It was about 4 p.m. Saturday when we got lost. "Lost" might be overstating it a bit, but we were no longer on a trail and not entirely certain of our position. We had been hiking the Big Stonecoal Run trail when we came to a mile-long "sod," what they call the boggy, heath-like high plateaus in this section of West Virginia. Here a path had been stomped out in the tall grass of the sod. The path, though, was on the spongiest ground we had yet experienced. We followed it a while until it came to Big Stonecoal Run itself, a lazy creek flowing atop the plateau. Here there was little evidence of a path, only dense underbrush and the sand and rocks of the creek.
We began looking for a footprint or any sign of the direction we needed to go. There was a deer print and a coyote print, but nothing human. The GPS indicated we were on the same side of the creek as the trail, the one we had lost and needed to find again. A quick foray into the dense woods and brush near the creek yielded nothing but even spongier sods. It was on toward 5 now, the sun still warming the vast, grassy plateau. One more crash through a stand of conifers, following the GPS' wayward directions, and still no sign of the trail. It was disconcerting, but we had our packs and water and so would have been OK for the night. And we knew we needed to follow the creek downstream if nothing else.
Across the creek, over a dense logjam, the grass appeared matted and something like a trail was discernible. The trail took us up a slight rise, and on the other side we found a well-used campsite. Steppingstones crossed to the other side of the creek. Moments later we heard the sounds of voices and relocated the trail. Whew.
Dolly Sods Wilderness is a land of steep ravines, waterfalls, dense woodlands and--oddly enough--bogs. Imagine the wooded slopes of the Allegheny Mountains and the Monongahela National Forest. Then picture a secret wilderness, a surreal slice of Canada, draped across flat mountaintops--those are the spruce-and-cranberry laden sods.
Day One began hiking about three miles up Red Creek Canyon. The weather was perfect and remained so all weekend--70s for the highs and 40s for the lows. The trail was lined by massive rhododendrons, 20-feet tall in places. The rhods, in some areas forming a tunnel around the trail, were omnipresent along the wooded slopes on this trip. The first night also called for a dip in frigid Red Creek, a broad, boulder-strewn stream.
Day Two, before getting lost, called for a long uphill to the sods. The trail was steep and rocky. It was a relief to reach the boggy, 3,500-foot-high plateau, but even here the ankle-breaking rocks persisted. The aforementioned sod detour derailed our camping plans a bit. We had to high-tail it to get to a real campsite before dark. The result was an 11-mile day on Saturday, and we actually ended up closer to the car than where we began (if that makes any sense). The 15-mile loop was complete when we hiked out on Sunday morning.
Appendix: 2008 has been the Year of the Merlin. After observing a nesting pair at Bay Furnace Campground along the shores of Lake Superior in May, I spotted a merlin while we were lost in the sods. It spooked a group of robins, nuthatches and chickadees.