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THE DOLLY SODS, W.Va. "We need the tonic of the wilderness . . . to explore and learn all things. We can never have enough of nature . . . We need to witness our own limits transgressed." - Henry David Thoreau, "Walden"
The torrent of what had formerly been Alder Creek snatched greedily at low branches of the saplings along its banks. The fording place, which the day before had been a stony path across a tight bend in the creek bed and its 6-inch-wide trickle, was now 20 yards of hydraulic havoc.
Even as we fanned out along the bankside, we knew there was no safe way across. Trying to wade through that raging, chest-deep cataract would surely be fatal.
Yet our alternative was hardly enticing. Though it was only 6 p.m., the August sky in eastern West Virginia was darkening again with ominous, slate-gray clouds coming from the southwest. We'd wolfed down the last of our real food at lunch; all we had left were three tea-bags and one damp Snickers bar. We were soaked, and hypothermia was possible.
Setting up camp for a miserable Sunday night seemed our best option, but after 20 straight hours of rain, all of our tents, sleeping bags and clothes were sodden. While I sat on the soaking grass and contemplated our predicament, I questioned, and not for the first time that day, my motives for undertaking this wilderness adventure in the first place.
The last 24 hours had been the most demanding of my life; I was famished and soaked. My teeth were chattering; my feet were blistered from walking all day in wet boots; and my neck and shoulders ached from the weight of carrying my soaked pack all day. We'd already used our wits and energy to overcome several substantial obstacles, but despite our efforts, we were now trapped, checkmated by nature. I felt old and exhausted. *
When we had walked into the Dolly Sods two days earlier that first Friday in August, Rob Ruck, Ken Boaz and I fully believed ourselves to be up to nature's challenge. Three reasonably fit men between 45 and 50, we had the experience of dozens of back-packing excursions behind us, several into this same, beautiful, 10,000-acre designated wilderness area draped across Cabin Mountain at the northern edge of the Monongahela National Forest, itself a million-acre preserve in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern West Virginia.
Time and weather have eroded these ancient peaks to rocky nubbins. When it rains, the water percolates quickly into the few creeks that have gouged the deep, narrow valleys that serrate the table's edge. The creeks that flow west wind up in the Gulf of Mexico, while those that spill east contribute their contents to the Chesapeake. Thus, Dolly Sods is a secondary Continental Divide.
This vast parcel of relatively uninterrupted nature is a three hours'drive from Pittsburgh. With elevations between 3,500 and 4,000 feet, this tableland is high country around here. When these spruce forests were virgin, their fauna and flora were typical of those found as far north as Canada. Civilization in the early 18th century brought settlers who grazed their cattle and sheep in the high, moist meadows, or sods, where the soil was too stony to support trees and too thin to farm.
The Dahle family, who gave their name to these particular sods, originally came from Germany. After the Civil War, lumber and railroad interests clear-cut these forests down to stumps and tops. In addition to creating a lot of kindling, they exposed a thousand years of undecayed spruce needles to the sun, which dried them out. Sparks from logging-train engines caused raging wildfires, which burned so long and so hot they incinerated everything, including all organic material in the soil, right down to the thick limestone layer that underlies the entire area.
Yet, despite the apparent extermination of an entire ecology, the Dolly Sods has largely regenerated in the seven decades it has been managed by the federal government. Except for the period during World War II, when the Sods were used to train soldiers for mountain fighting, the landscape has been left largely alone.
Though unexploded ordnance still turns up now and then, the sods themselves are absolute proof of nature's ability to heal itself. The remarkable, rolling terrain is again covered by many of the same indigenous plants and animals that grew there before the fires.
The U.S. Forest Service manages this and all of its designated wilderness areas lightly. That means no guardian rangers, minimally maintained trails, and campsites where you choose to make them. You are, in short, on your own. As the sign at the head of every trail warns, "VISITORS SHOULD BE PREPARED TO MEET NATURE ON ITS OWN TERMS." Soon it would become clear the terms were non-negotiable.
