oLD RAG STEWARDS KEEP WATCH ON MADISON COUNTY MOUNTAIN JEWEL
By Jane DeGeorge
Published: May 13, 2009
In some areas of the country, the pink blossom of a lady’s slipper orchid is a rare sight.
“If you’re a local and just saw one on [Old Rag] Mountain, you would think they’re like dandelions,” said hiker Bob Look, 54. “In other parts of the country, people would go ‘gaga’ just to see one.”
The unusual orchid is one of many flowers and other plant species unique to the billion-year old granite mountain, located in the Madison County portion of Shenandoah National Park.
Mountains often “function like an island” in that their climates are unique and provide fragile environments to plants and animals uncommon to their surrounding areas.
“As you go up a mountain it gets colder, the soil changes…there are species there that exist nowhere else,” said Look, who does patrol hikes on the mountain as a volunteer with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and Old Rag Mountain Stewards.
Look – who lives and works in Northern Virginia – has spent at least one day hiking Old Rag every weekend for the past year and half. A former avid rock climber, Look first hiked Old Rag about 36 years ago to “scout out the rocks.” The abundance of open rock along the “Alpine-like” hike left a lasting impression on Look, who returned to hiking a couple years ago after taking a two decade-long break.
The frequent hiker insists there are many other Old Rag visitors who make their way up to the 3,291-foot summit much more often than he.
“There used to be a fellow who lived in a cabin right outside the upper lot who, for a couple years, did a circuit everyday…when he was even in his 70s he did a lot of circuits,” Look said.
“If I’ve done 50 circuits in the last year Chad and Andy have done a hundred times that amount,” Look said of Andy Nichols and Chad Heddleston – two Rappahannock County natives that also volunteer with the Old Rag Mountain Stewards group.
Look says he’s encountered an abundance of warmth from the mountain’s Madison County neighbors since he started his frequent visits to the area. While picking up some trash left on the side of Nethers Road (Route 600) near one of the trail’s entrances recently, a nearby resident who was driving by stopped to chat.
“She walked toward me and said, ‘I just wanted to say thank you. Bless you for picking up trash,’” Look recalled.
The woman told him a story about how a visitor to the area had once left a big pile of trash in her driveway and, unfortunately for them, there were some items included in the pile that had their address on it.
She boxed up all of the trash and then mailed it off with a note that said, “I think you forgot something,” Look said laughing.
“I thought, at least she has a sense of humor,” he said, adding that he understands the park’s neighbors’ frustration as he has sometimes become equally upset by the leftover trash and inappropriate parking by some of the area’s visitors.
In addition to the human hikers, Look often encounters animals that favor the trail, such as black bears – his record is spotting eight bears in one day – and local dogs, such as Junior, a Burmese shepherd who likes to hike sans owner.
Junior – whose owners gave him a special tag with a “I’m a local dog and I know my way home”-type of message – likes to latch on to some groups and hike alongside humans for a few hours before heading off on his own.
“He’s a little color on the mountain,” Look said.
But some local dog hikers have caused human visitors along the trail some grief, Look said. Junior likes to hike up the mountain and then take a snooze in the shade beneath some rocks. But he’s a sound sleeper and often doesn’t respond to calls while napping, which has caused some hikers to call in rangers for help suspecting the pup has passed away.
Even though Look sometimes spots these dogs, pets (even when on a leash) are prohibited on Old Rag Mountain.
With an average of 50,000 hikers heading up the mountain every year, the trail sometimes backs up.
“The longest we’ve seen was a little over an hour [wait]. The line was about 250 people,” he said of an area near the summit where hikers are required to boost themselves up between two boulders and scramble through rocks.
Although the mountain’s high number of visitors turns some people off, Look enjoys encountering fellow hikers and observing people experience their trip up Old Rag, he said.
“There’s certain places I’m comfortable with now, but I can kind of remember thinking, ‘Geez…if I have to do this, I wonder what’s around that next corner,’” he said. “It’s interesting to see people experience that for the first time…and you know it’s going to be something they’re going to remember.”
Look often suggests hikers avoid the big crowds by “time shifting” and visiting the mountain either later in the day or on weekdays when visitor numbers are down. Surprisingly though, there is typically always even a few people up on the mountain, Look says.
Moonlight hikers and adventure running clubs often do circuit hikes in the evening. Look has seen several head lamp-topped runners proceeding up the mountain at 9 p.m. since it’s the only time they can run along the trails with no one in their way.
“You would think there would never be anyone there at night but it’s not true,” he said.
The goals of the two organizations Look represents is to help protect the mountain’s resources as well as serve as an “ambassador” to hikers to make sure they enjoy their time and hike safely.
Look – as well as other Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and Old Rag Mountain Stewards volunteers – wears patches with the organizations’ names on the left side pocket area of his shirts and encourages anyone who spots him hiking to stop and chat.
Shenandoah National Park representatives initiated the creation of the Old Rag Mountain Stewards in an effort to lessen the impact of the abundance of hikers stomping on the mountain every year.
As the park worked to develop its “rock outcrop management plan,” one of the thoughts was to promote outreach and education of hikers as another avenue of lessening the impact of the use of the mountain rather than closing off even more areas of the park than are already restricted to the public.