After several of the planned drivers having to drop out for illness, weather-related schedule changes, the parking lot at Wendy’s saw a collection of 6 4x4s and their owners gathering on a bright clear Saturday morning with fresh snow on the ground. It is worthy to note that all were ON TIME, some were even early. We grabbed a bite, traded introductions and eyed each others’ vehicles before setting our sights westbound on I-66.
“Cliff may not be quite the right word but as you’re headed that way on a sheet of ice, the semantics are not what’s primary on your mind.”
Today’s cast of characters included:
- Mike Vincenty and Donna Edwards in the YJ (members)
- Paul Woscek and Mandy in the lifted S-10 Crewcab (member plus canine)
- Bob Jaeger in sinfully new Explorer Sport (member)
- Bill Cahillane in the Cherokee (guest)
- Don Lawson in the even newer (only 3 days!) Rubicon (guest)
- Keith Holman in the ZR2 Blazer (member) and
- joining us in Rawley Springs, John Blackmore in the lifted S-10 (guest)
As we approached the 273 exit on I-81, Don learned that his new baby cries when it’s hungry. (The low fuel light is accompanied by an obnoxious and apparently incessant noise.) It is possible to quiet the crying by refilling the tank, which he did at the conveniently located Sheetz station. Traffic on 81 seemed relatively light for a Saturday morning, perhaps fallout from the recent snowfall or maybe just a result of the subfreezing temperatures.
Our exit onto US33 revealed that the Italian restaurant/pizza joint had been replaced by another new Sheetz station. We snaked through downtown Harrisonburg and into the countryside to find that not much else has changed since our last visit. We arrived at McDorman’s store in Rawley Springs, our designated enroute stop for last minute food, gas and indoor plumbing breaks, to find that the parking lot was covered in Jeeps of various builds and sizes. Apparently several groups had plans for the area toady. I spoke with Erica of the Jeep Girls and PA Jeeps to find that they had different tracks in mind. We also met John who had arranged to meet us there.
Paul continues to amaze with the various activities associated with taking the crew cab from street to trail mode. The latest incarnation involves removing the front sway bar and its mounting brackets and stowing them in the bed.
Our desired route was to enter the forest through the Second Mountain Trail with the hope that hunting season had inspired the opening of the gate.
A digression for those just joining the story. The gravel road up the mountain here is privately owned and maintained. However there is a public right of way for passage into the forest recorded on the deeds. At the upper end of this passage, the landowners have chosen to install a gate at the border with Forest Service property. In order to prevent the landowners gate from becoming a private entrance into the public lands of the Forest, the Forest Service has installed a second gate. When the private landowners see fit to close their gate and restrict access into the forest, the Forest Service closes and locks their gate. When the landowners leave their gate open, the Forest Service does the same with theirs. Certainly this is a convoluted way of dealing with the situation. Various four wheel drive organizations have talked about and acted to rectify this situation, but alas without long-term success.
This particular area of the forest has at least 3 trails that cross private property; Old Long Run, Kephart Run, and Second Mountain. The interactions with the landowners is very different in each case. Kephart Run’s lower end is a driveway, don’t block it and ask for permission to cross at the house. Old Long Run has four landowners whose response is for us to have a good time and let us know if we see anything out of the ordinary on their property. Second Mountain has many landowners and their response is the gate. Now, back to our story.
As we made the turn from pavement to the Second Mountain road, the need for four wheel drive became evident within about 10 feet of pavement, a combination of loose gravel and accumulated frozen runoff at the first uphill grade. The road had been traveled since the snowfall as evidenced by the tire tracks up the hill. The left turn on the steeper uphill section required four low and a bit of the skinny pedal to make it on up. We stopped where the road leveled out again in the straight away approaching the property boundary. There we discovered that the gates were closed and locked. A call on the CB to let those at the bottom of the hill know that we were coming back down and we were off via pavement to the Gospel Hill church at the foot of FR72, Long Run Road.
We decided today to take the snow covered FR72 up the hill with plans to circle around and come back down via Old Long Run and the stream crossings. The views were spectacular with the snow highlighting the trees and the curvature of the land. With the exception of the hiker, we had the road to ourselves as we wound up the mountainside.
