French Broad River Story #5: Big Meadows Campground

We made it to Big Meadows Campground off the Skyline Drive in Virginia just as the sun was setting. As we arrived to the gate, the park ranger who rented the spots was in the process of locking up her station for the night. Even though the campground has 200 sites and this was a Monday night, we got one of the last spots. If we’d wanted to stay for two nights, there wouldn’t have been any openings. I told the park ranger it was my girls’ first night of camping. She assigned us to a spot that would require a bit of hauling our stuff but would put us on the edge of the campground.

“You’ll be a little more isolated on the edge,” she said.

It took us a while to figure out the layout of the campsites and to find our spot. Once we did that, Megan and the girls went off to find a restroom and get ready for bed, and I worked on getting the tent set up. As I unwrapped it from its packaging, I noticed a deer and two fawns watching me from about ten yards away. Their approach, at least at first, went undetected by our dog Indy. The deer and my dog saw each other at about the same time. Each took a few tentative steps toward the other, and then the deer charged. Indy charged right back, and for a second I imagined my dog tearing into the deer’s throat or else the deer impaling my dog with one of its hooves. At the last second, Indy barked and the deer veered away and ran into the woods. Her fawns trotted after her. Soon after, Megan and the girls returned from the restroom with their own reports of deer sightings.

deer, Big Meadows Campground, Skyline Drive, Virginia

Here are two of the many deer we saw at the Big Meadows Campground off of the Skyline Drive.  

The tent proved to be just about as easy to set up as the packaging claimed. Megan, the girls, and Indy slept in the tent while I slept in the screened in “front room.” No matter how the girls arranged themselves, Indy kept crawling her way back over to Isabel and practically slept on top of her. I think Indy believed Isabel needed her protection.

Thousands of lightening bugs filled the air. Now that it was dark and we were all having trouble falling asleep, I realized I set up the tent on uneven ground and atop quite a few sharp rocks. Rookie mistakes had been made. None of us slept well, but our family shared a lot of laughs during the night.

tent, campsite, Big Meadows Campground, Skyline Drive

Indy the dog outside the family tent at Big Meadows Campground.

In the morning, we decided to go on a hike described in one of the guide books as moderate with a waterfall and a good swimming hole at the end. As we drove out of the campground and headed for the trail, we saw more bears, none of which barreled into our van.  

The hike began with a steep descent and thirty minutes into it my daughter Charlotte’s Chaco sandals had rubbed a spot her ankle raw and bloody. We talked about abandoning the hike, but I decided I would run back to the car to get some socks for the girls. I have completed three marathons and still nearly weekly run five miles or so, and my thought process was that I would be running and it wouldn’t take me very long to get to the car and back.

My run up the steep incline back to the car turned out to be much more difficult than I expected. I had to stop and walk several times to catch my breath. Eventually, I came back with the socks, and we hiked further and further down the steep incline. Megan and I returned to our discussion of turning back, but having invested so much time and energy, we wanted to get to the waterfall and swimming hole. We hiked another hour and still hadn’t reached our destination. Every step we’d taken had been a steep step down. In several places, we had to pick our way through thick foliage that engulfed the trail until we finally made it to the end. Having lived in Asheville, there were places such as Dupont State Park near Brevard and Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway where mountain streams dropped into pools in sunny spaces. This spot we’d come so far to see was under a canopy of trees and surrounded by thick underbrush. Megan called it “snaky looking,” and I agreed that it looked like the perfect habitat for a reptilian monster. A light breeze and some sunlight can do a lot to keep bugs at bay, but this place was under a canopy of trees and all kinds of plants crowded the edge of the pool. Mostly, Isabel was the one who tried to make the best of it. She and I waded into the dark water to the base of the waterfall where we splashed around for a bit. I tried not to think about the hike back up to the van.

waterfall, hike, Skyline Drive

Isabel makes the most of the pool at the halfway point of our long and difficult hike.

