Two dozen clean and eager hikers stood in a circle at the Seneca Creek trail head in West Virginia, watching as guide Alan Dixon did a demo on packing a backpack most efficiently for rainy weather. The forecast for our 3 day trip was going to be raining, gray, and chilly, so keeping things dry and accessible was critical.
Once we all gathered up our food, any borrowed demo gear, and map and compass, Alan and the other guides came around to check each of our piles. Raincoat? Check. Shelter? Check. Stove and fuel? Check. I'd met Alan in 2018 when he guided my Sierras backpacking trip, and after a brief check up on my gear, he gave me the go ahead to pack up. Hammock and quilt went into a trash compactor bag, one of lead guide Andrew Skurka's rainy weather recommendations. Then clothes and other items went into a second trash compactor bag. Both went into the pack and smaller items got shoved into any open spaces. I was ready.
The larger group split into 2 groups. One would go with guides Alan and Ron Bell, owner of Mountain Laurel Designs. My group would go with Andrew and guide Joe McConaughy, who holds the record for completing the 2,000+ miles length of the Appalachian Trail, self supported, in 45 days. We were definitely in good hands. Just as we started meandering along the Seneca Creek trail the rain began to fall in earnest. Andrew actually had listed a lightweight umbrella among his gear prior to the trip so I took that as a green light to bring one myself. I was glad I did - after a few miles of rain pouring on your head, an umbrella is worth it's weight in gold.
We stopped a few times along the route to check our maps and pull out our compasses. Andrew would say, "Get a bearing on that ridge. Now apply it to your map." and we'd all diligently spin ourselves in circles trying to remember how to follow his instructions.
The rain came and went. Sometimes we were treated to patches of actual blue sky, which always felt like a gift.
After crossing Seneca Creek we trekked uphill to connect with the Allegheny Mountain Trail, then headed north along the ridge, searching for a good place to camp for the night. I had borrowed some hammock gear from Andrew's wide array of demo gear he made available to us, and was nervous and eager to try my first night sleeping in a hammock. While everyone else was busy setting up their tents, Andrew showed me how to hang the hammock properly. Due to a slight mix-up with the gear, I didn't have all the right pieces needed for my set-up, but it was good enough for a night's sleep out of the rain. Andrew and Joe set up a group tarp area for us to cook under and we soon set to making our beans and rice with Fritos dinner.
After our hot meal and some chatting we were all ready to crawl into warm and dry clothes and sleeping bags. I carefully climbed into my swaying hammock and tried to find a comfortable sleeping position. During the night I had to get out of the hammock to rearrange things, retrieving items as they fell out of the hammock and onto the damp ground. When Joe came around with our wake up call at 6am the next morning I was cold and tired, and not sure I liked this hammock camping business much.
We quickly packed up under a light drizzle and made our way along the ridge until we met up with another trail that would take us back down to Seneca Creek. The water was high at the crossing and, with our feet already soaked from wet and muddy conditions, we forged straight through the water. We stopped for a late breakfast (and coffee!) on the other side of the creek. Another benefit of going on one of Andrew's guided trips is getting to eat his prepared backpacking breakfasts and dinners. For breakfast that morning we cooked up powdered eggs, added some cheese, and rolled it into a tortilla. Not my favorite meal of the trip, but enough to get me going again as we headed up the other side of Seneca Creek towards Spruce Mountain.
We had some heavy rain on and off all throughout the day, and by the time we stopped to make camp in a spruce forest, my feet were wrinkled, white, and pasty. I peeled off my soaking socks, let my feet dry out, and put on clean, warm socks, then slipped my feet into 2 plastic bread bags. Yes, bread bags. Using bread bags to keep your clean socks dry inside your wet shoes is another Skurka tip I was trying out on this trip. I still wonder what the deli clerk at Target must have thought when I asked her if I could have some of the plastic bags they used to package bread. She asked me, "What size do you need?" and I replied with uncertainty "Big enough to put my feet in?".
Once again Andrew and Joe set up group tarps, one which would become my shelter for the night after all had gone off to bed. We went through the rituals of preparing dinner, drinking hot beverages, and chatting about our lives back home. It was cold and wet, and most of the group wandered off to their shelters before it was even dark. This time I had the proper set up for my hammock, and I was open to giving it a second try.
I slept remarkably well that night. I was warm, comfortable, and enjoyed the slight swing of the hammock each time I'd change positions during the night. The rain pinged musically off the tarp and I felt more comfortable with the openness of the hammock (vs. being inside a tent) than I expected to. I was happy to report to Andrew the next morning that I was now a believer in hammock camping.
After another 6am wake up we spent a little time in camp making coffee and breakfast (mashed potatoes and cheese this time), getting back into our wet, clammy clothes and shoes, and packing up. From where we camped on a saddle between 2 peaks we had to bushwhack our way back down to the Lumberjack Trail, which ran along the Seneca Mountain ridge line. Fighting your way through a spruce forest, going downhill, in the rain, is not as easy as it sounds like it should be. Andrew went one way while a few of us followed Joe a different way. We could hear Andrew ahead, standing on the trail waiting for us, calling out "Come on, keep going guys" as I dodged eye-poking branches and ankle breaking wet rocks.
Finally we all assembled back on the trail and stomped our way through puddles and streams along the ridge. There's a term for what's it's like to hike along the Appalachians - it's called the Green Tunnel. With the rain on the leaves, the Green Tunnel seemed to glow a phosphorescent green, alive with spring and fresh growth. I stopped along the trail for a moment, letting the others get far enough ahead that I could imagine I was alone in the woods, the only sounds being the patter of rain on the trees and the click of my hiking poles on the trail.
Soon we emerged from the forest onto the gravel road that would lead us back to our cars, and then, to our goodbyes. Our three cold and wet days in the West Virginia mountains had come to a satisfying end. I always enjoy pushing my comfort levels just beyond my known boundaries. On this trip I learned ways to deal with wet feet, cold nights, and how to hike with an umbrella in one hand and a hiking pole in the other. I learned that with the right mix of good people, great attitudes, and patient, cheerful guides, I smile a lot.
And I remembered something that I never get tired or re-learning - that life is all a series of adventures. If you open your mind and your spirit to the challenges ahead of you, you may just find great joy in unexpected, cold and wet places.
Happy and dry with my bread bag covered feet and my hammock set up.
Photo by Andrew Skurka
You can read Andrew Skurka's review of the gear we used on this trip and see his photos
on his website.