Bear-Resistant Food Storage

IMG_0113

BV 500

Appalachian Trail, November 9, 2019 — About this time every year, next year’s thru hikers start the food storage debate.  Some are going to hang it.  Some are going to carry bear canisters.  Others argue for Ursacks.  A few brave Darwin Award candidates claim they’re going to use their food bags as pillows.

The fact is that most shelters on the AT don’t have bear cables, bear poles or bear boxes.  Of those without, many are surrounded by trees the limbs of which are so high that a NFL quarterback might have difficulty tossing a line.

IMG_2385.JPG

Fifty feet of rope.

The discussions tend to proceed along emotional rather than practical lines.  The contrarians definitely assert themselves.

The list of practical reasons to seriously consider how to protect your food is getting longer.  On the AT, only bear canister requirement is for a short distance on Blood Mountain. It can easily be avoided by camping at the Lance Creek campground.  It’s an easy hike on into Neels Gap the next day.

The bear canister requirement on Blood Mountain was created when bears learned to shake food bags off the bear cables at Woods Hole shelter.

The AT Conservancy is highly recommending bear canisters along the entire AT HERE  because the number of food-related human/bear encounters is growing.  Here’s what the AT Conservancy had to say about bear incidents 2018.

D50B1748-477F-4BC5-B9CC-B7B9A10CE55F

Bears do what human’s teach them.

Sometimes what happened before you came along matters most.  This tent had no food.  The bear learned that some tents have food, so it opens them up to check.  Other bears routinely enter shelters to forage and take what they find.

Before we discuss canisters and Ursacks, the PCT bear hanging method is worth a mention.  Done properly, it is effective.  The problem is that too many people improperly hang their food and then blame the bear that took it.  PCT Bear Hanging Method is at this link.  You Tube:  Here.

IMG_2380

PCT Method.

BV&Ursack

BV 500 and Ursack.

Now lets try and not to start a WWE match over canisters vs. the Ursack.  Each has practical considerations plus strengths and weaknesses such as size and weight.  Both should* be tied to trees so that bears can’t carry them off.

*Clarification:  One manufacturer does not recommend tying bear cans to trees.  The NPS is ambiguous.  The concern is that nothing should be done that would permit bears to get leverage that would improve their chances of opening the canister.  I’ve had a bear cart one away that I was unable to find.  Thus, you’ll find me with my bear can tied to a tree with a long rope well away from camp.

Ursacks must definitely be tied to a tree to be most effective.*

THIS IS NOT A COMPLETE COMPARISON OF ALL BRANDS OR MODELS.  IT’S PURPOSE IS TO HELP YOU THINK YOUR WAY THROUGH YOUR CHOICE OF BEAR PROTECTION FOR YOUR FOOD. Google is your friend.

Canisters:  Canisters are the most foolproof but can be difficult to fit into your pack.  I had to upsize to a 65 liter pack to practically fit a Bear Vault 500 and the way I like to pack my other gear – in waterproof stuff sacks rather than packing it loosely around the canister. My normal pack is 50 liters.

The BV 450 is smaller and an easier fit.  Since it will hold four days worth of food, we issue it to our ridgerunners who are normally on the trail for four nights and five days.  For many, it’s a best value.

bear vault

BV 500 and BV 450.

BV 500. 2 lbs. 9 oz.  7 days.  $79.95.                             BV 450. 2 lbs. 1 oz.  4 days.  $69.95.

Other canisters such as the Frontiersman Insider Bear Safe are longer, thinner, and a bit more practical, but also heavier.

bear safe

Frontiersman Insider Bear Safe.

Frontiersman. 3 lbs. 7 days.  $78.95

Bearikade carbon fiber canisters are several hundred dollars but cool as hell. Check them out.

Any of the canisters can be rented.  Lightly used canisters can also be found on gear for sale sites at discounted prices.

Ursacks:  Ursacks are a made of ultra strong Laminated UHMWP and Kevlar. UHMWP is Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene.

Ursackmetalsleeve

When combined with an aluminum sleeve, Ursacks are highly bear resistant.

 

Ursack AllMitey.  13 oz. 5 days. $134.95.

Ursack Major.  7.6 oz.  5 days. $84.95.

Ursack aluminum liner.  $39.95.

Ursack also recommends odor reducing bag liners.

Now for the dark side.  None of these methods is perfect.  I know, you’re shocked.  Bad hang and the bear gets your food.  They also have been known to break into containers or destroy food inside Ursacks.

IMG_3697

Bad news for a Bear Vault.

IMG_4483

The bear got a taste of Sriracha.

Ursack

Ursack contents, post chew.

What ever you do, check out the containers approved by the U.S. government’s  Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.  They are the only containers allowed where food protection is required out west, the John Muir Trail for example.  There are many more brands and models than those discussed here.    Certified Bear-resistant Products.

The Forest Service, Park Service, BLM and others really do care about your safety.  Their certification helps you sort through the marketing hype and the trolls’ bullshit.

In may sound like a cliche, but a fed bear is a dead bear.  Let’s do what we can to keep our bears safe, ok?

Sisu.

 

 

 

The 2019 Ridgerunner Season Begins

IMG_3560

Sabine and Mary at Annapolis Rock, Maryland with Greenbriar Lake in background.

Appalachian Trail, Maryland and Shenandoah National Park, April 1 – 14, 2019 — Dawn cracked to reveal a chilly drizzle like the warmth a Sunday school teacher might project showing a little leg through clouds of petticoats.  Right place.  Wrong idea.  Can’t see that much, so up the mountain we marched. 

