Last Ridgerunner Hike of the Season

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Appalachian Trail in Maryland, August 24 – 26, 2018 — In spite of the horrible heat, smothering humidity and the drenching rains we’ve enjoyed all summer, autumn is skulking on the next calendar page and that signals the time when the clock expires for all but one of our ridgerunners.

The last man standing remains on duty in Maryland until Halloween hoarfrost beards the pumpkin patch.

Still, the season’s not over until it’s over.  We made time to celebrate the season’s finale with a final jaunt across Maryland’s 42 AT miles.

Kiki and I cinched up our hip belts and headed southward from the Mason-Dixon line, to Harpers Ferry.  I always forget this route is a little more challenging than hiking the other way around.  People say the trail in Maryland isn’t rocky.  Not so, as my blistered boots will gladly attest.  Best of all, hiking southbound front loads the best of the abrasive boulder fields.

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Kiki carried a hoe to clear clogged waterbars (drains) on what proved to be a waterlogged trail.

Initially we didn’t set a goal for the day because we got a late start which was the result of stashing my car in Harpers Ferry. We decided to see how the day would unfold.

Of note, Maryland is one of the most hiked portions of the AT with millions of people from the greater metro areas between Philadelphia and Washington living within a two-hour drive.  Consequently,  no dispersed camping is allowed to help protect the environment.  To compensate, there are shelters and campgrounds conveniently spaced along the way. We suffered no worries about finding a place to camp.

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We made excellent time in spite of finding several gallons of trash.  We measure trash by estimated volume rather rather than estimated weight for closer accuracy.  Occasionally, we stopped to enjoy the views after breaking up an illegal fire ring or two.

Penultimately we thought we’d drop anchor at Pogo campground.  (Yes, it’s that “the enemy is us” Pogo.)  But, long before we reached Pogo, we remembered Annapolis Rock is just a couple of miles further, and there our colleague Harry would be in residence as caretaker.

At our pace, we’d arrive slightly at the end of evening nautical twilight, but having the company and hanging out at the caretaker’s picnic table was worth the energy expenditure.

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Caretaker’s tent.

As it happened, we literally stumbled in, tripping over stones because we weren’t using our headlamps with the intent of pranking Harry.  In the gloom, Harry didn’t recognize us as we pretended to be thoughtless hikers intent on breaking all the Annapolis Rock rules like building a fire and camping on the overlook.  Ya had to have been there to appreciate the dialog before we ended the charade.

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Two years ago, in a one in a million tragedy, a dead tree fell and killed a camper at Maryland’s Ed Garvey shelter.  Since then trees of concern are quickly removed.  Recently, we traded safety for aesthetics in the caretaker’s area.

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Insects had invaded the wounded area and hollowing was present in the trunk.

From Annapolis Rock, a reasonably strong hiker can comfortably reach Harper’s Ferry the next day.  However there was a risk of arriving too late to catch the shuttle to the National Park Service’s remote lot and my car.

So, expecting unusually good weather for this sopping wet year, and therefore a busy Saturday, we decided to hike to the Crampton Gap shelter.  That would leave an easy 10 miles for Sunday morning.  It proved to be a solid decision when we coached a large group of young men on how to party without ruining the evening for everyone else.

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On the way to Crampton, we stopped to inspect and clean up the shelter at Rocky
Run.  We found a supermarket bag with a week’s worth of hiker food hanging on the bear pole.

Why would someone leave that much food where it was?  We checked with some campers.  It wasn’t theirs.  It was there when they came.

The food could have been leftover from an individual hiker or one of the many college freshman orientation groups currently on the trail.  It also might have been a misguided attempt by a trail angel.  Regardless, it’s irresponsible behavior to leave food anywhere in the woods.  The good news:  Kiki didn’t have to buy supplies for his final week on trail.

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Speaking of college freshman orientation groups, we met students from Loyola University of Maryland (Baltimore) on the trail and stopped briefly to chat.  They seemed like an agreeable group.  Only at Ed Garvey, where they’d camped the previous evening, did we discover the present they’d left for us in the privy’s wood chip barrel.

