issue #6 Soggy, Stormy, and Miserable: My Appalachian Trail Nightmare
Flash Floods and Historic Rain in Shenandoah National Park
I was 865 lonely miles into my attempted thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail when, on a warm summer morning in early June, two of my uncles, Chris and Franklin, met me at the Swift Run Gap ranger station in Shenandoah National Park.
They had with them a dozen freshly baked doughnuts and freshly squeezed orange juice. A seemingly small, but in truth luxurious, gift for someone who had just hiked almost a thousand miles. They were the first familiar faces I’d seen in months, and that pleasant morning spent picnicking on the side of the road did nothing to foreshadow what would soon become three days of backpacking misery.
Chris’s plan was to join me for the next hundred miles of trail through the national park, while Franklin would head back home with the car. We’d thought out and strategized this rendezvous for months. It was no easy task. Since I was on foot in a mountainous wilderness, designating a meeting point along a random road at a specific time was close to impossible. But we pulled it off. All because Chris waited patiently on standby for me to give him the OK to drive out and intersect my journey north.
After gorging on doughnuts and OJ for an hour or so (imagine the sugar crash while carrying a heavy pack up a steep mountain), we headed off into the woods. The day was overcast with patchy fog, and the forest was lush with summer growth. We had a relatively gentle nine-mile hike ahead of us. I was fit from months on the trail, and Chris had been training in preparation for the trip. We climbed slowly up and away from the road, keeping a wary eye out for bears (they’re everywhere in Shenandoah NP). Occasionally we stopped and snagged some pictures of ourselves against the backdrop of the beautiful old Appalachian forest. Everything was working out just as we had planned.
The miles passed easily until, when we were just an hour from our campsite, it started to rain. At first it was just a drizzle. I didn’t even bother with a rain jacket. But then some cruel hiker god flipped a switch and what began to fall from the sky was nothing short of a deluge. We pulled our rain jackets from our packs as fast as we could. With heads bowed under the weight of the downpour we trudged toward our goal of camp. There really wasn’t any use in trying to talk, since the roar of the storm drowned out all other sound.
On the Appalachian Trail, most of the established campsites (usually spaced out every eight to ten miles) are set up with handy 3-sided wooden shelters that can easily accommodate a half-dozen or so hikers. I prayed there would be one where we were headed so that we could avoid having to set up our tents and be spared getting all our gear soaked. But when we arrived, the shelter was shoulder-to-shoulder full of dirty, soggy hikers. There wasn’t an inch of space left for us. On top of that, it appeared all the tent spaces were full as well. Now you might think, why would that matter? You’re in a forest, can’t you just go find another place a little ways up the trail to put up your tent? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. In Shenandoah National Park you’re required to utilize established backcountry campsites to prevent overuse impact on the landscape. Furthermore, you can walk for miles before finding a flat spot that isn’t too rocky to pitch a tent. Normally it’s no problem camping in the designated areas. But on this horrendously rainy evening it was a big problem. We stood there, glumly peering out through the waterfalls cascading from our hoods and contemplated what to do. Since I was the one who already had a few months of trail experience, I felt responsible for finding a solution. And I knew I needed to do it fast since dark was falling and we were both starting to shiver.
I began scouring the perimeter of the campsite for a level spot big enough for two tents, designated sites be damned. My muddy shoes were full of rainwater and my feet squished with every miserable step. Finally, I located a moderately flat spot (it definitely wasn’t going to be a comfortable night) and called Chris over. We did our best to quickly pitch our one-man tents, and then crawled in to try and recuperate. I poked my head out of the door of my tent and sneaked a quick peek over towards Chris. He was struggling with his new tent, which wasn’t a “free-standing” model, but had to be secured by a number of guy-lines tied to stakes driven into the ground. It was a sturdy design, but difficult to set up - especially in a driving rain! It was Chris’s first night on the trail, and I knew it was going to be a rough one - for both of us.
Over in my tent, I sat somewhat comfortably in my long johns feeling irrationally guilty about the situation. We’d planned this for months. It was supposed to be a vacation, not a survival mission. I crossed my fingers that the rain would let up, and maybe we could soon crawl out and eat our dinner together. However, it quickly became clear that we would be cooking by ourselves in our separate tents. Only ten feet apart, but basically alone with just the rain and wind for company.
After an hour I hollered over to Chris to see how he was faring. He’d decided to skip having a proper dinner and settled for a few handfuls of snack mix. I was able to cook in the vestibule of my MSR tent. (A tent vestibule is essentially a small, dry porch at the entrance of the tent which is created where the waterproof rain tarp overhangs the tent walls by a couple of feet. It’s where I always stored some gear, like my water bottles and hiking shoes, since there wasn’t much room in the tent, and you don’t want to bring muddy shoes into your tent anyway.) Being able to cook in the vestibule during a rainstorm is one of the things that I really loved about that tent! After dinner I resigned myself to the fact that we were tent-bound for the night. The only thing left to do was to get some sleep and hope the weather let up by morning.
At 2am I awoke to a clap of thunder and a crescendo of falling rain. It wasn’t just a downpour anymore. It was a torrential, thundering mass of liquid chaos descending from the sky. The impact of the drops on the tent was deafening. I thought it was going to tear my tent to pieces. Then I heard an unusual sound over the din of the rain, like water rushing over rocks. I grabbed my headlamp and shined it into the vestibule. What I saw horrified me. Where my gear had been, there was now a stream running six inches deep, and all of my precious stuff was gone - shoes, water bottles, storage sacks, all washed away down the mountain. I had a moment of panic thinking about my shoes, and I felt a lump grow in my throat. I was miles from any road, much less a proper town, and to hike out without shoes would mean walking barefoot over sharp, wet rocks with a heavy pack. My feet would be ruined. It would end my thru-hike attempt.
