Wednesday, October 15, 2003

I got up in the morning at around 8 and dressed as quick as possible in the cold cabin, thankful I had showered the night before. The sky outside was clear, but the wind still blew stiffly and the air was cold. Andra decided to stay in bed and read while I hiked down to Lewis Falls, which is near the Lodge. 

I drove the short distance to the trailhead by way of the corner store. Their electricity was out, so I had to forgo everything but a warm Coke. The trail to the falls was short, but very-well hidden. In fact, the people in front of me missed a turn, and I saw them again, much later, retracing their steps. The obscurity lay in the fact that the heavy winds during the night had knocked off 90% of the leaves that had clung to the tree branches. I followed the 3 or 4 switchbacks downhill, crossing Lewis Run on the way. A sign said “Contaminated Water. Do Not Drink. By order of Shenandoah National Park Superintendent”. I wondered what could have contaminated the water. The Lodge? As I approached, I could hear the roar of the falls. I crossed the creek by way of large moss-covered rocks just above the drop-off, and followed the path to a stone-lined balcony on the other side overlooking the stream of water. I lingered a few moments, and even began a descent down the steep wall to the bottom of the falls before deciding it was too steep and that self-extrication would be difficult if I proceeded. I hiked back up to the car, shedding almost all my warm-weather clothing on the way. Back at the cabin, Andra was dressed and packed. She had only to call to check on the dogs from the Lodge and we would be ready. She skipped out to do that while I loaded the car and checked out. I found her in the basement of the lodge by following small candles lining the stairs. She was talking in a dark phone booth by candlelight. The rock walls of the basement lit by flickering candlelight reminded me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. She confirmed that our dogs and her workplace were fine. Shortly afterward, we drove down the road towards White Oak Canyon. I saw a sign for the Limberlost Trail, on which I had read stood the oldest Hemlock Trees in the state. I had to see it. We discovered that the trail was aptly named; at least the “lost” part of it was correct. In the wake of Hurricane Isabel, trees were down by the hundreds. Most of the trail was closed, which didn’t stop us from walking it, but would have prevented us from successfully suing the Park Service had a tree crushed one of us. Actually, I think that with the right lawyer, we could’ve pulled it off. I tried hard to imagine what strength of wind could do this, and failed. I’ve been in strong wind, but I’ve never seen wind that knocked over trees 4 feet in diameter. 

As we finished the hike, the air began to warm a little, and by the time we reached a trailhead for White Oak Canyon, it had warmed a little more. Things were looking up. We packed a bag of gear and set off down a fire road that intercepted the White Oak Canyon Trail just above the first falls. The road led downhill, through more beautiful forest with leaves of every color from green to purple. We played “name that tree” some more, and explored the nuance of leaf lobes between white oaks, bur oaks and chestnut oaks. That section of the trail Lewis Fallswent by rapidly, ending with the crossing of Robinson River just above the largest of the series of falls along the canyon. The map shows three main falls, but in reality, there are too many to count. The sun was fully out, and the temperature permitted short sleeve shirt use by then. The first waterfall we viewed from a rock plateau about 50 yards down river that was still level with the head of the falls. The water fell and tumbled over rocks for 80 feet, the highest drop in the park. The trail downhill followed a series of falls that were almost unseparated. One drop would pool only long enough to provide a spot from which another drop could fall. Some pools were quite large, and seemed perfect for wading and/or swimming. We sat on a large rock in the middle of a large pool watching the brook trout just inches below the surface. For two miles, the creek resembled a fish ladder, with a constant splashing of white water. We both lingered at every stop, and knew we had to keep moving but not really wanting to. Several other particularly large falls occur on this run, which has 3 of the highest 4 falls in the park, although I’m still unsure how they measure that.

As the downhill trail continued steeply, and the afternoon waned, Andra grew concerned that we wouldn’t make it back to the car by dark on the route I had planned. I confidently declared we would make it in plenty of time, although confidentially, I wasn’t so sure. We encountered a few people along the trail, but overall the visitation seemed very light for such a nice day. We almost walked right past the inconspicuous post that indicated the Cedar Run branch. Crossing the creek, near a flyfisherman, we set off westward through a thick and solid tulip tree canopy. This trail received less use, and many downed trees still crossed the trail. Away from the sound of the rushing water, the forest was conspicuously quiet in the shadow of the late afternoon sun. On this north-facing slope, the ferns grew thick, and moss lined every rock. 

Whiteoak Canyon
Whiteoak FallsAndra was walking about 20 feet ahead of me. She turned around and said something, but I couldn’t hear her. She pointed uphill, and I looked in time to see a bear’s butt bouncing up the hill. Shortly after that we reached Cedar Run, and began to follow the trail along a rushing creek similar to the one we had just abandoned. Though time was clearly against us, we still stopped at virtually every large falls and admired it for awhile before moving on. The trail was very steep, and since we had both been hiking all day and were tired, we didn’t talk much as we slipped into our own pace. My footsteps kept the beat for James Taylor’s voice in my head, “In my mind I’m gone to Carolina. Can’t you just see the sunshine? Can’t you just feel the moonshine?” Sing it, James. Several hours passed and we began to wonder where in the heck the road was. The sun was going down, and my hands began to get cold. The last of our water was gone. Right at dusk, we reached the car. Needing water, we drove back to Big Meadows and filled up our bottles at the outdoor water fountain in a freezing wind that blew wickedly across the open meadows to the south. I faced the added discomfort of having a full bottle of barely-not-frozen water blow off the fountain onto my pants. Yipes! I drove the car a little faster than I probably should’ve to reach a suitable camping spot before complete darkness took over. The sun was setting beautifully over the Massanutten Mountain as we passed the Spitier Knoll Overlook. We ended up pulling the car into a parking lot just off Skyline Drive called Hawksbill. We ate a quick dinner of crackers, cheese and jerky at the car (by quick I mean around 2 minutes) and carried the bare camping essentials a few hundred yards into the woods. We could barely see well enough to set up the tent. We managed, and found that once inside the nylon tent and out of the wind, it felt pretty nice as long as we kept our jackets on. I found I had left my bag-liner in the car, so I ran back to get it. As I ran through the dark woods, I almost hit a deer. He stood in front of me, stone-still, and I failed to notice him until I had closed to within 10 feet. I had to stop to avoid running right into him. That would have been interesting to explain. He stared at me for 1 or 2 seconds, the polite interval to ask for a handout, then bounded away. I grabbed the liner, ran back to the tent and slipped inside. We heard footsteps crunching in the leaves nearby, and knew immediately by the dainty sound of them that a curious deer was stalking us. This confirmed our thoughts that the footsteps we had heard two nights before at Doyles River were made by a bear. We were both too tired to read much, and we slept for a very long time that night.
Whiteoak Falls
Cedar Run Falls

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