route. It is a bit curious, I think. Since March, I’ve been working out consistently, training to get back in shape, usually six times a week, switching between the Peloton exercise bike and running. I felt like I backpacked well and fairly swiftly, certainly I got in to camp in plenty of time and the climbs didn’t bug me at all. So, three cheers for the “general” aspect of training. On the other hand, however, I haven’t hiked since early March, the longest run I did was just 10 miles—fine for running, but a lot less time on one’s feet than a 25-mile backpack—and my body weight was a little high. (I would normally lose weight when working out like this, but when I subtract out the steps I usually walk every day, well, I’ve done well just to lose a pound or two.) So it was the “specificity” aspect of training that got me. My feet were just—dare I say it—tender. Interestingly, when I got home, the next day, the soreness went away. So you could conclude I quit at the right time or, perhaps, that I didn’t push hard enough. I just didn’t want to spend a few weeks with badly bruised feet.
Social distancing. I’d give us a solid A for getting to the trailhead and for our comportment on trail. People did a good job. Now, Cross Fork was not ideal and, once people started bailing, hitching rides, etc., well, some compromises were made. I’d give us a C at that point. Nevertheless, we followed the guidance of the responsible public officials, generally. I think the risk, overall, was low. If, as a leader, you want to be certain to keep the social distancing score at an A, you probably need to design trips that everyone will complete as planned, which doesn’t comport well with the most difficult DC UL trips, where a certain measure of unpredictability is built in. In retrospect, a car could have been left at Cross Fork for the inevitable bailing, which might have brought our score up to a B-.
So, that’s how it went down. Myself, I had a great weekend in the woods. I hope others did, as well. It was certainly wonderful to see everyone.