Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fort Valley on the "Nice Day" (Friday) - Part 1 - Flora Hillman

October 28 2008

How can I put this other than….Fort Valley is perhaps the most favorite of all my most favorite endurance rides -- the gorgeous fall foliage is always spectacular, and the trails are always breathtaking and challenging. Everything about this ride is terrific, and one always comes home with memories that one will never forget.

Living only 1 ½ hours away meant that I had the luxury to leave home and arrive at base camp at a reasonable hour. This prior site of vet checks for the OD rides had morphed into a perfectly groomed flat field full of tiny flags denoting overly generous parking places. It was quite orderly, very inviting, and I ended up parked next to the nicest people – one of whom would be in the 50 with me, the other taking her novice horse in the LD for its second time at a distance ride.

There were lots of familiar old faces, and some new ones – which I find really makes up the essence of what endurance camping is all about.

Check-in, vetting in, and settling in all went without a hitch ….everything just great UNTIL the battery serving my main LQ power supply -- decided to die! I managed to get it recharged with the solar panels, but it discharged again the instant the sun disappeared…right in the middle of my next day preparation. By very good fortune, or decision, or whatever, I had decided to spend this year’s foxhunting subscription money on a nice little Honda generator, and had brought along my new “toy” to try out. Thank goodness for that! Although I’d forgotten the gas can at home (hey, this is my first time bringing one of these things on a ride, you know), at least the generator’s tank was topped off. In a second I had both lights and power and electric heat ….at least until 9:59PM. After that, it was back to battery lights and Mr. Buddy. But by then I was finished, packed, and ready for Friday’s ride. I crawled into a toasty warm bed, and almost instantly fell asleep.

The first half of the night passed uneventfully, except for the novice horse next door plaintively calling for his at-home buddy at 1AM. No matter, he soon gave up and the remainder of the night was spent in blissful silence.

Dawn arrived like a bad hangover. We awoke to no sky at all, just a glowering, sullen doom-and-gloom of unhappy steel gray clouds blanketing horizon to horizon. The sun simply refused to make an appearance, only grudgingly filtered down a skimpy bit of abysmally dim light for us to tack up and get ready. As I zipped on an second jacket to help ward off the cold, I figured this would be one OD ride where no one would have to worry about heat stroke, humidity, or sunburn. Hypothermia, on the other hand, was a distinct possibility. I zipped on a third jacket, just in case.

The ride start was delayed for about 15 minutes while the advance motorcycle crew checked on and replaced a few missing ribbons. We all milled around in the semi-dark for those extra minutes, and then ..the trail was announced open!

Since I only ride for the miles now (my pony is 18 going on 19 so we’re enjoying the trail now rather than burning it up), and I had also planned to ride the 50 again tomorrow, I didn’t want to get caught up in the excitement of the front running riders. I watched as the main body of riders disappeared up the road behind the controlled start vehicle while I joined the rest of the rear guard riders who were sharing the same intent upon maintaining a relaxed start.

The “back of the pack” was quite a jovial company, everyone happy and chatty and relaxed ….as much as one can be on an endurance start. The first leg up Milford Gap on the gravel road was just steep enough to take a bit of the wind out of the sails of anyone too eager to rush to the top. Once on the trail it was very dusty and dry, and with multiple hooves pounding the dry ground, we sent up quite a cloud of fine powder worthy of the Tevis itself.

The trail up to the top was non-eventful, then it was over the crest of the Massanutten and all down, down, down to the valley floor with a left hand turn (north) onto the gravel road that runs alongside the North Fork of the Shenandoah.

What a gorgeous road this is – perfect for a canter or a good road trot.
Riders began to spread out, and my guy started to become a bit of a
handful. After 9 years of riding endurance you would THINK he would not get
all involved in a tug of war over what speed we were going to agree upon.
Oh, no. Not him.

