A Much-Needed Spring Break in the Michaux State Forest

March 21-23, 2003

I have been cooped-up indoors through one of the snowiest winters in recent Maryland history and have been slaved to my computer for much of it writing my thesis. Well, the thesis is finally out of my hands and the snow has (mostly) melted. Time to see if I still remember which boot goes on which foot!

Amy, Tom and I at the nominal mid-point on the AT. Traditionally, you are eat a half-gallon of ice cream at this point. We weren't that hungry.

Amy, Tom and I at the nominal mid-point on the AT. Traditionally, you are eat a half-gallon of ice cream at this point. We weren’t that hungry.

Amy and I set off from Baltimore under unpromisingly leaden skies on Friday afternoon arriving without incident at Caledonia State Park on US30. I have done quite a bit of section hiking on the Appalachian Trail over the last four years and this represented the northern end of a stretch 350 miles long down to Roanoke, VA. I have another long stretch from Connecticut into the northern end of Pennsylvania as well and I am eager to connect these sections this spring. Thus, Amy and I left the car at the side of the road and headed north in the cool humidity.

The lovely Quarry Gap Shelters in the morning sun.

The lovely Quarry Gap Shelters in the morning sun.

Caledonia State Park was gorgeous with tall evergreens, well-maintained trails, and a beautiful, and the rushing Conococheague Creek nearly overflowing its banks. Indeed, after all the snow-melt and recent rain, we would be seeing more than our fair share of flowing water on this trip! It was quite pleasant as we made our way up the steep hill at the northern end of the park enjoying the exertion and and feel of trail under our feet again. The stresses and concerns of academia fell away from me quite quickly and I felt several inches taller already.

By the time it was fully dark, we were only a quarter mile from our camping spot for the night, the exceptional Quarry Gap Shelters which we rolled into a few minutes later. This shelter quickly became one of my favorites because of its clean, pleasing layout and gorgeous setting. Two small shelters were connected by a covered dining area and fireplace. A small, well-contained stream tumbled noisily through the front yard and the entire glade was surrounded by rhododendrons. The stars came out, we cooked dinner, and set about to wait.

We were expecting Tom and Jill to join us some time in the wee hours. They had a considerably longer drive ahead of them and had taken on the added challenge of shuffling the cars before starting out. I had left one of my FRS radios in the car and was listening on the other for their call. Midnight came and went with no word from them. I began to get worried. Finally, they rolled into camp at 2am (not unusually late for our joint ventures) and we all slept soundly for the remainder of the night.

Pretty, non-descript trail in the Michaux State Forest.

Pretty, non-descript trail in the Michaux State Forest.

Saturday we dragged out of bed some hours after sun-up and had a scrumptious breakfast of Jill’s Banana-Apple-Nut bread with various spreads. I presented Amy with a surprise early birthday present of her own set of Komperdell hiking poles (mostly so I could use both of mine on the upcoming challenging terrain) and we set off in good spirits.

The trail was easy, the day was gorgeous and we set a good pace. Unfortunately, there were no real redeeming features in this section of trail like obvious summits or even marginal views. Still, the forest was cheerful and the sun bright. Tom and I took the lead discussing gear, feats of strength, and other manly deeds while Jill and Amy trailed talking about whatever it is that women discuss when they’re off by themselves. We tested the radios further (each group had one) and found them to work quite well over distances of up to a half mile. Tree-cover didn’t seem to matter for the FRS bands though as soon as I’d gotten a bit of hillside between me and the other radio, they didn’t communicate well. The GMRS bands might have worked better.

The day grew long and feet grew sore as we tramped the northern extremity of the 100-mile-long South Mountain. We crossed a stream and reloaded on water. Finally, we limped in to the Tom’s Run shelters and discovered them completely packed. What’s more, the shelters were in the flood-plain of the hyperactive Tom’s Run itself which meant that lots of swampy ground and small, seasonal streams made tenting an exciting option. After considerable searching, we located a leafy area with enough flat ground for two tents; one tent and one tarp, actually. Amy and I set about making dinner of pasta and peanutty noodles with a follow-up of rice-pudding with stewed fruit. The former was exceptional and devoured quite hungrily by all. The latter was also good, but had cooked too long and the milk curdled a bit. Still tasty however, as only something eaten after a 13.5 mile hike can be. We played a quick game of “Give me the Brain!” before retiring for the night.