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Thanks Loyola for more trash then we could pack out.  Then we wonder why the number of problem bears is increasing.  I’ll be sending a letter to the university with an offer of free Leave No Trace education this spring when they train rising seniors to be student leaders.

But, there’s more …

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Survivalists and preppers are among the many subcultures on the trail.  They are sometimes called camosexuals, a label that is a twist on the Hipster lumbersexual subculture. Unfortunately, if everyone strip mined live vegetation like this, the shelter and camping areas would look like moonscapes.  This was within sight of the shelter.

This makeshift shelter would have been worthless in wet weather.  Moreover, nowhere on the Appalachian trail is this appropriate.  If you really want to do this, the national forests and some state forests are happy to oblige.

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We found this fire ring and grill half way between Ed Garvey and Harpers Ferry.  Not a bad field expedient attempt at making a grill from green wood and wire. Again, fires and dispersed camping are verboten in Maryland. But if you are willing to risk an expensive ticket, why not clean up your mess?  Please!  Leave No Trace.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Training

Left:  National patch.  Right:  Local maintaining club patch.

Scott Farm, PA, May 16 – 23, 2017 — Baseball players go to spring training and so do Appalachian Trail ridgerunners.  It’s a time to refresh and sharpen needed skills for the upcoming season; and to bond and mesh as a team.  It’s also fun.

The eleven ridgerunners hired to patrol the mid-Atlantic region gathered for five days of intensive training at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy training center at Scott Farm just outside Carlisle, PA.  I was there as the ridgerunner coordinator for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) which employs six of the 11; and to attend the wilderness first aid training to renew my sawyer certification.  Following first aid, I helped teach the Leave No Trace instructor course.

The first day opened with a hearty breakfast followed by administrative announcements and an orientation to the trail from a systems perspective.  The AT is a lot more complicated than the average hiker can appreciate.  The bunkhouse quickly filled up, so the spillover camped on the lawn.

Uniform and equipment issue soon followed.  Ridgerunners carry pruning saws to clear minor blowdowns, clippers, first aid kits and wear distinguishing uniforms.  The patrol their respective sections for five on and two off; always being present on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the days of heaviest use.

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Household chores – cooking, cleaning, dishes, etc. are divided among and rotated between everybody taking part in training.  Readers may remember PJ from the Million Woman March.

Following the administivia, it was time to get down to serious business.  Each ridgerunner is certified in wilderness first aid and as a Leave No Trace outdoor ethics instructor.

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First aid training comes first.  Some seasons the worst thing a ridgerunner sees is a skinned elbow or knee.  But, and it’s a big BUT, they have to be prepared to manage serious emergencies that arise in the backcountry, hours away from first responders and easy evacuation.

The SOLO Wilderness First Aid course is 16 hours long (two days), and focuses on the basic skills of: Response and Assessment, Musculoskeletal Injuries, Environmental Emergencies, Survival Skills, Soft Tissue Injuries, and Medical Emergencies.  The idea is to perform a proper patient assessment, treat common injuries up to and including setting and splinting a compound fracture.

The ridgerunners are trained to determine whether the patient can be safely “walked out” of the back country, or whether an evacuation is necessary.  At that point their training allows them to professionally interact with the medical system for the patient’s benefit.

Needless to say, the training is realistic.

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Lower leg fracture splint using a common sleeping pad as a splint.  Students are taught how to employ commonly available gear.

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Field expedient traction splint to set a fracture of the femur.

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Splinting an open book fracture of the pelvis.  The legs are tied together.  This is NOT something you want to deal with deep in the woods.  These fractures are often accompanied by severe internal bleeding and the need to get the patient to a room with bright lights and stainless steel tables is critical.  Unfortunately, this can take hours in most places and days in others.

Love moulage.

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Putting a dislocated shoulder back in its socket.  If you didn’t treat dislocations and fractures, the pain might send a patient into severe shock long before s/he could reach care.

