The universal tool

Everyone thinks the Swiss Army knife is the universal tool. Not so fast. I’d like to nominate the zip lock bag.

Zip locks can to almost anything for an Appalachian Trail hiker. They help keep any number of things organized and dry – say your socks, food, first aid items and so much more.

Then there’s cooking. From oatmeal to Ramen, you can cook almost anything in them. Put in the food and just add boiling water. Presto!

Just today I was trying to get water from a slow running spring. I couldn’t get my water bottle in position to get any water. Out came my handy zip lock and the bottle was full in a jiffy.

Let’s hear it for the zip lock bag. It’s a hiker’s best friend and maybe his most useful tool.

20131030-201834.jpg

20131030-201856.jpg

Colors

The seasons are rapidly changing. From maple red to oak orange, the forest is preparing for its winter rest.

Everywhere you hike it is beautiful. Thanksgiving is in the air as the colors change and the 2013 southbound hikers near the Appalachian Trail finish line. There are smiles all around.

20131030-200616.jpg

20131030-200553.jpg

20131030-200533.jpg

20131030-200513.jpg

20131030-200454.jpg

Blood Mountain

There is a back story about the highest mountain in Georgia, but that’s for another day.

Today, the feared Blood Mountain was square in front of us. Hey Man! and I camped at Lance Creek, a primitive site at the foot of the mountain. The climb would begin in the morning on minute one with step one.

Around nine of 10 thru hiker blogs describe Blood Mountain as torture. I was about to take the test and find out.

It might do well to note that I’ve lived in the Peach State on three separate occasions. Most recently in Atlanta. I really do appreciate the beauty of this state. I really do.

As for Blood Mountain – Georgia is this your best shot? If so, nice mountain, but not a serious challenge.

The hike up is nicely switchbacked and punctuated with excellent stone steps which ease the effort. The iconic 1934 stone shelter on the summit is surrounded by giant boulders that add a mystical note.

The descent on the northern side is another matter. Think of it as a tossed rock salad garnished with slick leaf litter and mud from the overnight rain.

I skied down more than I hiked. Aside from one loss of dignity, a turtle, all ended well at Neel Gap’s iconic shoe tree. Better yet, the stay included a shower, laundry and a warm bed.

Sisu – Making tracks.

20131028-192955.jpg

20131030-195931.jpg

20131030-195955.jpg

20131030-200018.jpg

Hiking in the fall

Today is the sixth day since leaving Springer Mountain, the start of the northbound hike of the Appalachian Trail. I’m stealth camped at the Cheese Factory site.

No apparent reason it’s called the cheese factory. No ruins or any other indicators.

Today was a perfect Indian summer day – October 30. There’s rain in the forecast for tomorrow and Friday, but we’ll deal with that tomorrow.

It occurred to me that the fall might be the perfect time to start a thru hike for the right hikers with the skill to handle the winter months.

The advantages include low
population density on the trail, zero bugs, and with the right timing you might miss the mid-Atlantic heat, mud in Vermont, and the black flies in northern New England.

Now that I’ve logged over 200 AT miles since September, I’m toying with the idea of seeing how far I can get by Christmas; then dodging bad weather from January through March while logging as many miles as possible. It’s a thought.

All I’d have to do is finish before September 24th which is the day I stepped off from Rockfish Gap.

Some purists won’t like this, not that I would give a hoot. If I pursue this concept, I will have walked from Georgia to Maine within 12 consecutive months while passing every white blaze along the way.

Meanwhile, the hiking is delightful.

20131030-194816.jpg

Instant Neighborhood

Today, our second out of Springer was a pure delight. The temps improved and the trail grew slightly more challenging, but pleasant none the less.

It’s Columbus Day weekend and the woods are full of two-legged critters, nearly all of the from Florida. I’m thinking they’ve come this far north for some ritualistic cold weather ritual – at least as they define frigid weather. They must need an annual fix in order to fully appreciate the weather in their home state.