We made the turn onto Gauley Ridge at the top and the real adventure began. Since leaving pavement, the road had been covered with 3 inches or so of snow and a couple of sets of tire tracks. When we made the turn, the tracks stopped. We were to be the first through since the snowfall although we could see a travel trailer parked at the clearing just before the power lines.
Keith discovered that the first descent was slippery, gingerly moving downhill until rounding the switchback and discovering that the perpetual puddle was there and frozen slick. Slowing down was not an option as he bounced across the puddle and stopped on the far side where we saw tracks coming up the mountain had stopped and turned around. Bill followed carefully along, also getting quite a ride as he rounded the switchback. The CB told the story though. Others behind us were having a bit more excitement. We walked, fell, slid back up to the downhill straight away to watch as Bob carefully made his way down to the switchback and the wild ride that followed. Don was not as fortunate in his quest to ride it down. The tracks told the story how the new Rubi had made the trip from one side of the road to the other several times before stopping with it’s nose pointed towards the uphill bank. Just a few feet away, and perilously close to the tracks previously made, the downhill side of the road dropped quickly and far. Cliff may not be quite the right word but as you’re headed that way on a sheet of ice, the semantics are not what’s primary on your mind.
We got the opportunity to apply some of the lessons we had covered a few weeks before in the UFWDA Safety and Awareness Clinic regarding vehicle recovery and how to prevent a more serious recovery effort. After several possibilities were weighted, we strapped the rear tow hook to a nearby (and uphill) tree to anchor the rear of the Rubi while Don maneuvered SLOWLY and CAREFULLY to adjust the Rubi’s nose to be pointed along the road’s path downhill. After the Jeep was positioned to remove the likelihood of imminent disaster, a careful weighing of options, we realized that those who had already gone on, had no choice but to continue forward. Coming back up the hill from that point was not an option. Don decided he wanted to go forward and so crept on down and around the switchback.
John now had to make the choice to go forward or go back. At this time, his pickup hadn’t done the same dance as the Rubi, but it was obvious from the tracks that it’s path hadn’t been straight and controlled so far as well. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor and good sense and John decided to head back up the hill while the option was still open to him. Or was it? He began to back up but as he tried to go over some smaller bumps in the ice covered roadway, the wheels just spun. We debated having Paul (who had already backed up to more less solid ground) give him a nudge with the strap but John was further than one strap length into the ice. Using what we learned about joining two or more straps, we fastened 5 together with shackles and hooked one end to Paul and one end to John. With a gentle pull on the straps, John was over the hump and backed the remaining way past the edge of the ice.
As it was now nearing 3:00 (we had spent over 2.5 hours on this ice patch!), Mike, Donna and John decided to head back to pavement the way we had come. Paul however decided he wanted to proceed and inched slowly down the left shoulder to join the others past the point of no return. I conveniently left out the number of times we managed to fall on the ice, largely because I didn’t know how many times it happened. I fell twice. Bill at least once and John more times than he could count. I am pleased to report that although we had practiced our skills from the UFWDA clinic, we didn’t need to practice our skills from the first aid courses!
We made arrangements for the two groups to contact each other after getting down the mountain and took off in separate directions. The report from the backpackers tells that the trip was a little more slippery headed down than up and that the packing of the snowfall on the road likely didn’t help.
Those of us going ahead decided it was past time for lunch and stopped in the power line clearing. From that point on, the story is pretty anti-climatic. Old Long Run is a beautiful ride. The fresh snow and the clear stream were magnificent and I was reminded why this remains my personal favorite ride through the forest. We did decide to skip the side hill at the end of the trail, much to Paul’s dismay.
We called to make the connection between parties after we reached pavement. In typical fashion, Cingular decided to alert me of Donna’s voice mail message about an hour later as we drove up I-81.
An exciting day but a relaxing one enjoying the forest.
Until next time,
Happy trails and TreadLightly!
Trail report written by Keith Holman. Pictures courtesy of Keith Holman, Paul Woscek, Bill Cahillane, and John Blackmore.