Sunday, August 29, 2010

Virginia Breakaway - Day Two

Close your eyes, if you will, and dream up the perfect bike trail.

It will, no doubt, have a wide, smooth, path that meanders through a dense hardwood forest, generously shaded by the tall overhanging branches, practically a green tunnel in spots. The trail would be miles and miles and miles of steady, gentle, imperceptible downhill grade allowing your bike to glide along as if by magic. And how about ice cream, halfway down? That would be nice. Finally - allow me a personal request - add a pristine trout stream tumbling alongside.

You can open your eyes. It’s no dream. It’s the Virginia Creeper Trail.

5:30am came much too early, as 5:30am always seems to do, but we had some travelin’ in mind. We rummaged over our sumptuous breakfast buffet, such as it was, and Heffe cranked up the propane stove for a quick coffee fix. Once the sleep was out of our eyes, the caffeine in our bloodstream, and the Clif Bars in our bellies, we hit the road for Damascus – the beloved southern stopover for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and delightful little mountain community.

We accessed the Virginia Creeper Trail from a convenient parking area a couple of miles east of town, about the mid-point of the trail. The Creeper is thirty-five miles of prime bikeway, but the most popular section is the eastern half – seventeen miles of railroad grade running between Whitetop and Damascus. You can engage an outfitter in Damascus to shuttle you to the Whitetop trailhead and from there you can spend a delightful day coasting your way west, back to your car, through the beautiful Virginia mountain forest. The trip is easy enough for young and old alike, with any kind of bike, and seems a perfectly marvelous family adventure.

We quickly geared up and peddled “up hill”, alongside the Whitetop Laural, criss-crossing the stream over a handful of bridges along the way. The grade was so gradual that the only way we knew we were climbing was the gurgling water flowing in the opposite direction.

The Whitetop Laurel is typical of many of the trout streams here in the southern Appalachians - heavily bouldered, thirty-to-fifty feet wide, usually no more than knee deep, though you do find the occasional pool or run that is hard to judge - maybe four, maybe six feet. Dense rhododendrons fill the banks and the overhanging hardwoods shade most sections of the water. The rainbows, browns, and brookies that grace this splendid habitat are wild and wary.

After a couple of miles, we ditched the bikes and stepped into the stream. T-Bone went upstream, Heffe went down, and I started at the bridge under which we dismounted.

It’s a peculiar habit of fly fisherman to fish alone, together. They may travel to a destination and access the stream with one another, but they quickly distance themselves, putting a fifty, maybe a hundred, yard buffer of waterway between friends. Most will say it’s to stay out of each other's backcasts or to avoid spooking one another’s fishing holes - and those are certainly valid explanations - but I believe it’s equally an attempt to establish the solitude that anglers, fly fisherman in particular, seem to crave. In an odd way, though, they are sharing the solitude, an apparent contradiction, but an easy communion that only outdoorsmen seem to appreciate.

We would see one another occasionally as we leap-frogged the couple of miles we covered, but each of us spent much of the morning casting alone, soaking up the day. Fishing results were anecdotal. T-Bone found success early throwing dry terrestrials, a beetle pattern in particular, but, as the morning wore on, found fewer and fewer fish. Heffe, a die-hard nymph fisherman, worked his beautiful stoneflies, ultimately the fly of the day, with increasing success as the day wore on. I tried a little of everything and, to use the catch phrase of the week, the fish kept missing my fly. My morning smelled of skunk.

At mid-day we reconnected, hopped back on the bikes, and headed east once again, stopping for a quick milkshake at the Creeper Trail Café. It is a popular location with the thru-bikers and we were able to say hello to folks of all ages and sizes, everyone cheery and fresh despite miles of riding, a testament to the ease and joy of the down-grade ride.

After the cool refreshment, we peddled a couple more miles up hill, and entered the stream once again. I finally shook the skunk with a couple of ten-inch rainbows, taken in a dead-calm slick section of stream on a dry #18 MadamX. How frustrating is fishing all day, then catching your only two fish in consecutive casts?

The ride back to the truck was a breeze, peddling only for speed, not for locomotion, and the return drive to the KOA was comfortable after the day on the bike. We found The Rog waiting on our cabin doorstep, beer in hand, having just arrived for the next day’s float. The evening ended with a few more libations, a few more stories, and another midnight bedtime. No 5:30am wakeup. We planned to sleep in a bit. 5:45.

I crawled into my bunk, closed my eyes, and dreamed the perfect bike trail, though it took no imagination. I’d just spent the day on it.

Day Three – floating the New and chasing the big bass – soon…

1 comment:

Dan Short said...

Mike, enjoyed the story about one of my favorite streams. I don't get down there as often as I like - it's a 5 hour drive from Richmond - but try to fish it a couple times a year. Good to see it's holding up pretty well this summer. Dan