The hours of interstate driving were long and boring. But the last miles of pothole dodging and subtle skid-outs on the narrow, gravel, tree-lined FS Road 76 along the Cranberry River served as a good transition into the Cranberry Wilderness.
Kingsley and I were dead yuppie giveaways: a Jeep and a Camry in a sea of trucks. Seems the popular thing to do from the Cranberry Campground trailhead is pack up bikes and/or bike trailers with fishing gear, beer, and delicious food, and bike along the river to a shelter. We even saw a huge group of people with a wagon loaded up with gear being drawn by two big draft horses! Don't know about you, but a long weekend drinking beer, cooking steaks and bacon and eggs over a campfire, fishing, and generally carrying on beside a beautiful stretch of wild river—if that ain't part of the good life, I don't know what is.
After loading up with our decidedly out-of-place backpacking gear, Kingsley and I headed east along the road. The miles went by real fast, with beautiful views of the river and a few waterfalls to keep things interesting.
Before we knew it, we found the Rough Run Trail and started heading up the Rough Run drainage to the ridgeline above. It quickly became clear that this was going to be a bit different than most DC UL outings. Whether from low use, low maintenance, or damage from Sandy and the derecho that's yet to be tackled, *big* blowdowns were a regular part of the trail, spaced out at no less than one every 10 minutes. And before long, even the trail tread itself started to disappear. The result: we were often climbing up, over, around, and through trees and vegetation only to find no trail on the other side. Having spent years hiking without trails in Denali, I found the whole thing very fun—so much more interesting than just cruising down a blazed, well-trodden path. When we lost the trail, I'd whip out the map and compass, take in a few things, and tell Kingsley something like, "Well, we should be going along the creek until the headwaters and then up and over the very top of the ridge, so as long as we stay near the creek and don't go up or down anything steep, we'll be fine." Kingsley wanted to trust me—truly he did!—but was decidedly less excited about the bushwhacking and may have thought I was a bit of a nut... I fear I may have scared him off of DC UL for some time to come! :)
Eventually, we did make it to the ridge and the North-South Trail. North-South and Little Fork Trails were much easier to follow, and we eventually found ourselves at the edge of a crossing of the combined Little and Middle Forks of the Williams River just before they joined the main Williams: The Three Forks of the Williams River. I really wanted to find the large field in the area, but with light fading fast and no trail to take, we decided to bed down beside the stream. After setting up tents and having a leisurely dinner, we drifted off.
Realizing that, if the next day's trails were like Rough Run, 18 miles would be a tough order, we decided to take a different tact. We slept in, ate a slow breakfast, bushwhacked through the woods to find that field (which was very nice), returned to camp, and had a laid-back lunch. Finally, at 1 PM, we started hiking. BLASPHEMY! I hear the DC UL'ers call. But we had fun, so there!
Our first task was crossing the combined Little and Middle Forks. I could tell the crossing would be a bit of a thrill, so I gave Kingsley a quick lesson in river crossing techniques, having him stand behind me, hold on to my pack, and then step in time. The middle of the stream was mid-thigh deep and moving fast, and it definitely took a strong effort to stay upright. But we made it across, with one of Kingsley's Teva thong sandals the only sacrifice to the river gods. This, too, was a bit more than Kingsley had bargained for, again reinforcing my craziness.
The rest of the day turned out to be a cakewalk. The Middle Fork Trail was wide, blowdowns had been cleared, and the few water crossings were very easy. Tall tress, the scattered songs of black-throated blue warblers, filtered green light, the roaring sounds of the Middle Fork pervading at all times, occasional exposed bands of rock... It all added up to a mystical and enchanting experience.
After overshooting our camping spot in the midst of a great conversation about co-ops in Eugene, Oregon, and Madison, Wisconsin, we quickly realized our mistake, turned around, and stopped for the night at Hell for Certain Branch. Trip planners, take note: the two campsites here are AMAZING. Ours was beside the trail and overlooked a scenic section of the creek, with HfC's lower waterfalls visible across the way and a solid fire ring to aid our campfire efforts. I also waded across the nearly-waist-deep Middle Fork to check out the other side. It's even better, with a big fire ring surrounded by well-rigged benches, access to water on all sides, lots of room for tents, and great access to the HfC waterfall and a swimming hole on the Middle Branch. Only downside: you have to wade across slow but deep water right before camp. Totally pants off, barefoot crossing doable, though.
As Kingsley began a valiant (and successful) effort to have a great campfire despite sopping-wet wood, who shows up on the trail but Denise, Katherine, and Haley! I wasn't expecting to see them until the next night, so this was a pleasant surprise. They'd had a similar experience, having to bushwhack while following their compass for much of that day's miles. And a bit later, another surprise: Thor the Hiking Viking and Ferntoe, who had parked at the eastern trailhead and hiked in along the Middle Fork! So, what was expected to be a two-person affair turned into a right good group camp. The fire was kept ablazing, and we shared food, drink, and wild plants well into the night.
Sunday morning, Thor and Ferntoe slept in, planning to do their own thing for the rest of the trip. Denise, Katherine, and I decided to hike out a day early with Kingsley for good and varied reasons. We got started at 8:30 AM, expecting an easy 13 miles back to the cars. But the Cranberry had slightly different plans. The Laurelly Branch Trail was quite clear and easy to follow, but the North-South quickly became blowdown clogged and very difficult to follow in places. There were definitely some moments of "stop, relax, assess" and a healthy use of map and compass skills. There were beautiful sections of different types of forests—I especially enjoyed the areas dominated by red spruce, with a forest floor of moss-covered rocks and endless ferns—and a general peacefulness in the air. It took longer than anticipated—9 hours for 13 miles, including some breaks for meals and general R&R—but we eventually got back to the cars at 5:30 PM. It being so late and with long drives ahead, we decided not to stop for food and just push on home.
Overall, I had a great time, and I hope others did, too! It was definitely different than other DC UL trips I've been on, with a focus on wildness, route finding, flexibility, and simply taking in the surroundings over big miles and efficiency. I hope others enjoyed these unique aspects, that Kingsley will give DC UL another try, and that others will be happy to join me for similar adventures in the not-too-distant future.
Loved the trip report, Miles.
As I'm sure Denise and Katherine must've mentioned to you: Cranberry was rather wild and unmaintained last April. I'm sure post-Sandy, post-derecho, some of those trails barely merit the name.
I think it's great you guys were out there doing something a little different--sounds like you were practicing some great skills.
I do hope you didn't scare Kingsley off, though. He's supposed to do the Grayson Highlands.
Haha, it sounds like you had a blast! Almost makes me wish I had skipped hypothermia in the Whites to join you lot. It definitely sounds like Cranberry is a wilderness I'll have to explore.
kind of like a surprised 'tough mudder' backpacking weekend event [:)]
The Cranberry wasn't the only place in the Mon affected by Sandy: