Tuscarora Trail Journal. Chapter One: My Kingdom for My Snowshoes (Sections 14-16, 48/55 to Basore’s Ridge Shelter, February 13-14, 2021)

Intro. I need another trail section-hike project like I need some new backpacking equipment. Which is to say I absolutely don’t but certainly will take one on anyway. As far as section hikes go, it seems everyone in my backpacking orbit is working on their own Tuscarora Trail version. And why not? At 250 total miles and close proximity to Washington, D.C., with lovely PATC-maintained shelters and traversing some beloved local terrain, more people should be hiking on it, not less. To boot: when we met Mike, a local landowner and PATC volunteer at Basore’s Ridge Shelter to end our trip, he noted only bumping into 4-5 folks a year using his gorgeous shelter! More on Mike later.

It started like it usually does, with a ping from Claudio to go out hiking. He, along with Kyle, were working on a northbound section hike of the Tuscarora Trail. They had in sight about 40 miles going from Dry Gap to Hampshire Road along Great North Mountain and adjoining roads. Why not? I thought. Then we began overthinking things as extreme weather reports filtered in. At one point it looked like we could get hit with a polar vortex blast with lows in the single digits Fahrenheit. Another forecast called for fresh snow piling up over the week. The truth, of course, is that things mellowed out weather-wise as we actually approached our weekend. (Really, we should all remember NOT to check weather until three-days out to spare ourselves overthinking and planning.) But questions remained about snow levels and we opted to shorten to less than 30 miles for our weekend. Ironically, we tossed snowshoes in our cars anyways to be ready. Then we decided to leave said snowshoes in our cars when we started hiking. More on that later.

Tuscarora Trailing: Day One, February 13 – Rt 48/55 to Pinnacle Shelter, ~13 miles. Claudio, Kyle, and I met up at our end point near Basore’s Ridge Shelter bright and early at 7:00 a.m. We put a cooler and luxury items in Kyle’s car and then hopped in Claudio’s truck to drive down to begin our weekend hike. It was snowy and chilly for sure, but none of us thought the snow merited snowshoes. Claudio dropped Kyle and me off at 48/55 to do a few miles he had already hiked. He drove off to get some breakfast and meet up with us in an hour up trail. Kyle and I enjoyed our first miles of winter wonderland on the ridge and didn’t think the few inches of snow were that difficult to traverse. We all met up again at Dry Gap to hike about 10 more miles on Great North Mountain to reach Pinnacle Shelter, our destination for the night. Normally, these are extremely low miles for a group of guys used to 20-mile hiking days. But lord, snow presents a beautiful challenge.

So we tackled the beautiful challenge. Kyle, trail nicknamed Water Dog for his summer water-carrying skills, earned our respect and a new name, Snow Plow, for his gallant effort breaking trail for most of the day. He claims he was just trying to stay warm but we know heroism when we see it. The dude was also pounding this out with a couple broken toes from a recent city bike accident and some spent legs from a week of downhill skiing. We should have brought our snowshoes. Despite not being super high elevation, Great North Mountain certainly retained its snow. Snow levels varied between six and 12 inches. Our feet were very much enclosed in an icebox for the day despite our efforts to stay dry and warm. But it was gorgeous with ice and snow coating the trees and ridge. After a few weeks of grumbling in the DC area about our lack of snow, I was certainly getting my fill.

Shoutout to the PATC for high-quality signs on the trail and blazes good enough to follow despite low foot traffic. Part of this section of the trail is a fairly recent re-route to maximize time on the Devil’s Backbone ridge itself. It was most welcome. Day hikers, we presume, enjoy the scenic out and back to Eagle Rock. We traipsed through snow and Kyle/Snow Plow let me break the final two miles to get to our sanctuary for the night at Pinnacle Shelter. (As a general water note if you’re reading this to plan your own hike: we brought our own and did not expect to hit — or actually encounter — a water source until the spring at Pinnacle Shelter. In fact, water was pretty scarce. But that shouldn’t surprise any Tuscarora Trail veteran.)

