Overnight Shenandoah Hike
From the sanctity of the woods we return to the busiest week of our year, amidst all the Christmas hustle and bustle longing for the simplicity of the trail again, in spite of frigid temperatures outside. As winter's chill descended we felt mixed emotions about leaving our warm home, though emotion often prevails over reason. Somehow I sold Coleen that the best approach to winter camping was a single overnight nearby, where the kinks could be worked out without major risk. Within a few days, a forecast of new snow in Shenandoah provided just such an opportunity.
"Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow."
We're nearly petrified from the cold of the truck ride, and the port-a-potty isn't any warmer, so we quickly get away. Before even reaching the AT we see our first deer, a doe who ignores us, sauntering slowly into the edge of the woods to join her companions as we approach. My old pair of walking shoes have no traction at all, and any downhill grade turns me into a Keystone Cops rendition, especially when the snow covers a layer of fallen leaves. Before long I take a spectacular fall, although my pack makes a great cushion for rearward falls. The surface is an odd mix of these slippery patches and others where a thin crust has frozen an inch or so above the solid ground, making walking difficult as each step breaks through and our hiking poles stick between the two layers. Still, we make good time on the level grade, the workload low enough that we barely warm up.
Soon the sky grays and the snowfall begins, increasing to a hearty rate, though it's cold enough not to stick to our clothes, and actually makes for pleasant walking. The passage of more deer bedded down motionless to one side of the trail reminds us we're not alone, and we're startled a few times flushing out the occasional grouse. At the Hawksbill parking lot we've anticipated camping at the day shelter atop the mountain, but seeing some convincing signs prohibiting camping there, we drive on to find a spot to tent (warmer anyway). Skyline Drive diverges to the east, and a flat area above us to our right might well be out of sight both from road and trail. We climb up to find a level plot with just enough room for our tent, so in the fading light we set up, piling what leaves we can find under the tent for a cushion (the ground's hard frozen, so this may aid our comfort). We contemplate a fire, but Coleen would rather settle into the tent, which we do, cooking dinner as we recline within our tent (a safety taboo that's becoming a little too common for us - but then, the bears should be hibernating). After dinner we have hot chocolate, and Coleen settles into her sleeping bag for warmth.
I fly the food bag just high enough to keep the smaller critters out (it's now a beautiful night, full of stars, with the lights of Luray VA shining from the valley below), and settle back inside to my journal until our candle dies. We're both in bed at an early 8:15, although far from sleep, as the howling wind continues to increase in intensity. Coleen is cold, and tries my sleeping bag briefly, finding hers better, so we switch bags a second time. I'm pretty toasty save my toes, which take an hour or so to warm up (a few snores tell me Coleen's getting some sleep). The wind shakes the trees above mercilessly, reaching its peak somewhere around 01:00, after which I catch only the occasional nap.
12/29 Hawksbill Mtn campsite to Panorama (13.3
"Cold clear mountain streams are plentiful with native brook trout and other aquatic life. Waterfalls leap over ledges of ancient rock. A black bear and her cubs amble across a narrow wilderness trail turning over rocks in search of insects living underneath. The stars on a clear Shenandoah night are brighter without the competing glow of city lights. The only sound is that of a light wind through the trees, occasionally broken by the call of one of the many species of birds."
Shenandoah Backcountry Camping pamphletLet me correct this quote slightly for the season. The streams are frozen solid, as are any brook trout therein - the only aquatic life alive is the giardia parasite, ready to send us scurrying for the locked-up privies should we drink it without passing it through our frozen filter. The leaping waterfalls are also frozen. The black bear and her cubs are hibernating, and couldn't turn over rocks anyway, as the ground is frozen. Between snow showers, the stars are as advertised, although we can only stand momentary glimpses before scurrying back into our tent for warmth. And that "light wind through the trees" - by far the most gargantuan lie presented. Nothing light about it - it's a full-fledged gale. Think freight trains, think jackhammers, think squadrons of jets soaring across at low altitude and you'll have a pretty good idea. Our small tent is lifted by the edges with each gust, but our weight is more than equal to the challenge, and the poles somehow keep it erect.
I'm up at first light, getting Coleen up soon after, finding it windy and bitterly cold out, though cloudless; and the sun already paints a beautiful orange glow on the eastern horizon. Coleen's bound to the ground until I make her coffee and cream of wheat in bed, finally persuading her to get up quickly, as we won't be any warmer than now. We hurriedly pack within the tent, not opening the flap to the roaring wind until all is ready.