Since we had planned to hike for several hours before making camp, we had kept our packs light. We brought decent camping equipment, meals for three days and a pump to purify as much creek water as we needed. The weather that August morning had been fine: sunny and refreshingly cool compared with the urban summer furnace we'd left behind. The trail was drier than any of us ever remembered. Stepping stones that previous hikers had laid over perpetual puddles were now surrounded by dust.
At the point we first crossed Alder Creek, the hard-packed mud along the bank had been cracked into a fine filigree. At Blackbird Knob, we headed south toward Red Creek. The walking was easy, and we made steady progress, encountering few other hikers along the way. We lunched at the confluence where Alder Creek joins Red Creek, the former a 2-foot-wide trickle over a 70-foot-wide shale ledge. Hiking down Red Creek for another hour, we followed an old logging road that traversed the valley's steep, spruce-lined slopes.
When the trail forked, we took the path that led down to the creek and found as picturesque a campsite as any of us had ever seen. A wide ledge, carpeted with spruce needles, was situated 15 feet above a waterfall that spilled into a basin it had gouged into the solid limestone of the creekbed.
Red Creek's water was perfect; cool, clear and apparently devoid of plant life, insects or animals. We stashed our perishables in a plastic bag weighted down by a rock in the edge of the falls. That evening we lazed by the creek, talking with the few other campers who happened to stroll past on this wilderness boulevard.
All Saturday, we took a packless day hike, meandering up Red Creek's rock-strewn bed a few miles, encountering dozens of beautiful falls and deep holes. We were definitely three mellow campers. It was just as we arrived that we heard the first boom of distant thunder.
We cooked dinner quickly, but our pasta was still al dente when the rain arrived in a sudden, wild downpour and the trees began to rock and roll. Random spears of electricity ripped through the sky, which had gone from blue to black in 15 minutes. We didn't know it, but the tail end of Hurricane Erin had arrived to spend the night and would over the next 20 hours dump more than 8 inches of rain on the sodden Sods.
When tree limbs started crashing down nearby, we remembered the stone ledge by the creek bank below our camp. Scurrying down the muddy slope with our plates of pasta, we took shelter under the stone ledge and dined in relative comfort. We sat in comfort and contemplated our own version of "Fallingwater."
As evening became night, we even discussed bedding down in our creek bank shelter, before finally opting for the tents. As I crawled into my tent and felt the puddles forming on its floor, I even questioned our decision not to spend the night down by the creek.
Saturday night was long, but sleep was short. The unending downpour totally overwhelmed our feeble, nylon defenses, and I tossed and turned in a growing lake. At first light, I crawled out of the tent into the still driving rain storm to behold a stunning transformation.
Yesterday's bucolic Red Creek was now a raging, rock-ripping rampage, a full 50 feet from bank to bank and easily 20 feet deep. It had risen sufficiently high to pull at the roots of trees alarmingly close to our tents. The placid waterfall under which we had sheltered had disappeared, buried deep beneath the uncompromising torrent. The plastic bag that contained the rest of our food had suffered the same fate, as undoubtedly would have the three of us, had we followed our first instinct to sleep under the rocky overhang.
Through a steady downpour, we gobbled down a few damp rolls, rolled up our sopping gear into our packs, and, by 8 a.m., were slogging back up the trail toward our car. The problem was, as we and the other campers who emerged from the woods quickly discovered, there was no way across Red Creek, and all the marked trails that led to the parking lot traversed it.
Our only option was following a trail that led up a steep hill, although not at all in the direction we wanted to go. The next few hours were a truly arduous trudge, slogging up the rocky ridge, often shin-deep in runoff water. The unrelenting downpour quickly ruined our topo map, forcing us to rely on faint trail blazings, along with my rudimentary compass skills and vague recollections about the lay of the land. Each step was a major effort, and we were all more than a little anxious about venturing into unknown territory.
That first trail dead-ended at a park map, which placed us at the far boundary of the Sods. The only other marked trail from there led south 12 miles and, assuming we could have crossed Red Creek, it would still have left us far from our car. My partners were understandably uncomfortable striking off into terra incognita, but after some minutes of weary discussion, I convinced them we should follow my compass due east, toward where I thought the parking lot was.
