A Few Nights On Cumberland Mountain

The following is the compiled three-column examination of a series of backpacking trips to the top of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

wildindiana-square-graphicIt is now official: I am the world’s most reliable rainmaker.

This conclusion was reached late Tuesday evening as a torrential downpour threatened to sweep our tent off the mountain, in spite of the fact that our campsite was in the middle of a federally declared “extreme drought” area.

The scene of my latest, and perhaps worse ever, backpacking trip was Cumberland Mountain, a long crest that forms the spine of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  Located at the junction of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, the gap and surroundings played a major role in the westward expansion of the nation until the early 1800’s.

The mountain towers 3500 feet about the surrounding valleys, making for impressive views from the 16-mile-long Ridge Trail.  Our destination was the tallest point in the park, an imposing landmark known as White Rocks.

Joining me on this adventure was my son who is soon headed to college.  I thought the trip would be a nice way to spend some time together and good introduction to the fine sport of backpacking.  It turned out to be a good introduction into the fine art of survival.

My pre-trip preparations were fraught with anxiety because the area has been gripped by severe drought.  As the top of the mountain doesn’t have too many water sources during normal weather, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be anyplace to replenish our water bottles after the grueling climb.

Repeated calls to the ranger station confirmed my fears.  After fretting over whether to cancel the trip, I decided to go but also carry a few more water bottles on the theory that we could survive one night then head back down the mountain the next day if things looked grim.

After parking at the new trailhead in Ewing, Virginia, we headed to the.  I commented to my son that things did indeed look bleak as each little mountain stream we passed was totally devoid of water.  Every drink I took during the uphill battle brought a twinge of concern as all the mountain brooks had been transformed into rock gardens by the dry weather.

Most of the path up to White Rocks is a joint horse/hiker trail.  It is wide, only moderately rocky and not especially steep except for short stretches.  While the unrelenting climb was a challenge, it wasn’t unbearable and we made good time.

With regular breaks for water and trail mix, we reached the 2.5-mile mark about two hours later.  During one stop, we saw a doe and spotted fawn ambling down the trail towards us.  Moments later we found a bright orange salamander with blue spots lounging on a rock.

The last half-mile to the top was a shortcut on a hikers-only trail.  Threading through the log turnstile that keeps horses out, we found the trail conditions changed dramatically.  The trail, nearly obscured by stinging nettles and briars, became a steep series of switchbacks that made it seem like we were climbing endless flights of stairs.

It also started to rain.

The forest grew exceptionally dark and foggy as a cloud bumped into the mountaintop.  It began to sprinkle, then rain, then pour and finally turned into something akin to a monsoon.  As we splashed up the growing river of a trail, our cheerful banter ceased as we quit hiking and began surviving.

We reached the junction of the Ridge Trail as thunder began to crash.  Our campsite was just a few yards down a side trail but it would have been the height of folly to attempt pitching our tent in the storm.  My son suggested we make for Sand Cave, a large sandstone overhang about a mile down the trail.

During the walk, with thunder crashing above and below us, I instructed Adam to walk further back on the trail so that we both couldn’t be taken out by the same lightning bolt.  For some reason, he grew concerned upon hearing this.  I took his mind off things by pointing out a frog swimming down the middle of the trail.

We eventually made it down the steep scramble to the cave.  As the rain poured and thunder crashed, we took off our wet packs and made a quick hot lunch while trying to figure out the next move.

A half hour later, Adam mentioned that he couldn’t feel his hands anymore.  I also noticed he was shivering.

Taking stock of the situation, I was concerned.  It was 60 degrees, nearly everything we owned was soaking wet, the rain was pouring down in buckets, my son was showing the initial stages of hypothermia, we were both exhausted and it was at least three hours down a steep trail to civilization.

Next week: things get worse.

PART II

This week concludes the harrowing narrative of a backpacking trip to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  We rejoin our hypothermic heroes in the middle of a thunderstorm.

