Posted by: davepidgeon | July 27, 2009

Pole – erizing

The Osprey Aether 70 and the Black Diamond poles are prepped for hiking.

The Osprey Aether 70 and the Black Diamond poles are prepped for hiking.

“Hey, I have a minor problem,” I said to Rob, the trip leader of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s excursion into St. Anthony’s Wilderness. We had rounded another bend of the Appalachian Trail, putting us close to our campsite for the night.

“What’s that?” Rob asked. I chuckled, the kind of laugh when you realize your own stupidity.

“You forget your tent?” Rob said.

“No, remembered the tent,” I replied. “But I forgot the tent poles.”

I was in no panic, though. We were less than half a mile from a typical, three-sided lean-to where I could sleep while the seven others in our AMC group could slumber nearby in tents. Anxiousness to stop hiking set in, however, as my feet pleaded for a rest after more than 11 miles of trail, my first backpack in 8 months only the third during the last two years. So I pressed forward with the rest of our group, internally slamming my stupidity for forgetting the tent poles but at ease because the lean-to would be my contingency.

Little did I foresee what I would be interrupting at Rausch Gap Shelter or what the weather had in store for me. I would find out just how sour optimism can turn quickly when in the backcountry. This trip would prove something I believe in and often laugh about – that we’re happy participants in the misery of backpacking.

This was a sunny, warm, breezy Saturday and my first trip with the AMC, a prominent outdoors club in the northeast United States. I’d been a member for a year, but because of scheduling conflicts and health problems I just never was able to join on of the AMC’s excursions.

An Appalachian Mountain Club member hiking through St. Anthony's Wilderness.

An Appalachian Mountain Club member hiking through St. Anthony's Wilderness.

Our 16-mile A.T. backpack took us through the heart of St. Anthony’s Wilderness, southcentral Pennsylvania’s largest roadless forest stretching west to east across northern Dauphin and Lebanon counties. St. Anthony’s is a lush second-growth forest of oaks and brush and full wilderness streams coursing off and between the mountain ridges. But what makes St. Anthony’s so intriguing is the treasure trove of remnants from a bygone industrial area, leftover from when during the 19th century people extracted coal from these mountains. The coal turned out to be of poor quality compared to the kind ripped from the ground north of St. Anthony’s. Eventually, the wilderness slowly engulfed the houses, railroads, mines, equipment and even abandoned conical piles of coal and reclaimed the mountains. It’s a great comeback story.

Our first day, a Saturday, we spent hiking 11.6 miles northbound on the A.T. as it climbed 1,000 feet to the top of Stony Mountain, then ran the ridge of Sharp Mountain toward historic Rausch Gap, where much of the ghost towns lie. To be honest, don’t expect much in the way of the spectacular from this portion of the trail. No vistas, no waterfalls, no photo ops. Nonetheless, I felt strong, upbeat and healthy hiking with the sun streaming through the foliage and the smell of sunscreen and bug repellent in my nose.

The sound of distant gunfire and cannons continuously popped as we hiked along, St. Anthony’s being the neighbor of Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania’s training base for the state National Guard. The other highlight of the day came when one of our AMC companions spotted a black timber rattlesnake, the serpent quietly and slowly slithering in retreat from our trampling feet.

*          *          *

The young man, barely out of his teenage years, just sort of sat on the edge of the three-sided wooden shelter blankly staring into the surrounding woods. He was weird, expressionless. His companion, a seemingly bubbly Asian woman about the same age, gracefully moved around the shelter site with their extraordinarily friendly huskie darting around her youthful legs.

What had I interrupted? I asked myself as I began to set up my sleeping pad and bag inside the shelter next to their chosen spots. Actually, nobody had to tell me. These two obviously had come here hoping for privacy, for a mini-honeymoon in the Pennsylvania wilderness. How stupid to expect that at an Appalachian Trail shelter on a Saturday night during July. The whole situation just made my presence awkward.

This was Rausch Gap Shelter, one of dozens of three-sided wooden shelters with roofs along the A.T. This lean-to was a half mile off the A.T. along what appeared to be an old railroad line or abandoned road. Since I forgot my tent poles, I figured I could enjoy the comforts of the lean-to as a contingency while my AMC companions would tent nearby.

That was a perfect plan until we met these young lovers. As the others in our party searched for tent sites behind the shelter, I hoped into the lean-to and said as a courtesy: “You two don’t mind if I set up in here, do yah?” I didn’t need their permission, but what the hell, you know? “No, not at all,” the woman said pleasantly, but the guy just continued staring aloof into the wilderness, his disappointment covering his face like melted candle wax. Didn’t take long for me to understand his disappointment. I was 22 years old once, too. I’d interrupted his planned romantic getaway.