Mary is a veteran ridgerunner some readers will recall from last year’s blog entries about her service in Shenandoah.  This season her Maryland tour is seven-months long.  She will be reinforced by another ridgerunner from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  She started on the auspicious First of April. No joke.

Sabine will be in Shenandoah National Park through early September.  She arrived a tad early to observe and get to know Mary before launching her own long march toward autumn on her 102 miles of the AT she’ll be patrolling some 55 miles southward.

20190401_1845221Earlier Mary had kicked down winter’s door, Hoovering up the off-season detritus like a caretaker opening a musty summer house long dormant.  That’s bags of trash to the uninitiated. 

On her first morning sweep of the Pine Knob shelter she found two backpacks apparently  abandoned on the floor.  No note.  That’s more common than one may imagine.  People get tired, wet, quit, and abandon their gear all the time.  Regardless, they were available for animals to rummage.  She decided to wait and see. 

On her evening swing they were still there, so she packed them out tandem style to the Greenbriar State Park visitor center. 

The knuckleheads called the park looking for them late in the evening.  They’d been day hiking from the Pennsylvania border.  Unfortunately the packs weren’t available til morning.  Sorry guys.

IMG_3570

Off we marched to begin patrolling the area between Annapolis Rock and the Pogo campsite.  Trash picking was easy.

IMG_3568

Pogo, where a tree fell atop one of the iconic fire pits.

IMG_3562

Ridgerunning is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to find – tent poles, plastic container and a rubber band slingshot.

IMG_3566

IMG_3567

Painted rocks have become a trend in the hiking world.  We found one at Black Rock that seems to advertise a lake front development in Maryland.  There will be follow up with the developer.

IMG_3571

Drying out.  Caretaker tent graciously donated by REI.

IMG_3576

Senseless vandalism.

IMG_3577

Photo:  Mary Thurman.

IMG_3575

Please pad your anchors and save the trees.

20190406_2109261

Somebody actually tried a bear hang instead of hooking their food bag on one of the tines.  This method actually makes it much easier for the bear to get the food. 😦

Sabine’s OJT at Annapolis Rock was complete.  On to Shenandoah.

IMG_3586

Shenandoah day one starts in the backcountry office for orientation, paperwork and equipment issue.  Then it’s a hike to check the north boundary kiosk.

We made a side trip to hike the cult-like Piney Memorial Trail and paid our respects to the fallen.  While there, the ridgerunner janitorial instinct kicked in.

IMG_3588

The first overnight is at the luxurious Indian Run Maintenance Hut which is available to the ridgerunners when in the area.

IMG_3589

First showdown with a hanging tangle.  She drew her clippers faster than Gary Cooper in “High Noon” and cut that sucker down.  Note the full trash bag.

IMG_3592

Foundation of what was once intended to be a restroom for a “colored” picnic area that never was built.

IMG_3593

Taking a break on a handy rock.

IMG_3598

Second night at Gravel Spring.  Not sure if the tree is apple, cherry or otherwise.

IMG_3596

Sabine’s trail name is “Foureyes.”  Not what you’d think for a hiker who’s done the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail while in between earning a PhD in physics.

IMG_3600

Some people come to the trail ignorant, thoughtless and unprepared.  Yes, it’s what it appears to be.  Digging cat holes to bury other people’s feces is one of the more unappealing aspects of the job.  You have to want to protect the trail with all of your heart to do this work.

Third night at Pass Mountain.  The tree blew down on a campsite before the camper was there.  It was a dark and stormy night.  Really!

IMG_3623

Watching the hawks atop Mary’s Rock on a brilliant day.

fullsizeoutput_1ea0

Final night.  Rock Spring.

fullsizeoutput_1ea1

Final day.  Welcome to Jurassic Park. Come right in.  Ummm, I mean Shenandoah National Park …  May your hike toward autumn be a pleasant one.

Susu

 

New Ridgerunning Season Coming Soon.

IMG_3501

Kensington, MD, March 12, 2019 — The snow drops are up!  As sure as daylight savings time, snow drops are a natural alarm clock announcing it’s time to get ready for a new season on the Appalachian Trail.

Here’s the starting line up.  Our first Shenandoah National Park Hoodlums trail crew work trip is this weekend.  As reported here, there’s still plenty of storm damage to clear.

No fooling, our first ridgerunner starts in Maryland April first.  The second ridgerunner begins patrolling in Shenandoah on April 8.  The remaining four are scheduled for mid-May.  Project ahead two weeks and we’re there. So, let’s get ready to rock and roll!

We’ve been getting ready for awhile.  The budget was submitted last year.  The application deadline was January 31.  Hiring occurred in February.  The last of the supplies and equipment arrived last week.

IMG_3449

First to arrive was six Bear Vault BV 450 bear canisters.  These are the half-size canisters with a four-day capacity.  They are very difficult for a bear to open or break.  I’m certain Yogi and Boo Boo hate them, but I can all but guarantee that Mr. Ranger loves them.

Why bear canisters?  The number of human-bear encounters is increasing each year.  The 2018 reported incidents are at this link:  ATC 2018 Bear Incident List

D50B1748-477F-4BC5-B9CC-B7B9A10CE55F.JPG

Some of these incidents included stolen food bags and damaged tents.  Fortunately there were no injuries though there have been nasty injuries and even a death in previous years.

Bears become food conditioned because careless backpackers, day hikers and others leave food or food trash at or near shelter areas and campsites.  Ultimately bears learn to identify shelters, tents and backpacks with food.

