Friday, July 3, 2009

Tuscarora Trail

Warning: Do not attempt to traverse this trail in summer months!

Preface: Ever since thru-hiking the granddaddy of long-distance hiking trails, the AT, 15 years ago, I've been intrigued by some of the shorter trails and have been knocking off one or two per year of late (see sidebar). The ability to cover many miles combined with, more importantly, Chris's willingness to crew have allowed me to complete some of these trails my preferred method--to say, much faster and lighter than the average backpacker. Except for the JMT in 2007, rather than attempting to break records, my goal has been one of seeing, enjoying, and experiencing the entire trail with none of it being done in the dark.
The WHAT Trail? The
Tuscarora Trail is a lightly used 250+ mile blue-blazed spur of the AT with both ends terminating at the AT--near Matthews Arm in Shenandoah National Park on the southern end, and at Darlington Shelter, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the north, making a nice arc through sections of West Virginia and Maryland along the way. The TT is probably best known for its rocks--rocks that make all other "rocky" trails I've traversed, including the PA section of AT and the Massanutten 100 course, look like child's play. In the 1980s the PA section especially suffered from a terrible gypsy moth infestation which killed much of the surrounding trees, making way for a summertime onslaught of briars, brambles, and poison ivy, nearly closing the trail for good. Thanks to countless hours of volunteer labor, the trail was reopened in the mid 1990s. At least that's what I read.
Thwarted once: In April 2008 I attempted to traverse the entire TT but due to sickness bailed early on Day 2, making it only 60'ish miles to Route 55. Fast forward 14 months to June 27. Chris and I are once again at the Rt. 55 TT crossing, well rested after spending the night at the charmingly funky See's Motel in Wardensville, WV ($45/night, cash only please!). I cross the road and proceed north, promptly losing the trail within the first mile. Shortly the correct route--my lifeline of blue blazes--is discovered and I continue onward. This losing-regaining the trail will become a frequent occurrence. Being low-tech, I do not use a GPS; rather the Ziplocked guidebook directions and map for each particular day never leave my hands. Fortunately, I seem to be able to sniff out the trail pretty well so never get very far off course. I have to admit, however, that the TT was a rather special challenge in spots!

Fueled by Sheetz! Each of the five days it took to complete the trail started at daybreak, usually after stopping at a local Sheetz for breakfast sandwiches (and "sheety" coffee), with Chris parking at most of the road crossings and backtracking to intercept me, thereby getting in a few miles himself. Frustratingly, we were never able to go as fast as we'd have liked, hardly making 3 mph most of the time. This trail is rugged! Much of the time there was no real treadway, just blue blazes through a forest littered with tree branches, blowdown, and rocks. Further north those impediments were hidden by the veritable jungle of weeds mentioned above. I began to really look forward to the road sections of which there were a few. Below is a very nice section of trail. If only I'd known what was ahead...

Where the wild things--but no humans--are: I saw lots of wildlife, probably due to the lack of both hikers and, for the most part, encroaching development. A couple of miles into the trek, I met a black bear who promptly skedaddled after I shouted "MOVE ALONG, BEAR!" :) I encountered dozens of deer, four porcupines, a few turkeys, and almost stepped on a big fat rattlesnake. The absence of other trail users was surprising: except for one man walking the eight-mile stretch of C&O Canal, I saw absolutely no one on the entire trail.
Brambles and briars and poison ivy, oh my! As I slowly picked my way across Pennsylvania's Tuscarora Mountain Ridge, the ubiquitous briars waged a full-on attack making my poor legs appear as though they'd been caught in the middle of a cat fight. Teasing respites here and there kept me optimistic: maybe the worst was behind me. But it never was. The f*cking briars continued all the way to the northern terminus. This optimism turned into a bordering-on-the-humorously-psychotic "IS THAT ALL YOU CAN THROW AT ME TUSCARORA TRAIL?! I *WILL* FINISH THIS TRAIL BECAUSE I AM ONE TOUGH MF'er!!" mentality. Here's what I'm talkin' about:

Trauma: Yes, that is the "trail." Yes, those are thorny green things. Yes, there is a blaze hidden in there somewhere. And it went on for miles and miles and miles. Oh yeah, and all that plant life covered all the rocks. There were a lot of rocks. I'm kinda proud of the fact that I fell just once (gotta take the small victories). There were also a lot of ticks. And spider webs, the ones that are all at face level. Since there was no one else on the trail, I got to break ALL of 'em. As of this writing a few days after finishing, the scratches are healing but the poison ivy is just now making its full wrath known.
A religious experience: On Day 4 I climbed Knob Mtn., another long, rocky, bramble-infested PA ridge culminating in a, well... rocky KNOB. As I topped out on the ridge, the skies darkened ominously and began rumbling. Round 1 began around noontime, complete with lightning and a torrential downpour. "Well that was fun" thought I; since it hardly ever rains in CA, experiencing it is kind of novel. Round 2 was a bit more intense, but I happened upon an overhanging slab of rock in the escarpment just in time to avoid a good pelting with marble-sized hail, laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation. Yes, I do know you're not supposed to hide under a rock during a lightning storm, but it made for a better religious experience.
Dark thoughts: My circa 1997 TT guidebooks (there are two) mention only one shelter on the entire trail; however, I saw six or seven of the beautiful structures, including two currently being built. As I fought the overgrowth and stumbled over the sharp rocks (both loose and stable), I wondered why so much time, effort, and money was going toward building shelters rather than maintaining the trail. Were they taking the "If we build it, they will come" approach? Why did the PATC/KTA not post the many trail relocations on their websites? Why didn't more people care about this route, one that has the potential to be a gem of a long-distance trail?
Happy thoughts: Encounters with the previously mentioned wildlife, beautiful songbirds, wildflowers, ferns, solitude (especially for an introvert who loves getting inside her head), pastoral farm scenes, wonderfully intense smells of a humid forest, and really nice local people produced happy thoughts. The nice people include the proprietors of See's, Pikeside, Jimmy's, and Kenmar motels, the 5 a.m. Sheetz employees, the WV dude in the beatup truck who advised Chris to "not let yer wife run alone in these parts," and State Forest worker "Ed" (below), with whom we spent 20 minutes chatting. (Note map & directions in hand.)

Final thoughts: The Tuscarora is one of the most difficult trails I've ever attempted, but most of the difficulty was due to the summertime overgrowth and apparent lack of maintenance on long stretches of trail. Perhaps because of a particularly wet spring the growth was excessive this year. If I knew then what I know now, I would attempt this trail only in the springtime, before the briars have taken over. Then it probably would be pretty nice. Am I glad I did it? Of course. Sections of the Tuscarora Trail were lovely, and with a s***load of TLC this trail could be a winner. The good outweighed the bad, and I never resorted to tears (did get close a couple of times!). Oh wait, Chris wants to say something...


Crew note: Sue is still delirious from her adventure. There IS no trail -- just a marginally progressive display of blue blazes strewn among trees requiring the hiker (not runner, as Sue's notes would allude to the absence of opportunity to do) to sustain constant mental acuity in order to get the sense of forward motion towards some long-distant end point. Still, the beasties were pretty cool...


edmunds said...

nice writing sue... oh, and good hiking too! :-D

you're one tough cookie.


Gretchen Garnett said...

boy, sue, you amaze me. i was avoiding the trek into work and about to google poodle-dog bushes which made me think about you and so i figured i'd check out your blog. that was a fun read, and you are an inspiration. had it been ME out there it would have read more as a cautionary tale! cheers, gretchen

Leslie said...

Here's a thought: in Banff we don't have rattlers, poison ivy, poison oak, brambles or briars. We have 1000's of kilometres of sweet singletrack and we have GRIZZLY BEARS.

Here's so happy summer adventures!

RunSueRun said...

Heehee--I hear ya! Think my East Coast trail fix has been sated for awhile. We encountered a grizzly in the Tetons a few years ago. He looked at us nonchalantly, then walked away. :) Here in CA we have mountain lions (and rattlers)...

jeffrey wilbur said...

Wow - cannot believe you did not get more lost! Was too damn easy to loose the trail without leaves. Way cool girl! Hope to see you out on the trails one of these years - jeff w

RunSueRun said...

Thanks Jeff. BTW, I reread the report of your group's TT epic of March 2003. Congrats to you for being one of the few finishers! Let me know when you wanna come play in the Sierras... :)