Unfortunately, I was losing the argument because I had him only in a halter
and had completely forgotten to bring along his bit. With nothing other
than my reins, and loudly voiced threats (totally ineffectual as brakes, I
might add) I finally threw the bight of the reins over his face just above
his noseband to create double pressure . It worked! He instantly backed
down, and my impromptu contraption drew several smiles as well as a comment
“that is SO clever!” from some passing riders. It helped take the stress
off my arms because my reins were now loops, and it was far easier on my
back…and my temper. Once the trail headed off the road back up the
mountainside to begin the route back to base camp and the 1st VC I was able
to dispense with the “double brakes” and give him a bit more freedom for the
rest of the 18 miles.

The trail at the top of the Massanuttens heading back towards Milford Gap is
arguable the best and most scenic section -- a soft dirt path , not many
rocks, and stunning views. It was a joy to ride among the trees that were
just starting to color up. I was by myself, which is how both I and my pony
like to ride, yet, it took a few miles before I noticed there was a vast
silence in the trees around me that was a bit…well, unusual. My senses
sharpened and I began to listen, but heard not a peep from any wildlife.
Even the birds were silent and invisible….as if they had already hunkered
down in advance of what was to come in less than 12 hours. It was very odd.

But at the moment I was enjoying the trail so much that I ignored the
unsettling silence, and happily trotted my pony the rest of the way,
eventually reaching Milford Gap as it headed into the VC. My guy was already
at 52 by the time we reached the In Timer, so it was straight into P&R, and
then through the vet check and back to our trailer to eat and rest until our
hold time was up.

I was about 6 minutes late getting to the Out Gate for Loop 2 because my guy
was still eating and I didn’t want to disturb him as this next loop was
about 20 miles long. I made sure his saddle packs were stuffed full of
sliced carrots for him since he has a critical need to refuel enroute, and
packed an extra bit of chicken for myself in case I got hungry.

The 2nd Loop took us back up and over Milford Gap and then headed us back
down to the road alongside the river where we turned right (south) this
time. Once again we enjoyed some canters and cruising along, making time in
anticipation of having to walk the more difficult sections of trail yet to
come. I met up with Ashley Kemerer at one point along the road and we fell
in together, enjoying each other’s company. Just before the road took a
sharp bend to the right, the trail dove off to the left into the woods,
leading us on a merry narrow-trail-bumper-car ride through the woods until
it paused at a hidden sandy enclave at the Shenandoah River. We stopped to
offer our thirsty horses a long refreshing drink. Just upstream a canoe
floated quietly in place as the two intent, but friendly fisherman sitting
within kept close attention to the two fishing lines that were held tight in
the deep grip of the river. Downstream a column of white smoke rose like a
beacon from a small yet earnest campfire at a busy campsite. Our attention,
however, was riveted by what lay just across the river from us, reflected in
the crystal clear water. There the sheer rock face of “the Golden Cliffs”
lifted straight up out of the deep waters like an ancient god, up and up and
up, far above our heads, displaying stunningly beautiful arching wave layers
of multiple geological strata, the brilliant artistic result of billions of
years of crust movement and shifting. It is truly one of the most
awe-inspiring sights, and well worth the moments to pause and reflect.

Once the horses turned their interest from drinking to splashing, it was
time to be on our way again. The trail shook the water off our heels and
then shrugged off the woods to dump us back on the road. We crossed to the
other side and began to head up another path. This one would take us up over
the Massanutten on an ancient route that bypasses a prehistoric Native
American site that gave the trail it’s name – Indian Graves. Infamous for
being one of the most difficult of all trails in the Massanuttens, it starts
off gently, but then lives up to its reputation.

Once the path began to get steep I told Ashley to go on as I wanted to stop
and give my pony some of the grass growing alongside the trail. I knew the
effort at the top of the trail would be difficult and wanted my pony rested,
fed, and energy recharged. A few minutes later I remounted and followed the
trail as it snaked its way higher, each footfall being a steeper climb than
the last. I was heartily glad that I’d spent the last two months walking 4-5
miles a day to get myself trim and fit – I needed to pull my own weight in
tailing up behind my pony on that very rocky climb. The trail became more
and more difficult until it turned into a rock slide of almost vertical
ascent. You *have* to climb it. No options. It was exhilarating,
challenging, exciting, treacherous, difficult, and exhausting.

