Backpacking is not always pleasant. It can be downright frightening. There are conflicts with the terrain, wildlife, and weather. A November backpacking trip along the along the Appalachian Trail ended with a struggle with weather.
As the sun dipped behind the hills one evening, I found myself on the south shore of the James River, with a four-mile climb. I briefly considered staying at a primitive campsite where a creek meets the James. If the cloudy afternoon turned into a rainy evening, this campsite would quickly become soggy. I climbed along the creek for nearly a mile to reach Matt’s Creek Shelter.
This shelter is beautifully situated. The shelter isn’t necessarily in a canyon, but a hiker couldn’t walk very far east, south, or west without climbing. The trail passes within a few feet of the shelter. Matt’s Creek is a mere 10 paces away. A pristine latrine is only 50 feet uphill. Everything an exhausted backpacker needs is within a short walk.
This was a typical November night. The sun set, the sky became dark, and no one joined me at the shelter.
A few hours after going to sleep, I was awakened by mice. Shelter mice often wake me, so this wasn’t unusual, but the noise of the mice grew louder. Apparently, the mice were swarming the shelter. I woke up and realized what I had been hearing was the rain on the shelter’s tin roof.
It rained, and rained, and then rained some more. I listened to the pouring rain hit the tin roof for several hours. As time went on, I became concerned about the possibility of a flash flood. This was no canyon, but all of the water falling for miles was headed for my creek. I suddenly wished my creek was less convenient.
I listened. How much rain could land possibly absorb? I listened. Does a wave of oncoming water really sound like thunder? Wow, that’s a lot of rain. I reviewed my map to confirm there could be a lot of water rushing towards me.
At some point in the darkness, I put my boots on just in case I needed to leave quickly. I grabbed my water bottle and headlamp. I took the extra measure of putting my photo id in my coat pocket, and zipping it closed. As I sat alone in the dark, my mind traced the path of my body if a flash flood carried me away – down Matt’s Creek, to the James River, past Richmond, into Hampton Roads, perhaps all the way to the Atlantic.
I listened intently for a wave of water. At the first sign of roaring water, I was sprinting uphill to the pristine latrine. Time passes slowly when a person is waiting for disaster.
Around 2 a.m. the rain slowed, and later stopped. I continued to listen for the thunder of a flash flood. I shined my light on the creek to check the water level… no real change. I relaxed a bit.
Hours later, the sun rose. I awoke, pleased to have survived the night.
What has been your most frightening backpacking experience?