Sleepy Creek! (October 2021)
In October of 2021, six Venturers from Crew 128 hiked over Sleepy Creek Mountain on an overnight backpacking trip in West Virginia. It was a trip of many "firsts." For some, it was their first backpacking trip and the first time cooking like backpackers. For all of us, it was the first time backpacking in the Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area. And for Crew 128, it was the first co-educational backpacking trip thanks to some new members.
We left early Saturday morning for the Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area and arrived at the trailhead around 10:15AM. To our surprise, the Whites Gap Trail on our map had become a logging road that switched back and forth up the mountain. This was the first of several topographical changes since our map's last revision, which became a real problem on Sunday morning.
We started off eagerly, raincoats on (it was slightly misting), backpacks secure on our backs, and big smiles on our faces, ready for the adventure ahead. But just ten minutes into the hike, we were taking off our jackets and wiping the sweat off our foreheads. We had only walked a short amount but it was quite steep and it took a lot of energy to walk up the mountain.
Finding our Perfect Campsite
After the steep ascent and two miles, we stopped for lunch at a lookout point under a power transmission line. Heavy fog settled around us, and we were surrounded by murky gray. Despite this, we were still had incredible views, the mountains encircling us, the foliage and flora, the tiny houses so far below.
Our trail continued along the ridge for about two more miles before we descended the eastern side of Sleepy Creek Mountain. The valley below was relatively flat, with easy hiking as we reached the Tuscarora Trail. There, we turned north, in search of campsites by the lake.
We first peeked into the Upper Campground, but decided it was too small. Next, we checked out Meyers Campground, but it was too big. After getting water from Meyers Spring, we hiked down to Piney Point Campground. It was juuuusssst right. In fact, despite the rain, it was beautifully situated on a point jutting into the lake. From one end of the lake to the other we could see the leaves just starting to change color, and we knew we had found our spot.
Crew 128, in "hyena land," after ascending 800 feet on Sleepy Creek Mountain.
Wide-angle view of Sleepy Creek Lake from the shore of our campsite at Piney Point.
While all of these Venturers are either Eagle Scouts or Life Scouts in Scouts BSA, not all had training on how a trekking crew sets up a camp. The new Venturers learned that group tasks come before personal comfort. Our VP for Programs took charge, assigning some Venturers to set up our rain tarp, others to collect firewood, and still others to start the water boiling for dinner. The two cooks, new to backpacking, learned how to use a jet boil and white gas stove. Only after these group tasks were finished did we turn our attention to our own tents and gear. We spent our evening around a warm campfire with stories, brain teasers, marshmallows, and Jiffy Pop. By 10 PM, however, we crawled into our tents. We fell asleep quickly, our legs and arms sore from the day’s adventures.
Sunday Morning and the Lesson of "Old" Trails
We awoke on Sunday to a light drizzle. The cooks made breakfast while others began breaking camp. When breaking camp, the process begins with personal gear, then tents, and finally group gear. Mindful of campers who follow, we left a stack of firewood and conducted a "police line" to find little bits of trash (and the Advisor's phone charging cable!). By 8:30 AM, we put on our pack covers and began hiking north again on the Tuscarora Trail.
Venturing really is youth-led, and this trip was no exception. Before the trip, we used the most current map from the Potomac Appalachian Train Club to plan the trek. For Sunday, our plan was to take the Tuscarora Trail northward, but then veer to the northwest on the red-blazed, Old Tuscarora Trail to ascend Sleepy Creek Mountain once again. But as we discovered the day before with the new logging road that destroyed the Whites Gap Trail, conditions on the ground don't always measure up to what's shown on a map.
Consistent with our plan, everybody kept a lookout for the Old Tuscarora Trail, which we expected to find on the left of our trail. We found one old road, but concluded correctly that it was not our trail. Next, we came to a fork with an unexpected, dilapidated sign telling us that a red-blazed trail called the Old Meadow Trail came in from the left, merged with the Tuscarora, and (according to our map) departed eastward about a mile to the north. Was this the renamed Old Tuscarora? Two Venturers went down the trail and found the clues. First, they found more of the red blazes we wanted. Then, they found black blazes that covered up the blue blazes used for the Tuscarora. (Fun Fact: The old name for the Tuscarora Trail is the "Big Blue Trail."). YES! This was the Old Tuscarora!
