Monday, May 30, 2011

trip to Virginia and West Virginia

Allegheny Mountain from old pasture on the High Meadows trail
Early and mid-May we were in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia visiting family and friends and squeezing in some hiking and camping.  Mostly we hiked parts of the Allegheny Trail in West Virginia and on the Northern Neck of eastern Virginia.  The trip report with pictures and a video is here and here on  I made this 4+ minute video of the trip which is up on YouTube

Below are some conclusions from the trip and what I learned.

It rains a lot in western Washington and western Oregon.  Especially this late winter and spring.  But, Pacific Northwest rain is showers with many overcast days from November to May.  In the eastern US, rain is sometimes very heavy and it's humid.  If I still lived or spent more time in the east I'd use a synthetic fill sleeping bag.  The humidity seems to shrunk my down bag's loft.

Greenbrier River rail-trail, West Virginia
We rented mountain bikes for 2 hours from the store/restaurant/hotel in Cass, West Virginia and went for a ride south on the Greenbrier River rail-trail.  They were cheap and not properly maintained.  The bikes would've been fine with a tune-up.   It was about a 5 hour window of tolerable weather with just a short sprinkle. There's also a rail-trail from Glady to Durbin that would be a good bike ride.  Athough, my favorite activity is hiking on rugged trails in natural areas, a mountain bike is sometimes the best way to go.  There are a lot of interesting places to explore in West Virginia that are rural with scattered forests but do not have trails.  There are a lot of country roads, flat and rolling "double track" national forest gravel roads to explore.  I can't ride a bike for more than a few hours because my ass gets sore and my toes go numb.  So, I ride slowly, soak up the scenery, take lots of breaks and get off the bike to shake off and look at the surroundings more closely.  

The Greenbrier River was raging due to recent heavy rain.  It would've been fun to take a canoe down the river.  Since we took an airplane back east, we did not have our own canoe.  We could've rented a canoe paid for a pick-up but that's frustrating when you own your own.  The same can be said for bikes and cold-weather camping gear that is too big to take on an airplane. 

Flies and gnats were worse than I remember from previous trips back east.  They kamakazied into eyes and ears.  A bandanna was necessary to whip them away.  In western mountains, mosquitoes and flies are worst the first few weeks after snowmelt when it's cooler in the mornings and evenings.  In the east, flies and gnats seemed to come out during the warmest part of the day usually in the afternoon.  

short Potomac River beach in George Washington's Birthplace
There are interesting places to explore in Tidewater Virginia.  We stayed in Colonial Beach and saw some of the Northern Neck.  Much of this area is rural with forests and beaches and coves in the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers.  Although there is a little bit of hiking, you really need a canoe and bikes to explore this part of Virginia.  It would've been great to have the sail rig on the canoe for the Potomac River at Colonial Beach, Popes Creek and Westmoreland State Park.  Too bad it's practically impossible to get the sail rig and canoe on an airplane and rentals can be non-existent or too expensive.

Speer PeaPod with 8x10 silnylon tarp on hammock
I'm still on the fence about hammock camping.  I slept in a hammock with a Speer PeaPod a few nights.  The eastern US is better for hammocks than the Northwest since trees are smaller and closer together and in the Appalachians, the ground is often rocky.  Since the air is more humid and elevations are lower in the eastern US, nighttime temperatures usually don't fall as much as the western mountains and high deserts.  Site selection can still be a challenge with a hammock.  Trees have to be a right distance apart and a right range of diameters.  Ground brush can't be in the way where the hammock is placed.  Sometimes suitable trees are not in or near designated campsites.  Hammocks are best for areas where campsites are not limited to official designated tentpads.  Free-standing tents or tarps can be more convenient than hammocks in places with designated campsites like national parks and developed car campgrounds.  As for comfort, hammocks feel weird at first.  It's kind of like sleeping in a recliner or couch.  Hammocks are much better for rain than tents or tarps.  A hammock under a tarp gets much less condensation than a tent. 

The Speer PeaPod is warm and cozy but it is bulky in the pack compared to a good sleeping bag.  The PeaPod covers parts of the hammock that you don't come into contact with so some of its bulk and weight is wasted.  I'll have to look into an underquilt.

Sometimes camping in a hammock is not possible.  One night I camped at a developed car campground near Seneca Rocks.  It was walk-in camping with tent pads in a field so the hammock could not be used.  I set the Speer Winter Tarp up with 2 sticks as poles. It kept me dry from the rain shadow.  I pitched it low for privacy and rain protection.  The ends were partially open but a free-standing tent would've been best for an open developed campground with innocent bystanders nearby.  But, you can only carry so much camping gear with you on an airplane.  The duffel bag of camping gear cost me $45 round trip to check with the airline.  The tentpad had anthills but the ants stayed below ground and did not explore me in the sleeping bag.  Humidity and condensation wetted the shell of my thin, ultralight down sleeping bag even though I took every measure to keep it dry. 

I like and miss the central Appalachians of western Virginia and West Virginia.  Compared to the Cascades they are better for the recreationist in some aspects.  The snow-free hiking season is much longer.  There are no avalanches to worry about.  No snowfields to cross, slide down and die to get injured.  Road washouts are rare and get fixed sooner.  Trails are easier to follow even if they haven't been maintained in awhile.  Bridges don't get washed out as much.  This relative lack of obstacles and ease of access makes trips easier and less stressful.  

However, the Cascades are better than the Appalachians in many respects.  First of all, the Cascades and other western mountains are much wilder, more vast and have more grand scenery.  The Pacific Northwest has more trout fishing, more mushrooms and bigger huckleberries.  The Northwest has more diversity.  Within a few hours of Bellingham is sagebrush steppe, eastside pine forests, glaciers and craggy high alpine mountains, lowland conifer forests and islands and coasts which the eastern US does not have.  Each biome in such a small area has a different look and feel to it.  Although the mid-Atlantic has the Chesapeake Bay system and the Appalachians, it all has that green, humid feel to it.  It's a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.  And that's not even considering the traffic and suburban sprawl.