An hour into the return hike, Isabel began to cry. Several times, she sat down in the middle of the trail and refused to go another step. We still had several miles to go and so there wasn’t much to do other than to keep walking. We all faced a pretty tough physical test to get back to the car. This is a moment where I usually–possibly not so effectively–try to make the argument to the family that we have all been presented with the opportunity to demonstrate physical and emotional toughness. With me more apt to try and push the girls through difficult situations, Megan is more apt to try and comfort them. In this case, Megan felt her presence around Isabel encouraged her to cry and sit down in the trail. The next time Isabel sat down, Megan walked ahead. Charlotte watched her mom go for a bit, and then began to follow her. By the time I finally convinced Isabel to stand back up and start walking again, Megan was probably fifteen yards ahead of Charlotte, and Isabel and I were fifteen more yards behind her. We were all spaced out on the trail. Quite the family hike we were having. So much for togetherness!

As we intermittently passed hikers headed the opposite direction from us, I felt embarrassed that my family was so spread apart and that my youngest had obviously been crying. I thought of the father in Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini novel who bullied his family into early morning wake ups and feats of perseverance. I thought too of how we’d taken a chance the night before in pressing ahead to Big Meadows Campground and been rewarded with a bear sighting and a good camping spot. Now, on this hike, we were experiencing the other side of luck. We took a chance on what the guidebook described as a moderate hike and ideal swimming hole, but what we experienced was less than pleasant.  

A trail crossed the one we were on, and I thought this new trail would save us the time of picking our way through the tricky rocks and take us on a more direct line back to the car. I turned out to be wrong. The trail took us straight to the edge of the Skyline Drive rather than our parking spot about a mile away. By the time we reached the Skyline, my ankles and the tops of my feet were also bloody from where my sandals rubbed. Megan and the girls sat on the side of the road while I jogged back to the van. The entire episode took about four hours. It wasn’t even yet 11:00 o’clock and our whole family was cranky and gassed. With over three hundred miles of Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway to traverse before we reached home, I hoped we’d come upon a few things to cheer up the kids along the way.

Thanks for reading part 5 of our French Broad River story. More posts coming soon!

French Broad River Story #4: A Bear in the Road

The family rolled into Front Royal, Virginia in low spirits. The girls were mad we didn’t stay at the campground in Harper’s Ferry plus they were hungry. The town of Front Royal sits at the north end of the Sklyine Drive, and I thought it would probably be our last chance to get something for dinner before hopefully finding a camp site for the night. Megan had packed dried fruit, energy bars and trail mix, but our girls were clamoring for what they call real food, maybe meaning hot but probably just something from a restaurant. There were lots of places to eat, but I didn’t see anything that wasn’t a chain. I understood everyone was hungry, but for me one of the features of a road trip should be eating at one of a kind restaurants when possible. I also hoped we could get our food to go and find a spot on the Skyline Drive to eat. Of course this was a bit of a risk. That’s how it goes. You do the best you can with the information in front of you. There are chances to be taken that might or might not pay off with a good meal at a pretty spot.

Just when I was ready to give up on finding a local eatery, we spotted a large crowd at a place called Spelunker’s Drive-Thru. For me, the large crowd at the restaurant was more reliable than any guidebook recommendation. The building had a fresh coat of white paint, a blue roof, and the tables out front were shaded by umbrellas that matched the roof. It was a hamburger and milkshake joint. Because the Spelunker’s lot was full, I dropped Megan off at the restaurant, and the girls and I parked down the street. Megan had to wait quite awhile for our food, but eventually we were back on the road with our dinner in paper-white sacks.

There wasn’t anywhere to stop the car to eat at the entrance to the Skyline Drive, just an old-school toll booth where we paid the $20 fee to use the road. Just over four miles later we arrived to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. There was a parking area, a store that had closed for the night, restrooms, and best of all a large field of grass with the sort of view you have in mind when you take a trip through the mountains. Rather than the river view we might have had in Harpers Ferry, we spread out on the grass before a mountaintop view of the Shenandoah River State Park. The food, the view, and the wide open spaces elevated my girls’ spirits. We had our good mojo back.

Skyline Drive, Virginia, picnic spot, dinner

Worth the wait: Charlotte, Megan, and Isabel pictured at their dinner spot along the Skyline Drive in Virginia.