IMG_2367.JPG

Camera studies by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service show the first place bears go in camp is the fire pit because people toss food trash thinking it will burn.  It does not burn completely so the residue continues to attract bears long after the fire is out.

Once bears associate humans or places where human’s congregate with food, the potential for trouble compounds when bears lose their natural fear of people.

Bear canisters make it difficult for a bear to get a food reward.  Ridgerunners uniformed presence on the trail affords them visibility.  The weight of the example they set by carrying bear canisters complements the educational component of their mission.

IMG_3502.JPG

We experimented last season by having some of our ridgerunners carry BV 500 canisters loaned to us by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  They voted unanimously for the smaller version.  Comparison of a BV 450 and the larger BV 500 on the right.  The stickers help tell them apart.  The reflective tape helps find them of an animal decides to bat one around.

IMG_3503

Additional equipment includes 12-inch folding saws, clippers, SAM splints, and work gloves.  The rope and tarps help cover the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.

fullsizeoutput_1de2

Meanwhile I have recovered from off-season Dupuytren’s release surgery.  I have two more impacted fingers on my other hand and hope they can wait until September.

img_3957

Next stop.  Setting up the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.  Can’t wait.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

Trail Magic: Leapfrog Cafe

fullsizeoutput_166a

Old Forge Picnic Area, Michaux State Forest, PA, May 2, 2018 — Trail magic in the hiking world is thought of as an unexpected act of kindness, generosity or discovery, or finding exactly what you need most when you least expect it.

Trail magic can make your day or your hike.  It can move you to tears, restore your faith in humanity, or stimulate extreme gratitude; sometimes all three.

As you can imagine, hikers love trail magic, but not all of it is welcome. Unattended trail magic can food condition animals and litter the forest with heaps of trash.

trail magic

This trail magic in Maine attempted to get it right but failed because it was unattended.  Animals could easily open these containers or a careless hiker could fail to close them.  Moreover, it’s personal property left on public lands and helps create expectations of free food for hikers.

IMG_2374

Those who bestow trail magic are known as trail angels.  Tim Davis is one. That’s about an eight-pound omelet he’s making for me in that frying pan.

Following a thru hike attempt where his ill-tempered knees failed to cooperate, the generous-hearted electrician wanted to stay involved and turned to cooking which is his second love after hiking.  Tim’s trail name is Fresh Ground for the beans he ground up and the fresh coffee he brewed with them each morning of his hike.

He invented the Leapfrog Cafe as the means to deliver his love to hikers. He sets up the Leapfrog Cafe for a few days, then moves up the trail to find new hikers.

IMG_2166

The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe was a welcome discovery in 2015 when, as a ridgerunner, I splashed out of an icy rain into Gooch Gap, GA.  The freshly grilled banana pancakes and steaming coffee were simply divine and exactly what I needed. If I was crying out of thanks, no one could tell if it was rain or tears running down my freezing red cheeks.

Later, I enticed several hikers, who had been dodging the rain for several days at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, to move on with the promise of fresh pancakes and hot coffee at the bottom of the soppy mountain.

Then, it was my duty to discuss Leave No Trace principles with Fresh Ground.  For one, he didn’t lock up his trash at night in bear country.  Since, he’s refined his methodology to be truly compliant.

This trip, since the Cafe was only slightly more than an hour away from home, I spent most of the day hanging out at the Cafe.  I brought cases of Coke, grape and root beer sodas plus a cash donation as a small payback for the priceless kindness I received not that long ago.

IMG_2377

Hand washing station for filthy-handed hikers.  The water has bleach in it.  He properly disposes of his gray water afterward.

IMG_2379

A clean towel covers the picnic table in the food prep area. Sanitation is paramount.

Hiker feeds like this are not allowed to charge money or accept donations.  Fresh Ground has a Facebook page and Go Fund Me page for that. Initially he saved and used his own money.  Now he does that, but accepts donations, 100 percent of which go towards feeding the hikers.

IMG_2388

Stopping at the Leapfrog Cafe can be like a fine dining experience with the owner doing double duty as the server.  Pancakes, omelets, hot dogs, taco bowls, fresh fruit, cookies and lemonade are on the menu.  He now packs up every night and operates out of picnic and off trail areas.

fullsizeoutput_1692

Even the hikers need photographic souvenirs.

The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe, featuring live entertainment by “Strummy String.”  He says his instrument is a reformulated mountain dulcimer.

fullsizeoutput_1690

Trail magic is criticized for causing hikers to congregate.  But, whenever hikers stop for a bit, there’s always an opportunity to talk and sometimes make a difference.

IMG_2385

While talking to “Research” who is a psych professor on sabbatical from a college in Macon, GA, I learned she had hiked within a shout of the half-way point and didn’t know how to hang her food bag. She thought she couldn’t throw the line high enough.  “Never fear!” I offered.  “There’s a way even you can throw like Tom Brady.”

fullsizeoutput_1672

After loading a sock with a rock and knotting it to her bear line, Research learned to fling the sock over a tall branch by swinging it underhand.

The next step in the PCT hang is threading the rope through a carabiner, then hoisting the food bag up to the branch level.  Here she’s tying a clove hitch on a stick that will prevent the bag from sliding back into bear reach.  Reverse process to retrieve the food.

IMG_2380

Success!!!  I love it when someone is excited about learning something new.

IMG_2396

Fresh Ground planning his next move while Research destroys a taco bowl.

At dusk, the Leapfrog Cafe disappeared into the sunset headed for its next surprise location.  With luck, that will be near you.

Sisu

 

Busy

IMG_4613

Digging a bear pole hole.

