We woke late after our first night sleeping near the lake. I wasn’t sure what our scenery looked like, as we had shown up so long after sunset last night. I opened my eyes and rolled over to see Chris putting on his boots. He unzipped the tent and climbed out with a grunt and groan. I felt the cool, crisp air rush into the tent, exchanging itself for our stifled body heat that had collected in the ceiling of our backpacking tent throughout the night.
I slowly started moving around, testing each limb and digit, feeling for any painful sensations from the strenuous hike we had done the day before. My feet seemed to hold the only “ouch”, so I sat up in a single stretching motion and looked outside our tent door and was instantly alert and renewed for the day. The view was rugged, cloudy and dreary yet absolutely beautiful.
I couldn’t help but to suddenly feel extremely confined in the tangles of sleeping bags and long johns.
I scrambled for my flips flops and quickly made my exit to the expanse of the Pennsylvania wilderness. Chris had already retrieved our bag of food from a nearby tree and was working to get the coffee brewing. First I noticed the calm waters of the Allegheny reservoir followed by the thick forests and small mountains. The shoreline appeared to be much lower than usual, with a wide thick rocky bank. It has been a dry summer for a lot of the country, and after driving to California and back a few months ago this dried up shoreline came as no surprise. It is alarming and uncomfortable to witness first hand the drying up of our fresh water sources. Looking behind us I could see that we were on the very bottom of an extremely steep hill, thick with towering trees, wildflowers, brush and decaying stumps. I would later find out that there is a trail at the very top of the hill, which would require us to hike a quarter of a mile out-of-the-way to get down the incline.
I stretched and moved to the picnic table where I was able to finally get a good look at my toes. If you haven’t read the day 1 blog, I have hiked 5 miles down hill with a 30 pound pack and long toe nails. I will NEVER do this again. Luckily, none of my toes were bleeding and it looked like my big toes and baby toes were the only toes affected. I climbed back in the tent and looked for our make shift sewing kit, knowing that I had small scissors. This would prove to be a silly idea, as the scissors are made for thread. Not toenails. I dug around deeper and found Chris’s utility knife. I opened it and very gingerly sliced the tips of my toenails off. I had to be super careful, there would be almost no way to prevent an infection out here, and a 5 mile hike uphill with a gash in my foot would be a less than ideal way to leave our first trip. Amateurs. I cut them so low on the free edge that there won’t be any fixing them for at least a couple of weeks, and my open toed shoe season had officially come to a close.
By the time I was done tending to my feet, Chris had our coffee brewed and ready to go and was working on boiling more water for our oatmeal breakfast. We slowly sipped our magic potion while watching Taco explore and sniff out every square inch of our campsite as and discussed what we would do with our day. Just me, him and our faithful K9 companion out in nature. We had options. We could pack up our site and hike a few miles and set up again. We could stay put for the day and enjoy a lazy day. We could leave our site and go hiking. Something about leaving our site setup and going hiking sounded appealing. The idea of packing up and moving after just arriving 12 hours earlier sounded daunting. I’m not sure who said it, but one of us mentioned beer run and things took a turn. Excitement evident in both of us, we quickly planned and decided that we would pack out our trash and anything we packed that we wouldn’t need, hike back to our car via Johnny Cake run, drive to town for a beer run and park at a different trail head on our way back. We enjoyed our bland oatmeal and quickly got to it, packing up our food bag and tidying up our space. Chris was nice enough to pack out our unwanted items so that I could give my toes a break. I reluctantly put on my boots, grabbed Taco and we headed out.
Chris set a fast pace with Taco and I in tow, winding out of the campground to the bottom of the death hill we had somehow navigated in the pitch black of the night before. Seeing it this morning made me wonder how our 8 legs made it through without fracture. Downed trees, washed out divots, creek rocks all down this massive incline. We swiftly made it to the fork of trails and took the first water break.
Two hours later we found ourselves huffing and puffing our way up the final stretch of the 5 mile incline back to the car. We ran into the guys who were set up next to us and quickly passed them, found a nice married couple on their way into the woods and experienced a beautiful day in the woods. It turns out that hiking without a lingering deadline is a lot less stressful and allows you to really appreciate your surroundings. The sky threatened rain the entire time, but we somehow managed to stay dry. Once we got to what appeared to be the top of Johnny Cake, I could hear voices and smell the campfire coming from the nearby campground and I knew we had finally made it.
We drove the half hour back into town and found the nearest drive-thru, got ourselves a 12 pack of IPA, a few snacks and a pack of mole skin and headed back towards the reservoir.
This time we parked at a trail-head connected to the North Country Trail. It would be a 3 mile hike back to our campsite, and this trail provided us the shortest distance. The trail started off extremely steep, taking us down and away from the road to the bottom of a small gorge. We crossed a curved and very slippery bridge and began our ascent.
This trail would prove much more strenuous than Johnny Cake run, but I appreciated and enjoyed every moment of it, which I’m sure has to do with the fact that I had to carry nothing but myself and my camera. Chris, on the other hand, made more than a couple of comments regarding his discomfort and about how steep the other side of it must be. For me, the steeper it is now the faster I’ll get down the other side.
We climbed for a solid hour, passing only one person the entire time. I could see the end of the tree line above us and knew that we were getting close to the top. A few more winding hills and 20 minutes later, and suddenly the view broke from dense and steep forest and dangerous cliffs to a bit more open with thickets of beautiful grasses and wildflowers, downed logs with bright green mosses illuminated by large, bright rays of sunshine making its way through the thinned out canopy. It seemed as though the sun beams were waiting at the top to greet us and it definitely warmed my soul and renewed my spirit.
The three of us walked along this ridge for a short time, covering only a little bit of distance. I enjoyed this leveled out part of the trail, it was the first and only time we had been able to walk on a level path. I used this time to soak in the beauty around me, stopping occasionally to listen to the still silence of the Allegheny National Forest. This part of the forest reminded me of home, close to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Once we got to the first downhill climb, we found the map and realized that the final descent would be incredibly steep. Taco, Chris and I slowly started down the hill in a single file. Walking through pricker bushes and narrow, washed out sections of trail. At this point we realized that our campsite was directly below us and for a split second we considered leaving the trail and walking down to it,. We ultimately decided to stay on the trail and work our way to the campsite. We had come too far over the last day to screw it all up now.
When we finally got to the next checkpoint we found ourselves faced with the fork we had already crossed twice, and we knew that we had arrived. One by one we filed down the death hill and crossed the ravine into the campground.
I got to the campground, hydrated my body, tended to my feet and cracked open a well deserved beer. Warm beer isn’t so bad out in the wilderness 😉 Chris got started on dinner, a tasty dehydrated pouch of Mexican style rice and chicken.
That night we ate, drank and were merry. No stargazing again, but that was OK with me. The rain started early tonight, around 10:30 so we hunkered down and went to bed.