Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, May 2008

Day 4

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Sometime during the middle of last night I was awakened by a noise just outside the shelter. I opened my eyes and peered out into the darkness but didn't see or hear anything. I turned over and attempted to go back to sleep but a few seconds later I heard the noise again and I swore it was so close that I could probably reach my arm out and touch whatever it was. I grabbed my headlamp which I had left next to my sleeping bag, turned it on and quickly rolled over toward the direction of the noise. The beam from my light landed squarely on a fox that was standing about three feet away from the base of the fireplace. We obviously forgot to pick up the couple noodles that fell out of the pot when we drained them before dinner. The fox ran off and stopped about 20 feet away but was still within my view. It stood as motionless as a statue and stared at me for several seconds until I began to shake the light which scared it away for good. This simple, careless mistake, although not harmful tonight, made me remember why people are supposed to cook and eat a good distance away from their camp site, especially in bear country.

A bright, sun-filled sky greeted me when I awoke around 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning and the temperature was a brisk 48 degrees according to my thermometer. If the day continued with weather like this it would be a welcomed change. We packed quickly, had a peanut butter bagel for breakfast and were on the way by 8:55 a.m.

We followed the ranger/service road out of the shelter area to Route 653 and hiked west a short distance to the ranger station. We paid our shelter fees for the entire trip, $4.50 per person per night (non-resident) and spoke with the ranger for a few minutes. I asked the ranger if bears are very common along the Laurel Highlands Trail. He said they live in the area but backpackers usually don't see them or have trouble with them. He did, however, recount one story for me that allegedly took place a while back. He said a single hiker had been awakened in the middle of the night by a bear inside his shelter. The bear apparently had smelled his food and was raiding the shelter for a midnight snack. The guy became so terrified by the encounter that after the bear ran off, so did he. He supposedly packed up his gear, hiked through the night and slept during the day. We also discussed our self-inflicted torture on the giant climb yesterday right outside of the Ohiopyle shelters. The ranger chuckled a bit and said that backpackers usually lament over the steep climb, and over the years have given it the nickname, "heart attack hill". The conversation eventually turned to our prior day's rain-soaked hike and our curiosity over what today had in store for us. The ranger graciously offered to check a couple internet weather forecasts for the day as well as offering up the sink in the supply room to fill our water bottles instead of having to use the spicket outside. The ranger said the forecasts predicted a good chance of rain in the afternoon. We thanked the ranger for his hospitality, said good-bye and left the building in rain pants but no jackets.

We rejoined the trail again a couple hundred feet west on Route 653. There was a small cemetery encircled by a short fieldstone wall only a few yards off the road. The cemetery appeared to be quite old as most of the grave markers were just jagged pieces of fieldstone which were very worn and weathered. The earliest date of death I was able to discern was that of a young girl, Elizabeth M. Dietz, who passed away in 1818. A type-written tag on top of the gravestone indicated she had been just 12 years, 9 months and 15 days old when she passed away. It was a rather peaceful moment as the wind gently rustled the leaves in the trees around us. As I stood there I realized the sights and sounds I was experiencing were probably very similar to what the families experienced when they buried their loved ones here back in the 1800's. Even though their lives were drastically different than ours today, we all will eventually come to the same place. A few seconds later the noise from a passing vehicle quickly snapped me back to the year 2008.

The trail remained fairly level for the first five to six miles of the day and the trees surrounding us consisted mostly of more oak, maple and tulip trees. At the top of a short climb we came face to face with a rocky overlook with a really nice view. We were able to see some mountains out in the distance and a nice green valley below which was filled with homes and farms. We were going to stop for lunch somewhere near the 25-mile marker, but shortly before we would have arrived there it began to rain again. We didn't want another abbreviated lunch like we had yesterday so we took a 3/10-mile detour to the Grindle Ridge shelters and arrived there around 11:45 a.m. We found the entire camp area vacant so we grabbed the first shelter we came across, kicked back and enjoyed our lunch. The rain began to fall even harder and lasted for about half an hour which made us realize we had made the right decision to stop here. Before hitting the trail we begrudgingly put on our rain gear just in case it started to rain again. The sky was not very sunny anymore and the chance for more rain appeared to be pretty high.