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Treating hypothermia (on a hot day).  Glad I wasn’t the patient.

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Eurica!  Our friend Denise hiked in right in the middle of training.  She’s on a LASH – long-ass section hike.  What a pleasant suprise.

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With first aid out of the way, we turned to Leave No Trace.  With an estimated 3 million people using the AT each year, minimizing human impact on the environment is of paramount concern.

The ridgerunners primary duty is not to hike.  Rather, it is interacting with the public for the purpose of helping them do as little environmental damage as possible.  Leave No Trace

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Most Leave No Trace training takes place in the woods.  The seven principles Seven Principles

Nobody is going to be perfect, but ignorance is our worst enemy.  If we can show a hiker how to improve, that’s a victory.

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Peeing and pooping in the woods is a subject of endless discussion and immense importance.  Not everybody knows how.  Ask any ridgerunner.  They’ll be glad to teach you.

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We divided the students into three teams and then determined who dug the best cat hole – width, depth, 200 ft. off trail.  Here, Ryan rolled up a Cliff Bar which looks just like shxt.  Then he reached in and pinched off a piece and ate it.  He actually hooked a couple of folks!

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Exercise in choosing durable surfaces.

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Learning about shelters.

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Unfortunately graffiti begets graffiti.

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Most Leave No Trace training takes place on hikes.

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Your 2017 mid-Atlantic ridgerunners.

FIRST PATROL

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Julie is our newest ridgerunner and the only one with whom I have not hiked.  An orientation hike is always beneficial.  So, we started by meeting with the rangers of Michaux State Forest and New Caladonia State Park, PA.  Her patrol section runs the 62 miles south from Pine Grove Furnace State Park, to the Mason Dixon Line at PennMar Park.

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Clipping vegetation encroaching on the trail.

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Documenting a blowdown that will require a sawyer to remove.  It’s waist high.

We stopped to clear a small blowdown and who should show up but my friend Rocky who this year is on his second thru hike.

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Checking the trail register at the official half way point.

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Hung our food and smellables at the Toms Run shelter.

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At the very time Julie and I were at Toms Run, Lauralee Bliss was at the Gravel Spring Hut (shelter) in Shenandoah National Park where a bear destroyed two tents.

The tents have had food in them.  Rule number one in bear country.  Never put food in your tent and properly store your food and anything that smells such as deodorant, toothpaste, soap, etc.!

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Found a hiker just starting his hike from Harpers Ferry.  He plans to flip from Maine back to HF and then hike to Georgia.  Note the bear bell, large knife and stuffed animal.  Bet those are gone soon as he gains confidence.

It was a good week.

Sisu

Searching for the Edge of Spring

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Appalachian Trail, Massachusetts, April 27 – May 6, 2017 — Just outside Great Barrington, Mass., Robin “Miss America” Hobbs gave me a shout.

“How far away are you?”

“An hour,” I guessed.

Actually I wheeled into town less than a half hour later.  I’d been stopped for gas in Connecticut and didn’t realize how close I was.  After minor confusion I found Robin and her new friend Sonia “Soho” Horschitz, a 33-year-old German hiker she serendipitously met a couple of days after I left her back in New York.

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These two were amazing together.  They meshed like Mercedes and Benz and could finish each other’s sentences as they delighted nearly nonstop over the merits of cream cheese and other hiker treats.  Being along for the ride with these two charming people was pure delight.

After lunch in Great Barrington, we dropped my Subaru at the local hostel in Sheffield.  Its owner, Jessica Treat, shuttled us to the trail and we were off.  She would shuttle us back at the end of the hike from as far as we could get toward the Vermont border some 76 miles northward.

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Miss America and Jessica Treat.  Wonderful ladies.  Jessica teaches English at a junior college.

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The first couple of days toasted us like summer.  Here the lunch menu features cream cheese and Triscuits slathered in honey. The delight is obvious.  It took me awhile, but I eventually became a convert.

