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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Backpacking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Day 1: The Wal Mart Experience
This three day backpacking trip to West Virginia was organized by the CMU Explorers Club's president, who had backpacked in Dolly Sods before. Highly motivated the six of us packed our gear and ourselves into a small Mazda. Four guys on the back seat was a tight fit, but it worked. We used Google Maps to direct us to the right spot. A couple of hours into the drive we were a) getting hungry and b) unsure if we missed a turnoff, so we were glad to see a Burger King next to a huge Wal Mart (it was huge in my eyes, according to the Americans it was actually pretty small ^^). After dinner and asking for directions at the Burger King we headed back, because we indeed had missed the turnoff. Unfortunately, the directions we printed out were not that clear and when the road we were on led into the woods and turned into a gravel road, we were pretty sure that this wasn't the road we wanted. So we went back and took the other possibility, which indeed led to a bigger road. Great was our dismay, when we saw the Wal Mart approaching in front of us… So we headed back once more and took another road, but this one turned also into a gravel road in the deep woods with huge puddles of water. Checking our maps, we saw that the road we originally traveled on would also lead to US50, so we headed back to Wal Mart, drove past it and took the next crossing to US50. From there on the trip was pretty straightforward. Until we reached the National Park, that is. There the fog was so thick that we couldn't see the campsite. Well, I was sure I saw the sign on the road, but the others were sure it had to be further down the road. Once we were about to leave the National Park, we finally realized our mistake and turned back. After all the trip took us 6 instead of 4.5 hours...

Day 2: Up and On We Go
Our first day of serious backpacking started at 7.30am, unfortunately the weather hadn't cleared over night and it was still foggy and wet. Nobody was really willing to start a stove in this weather and so we skipped breakfast and started hiking right away. The trail took us into the woods and across rivers before leading us to alpine tundra and through a mountain bike race. The ever-changing landscape was the highlight of the day, which could not be dampened by the miserable weather conditions (it was raining on and off throughout the day). Not only the landscape was very versatile, so was the track we walked on: Wooden planks, earth, rocks, grass, sand and water were all part of the track in one part or another. After covering 11 miles, we called it a day and looked for a good campsite near a river; fortunately we found one pretty quickly. Since the weather was dry for a change we quickly set up our tents and then started gathering some firewood, hoping to make a campfire later. We even built a stone oven which would allow us to dry some wood and cook a couple of things. However, the weather spirits were not on our side, and rain picked up again, featuring a harder downpour than we had all day. So we quickly packed out our stoves, prepared and ate our dinner near the stream and then fled into our tents at 7.20pm, hoping to keep warm in the sleeping bags.

Day 3: Meeting the Sods
Sometime during the night the rain stopped and so we could prepare breakfast and break camp without getting any wetter. Looking up we even saw small patches of blue sky, however, they were not meant to last and a couple of minutes after we started, the rain picked up again. All we had in mind was a fast and easy hike back to the car, but the trail had a couple of surprises in stock for us. The first was when we arrived at a river where the stepping stones to cross were completely submerged. After debating for a couple of minutes we took of our shoes and waded through the river. Next we learnt the hard way why the area was called Dolly Sods. The trail lead directly through the swamp and it took a lot of navigating to find dry places to step on and sooner or later everyone had a misstep and thus got to know the swamp a little bit better ^^. The Beaver Dam Trail then took us upwards towards the road and the end of our adventure, however, I saw neither beaver nor dam on the way ;). The last stretch took us two miles along the road back to the car, where we finally could put on some dry clothes (or at least, those of us who had some dry clothes left).
On our way out of the Park, we made a quick stop at Bear Rocks, which offered a nice view into the valley, but didn't feature any bears.
On the way back we managed not to get lost and so we were back in Pittsburgh at 5pm, where the weather was perfect.

Retrospective
- Looking at Google Maps again, I saw that we were on the right "road" the second time, but why the heck Google wanted us to drive along a gravel road for a "short cut" eludes me…
- The video footage we took on the way to the camp ground features the camp ground sign and how we passed it the first time…
- Despite the harsh conditions the trip was a fantastic experience and I don't regret going at all.
- We learned that there can be a lot of water on a mountain ;)
- All my pictures from this trip are available in my web album.

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