Sunday looked like a follow-up to Saturday weather-wise. Tom was the first one up and quickly set about making cornmeal pancakes for everyone. Hey, just because it’s a backpacking trip doesn’t mean we can’t eat like royalty! All the fine dining and a nicely relaxed outlook meant another late start (9am).

The trail out of Tom’s Run was covered in about three inches of water for many long stretches. This made for slow, soggy going for a couple miles. We passed the ruins of Camp Michaux an hour later and admired the remaining wall of a Revolution-era stone barn covered in vines and encroaching evergreens. More mud decorated our gear and I was pleased to see that Amy’s new poles resembled the rest of our well-worn sticks in short order. We stopped at the exquisite glade where the trail crosses Tom’s Run for the last time and a quick water-pumping break turned into a protracted first-lunch of nuts, figs, and other goodness.

In another mile, we crossed Pine Grove Road and entered Pine Grove Furnace SP. The furnace itself is in good repair and has lots of interpretive signs. We sat in it’s shadow and consumed a second lunch (hard-boiled eggs, humus, carrots and more banana-apple bread). This is a popular park and dozens of people strolled about with babies, dogs and other dependents. None were are rough-looking or as heavily laden as us and most gave us wide berth. The ore pit from the furnace has been filled with water and is now fringed by Fuller Beach. How often does the AT pass a nice swimming beach like that? We had to take advantage of the opportunity, even if it was March! Tom and I stripped off our boots and went for an abortive swim. We had plenty of conviction but, wet to the knees, I could no longer feel my feet under the crystal clear water. It was then that we noticed that the far side of the lake was still ice-bound. Thinking better of our plans, we retreated to dry land feeling refreshed.

The trail left the park and quickly climbed up the ridge of Piney Mountain. Early in the climb, we passed the nominal half-way mark on the AT. This is a cause for some remark amongst thru-hikers and is celebrated by eating a half-gallon of ice cream. Being mere section hikers, we did not feel that ice cream was warranted, but photos were still taken to commemorate the event.

At the top of the climb two miles later, we dropped our packs for a side trip to the Pole Steeple. The hike had remained startlingly view-less despite the undeveloped, gorgeous forest so we were eager for some tangible reward. The descent and ascent to the Steeple was quite rough, but the view more than made up for our efforts. White quartzite cliffs of fascinating geology gave us a view to the north and west of the park and lakes. Many people lounged around in the afternoon sun. We returned to our packs, had a third lunch (cheese, the rest of the humus, nuts and granola bars) and set out on the final five miles of the day.

Amy, Tom and I at the nominal mid-point on the AT. Traditionally, you are eat a half-gallon of ice cream at this point. We weren't that hungry.

Amy, Tom and I at the nominal mid-point on the AT. Traditionally, you are eat a half-gallon of ice cream at this point. We weren’t that hungry.

Everyone’s feet were dragging and the situation was not improved when the trail decided to become more typical of the northern PA sections; i.e. nothing but jagged rocks! Amy and I began to bonk and the hike became less fun. However, with two miles left, the pace picked up again. The trail surface improved and we were encouraged on by the rapidly sinking sun and thoughts of pizza and showers. Just as dusk became serious we emerged at Hunter’s Run Road. The car was located, we loaded all four packs in, and headed south.

There is a pizza place just to the west of Caladonia SP who’s name I have unfortunately forgotten. In any case, they provided us a most sumptuous pair of pizzas and good cheer. Highly recommended! Sated, stuffed, sore and satisfied, we parted company with Tom and Jill and headed back to B’more.

It was a great hike with good friends and distinctly promising weather. I remain far more sore than the 27.7 miles should have left me, but it was the first hike of the season and after a winter of inactivity to boot. 146 miles to go and I will have connected my sections and completed Pennsylvania. Stay tuned….


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