Imagine having to wear long pants and. Jacket I heard one exclaim adventurously. True, I thought. Anything under 80 degrees is a cold snap for them.

So, here we are – Hey Man! – and me at Gooch Gap. We’re surrounded by a sea of tents and a full shelter. A regular pop up neighborhood with some the same folks who were with us last night.

In our company are fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, buddies, friends and others. We met two southbounders on the trail. They could smell the finish line. Trash Can was with us last night and finished his hike today.

Here’s Hey Man! sharing good company around the fire.

20131026-190408.jpg

BFRs. What are they good for?

BFRs. Yup, Big Effing Rocks! What are they good for? In Appalachian Trail maintenance, most everything.

The Hoodlum work crew had another great weekend, our final regular outing until March.

The work group to which I was assigned built two check dams and a water bar on the Pass Mountain trail – a blue blaze trail in Shenandoah National Park.

This video offers a little bit of insight into the work we do and the fun we have doing the work and afterwards.

The water bar we are constructing in the video was much needed to help keep the trail in good hiking condition.

Hikers sometimes wish the trail was in better condition with fewer rocks and less erosion. Rest assured there are a ton of volunteers up and down the full length of the AT working had to keep it in the best condition possible.

If you think the rocks are bad now, imagine the AT without erosion control and other maintenance.

All erosion control structures require building material. Stone is best, but simple swales only require mounds of dirt. Logs, particularly extra hard woods such as Ash are long lasting substitutes when stone isn’t available.

If stone is preferred. Than BFRs are the best you can get.

Rock potentially lasts a lifetime. Moreover, if the stones used are ginormous enough and set deep into the trail tread, the bears have a hard time digging them up to get at the grubs that take up residence underneath. Yup, the bears love to play three card Monte with big rocks. Sometimes they even score a treat.

Chunking BFRs around is hard work with dependent mostly on brute force and ignorance. You really only need one smart person who knows where the rocks should go for best effect. That means I’m pretty much qualified be a rock technician, but not for the engineering jobs.

Erosion control structures on the AT come in a simple variety. Check dams are perpendicular to the trail with the purpose of slowing down the water flow. They should stick up a few inches and require frequently cleaning to ensure sediment doesn’t render them useless.

Water bars are set at a 45 degree angle to the trail direction. Their purpose is to direct water off the trail. Check dams and water bars frequently work in coordination with one another

Parallel drains are canals/ditches that run parallel to the trail tread for some distance until they reach a point where water can be sent away. Sometimes the trail tread is raised and the canals are made of carefully fitted stone.

Steps help prevent erosion or may simply improve the hiking experience by adding safety or by making the trail easier. Stone is preferable and more durable, but logs and compacted dirt or gravel work.

You’ve all seen the ladders and rebar in New England. Those are special cases.

Sometimes dirt swales are dug and the spoil is mounded and compacted to form a check dam or water bar that works fine as long as it lasts.

If you live close to Shenandoah National Park, consider joining the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and channel your inner 12-year-old. Become a Hoodlum Trail Crew member. It’s fun!

SOBO is the loneliest number

Image

I met a lot of SOBO (Southbound AT hikers) during my recent two week hike on the Appalachian Trail.  But with the exception of the large Millennial flash mob at Pinefield Hut, they were few and far between.

As I met southbounders along the trail, they were eager to talk and enjoy a little company.  We always exchanged the usual trail intel – water sources, was Shenandoah allowing thru hikers to pass through, trail conditions, etc.  Yet beyond that, they all said theirs was a lonely hike.  They just didn’t see that many people.

It was always best to meet up with SOBOs at shelters.  Then we had the time to enjoy each other’s company.  Usually they were by themselves.  On two occasions, other than the flash mob, there were two or three.  At Gravel Springs I ran into a thoughtful young man on a post high school gap year.  Joining us was a PhD student in cultural geography and his Spanish girlfriend from Madrid. 