Northern Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail, July 21-24, 2016 — It was time for the monthly PATC ridgerunner meeting, this time at the Blackburn Trail Center where “Trailboss” is the caretaker and gracious host.  Since he has an endless list of projects, Robin Hobbs and I showed up early to help do some work at the Sam Moore shelter (AT NOBO mile 999.6).

IMG_4614

Bear poles have hooks to hang food bags using a forked pole, here tied down on the far side of the pole.

IMG_4615

The pole is set 18 inches in the ground with four 60-lb. bags of concrete.

IMG_4632

Working bear pole at Jim & Molly Denton shelter.

While the Sam Moore overseer and I installed the bear pole, Robin and Trailboss hiked north to clear two blowdowns across the AT.

IMG_4619

We finished up by replacing a fire ring with a new fire grate.

IMG_4620

The social and dinner prompted a lot of discussion.  This is where the real business is done.

IMG_4628

Sara Leibold, our Northern Virginia ridgerunner and I started patrolling immediately following the meeting.

We spent the first night at the Tom Floyd Wayside shelter with three others.

IMG_4625

We took a break after picking up micro trash at the John Singleton Mosby campsite.  It is deep in the area Mosby’s raiders patrolled during the civil war.

IMG_4624

Along the way we clipped plenty of vegetation which grows prolifically this time of year.

Our last evening was spent at the Denton shelter with a large grouping of campers. Sunday morning we hiked to a road where Sara’s dad was waiting to take her home to Alabama for a whirlwind visit.  She works 10 on and four off which gives her sufficient time.

IMG_4621

It wasn’t until much later that I realized Sara might be a serial killer! 😉

IMG_4637

Tried to photograph an interesting spider web with a phone camera.  No luck.  A good camera is on my Christmas list.

I was testing a new Osprey pack for use in the 100-mile wilderness next week.  It carries nicely, but I like the cargo features of my old one.  On a long hike the ride is more important, so the new pack made the Maine manifest.

Next stop Kennebunkport to see my friend Ed, the guy who taught me to split granite.  Then to Manchester, NH to pick up Wendy “Pepsi Hiker” Horn at the airport and head for Millinocket where we’ll drop my car and get shuttled to Monson to begin our 100-mile journey.  Boots on trail Aug. 1.

Sisu

 

Oh! The things we see.

IMG_4495

Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA to Harpers Ferry, WV, June 30 – July 6,, 2016 — My annual hikes with our ridgerunners have begun.  This year my muffin top needs shrinking so I decided to walk all 240 miles of the PATC section in hopes of burning some of it off.  I’d like to do it nonstop, but schedules, theirs and mine, dictate otherwise.

13627098_10209856576756529_2414766433861332628_n

After dropping my car at the Harpers Ferry National Park long term parking, Robin Hobbs schlepped me up to meet Mitch Mitchell at the store where hikers traditionally eat a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate reaching the halfway point which is just down the trail.  From here the math for them changes from counting up the miles to counting them down.

Prospective ridgerunners think the job is about hiking.  Readers of this blog know from last year in Georgia and other missives that the opposite is true.  It mostly about picking up trash, coaching hikers in Leave No Trace outdoor ethics, counting and interacting with hikers.  The miles per day are generally slow and short.

This trip was no different, but here’s fair warning.  I’m going to let you in on some ridgerunner reality show secrets and it’s gonna get gross…

We were also out over the July 4th holiday weekend, meaning more people in general, more nubes, and the laggard thru hiker party crowd which is not known for its trail decorum.  In fact, they openly admit to yellow blazing (hitch hiking) and to using booze and drugs in excess.

The rule of thumb is that if a hiker isn’t at Harpers Ferry by the Fourth of July, they need to “flip” to Maine and hike south or risk winter weather shutting them out of Mt. Katahdin in October.  These folks are walking on the bleeding edge of that axiom.

IMG_4493

Selfie at the official half way marker.

Our start was leisurely enough.  We got about a half gallon (by volume) worth of trash out of the fire pit at Toms Run shelter and pressed on.  Before the day’s end Mitch’s pack reminded me of a colonial tinker plying his trade along the rutted byways that traced the very region we were trekking.

As we moved along, trash of all kinds accumulated.

IMG_4498

I don’t know what it is with me and finding pots and pans.  Since hiking with Hal and Lauralee last year, I’ve found enough to open my own store.

IMG_4499

Any more trash and he won’t have a place to put it.  It’s the second pair of new (cheap) boots I’ve found this year alone.

IMG_4509

Taking inventory before feeding the friendly dumpster at New Caledonia State Park, PA.  We’re not showing you the snack bar just out of the photo.  I packed out some of their tasty treats for  dinner for that night.

Homeless camp on state park property.  It was a family that appeared to have left in a hurry.  Some toys and a pink blanket were in one of the tents along with clothing.  The food in the cooler was rotten.  The park rangers cleaned it up.  Too big for us to haul out on our backs.

After spending the night at Birch Run shelter with a noisy crowd of hikers, we press on.

Ridgerunners see a lot of gross stuff on the trail including unburied human waste, used feminine hygiene products,  wipes and toilet paper (Charmin blossoms) and the like.  We fish it out of privies, pick it up and pack it out or bury it as appropriate.  What comes next  is a first for me.  Why I was surprised, I don’t know.

You’d think after more than 1,000 miles on the trail, hikers would learn a thing or three, especially about hygiene.  Maybe not.  We found the young woman who owns this food dish improperly camped too close to a stream and illegally camped in the vicinity of a PATC rental cabin.  I’d met her previously while hiking with Denise the week prior in Virginia.  The embedded dirt on her skin reminded me of a character made up to be in a movie about peasants in the middle ages.  My stinky gym socks smell better.  Small wonder hikers get sick on the trail.

