It started off a little ominously.
The morning was dreary, with a foggy overcast that threatened rain. We had assembled a team of 6 new backpackers, one with a few trips under his belt, and three experienced leaders, including myself. One of the crew lost a split ring off a cotter pin on his older external frame pack before we even loaded up. This was the first warning, and we missed it.
Three hours later, we’re eating lunch at the trailhead in West Virginia, and it starts to rain. Downpour, actually. Convinced it’s short-lived, we duck into vehicles to finish lunch. As it starts to taper, we realize four of the ten of us forgot to bring a pack cover. FOUR!?
This is why I overpacked. Garbage bags aren’t perfect, but they do the job, and I brought extras. Another warning.
We load up and head up the road toward the trailhead. We make it 100 yards before seeing the river. It’s not supposed to be a river, but a babbling mountain stream. It’s a river though – 40 yards wide and raging with 3-foot standing waves. We knew this area had seen a lot of storms, but we were high enough, we thought, that the effect wouldn’t be this significant. (We didn’t know it, but at this same time, the Rappahannock River, far downhill in Fredericksburg, VA, was cresting at 25 feet, the highest it’s been since a 1972 hurricane). Another warning!
Every challenge is a problem to be solved (hopefully), so we pull out the maps. This “river” is Waites Run, and it is formed by the combined drainage of 5 small valleys. Our route does NOT cross this, but instead veers up just one of the drainages, along Pond Run. Surely that will be smaller, and there’s nothing to do but go and give it a look, so we press on.
Five minutes later, we lose the trail. Turns out that in this spot (and many others), the mountain is releasing its collected rain water directly into the path. The trail itself is a creek, traversing alongside the actual creek (which as I mentioned, is currently a river). Surely another sign, but by this point we’re painfully aware that we’re ignoring the obvious deterrents.
After three – quarters of a mile, we reach our first crossing of Pond Run. As predicted, this creek is much smaller, but it is still high, deep and strong. The gravel bars and rocks that normally would have made excellent stepping stones are a good 8 inches underwater. We fan out along the bank, none of us willing to give in, but each of us silently thinking it’s time for Plan B.
Until… twenty yards upstream, a shout, “I think I can do this”, while pointing at a fallen log that almost, but not quite completely spans the stream.
Did I mention that all our new backpackers are teenage boys? Here, released from school obligations and pried from their screen-induced stupor, I have dragged these guys into a foreign environment, and it’s not exactly going to plan. But that’s why this kind of experience is great. We’ve already addressed and solved several problems this morning, and this is just one more. Out here, everything is a new experience, an adventure, and these guys are free to indulge in their natural behavior – risk taking, problem solving and feats of strength, tinged with a hint of one-upmanship and bravado. It’s my job, and that of the other two adults who signed on to this trip, to foster that experience, but keep them safe.
The confident call from upstream had come from the one young man (14 years old, we’ll call him “Matt”) who had some experience, so he was appropriately in a position to lead the way. We evaluated, he tested the log, and sure enough, made it across with maybe a wet toe. Encouraged, the others did the same, passing trekking poles around and shouting encouragement over the roar of the creek.
I just watched and smiled. In the span of 15 minutes, united by a common goal, my crew became a team – and Matt, the one I had given the pep talk on the way up, and had coached to make assignments to our crew Medic, Navigator, Pace Setter, Sweeper, etc, had emerged as a leader on his own merit. With one decision, supported by his ability to make others succeed, Matt earned his role.
Having successfully navigated that first crossing, we were committed. We wound up doing it seven more times, with log bridges, rockhopping, even some shoe removal and wading. Each crossing was a puzzle, and each took 15-20 minutes to navigate, but each reinforced the team, and Matt’s leadership.
After our third crossing, stuck solidly in the backcountry, the skies opened up and dumped on us in a brief but soaking deluge. But it didn’t matter. We had this. Three miles in, and 1300 feet up, we set up camp on a ridgeline WELL short of our 7-mile destination. Going had been slow, and calling it quits was a smart decision. The boys did some area recon, and Matt approved their choice of a campsite. We dried out, and boys split up to filter water, string a bear bag, cook dinner, and soon we were sitting around the campfire laughing about having to “swim up a mountain”.
The weather cleared, and in the morning, we took a short walk to a clifftop view near our camp. The view gave us all an appreciation of the previous day’s effort, a gorgeous vista high above wooded valleys and ridgelines. It was also a reminder that we were deep in the backcountry, and that we had managed to put some significant obstacles between us and our way out. Another challenge… so we asked the boys, “What are we going to do today?” Unanimously, but supported by the advice of Matt, they agreed that returning the way we came was the smart choice. As painful as that sounded, any other route down held the possibility of a crossing we couldn’t manage, effectively trapping us into a very long day that would ultimately end with the same route. At least backtracking was the devil we knew. So down we went. Sixteen river crossings in all – but the second group of eight were accomplished with much more confidence, even some swagger.
This trip did NOT go to plan. We never reached our summit, we didn’t get to our beautiful creek-side camp, and our mileage was about half what we set out to do. But our backup options worked, we found a great spot to spend the night and dry out, enjoyed a lot of shared challenges together, and made some tough decisions together as a group, while Matt learned some things about leadership. That, ultimately, is what this sort of thing is about. Planning ahead, and being prepared and knowledgeable enough to overcome unknowns and deal with problems are a part of the experience, and the boys did well supporting each other as a team. I’m sure that in a couple days any unpleasantness will be dominated by the stories of conquering the creek, and we’ll be talking about where to go the next time.
I can’t wait to help them out.
Get Out There