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The Massachusetts countryside features classic New England scenery.

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Trillium.

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I’d never seen so many Trout Lilies.  This plant ultimately became the bellwether in our quest for the edge of spring.

Just outside Tyringham we found this kiosk.  A young entrepreneur had established a trail magic business.  Cold drinks and snacks at a very fair price!  Smart.  Hope he does well.

However, for us, Tyringham is where our weather luck expired.

After topping off at this much appreciated kiosk, we faced a respectable climb to the cabin at  Upper Goose Pond where Miss America and Soho had planned a rest day (zero) in the field.  Along the way we hoped to dodge the forecasted rain.

No luck.  The rain began to spatter shortly after we started our climb.  Soaked in sweat, we decided to minimize on rain gear, even opening our pit zips to shed the extra heat we expected to be generating while climbing in the warmish rain.

Boom!!! The first lighting strike was “danger close.” Link to DANGER CLOSE artillery And so were dozens more.  With nowhere to safely hide, we pushed on as close to double time as we could safely manage.  The lightning exploded all around as the cold rain drenched us and the ambient air temperature crashed to the low 40s (F).  Not at all what we had anticipated.

We stumbled onto the cabin’s porch frozen and shaking from the icy rain. Camping on the porch is allowed, so we got into warm dry clothing and made camp.  It would rain almost all night and the next day.

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We shared some firewater for medicinal purposes.  Soho shared, but make it plain.  She likes bier besser.

After Upper Goose Pond, the warm weather disappeared, but reducing the mount you sweat is really a benefit when you’re making miles.

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Rock hopping.

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Appreciating a view.

Crossing the Mass Pike.

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We bought hard boiled eggs from the “cookie lady.”  Soho’s philosophy was moderate miles.  Good sleep.  Fresh food.  I learned to like it.

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Camping at the cookie lady’s.  Looks warm, but it was 40F.

On the way to Dalton for a shower and resupply.

After Dalton we faced a pending storm that eventually dumped 1.5 inches of rain on the trail, turning it into an endless series of streams and mud pits.

Knowing what was coming, we pushed past Cheshire, Mass. to the Mark Noepel shelter where we planned to ride out the rain high and dry, less than a full day from the Vermont border.  The hike into Upper Goose Pond had taught us a lesson.

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The Massachusetts shelters are mostly of the same design with a loft.  Up there, we were out of the wind and slightly warmer than if we’d stayed below.  The windows are plexiglass.

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We tucked into our sleeping bags to spend the day thankful we weren’t hiking in the cold and rainy weather.  We could see our breath.  Note the cookie lady’s eggs atop the orange and tan stuff sack.

Shot this while the wind was relatively still.

With three days of rain in the forecast Robin and I decided to exit.  She’s within sight of Vermont.  She only has a few miles in Vermont to finish this fall before she completes the AT.

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We bid Soho farewell on Mt. Graylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts. This gentle and genial soul hiked on into Vermont. We hiked to the bottom of the mountain because the road to the summit had not yet opened for the season.

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Mt. Graylock. Massachusetts WWI memorial.

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An inch-and-a-half of rain produces boot top mud.

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The Graylock summit was windy, wet and bitter cold. I looked down only to spy trout lilies whose flowers had not yet bloomed.  A day later Soho phoned to say that the thermometer and snow in Vermont were forcing her off the trail.  Without doubt we had found the edge of spring; and on that edge the cold wind sliced through our hearts and blew us in new directions.  Our journey had ended.

Sisu

 

A flat soufflé and limp noodles…

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Good ole white blaze serial number 00000001

North Georgia, Appalachian Trail miles zero through 69.6, March 3-10, 2017 — There I was, hiking the Appalachian Trail in Georgia for the third year in a row.  This time it was different, very different, but we will get to that in due course.

This adventure started with an invitation to present my talk on trail hygiene at the annual ATKO – Appalachian Trail Kick Off event at Amicalola Falls State Park. The kick off targets future hikers and serves as a reunion of sorts for many others.