There were fewer flies on this pile of human scat I buried than on our hiker’s food plate.  These videos will go into every presentation I will ever give from now forward on backpacking.

Approaching Deer Lick shelter, we bumped into a PATC trail crew hiking out their tools.  They were nice enough to invite us to dinner with the North Chapter group, so we grabbed some of their tools and Chris Ferme’s chainsaw and tagged along for some chicken pot pie, green salad and fresh backed blueberry and lemon pie for dessert.  Yum!  Chris hauled us back to the trail in time to reach Deer Lick before dark.  The next day we hiked over their handiwork.  Nice job guys!

The following morning Mitch dropped off to participate in a PATC North Chapter hiker feed back at Pine Grove Furnace.  I pushed on to Raven Rock shelter in Maryland to rendezvous with Robin.

People love to steal this sign.  I was lucky it was there this trip.

Removed a small blowdown obstructing the trail using a folding saw.

IMG_4527

Evidence of the party crowd.  Scattered the sticks.

IMG_4506

The last of the rhododendron blooms.

IMG_4530

Bear activity has been unusually high this season.  The good news is that most hikers have found religion when it comes to bears and are hanging their food and toiletries rather than sleeping with them.  Yogi and Boo Boo have been working overtime.  Bears have entered shelters and stolen packs in search of food and destroyed tents.  Shenandoah has closed a section to camping and bear sightings in the PATC’s 240 mile section have been frequent.

While at Raven Rock shelter, MD, Robin and I hiked down to the old Devil’s Race Course shelter location (now torn down) and dismantled the fire ring.  That will help make it less inviting for high school drinking parties that caused the new shelter to be built up a steep hill from there.

Now, it didn’t happen by accident that I timed my hike to be at Annapolis Rock for July Fourth ’cause guess what?  You can see fireworks from that lofty perch.  Unfortunately the rain was falling in buckets with heavy fog.  We saw zip, but the campground was nearly full in spite of the forecast.

IMG_4533

The clouds were clearing the next morning when I set off for Crampton Gap after a quick photo op with Robin.  It was Kyle’s day off (the other Maryland ridgerunner), but I’ve been out with him before and we intercepted him along the way.  He’ll be there through Oct. 31, so we’ve got plenty of time.

The AT foot bridge over I-70.

IMG_4543

The original Washington Monument outside Boonsboro, MD.  My camera lens was foggy with sweat!

IMG_4544

C&O Canal lock # 33 just outside Harpers Ferry.  I’m standing on the tow path.

IMG_4501

Back to Virginia and Shenandoah soon.  Sisu

Waiting for g OD ot.

IMG_4465

Dick’s Dome Shelter, VA, AT mile 984.3, June 24, 2016 — My friend Denise texted me this morning that she was headed my way, leaving the trailhead at Hwy 522 Front Royal, VA. Her ETA at Dick’s Dome: 7 pm. She’s late, but that’s okay. I’ve been talking to the hikers and exploring the new “Whiskey Hollow” shelter under construction about 100 yards away.

My last visit to Dick’s Dome: Stink Bugs + Notebook Odds and Ends

Denise is my trail crew friend, now known by her trail name “The Optimistic Dictator,” OD for short.  Readers will recall that I hiked with Denise in Georgia as she started:  They’re Off  I’ve also written about our adventures here: Let’s Go Hiking.

IMG_4432

The PATC 2016 Ridgerunners

When she texted I was with the PATC ridgerunners finishing our monthly meeting.

This month we chose the PATC Highacre “cabin” in Harpers Ferry.  It’s within 50 yards of Jefferson’s Rock if anyone cares to look it up.  Regardless, nice view of the Potomac River.

The gathering includes a Thursday evening social followed by a Friday business meeting.  These are hard working folks who patrol the trail, teach Leave No Trace outdoor ethics, act as ambassadors to the hiking community, clean up trash and privies, and patch up blisters and more serious injuries and afflictions.

We learned that the number of thru hiker reaching Harpers Ferry is up 18 percent over last year.  We’re somewhat skeptical of this number’s legitimacy. Here’s why.

In recent years more and more hikers appear to be “yellow blazing.”  That means they hitch rides ahead and don’t actually hike all the trail.  For example, I saw hikers at the Hoodlum’s hiker feed who appeared in Harpers Ferry, 100 miles north the very next day when I was there.  Hummmmm……  The younger generation is going to hell, and it always has!

Flash forward.  With dusk on the horizon, I pulled up my WordPress app and began my thoughts.  Just then OD rolled in. It was marvelous to see her now after wishing her well at mile 80. She’s nearly 1000 miles into her hike.  That’s a big odometer number by foot.

We took up residence for the evening at the Whiskey Hollow shelter under construction.  It’s going to be a nice one.

IMG_4472

IMG_4471

Our itinerary marched us through an Appalachian Trail section branded the “roller coaster.”  It’s a series of steep pointless ups and downs, more of a toothache in the grand scheme of the 2,200 mile trek,  than a serious challenge, but nevertheless…  I’ve often said it’s like an outlet mall where Pennsylvania ships its surplus, worn out rocks, and the stones that don’t sell.  This time it occurred to me that the roller coaster may also be where PA’s fugitive boulders go on the lam. That is to say there’s no shortage of miserable rocks on the roller coaster.

