Karen and I went on this hike shortly before Dick, Dianna and Dom arrived here in Western New York. It was great to see them again and meet some new faces. We tried to cram a lot of activity into the short time they were here and it left me little time to tell this story. I apologize for the length and rambling nature of my writing, but it is also a chronicle of our quest to hike the North Country Trail this summer. I will try to get a couple pictures up soon. Anyway, here it is:
Imagine if you will, high winds, torrential rain, thunder and lightning, throw in flash flooding and about 4 tornadoes, and you will have some idea of the weather that ripped apart the small town of Randolph, NY in the wee hours of the morning on July 25. Now think about this: On that very same night, 30 miles south of Randolph on a high, lonely forest hill are two souls spending the night in a little backpacking tent. I may be reaching for drama here, but there was nothing except for a little luck that prevented what could have been – to say the least – an interesting night for Karen and I.
A week before our latest backpacking adventure, Jennifer and Louie, David and Lisa, along with the grandkids, Nate, Noah, Vinny, Carmen and Lucy, joined Karen and I on a fun filled camping weekend in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest. Karen found a campground near Sheffield, PA that had a swimming pool and activity room for the kids, a nice secluded area for our tents, and several hiking trails nearby. We spent Saturday morning hiking 6 miles of the North Country Trail with Dave, Lisa, Nate and Noah. We thought it would be nice for the family to share in our quest to hike the entire NCT through the ANF this summer. I’m not sure if the family day hikers understand the historic significance of our expedition, but they got a taste of what we do anyway. On Sunday, Karen took everyone but Louie and I on a hike to a waterfall nearby. It was only a mile long hike so even the youngest made it without a hitch.
When the next weekend rolled around and it was time again for Karen and I to backpack another section on the NCT, we were a little concerned about the weather report but not for the reason you might think. The forecast temperature for Saturday was predicted to be high 80’s with humidity so heavy that something called a “heat index” would peg at 99 degrees. On our last hike, I didn’t do well on some of the climbs when the heat, humidity and stagnant air pushed my core temperature to a point that had Karen concerned for my health. I really wanted to hike so we decided to drive in early to take advantage of the cool morning, drink lots of water, and take it easy on the hills. I also noticed from looking at the map that the trail followed ravines with large streams for most of the day. If I got too overheated, I would go splash in the water.
As we progress continually southward on the trail, our meeting place gets increasingly further away for me and closer for Karen. We both arrived almost simultaneously in Kane, PA, picked up a last minute supply at the grocery store, and headed up to park my truck by the trailhead. From there we drove Karen’s car approximately 20 trail miles away to a place known as Minister Creek recreation area. Even though we arrived at Kane before 8:00 am, it was almost 45 minutes before we were ready to hike.
As I pulled my things from Karen’s car, I realized with a sinking heart that I had forgotten my new hiking poles. I had just bought these poles before the hike to replace the ones I had carelessly left propped against a tree when I loaded my truck on our last hike. My hiking poles serve two purposes. My tent uses one as a prop on one end, and the poles also take some of the shock of downhill strides away from my legs. I’ve had a little trouble with a sore knee lately. Karen wanted to go back and get them but I wouldn’t let her. I told her that I could make a pair out of some sticks we would find. I know Karen uses a checklist that she has on her iPhone and I think I would do well to make one also.
The trail that day was mostly level with some gentle hills now and then. We found a few tasty blackberries early on the trail but would not see anymore on the rest of the trip. The briars from the blackberry bushes, however, would continue to rip at our legs on many sections, leaving red scratches, and later welts in thin lines. Usually briars don’t affect me except for a few hours and then their effects disappear a day later. For some unexplained reason I got into a plant of poison that caused the scratches to turn into red, oozing sores. For a week now my legs look like I’ve been kicked by a dozen angry children – they are just now getting better. The funny thing is that Karen didn’t get any reaction, and we walked almost exactly the same places except when I would go off into the woods to pee. I may wear long pants on our next hike even though my legs may be hot.
The weather that day was not as bad as predicted. It was a little cooler and not as humid as what we had experienced a couple of weeks before. Dark clouds would build behind us in the afternoon, but then the sky would grow bright again and the sun would pop out. There were several road crossing where we lost the trail and had to backtrack. Each time this happened we would jokingly add mileage to our trek to pay for the inconvenience of hiking out of our way.
