Spark at Ramseys Draft

Crew 128 has been recharted year-after-year, and has long served as an auxiliary unit for Boy Scout Troop 128. In November 2018, eight Scouts (including some who are registered as Venturers in Crew 128) explored the Ramseys Draft Wilderness Area in the Virginia Highlands. That trip sparked renewed interest in the opportunities that Venturing offers for older Scouts and their friends.


Troop 128 often goes backpacking in either October or November, and typically divides into crews of younger and older Scouts that take different treks. Although the older Scouts initially planned to hike the Wild Oak Trail in the GW Forest, detailed assessment of that loop suggested that finding suitable campsites with reliable water would be a challenge. We decided instead to hike in the Ramseys Draft Wilderness, in the western part of Augusta County, Virginia, on the border of Highland County. A “draft” is a local term for a stream, and the Ramseys Draft is a premiere brook trout stream nestled in a steep hollow of old grow hemlocks. This wilderness area was established in 1984 and comprises 6,577 acres.

Given that our hike was set for November, we decided on hiking the rim because we wanted to avoid the numerous stream crossings required if we used the trails in the valley itself. As planned, our trip was to be a three-day backpacking trip using a series of connecting trails that rim the wilderness.

The planning occurred at several meetings before the big event. This included planning lightweight meals for three days and forming buddy pairs for sharing food rather than cooking as a whole crew or patrol. Regarding gear, we recognized that it was black powder and archery season in these counties, so every crew member needed to have some kind of blaze orange like a hat or vest. We held a pack inspection the on Thursday night before our Saturday departure to ensure we were set. Our only concern was the weather forecast for West Augusta, which called for a possibility of rain, snow, and cold temperatures.

Clear, Cold, and Wonderful, the First Two Days Spark a Renewed Interest in Venturing

We arrived at the trailhead exactly at 11 AM and signed into the visitor log. Much to our pleasant surprise, the weather on the first two days was nearly perfect with blue skies and temperatures in the high-thirties to low-forties. We hiked a series of connecting trails (some not well marked!) starting with the Road Hollow Trail. We ascended 1,000 and 1,200 ft. on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. The veiws were astounding, especially from Hardscrabble Knob, the highest point in our journey at 4,282 ft. On both nights the temperatures dropped into the mid-twenties, and on Sunday night we had flurries. Obviously, our warm campfire was at the center of our conversation those nights. The Scouts, amazed by their success at navigating the wilderness and buoyed by the feeling of accomplishment, agreed that they wanted to do more wilderness adventures. They decided that re-energizing Crew 128 would be the perfect framework for more trips involving strong, older teenagers.

Day Three, a Serious Situation: Fog, Off Trail, High Altitude, and Near Sunset

The cold weather on our second night changed dramatically around 2 AM when a warm front blasted through our campsite at Hiner Spring (4,000 ft.) . It brought higher temperatures and lots of rain in the early morning. We emerged from our tents on Monday morning to find a new weather challenge: dense fog.

Our Monday hike was to be the longest, albeit mostly downhill on a roller coaster trail that ascends five peaks in descending order along the Bald Ridge Trail. Due to poor trail markings (no blazes, overgrowth on the trail, and no signs at a key junction), our progress was slow during much of the midday. Clearly other hikers had similar problems, as we were lured off the trail twice by their false trails that led to nowhere. Southwest of the peak called "The Pinnacle," at about 3,800 ft., we stopped for a late lunch, but as we ate, the fog thicken and cut down our visibility to less than 100 yards.

Our hike after lunch was SUPPOSED to be only 1 more mile along the ridge, and then a steep descent on the Bridge Hollow Trail to the parking lot. We followed the ridge but came upon an odd turn in the trail that led to a viewing rock. It also had a rough trail that went down the slope. Although Scouts investigated this strange turn to the left, they concluded that it was not the trail. Their conclusion was supported by the obvious trail that continued straight on our ridge, and there were no double blazes that ordinarily indicate a sharp turn the trail. The thick fog, however, hid the true nature of the trail. On a clear day, we would have seen in the distance that the real ridge continued along that left turn. Our ridge, in contrast, turned a very gradual dogleg, changing from nearly due south to a full westerly bearing. In the fog, we did not notice the change in direction until we were well off of the Bald Ridge Trail and our false trail disappeared. In short, we were well off our trail, in the fog, still at 3,500 ft., and worse, the sun would set in less than one and half hours. Our cars were over 1,400 ft below us, and at least three miles away. This was serious.