So, there I was. It was hot, humid and I was now hiking with someone sporting “trail legs.”  Like a Philip Marlow client, the dame’s spandex oozed confidence and strength. Her glimmering smile stared down the roller coaster like Paul Bunyan making match sticks in the north woods. My role in this little meet up was to act as speed break.

This trip “slow-and-melting” was my middle name and I know Denise took great delight in having to stop and wait for me more than a couple of times.  How do I know?  She loved  telling the story.  Yea Denise!!!

IMG_4469

We found what we thought was trail magic.  Instead it was a refreshment station for a trail running group.  They didn’t seem to mind that we helped ourselves to some of their cold Gatorade!

IMG_4470

Sometimes your dogs need a dip in cold water!

We took a selfie at the 1,000 mile mark (L)  GA in March (R)

IMG_4476

Raven Rock, VA

IMG_4477

Trail Magic at Keys Gap from a 2014 thru hiker and her mom.

IMG_4480

A happy hiker reaches the psychological mid point at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry.

The official enshrinement in hiker history.  This is a strong young woman.

IMG_4482

Did I tell you that a bear tried to chew through Denise’s kevlar “bear proof” Ursack food bag in Shenandoah National Park?  In this case, bro bruin chomped into a bottle of sriracha sauce.  Hope this particular Yogi learned his lesson. That stuff is liquid bear spray.

Oh the adventures OD has had!  Stay tuned…

To bear or not to bear a Bear Canister

IMG_2264_2

The Appalachian Trail in Georgia, March 2016 –The bear canister debate can get intense.  A lot of people like to troll this subject. My intent is not to rip the scab off that wound or relitigate the question here.  I’m only reporting observations I made last month as the hiking season started in Georgia.

The fact is, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, that human interaction with bears is increasing on the southern 500 miles of the AT and the ATC is recommending that hikers use bear canisters from Springer Mountain to Damascus, VA.

Last year I had the occasion to be a ridgerunner in Georgia during late February and March. This year fortune granted me the opportunity to hike the state again with a friend as she launched her thru hike. Comparing bear canister use between these two years is interesting.

The conversation on the trail about protecting food from bears also changed some over the course of the past year.  This is what I heard and observed.

As a ridgerunner I was issued a Bear Vault BV 500 (there are other brands) because my duties required camping within the bear canister-required zone in the Blood Mountain area.

I hate to say it but most hikers who showed up at Woods Hole shelter were ignoring this U.S. Forest Service requirement. They were unaware that the local bears had learned to shake food bags off the cable there.

IMG_2314

In total, during my time in Georgia last year, I saw a very small number of bear canisters over the five week period I was on the trail.  This one was at the shelter on Springer Mountain.

After conversations with hundreds of hikers over the past couple of years, my guess is the majority of thru hikers don’t take bears all that seriously thinking that what ever happens, it won’t happen to them.  Moreover, most hikers don’t understand bear behavior well enough to recognize the many different ways bears might be attracted and habituated to human food.

With the number of hikers rapidly increasing, especially the large numbers starting in the south, this is unhelpful – mostly to the bears.

So, last year the ATC initiated a Leave No Trace-inspired effort to promote the use of bear canisters.  Remember what the rangers say:  A fed bear becomes a dead bear.  Progress?

I arrived on Springer March 8 and spent the night talking to hikers and waiting for my friend to toe the starting line the next day.  The first thing I noticed was three bear canisters.  As we hiked north, I noted about a dozen or more or so.  These were carried by older hikers – certainly they were over 30.  They’d heard about and taken the ATC’s advice seriously.

Bears are always a topic at the beginning of a thru hike.  For most, the question more about whether bears are a legitimate threat to them, not whether their habits can be a threat to bears.

A lot of hikers said they had considered food protection but had decided that the canisters were too heavy (mine weighs 2 lbs. 9 oz.), or that they would occupy too much space in their packs to make hauling one worthwhile. At around $80 retail, they are expensive too.  Several implied they would rent them if that were an option.

Beyond canisters, people were debating whether or not the Ursack – made out of Kevlar, the material that bulletproofs bulletproof vests – was a better bet.

Ursacks are lined with a thick plastic bag that functions much like a Zip Lock.  This helps protect the contents from moisture and reduces the aroma signature.  Depending on size, their costs range from $55 – $90, so they’re not cheap either.

IMG_3799

The white bag is an Ursack.  It must be tied to a tree to be effective.  My Bear Vault is in the far background.

Ursack’s are approved in certain areas but not in others, including the AT.  It seems that even though bears can’t chew through them, they can still crunch up the contents and get a small taste – and that does not solve the problem.  There’s some argument about how varmint proof they are, though their website says tests show they stand up.  No doubt supporters would offer supportive arguments.

The attraction of Ursacks lies both in reduced weight and the amount of space they take up inside a pack.  Being pliable, unless you’re using their aluminum shield, they are much easier to pack around.  In other words, you can jam more stuff in your pack.

IMG_2275

Bear canisters are designed to be left on the ground, yet some people still use the bear cables, poles or boxes when they are available.

The Bear Vaults have grooves in the sides designed to aid strapping to the outside of a pack.  This doesn’t work so well with most internal frame packs. They easily strap on top of some Granite Gear packs.  I saw one in Georgia and liked it.  Unfortunately I was too dim witted to get a photo.

Although we’re not going to see the masses rush to embrace bear canisters or Ursacks in the near future, it appears the conversation about not habituating bears to human food is growing and more positive. That direction, in my view, ultimately helps serve the coexistence of both magnificent bears and intrepid people. I’m cautiously optimistic over time.