Rob, the AMC trip leader, popped around the corner, and behind him the others from the AMC began hiking back to the A.T. “Hey, we’ve decided to go back to one of those campsites we saw by the river,” Rob said to me. “There’s a lot of potential deadfall here, plus we can smell the privy. Why don’t you come with us? We can either rig your tent with rope or a lot of the guys have two-person tents they can share.”

I glanced at the young lovers and considered the alternatives. The guy just kept staring off. She now sat cross-legged in the shelter next to him, her back to me. Staying at Rausch Gap Shelter would be the easiest choice … if it wasn’t for Romeo and Juliet.

“Are you sure you guys don’t mind me sleeping here?” I asked them. I don’t know why I did. I knew the answer already.

She turned her head but not her shoulders. “Well, it’s a public shelter, so we can’t make you leave,” she said.

Well, that pretty much sealed it. I repacked my backpack and departed Rausch Gap shelter, hoping a troop of boisterous and mannerless Boy Scouts would soon appear intent on staying at the lean-to. That would’ve been the best revenge.

The AMC group made camp on a flat around a blackened fire ring, laid out about 8 feet above where Rausch Creek cut the land. The place was relaxing as the creek tumbled by there, well shaded by oaks and evergreens.

One generous hiker offered me twine, and I went to work gerryrigging my tent. It’s a Mountain Hardware Sprite 1, a single-person shelter made for lightweight packing. I used my trekker poles to attach the tent clips where the poles should have been placed, and set them so they leaned against one another, forming a triangle with teh ground where my head and shoulders would rest. Then, using the twine, I tightly tied one piece across the space between a pair of tree trunks. I gently covered the tent with the rainfly and with a second string attached the rainfly to the first piece of twine, making the string and rainfly taut so rain would roll off rather than pool on the fabric. I then used stakes to stabilize the tent and rainfly. It wasn’t perfect, but it could work.

Using twine and trekker poles to put up my single-person tent.

Using twine and trekker poles to put up my single-person tent.

The real trouble wasn’t the construction. As I began to put this hack job together, I heard a rustle coming toward us in the trees down off the ridge to the southwest like an ocean wave. “Here it comes,” I shouted at the others, and a moment later, the skies opened with a downpour. Everything inside and outside the tent was getting wet as I tried to put things together. Once the tent was up, I quickly threw my backpack, covered in dirt, under the rainfly where it spread mud onto my sleeping bag. I pulled on my waterproof parka and tried to get inside the tent. The backpack, however, took up all the room. All I could do was stand in the rain, which grew in intensity. All the others had hastily retreated inside their tents, closed them up tight. All I could do was stand there.

This was a low moment. Had I been in the shelter, no problem. Had I not stupidly forgotten my tent poles, I would have been relaxed and dry inside. But I had forgotten them, and standing along in the rain was the consequence. I began to miss my wife. I new I was only 4.5 miles from my car. I looked at my wet watch. It read “6:30 P.M.” I could walk out of St. Anthony’s Wilderness by the time the last sliver of sunlight slipped away to the west and home by the time Alison would be turning out our bedroom light to fall asleep. As the rain intensified so did the temptation to go home.

I knew I shouldn’t. I knew I should endure, to be a happy participant n the misery of backpacking. And so I stayed.

That summer storm did roll on, and I extracted my food and camp stove from my pack to make dinner. The others emerged from their tents with their food and stoves, too. Food makes everything more hopeful and renews the spirits. We eventually managed to build a respectable fire in those damp, muddy conditions. At 10 o’clock in the pitch blackness of night, I walked away from the blaze, tired-eyed back to my gerryrigged tent. Gingerly, I crawled inside hoping the trekker poles wouldn’t tumble. They didn’t. Another rain storm swept into the area, and to the cadence of raindrops on my tent I deeply descended into a dreamless sleep.



  1. Dave,

    I absolutely love your post. As always, super fun to read. I’ve had countless similiar experiances while hiking. Rausch Gap is a pretty romanitc place tucked down in the side of the hill next to the creek. It’s one of my favorite shelters on the trail. If I was in your position I would’ve put my sleeping bag and pad right in between the young lovers 🙂 And if they happened to attempt to have an intimate moment while I was in the shelter I would’ve started moaning … HAHA ….sorry for the crudeness 😉

    • I just can’t imagine after hiking 15 miles covered in sunscreen, bug repellent and sweat gettin’ it on in the shelter. I just can’t. Then again, I’ve never spent more than 3 days on any given trail, so if I was out there for four to six months, maybe … MAYBE … I’d feel differently. Really, though, when I get to camp, I just want to eat and sleep!

      Anyone else with thoughts? Sex on the trail – a yes or no?

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