Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, May 2008

Day 3

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I slept well last night, waking only occasionally from the crack of an exploding ember in the fire. When I awoke for the day at roughly 10:00 a.m. the first stimulus to reach my mind was the sound of steady rain. After wiping the morning blur out of my eyes I peered outside the shelter only to observe a solid gray sky with not even a hint of blue anywhere in sight. This looked to be the type of rain that would hang around all day!

We packed away our gear and ate a bagel with peanut butter for breakfast inside the dry confines of the shelter. Next, we made sure laces were cinched tight, rain jackets were zipped up, cuffs were buttoned tightly around our wrists and that pant legs were overlapping the tops of the boots. Finally, at 11:30 a.m., the only thing left to do was take that first step out of the shelter. If you don't want to be bored by the rest of the day's events let me provide you with the Cliffs Notes version - rain, fog, rain, mud, rain, lots of rocks on the trail, rain, lots of climbing and more rain. For those who are still interested in the fine details, please read on.

Upon leaving the camp area we began an immediate 1100-foot ascent which lasted for roughly the first mile. The climb was pretty brutal and didn't provide even the slightest area of level ground for a breather. After approximately one mile it tapered off gradually but continued to climb for another one-half mile. That first mile took us about an hour to conquer due to the numerous 1-2 minute breaks to catch our breath. When we finally reached the top we found an overlook from which we could enjoy a great view of the valley below and relish our accomplishment. However, as we approached the edge of the cliff we realized we were only able to see out about 100 feet due to the thick, white fog which had filled in every nook and cranny in the valley below and was hanging high in the air directly in front of us. It was at this exact moment, while I was standing there catching my breath that the clouds miraculously parted, sunlight beamed down from heaven and I heard angels singing. Now a thought began to materialize in my mind, "Ahhh....the Laurel Highlands Ultra. I think I may actually come back here sometime to run this race." Then, in the blink of an eye and with the crack of a twig under Ken's boot the angels were gone, there was no sunlight beaming down and I was standing there with a blank expression on my face. I quickly shook my head and thought to myself, "That was really strange."....I'm fairly sure it was hypoxia. Our only consolation at this point had been that the rain stopped shortly before the trail crested the top of the climb. My rain jacket and rain pants had only kept me dry for the first five to ten minutes. Even with the cool 48-50 degree temperature, the rain gear trapped so much heat from the initial climb that I was sweating profusely within the first few minutes. In turn, my clothing was soaked from the inside out. I may as well have hiked without the rain gear because at least I would have had some additional dry clothing for the evening. The trail leveled out at this point but the relief didn't last long before we began climbing hills again.

Throughout the rest of the day we crossed several unimproved roads, a clear-cut gas line easement and numerous streams and rivers, many of which had very scenic waterfalls. We quickly learned that these types of landmarks usually appeared in low-lying areas which meant that any time we came across one we were sure to be heading uphill shortly thereafter.

About four miles into our 12+ mile day my heels began to burn. I realized this surely meant only one thing - blisters. And, all the uphill trail climbing didn't help the situation since it puts more stress on the back of the foot.

It was easy to keep track of our progress on this trail because every mile was marked by a small cement post with the mile number highlighted by yellow paint. At approximately 2:30 p.m. we stopped near the 12-mile marker to eat lunch. Unfortunately, it began to rain about 15 minutes before we reached this location and the combination of cool temps, damp air and wet clothing made us re-evaluate our dining plans. Instead of taking an extended break and removing our packs we stopped only long enough to lean against a large rock while we quickly consumed another bagel with peanut butter, trail mix and some water. The break only lasted about 15 minutes because sitting still only made us colder.

The rain came down harder in the afternoon than it had earlier in the day. I didn't think I could feel more wet and cold than I already was but the psychological effect of the gloomy sky and soaked clothing must have taken its toll because I felt more miserable with each step I took. We crossed another two-planked bridge and came face to face with a large river that cut a swath through a small stand of pine trees. The river cascaded over several rocky ledges and would have made a nice time lapsed photo, however, my camera was stashed safely away from the electronics-killing moisture descending from the sky. Once again, there was another postcard moment that would have to live forever in my mind instead of being recorded more permanently in the zeros and ones of a digital photo.

