40 miles of New Jersey Appalachian Trail
November 30 – December 2, 2001
New Jersey! Your typical East-Coaster imagines freeways, suburbs of New York and Philly, corrupt politicians, skeevy rest areas, Atlantic City, Jimmy Hoffa and the Meadowlands. It was with great pleasure that I discovered my misconception…
Friday: By 1:30 am, Mike still hadn’t shown up at the trailhead where the AT crosses I80 in the spectacular Delaware Water Gap. I had driven all evening and arrived at 11:30. Suspecting trouble from his stop-and-go Jeep Wrangler, I drove over over to the visitor’s center to give him a call only to discover him waiting for me there. Despite this lack of communication, neither of us felt like spending the night being buffetted in the slipstream of passing 18 wheelers. Besides, we were anxious to get on the trail.
Sequestering the Jeep at the trailhead, we piled into my car and navigated the dense, interminable fog up US209 along the river narrowly missing several deer and a possum. Donuts were aquired and, after a short hunt, we found the parking lot at High Point State Park in the extreme north-western corner of New Jersey. Everything was shrouded in dense fog and visibility was poor. A chilly wind blew and the atmosphere was quite surreal.
We set out from the car at 3:30 navigating by headlamp. It soon turned out that headlamps made the going more difficult. The omnipresent fog turned your beam into a brilliant, featureless blob five feet before your face. Visibility was much farther in the dark and we found we could hike carefully without light. Plus it let us see the beautiful, misty forest full of bare trunks and ghostly rocks. I slipped and fell on slippery sections twice and our coordination was clearly suffering for lack of sleep. After about two miles we found a suitable flat space beside the trail and set up the tent. The time was 5am, but the sun would still be several hours in coming. Sleep came fast.
Three hours later we were woken by gray light seeping into the tent. We weren’t terribly rested, but daylight is a valuable thing this time of year and we had sixteen miles to go to reach our objective of the Brinks Road Shelter. The weather hadn’t improved much with pea-soup fog and general dampness. But it was warm enough for shorts and t-shirts and we trundled along at a pretty good rate. The landscape was mostly ridges with bare trees and occasional rocky ledges on the left (east). Breakfast was cooked up at Mashipacong Shelter. A mile or two farther on, the weather took a turn for the worse and it began to rain. By the time we reached Sunrise Mountain, the rain was pretty serious with some wind as well. I had donned rain gear and was soggy from sweat and fog. Mike just dripped along in normal clothing and looked quite sodden.
We paused under the pavillion atop Sunrise Mountain (second highest point in NJ) and admired the lack of view. A few more miserable miles brought us to the Gren Anderson lean-to in the midst of an uninspiring wood. My feet hurt and it was getting on. With two more hours of daylight, we pushed on the remaining nine miles for the day.
Just before the descent into Culvers Gap, we encountered a bare summit and the trail disappeared. After some futile thrashing about, we resolved to stop wasting time and just go down. Bushwhacking commenced along with two more slips on thick leaves. But we soon reached the paved road and set out find the trail again. It proved easy enough; in the town of Culvers Gap white blazes could be seen headed up the other side of the mountain. The time was 4:10 and light was fading fast.
The ascent warmed us conciderably and the rain slacked off to a light mist. Below us we could see the gathering gloom and lots of house and car lights. The large Culvers Lake stretched gray and flat into the northeast. The summit was reached at ten of five just as daylight faded completely. Headlamps were broken out and we set off for the last four miles of trail. But we encountered the same problem as last night; headlamps put us at one end of great luminous spears of fog! But we were under dense evergreens now and the natural light wasn’t really enough to navigate by and find the wandering white blazes. The remaining four miles were slow and painful and it was with very thin tempers that we finally achieved Brinks Road and, eventually, the shelter. Dry clothing was donned and we set about making a scrumptious dinner of chicken and rice courtesy of Mountain House. What a long, ‘interesting’ day!
Saturday dawned much improved. The sun was out and blue sky was seen in all directions. For the first of December, it was an unseasonable 60 degrees or so. But anything was better than yesterday’s nasty weather. The problem was that the spring at the Brinks Road Shelter was mostly dry and what water there was smelled of sewage. We hiked down the road a bit and found a nice swamp with lethargically flowing water which instead smelled of methane. One batch was boiled and added to oatmeal and we resolved to get better water as soon as possible.
The sun made the trek up Blue Mountain and Bird Mountain quite enjoyable. We descended and skirted a lovely swamp and soon came to a small stream with clear, odorless water. Bottles were canted and we drank our fill. A quarter mile farther on, we continued to descend at an ever-increasing rate. Realizing we hadn’t seen a white blaze in a while we began to backtrack… for about a mile back to the top of Bird Mountain. It turns out that the level, wide track we’d been following was NOT the AT. The actual trail parralelled ours for a hundred yards and then took off across rocks to the east. Grrr. Soon we attained the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain with a nice view down to our swamp. Having hiked four miles, two of them in a productive direction, we stopped for lunch.
The rest of the day went well. We passed several ponds including the gorgeous Crater Lake and did three quick miles along the sharp ridgetop of Kittitany Mountain. By the end of the day, we’d reached another gap and paused for a while to watch the sunset. In the gloom, we descended through the gap, located the trail on the other side and, as the moon rose fat and orange behind us, ascended the ridge to the Catfish fire tower. The wind had come up and the temperature was dropping dramatically. A quarter mile beyond the tower, we found a nice ledge and deployed sleeping bags under the bright moon. We were footweary and hungry and smelled pretty ripe. A dinner of blueberry cheesecake was followed by a desert of red beans and rice. It was at this point that I discovered I was missing my small black bag containing contact stuff, toothbrush, soap and, most importantly, my glasses…
Damn! Quite a lot of anglo-saxon language was thrown around while I came to terms with the predicament. The last place I remember having the bag was at the Brinks Road Shelter but I remember putting it in my pack. Many things were removed from my pack atop Rattlesnake Mtn, and I figured that was probably where it lay. But there was nothing to do about it now. Keeping my contacts in, I tried to sleep, but spent much of the night tossing and turning under the cold, bright moon. Cayotes howled in the middle distance.