We had hiked our nominal ten-mile day when we descended a long logging road late in the afternoon and entered the small town of Henry Mills on Rt. 943. We knew that we should set up camp soon but decided to hike a few more miles into the woods. We wanted to get away from any form of civilization, and the hike out the next day would be easier if we could climb some of this hill today. The trail took us up a steep dirt road for about a mile and then veered off and followed an old logging trail towards the summit. The sky behind us was beginning to get dark and every now and then we could hear the faint sound of thunder. I didn’t want to hike any higher on the hill because of lightning danger so we finally found a level spot where we could pitch our tent and make some dinner.
It was a good thing we got the tent up when we did. Shortly after Karen poured the hot water from our camp stove into the freeze-dried Pasta Prima Vera meal, it started to rain. I had an umbrella – bought from the dollar store as an experiment – that we huddled under for a while. Then we propped the umbrella over our food and used our foam mats as umbrellas as the rain continued to build in strength. We both had emergency raincoats – kind of like a garbage bag with a hood built in – but the plastic would be too hot to wear around camp. We stood for a while in the rain and then decided we might just as well get in the tent. It was only about 7:30 but at least we would be dry and prone after a long day of hiking.
I think using a stick for the pole on my tent created more problems for me. The stick I found was not long enough for the opening, causing a low roof that closed off the screen for ventilation, and built condensation that brushed on our bags as we turned in the night. On top of that, my sleeping bag was wet when I entered the tent from leaving it too close to the screened sidewall. It was a good thing it was warm because I had made a lot of mistakes that could be dangerous in cold weather. I hoped I was learning what not to do next time.
We listened to the rain drum on the tent and eventually we drifted off to sleep. Thankfully the lightning never came close. We could hear it to the north and west of us but nothing struck anywhere near us. Sometimes, off in the distance, the rumble of thunder would make the sound of a continuous pounding like the finale of a huge fireworks display. The possibility of a bad storm moving through our area was on our minds, but we didn’t speak about it. There would have been nothing we could have done in any event.
After what seemed like a long time of dozing on and off, I sensed that Karen was awake and I asked her how she was doing. It is always a little uncomfortable, sleeping on thin air mattresses, in the cramped confines of a little tent. We were both hoping for morning and daylight so that we could crawl out, stretch stiff aching backs, and resume our hike. I pressed the nightlight on my wristwatch and once I got my eyes to focus, realized it was not even midnight yet. That brought a groan from both of us as we realized we would have to endure several more hours of captivity.
When morning light finally filtered through the trees, we crawled from our tent to an overcast sky and hazy mist. Everything was wet but it had stopped raining for now. The forecast for Sunday was increasing clearing and sunshine for most of the day. We breakfasted on oatmeal and coffee, broke camp, slung packs heavy with rain soaked gear onto our backs, and headed up the trail.
We hiked for about 2 hours in the gloom of a storm that was not quite done with us yet. Once, I thought I saw sunlight break through the low clouds but it didn’t last long enough that I was sure. We became lost a couple more times where the trail crossed oil well roads, and one time we walked a half-mile on the highway before we found the path leading into the woods again. It was not long after that that it started to rain again.
It began as a light sprinkle and I was thinking that it wouldn’t last long. Then it began to rain more steadily. Then it began to pour. And it did not stop for 4 hours. At first, we tried to stand under the cheap umbrella (Which was a piece of crap. It bent after the third time I put it up and it had pointy ends that could put an eye out). Then we just hiked in the rain.
Along towards the end of our hike, we entered an area of interest and – as it turned out – irony. Back in May 1985, the Tionesta Scenic Area was hit by an F5 tornado. Winds over 200 mph cut a 2-mile swath of utter destruction and devastation through where Karen and I now walked. Trees were not just blown over but twisted off 50 feet in the air. For years scientists studied the area to gain insight into the way tornadoes behave. Usually tornadoes follow a ridge or ravine, but this particular twister was so powerful that it went in a straight line, up and down hills destroying everything in its path. We had no idea as we walked through the area that just north of us there were several tornadoes the night before.
Not long after leaving the tornado area we hiked down a ridge and came to the road where my truck was parked. And… of course, it stopped raining and the sun came out. We had hiked a little over 20 miles in the last two days, learned a lot about what to do and what not to do in the rain, assured ourselves that we were fit enough to do it again, and enjoyed the experience enough to stay motivated to the end of our quest. 65 miles down, 40 to go.