Though the Pinnacle Shelter is a gorgeous work of PATC architecture complete with separate eating and fire pavilion, I brought a new NEMO Kunai 2 tent that I bought more for eventual winter use in Canada rather than the mid-Atlantic but wanted to try it out. It was my first normal, double-walled tent in years, and more than twice as heavy as my next heaviest UL shelter, but I was curious. It was comfy but definitely overkill for this outing. We warmed up, built a lovely little fire, and settled in. Since we knew we had supplies waiting for us at the end of our trip, we let loose on our rye whiskey and apple brandy we had packed in and enjoyed some quality cigars. Claudio played around with a new alcohol stove keg can set up. Despite my words of alcohol-stove encouragement, I don’t think he was won over. Eventually we stumbled off to sleep and to do it all again in the morning.

Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, February 14 – Pinnacle Shelter to Basore’s Ridge Shelter, ~16 miles. In the morning, we slept in a bit later than our normal up-before-dawn style and hit the snowy trail. Claudio took snow plow lead for much of the day and was pretty much hauling ass throughout. The trail was gorgeous, of course, but we could tell that even without the underbrush of spring/summer to obscure the trail, it was tough going. Blazes weren’t always clear in this part, and the combination of picking over snow and boulder fields definitely upped the challenge. We were serenaded by some shooting range booms for a spell too to add to the scene.

The Tuscarora Trail gradually left the ridge near Gore, Virginia. At this point, some of our scenery incorporated some ingeniously placed trailer homesteads and couches. I was super thankful to make a pitstop at the Barclays Run Shelter before meeting up with Claudio and Kyle at Rt. 50. Claudio had stashed some water and beer for a midday pick me up. We needed it, as the trail took us through a water crossing as the final goodbye from the mountain hiking section. We had seven miles of road walking ahead of us to finish our day.

The road walking was kind of great, actually. It was scenic in both natural and man-made ways. It was also out of the snow. It had its own challenges too: there was practically no shoulder as cars raced by. We took care and enjoyed it. Claudio and Kyle chatted with a few locals and donkeys, including meeting Mike, who drove by a couple times in his truck before swinging back over in his Tesla to introduce himself and say he’d come visit us at the shelter later.

Once at Basore’s Ridge Shelter, a scant 1,000 feet from our parked vehicles, we grabbed our luxury items. I had brought a special edition bottle of Tullamore Dew, pastries from Buzz, and a charcuterie platter. Kyle packed in some brown sugar and butter sweet potatoes, and Claudio, in true Tarzan fashion, packed in ribeye steaks, coffee, s’mores, breakfast sandwich fixings, and much more. This was most assuredly not ultralight. Nobody cared. Soon enough, the whir of an engine announced Mike’s arrival with some seasoned firewood and a few beers. Mike is an amazing guy. He had lived in Europe and DC-area Maryland for years before having the good sense to move out to this lovely countryside. He joined forces with the PATC when they acquired the land around Basore’s Ridge to keep it maintained and watched over. We, and countless others, are enormously thankful for these efforts. We hope to see Mike again!

We enjoyed a long evening of pampered comfort around the fire and shelter. The atmospherics of the surrounding mountains and valleys came to life with some of the most distinctive and constant coyote wailing I’ve experienced in years. The local dogs weren’t too happy about it, though. With that, we packed up in the morning after some more feasting and began plotting our return to the Tuscarora. Since Claudio had dropped Kyle and me off separately, I didn’t experience the icy drive up to Dry Gap until I got to drive it myself to get Claudio back to his car. Glad I had 4×4 capability too!

In a final addendum, Claudio hunted me down at a roadside store I had stopped at for gas and tea to hand me a pair of snowshoes he had borrowed from Mike and Jen (my neighbors in Alexandria) to return. We laughed. We had all gone out of our way to bring snowshoes, decided not to actually use them, and lamented their absence as we post-holed through snow much of the weekend. Just another hiking adventure in the mid-Atlantic!

Future Planning Notes: Claudio and Kyle had done the 60-odd miles south of this section before; I would need to knock those miles out soon — and I’m thinking of doing it in a longish section one-shot in April. We figure there’s another 50 miles or so to get through Hancock and then onward to finish the Tuscarora Trail’s Pennsylvania miles in some large section hikes. Can’t wait.

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