Spring, despite the temperamental storms that can attack the central Appalachians without warning, is the time of year when some of us diehard adventure, research and educational tree climbers finally abandon our couches and televisions and flock to the hardwood forests along the ridgelines of western Virginia.
Nearly perfect climbing weather last weekend (April 27-30)greeted the 11 climbers who participated in the Spring 2006 Blue Ridge Parkway Climb-In at Bob Wrays farm in the mountains near Meadows of Dan, Va. It was the fourth year that Bob has hosted the event, which takes place in late April and mid-October.
This is great, said veteran BRP-er Jim W., who in the past had braved some unexpected snow, high winds and driving rain to take part in the twice-a-year event in a heavily wooded area of Bobs farm that fronts on the famous parkway. This is by far the best weather weve had for this climb.
Daytime temperatures were in the mid-60s with partly cloudy skies, and it dropped into the middle to lower 40s overnight with clear skies and fantastic views of the Milky Way and other star constellations. The headlights from the few cars that traveled the parkway at night did not dim the night sky.
The parkway itself is a national park that winds along the Appalachian ridgeline for 469 miles, from Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, Va., to the Cherokee Indian Reservation and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina. In many places the park is only a hundred yards wide; sometimes even narrower. It is a two-lane asphalt roadway without any stop signs or red lights along its entire length, and is open only to private vehicles. No commercial vehicles are allowed, and the maximum speed limit is 45 mph.
The parkway headquarters is located in the eastern suburbs of Asheville, N.C., and it is patrolled and policed by National Park Service rangers. Some sections of the parkway are seasonal -- heavy snow is frequent in winter on higher peaks like the 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell -- and are closed in winter months.
Bobs steeply sloped farm is near the halfway point of the parkway and is mostly wooded, with thousands of hardwoods and an occasional white pine or hemlock spruce. The forest floor is thick with rhododendron and mountain Laurel.
His woods are home to white-tailed deer, screech owls, raccoons and Virginia opossums, gray squirrels, chipmunks, Eastern cottontail rabbits, blue jays, wrens, robins and several species of hummingbirds and at least one black bear that likes to chew on plastic five-gallon water cans.
In addition to Bob and Jim W., the other Climb-In members representing the state of Virginia included J-Bird from Bumpass, Va., and Clarence from Virginia Intermont College in Bristol. The Carolinas were represented by Greg, a recent mechanical engineering graduate of Clemson University who learned to climb from Bob, and the Sherrill Arborist Supply Co. group from Greensboro of Tobe, his wife, their son Cameron, and customer service manager Courtney. The Georgia group included me, Joe of the Jungle and Jeff N., all from the Treeclimbers Coalition.
We regrettably missed several regulars to the climb-in. They included Legolas from Pennsylvania, Jim K. from Ohio, Knothead from Georgia (and currently TDY in Richmond, Va.), Rocky and Saplin and Icabod from North Carolina, David M. from South Carolina, and Tree Girl and Abe from Treeclimbing USA in Georgia.
The first big surprise for the event was the large number of new, never-climbed, hardwoods that Bob had discovered in remote corners of his farm. Ive been clearing trails to these trees for days, Bob said. I havent had time to climb most of them.
The second big surprise was the dining experience. On Saturday night there was Bobs famous Parkway Pigout that featured salads, fine wines, boiled shrimp, grilled mahi-mahi and chicken, homemade Brunswick stew, and brownies and Courtneys homemade chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies for dessert.
But the fine dining did not end there the previous nights dining table was barbecue night with home-cooked barbecue beef sandwiches from Jeff N. of the Georgia group, and the usual excellent desserts from J-Birds campfire Dutch oven. Breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, despite the loss of skilled outdoor chefs Saplin and Icabod,, was expertly handled by Clarence (with a few contributions from J-Bird, of course).
And there were the after-dark campfires where J-Bird entertained with his new (At least its new to me!) five-string backless banjo or with his standard six-string acoustic guitar. It was unanimous; everyone agreed he had practiced and his musical talent had improved to the point of almost being tolerable. Between songs there were the usual tall tales, boasts of tree-climbing prowess, and plain old bald-faced lies.
In short, it was typical fireside conversation for a group of slightly inebriated people with flakes of bark in their hair.
Although the climb-in officially began on Friday, the Georgia group and J-Bird arrived Thursday afternoon and started setting up camp in the woods. As usual, Bob already had a dining tent set up and he had made arrangements for a local company to deliver a Port-A-Potty to the campsite. Everybody managed to make at least one climb before dark.
After an early breakfast Friday morning, everyone followed the new trails that led to the unclimbed trees Bob had discovered. The undergrowth was extremely thick in most places, and several times climbers had to crawl on hands and knees to reach a tree. A Big Shot was needed to blast a throw line through the dense rhododendron and mountain laurel. Entry climbs into the trees usually had to be made on single ropes, due to the inability to isolate a double-rope route.
Nearly everybody got in three to four climbs on Friday, before Jim W. and Clarence arrived. Jim had driven in from the Washington, D.C. area and Clarence made a three-hour drive from the west, where Virginia and Tennessee meet.
Greg drove in early Saturday and quickly headed out into the woods for some advanced instruction from Joe of the Jungle. An hour or so later, Tobe and Courtney arrived with a pickup truck loaded with enough goodies to make even the most diehard climber drool with envy.
Within minutes, Courtney was learning new double-rope skills from Bob, while Tobe circled the farm and photographed every climber he could find in the dense woods. A couple of hours later, Tobes wife arrived with their six-year-old son, Cameron, who had played third base earlier that morning on his Little League team.
Everyone was soon up in the air in a tree of his or her choice, and young Cameron quickly proved that his climbing skills were excellent.
Sunday morning started off slowly, while most campers recovered from the Saturday night feast. Then it was off to the woods for a final climb or two before packing up and heading for home. About noon, or maybe a little later, J-Bird managed to crawl from his tent and bid a feeble goodbye to fellow climbers.
All too soon, it was time to turn right onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and leisurely cruise down the winding road toward the interstate highway 17 miles away. It was time to head for home.