Full disclosure.  I bought a Bear Vault BV 500 this year and hiked with it in Georgia.  I also have a sow with cubs resident and often seen on the AT section I maintain in Shenandoah National Park.  I frequently hang my hammock and camp over night on my section when there’s a lot of work to be done. In that context alone, using a bear canister makes sense for me and my momma bear.  Sisu

A Romp in the Woods?

Harpers Ferry, WV, July 7, 2015 — I was privileged to see a sneak preview of “A Walk in the Woods,” a knockabout comedy staring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.  The show opens in 1,800 theaters on Sept. 2.

Redford.  Slapstick.  No way!!!  Indeed, it’s true.  The movie was a delightful midnight snack adding a light touch to Redford’s rich acting career.  If you recall, Redford and Paul Newman always had a comedic touch.

To my delight, the humor was practically nonstop.  The jokes kept coming.  Anyone would get them, but there was enough hiker and AT double entandre to evoke knowing nods and smiles from the audience.

From a potty trowel Christmas ornament available on line at www.appalachiantrail.com

Potty trowel Christmas ornaments are available on line at http://www.appalachiantrail.com

Potty humor on the trail isn’t new and this movie doesn’t disappoint.  The ubiquitous and sometimes maligned potty trowel makes more than a cameo appearance.

Redford with toilet paper in hand may have been added for shock value, but more likely, the potty trowel scenes are subliminal Leave No Trace messages using a subject not much discussed in polite, read the non-hiking, society.

Yup.  Bears aren’t the only ones who do it in the woods and wanna be’s need to know that and prepare to pull their pants down around that and other deeply personal subjects in advance.

To recap for the unfamiliar, author Bill Bryson penned a  best-seller in the late 1990s entitled, A Walk in the Woods.  It was a semi-fictional and somewhat autobiographical story based on chunks of the Appalachian Trail that Bryson sampled in preparation to write his story.  His sidekick, Steven Katz – played by Nolte in the movie –  is the foil and comedic counterpoint as their adventures unfold.

This New York Times best seller is credited with driving up the number of AT thru hike attempts by logarithmic factors since.

The screenplay differs a fair amount from Bryson’s original story, but the essence is there.  Two old comrades with diametrically opposite personalities reunite after decades of estrangement for one last adventure.

Neither this film, nor the recent movie “Wild” (based on Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir) are about hiking per se.  In each, hiking is the means to the end.  In this case, Bryson confronts career burnout and the remedy is a romp in the woods with his old buddy Katz.  Our treat is to go along for the ride and enjoy the laughs.

Kristen Schaal.

Kristen Schaal.

The cast is fantastic, especially Longmont, Colorado’s own Kristen Schaal who is brilliant.  Her character plays off a classic AT stereotype and the reappearance of her character could have been a hilarious punctuation point near the end of the movie when Bryson and Katz have to be rescued.  In stead, the dynamic duo are saved by other stereotypes they first hate but come to love. In reality, it doesn’t happen that way on the AT.  No spoiler alert here.

As with any movie about subjects we know intimately and love dearly, this movie has its share of nits to pick and quibble about.  Among them, in the movie: Gooch Gap comes after Neels Gap. McAfee Knob appears after Shenandoah National Park.  The duo has trekking poles strapped to their obviously empty packs, but never use them. The social aspects of the AT experience are mostly AWOL. The bears that steal Bryson and Katz’s food are grizzlies, not black bears.  (We know bears will do almost anything for food, but hitchhike from Montana?  That’s a bit much.)  Much of the movie was not shot on the AT. That’s dramatic license. So what?

The $64 dollar question is how “A Walk in the Woods” will affect the number of hikers in the future.  History is clear.  Major media events drive numbers up.

Given that most Millennials barely know who Redford and Nolte are, it may not have much effect on that demographic. Large numbers of Boomers, on the other hand, missed out when they were in their 20s.  Like me, they had to wait until retirement to find the time.  Could be that this will remind them to get off the bench and out in the woods.

More likely, we may expect the number of weekenders and short-distance backpackers to increase along the trail.  After all, Bryson himself didn’t hike the whole thing.  For those without the where with all or inclination to thru hike, sampling chunks of the trail is a viable alternative.

Hordes of uninitiated hikers can have a disproportionate impact on the environment.  That’s why the potty trowel metaphor is an effective vehicle to communicate the larger Leave No Trace message.  It creates awareness and opens the door to a broader discussion of appropriate behavior and practices.

Viewers come to movies like this with a truck load of preconceptions.  They’ve read the book, tramped around on the AT or other trails, and have their own inventory of intrepid experiences.  Hikers want a hiking movie with which they can self-identify and reinforce the attributes of the hiking experience as they understand it.

In other words, hikers will tend to want a certain label and vintage of fine red wine, e.g. perfection.  For some, this won’t that movie, and I’ll submit that there’ll never be one.  So, this flick may not be what you hope for, but it will still make you laugh because if you haven’t been there and done that, at least you’ve seen it.

As a feature film, this treat is tasty, but definitely lo-cal.  It never intended or tried to be an opulent double Dutch chocolate delight. In other words, here’s little to satiate the uncontrollable urge known as hiker hunger in “A Walk in the Woods” the movie, and unfortunately the lack of high caloric content may be unfulfilling to a few of the usual suspects out there in hiker land who never seem to be satisfied anyway.

By its end, “A Walk in the Woods” is a light comedy based on our favorite pass time with a sprig of deeply personal revitalization for the two main characters garnishing the end.  They all lived happily ever after.

When you think about it, isn’t that a big chunk of why any of us lace ’em up and grab our trekking poles?