The last couple miles to camp were bittersweet for me. The rain stopped and blue sky was finally visible overhead and this change in weather brightened our moods and lifted our spirits. However, the combination of trail conditions, less than adequate lunch break and cold, rainy weather had taken its toll. I was extremely hungry, my feet were beginning to hurt and every step I took began to feel clumsier and less energetic.

When I made the shelter reservations I was informed that the water from the hand pump at the 653 shelters was not safe for drinking or cooking. I was advised that an alternate source of potable water was available by making a 1+ mile round trip hike to the ranger station. At this point in day neither of us was in the mood for additional mileage. So, when we came upon a small stream just before the 18-mile marker we stopped long enough to filter some water and top off our bottles.

About 3/10 of a mile from the shelter area we detected the refreshing scent of campfire smoke wafting through the damp air. By 6:15 p.m., after a final 300-foot climb, we had arrived at the shelters. As we hiked into the camp area we exchanged greetings with a male subject walking along the trail. He was an older gentleman sporting a long, gray, ZZ Top-style beard, a flannel shirt and old pants. He was staying in the camp with his dog and another male, possibly his son. Through his thick accent we learned that they had arrived here shortly before the rain began. We spoke for only a moment before resuming the search for shelter #5 which was patiently awaiting our arrival.

The first order of business was to locate some firewood. Ken found four small pieces inside another shelter but that was the only dry wood we could find -- definitely not enough to last all night and dry our wet clothes. We located the wood pile a short distance away, but it looked like it had been there for quite some time. On top of that it was out in the open and completely soaked. We rummaged through the pile in a feeble attempt to locate wood that was only slightly wet but we didn't have any luck. Almost every piece we picked up was covered with mud, was extremely soft and was dripping with water. I could practically squeeze the wood and wring the water out in a stream as though it were a sponge. It was quite a disheartening feeling. It took roughly 10-15 minutes of searching to gather what we felt was the best wood available and then a couple trips to get it all back to the shelter. We used our meager amount of dry wood to build a small fire and then stacked the wet wood on top of the grilling grate. We swung the grate into the fireplace directly above the flames and figured the heat from the fire would be enough to dry the wood before our first four pieces were completely consumed. As it turned out, that process worked quite well, but it was a never-ending task to flip, rotate and otherwise move the wood so it would dry properly.

The next order of business was to change into some dry clothes so that our wet clothing didn't sap the little remaining heat from our bodies. We hung the wet clothes in front of the fireplace to expedite the drying time. The warm, dry clothes, the scent of campfire smoke in the air and a constant source of heat helped boost our spirits.

We cooked spaghetti for dinner and ate around 9:00 p.m. It tasted spectacular after a long day of hiking! After dinner we used Ken's portable radio to look for a weather forecast but were unable to find one. The rest of the evening passed quickly as we dried more gear by the fire, discussed our day and contemplated the terrain that was to come our way tomorrow. As crazy as it sounds, the simplest things become entertaining in the middle of nowhere. As my wet clothes heated up next to the fire I became mesmerized by the sheets of steam that materialized from the fabric and rolled up into the cool night air. Only a couple items did not dry completely so I put them in the bottom of my sleeping bag to dry out over night.

The night air was becoming pretty cool so I drank some hot tea before crawling into my sleeping bag around 11:00 p.m. I was so completely exhausted, and sleep came so quickly, that I barely had time to take in the cloudless sky and thousands of stars hanging out there above me.

Final count for the day: A chipmunk, a couple small birds, some deer tracks and a lot of Oak, Maple and Tulip trees.

Miles Covered Today: 12.2
Total Trip Miles: 18.5
Elevation Change Today: 3500 feet
Total Elevation Change: 7100 feet

Day 4

This page last updated on 02-25-2016 @ 11:26 AM