Backpacking the Derecho: Wild Oak Trail, Hardscrabble Knob, and Ramsay's Draft: Trip Report

Posted by Michael Martin on

Anyone curious for a trip report for the weekend ...

So, yes, we had noticed that it was going to be a little warm this weekend, but we decided that we would head out anyway. Marion, Nick, Joffrey, Peter, and I met up at Vienna at 6pm and headed out to do the hike as planned. (Carolyn had gone ahead earlier in the day to set up the shuttle vehicle and walk to Friday night's campsite. We had pre-arranged this based on the scouting I did last weekend).

Most of the conversation on the way to Staunton, in my car, anyway, had to do with watching the thermometer as it fell, a little. At 97 degrees, we thought we were in the middle of a blast of arctic air. We had all checked the weather reports, and I, at least, figured there was about zero chance of a storm.

At about 8:30pm, when we turned off 250 and onto a little one-lane country road, the weather went to hell, suddenly. Black clouds massed over the West Virginia line, the wind started blowing fiercely, and there was debris all over the roadway. Soon, as the road turned to gravel, there were large branches in the road; trees leaned menacingly overhead. At one point, my car was dragging enough branches that I stopped it and crawled beneath to clear them.

When we reached the gravel road leading to the North River Campground, we stopped the cars. The road was blocked by downed trees. We cleared away some branches, but it was obvious that the campground would be inaccessible till someone showed up with a chainsaw. We decided that we would park the cars at one of the informal campsites along 95, and walk in to where I had planned that we would camp.

By the time we were set to go, the wind was howling and it was raining horizontally (it never rained that hard, strangely, but the little rain that fell was blowing). As we passed the downed tree blocking the road, the scene was surreal. There was a party with horses who were just standing there, waiting, I suppose, for the storm to die down. I don't think they were that pleased to see us come by with our headlamps on, but we slowed down, got to the side of the road, and crept by. Their horses were calmer than I would have thought.

The two mile walk to the campsite was as dramatic as anything I've done in the outdoors. The wind would gust sometimes so hard that the trees were waving wildly. Sometimes, we'd hear the crack of a falling branch or tree in the forest. There were huge illuminations of lightning that seemed to fill half the night sky. And there were several "Beware of flash flood!" signs that had everyone wondering if that was what nature was going to throw our way next. If anything, though, the river remained low, much lower than even last weekend. This was a good thing as we planned to camp right by the river.

Around 10:30pm, we reached our campsite on the North River Gorge Trail. Amazingly, Carolyn was right where we had planned for her to be, holed up in her tent. We set up camp and, by 11pm or so, the storm abated, though it drizzled on us all night. Marion and I got my Trailstar set up, pitched it low, crawled inside, drank most of our whiskey, and passed the night as dry as could be.

(Incidentally, I can now confirm that the Trailstar is a a solid storm shelter. This was the first night I slept in it, and it pitched easily in a storm like that and held up all night. It didn't budge, really. If anyone is thinking of buying a minimalist shelter, it gets a thumbs up. I have to say that Marion did, though, look appalled as I pulled the cuben fiber sheet out in the middle of the storm: "This is what I'm sleeping in?!")

The rest of the trip was more conventional. We were up at 5:45am, walking at 6:45am, and covered the 3-4 miles to the Wild Oak Trail on the North River Gorge Trail with ease. The next 10 miles along the Wild Oak Trail, first climbing to Little Bald Knob then descending to Camp Todd, were challenging in the heat. We toughed it out, but by the time we reached Camp Todd, we were all hot. We took two hours off to lounge in the North River. Peter built a brilliant pool (pictures forthcoming).

Saturday, we enjoyed a beautiful campsite at Hiner Springs. Early Sunday morning, we climbed Hardscrabble Knob, which is a fun little walk through a forest of ferns with a few class 3 scrambling moves toward the end and a nice view. The descent of Ramsay's Draft was a bit of trial, though. The trail was terribly obscured in places due to tree fall from the storm, the river was dry, and virtually every sort of stinging, biting plant was gathered there--a forest of stinging nettle.

We were very happy to reach Carolyn's backpacker-mobile. A quick meal later, we were on the way home. I think our total split for the weekend was about 2--16 or 17--8, so 26-27 miles.

All in all, this was a truly adventuresome weekend that was made enjoyable by the quality of the company. As Peter said, it would have been easy to try to turn back when the storm hit, but we all had "just enough crazy in us" to plunge into the forest. I'm pretty sure we'll all be telling stories about this one for some time to come.


A former member posted on

Wow, thanks for the trip report Michael! Good on you guys for getting out there and hiking through it. We drove through the heart of the storm on the way out to Seneca and there were downed trees across the road, debris everywhere, and even a giant boulder in the middle of the road. Pretty crazy. It had died out by the time we arrived though, so I wasn't able to test the storm-worthiness of my Trailstar, but I'm glad to hear that yours held up well and glad you all made it back in one piece! I certainly wouldn't want to be out hiking in that heat and humidity though! :)

Michael Martin posted on

Yes, there was lots of excitement this weekend. The following is what Eric Azriel, a DC UL member who is out through hiking the AT, sent me:

"Merry checking in. This heat is messing with our schedules and mileage. The other day we climbed a 1000 foot mountain in 97 degrees (we carry thermometers now). There was no choice because water was on the other side. Climbing mountains in the heat is really hard and not a very good idea. So our routine has to change again - to hiking mostly at night. The first full night hike is tonight.

"You may be wondering if that storm that came through hit us. That night we were turning into bed when a roaring started far in the distance. Two minutes later debris screamed through the air pelting our tents and the sound and pressure became intense. It sounded like a freight train passing only feet away. Sweet n' Sour and I fled camp, running down the mountain. We left all of our gear, the threat was so large and we had so little warning. I wasn't even wearing my shoes.

"For an hour we sat on the lee side of the mountain, only 200 feet from our camp at the ridge top, watching the flashes of lightning and listening for the roaring wind to slacken. In a lull we ran to camp, grabbed as much gear as we could and ran back down the mountain. While the wind roared and lightning flashed 200 feet away, the lee was silent and still. Very little rain fell.

"Before two hours passed, it was all over. Large trees were down all around camp. The ground was a carpet of green leaves. Our tents survived and so did all of our gear. The next day we moved many trees from the path and climbed over many more that required a saw. The power of that storm was awesome.

"Now I'm hiking towards Waynesboro where my ne weather radio will be waiting for me. But that's not until 5 or 6 pm when the heat breaks.

"Hiking on,