The premise for the talk is that hikers neither have to get sick – Noro virus or gastroenteritis – nor smell like Oscar the Grouch’s trash can on a hot summer’s day.  All they have to do is make staying clean a priority. My talk tells them how.

My talk is entitled “What the Funk!” I blogged about the subject here: What the Funk!  My Power Point slides are here:  https://www.dropbox.com/s/zwxxfhmz96vhn42/What%20The%20Funk.2.pptx?dl=0

The ATKO is a well attended two-and-a-half day event featuring speakers, vendors and old friends like Mike Wingeart and Robin Hobbs who were representing ALDHA, the Appalachian Long Distance Hiking Association.

The ATKO featured a tent city, gear vendors and even a slew of visiting owls.  This is a great horned owl.  His pals included a tiny screech owl named Goliath and a barred owl which remained amazingly quiet.  Trail Dames is a women’s hiking organization I try and promote as often as possible.  Love those gals, most of whom I’ve met on my various trail journeys.  Check out Trail Dames here:  Trail Dames

Now, let’s get down to business.  We’ll open with a brief confession.  I did not come to the trail with “trail legs.”  In other words, I was not in shape.  My excuse:  I injured my hip lifting weights in early October and have not run since then.  Throughout the hike, my hip and cardio were fine, but my legs had all the strength and authority of limp spaghetti noodles.  That’s definitely not a recipe for a fluffy soufflé in the nasty hills of Georgia. (Lovin’ mixed metaphors!)

The anointed know that launching from the Amicalola Lodge nets the upper five miles of the infamously steep “approach trail” that leads to the AT’s southern terminus on Springer Mountain.  I did it three years ago when I  had to spell the caretaker on Springer Mountain.  That year my gazelle-like bounds magically crushed the steepest hills.  This year I huffed and puffed like the little engine that barely could. I was delighted to summit, albeit about 90 minutes slower than before.

While on Springer, I took a look around.  I was saddened to see that two trees I’ve been tracking for the past three years had finally been done in.  The number of people on the trail continues to increase along with their relentless degradation of the environment.

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A bit hard to see, but campers have moved south of the lower bear cables on Springer Mountain shelter and much closer to the water source; and have established a new fire pit.

The good news is that previous recommendations have been implemented.  The increased presence on the trail has remarkably reduced trash.  Vegetation recovery projects have begun.  Extra campsites and privies have been added.  My observations from that time are here:  Georgia 2015

Old fire pit at Hawk Mountain shelter cleaned up.

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Improvements since last year to the new Hawk Mountain campsite.

As always the newly minted hikers were delightful.  I saw Lynne, the Trail Ambassador on the right, twice on my journey as she expanded her patrol coverage.  I saw several other ambassadors too.

Ambition has never been lacking for me.  Since this was my very first time to hike Georgia alone, I decided to pace myself in accordance with the legend in my own mind, versus the reality of my current physical condition.  Mind over matter was a good strategy, or so I thought.  That worked about as well as one might expect.

After pitching my tent the first night and on my way to fetch water, I met a young man who asked me if it was okay for his dog to be off leash.  Never ask a Leave No Trace zealot that question.  I convinced him that every snake, skunk, raccoon and porcupine in the woods would eat his dog for lunch, not to mention any stray bears.  How ’bout them Lyme disease bearing ticks ole fido is going to bring back to your tent?  Oh boy!!!

This fellow also decided to cowboy camp that night (no tent).  Guess what, it rained unexpectedly.  I awoke to his thrashing as he hurried to pitch is tent while dodging rain spatter.  “Grasshopper, you’re going to learn a lot,” I smiled as a hiked past his tent in the morning. He was sawing zzzzzzs.

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I have finally perfected pitching and striking this tent in high wind.  I failed at that miserably in Maine last summer. Hint:  Up-wind pegs first…

The plan for Monday was to make it about 15 miles either to the Justus Mt. campsite or on to Gooch Gap.  The forecast included rain and high winds for Tuesday, so I wanted to get as far as possible.