While we ate, I leafed through the guidebooks I’d checked out from the library and saw that there were several campgrounds along the Skyline Drive. With just a few hours of daylight left, we set out for what was called Mathews Arm Campground. Like the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through Asheville, the Skyline is a scenic road that snakes through the peaks of the mountains. After an eighteen mile drive, we arrived to find a road that curled through dense trees. Since it was a Monday, there were very few campers around. I started to figure out that when we four Torgs pictured ourselves camping, we all pictured some form of an actual place we’d been called Max Patch. It’s a grassy bald along the Appalachian Trail with gorgeous views in every direction. I realized I’d been thinking we would pull off the Skyline Drive next to a deserted grassy meadow with tremendous views. The girls would run around in the grass while I set up the camp. We’d sit in the screened in porch section of our tent and watch the sun set while deer munched on grass. On the other side of the meadow a mama bear would pass with her cubs trailing behind. The Mathews Arm campground before us had no view and as campers we would set up directly next to other campsites on a bed of gravel. If we stayed here, we’d sit in our chairs off a narrow road and watch our girls turn over the gravel in the empty adjacent campsites. There was nothing wrong with Mathews Arm other than it wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined.

Spontaneous trips like the one we were on are full of decisions in which any of the available choices could be right or wrong and there wasn’t that much information to go on. Should we stay at Mathews Arm or drive another thirty miles south on the Skyline to Big Meadows Campground? It certainly had the kind of name that suggested it would be more in line with what I’d been hoping for. Darkness wasn’t too far away. The speed limit on the Skyline was a constant 35 mph. There was nothing spectacular to see or do at Matthews Arm, but we would have plenty of daylight left to set up the tent. The Skyline Lodge was between us and Big Meadows, and if we stayed put, we could stop off at the Lodge in the morning for a cup of coffee and hot breakfast. There was a slight possibility, I imagined, that Big Meadows could be full. I remembered reading that over two million people visited the area each year. I had gathered from one of the guidebooks that Big Meadows was by far the most popular camping spot. With our dog Indy along, hotels were probably out of the question. Megan said we should drive on to Big Meadows. I had no objections and so that’s what we did.

“Be a good time to see critters,” I said, as we pulled out of Mathews Arm and back onto the Skyline. It’s something I always say, believing that animals move around more at sunrise, sunset, and when a storm is brewing. A zoo employee, I think, told me that once. The road was curvy and just after a few miles, I could see cars up ahead pulled off onto the shoulder and one stopped right in the middle of the road.

“A bear!” one of the girls yelled from the backseat. The older Isabel and Charlotte get, the more they sound alike. I often have to ask which one of them I am talking to when I’m on the phone.

“Baby bears too!” Isabel said.

“I don’t see them,” I said. I looked out my side window, and then I could make out the dark outline of a bear high up in a tree. I was just barely aware that bears climb trees but had no idea that one as big as the one I was looking at could get up so high. Isn’t it a thing to hang your food in a tree to keep it from bears? I guess a bear isn’t going to rappel down a rope to get a sack of food hanging thirty feet from the ground. I eased our van around the car in the middle of the road and pulled off onto the shoulder.

An Indian man stood in the middle of the road and gestured wildly at us indicating, I think, that a bear had run in front of his car and into the woods. The man’s wife and children peered up in the tree at the bear. Isabel tugged on my hand because she wanted to see the baby bears she’d claimed were here but I wasn’t sure I believed in. Isabel was right about the baby bears. Having moved, we had a different line of sight into the tree, and I could see two cubs had climbed higher than the adult. We took pictures and watched the bears for awhile before getting back into our car. “We were rewarded for continuing on,” I claimed. I’m always looking back on the decisions we make and seeing if I think there was a pay off. “We finally saw a bear.”

“Three bears,” Charlotte corrected, pulling out her iPhone. She’d recently been given the old phone when Megan and I upgraded. Charlotte especially likes to bring hers on trips so she can take pictures. She announced she was going to start taking notes on her phone about the wildlife we saw.

bears, Sklyine Drive, Virginia

Here are three bears–one adult and two cubs–in the tree along the Skyline Drive in Virginia.

Driving into the sunset, it was hard to see the road, and I was worried about deer. On the night Charlotte was born in Macon, Georgia, we hit a deer while driving to the hospital. I was particularly concerned that on the right side of this road there was only a guard rail between us and a great chasm. I tried to ingrain it in my head that I wouldn’t swerve if I saw a deer, or if I did, it would be to my left into the mountain and not to the right over the cliff. I remembered when we’d travelled this road before and stayed at the Skyline Lodge, there had been at least fifteen deer in the parking lot and more behind our deck off the hotel room. It’s better to hit the deer, I told myself, than go over the cliff.

I could just barely sense that a large black shadow darted into my vision from the left, and so I hit the brakes and despite what I’d promised myself I edged the car just slightly to the right and toward the cliff side of the road. A loud thunk sounded on the front left bumper, and I realized we’d hit something big. In the next instant, I realized that I was seeing a bear. Megan, who has the tendency to get very excited and yell in times of pressure, screamed, “A bear!”

The bear was there in the road. There had been the thunk of it hitting our van, and now it was gone.

I slowed to nearly a stop and glanced into my rear-view mirror. I expected to see a dead or injured bear in the road but there wasn’t one. I expected to hear the sound of a flat tire thunking on the road or part of our van dragging on the pavement, but everything sounded as it should. With thick woods and rock on the left and a cliff on the right, there wasn’t anywhere to pull over. I drove about a quarter of a mile until there was an overlook where we could pull over and check on the car. The front left bumper had a small scratch on it and was covered in slobber. There were a few hairs stuck in the crease where the front left panel of the van met the body. There was no blood.

“Just bear slobber,” I announced getting back into the car.

“My hands are still shaking,” Megan said. We’d just dodged some major problems. I had never considered the possibility that people hit bears with their cars. The van could have been rendered un-drivable. There didn’t seem to be any businesses on the Skyline other than a gas station and convenience store. It would have been a long wait for a rental car and to get the van towed somewhere for a repair. It seemed as if the bear was okay, at least mobile enough to run off into the woods. I pointed to the sky in thanks to God that we were safe. It was already getting dark. I hoped there was a spot for us at the Big Meadows Campground.

French Broad River Story #3: Buying a Used Raft

With hopes of buying a used raft, we left Asheville on a Monday morning at 6:30 and were sitting in traffic a few miles from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia by 1:00 that afternoon. Although the town’s population was allegedly under 500 people, the place had many interesting features that drew big crowds of visitors, at least during summer months. Harpers Ferry sits in a spot where the Appalachian Trail crosses a bridge that spans the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Hikers trek right past a building that had become known as John Brown’s Fort because it was where he had holed up before eventually being stabbed and captured by a group of confederate soldiers led by Robert E. Lee. The town has many bed and breakfasts with names such as The Angler’s Inn, Laurel Lodge, and Stonehouse. There were lots of restaurants too, and I felt interested in trying out either the Potomac Grille or the Cannonball Deli. Our plan was to circle through the town to see what we thought and then head out to River Rider’s to check out the raft. We were staying open to where we would spend the night, and I could see one trip that would have us in Harpers Ferry the first night, somewhere off the Skyline Parkway the next, and then a third night near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Pulling me toward a different plan was that there was a presentation to be given that interested me at our local to Asheville REI store. There was a couple who called themselves Yukon and Bean who’d rafted the entire French Broad River Paddle Trail. One the one hand, it might be fun to extend our trip for a couple of days but on the other, I thought Yukon and Bean’s presentation would give us a better idea of how we could get started on our own explorations of the river. At this point, I hadn’t even considered we would attempt the entire paddle trail ourselves.

Yukon and Bean, French Broad River, rafting, kayaking, Brevard, Rosman, Asheville

Yukon and Bean rafted the entirety of the French Broad River Paddle Trail. Here, they are pictured with their raft at Penrose Access Area northeast of Brevard, North Carolina

We drove the three miles from Harpers Ferry back out to River Riders and saw that the rafting company was as busy and popular as the the town. Hundreds of cars were parked up the hill at the main building and more filled the large gravel parking lot and spilled across the street into a grassy field. The staff of River Riders had inflated and cleaned the raft we had come to see. It looked bigger and in better condition than I had expected. They told us they’d pumped it up the night before, and it had stayed inflated. For the same reasons I wouldn’t open up the hood on a new car I was thinking about buying–I mean, who am I kidding, can I even identify one part of an engine and explain its function?–I did not conduct much of an inspection on the raft. The different sections of material (not rubber but looked like rubber to me) were glued together and the seams where the materials were attached did seem to be coming apart. I wasn’t that worried because, after all, it was a used raft and priced $2,000 less than anything else I thought might work for us. The raft had a black rubber bumper that circled the exterior of the boat, and it didn’t look long from coming off. The person I’d been in touch with via email from River Riders had told me to expect these things and that the issues were cosmetic and wouldn’t impact the performance of the raft. 

