B~~~ and Heavy D rounded the corner, pushing through the jungle-like undergrowth. In front of them, the remains of a campfire smoldered. Someone had scribbled, in charcoal, “DC UL Camp WaWa.” They looked at each other. What could it mean?
DC UL’s journey to hike the Donut Hole Trail (DHT) in a single, albeit long, weekend started off innocently enough. I had been aware of the trail for a few years since the STS shares footpath with it for a spell, and Jeff Mitchell covers it. Other than that, though, I didn’t know anyone who had walked it. But I was looking for an Allegheny Plateau rambler for my Memorial Day tradition, and it fit the bill. 91 miles over trail that may not be especially often walked. What could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, MST, Section 3, took its toll, and several people had to back out. Shuttle’s hip was bothering her, so we decided that she would have to be benched this weekend, which was a cruel disappointment. In the end, it was me, B~~~, Heavy D, Blue Blazes, Superman, and Steve Gold (to be forever known as The Bacon-ator) who drove out to set this up. After lunch at the Knickerbocker in Atoona, we met Blue Blazes at Jericho, PA. I sweet-talked a local land owner into letting us leave a vehicle there. The rain tapered off as we drove the beginning point in Farrandsville, PA. There was no sign for the DHT there, but the blazes were the right color. We parked, saddled up, and started hiking in, our packs heavy with enough consumables for almost 100 miles. Would my whisky last? We were a little behind schedule, and so only clocked about 7 miles before sunset. We made camp in a little gulley as the rain started, each of us eating alone in our shelters. I worried that we’d need three big days (about 25 miles each) to be in position to finish. Three consecutive marathons, more or less, with packs, on mountainous terrain, on a path that could be sketchy … that felt decidedly non-trivial.
It rained all night ,but as the sun rose, it eased off. In the chilly dawn (up at 6am, trail at 7am)—we had cool weather at night Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, dipping to near freezing—we struck camp, and began marching through the beautiful forests of fern. People came out of their camps to wave at us. The trail dipped down to the Susquehanna, then climbed steeply again for the plateau. After a few miles of road-walking, a sudden turn took us down into Rattle Snake Run.
“Rattle Snake Run” will be words that will live in DC UL infamy. In general, we found the DHT well-blazed and, if a little rough in patches perfectly walkable. A few hollows were overgrown. Rattle Snake Run was the worst. There was little semblance of a footpath. We picked our way from blaze to blaze. At various times, our compasses, maps, and GPS units were all in play; but at the end, all you had to do was follow the run. It wasn’t so bad. I was in the lead and having fun. Blue Blazes saw a bear jump down from a tree and sprint across the run after I had crossed in front. At last, we climbed back to the plateau. The weather radiant and warm, we walked plateau miles, traversing areas that showed the effects of some industry. Via a power-line cut, we descended into a vale of stinging nettle. I was cranky. “Why have we been walking six hours without a break?” Superman and B~~~ told me to have a snack. At last, we pulled into Hyner Run State Park, and made camp just north of there on the DHT. The GPS read 24 miles, or thereabouts.
Bright and early Saturday morning, we found ourselves again climbing for the plateau. Frost covered the ground, and the trail dipped us in and out of various gullies. We lost Heavy D. We found Heavy D. The occasional turn tricked us, which should have warned us to greater caution. I had waited for Dan, so when the others took a break on Young Woman’s Road—at the memorial to the very first acre of land purchased for Pennsylvania state forests—I continued on along the long climb up Seven Mile Run to the junction of the STS.
Superman was there ahead of me. On familiar (to me, as I’ve walked the STS twice) ground now, we pressed on. Down Morgans Run, along the Green Lick (rather overgrown), up and over Italian Hollow, up a power cut (warm in the sun), along Scoval Branch (where there is some sort of new fracking installation). At last we came to the point where the STS heads to Cross Fork, PA (Deb’s!), and the DHT heads southwards (not Deb’s!). We paused to let the others catch up. The Bacon-ator came strolling in. B~~~ and Heavy D walked in. B~~~ looked like he had lost a fight with a very small bear. The branches in Green Lick had taken their toll.
But where was Blue Blazes? We waited. No one came. I had wanted us to walk a little farther, but without Blue Blazes, that seemed wrong. Tim and Bob, from the South Central PA Backpacking Group, came strolling in, and decided to make camp with us. They had never seen anyone else on the DHT; we were eager for the company. We talked it over. Blue Blazes has gotten rather good at sticking to the blazes… But where the STS and the DHT join, there is orange paint in three directions!
It dawned on me that Blue Blazes had made a catastrophic navigation error, and had walked north on the STS rather than west. What would she do? “The fog of Hua” descended over the camp. I surmised (correctly) that she might make it all the way to Ole Bull State Park before she noticed. That would be 10 miles of error. When Blue Blazes goes off trail, she goes BIG. We stayed up late (10pm), no Hua. We slept on it.
