Day 92 & 93
I got off trail to take a couple zeros with the my family. I spent most of the time eating as much as possible, but also got to enjoy some kayaking and paddle boarding, a college graduation, multiple showers, and sleeping in a bed. My stiffness didn’t seem to abate at all during these days off however, and I think at this point it would take my body a couple weeks to recover. Oh well, I’ll have that time after I finish.
I spent most of the day driving back to Delaware Water Gap, and finally got back on trail mid-afternoon. The first thing the trail did was have me walk right back over the bridge I had just driven across. Nice. But crossing the bridge also meant officially crossing into New Jersey, so I didn’t mind.
Now that I’ve finished Pennsylvania I’m halfway through the 14 states that the AT goes through, and the longest state left is Maine, wooooo! After walking along the loud highway for a while the trail turned into a very crowded parking lot and started uphill. I had been a little uncertain how I’d feel about getting back on trail after spending time in the civilized world for a couple days, but I found myself feeling glad to be back in woods and moving forward on the trail again. I also enjoyed zooming past all of the Memorial Day hikers while heading up the hill, and I pushed myself for a while to keep up my speed. Eventually the trail led to the pretty Sunfish Pond, and I stopped at most of the access points to enjoy the breeze off the water and look across the pond. I spotted a big, beefy frog and a northern water snake sunning itself by the shore, and a little farther away from the pond I came across this eastern box turtle on the trail.
It was an afternoon of herps! The trail turned away from the pond and headed uphill, with the forest slowly thinning out to include tall grasses and increasing views. I made it to the top of Raccoon Ridge during golden hour and gazed around at the almost 360 degree views for a long time before continuing on. I pulled into my campsite a bit later, which also had a nice view on one side. Recently there have been a lot of reports of aggressive bear activity in this part of the trail, so I started finding a good branch for a bear hang immediately. I collected rocks for my mesh bag, connected the carabiner and paracord and started throwing it toward the branch. Unfortunately my throw was too hard, and the rock bag swung around the branch twice, which meant that it was stuck. Most popular campsites along the trail are festooned with dangling bits of stuck paracord from similar bear hang outcomes, and although I’d been hoping to avoid a similar fate, it had finally happened to me. After fruitlessly tugging on the line for a while I cut the paracord, and after some grumbling managed to tie a rock to my remaining cord and set up a solid bear hang on a different branch. Added to my shopping list for the next town: a new rock bag and carabiner.
I woke up in the middle of the night having heard a weird sound, which isn’t too uncommon of an occurrence, and I was starting to drift off again when something sneezed right outside my tent. Now anything can make an odd noise, but only mammals can sneeze, and the big sneeze I heard could’ve been made by either a deer or a bear. I sat up and made a racket by clapping my hands and yelling, and I heard a bunch of crashing through the nearby bushes. Because I heard a bunch of movement instead of just one animal running away, I’m guessing it was a herd of deer, but that didn’t stop me from laying there wide awake for a while as I listened for any other animals coming close . In the morning as I got ready I noticed a turkey hanging out across the trail watching me. It hung around while I finished packing and I snapped a pic as I headed out.
The miles passed quickly and during a water break I heard some light rustling near my feet and looking down to see the leaves nearby moving. Curious I kept watching and saw a mole pop out of the leaves and chase a big black beetle around in a circle before grabbing it and ducking back under the leaf cover, what a fun moment to have spotted! The trail led along a rocky ridge for a while before passing next to an unnamed pond where I stopped so sit on one of the rocks and listen to the frogs chorusing along the shore. The sun was hot and getting hotter, predicted to reach 92, and I paused at every water crossing to dunk my head band. The animal filled day continued as I passed a trail junction and spotted a big snapping turtle making its way across the trail. It turned to face me in warning as I approached, and I made sure to keep my distance as I observed it.
The trail led on around a beaver dam created swamp, and it was around there that I then saw a porcupine heading into a clump of bushes. At this point I was feeling like Snow White, somehow having summoned all the animals in the forest to me today, and the feeling strengthened when another turkey appeared a few feet away from me a couple miles later. Maybe I’ll have to start singing as I walk, but there’s no way you’ll catch me in a princess dress out here. For anyone who hasn’t kept track, the animals encountered for this day alone were: the sneezing mystery animal, two turkeys, a porcupine, a mole, a snapping turtle, and countless frogs and toads (including one that I caught).
Despite the entertaining wildlife, the heat had me moving sluggishly, and I decided to end the day a little early once I reached the Brink Road Shelter by 5:30. I set up my tent and sleeping pad and stretched out, trying to cool off as the evening wore on. Finally it cooled off enough to be comfortable, and I finished my camp chores before getting into bed.
I woke up around 5 am due to all the loud bird calls, and was out of camp before 6:30. As the first one out of camp to break trail for the day, you can expect a certain number of spider webs, but I was so covered that I had to pause every few steps to drag my fingers over my face and arms to try and remove the strands. If the spider webs had been visible I’m certain that I would have looked like I’d just been blasted by a confetti canon with hundreds of dangling streamers waving behind me. The trail led down toward the small town of Branchville, but I didn’t stop as there were no places to get food within walking distance of the trail crossing. Soon after entering the woods again I spotted another porcupine climbing a thin tree, and I stopped to watch it make its way up through the branches.
