Hemlock Overlook sign, October 14, 2006


Ropes Course and Camping
October 14-15, 2006

Last updated November 12, 2006



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Day One | Day Two

A few years ago, my supervisor told me about a corporate team building class she took in which they worked in small groups to negotiate various obstacles and solve an assortment of problems. The goal was to teach communication, patience, and teamwork. Since then, my company stopped sending its employees to this type of training. I was a bit jealous because this was a course I would surely enjoy.

I was happy to learn that the Maryland Outdoor Club was planning on hosting such an event. I signed up for the course then met my fellow team members on October 14, 2006 at the Hemlock Overlook Center for Outdoor Education.

Day One: October 14, 2006

The previous night I got about four hours of sleep. The night before about five. I don't remember beyond that. I was not functioning at my best, either mentally or physically. That morning, a nice caffeinated Diet Pepsi was my best friend.

I awoke at 0500, got packed, picked up Norma at 0700, then drove to Clifton, Virginia for the Hemlock Overlook High Ropes Course. Traffic was light. I was looking forward to a challenging weekend of physical activity in the woods. But as we neared our destination, I was a little disappointed to see some of the nice mega-mansions on large lots. Not quite the woodsy atmosphere I was hoping for.

We arrived at the parking lot at 0815. Enough to catch a few winks of shut-eye. Not surprisingly, I was a little too pumped to sleep. Soon after, others arrived. Guess I was at the right place. I got out of my car to mingle with the others. I generally take pride in trying to learn people's names...not just the names of the good looking chicks, but everyone. This morning, however, my mind was functioning on only three out of six cylinders. I remember meeting one of the leaders, Shelley. It was cold and she was wearing shorts. Hence, I referred to her as "Shivering Shelley" though I found out later that she wasn't really cold.

Two facilitators from the George Mason University and Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority run Hemlock Overlook Center for Outdoor Education introduced themselves then ran us through a series of ice-breaker activities that I found quite enjoyable. I learned that Colin spoke five languages in addition to English, Ronit was a sign language interpreter who was learning to play guitar, and that Shivering Shelley is training for a running race. Others in our group included Laura (the co-leader), Meir, Dan, Beth, Aimee, Joe, Sarah, Melissa, Jesus, Andrew, Sarah, Woody, Carol, and Norma.

Woody and Carol went for a hike.

We were told that there were three zones each of us might experience throughout each activity: the comfort zone, the challenge zone, and the panic zone. The goal of the facilitators was to put us in the challenge zone.

After the ice-breakers, we were split up into two, eight person groups. The group I was in was tasked with trying to balance all eight people on a small wooden square. Once we were successful, we had to balance on a smaller square. That was much more difficult but we again succeeded once we thought more clearly about the instructions.

Next, the team I was on went to an area where we had to balance on cables to get from tree to tree. What made it difficult was that we had to either be touching a tree or someone touching a tree who was not on the ground. Despite repeated attempts, we failed.

Our last challenge in the eight person teams was a game that was sort of like checkers where each of us were the pieces. Again, we failed though I suspect that given more time, we would have been successful.

We all joined up for the zip line. We donned helmets and climbing harnesses. It was clear that the folks who ran the course took safety as first priority. We climbed up a ladder to a platform I suspect was about 15 feet high. Then carabiners and straps were attached to our harness that connected us to a safety cable. We walked across the cables, holding onto either one cable above or two to our sides. At the next station, we were connected to another safety cable. This was the zip line. We held onto some nylon straps then jumped off a platform I reckon was about 30 feet above the ground. We slid across the cables at a gradual decline and a fairly fast speed to the end point, about 300 feet away. Then we unhooked and walked the cable back for the next person. It was like an amusement park ride.


After lunch, we paired up and led our blindfolded partner for a trail walk to the next challenge.

Now we were at the peanut butter pit. It was an 11 foot by 11 foot square filled with water. Above it hung a rope. We had to retrieve the rope. Some of us, including the person who grabbed the rope, were blindfolded. We succeeded by leaning Dan across the water with the rest of us holding onto him to keep him from falling in. Then we had to swing on the rope across the pit to the other side. A few non-blindfolded people ventured across first. Then those of us blindfolded (me included) went across. It wasn't too difficult since people at the other side caught us and helped us down. It was an exercise in trust. See first photo on left. Special thanks to Aimee for providing the picture.

Next, we walked back up the trail with the same partner but this time the other person was blindfolded.