rafts, whitewater, River Riders, West Virginia, Harpers Ferry

River Riders is located in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

I didn’t haggle over the price. After all, I’d come over 400 miles to see it. I said we’d take it, and I asked if they had any used equipment for sale. Buying a raft turned out to be a lot like buying a new camera, a set of golf clubs, or a video game system. There are always lots of unanticipated additional purchases to be made such as lights and microphones to go with the camera, buckets of range balls and greens fees with the clubs, and a set of four game controllers at $60 a pop so the whole family can play games at the same time. We bought four paddles and life jackets in addition to the raft. The bill came to over $800. The number of times we would have to successfully use the raft in order to get our money’s worth was on the rise. The staff member who showed us the raft advised us to deflate it for the trip home. I had previously thought I might try and transport it atop our van as a way to delay the purchase of the large air pump River Riders staff suggested we purchase. They used a Carlson 6 inch barrel pump that could be had locally in Asheville or on Amazon for $268.95. I noticed the pump we needed cost about half as much as our new-to-us raft. While watching several members of the River Rider crew prepare the raft for our trip home, I made the following observations:

  1. The air valves were nothing like what you’d see on an air mattress or bicycle. They looked like metal springs with little plastic Xs on the end. They were covered with something that looked like a cousin to a car gas cap. Later, I would learn these are called military valves.
  2. The raft had seven of these military valves, four around the outside and one for each of the three seats. When it came time to pump the raft up, I was to go from valve to valve inflating a little bit at a time as not to tear the walls that separated each air chamber inside the boat.
  3.   In order to deflate the raft, I could take my finger, push the valve in, and turn it to the left. Doing this, the valve would stay in the open position and the air could escape. Before I got the hang of it, it felt like when I was trying to deflate our raft I was stabbing the end of my finger with the point of a paper clip.
  4.   When using the barrel pump I would eventually buy, the air depresses the valve on the raft. The valve should be in the “out” position–turned to the right–when inflating. If I had the valve in the wrong position, each time I took a break from pumping my raft would resume deflating.
  5.   Pumping up a raft makes for a fantastic tricep workout not unlike doing dips.
  6.   The raft was to be folded not so differently than how I was taught to fold shirts when I once trained to work at the Gap. Note A: I actually never did help any customers at the Gap because I quit after two days of training to take a job as a middle school English teacher and high school basketball coach.
  7.   I was told rafts like to be inflated. Storing rafts folded over is hard on the seams.

River Riders, rafting, Asheville, kayaking, used rafts

Indy the dog, Charlotte, and Isabel with their new-used raft at River Riders in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

With the raft purchased, I inquired about the location of River Riders campground so we could check it out before paying for a camping spot. From the photos I’d seen on their website, I pictured a large open space of grass with trees right next to the river. I knew our girls would prefer a sunny mountain stream to play in, but even at this early stage of my outdoor enthusiast life, I knew there was the ideal campsite I imagined and the reality of what we could find. The actual campground–as opposed to the different ones each family member had pictured–was situated on a narrow stretch of land between a gravel road and the river. There was no room to run around, to play tag, or toss a ball. Our tent would go on gravel or hard ground right next to a couple of massive RVs. It was getting into late afternoon, buggy, and the temperature was in the 90s. I had been thinking there might be a trail where we could walk with our dog into town but the campground was further away than I had thought. The prospect of spending six or so hours before dark in the heat right under the noses of some people hanging out in their RV did not appeal to Megan and me. The girls, however, were excited about getting into their new tent and had understandably had enough of being in the car. Despite strong objections from our daughters that involved some tears, Megan and I decided to head for the Skyline Drive. A countdown timer began in my head. It was now after three o’clock. We had forty-two miles to the entrance of the Skyline Drive. We had not eaten since breakfast. I vaguely knew there were campgrounds on the Skyline, but I wasn’t sure of their locations. Not only had we never set up our tent before, it was still in its plastic packaging. Driving west away from the River Riders campground, I thought about the following potential problems: the campground would be full, Megan and the girls would find the campground unappealing and we’d be up on the Skyline Drive where there were no hotels, or we’d arrive after dark and be left setting up our new tent for the first time in the dark. With the girls ticked off at me in the backseat, I tried to explain that these things were all part of the adventure.