And far too short!! It was over almost before I knew it. I felt great at
the top of the mountain -- all my weeks of fitness work had paid off, and
I glowed with pride at having been a partner to my pony in this climb, and
not a burden.

Happily, Hugh McDonald, the ride photographer, was at the top to get a great
shot of me and my pony as I tailed him up that massive boulder strewn path.
He showed it to me later at camp, and I can assure you that it will
absolutely be one that will join the others on my “Endurance Wall of Fame”.

Reaching the crest was an anti-climax, and the way back home, while fairly rock strewn and slow, was easy enough. Trotting along I kept thinking I was hearing a light sleet hissing in the leaves around me, but every time I stopped to listen closely, the sounds stopped as well. The silence was really overpowering, and only the periodic noise of the cold breeze rustling the dead leaves was evident. For the first time that day I began to feel uneasy, and was now reluctant to stop enroute. On the bad stretches of rock I dismounted and walked, pulling up grass for my guy doling out his stash of carrots. I did not stop at all, but kept moving as he munched and crunched his snacks over the miles. We finally hit Milford Gap road and cruised the last mile at a spanking trot while we passed others walking in. We strolled into the 2nd vet check with a HR of 58. Once vetted it was back to the trailer to rest and eat and wait for our out time.

During the hold, while my pony ate, I filled his saddle packs with fresh carrots, and started packing up my stuff to leave that night. The sky had continued to look more dismal and more threatening by the moment. I didn’t linger in camp, but was at the Out Timer within 30 seconds of my time. I wasn’t about to waste precious moments in camp and run the risk of getting caught in bad weather out on the trail.

The final loop was on the valley floor incorporating several lollipop loops that chriss-crossed one another several times. Bless the three volunteers – Bonnie, Roy, and John -- who manned the trail junctions to make sure everyone did the loops in order. Roy warned me his trail was “difficult”, which I found to be somewhat of an understatement. A portion took a side excursion into untracked rocky areas that were downright sadistic, and made me wonder if the person that had laid them out had a grudge again horses and riders in general…or endurance riders in particular. Even my pony showed his displeasure by stopping in a snit at one point and moodily asking me to get off and lead him through the minefield of rocks in front of us.

But all was forgiven as we exited the final lollipop and the trail eased gently onto lovely private lanes with lots of yummy side grass to snack upon, and threaded through open fields complete with a clear deep stream to wade into for my pony to drink deep and long. I laughed at the funny signs management had posted on one point of the trail warning of “spook ahead” for farm equipment hidden around a bend of the trail, and despite the lowering sky and ugly clouds we cruised with a big smile across the finish line as the 14th rider to finish, ending up in 13th place overall.

I made a quick check of the internet weather, which confirmed Saturday’s 50 would be under an all day downpour with high winds – not my favorite type of weather due to my ownership of a 2 wheel drive truck that will go out of its way to get stuck anywhere, anytime I any place even slightly damp. I could get out of the ridecamp under my own power now, but tomorrow would be a different story, and I hate getting towed. A few minutes later Saturday’s lineup had one less rider, and I returned to finish my final packing in order to leave right after the dinner.

The Awards Dinner and presentation that night were a hoot. Great food, lots of people laughing and having a grand time. Everyone was elated to find that 100% of the LD riders had finished! Woohoo!! And 25 out of the 29 50 milers had finished. A great completion rate!

By the end of the awards there was a fine drizzle coming down. Those leaving were relieved, those staying were resigned at what was to come. I said goodbye to all my friends, wished those riding the next day “good luck” and tucked my truck’s nose right behind another rig that was part of the exodus to “get out of Dodge” before the weather got bad. In less than 2 hours I was home, my pony in a warm, dry stall with tons of food to scarf down, and me happily recounting to my hubby what a great ride this day had held.

Special kudos to Claire Godwin and her cast and crews of wonderful volunteers for putting on such an outstanding ride, from start to finish! Fort Valley is always challenging and fun, and should be a must for anyone who wants to experience the beauty, serenity, and sheer adventure of endurance riding in the Massanuttens.

Flora Hillman

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