We ended our day at Hemlock Overlook by climbing over an approximately 11 foot wall. This required pulling from the top and pushing from the bottom. We managed to get everyone over safely and fairly quickly. It was definitely fun but having to spot people just to come down an 8 foot ladder that was rigid, immovable, and securely fixed at both the top and the bottom seemed a little extreme.

There were some group discussion afterwards where we talked about what we learned and what we found challenging.

Finally, we worked as a team to get a van out of a ditch. Though it was supposedly a coincidence, I wondered if the facilitators made that our final test to see if we would take initiative and work as a team. Had that been the case, I'm sure they were pleased with how we reacted.

Red haired Sarah bid farewell. The rest of us drove to Bull Run Regional Park.

Eskimos have many different words for snow. I think there should be many different words for camping. Actually there are though not enough. There is car camping, backpacking, and primitive kayak camping. For some people, sleeping in a cabin is camping. For others, putting up a tent in the back yard is camping. Some people stay in a recreational vehicle (RV) with a satellite dish and call that camping. Our camping at Bull Run was car camping but rather posh camping. The park has a pool, Frisbee golf course, playground, soccer field, laundry machines, cabins, etc.

We set up tents and I caught a cat nap. Then we ate a delicious chicken and rice burrito dinner around a blazing campfire. Home baked food for dessert. All yummy. We played various campfire games and if nobody remembers anything else, they will remember that Norma was once bit by a prairie dog in Japan. See second photo at left for a black-tailed prarie dog (cynomys ludovicianus) at the National Zoo on November 11, 2006. Not the same kind that bit Norma but get a load of those teeth!
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Day Two: October 15, 2006

The forecast called for a low of 33 degrees during the night. It seems the time after the humid, mosquito infested summer and the cold part of autumn last only a few days. Those days were now over.

Norma and I awoke with the silhouette of a frog on the top of our tent. Interesting seeing it from below. Sort of the opposite of seeing birds flying below us as we perched from the top of Seneca Rocks during the Columbus Day Weekend 2006.

Laura, Shelley, and Jesus made a delicious egg and sausage breakfast. But no magic sausage juice.

After getting things put away, Colin took some of the group to explore an old Civil War battlefield not far away. I took Jesus, Laura, Sarah, Dan, Melissa, Ronit, and Norma hiking on the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail (BROT) which starts about 200 meters from the camp store at a small wooden bridge.

This light blue blazed 17.5 mile trail is maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). It is located along the Occoquan Reservoir in Fairfax County, Virginia. The BROT area is comprised of over 4000 acres of woodlands.

Early English colonists gave Bull Run its name, applying the name "rundle" or "run" to streams not affected by the tide and thereby running in one direction. The word "Occoquan" is of Powhatan Indian origin. It means "at the end of the water" [1].

We began hiking at 1125, maintaining a pretty good pace. After crossing over a boardwalk (see first photo at left), we followed Cub Run downstream to Bull Run.

Though it was autumn, things were still looking quite green (see second photo at left)

I checked the stream for kayaking. Too shallow.

We came across a very large tree with a hollow center. See Laura exploring the insides of the tree in third photo on left.

Continuing downstream, we walked under Ordway Road. We stopped for lunch at a rocky, sunny area with a rope swing hanging above the water (see fourth photo at left). It was quite a contrast between the near freezing morning and the warm, sunny rocks. This was obviously the hangout for some of the local young people. Unfortunately, it was also an area strewn with litter.

After lunch, we walked past a parking lot for the trail on the west side of Centreville Road. Looks like the lot would hold about a dozen cars. There were signs at the lot explaining the historical significance of the area during the Civil War. Bull Run was a strategic defense line between the north and south and was the site of two major battles, First and Second Manassas (or Bull Run) [1].

Now the stream was looking somewhat paddle-able. At this Centreville Road parking lot, I found a sign that described the Occoquan Water Trail. I'm definitely coming back here with my kayak.

We ventured on a bit further then turned around and headed back. Since the trail followed the Bull Run and Occoquan River, there was no way to make our little walk into a circuit hike.

We finished our hike at 1445. My Garmin GPSMAP 76S global positioning system (GPS) unit said we walked 7.79 miles.

Back at the camp store, we bid our farewells. Nothing terribly scenic on our hike and no interesting wildlife. Still, it was nice to get out on a nice sunny day, stretch the legs, and enjoy the company of good people (see fifth photo at left).
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

[1] from "Bull Run-Occoquan Trail" pamphlet distributed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and Recreational Equipment, Incorporated (REI).