Bluff Mountain, Virginia
May 18, 2013
I took my son James on his first over night backpacking trip this week. This was supposed to be a multi day trip but our trek
was cut short due to a small gear malfunction. Our intended itinerary was to backpack from the Blue Ridge Parkway, across
the James River into the James River Face Wilderness to Matt's Creek Shelter and back for what is known in hiking circles as
an "out and back". Our total mileage was going to be 24 miles or 4, 6 mile days.
We arrived on the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile post 51.7 near the Punchbowl Shelter sometime around 1:00 PM Thursday
afternoon. The Punchbowl shelter derived it's name because of it's close proximity to the parkway and the ability for teens
and college kids to carry a keg to this popular party destination hidden in the Appalachian hills.
The highlight of our trip was the summit of Bluff Mountain at 3,372 feet above sea level with it's nearly 360° views would prove
to be a good workout for the both of us. The trail starts out steep gaining 400 feet in just a 1/2 mile as we reached the
Punchbowl Shelter. We lingered here for a while catching our breath and took a couple of photos. We spoke briefly with
another hiker who was at the shelter reading a book before continuing south on the Appalachian Trail. The terrain continued
to climb but with the many moderately graded switchbacks, the 1,269 feet of elevation gain was not as bad as I thought it
would be. In just a couple of hours we reached the summit of Bluff Mountain. The views were partially obscured by haze
which is common in the Southern Appalachians this time of year. We began exploring the area and discovered a memorial
near the summit dedicated to Ottie Cline Powell. The memorial reads as follow:
THIS IS THE EXACT SPOT. LITTLE OTTIE CLINE POWELL'S BODY WAS FOUND APRIL 5, 1891, AFTER STRAYING FROM
TOWER HILL SCHOOL HOUSE NOV. 9, A DISTANCE OF 7 MILES. AGE 4 YEARS 11 MONTHS.
Legend has it according to Wikipedia that Ottie Cline Powell was four years old and barefoot when he wandered away from
his schoolhouse in Amherst County, Virginia while out gathering firewood in November, 1890. Despite an extensive search,
his body was not found until the following spring, seven miles away, on the peak of Bluff Mountain, in the Blue Ridge
Mountains, elevation 3,372 feet. It is believed, but not confirmed, that the boy, upon discovering he was lost, ran with all his
might, and eventually collapsed with exhaustion and froze to death. Powell was found with the chestnuts he was given at the
schoolhouse still in in his stomach, undigested, leading his examiners to conclude that he died before he digested the
chestnuts, which would imply that he lived for only a few hours after he wandered off.
James and I then discovered what appeared to be the perfect campsite about 75 yards from the summit. The area had a fire
pit made up of several neatly placed stones and loads of firewood already cut and lying on the ground next to the pit.
Although is was too warm for a fire, this still looked like a great place to camp for the night. The area was thick with green
grass and shaded with a multitude of hardwood trees.
Some time later I noticed dark clouds off towards the West so I told James we need to go ahead and set up camp. We pitched
both tents and inflated our air mattresses and stowed our gear away in case of bad weather. The bugs were beginning to
become relentless so I decided to retire to my tent for a while. Once inside my tent, I stretched out on my air mattress and got
lost in an unconscious world for about an hour.
When I woke up from my nap, James and I climbed back up to the summit to enjoy the cool breeze. I noticed a rumble in the
distance but didn't think anything of it. That's when I noticed that I couldn't see the mountains adjacent to us. The hills had
been replaced by a wall of clouds and rain. I told James to come on let's get back to the tents! About that time the bottom fell
out. The wind picked up and the rain began blowing sideways with flashes of lightning close by. For the next hour we
hunkered down as the wind and rain and lightning pounded us. As the thunder and lightning moved off to the east, the rain
finally subsided but the wind continued to howl until 1:00 AM. That's when I noticed I was sleeping on the ground. My air
mattress had developed an air leak. I didn't get much sleep that night due to having to pump air back into my mattress every
couple of hours.
We awoke the next morning around 7:00 AM and I told James about my dilemma. I asked him if he wanted to stay another
night but he said he didn't want me to have to suffer through another sleepless night. We decided to do a day hike toward Big
Rocky Row which offered outstanding views according to my trail map. We arrived at Saddle Gap about a mile shy of our
intended destination when I asked James what time it was. He pulled his Ipod from his pocket and said it was 1:09 PM. Holy
cow, it had taken us longer than I thought to hike the 3 miles to our current location. I told James we needed to head back to
our base camp so we could pack up and hike the extra 2.5 miles back to the parkway.
The remainder of the day was to say the least, pretty uneventful since we were covering ground that we had previously
encountered. We arrived back at camp and packed up and headed to the parkway. I noticed the sun was still pretty high in
the sky so I retrieved my phone from my pack to check the time. It was now actually 1:00 PM. James had evidently looked at
the time wrong when it was actually 11:00 AM instead of 1:00 PM.
Anyway, I called home to let everyone know that we had survived the mountains and that we were on the way home. James
told me that he enjoyed his first backpacking trips although the weather got a little crazy. I told him he now had bragging
rights because he had ridden out a thunder storm in a tent at 3,500 feet. He just smiled.