I knew I had to go search for my shoes. Everything else was secondary. But the thought of scouring the mountainside barefoot in the middle of the night during a torrential downpour and flash flood was unappealing to say the least, but I had no choice. There wasn’t any use in putting on my clothes since they’d be soaked instantly (and it was a relatively warm summer night), so I donned my headlamp and crawled out of my tent barefoot, wearing only my underwear.
Standing ankle deep in muddy water I shined my meager light around to see if I could catch a glimpse of my stuff. Nothing. But I did see another mostly naked backpacker dealing with his own crisis. The flood had breached the door of his tent, and the whole thing was blown up like a water balloon. He could have drowned in there! He was frantically gathering up his gear which was floating all over the place. I asked if he was OK, and he gave the thumbs up. I took that to mean he didn’t need my help.
I set off in the direction of the flowing water and found my shoes tangled in a bush a few hundred feet from my tent. The feeling of relief was indescribable. Miraculously, I also found my water bottles and other bits of gear wrapped up in the nearby bushes. With an armful of drenched, muddy gear I headed back to the tent and crawled in, shivering but thankful. I shouted over to Chris to see if he was OK, and he said that besides the water rushing beneath his pillow keeping him awake he was fine. It had indeed turned into a rough night.
I tried my hardest to accept the discomfort of being totally wet in my sleeping bag and drifted in and out of sleep until the sun rose enough to see. By that time the rain had mostly subsided, and it was actually shaping up to be a nice morning.
We knew we wouldn’t be able to hike the miles we had planned for the day after such a demanding night, so we decided to take advantage of one of the convenient amenities of Shenandoah National Park - Big Meadows, one of the great old lodges along the Skyline Drive. Getting a room for the night would give us a chance to dry out and properly rest before setting off again. After all, this was supposed to be a vacation for Chris.
And so, after hiking the eight miles to Big Meadows and spending an hour spreading our gear out to dry, we each showered and then had a hearty restaurant meal and a comfy night of sleep in the rustic lodge. The next morning, we set off again, and a solid 14-mile hike delivered us to a stunning campsite set among lichen-covered oaks growing from a ground cover of tall ferns. It was the perfect Shenandoah camp. The only problem was that all the rain had given thousands of biting black flies a chance to breed and hatch, and as soon as we stopped to set up camp, they swarmed us relentlessly biting our faces, arms, and legs, which made relaxing outside impossible. The only way to cope was by covering all exposed skin and donning bug nets over our heads. But after a short evening of slapping and clawing at the malicious little bugs it proved to be too irritating, and once more we spent the evening hidden away in our tents.
The next morning we ate our breakfast while again wearing bug nets over our faces. But the day began smoothly; we packed up camp and headed up the trail. Then, after a good day of hiking about 14 miles, it started to rain again. We were about two miles from our intended campsite, which was operated by park rangers. I again put on my trusty Patagonia rain jacket, but since the trail was steeply uphill, Chris opted to take advantage of the cooling effect of the gentle rain and left his jacket in his pack. Then, about half-way to the campground, the trail turned sharply to the left and became a long downhill descent. It then began to rain ferociously, and with the rain came darkness, and lightning began to strike all around us. Once more we tried to remain stoic, but we needed to move quickly, and Chris, now drenched in rain, began to shiver in the downpour. This certainly wasn’t a vacation in the ordinary sense of the word. Between the rain and the mud and the bugs the discomfort level was at an all-time high. But we gritted our teeth and managed to hike the remaining mile to our campground. As we approached the ranger’s station at the entrance to the campground, a tremendous bolt of lightning stuck the ridge opposite us, instantly followed by an explosion of thunder that reverberated through the valley. At the ranger’s station, I looked at Chris, who was hurriedly putting on his rain jacket to get warm. I said, “So what do you want to do?” Chris paused and thought for a few moments. Then, with a shake of his head, he said, “Truthfully, I’m not thrilled with the idea of putting up my tent in the driving rain with lightning all around.” So right there we agreed to try and find a way off the trail. The thought of spending another dark night isolated in our tents, cold, wet, and hungry, was too much.
So we asked the rangers if they knew of any way we could get a ride into Front Royal, the small Virginia town situated at the very northern end of the Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, about 20 miles away. They said the only way to get to town would be to call a cab. So for the next hour, Chris was on the phone with the cab company arranging for a taxi to come pick us up. A couple of hours later, we pulled into Front Royal and checked into the Super 8 Motel, only to discover that it was filled with other AT hikers who had also sought refuge from the storm. (While it was somewhat comforting to learn that we weren’t the only ones to retreat from the trail, the high concentration of wet hikers in the small motel made the entire place smell like one big, damp, locker room.)
The next day we learned from the local outfitter that the rainfall was, in fact, historic - this was already the wettest June since the late 1870’s - and had caused significant flooding throughout the region. The creeks in Shenandoah we impassable, and rangers advised backpackers to hold off returning to the trail. Chris and I stayed in the Super 8 for three nights while the rain continued to fall. Finally, by the morning of the third day, the rain had stopped, and the skies had cleared, and so Chris drove me back down Skyline Drive to where the AT crossed it near the aborted campground, and we said our farewells. The rest days in Front Royal had been great, but I needed to make up the miles I had skipped if I was ever going to get back on schedule. I then hiked for another 500 miles north, but I’ll get to that in another story.
Thanks for reading I THINK I'M TRIPPING! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.