Upon resuming our hike we came across a unique landmark. A short section of the trail passed between two giant slabs of rock which made it appear as though we were hiking through a giant rock maze. It was an interesting site. It wasn't long after lunch that the sky began to turn a more ominous shade of gray and we knew what that meant. Again? Oh yes, more rain, and this time the rain was mixed with hail! No, we weren't being obliterated by golf ball-size hail, but, nonetheless, there were tiny balls of frozen water descending from the sky. As we hiked along I listened to the high-pitched twang of hail as they struck my rain jacket. The tiny frozen balls bounced off the springy nylon shell of my jacket's hood and flew chaotically out in various directions in front of my face. The rain and hail eventually stopped, but we were once again soaked inside and out.

At approximately 2:45 p.m. we left the shelter of the wind-blocking woods and skirted the perimeter of the Seven Springs condo/ski resort (from what I can recall, the large retention pond on the left side of this web page is the pond we hiked around). It was an odd feeling to have been so isolated from modern-day sights and sounds and to all of a sudden be hiking near a ski resort with busy vehicle traffic and on-going construction, complete with heavy machinery, generators and the constant hiss-thud of nail guns firing away. The trail was briefly interrupted and we were forced to take a minor detour. We hiked up a small grade and ended up on top of the dirt barrier of a giant retention pond. It was still a work in progress so there was no grass or other vegetation to walk on only thick, sticky mud. We hadn't realized how windy it had become until we reached this point. The wind was really whipping around up there which made us even colder than we already were. We followed the large arcing topography of the retaining wall to the other side of the pond where we had to begin searching for the trail blazes again. We were now standing on an asphalt road that dissected this portion of the ski resort. We eventually found the yellow trail markers and followed them past the chair lifts and down the ski slope to the point where the trail picked up again and reentered the woods.

It seemed impossible, at least highly improbable, but it happened again. Bad weather materialized out of nowhere. We were deluged by sheets of rain and wind so strong that I literally had to hold onto the hood of my jacket so it wouldn't fly off. As a matter of fact, it was blowing so hard that when I turned my face in the right direction the taught pull-strings on my hood whistled in concert with the wind blowing through the trees. What a day this was turning out to be!

Further on down the trail the rain stopped and the sun began to appear from behind the breaking clouds. We climbed a hill to a high point directly behind a cell/microwave tower. By now the sun was out in all its glory and it was actually beginning to warm up a bit. We stopped long enough to take off our rain jackets and lash them to the back of our packs to dry in the stiff breeze while we continued to hike. Not long after we resumed our hike I began to feel like I was truly living a nightmare. Our mood-lifting blue sky had slowly become absorbed by thick, dark gray clouds and along with those clouds came peals of thunder off in the distance. We stopped to put on our cold, still-soaked rain jackets before attacking another climb. Just as we reached the top of this hill the sky was ripped open by a jagged fork of lightning which was followed by an ear-splitting crack of thunder. The thunder arrived almost simultaneous with the lightning so we were sure it hadn't been far away. It was almost as though the thunder sent a shock wave up to the clouds and violently shook them apart because the heavens opened up and torrents of rain poured down. It was now raining harder than it had during any of the previous times and just for good measure we were being assaulted by more hail, only this time the icy spheres were larger than before and there was enough to begin accumulating on the ground.