Sunday morning was cold and the crimson sunrise didn’t bode well for the day’s weather. Indeed, after half an hour of milky sun, the sky clouded over and it began to look like snow. A layer of frost on my pack showed that it had gotten down below freezing at some point. Still, we were comfortable in shorts and t-shirts with light jackets. Eleven miles to go today. My knee was hurting something fierce at this point so the early pace was a bit slow. We stopped in at the Mohican Outdoors Center on Catfish Pond to say hello and get some water. It’s a lovely hostel catering to thru-hikers and it was definitely the off season there.
My knee seemed to hurt more after prolonged stops, so we pressed on and scaled Mt. Mohican. To the west of the exposed ridge we could easily see the Delaware River flowing in front of the Poconos. To the east a system of lakes and reservoirs shown dully in the filtered sunlight. This is the northern border of the Worthington State Forest and we started to see quite a lot of day-hikers out from the Water Gap. We skirted a startling, high-altitude reservoir and headed through tall, open forest to Sunfish Pond. The pond, one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey, is a glacial pond of cold water ringed by fascinating shattered, oblong rocks. (For reference, some of the other Natural Wonders are: High Point, Great Falls of the Passaic River, the Delaware Water Gap and the Palisades. Or see this alternate list) Some very optimistic beavers had started to chew down a couple of large trees but clearly the task had proven too much for them. The trail skirts the west edge of the pond and proved to be extremely rocky.
Both of us were feeling our oats now and were anxious to get done. 3.75 miles of trail lead down the mountain toward the water gap. Each step brought us closer and seeming hoards of day-hikers huffed and puffed their way up the grade toward us. Most gave us wide berth given our wild appearance and wilder smell! A scant quarter mile till the trailhead we found ourselves in a beautiful, steep canyon of tall trees and dark green ferns. The babbling Dunnfield Creek fell over boulder below and Mike spent a while making an ass of himself. My feet hurt to an extent that I was content to just sit.
Finally, we attained the car and the rush of traffic on the nearby I80 at about 2:15. We stopped by the visitor’s center to buy a better pack of maps and then went in search of post-hike vittles, nicely provided at Doughboy’s Pizza at Delaware Water Gap, PA. By four we were headed north on US209 again to retrieve my car.
At five the sun was setting in a suddenly clear sky. I resolved to at least go search for my black bag. According to the new maps, you can get very close to the Brinks Road Shelter by road, though I had been warned by the Rangers that it wasn’t a route for the faint-of-heart. In the gathering gloom, I navigated my way south as far as Culvers Gap and beyond into the single-lane roads used by hunters and people with summer homes. It was pitch black out and I would have to stop the car every half mile to ponder over the maps.
At last I managed to find Brinks Road. The roads up to that point had been paved and reasonably good. But Brinks road was composed of large, loose gravel with steep turns and some pretty spectacular washout gullies and foot-deep puddles. The kind of thing you see in Manly Truck Commercials featuring admiring looking mountain sheep and sasquatches. This was definitely not something for which elderly Japanese subcompacts are designed for! Brandishing my penchant for Valiant Stupidity I banished all thoughts of how screwed I would be if my car got stuck and headed in on a high state of allert. A period of extraordinarily studly driving ensued (if I do say so myself) and I emerged at the road intersection not more than a tenth of a mile from the Brinks Road Shelter. Let’s hear it for Rufus the Honda Civic! A large boulder and steep slope blocked further progress and I decided not to press my luck. A large 4×4 trundled past from a different direction and the folks within clearly thought I was out of my mind or lost or probably both.
It was six by the time I got geared up with heavy clothing and a couple snacks. Very cold and clear. And dark; I’m not ashamed to say it was more than a little scary. Sunday night cold stars glittered down shedding absolutely no light on the dense coniferous forest that had seemed so cheerful in the Saturday morning sun. Gritting my teeth, I headed out into the darkness and got to the shelter in short order. No sign of my bag there and the one recent entry in the shelter log didn’t mention anything. It’s never the easy solution…
Fine, I resolved to hike up the trail toward Rattlesnake Mountain before giving up hope. But it wasn’t neccessarily going to be a fun trip. My knee still hurt and it was getting seriously cold and dark. I headed up the road a quarter mile where it intersects the AT. Two feet down the trail, there was my bag hanging very deliberately at eye level from a branch. !!!!! I couldn’t believe it! Clearly my karma is paying off. I guess someone had found the bag along the trail and brought it with them this far. My profound thanks to these wonderful people. (If you’re out there, lemme know and I’ll buy you a beer!) Before my luck ran out, I hightailed it back to the car elated and relieved. Driving back out was equally hairy and bold and exciting though at least I was headed down hill this time.
Emerging back to the wonderful world of pavement, I started taking back roads for a while and I got turned around only once. Fortunately, I can navigate by the stars, so I was quickly back on the right track (again, those maps were a life-saver). The rest of the trip was uneventful and I arrived back in B’more tired, dirty and quite sore at 11:30.Quite a trip! Total milage was about 43 miles, about nine of it in the dark. Night hiking isn’t so bad, but you don’t make the best time. Chalk it up as a hazard of winter recreation. Still, it was a very enjoyable trip with a good friend I haven’t had the pleasure of hiking with before. And contrary to popular belief, New Jersey is a gorgeous state…