I made Adam put on more clothes and we shouldered our packs.  After a horrific climb to the nearest trail down the mountain, we were utterly spent and not much warmer.  Then, like a bolt from the blue, the clouds parted and the sun streamed down in radiant glory.

This caused more consternation as I panted and weighed our options.  If we left immediately, we could reach the car by dark but were likely to miss some of the best views in this part of the world.  However, if we stayed, I assume that the weather would attempt to finish killing us after missing the first opportunity.

It was Adam who suggested we stick it out.  Deferring to my son and the likelihood that it couldn’t possibly keep raining since the area was under a drought warning, we struggled and splashed back up the trail to the campsite.

The slanting mountainside wasn’t the best possible overnight site but we performed a little civil engineering with rocks and logs to divert rainwater from pouring underneath our tent.  Scurrying about in the rapidly deepening gloom, I snapped on the rainfly just as the first drizzle began falling.

We crawled inside and took stock.  Our supply of dry clothing was down to one pair of shorts and a t-shirt apiece.  We did have several pairs of dry socks and a wool stocking cap.  Our sleeping bags, snug inside plastic bags, were relatively unscathed.

I had also committed a major tactical error by placing the ground cloth underneath the tent instead of inside as I have often preached.  Now, as water began sheeting down the mountainside in spite of our barrier, it ran between the layers and turned the floor into a waterbed.

Forced to improvise, I laid out two garbage bags to sleep on while using two more to cover the foot of our sleeping bags.

Dinner never came because the storm continued unabated.  In the last moments of dusk, the rain slowed enough that I shambled outside and endeavored to hang our food bag against the aggressive bears that plague the area.  I also readjusted the sagging tent.  Hanging the food a lousy six feet in the air, I gave up and hastily arranged my raincoat over our packs as best I could, shrugged and retreated back into the tent.

Surprisingly, I hadn’t gotten too damp and managed to get inside without much damage to our beds.  I handed Adam a granola bar and noted, “That’s dinner.”  He began devouring it then paused halfway through after remembering my admonition against eating in a tent in bear country.  His appetite suddenly disappeared and the remainder of the bar was quickly sealed inside a plastic freezer bag.

“What do we do now?”  Adam asked.

“This is it,” I answered gloomily.

He seemed rather unimpressed.

We spent the remainder of the sleepless night listening to the storm ebb and flow, relentlessly pounding the tent with constant rain, occasional wind and random stabs of thunder.  If you would like to simulate our situation around 3 a.m., wrap yourself in a tarp and then try to sleep under Niagara Falls.  It was nearly as much fun as eye surgery without anesthetic.

The dawn finally came a week later and shortly thereafter, the rain slacked briefly.  Seizing the opportunity, we jumped from the tent and hastily threw our dripping, filthy gear into the packs.

Shouldering the load, I was very pleased to note that each backpack had now gained at least 20 pounds apiece due to the mud and standing water inside.  Regardless, I picked up my hiking stick, wiped the clinging filth from my brow and headed down the trail.

Going down the mountain was uneventful and we were pleased to note that the air temperature climbed quickly as we went lower.  Within a half hour, life began to look better.  The rain had turned into a gentle drizzle and animals flitted about, splashing in the dozens of babbling springs, small streams and waterfalls along the trail.  The view was transcendent as wisps of broken clouds slithered through the damp forest canopy.

While descending the mountain, I told Adam that he was lucky in one regard: he would probably never enjoy a more miserable backpacking trip, so any future outings could only get better.

He laughed after considering this and then made his own point.

“Oh, it’s been lousy but it’s also been interesting and even fun.  I feel like I’ve really accomplished something,” he said with a smile.

At that moment I was exceptionally proud of him, even though I strongly doubted his supply of common sense.

He’s obviously a chip off the old blockhead in that regard.

Finally….one month later:

We will start our column this week with a deep metaphysical question: when does déjà vu stop and plain old creepy begin?