Now came our lesson about "old" trails. As time goes by, old trails start to disappear, likely by design. As we hiked further on the Old Tuscarora Trail, the forested trail transformed to a marshy bog, and every step pushed our hiking boots deeper into the mud. Soon, there was not really a trail at all and we were trudging through thorny plants and tall grasses. Our red blazes seemed to get less frequent as we trudged further. Nevertheless, as expected, we crossed Meadow Branch. We crossed a dilapidated bridge, climbed some old stone steps, and found that the trail ended in beautiful campsite with a great swimming hole. We peered around curiously. A broom hung at a wooden plank perched on a tree trunk. Old clothes surrounded a fireplace. Shovels and spades lay discarded on the dirt. This campsite seemed frequently occupied, yet nobody was around. Neither was our trail.
The first crossing of Meadow Branch. Notice the loosened hip belt.
Evidence of beavers on the Old Tuscarora Trail.
A Scout is Flexible
Decision time. When a trail is so old that it disappears, there are two choices. First, we could turn around, and take another route shown on the map. Second, we could bushwhack. Crew 128 has successfully bushwhacked out of problems before (see Ramseys Draft story), and we had recent experience intentionally bushwhacking in the Adirondacks. But this trip was different. We were not in an emergency situation, it was raining in a wetland area, and we had new backpackers with us. Further, Leave No Trace principles encourage using trails. The youth leaders decided (correctly) to return to the main Tuscarora Trail and use the Whites Gap Trail.
The Whites Gap Trail would pose its own challenges. It would be longer. It was already almost noon, and the Whites Gap route was going to mean several more miles and hours before we reached the cars. Further, we now had doubts about the map. What if this portion of Whites Gap Trail had disappeared too? Finally, and most important of all, the map had an ominous warning about the crossing at Meadow Branch: "Difficult Stream Crossing." But given that the Old Tuscarora trail was gone, this was our only option. At least that’s what we thought.
We walked a little further until we emerged out from the woods into the open. We looked up; we were beneath the powerlines again! Our Advisor observed that we could use the powerline road to reach the lookout point were we’d eaten lunch at the day before, but he emphasized that it was not his decision. It would be steeper than Whites Gap Trail, but it would be the same 800-foot ascent. Collective wisdom prevailed, and the Crew decided to use the powerline road to reach our goal.
Powerlines are not pretty, but they made a useful alternate route when the Old Tuscarora petered out.
A Good Decision
One major advantage of our new route was the crossing of Meadow Branch. Even though a beaver dam widened the stream on the other side of the powerline easement, our crossing was only a few inches deep. It was a piece of cake, and by no measure a "difficult stream crossing"!
But we paid in other ways. Within fifteen minutes of starting the ascent, our calves were burning and we had to take many breaks as we weaved up the mountain. It was hard to recognize which tower was the one with the lookout point, but we were able to recognize the cliff drop towards the house below and found the lookout point. Tired, we fell eagerly onto the ground and dropped our packs. After a well deserved lunch, we set off again, with renewed energy.
Crossing Meadow Branch (again!), upstream of the beaver dam shown in the background.
The End of the Trail Seems to Always Have Ice Cream
Our cooks prepared a variety of lunch items that included hummus, PB&J, and more. It was a perfect meal that renewed our energy after our climb. After lunch, we turned northward once again and walked through the familiar “hyena land” that we had trekked across the day before. It was a quick hike down the Whites Gap logging road because gravity carried us most of the way, and before we knew it, we were back by the parking lot.
We were relieved to find our way to the vehicles, and felt lucky to have experienced that trip. While the Sleepy Creak WMA had changed since the last publication of our map, our our orienteering skills enabled us to find our way back and boosted our confidence. After putting muddy boots in bags and packing the cars, we had one more major navigation task:
FINDING THE FRACTURED BANANA ICE CREAM PARLOR IN HANCOCK, MARYLAND!
By comparison, that was easy and everybody enjoyed some well-deserved treats.
In the end, this was a wonderful trip filled with many memories. And for a couple of the Venturers, the first adventure of many to come!