On that evening and again at breakfast, we had stimulating discussions about books we’d read in common, what America was like in comparison to expectations, and we exchanged a few quips in Spanish.  BTW, the American standout was the abundance and types of wildlife.  Think real black bears in the wild – no bars, no barriers, no zoo.  Very cool to a European.

Mostly I encountered about one SOBO per day, usually a day apart from one another.  I’d always tell them who was ahead of them and how far.  A couple of them said they were trying to catch up with people.  The encounters with hikers whose blogs I’ve followed was especially sweet. 

Southbounders have a certain advantage.  Weather tends to be better, especially once they’re out of New England.  They get to avoid most of the heat, insects and the worst of the cold weather. The shelters and hostels aren’t crowed either.

There’s one thing nobody figured on.  Everybody said the trail magic ended as soon as the last NOBO bubble past them by.  It was like nobody cared anymore.  They were alone.  SOBO and solo.  I was saddened.  They were missing the best parts of the AT experience. 

Sisu – Making tracks.

The Benefit of Fitness

Image

Thirty-seven lbs. in a 40 liter pack – ugh!

 

Visions of history’s great force marches gnawed at my mind as I set out on my last training hike. This hike was deliberately designed to test my limits. 

I constantly reminded myself that my efforts and challenges were a cakewalk in comparison to the distances both armies frequently marched during the Civil War on some of the very ground upon which I was walking. 

The suffering and horror of Bataan or Napoleon’s retreat from Russia were beyond imagination or reasonable comparison.

In this context, my hike was easy.  Why, I pondered, do so many people physically succumb and drop out of their thru hike attempts?  I learned some about why that happens and would like to share it with you.

The test I created was a simple worse case scenario.  I would hike 160 miles in two weeks carrying my full winter kit and 14 days worth of food.  While knowing resupply was easy, I chose to be self-contained and heavy on purpose, just to learn how my body would handle the stress of the extra weight.

In the beginning by total pack weight was 37 lbs.  That wasn’t a monkey on my back, it was a full grown gorilla!  Jane Goodall would have been proud.  As I ate the weight down I expected some relief, but Mother Nature had other malevolent ideas. 

I ate weight, but Momma Nature countered by turning up the heat.  As I basted in my own sweat, my mind played games with my head.  I obsessed about and deeply resented the useless weight imposed by my winter base layer, the 20 degree  sleeping bag and the now useless puffy down jacket.  My clothing bag came to weigh as much as a black smith’s anvil.  Thank heaven there were no hiker boxes around tempting me to off-load a little superfluous mass.

As it was, I pushed to finish one day early in order to beat a tropical storm.  Doing that involved three consecutive 15s and one 20-mile day in 88 – 90 degree temps. Good training for summer weather I thought – fortunately minus most of the blood sucking insects.

The good news is that the time spent pushing myself to near nausea in the weight room with my trainers at Fitness Together paid off in spades. 

This hike was harder than imagined, but thanks to my weight training and running, strength and endurance were never issues.  In fact, I was able to keep pushing hard at the end of several painful and frustrating days.

Age-imposed limitations are the bad news.  After it was over, three full days elapsed before I could even contemplate resuming hiking.  The message there is that I essentially gained nothing by force marching for 13 days.  Zero mileage days actually gain time in the future. 

Today, one week after finishing, my knees are still sore.  The extra weight in my pack conspired with rocky downhill slopes to impose maximum stress on them.  Trekking poles helped some, but not enough.  I vowed that my total pack weight will never exceed 25 lbs. again, no matter what, when or why.

As the hike wore on, small aches and pains asserted themselves.  My calves wanted to cramp no matter how much I drank.  A muscle in the middle of my back decided to go on strike.  My triceps got sore from pushing and lifting myself up with my poles.  My glutes staged 60s-style protests.  I developed a stiff neck from sleeping the wrong way.  Joy was everywhere.

The object lesson is that a zero (rest day) about every fifth day would be optimal.  Zeroing at least once every seven days is mandatory for me.  Otherwise, my body will start rapidly breaking down.  Good to know now while there is still time to plan before the main event begins.