Outdoor Skills, Determination, and Teamwork Save the Day

Situations like this do not happen often in Scouting, but we certainly recognize the possibility. Perhaps that is why the BSA limits Venturing and many High Adventure treks to youth over 14 years old. Regardless, in this situation, we were blessed to have a crew of older, stronger, experienced, and fully-equipped Scouts.

Our first step was to stop, gather the crew, assess the situation, and generate options. With GPS data and accurate topographical maps, we pinpointed our position. It was clear that we had two choices: (1) try to retrace our steps, find our sketchy Bald Ridge Trail (again!), and then hope to find the junction with the Bridge Hollow Trail (would it be marked??!); or (2) bushwhack due west, down a very steep slope to the Ramseys Draft and the well-worn Ramseys Draft Trail leading directly to our cars. Although we knew that the Ramseys Draft Trail required numerous stream crossings, we recognized that the air temperatures had warmed and we would be very close to the cars so as to minimize the risk of hypothermia. Each Scout had a say, but in the end, everyone agreed that bushwhacking would be the best way to get off the mountain in the little time we had before sunset.

Having been fooled once by the fog, we were determined not to make the same mistake during our last hour of daylight. With compass and map in hand, our point man repeatedly followed select landmarks due west of our position. Well-spaced on the steep slopes, we descended from landmark to landmark until we reached an unnamed tributary of Ramseys Draft. As we gathered once again, we recognized the dangers of following the rocky, slippery stream and elected instead to continue our bushwhacking across a slope that the map indicated would be less steep. As we continued, the wisdom of the decision became clear as we could see cliffs and waterfalls that we otherwise would have encountered had we followed the stream.

We reached Ramseys Draft in a little over an hour after descending about 1,100 ft. The map showed the trail on the other side of the stream. There is a right way, and a wrong way to cross a fast stream with backpacks. Fortunately, we knew the right way to do it. We crossed in pairs that matched a heavier hiker with a lighter hiker. They unbuckled their waist straps, locked inner arms, and steadied themselves with hiking poles in their free hands. The heavier hiker crossed upstream of the lighter hiker to take the force of the fast moving stream. They moved slowly, with water often reaching their knees. All five pairs made the crossing just as darkness fell. We donned our headlamps to find the Ramseys Draft Trail. Crossing a rivulet and climbing a bank landed us squarely on an obvious, well-worn trail. WE REACHED THE TRAIL, WE WERE SAFE, AND WE WERE TOGETHER!

Safely Across, but Not Out of the Woods

When we reached the Ramseys Draft Trail in the darkness, we were already 2.5 hours past the time we had expected to reach the cars. Our bushwhacking had taken just over an hour to go only 1.5 miles, and we had another 1.5 miles before we would reach the parking lot. Ordinarily, a 1.5 mile hike on a relatively flat trail should be finished in about half an hour, but this was not an ordinary trail.

The trail is on the remnants of an old roadbed built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s. The road originally included sixteen fords of the stream, but in 1969 heavy rains from Hurricane Camille washed out most of these crossings. Later, in 1985, more flooding destroyed most of the road and altered the stream bed in many places. As a result--and as we soon discovered--our trail meandered from bank to bank as we headed downstream. Eventually we crossed the Ramseys Draft four more times using the same time-consuming process to ensure our safe passage.

We knew we were close to the cars when we passed the sign marking the boundary of the wildness area. Our anticipation rose as we passed the intersection of our trail with the Road Hollow Trail that we used on our first day. Next we passed the intersection with the Bridge Hollow Trail, the trail that we had planned to use. Finally, we glimpsed a reflection of the light from our headlamps: tail lights on our vehicles!!! We signed out of the visitor log at 7:15 PM, almost four hours after our anticipated return!

The Spark Turns into a Fire

Our "situation" could have turned this trip into a figurative or literal disaster that could discourage anybody from ever attempting a similar trip again. To their credit, however, the crew members recognized that keeping calm, relying on their Scouting skills, and persevering despite hardship contributed their overall accomplishment. They realize that as older Scouts, they can handle such unexpected challenges. With full confidence in themselves, more than ever, they burn for challenging adventures for older Scouts as ... Venturers of Crew 128.