Saturday, May 6, 2017

Out of the Comfort Zone: The Susquehannock Trail System Backpacking Trip - Day One

(Part One, if you missed it. Part TwoPart Three, Part Four.)

I try to pass myself off as a pretty knowledgable outdoors-woman.  I can point at a plant or critter outside and identify it at least part of the time, I can eat certain things growing outside and know that I won't get sick or die, and I can stay out in the woods during the night while doing ultra-running feats with a headlamp and feel pretty darn invincible.

And though I don't consider myself easily spooked from a challenge, last week's adventure was something very new to me.  Now, last fall, I did a hiking trip with friends that was three days and two nights in the woods, and that was my first real 'backpacking" experience.  We did about 11 miles each of those days, on some challenging terrain.  But this was much different.

The Susquehannock Trail System is about 85 miles over some of the most remote trails in Pennsylvania.  One of the parks we hiked near, Cherry Springs, is known for having some of the best star-gazing in the east, because there is no light pollution.  You know why there is no light pollution?  Because there is no one living out there.  I didn't think much about this building up to the trip.  I had been looking forward to the hike-cation for months.  It's been a stressful year, and I was looking forward to just being out in nature.

Building up to the trip, the weather forecast was iffy, so I packed a bunch of crap.  I mean, I sorted through my gear very carefully and packed everything I might need, while being conscious of the weight of my pack.  Four days of 20+ miles of walking means the less weight the better.

Packed as efficiently as I get!

I had ordered a set of maps and the official trial guide last winter from the Susquehannock Trail Club's website.  I also had found a person who emailed me a GPX file of the trail for my garmin.  Now though it wasn't really necessary, he had a lot of interesting things and mileage marked, which really helped out later in the hike.


My own map file turned out pretty good.  Though it counted my walking around campsites as mileage, so it estimates my mileage higher than that of the actual trail.  You can find the Garmin Adventure link here.  The trail book and maps are super helpful, and compact.  So, packed and at least less green than I was on the last hiking adventure, we set off.

The trailhead is a little over 3 hours away, so we left super early to get to the trailhead to meet the rest of our party.  It was about a half a mile hike to the first trail log-in book, and we signed and then followed the trail in a clockwise direction.  The 85 mile loop follows many different trails, but is very well blazed for most of the way, and fairly well maintained for being such a remote trail.  There were a few areas where we spent a few minutes finding the trail, or making our way through blowdowns, but most of the time, the orange blazes or orange STS written on trees or signs were easy to follow.

Cheerful and ready to start!

The trail started out very easy, not very wet, and rolled downhill with green grassy paths.  There were so many spring flowers on the trail, that keeping my head down and on my feet was a pleasure, seeing spring beauties, violets, trillium, may apples, and a super variety of others that kept my little nature brain occupied most of the hike.

Our first break at an overlook about a tenth of a mile off the trail.  

The vista looking towards Denton Hill State Park, about 2.5 miles in.

That first day was pretty easy hiking.  The weather was decent, there were few bugs, and I was pretty obsessed with the flowers and the scenery and my friends.  We leapfrogged, sometimes stuck close together, sometimes broke away from each other, sometimes chatted, sometimes just let nature's soundtrack be our background.

The trail was beautiful and green.

The downhills went along idyllic streams.

For the first 20 or so miles, mile markers were on some of the trees to tell us our progress.

The Bridge at Lyman run - Mile 7.

Some of the bridges were a little more primitive

Just an example of the beauty the forest offered, over and over.

Photo op!

Old Dynamite storage building.

Someone had left a hat.  Alisha contemplated adopting it, but we left it there.

The trail was signed really really well.

"Everybody Loses when Timber Burns"

The fire tower is no longer in use.

Red Trilliums, just a few of the wildflowers that were everywhere along the trail.

There were cabins and lodges dotted along the trail through the forest.

Snack and rest break along the trail.

There were a lot of Ramps along the trail in places, like this.

There were only two challenging uphills that first day, but as we looked for a place to stop for dinner, we could hear thunder rolling in.  We wanted to eat, then keep hiking so that we were eating away from where we slept, just in case there was bear activity. We found a little spot under some hemlocks, and pulled out our rain gear and started cooking our dinner as the storm rolled in.

Dinner cooking set up.

We ate in the downpour, but though there was some wind, a little thunder, the heaviest part rolled through in about 20 minutes, though it drizzled steadily.  We cleaned up our dinner, and headed out to find a suitable campsite, and to hope the rain would let up by the time we camped for the night.

20+ Miles for the day.

Blurry and rainy

Now, I was enjoying the hike, and the storm wasn't bothering me that much, but somewhere between dinner and finding camp, on the hike through the mud and the slowly dimming daylight, I had an internal anxiety attack.  Or a panic attack.  Or severe wave of home-sickness.  I'm not sure what triggered it.  Maybe it was the rain.  Maybe I missed my kid, or my dogs, or my bed.  Maybe it was the stress of the past six months finally unbottling in unfettered nature.  Maybe it was the isolation, the total disconnect from almost everything I knew, but anyway, my throat closed and I had a couple of tears and for a few moments, I wondered if I could find someone to drive me from the middle of the Suquehannock State Forest back to my house.  What if something had happened to my son, or the dogs?  Or my house?  For a couple minutes, the panic made my throat close up, made my eyes water, and made me think of any excuse I could to get back home.  And I let it, for just a few minutes, take over me.  

Then I took a deep breath, and realized that I love the woods, I love hiking, and I love being with my friends.  I'm not afraid of the dark, and what would I do if anything had happened?  I would deal with whatever happened when I got home.  I let go of the control that I never really had in the first place, and trusted that everything would be ok, or not, and that letting fear and panic ruin my trip, and maybe ruin it for my friends if I all of a sudden found that I needed to get out of the woods, what kind of person would I be?  Not the person I have been for the past few years.  And that was it.  I was ok.  I was still a little nervous a bear would eat my food or rip my tent. And I was a little worried about things at home, but once I accepted that worrying wouldn't change anything, I overcame that anxiety and sadness, and the moment of panic was over.

Ended the day on a soggy double track before we found a camp with the sound of spring peepers surrounding us.

Elevation profile for the first day of hiking.

So we found this little campground with streams and a boggy area around it, and it was surrounded by spring peepers, and that lulled me to sleep in my tent, cozy under a sprinkle of rain on my tent-fly, with a gentle sound of a rain swollen stream.  And I slept really well.

Part One, if you missed it. Part TwoPart Three, Part Four.

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