The next morning, Sunday, Tim and Bob generously consented to let me use their shuttle car, which was at Tamarack Fire Tower, about 10 miles west on the DHT. I sent Superman east on the DHT/STS to sweep to the last point we had seen Blue Blazes—there was always a chance of an injury. B~~~, Heavy D, and The Bacon-ator proceeded east to finish the trail. I would divert to get our cars and Blue Blazes. At least half the group would finish the whole trail, which we were well positioned to do.
We strode through darkened hollows in the early morning, and almost immediately came upon Blue Blaze’s campsite. At a camp, some fellows told us that Hua had hitched a ride from Ole Bull (which she had indeed reached), then tried to rejoin our rallying point, nearly making it before collapsing, maybe a mile short. In the splendid cool air, we pressed on and overtook her. The reunion was joyous, but my die was cast. I left the DHT near Tamarack Tower to take a short cut to Tim’s car. Finding the car via my short cut was non-trivial, but find it I did. I drove it (ever so carefully) down the mountain. I picked up Superman, a 12-pack of Yuengling, grabbed my car, then dropped Tim’s car off at Hyner Run. We drove forward on the trail to the dam at Kettle Creek, where we hoped to catch the others.
Immediately, the DHT crosses beneath the little dam and we had about 100 feet of calf-deep water, which we forded without incident. Superman and I scrambled up the slope, then climbed and climbed and climbed for the plateau. I could immediately tell that we were in front of the others, as there was no sign of their passage. We dropped down into Cooks Run, where we expected to find camp, but it was boggy and buggy. We walked on, almost to the end of the run and made a camp of expedience. We had carried in beer for the others, but they never came. We were forced to drink the beer ourselves.
Monday morning, we rose at 5am, trail at 6am, and climbed through beautiful seas of fern, walking for a time on the broad flat back of the plateau. Another descent, a hot stifling climb, then a little road-walking before a long, lovely descent along Ellicott Run, at last we came to Jericho, and the end of our trail.
Two hours later—mosquito-filled hours, sadly—The Bacon-ator joined us, then Blue Blazes, B~~~, and Heavy D. They had camped a little short of Cooks Run the previous night. The DHT was now part of DC UL lore. We reversed the shuttle, collecting cars and belongings as we went, then headed to Harrisburg and the Appalachian Brewing Company to celebrate. I was home by 10pm, after a long and very satisfying Memorial Day weekend.
Six left home and six returned. B~~~, The Bacon-ator, and Heavy D walked the entire 90-ish miles of the DHT from Thursday evening till Monday at about noon. Our GPS units died on us, but the splits were about 7 / 24 / 24 / 24 / 11 … give or take. Hua certainly got the miles, though in a somewhat unprecedented and unanticipated vector. I walked all of the DHT except for the miles between Tamarack Tower and Kettle Creek—essentially I had to take five hours off the trail to drive around. Although it was disappointing not to complete the trail, I know I’ll be back with Shuttle, perhaps in the autumn. Superman also got the miles, though he reversed course on the STS for search and rescue purposes.
And the DHT? We liked it! It reminded me at times of the STS, at other times of the Loyalsock Trail. It was often beautiful, usually isolated, and always challenging. It deserves to be backpacked more than it is. I’m sure we’ll return. Special thanks to the people who maintain it, and also to Tim and Bob, without whom our entire enterprise might have come un-glued. Loaning us that car really helped us out. It was a noble gesture, and very much appreciated. I hope they enjoyed the lager.
To the DHT six, thank you all for the adventure! It’s adventure we wanted, and we certainly found it. I couldn’t have asked for better companions.
Hey, Michael, like your conclusion "long and very satisfying Memorial Day weekend"[:D] It was an event full backpacking adventure. Loved, and thankful for everyone especially you as a event organizer's positive attitude. Hope to join the group to go back in the fall again [B-)]
Thank you, Hua! You are certainly welcome to re-join me in the fall. Shuttle and I were discussing this fall's schedule this evening--the Donut Hole Trail is on the agenda.
Excellent report. I echo Blue Blazes...thank you for a very well organized and great event! Of course, I would jump (or fly) at the opportunity to [i]complete[/i] the DHT; hopefully I can join you in the autumn.
Awesome report. I think I like it better spelled without the hyphen though
-- "The Baconator" :)
Thanks for the recap. The DHT was indeed a pleasant surprise, and our trip turned out to be a classic of sorts. No doubt we'll be talking about it for years to come, as the legend grows and embellishment works its magic-- not that this trip needs much, though. Thanks to Michael for leading, and to everyone for making this an experience to remember.
Like the trail name "Baconator"[:D]