Moving with the speed to cold flowing molasses helped me realize that I wasn’t going to make either of my targeted locations, so I parked at Cooper Gap where, this year, the Army has been leaving its 500 gallon “water buffalo” unlocked for hikers. Now I was a half day behind with a cold, heavy rain in the forecast.

Very good news:  ALL water sources in Georgia were flowing with the exception of the spring at Blue Mountain shelter which is just short of Unicoi Gap.

Fortunately the heavenly watering of the Georgia hills didn’t begin until after I’d packed up.  I sopped off with a dry tent at least, headed for the Woods Hole shelter half way up the infamous Blood Mountain; about another 15 miles away.  Woods Hole has a covered picnic table and is located where bear proof food containers are required.  The odds were good that I’d get a spot, and I’d be back on schedule given that very few people want to carry the 3 1/2 extra pounds the canisters weigh.

Along the way, sometimes you see weird stuff.  Who would set the stump on fire at Gooch Mountain?  Just past there, somebody used a machete to hack up a dead tree.  For what?  The dead tree bark is good insect habitat for birds and bears.  Why ruin it?  Ignorance lives.

Please pack out your trash!  The fire pits and the trail in general was far cleaner than I’ve ever seen it at this time of year.  Thank you ridgerunners and trail ambassadors!

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I arrived at Woods Hole just prior to dusk.  I ate and then crashed between these two tents.

The morning dawned cold and windy.  The rain had passed. Of the three campers at Woods Hole, nobody had a bear canister. Surprise, surprise, surprise!  Where’s the ranger when you need ’em.

A father and son had pitched their tent in the shelter.  They were were woefully underprepared with summer sleeping bags and sported wet cotton clothes from the previous day’s rain.  The other tent belonged to a new thru hiker who didn’t know better.  I made it clear.  If more hikers came during the night, the tents would have to come down.  Fortunately, none did.

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It dawned cold and clear as I waited form my coffee water to boil. Note the two hats. After breakfast I was off for Low Gap, another 15 miles or so away.

Walking over Blood Mountain has its aesthetic pleasures.

Wind at Neel’s Gap

The trail to Low Gap is a relatively easy hike with the exception of a nasty climb at Tesnatee Gap.  My right hip flexor was swelling.  Time for a reality check.

Dawn at Low Gap.  Fortunately, from there it’s an easy 10 miles to Uniqoi Gap where I decided to bail.  The noodles were still limp and the soufflé was pretty flat.  Reached Unicoi about 12:30 p.m. and shuttled to the Top of Georgia Hostel.

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Bought a thru hiker lunch.  How do you spell bankruptcy?

Breakfast at Top of Georgia where Bob Gabrielsen offers the morning pep talk before the hopeful sea of humanity rides the tide northward in search of adventure and the state of Maine.  Time for me to saddle up the Subaru and ride north.

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Toxic waste bag.

It ain’t over until everything’s cleaned up.

Sisu

To bear or not to bear a Bear Canister

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Adventure Season 2016

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Kensington, MD, March 2, 2016 — It’s that time of year again when the call of the wild echos through the ether.  This is when we plan, pack, lace ’em up and get it on.

The year starts in Georgia on the AT.  For one, I’m anxious to see if all the planning we have done to manage the early crowds actually is beneficial. All I know is that a lot of time and energy have gone into the improvements.

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Next it’s the National Park Service’s centennial.  Shenandoah has challenged folks to celebrate by hiking a hundred miles in the park in return for a free patch. My friend and first hiking partner Mary and her son Ben will be hiking there on a 600 mile-long AT section hike in mid-April.  I plan to tag along for all 105 of Shenandoah’s miles.

From there it gets fuzzier.  I have my ridgerunner hikes and trail crew week – only one this year. I’m signed up for a Leave No Trace master educator course and a talk on backpacking at Sky Meadows State Park, Va. for National Trails Day.

We’ve hired two returning ridgerunners and four new folks for this season.  More on them at another time.