Just prior to passing the 32-mile post we crossed paths with a lone male hiker traveling in the opposite direction and stopped to talk for a minute in the pouring rain. He said he had mountain-biked into the area, hid his bike in the woods and then went or a hike. He appeared to be an avid hiker from the looks of his top-notch clothing and gear as well as the fact that he was out in this type of weather. He said he had finished his hike and was heading back to retrieve his bike. We exchanged some common trail conversation such as how much ground we had covered today, the trail conditions and the interesting things we had seen and experienced during the trip. Before parting ways he mentioned that we were only about one-half mile out from the shelters and that the trails were completely covered with water. He wasn't kidding! When the trail wasn't making a sharp descent over the countless slippery and treacherous rocks and boulders it was completely covered by standing pools of water. We were already so wet that there was absolutely no reason to attempt to avoid the puddles. We hiked right down the middle of the trail as our gait, quickened by the knowledge of a dry shelter, sent waves of water and spray flying through the air in all directions.

We arrived at the Route 31 shelters around 5:05 p.m. The trail led us through camp and past a couple shelters. Shelter #4 was occupied by a single older male. I noticed that he had a rather large pile of dry wood stashed away under the protective overhang of his shelter and that he had a nice fire going. The smoke drifted up and away from his shelter's chimney and spread out into the camp area before finally dissipating further out in the distance. We walked down to the opposite end of the trail only to discover that we were at shelters #1 and #2. Somehow we had missed shelter #5 which had been assigned to us during the reservation process. We came to the realization that our shelter was closer to where we had entered the camp. Somehow we had missed it on the way in and we weren't in the mood to hike back up there. We figured it was late enough that the entire place would not be filling up for the night so we dropped everything at shelter #3. Before doing anything else we changed into dry clothing and hung the wet stuff from our portable clotheslines that had been strung between various fixed objects in front of the fireplace. We had been cold and wet for much of the day and were now very exhausted as well. We inflated our sleeping pads, unrolled our sleeping bags and laid down for a couple minutes to warm up. As it turned out a couple minutes somehow turned into 45 minutes of much-needed, uninterrupted sleep.

When we woke up we made several trips to the wood pile near the water pump and took back the best pieces we could find even though they were water-logged. Our shelter had only four pieces of dry wood but no kindling to get it started. I walked over to our only neighbor and introduced myself and he replied in kind by saying his name was Dave. I told him our predicament and asked if I could have some of his smaller twigs and branches so we could get a fire going. He told me to take as much as I needed. I didn't want to be greedy so I took just enough to get our fire going, but before I could turn to leave he stopped me and insisted that I take more. He jumped out of his shelter, said he had plenty of wood for the night and then graciously loaded my outstretched arms with as much as I could carry.

I returned to our shelter and set up the wood in the fireplace. Unfortunately, we were having a rough time getting the somewhat damp wood to keep a flame. Then, out of nowhere, Dave appeared beside us. He said he had a big enough fire and wanted to bring us some additional wood, some of which had already been dried out and slightly charred from his fire. We thanked him again and set to getting our fire going. Several minutes later Dave appeared again. This time his hands held the unrolled aluminum windscreen from his portable stove. Spread out on top of the windscreen was five to six pieces of ember-covered logs straight from the middle of his fire. We rolled the burning wood into the middle of our fireplace and yellow and orange tongues of flame immediately erupted and began to dance across our log cabin stack of wood. We thanked Dave yet again for his generosity and then he returned to his shelter.

We allowed the fire some time to seriously heat up and then began the task of drying our gear and clothing. We made spaghetti and ate dinner around 8:30 p.m. and then dried more clothes until 10:00 p.m. The temperature felt like it really dropped after the sun went down and we figured it was probably going to be even colder tonight than it was last night. I crawled into my sleeping bag around 10:30 p.m. and wrote in my journal for about an hour before my eyes were too heavy to stay open even a second longer.

Final count for the day: Deer tracks, several chipmunks, two other backpackers and millions of raindrops.

Miles Covered Today: 14.6
Total Trip Miles: 33.1
Elevation Change Today: 3300 feet
Total Elevation Change: 10,400 feet

Day 5

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