I passed a few marshy areas and small ponds, and had to stop a couple times to put on bug spray to keep the mosquitos at bay, but getting to see all the cool wetlands was worth the extra bugs. My animal luck continued. As I strolled down the trail I happened to look at a log next to the trail and spotted a large rattlesnake curled next to the log.
The terrain became fairly rocky in the afternoon, and the trail sloped upward toward the highest point in New Jersey. Unfortunately, once I got to the viewing deck at the high point an afternoon thunderstorm prevented me from seeing any views, so I kept heading on. The ground had been slightly damp from some light rain overnight and the afternoon thunderstorm kept the forest damp. As a result the trail was almost covered by red efts, I saw between 200-300 throughout the day. I normally pause to move them off the trail, but there were so many that I was stopping every few steps, and eventually I had to give up so I could keep moving. In the evening I limped into the High Point shelter with my feet killing me, and managed to grab a spot in the shelter and cook dinner before the rain started up again. Over the next hour a bunch of other hikers showed up, and we were all crammed into the shelter like sardines, but we were all dry at least.
Immediately after the shelter the terrain became nicer, with fewer rocks, and I zipped downhill in the morning. The trail wound around a few small ponds and through grassy open fields, which varied the normal forest views and was a fun change.
The vegetation along the trail was overgrown and dripping from the recent rain, and as I walked I recalled a passage from the book AWOL on the Appalachian Trail about the author feeling like he was walking through a car wash pushing through all the wet grasses and branches, and I definitely felt the same. So far New Jersey has felt like being on a jungle safari with the thick and humid forests and animal sightings around every corner, it’s been a very exciting state! I walked quickly throughout the morning because Unionville and it’s general store we’re only a couple miles ahead. Once I made it to town I made a beeline for the store and grabbed a pint of ice cream and a breakfast sandwich alongside my resupply, and settled on one of the porch chairs to eat. Most of the hikers from the shelter also showed up, and we had a great time stuffing ourselves with snacks and hanging out in front of the store. Pretty soon my dad arrived, having flown in to hike another couple days with me, and we headed down the road. The trail popped out of the woods and began a short road walk between some marshy areas, and right on the road I noticed the tiniest baby turtle I’ve ever seen, no bigger than a silver dollar!
I picked it up and carried it to the next marshy area, glad to get it out of harms way. The marshy area was a part of the Wallkill national wildlife refuge, which the trail skirted around for a while, and we enjoyed the swampy scenery and flat terrain before the trail started up hill again. During the climb it started lightly raining, which kept us cool, but we decided to duck into the Pochuck Mountain Shelter for a quick break, during which it started pouring. Lucky for us we stayed pretty dry, and only had to wait a little while before the rain passed and we could continue on. After a series of rocky ups and downs we descended into swampy terrain again. As we were traversing another series of thin boardwalks, a loose board made water flood the boardwalk, and dad slipped and landed sideways in the mud. He was not happy! Even worse, after rinsing off and stopping for a snack he dropped some of his poptart on the ground, the horror! I picked it up and he still ended up eating it though. After crossing a road we got to the Pochuck board walk, which was fortunately a much wider and more stable boardwalk that led us through a mile of pretty marsh.
Despite the easy walking my damp feet were really starting to bother me, and I paused at one of the benches to free my poor wrinkled feet from the wet trail runners and put on my camp sandals for the rest of the afternoon. Dad and I hiked another couple miles across short boardwalks and muddy roots before crossing a last cow pasture and making it to a major road. There we grabbed a ride and made it to a motel for the night. I was certainly glad to get a shower because even though I had just had one three days ago, the hot, wet, and buggy days had left me feeling sweaty and sticky and more than ready to get cleaned off.
Dad and I got back on trail and immediately started up the Stairway to Heaven, a steep rocky climb up to the top of the ridge. We took it pretty slowly and I didn’t think it was too tough, and pretty soon we reached the top. We’d only been hiking for smother couple minutes when dad said he’d seen a bear, and we peered through the trees to see a dark furry bear butt running away from us. Finally my first bear sighting on the trail! We continued on down the trail, which was fairly easy and didn’t have any significant climbs. Just before stopping at Wawayanda Shelter for lunch I spotted another bear that had been closer to the trail, but it also took off running when it heard us. In terms of bear encounters we got the ideal experience both times. After lunch we headed up and reached a rocky ridge where we officially crossed into New York, another state down!
Right after crossing the terrain suddenly became a lot more difficult, with the trail leading us over large stone slabs and tricky rock scrambles for miles. We slowed way down in this section, and had a couple narrowly avoided falls on the tough rocks.
After realizing that we weren’t going to make it to the next shelter, we pulled into a nice stealth site next to a creek, pretty tired despite the short day. The mosquitoes were pretty bad, so we threw up our tents and hung out in their protection for a while before cooking dinner and settling in for the night.