There’s an opportunity to hike the northern half (Oregon and Washington) of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and/or the Colorado Trail.  Lastly, once school is back in session, finishing the Long Trail in Vermont is carved in stone after having to miss it last year.

I’m learning not to predict too much.  Plans do not survive contact with reality, and this year reality is holding a lot of face cards.   I’ve taken on some executive responsibility with my trail club that’s going to eat time, and have been nominated for a professional lifetime career honor that, if selected, I will accept in person come hell or high water.

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Top of the first inning is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain, Georgia.  I’ve noted and written about my friend Denise’s plan to thru hike this year.  Well, she gets dropped off at the trailhead around noon on March 9.  I’ve made the arrangements to be there like a beacon to cheer her on and hike the first 80 miles of the AT with her. She will nail her hike to the wall.

The weather in Georgia has been all over the map.  Hey, it’s in the south you say; it’s bound to be warm.  Well considering that the entire AT in Georgia is above 4,000 ft., cold weather, sleet and snow are factors throughout March.

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I’m packing now.  My pack is going to weigh much more than normal.  For one, I’m carrying my food in a bear-proof container, not so much for the bears, but to set an example to others who don’t take bears seriously.

As for which sleeping bag, jackets and other clothing, I figured I’d split the difference between zero degrees F and 70F.

Stay tuned for dispatches.

Don’t practice being miserable!

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Forty liter pack. 

Appalachian Trail, January 5, 2016 — By now the 2016 thru hikers are deep into preparation.  A very small number have actually launched.  You go guys and gals!

Two years ago on this date I was thru hiking north of Damascus, VA.  The following day I was leaving the trail because one of my parents was going into hospice care.

That was cold hard news, but the weather was colder.

If you recall, the winter of 2013-14 was the year of the infamous polar vortex. When I woke up at dawn the morning of my departure, my thermometer read -15 F.  I had 21 miles to make for pickup.  That’s cause for pause for everyone planning to hike this or any year.

It had rained the entire previous day. Fortunately my rain kit kept my body and the contents of my pack bone dry.  That was a life saver under those circumstances, but my pack harness and pole straps were frozen hard as rock.  Pounding them into a pliable state generated much wanted body heat!

That icy morning I also took my all time thru hike favorite photo of a gorgeous white blaze framed in plump Virginia snow.

This year, as the seasons have switched from Indian summer to true winter, I’ve been following social media discussions on what gear thru hikers should carry.

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This March the temp on the AT in north Georgia fell to 4 F.

On the one extreme are the ultra light gram Nazis. Some of them won’t even carry a Bandaid for fear it will add too much weight.  On the other are extreme the Wally World folks who contemplate hauling camp chairs and elaborate cooking utensils.  Each of these approaches carries existential risks that aren’t for me. I can tell you stories …

Most everyone else is somewhere in the middle on pack weight. As I’ve followed the discussions and debate, I’ve contemplated what constructive information I might be able to add.  Afterall, I hiked 1,000 miles on the AT in winter conditions and was a ridgerunner in Georgia this past spring.  I saw and learned a lot of value from those experiences.

In that context I follow a blogger named Paul Magnanti (www.PMags.com).  Paul writes a very useful and entertaining hiker/backpacker blog from his home base in Colorado. His most recent is entitled “Snivel Gear.” Continue reading

No Shxt Shirlock!

    
I found this uneaten apple about a perfect bear length in front of a pile of bear scat. Since there is but one apple tree on my entire AT section I can only deduce that it came from a tree three quarters of a mile away!

                                                           ________

Shenandoah National Park, August 20, 2015 — It’s been a crazy summer for black bears in the park. They aren’t behaving normally. 
Ridgerunners report seeing far fewer bears than normal. Yet, bear sign is everywhere. There’s plenty of scat, not to mention a huge increase in overturned rocks, shredded logs and the like.  Why this, now, when food in a wet year is especially abundant?