Without the extra fitness level, I would have been screwed. It is good to know, however, that I am able to push as hard, far and fast as necessary if need be.  It’s not too late for anyone hiking in 2014 to get in better shape.  Training hikes help, but weight training, boot camp fitness or cross fit under the supervision of a coach/personal trainer can impressively improve your odds of success.  Think of it as insurance.

The reason I suggest coaching, if you can afford the investment, is that most folks profit from the expertise they offer and their ability to maximize the benefit of your workouts.  For months mine have been specifically designed for hiking and they paid off.  For example, box jumps with weights are perfect training for high-stepping up stone steps and over ledges or big boulders.

And now some breaking news.  Plans have changed for my next training hike.  Roadrunners often train on the same course upon which they will race to gain familiarity.  I’m hoping this rule of thumb applies to hiking.

On October 25th class of ’14 member Mary “Hey Man!” Manley and I will begin hiking the 165 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Fontana Village, North Carolina.  She’s a recently retired nurse.  We’ll travel at her pace and on her schedule.  After reviewing “Baltimore Jack’s” notes, I think about five days worth of grub is the most I’ll ever need on this stretch. 

Not sure how it will go, but we’ll let you know how two retired folks do and will share what we learn from our individual age, gender and hiker perspectives.  You can follow Mary’s blog on WordPress and Trail Journals.

Sisu – Making tracks.

Stink Bugs + Notebook Odds and Ends

Image

 Avoiding stink bugs at Dick’s Dome Shelter

 

Some days you get the bears, and some days the bears get you. 

Day nine of my hike was the most difficult.  Hard rocks (Aren’t they all?) punctuated most of the day and I had a lot of miles to log.  A little bit of serendipity want a long way, and on balance, I got is good as I gave.

If you read my blog post on music, you know that I’ve given it a lot of attention.  Three times on day nine, music lifted my spirits and lightened my load. 

The first musical magic was Willy Nelson singing  “A Little Bit of Karma” just as the trail leveled out after a long steep climb.  I muttered a weary thanks to Karma, my 2013 thru hiker friend, for her kindly intervention.  This woman has certain super powers.  Could she be a saint, I wondered?  Then, just as soon as the song finished, the trail turned upward again. 

Not much later, John Denver crooned “Country Roads” just as the blue hills of West Virginia hung on the horizon.  I sang along. After all, West Virginia was destination and it would be “almost heaven” when I got there.

Better yet, a couple of hours later, as I worked my way up Pass Mountain with twilight close behind, Hanna Montana uplifted my stride with “The Climb.”  Music saved the day.

Needless to say, after day nine, my feet ached, but not as much as they might have.  My podiatrist made me special orthotics to protect against plantar fasciitis.  They are worth the investment.  They did need an adjustment to widen the heel cup on the left one.  Once it’s back from the lab, I’ll be back agitating AT gravel. 

The first thing I heard a southbounder complained about was stink bugs.  This surprised me because I didn’t recall anyone complaining about them on Trail Journals.  The further north I got, the more prevalent these nosy pests became. 

When I reached the Tom Floyd shelter at mid day, hundreds of them had taken up residence.  A day later I set my tent up inside Dick’s Dome so I could get a peaceful night’s sleep.  Precautions aside, a couple of dead ones fell out of my pack as I emptied it back home.  I’ve got a bad feeling about these guys fellow fourteeners.

Electronics and storage batteries became a challenge.  My 10.5 amp hour storage battery failed for the second time.  I had to heavily ration my phone and iPod batteries.  I did get to charge them at waysides and Bear’s Den.  However, I wasn’t able to blog or take many photos with my phone, or listen to my iPod except for an hour or two at night. I’m working on the fix.

Phone battery hell.  Temps around 40 on the first few mornings played hell with my phone battery, cutting the charge from 50 percent to zero.  I was surprised at this level of sensitivity to cold.  All I had to do was warm it back up, but figuring out how to keep it next to my body in the much colder temps next spring is a must.  Batteries like to be comfortable.