IMG_2403

Karma Comes to the Back Country

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award for picking up other people's trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award for picking up other people’s trash.

Appalachian Trail, Sunday May 10, 2015 — People are loving our national hiking trails to death.  The Appalachian Trail (AT) alone is estimated to see up to three million visitors per year.

Looking at it one way, that’s enough boots on the ground to bruise the rocks rather than the rocks having the opposite effect on the hikers’ feet.  It’s sort of like hammer vs. nail in role reversal isn’t it?

The collective environmental impact generated by all these people is enormous.  They generate human waste, leave trash, trample vegetation, erode trails and mark their passage in many other unwelcome ways.  There are many means to mitigate this impact, but before we talk about that, here’s the back story.

Most people experience our national parks and forests in what is known as front country.  Front country is civilized, distinguished by infrastructure such as roads, picnic tables, flush toilets, trash cans, concessions and parking.

You know about more about front country than you may think.  That’s where Yogi, Boo boo and Mr. Ranger did their Jellystone schtick.  You get the idea.

The back country is a very different animal.  In contrast to front country, about the only evidence of civilization are the marked hiking trails.  The AT’s primitive shelters and privies are a notable exception. Otherwise it’s supposed to be a “wilderness” experience.  (Not to be confused with designated wilderness areas.  That’s a separate matter.)

Most people never see the back country and hardly realize it’s even there.  The primary reason may be that a lot of muscle power is usually required to get into the back country.  In other words, you have to sweat.

Been to the mall lately?  Observations suggest that fewer and fewer Americans are up for back country excursions. Supersize soft drinks aside, nevertheless there’s no shortage of back country hikers.

The problem comes when people show up in the back country and don’t know how to limit their impact.  Within my experience, they fall into two primary groups.

One group fancies themselves as romantic throwbacks applying their survival skills and living off the land in ways promoted by Jack London, the Boy Scout Handbooks prior to the 1970s, or the Bear Grylls TV series today.

If everyone behaved this way in the back country, it wouldn’t be long before they’d turn paradise into a denuded moonscape.  When you spy someone with a axe, hatchet, machete or (the very heavy) Bear Grylls brand gear on a national hiking trail, you might be looking at one of these folks.

Machete damage.  Green trees don't burn by the way.

Machete damage. Green wood doesn’t burn by the way.

The other group is simply clueless.  Finding no back country trash cans, they just drop their garbage where they stand because they don’t come prepared to carry it out.  They befoul water sources with human waste.  They trample vegetation.  Overall, their practices put the back country environment at risk.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits.  It doesn't burn completely.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits. It doesn’t burn completely.

Unburnt trash.

Unburnt trash.

 When the backpacking craze developed as boomers came of age in the late 1960s, it threatened to overwhelm the environment.  Minimal impact techniques emerged as ways to mitigate the damage generated by the hiking hoards of that era.***

In time, minimum impact morphed into the Leave No Trace ethic.  Leave No Trace is based on seven principles designed to help not only to minimize human impact, but also to maintain the highest quality wilderness experience possible.

Principles were developed for both the front and back country.  Much more at:  https://lnt.org/  These are the back country principles:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Poorly prepared people, when presented with unexpected situations, often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Proper planning leads to less impact.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Damage to land occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond repair. The resulting barren area leads to unusable trails, campsites and soil erosion.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Though most trash and litter in the backcountry is not significant in terms of the long term ecological health of an area, it does rank high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors. Trash and litter are primarily social impacts which can greatly detract from the naturalness of an area.[5] Further, backcountry users create body waste and waste water which requires proper disposal according to Leave No Trace.
  4. Leave What You Find: Leave No Trace directs people to minimize site alterations, such as digging tent trenches, hammering nails into trees, permanently clearing an area of rocks or twigs, and removing items.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Because the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires, Leave No Trace teaches to seek alternatives to fires or use low-impact fires.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Minimizing impact on wildlife and ecosystems.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Following hiking etiquette and maintaining quiet allows visitors to go through the wilderness with minimal impact on other users. (Wikipedia)

Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right.

Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Fortunately most hikers are aware of Leave No Trace.  It’s promoted everywhere.  Unfortunately these principles are practiced selectively and conveniently.  In other words, hikers reason their one insignificant transgression won’t have any harmful effect.

The reality is the opposite.  The impact of small Leave No Trace lapses grows exponentially when “everybody” does it.

Now back to the reason for this story.

Too many younger hikers were not following Leave No Trace ethics, yet hikers 18-24 make up the majority of AT thru hikers.  More challenging, the traditional messages and delivery means were not working with this group.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Enter Trail Karma as a new outreach program: http://www.trailkarma.com.  It is a website targeting younger hikers.  The Trail Karma awards component of this program allows ridgerunners and trail ambassadors to reward good behavior on the trail when it happens in real time.

The Trail Karma Award is a nice AT medallion with a serial number on the back.  Hikers can register the award on the Trail Karma website and even pass it along when another good turn is observed.

The idea is to reinforce the positive.  I thought the two Trail Karma Awards I was able to present during my time in Georgia had a positive impact, both on the hikers who received them and those who observed the presentation.

Yesterday’s mail brought a CARE package of new Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.  I can’t wait to find good behavior to reward.

***The trails weren’t pristine before the boomers showed up.  In the earlier era, hikers and campers built lean-tos, cut pine bows to make beds, chopped tent stakes every night, disposed of food cans willy nilly and practiced a multitude of other sins.  Their smaller numbers helped limit the damage which was was eventually cleared up.