by Gerry Rowan
The heat and humidity were oppressive for May. My buddies and I decided to beat the heat by heading out for a weekend hiking/camping trip. We settled on Loyalsock State Forest in Sullivan County and a dry-camping permit from the forest ranger station. That gave us 2 weeks in the woods away from everything.
We set up camp near a small, nameless, spring-fed stream. We pitched our tent under a big pine tree facing the stream. Although a good hundred yards from our truck, our campsite had convenient spring water, and the stream valley was deep enough to offer shade from the midday sun and some protection from storms.
By four-thirty that afternoon, we finished setting up camp and organizing our gear. To keep the bugs away, we gathered firewood and built a small, smoky fire. I pulled out the quadrangle map of the forest region we were in so we could plan a hike for early the next morning. A waterfall was marked on our map—Angel Falls, reportedly among the highest in the state. It looked to be about 4 to 5 miles from our campsite. The elevation change from our campsite to the crest of the falls was about 800 feet vertical. Not a killer hike, but it looked interesting—at least on paper—and seemed perfect for getting our hiking legs back in order.
We made a meal of “cowboys and Indians”—turkey burgers, potatoes, and onions foil-roasted in the campfire, along with a pot of coffee. We’d have fresh meat again tomorrow and then switch to canned and freeze-dried food as our ice chest gave up the ghost.
The night was still a bit muggy when we turned in around nine-thirty. But by one in the morning, the air had cooled enough for me to zip up my sleeping bag about halfway.
Breakfast was oatmeal with dried fruit, evaporated milk, and coffee. We filled our water bottles and geared up for our morning hike. I made a mental note that sometime that day, we’d need to make a run to the ranger station for more water. I didn’t want to risk drinking unfiltered spring water. Since the ranger station was nearby, it was easier than filter-pumping water from the stream.
The stream valley at our campsite was deep enough that our NOAA weather radio didn’t work. Clouds were beginning to build to our west, but the weather forecast from yesterday didn’t mention rain. It seemed we were in store for good weather, and hiking light was the order of the day. Not expecting rain, we left our rain gear behind in the tent.
We started our trek by hiking up the road about a quarter mile and then turning right onto an old logging road. The road cut across the grade and uphill. The angle of the climb was reasonably good, and the hike was going well.
The forest was open, with large trees, mostly oak and maple, and not much of an understory—the kind of a forest where you can be a tourist and see everything nature offered. The dry runs and cuts were forested with hemlock and white pine. This area must have been logged off sometime in the past, or the road would not have been there. Given the large size of the trees, the logging might have taken place a century or so ago.
About an hour into our hike, the sky began darkening as clouds built into thunderheads. Suddenly the sky opened, and the rain—torrential and monsoonlike—poured down on us. Strong winds blew the rain into sheets that beat against us. The heavy rain, combined with multiple lightning strikes on top of the ridge, made us think this storm would soon exit the area. But after a half hour without any letup, it became clear that this was far more than a passing thundershower.
I’ve never been as wet as I was that day. We did an about-face and double-timed it back down the trail heading for camp. The rain sucked the heat from my body, and I was shivering when we made it back to our tent with its promise of warmth and dry clothing.
It was far too wet to light a fire; that night, we ate cold food. The rain fell all night; lightning strikes lit up our tent from the outside. Sleep was fitful, and our sleeping bags were really damp. To air the tent out while we hiked, we’d left open the door-flap. (Again, we hadn’t expected any rain.) Our tent had that characteristic smell tents get when they’re packed away for the winter.
The wind changed direction overnight, signaling that the weather front had passed over us and the rain would soon stop. At first light, we packed up our wet clothing and the sleeping bags and headed off to the nearest town (18 miles away, and just outside the state forest) for a laundromat and some breakfast. At the laundromat, we loaded the wet stuff into 2 dryers and inserted enough quarters for an hour and a half of drying time. Then we crossed the street to a diner, where we ordered a huge breakfast and filled our thermoses with hot coffee.
We returned to our campsite at eleven. We had the best of the day ahead of us. Indeed, the day was maturing into one of those glorious, brilliant late-spring/early-summer days when a dome of high pressure floods down from Canada. A cerulean sky that darkens to ultramarine at the horizon, not a cloud anywhere, and the burning orb of the sun overhead.
Not to be defeated by the weather, we retraced the route we’d taken the day before and started up the ridge toward Angel Falls. The 2½-hour hike brought us to the top of the falls. The storm had blown down many trees along the logging road. I was expecting a large falls with a great flow of water. Angel Falls was high, but its stream—Falls Run—was small. The stream plunged off the plateau about 165 feet, with some water misting around the falls. Ferns and moss covered the cliff, rocks, and trees at the falls—a lush, otherworldly carpet of bright yellow-green where gnomes, sprites, and fairies might live.
Angel Falls wasn’t so much a disappointment as it was anticlimactic. A beautiful place, with an endless veil of misty water cascading down the rock face, but upstaged by the previous day’s storm. The memory of the storm still stays with me. I wasn’t an inexperienced hiker—I’d been hiking for some 45 years of my life at that point—but I’d never experienced such ferocity from nature. It remains a humbling experience.