Last, my wife and I developed a system for staying in touch, not knowing how reliable phone service or email might be.  At each opportunity I texted her the AWOL guide NOBO mileage number as I passed landmarks and had phone service.  A simple 968.3 was easier to get through on one bar than something more complicated.  While I couldn’t always text my final daily location, we never went more that 12 hours being out of touch.

Rock Taxonomy

Image

Tennessee Tripping Stone.

 

It’s ironic that, in comparison to one another, the Rocky Mountains aren’t and the Appalachians are. 

Put more directly, if the only rocks on the Appalachian Trail that hurt your feet were limited to Pennsylvania, then hiking the AT would be a piece of cake.  Unfortunately, ugly boot-eating rocks are everywhere throughout the length of the AT.  Even if you could run from them, you couldn’t hide.

On my recent 160-mile training hike, the southbounders regaled me with stories about under estimating Connecticut while bitching about New York, New Jersey and Maryland rocks, all  in the same breath.  Don’t even start them on New Hampshire and Maine.  Pennsylvania?  They described it as “average!”  Vermont seemed to be the only exception, but what kind of trade off is mud?

Late on day eight, a particularly rocky stretch on the steep down hill from Mary’s Rock (best view of the Shenandoah Valley) was eating my feet for lunch.  The trail was seriously rocky and my feet hurt like hell.  I still had four miles to go.

In the low angle light of the setting sun I glanced at my hiking poles and noticed a string of spider webs streaming from them like Tibetan prayer flags.  That would be serendipitous I thought. If my poles only had prayer wheels, I just might make it.  That’s when I began thinking about classifying the different kinds of rocks under my feet.

Rocks aren’t just rocks.  Each has a job and role to play as part of the trail.  The more benevolent among them are esthetic.  Usually covered in moss or lichens, they hang out like runway models along the sides of the tread.  Others tumble down talus fields or become giant boulders that frame the scenery.

As for the rest of them, well…  There are generic Pennsylvania grade rocks.  They primarily ensure that the trail surface is as uneven as possible with the idea of slowing down hikers.  Think of the as speed bumps. 

Among the most common are Tennessee Tripping Stones.  These are specially planted snaggle tooth rocks notable for their triangular shape resembling miniature Matterhorns.  They’re found randomly and with a surprising regularity.  When hidden among generic rocks or obscured by leaf litter, it’s easy for them to score stumbles and bruise toes.  The trail has teeth.

One of the least of my favorites are a certain kind of small loose rocks that cause very nasty falls.  When descending down hill, hikers have to put their weight on their lead foot.  If you happen to step on a round rock that acts much like a ball bearing, your downhill foot shoots out from under you, and you assume the telemark position in cross country skiing as your trailing knee dives into the trail.  Since I love compound German words, I made one up for these kind of rocks – kugellager steinen or ball bearing rocks – seems apropos. 

Along the way I found a few Shenandoah Stumbling Blocks.  This glorious style of coffee can-size stones appears randomly in hopes of hobbling, harassing and slowing.  They love to hide in leaf litter.

Then there are universal ankle rollers.  These you never see, but you know what happens. 

My least favorite is the Susquehanna Snot Slicker.  This type of stone is used almost exclusively for stream crossings.  Notable for their teflon-smooth convex surfaces, their dome shaped top ensures that hikers get a minimal grip on them.  Very slippery when dry, they’re slipperier than snot when wet.  Cross at your own risk.

But it doesn’t end there.  Terrible talus and pole benders are abundant too.  Get movin’ too fast when a pole bender traps your walking sticks, and Leki gets to gift you a new end segment ’cause the old one has just taken a 90 degree turn!

There must be more.  I heard about crazy capsizers – loose stones that turn over when you step on them, but I didn’t encounter any. 

BTW, it took my feet two full days to recover from the ride down Mary’s Rock.  Can’t wait to get back out there and make some tracks.  Sisu