Spring Turkey: April 2020, Part V (Expedition Memoirs)

The next day we woke with the sun.  I at once occupied myself preparing the fire while we both began the process of breakfast and breaking camp.  Our itinerary called for a drive across the western part of the mountain situated directly to our north, initially doubling back over a portion of the trail we had taken on the way in, passing back into West Virginia and connecting to new trail, one we had never before taken.  If the condition of this new road was anything like the conditions to which we were accustomed, I estimated that it might take us as much as four hours to reach the next campsite.  With this in mind, we got to work disassembling our encampment, packing its individual elements, and loading them onto the Jeep.  This in itself took some time since it was only the second time Mark and I had worked together in breaking camp, and my own singlemindedness could often become overbearing in moments of perceived urgency.

            We were fortunately more in rhythm this time than at Dictum Ridge, particularly now after two full days of working together under our belts, and so like a well-oiled, if at times confused machine, we worked through the morning.  At some point the skies closed above us and it began to rain, and so we accelerated our efforts so as to not have to carry around wet gear—and, if I’m honest, to ensure we made our arbitrary noontime departure.  Mere moments after loading the last of the camp’s major components, we were met with blue skies and a re-emergent sun that quickly started to warm our little valley.

            “There’s someone coming.”

            Looking toward the distant foliage to our east, two black silhouettes materialized from the wood line, making their approach along the same muddy roadway we had taken in.  They must have seen us well before Mark spotted them.  Between the music, the smoke from our fire, and our large American flag, we were not what one would term subtle—a quality these two gentlemen seemingly had in spades.  As they approached, we could make out the silhouettes of shotguns slung over their shoulders, while they themselves were attired in hunting camouflage.

            There next came a low growl from my side, and before I could think to act, Sasha was leaping forward, charging towards the men, and placing herself bodily between our two parties.  The two men at once stopped at the sound of Sasha’s bark, a rather high-pitched sound one could not be describe as pleasant or welcoming.

            “Sasha, come.”

            But my dog not only did not return to my side, she in fact continued to stalk towards the two men, keeping up a steady barrage of noise all the while.  It was clear that whatever these men had to offer, Sasha wanted no part of it—and I likewise did not want Sasha having any part of them.  For that reason, after what I meant to be a reassuring wave to the two men, I physically removed Sasha to the center of campsite and put her in a down-stay—only to find that the two men had taken that as some sort of signal to continue their approach.  To this Sasha once more objected, charging past me, but stopping well short of her earlier course-of-intercept, stopping beside Mark where stood at the front of the Jeep.  Though I managed thereafter to return her to my side, I was once again challenged on the recall, and for the duration of their impromptu visit, I would have to remind her to leave them alone and to remain at my side.  There was something about those two individuals—perhaps the camouflage that had made them seem to appear from thin air or the way they smelled—that she especially did not like, and about which she felt strongly enough to attempt circumventing my directions.  Such extreme protective behavior I had never before seen from her.

            After a brief exchange of pleasantries in which we told the we had come from Northern Virginia, and which they failed to reciprocate, they explained to us that they were hunting turkey and asked if we had heard any since our arrival.  I told them that I had heard a turkey, though what precisely I had heard earlier that morning was likely no such thing, and I pointed further up the road into the western part of the forest.  They seemed nonplussed by the advice and instead concerned themselves with asking us how we had come in, commenting that they had never seen the gate for this part of the road open.

            We had indeed passed a Forest Service gate on the drive in, situated some distance before the final stream crossing into Sinclair Hollow.  The National Forest service gates are simple affairs consisting of a pair of concrete piers driven into the ground and a white metal bar that locks atop them.  The one we had passed on our drive in had been open, and this we explained to them.

            The younger of the two men was a clean-shaven and otherwise nondescript middle-aged white male, who might easily have been a rotund Tim Allen.  He avoided eye contact and was content to allow his companion to do the talking for the two of them, his gaze peering this way and that in the way people do when they are bored or uncomfortable.  For some reason I had the impression that I recognized him, and I later suggested to Mark that we might have seen him at one of the gas stations on the drive from Northern Virginia to the National Forest.

            His friend might have been an older middle-age, with white hair and a matching white mustache that gave him the look of Dale Dye in Band of Brothers.  As he spoke to us, he was constantly fiddled with the GPS in his hand, complaining that it did not seem to be working properly.  This might have been due to a misunderstanding on our part, since we had erroneously told them that we were in West Virginia, which no doubt confounded him since we were, in fact, in Virginia.  He told us something about the strange way Rockingham County encircles a portion of West Virginia, but otherwise seemed at a loss of what to do next.  At this point we might have been speaking for something approaching fifteen minutes, and I had long since lost interest in chatting, frustrated by the interruption in our workflow and the additional stress of having to police my dog so closely.  For her part, Sasha sustained a low growl throughout the interaction, which she would occasionally punctuate with a bark.  And so it was that in my frustration I invited them into the camp to sit beside the fire and enjoy some of the worst coffee I have ever made in my life.  I was essentially asking them to come in and completely stop our progress or leave us be—and so either way, it required a response.

            An awkward moment passed between our two parties as they seemed to weigh between them some unknown considerations.  To my eye they seemed to have more questions for us—but perhaps they were just as frustrated as we were by the interruption in theire plans.  It may be that the felled tree, the bench, and the paracord I found wrapped around some of the trees might have been part of a previous trip of theirs.  Mark had suggested that it might be an ad hoc shooting range, the paracord having been found strung between trees from which one might hang paper targets.  Adding to this was the presence of a number of shotgun shells dispersed throughout the woods but concentrated near the campsite in particular.

            “No, we’ve got to keep moving,” the older gentlemen replied and thanked us.  We wished them well and they did so in return—if rather hesitantly, like the locals I had waved to outside the gas station in Stokesville.  They returned to the road to our north and followed its curving way around our peninsula of land until at last coming to a stop at a position to our west more-or-less inline with Coelophysis Cove.  They milled about the area for some time, perhaps as much as twenty minutes, doing seemingly nothing but studying the GPS and looking around.  When at last they did leave, it was in the direction they had come, retracing their steps around the campsite along the muddy road.

            Passing in that direction again, Sasha once more leapt to action, barking out a sentry’s challenge to the departing silhouettes.  I watched as she stalked them at a considerable distance, circling in line with their movements, seemingly keeping herself between the strangers and our camp.  She finished a hundred and fifty yards or so beyond the Jeep, facing east.  As we watched them leave, I realized then that they had not come down the same road we taken from the north but had in fact come from the direction of Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness.  In our conversation with the two hunters, the younger one had commented that he vaguely knew of Ramsey’s Draft in response to my description of where I thought we were located…in West Virginia.  It seemed odd to me that had not realized they had hiked through the Wilderness to reach us, and in looking at maps later that day, the only way they could have walked in without having been hiking since close to 4 or 5 a.m. was to have crossed north through the Wilderness.  If they had parked north of there, then the trail should have been marked, indicating that they were entering Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness.

            Perhaps neither one of them had noticed.

The Jeep loaded and ready to depart.

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