That’s my main complaint. Our furry but elusive buddies are making a mess of everything. They’ve never done that to this degree before. 

Take for instance the section of the Appalachian Trail that I oversee. I can appreciate the “guys” help in keeping down certain invasive species such as the raspberry snares that are proliferating in the aftermath of a 2011 fire that burned through the lower half of the trail. Thanks for that. But, to paraphrase what we used to say in the Army, “One aah shucks wipes out every atta boy!”

Message to bears: Stop tearing up my waterbars and check dams!  I mean it. It’s going to take half the winter to repair the damage. 

    
Here bro bear trashed a perfectly good waterbar checking for grubs. At least the log was heaved where I could find and reuse it. 

    
In this instance of bear banditry, the SOBs took the the log which is nowhere to be found. 

   
All right already!  I know the log on this check dam is starting to rot and needs to be replaced.  I just don’t need the ursus crowd chowing down on this insect motel. 

Guess what?  I know who you are. I saw both of you last week when I was working on keeping the weeds (Lyme disease-bearing tick habitat) in check. If you don’t behave, I’m going to have to post your picture in the Jellystone post office. I mean it!

Winter Wonderland, North Georgia Style

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Top of Georgia Hostel, Hiawassee, GA, Friday February 27, 2015 — A couple of days ago I marched into the woods to begin my duties helping hikers get through their first of the Appalachian Trail’s (AT) 14 states.

My duties are to educate hikers on Leave No Trace principles, which at its essence means that they are supposed to live in and leave the wilderness undisturbed by their presence.  “Leave only footprints” is the mantra.

We also hike out trash we find, help where we can and be a friendly presence on the trail as well as eyes and ears.

The first day began at 9 a.m. at about 70 miles north of the AT’s start point on Springer Mountain.  This section begins with a 1,500 foot climb right out of the door.  It took about a nano second for me to fully appreciate that the 2,200 mile-strong “trail legs” earned on my thru hike last year were past their expiration date.  Ooooph!

But I slushed on through the snow, stopping every 50 yards or so to cool down and catch my breath.  I’m packing about 35 lbs. of cold weather gear, gaiters, food, stove, first aid kit, water purification pills, tooth paste and the like.  Then there’s my trail saw, trash bags and bungee chords.  Oof Da, as the Norwegians say.

First stop was to check the Deep Gap shelter and pick up some detritus left behind by hikers.  Not much thank heaven.  Then to push on to the Tray Gap shelter, about seven more miles up hill and ahead.

A storm was expected to roll in about 5 p.m., so no day dreaming was allowed.

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The snow was typically heavy and wet southern snow ranging from four to eight inches deep with some drifting to a foot.  My calves were screaming from pushing up hill and slipping back.  What would have been a five hour hike on dry trail unfolded in just nine hours.

Of course the storm hit around four o’clock, an hour early.  I arrived at the shelter covered in thick white stuff.  Three hikers were there.  They were strong and competent though the strongest among them told me that he’d been plowing Georgia snow for 12 days!  That’s normally five to six days for most people just starting out.

I ate and took a deep dive into my down bag and reached slumber depth before anyone could say it’s snowing.

Throughout the night the wind whipped snow across my face, waking me occasionally.  Who knew what we’d find in the morning.

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The dawn sparkled with a fresh landscape of new snow, six to 12 inches adrift over everything.  At least it looks good, I reasoned.

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Now this has always been a family blog.  But hikers have to do their business in the morning.  Let’s just say that some mornings are easier than others.

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The snowscape was inspiring.

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Along the way I removed trail obstructions and noted some heavier work for later.

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Wild pigs love to root and pillage.

Needless to say, the slogging was tiring.  The smart decision was to push on another 8 miles and over another 1,500 foot climb to Unicoi Gap where I could get a ride back to the Top of Georgia Hostel where I’ve set up my base camp.  I’d totaled only 20 miles.

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Today is a zero day and the snow is melting.  Tomorrow it’s back to Unicoi and another steep climb up Blue Mountain.  We’ll see how far I get.