Unfortunately, pursuing that direction also required bush-whacking knee-deep in water across a boggy marsh for the better part of an hour. By mid-afternoon, we were thoroughly exhausted. We were all stumbling blindly through the marshy bogs, and Ken's teeth were chattering from the cold. Fortunately, we happened across a derelict cabin, which at least offered some shelter from the rain. Burning a mouse-chewed cardboard box in the barrel stove, we were able to warm ourselves somewhat and heat the last of our soup mix.
That cabin was a life-saver, but as I tossed the last shreds of cardboard into the fire, it was also clear to me that we couldn't stay. Apart from commitments we had at home that night, I knew that without dry clothes and food, we could soon be in very serious trouble.
The rain finally began to let up, so we hoisted on our heavy packs and headed out. Following the flow of water downhill into a thick mist, we dead-reckoned our way back to Red Creek, arriving several miles upstream from our original campsite. That's where we encountered three other parties of flood-trapped campers who had all arrived at the same conclusion and place we had, up a creek without a paddle, or for that matter, even a boat.
There we were: 17 adults, 17 packs, three dogs and a powerful flood of white water at least 15 feet wide and of unknown depth. There was no way to get help, forcing us to rely on our own ingenuity and the contents of our packs. What followed was a fascinating experiment in decision-making among recent strangers.
For half an hour, we debated the possibilities. One idea was to somehow cut down an overhanging evergreen and make a bridge across the torrent. Eventually we evolved a more manageable approach. Inflating an air-mattress and linking together a length of rope, several bungee cords and a long dog leash, we fashioned a crude ferry system. Holding on to the mattress and tethered to the shore, one brave volunteer leapt into the flood and managed to thrash his way across the flood.
It required considerable coordination, coaxing and conquering of personal fears, not to mention the better part of two hours, but we managed to float all the people, packs and pets across the surging Red Creek, at the loss of only one pair of eyeglasses.
Stomping through the underbrush, we located a trail and marched almost gaily up over the next hill, even though we had to be at least a good hour's walk from the parking lot.
That initial enthusiasm was rudely dashed, however, when we rounded a bend in the path and confronted the 20-yard-wide torrent that was now Alder Creek. This new barrier was too wide and flowing too swiftly for us to try our precarious ferry system.
It seemed like the final straw. We'd already expended so much energy overcoming previous adversities and were out of ideas. Two of the younger members of our ragtag group did manage to fight their way for 20 yards through the chest-deep flood, but it was clearly touch and go for them. None of the rest of us was willing to risk it.
Yet 15 minutes of observation indicated that the water level was dropping slowly, so we decided to wait and watch. Sitting on the bank, Ken, Rob and I brewed the last of our tea and tried to be philosophical about our plight. All of us wanted out; we were concerned about getting word to our families; and tomorrow was a work day.
Still none of that seemed worth the risk of getting swept away down Alder Creek. We decided to wait it out. An hour and a half passed, and the flood had fallen almost a foot. Yet, in addition to the rain-threatening sky, we figured we had only another half hour of daylight. It was time to test the waters.
Bracing against stout walking sticks, one by one, we stepped carefully into the torrent. The strong current, knee-deep, then waist-deep, ripped at our legs and threatened to snatch our feet out from under us.
Though the actual crossing took less than a minute, the memory of those seconds in the water will remain with me forever. Those who stayed behind cheered our progress as we reached the opposite bank. The intense release I felt at having overcome my trepidation was as thrilling as making it to the other side. It was well after 9 p.m. when the three of us finally dragged ourselves into the parking lot.
Our three-hour stroll in to the camp site had turned into a 13-hour walk out. We drove the 15 miles down into Canaan Valley, where we reported that a group of hikers were stranded at Alder Creek. We were assured they would be fine. Rain-stranded campers, it seems, are a fairly common occurrence in this neck of the woods.
First published 8/2/98
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