The reason for our query is rain.  The place in question is a trail that we covered one month ago.  The situation was an eerie reoccurrence of an otherwise improbable event.

This week we are revisiting Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  Both regular readers might remember a few weeks ago when I took my college-aged son to this relatively unknown national park for three-day backpacking excursion to a famed promontory known as White Rocks.

The area has been suffering an extreme drought during the entire summer of 2007 and the general conditions of the area make even the driest places in Indiana seem like verdant rain forest.

During our previous trip, exactly at the moment of our arrival on the top of the mountain, it began to rain.  Actually, it didn’t rain.  It was more like a frog-drowning-pitchfork-and-brimstone gulley-washer.  When we finally gave up 24 sodden hours later, it had rained several inches and we never did see the view from on top.

We now fast forward to this week.  Somehow, I managed to convince my frequent co-conspirator Ken to join me in a re-creation of the same trip.  I explained, “Surely it won’t rain again, considering the southeastern Kentucky area is experiencing the worse drought in 40 years.”  Ken foolishly agreed to join me for what he probably believed would be an extended marshmallow roast.

When we arrived, the rangers told us that things had grown even grimmer since my last visit.  The mountain soil was cracked and parched while trees were beginning to shed their leaves in last-ditch effort to survive the drought.  Every spring and creek in the area was bone dry.

As Ken and I ascended the mountain, small puffs of dust accentuated each step and though we carried extra water, I was already concerned that resupply would prove difficult.  Both Ken and I noted the silence of the desiccated forest.

After a couple of sweaty hours, we reached the top.  Ken, carrying more gear, was staggering under his load as I frantically urged him to join me at the trail junction marking our destination.  Through the trees I could see the long-sought views I had dreamed about during so many winter nights.  My moment was finally here.

Then it began to rain.

Somehow, out of a relatively clear sky in the middle of a major, significant drought, I had yet again managed to produce precipitation.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOO,” I screamed as Ken wondered if I was being mauled by a bear.  Seconds later, he also felt the precipitation and looked somewhat confused by my disgust.

We hurried to the campsite and rigged our new tarps in frantic haste as horrible visions of one month ago filled my head.  Ken was less frantic as hadn’t experienced the joy of lying on a major tree root inside a nylon sack for twelve hours during a monsoon while lightning made every effort to incinerate your body.  Such recollections provide wonderful motivation.

To my great surprise, the rain stopped shortly thereafter with the ground barely even damp.  I laughed a hearty laugh and nearly sprinted out of camp to find White Rocks.

A short hike from camp we found the trail to the top of the rocks.  After a lung-burning climb that required both hands and feet to accomplish, I bulled through a section of scrubby trees and stepped out onto the open expanse of sandstone 3500 feet above the Virginia landscape.

The word “breathtaking” is utterly banal but this was one of the few moments in my life when a view actually took away my breath.  The beauty was almost indescribable, as was the sensation of gravity attempting to pull me over the edge of a 600-foot cliff.

It had cost ten years, three long-planned hikes and countless frustrations in my attempt to witness that vista firsthand.  Satisfied and happy, I sat there for an hour on the bum-numbing stone just enjoying it.  The stormy weather actually accentuated the panorama as the endless purple mountains were splashed by brittle white clouds.  With little imagination, the view resembled the portrait of a storm-tossed ocean.

The rest of the trip was grand as we explored a cave, filtered drinking water from a stagnant streambed, ate gut-churning camp food and enjoyed more time on the pinnacle.  The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the last morning when I ascended the rocks under a brilliant blue sky as the sun was rising.  Breakfasting above the cloud-shrouded valleys, I felt a contentment that only comes into your life on a few occasions.

The memories of that trip are so wonderful I almost forgot to mention the brief eight-hour frog-drowning-pitchfork-and-brimstone gulley-washer on the second day.

Anybody need to hire a rainmaker?

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