Sunday, October 09, 2011

Another Getaway

The first phase of my fiscal year end project at work went smoothly, but the final, scary part happens Tuesday night. I took advantage of the long weekend to grab another solo backpacking trip to de-stress.

The weather here has been spectacular for most of a week now, highs in the 70's, lows in the 50's and not a hint of rain in the forecast. I already had an appointment on Friday morning, so it was a no-brainer to take the rest of the day off. By noon I was on my way to Prince William Forest Park, more specifically to the "Chop", aka the Chopawamsic Backcountry Area.

I checked in at the Visitor Center and talked to Victoria, a ranger who was born in Australia and moved to the US as a child. I had already decided to camp two nights, so we set the permits up for that. I was told that nearby Quantico Marine Corps base was doing live-fire exercises that weekend, so the snap-crackle-pop-boom sounds would be audible in the distance. I was also advised for the first time at PWFP to hang my food since there had been several reports of bear activity in the area. Tres cool! I'd never heard of bear in the park.

There are only eight campsites at Chop, spaced around a loop trail. The trail is a little over two miles long, and you can only hike a circle like that so many times, so my plan was to hike in the main park during the day, then hike into Chop to camp at night.

Friday afternoon found me at the back of the park hiking the Farms to Forest trail. The trail loops through some old farmland that is being reclaimed by Mother Nature, with a swing down through a marshy area full of beaver. At one point I found myself in the middle of a large sunny meadow, knee deep in ferns that were turning bronze in response to the recent chilly nights. Gorgeous. After finishing the trail, I drove over to Chop and hiked (intentionally the long way around) to campsite #2. This campsite is up on top of a rocky little knob that catches any breeze there is. I set up camp, cooked and ate some dinner, hung my bear bag, wrote in my journal and read a little on my Kindle. I was asleep by "hiker's midnight", i.e. an hour after sundown. The weather was mild enough that I left the sides of the tent up for the fresh air.

The only wildlife of note that I saw were daddy long-legs spiders and dozens of these tiny brown toads, about the size of your thumbnail. They blended in so perfectly that unless they moved they were invisible. They hopped around a lot.

Besides the ferns from yesterday, the star of the flora show were a sort of fungus I started calling Zombie Fingers. They were little flesh-colored tentacles that were sprouting from the ground in clumps and clusters. The biggest were about 3" tall, and it reminded me of tiny undead hands clawing their way back to the surface. There were enough of them around to be noticed.

I broke camp the next morning and headed back to PWFP for more hiking. The plan was to tackle part of the South Valley trail, the longest in the park. This was the only trail that I'd never been on. Not long after starting out I ran across a trail maintenance crew who were relocating the current trail up a hillside about 50 feet because the old trail was causing some serious erosion issues and the land needed some time to heal. I thanked them for their efforts, then found out that they're volunteers who come out once a month to do their work. I got their contact info and am seriously thinking about joining them.

The South Valley trail is beautiful! It runs along the south fork of Quantico creek and is full of babbling brook and little rapids. A couple of hours along the trail I turned uphill along the old Taylor Farm road and climbed until I reached the group campground at the top of the ridge. I sat at a picnic table and had some lunch, then headed out again, this time downhill along the Turkey Run Ridge trail. When I got to my car again I headed out to Chop for my last night.

This time I had selected camp #4. It was across a creek and up a long, broad ridge full of old-growth forest. There was easily room for a dozen tents, but the rules allow for a maximum of four people or one family per site to minimize the impact. Once again I set up camp (sides up on my tent), cooked and ate, cleaned up and hung my food. I was relaxed and ready for bed shortly after sundown, pleasantly tired after a long day of walking through beautiful woods.

Despite being tired, I needed to wear earplugs to fall asleep because of the "rain". Acorns were crashing down through the trees and splashing into the leaves on the ground, making a helluva racket that didn't really let up all night. More than a few bounced off of my tent too.

This morning as I was getting ready to pack up I had a little problem. I pulled off my sleeping shirt and pulled on my hiking shirt, and noticed that my vision was fuzzy. I blinked a few times, then rubbed my eyes, but it didn't help. When I went to take off my glasses, I discovered that one of the lenses had popped out. I did a careful search of the ground around me - I was standing in front of my tent at the time - but didn't find it.

Rather than freak out, I went over to a log and sat down and calmly finished my tea. I suspected that the lens had fallen inside the tent, because I was standing right in front of it while changing my shirt, but I retraced my steps in my mind, thinking about where I had walked and *exactly* when I noticed the fuzzy sight. I finally went back to the tent, checked the ground again, then methodically looked through my gear. Sure enough, my lens was sitting in a little nook on my backpack, where it had fallen when I changed my shirt.

Problem solved, I packed up one last time and headed out. Back to the park to drop off the gate key to the backcountry, then home. Refocused and refreshed.

As usual, I made notes about what worked well and what didn't.

Worked: Dehydrated angelfood cake. I packed it with some frozen sliced strawberries and by Friday night the juices had rehydrated the cake and it was perfection. On Saturday, I made some instant vanilla pudding, tossed in a handful of crumbled cake and let it soak up some of the moisture. Mmmmmmm!

Worked: My new backpacking lantern. It weighs 4.6 ounces including 4xAAA batteries and was bright enough to read by. Not something I'd take when ounces truly count (like an extended hike), but for a few days it was well worth the weight.

Didn't Work: I need to pack extra batteries for the camera, or make sure there are fresh ones before I leave.

Didn't Work: I took 4 Groundhog stakes and 2 Spike stakes. The Groundhogs hold better but are almost impossible to use when the ground is rocky - like this weekend. I managed, but I'll suck up the extra ounces and carry extra Spikes just in case.