Reunions

EmilyLeonard

Harpers Ferry, WV, May 26, 2015 –There I was doing my best Captain Kirk impression as I sat in the command chair behind the counter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) visitors center when the door opens and I hear a cheery, “Hi Sisu!”  (Sisu is my trail name.)

To my delight, in walks Emily Leonard.  At least that’s who she was when I camped next to her and her husband on Springer Mountain, GA in early March.  Now she is “Black Bear,” an awesome thru hiker who remembered me promising that I would take her ‘half-way photo’ if she reached ATC HQ on a Tuesday, my volunteer day.  Well, she did and there I was wearing a giant smile in salute to her presence and accomplishment.

Emily is a former teacher and soccer coach who lives in Maine.  She sounded and looked strong. After the formalities, I treated her to a healthy, read leafy green-colored, lunch at a quirky local restaurant. Our conversation quickly established that she’s having a wonderful time walking in the woods.  You can follow her blog at:  http://happyhiking.bangordailynews.com/category/home/  I really hope that Black Bear goes — ALL THE WAY!

By way of additional insight, I wrote about Emily anonymously in one of my blogs from Georgia.  She was a hiker with the ultra light Cuban fiber tent pitched with so much slack that I worried might blow away in a strong wind.  After staying the first night, her husband returned home to Maine and work while Emily hiked on.  That wasn’t the first time I learned to never judge a pack by its cover.

Of note:  It turns out she ditched that tent for a range of reasons and is using the one her husband had.  So much for hi tech.

IMG_2095Separately, a hiker named “Bonafide” aka “Winter Walker” phoned me from Bears Den hostel last night.  I first met him in Tennessee in December 2013 during my thru hike.  That year his doctor told him to lose some weight, so he walked from his home state of Vermont to Tennessee and back to Harpers Ferry.  This year he decided to thru hike and I met him plowing through the north Georgia snow back in February.

Sisu and Winter Walker in Mount Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA in Dec. 2013

Sisu and Winter Walker in Mount Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA in Dec. 2013

His call was to check in being that he was nearby. When I mentioned that the movie, “A Walk in the Woods” would be out in September, he unleashed a tirade about hikers who mess up the woods and don’t follow Leave No Trace principles.  It was instructive to say the least.  It seems like time and distance don’t weed out all the bad apples.

The “Walk in the Woods” trigger was this:  The Bill Bryson book features many scenes like the ones I reported from Georgia with people tossing trash and worse all over the trail.

He asked me what I thought the answer might be.  My response was one word:  Babysitters.  That’s what you get when you act like a child.

Here’s the trailer for “A Walk in the Woods:” It promises to be a fun movie.

http://news.moviefone.com/2015/05/27/robert-redford-walk-in-the-woods-trailer/

Sneak Peek

My gear set up in Woods Hole shelter in Georgia.

My gear set up in Woods Hole shelter in Georgia.

North Georgia, Friday March 30, 2015 — None of us who love being outdoors could ever be accused of living he lifestyles of the rich and famous.  We’re not even trying.  But, we are living life in the simple way we love.  A sneak peak into the way it is out here follows.

It’s always fun to write about the drama whether it’s snow, mud, rain, wind, heat, bears, snakes, and the like.  But reality is much more mundane.  So what it is that we really do? Here are a few questions and answers.

Where to we sleep?  Some people sleep in shelters.  These three-sided structures were part of the AT’s original vision.  A precious few of the original log structures still stand, though most are infested by field mice and the critters that eat them. (Read Jake No Shoulders: aka snakes.)

An original shelter from the 1930s.

An original shelter from the 1930s at Cable Gap.

Wood Hole, a more contemporary shelter.

Wood Hole, a more contemporary shelter.

Shelters offer safe haven in stormy weather and enable quick get-aways in the morning. The accommodate from six to 16 of your best friends, at least that’s what you become after sleeping cheek to cheek with people who were formerly perfect strangers. Corner locations offer privacy on at least one side.

Former strangers.  Friends now!

Former strangers. Friends now!

Tenting or sleeping in hammocks are alternatives to shelters.  Hikers tend to favor tents, at least until their need for speed trumps aversion to strangers.

A peak inside my mosquito netting.

A peek behind my mosquito netting.

Tents offer privacy and control of your gear.  Most makes are comfortable and weather tight.  They do add up to an hour each day to pitch and strike them.

Cooking?  There are as many ways to cook as there are hikers.  Some cook over an open fire.  This method has multiple disadvantages including sooty pots, the time spent gathering wood and building the fire, not to mention the extra weight of fresh food that’s much cheaper than branded dehydrated meals.

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Hikers tend to cook near their tents or in common areas associated with the shelters.

Hikers love high calorie, low volume foods.  Breakfast often consists of oatmeal, coffee, hot chocolate, pop tarts and granola bars.  Lunch can be tortillas and peanut butter, salami on bagels, or Snickers bars.  Many folks don’t stop long for lunch, if at all.  After all, time equals miles.

Almost everyone eats a hot dinner.  One all time favorite is Ramman noodles with peanut butter. That passes for haute Pad Thai in these parts.  Otherwise meals dehydrated at home or manufactured by companies such as Mountain House are luxurious at the end of a day harder than woodpecker lips.

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Some folks love a few creature comforts, especially at the onset of their hikes.  However these extras add weight and tend to disappear rather quickly as the reality of a 2,200 mile trek sets in.  It’s sometimes amazing what come out of the huge backpacks you see out here.

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After meals, we hang our bear canisters or food bags to keep them out of reach of critters.

Bear canisters are heavy and only required in one small area in Georgia.

Bears must think of this as a food bag tree.

Bears must think of this as a food bag tree.

"Mouse hangers" keep field mice away.

“Mouse hangers” keep field mice away.

After dinner, some folks like a camp fire where they wile away the stress of the day.

After dinner, some folks like a camp fire where they wile away the stress of the day.

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At the crack of dawn we reclaim our food from the bear cables or when in town (about every five days) go to the supper market to buy more.

Now you know a little bit more.

The First Patrol

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This tree was snapped off like a match stick

Hiawassee, GA, Top of Georgia Hostel, Sunday March 8, 2015 — My first patrol was over late Friday night.  The hiking was energy intensive at times, especially in the snow early on.  The ice and wind inflicted some serious damage on the trees, especially along the expose saddles between mountains.

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Overall, the trail treadway is in good shape.  The water is draining properly and the mud is minimal under the conditions although my clothes were covered with it by the time I’d reached the summit of Springer Mountain.

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Along the way I was able to clear several blowdowns that impeded navigation.

The hikers seemed strong and determined for the most part.  I did notice a propensity for them to hold at shelters or dive into town when it rained.  I can’t say I didn’t do some of that during my hike.  Hiking in the rain is miserable.

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My patrol pattern will be changing for the rest of the time I’m here.  From now on, I’ll be hiking south from Neels Gap to Springer where I’ll spend two days while the caretaker there is off.  This makes sense since most of the need to help hikers occurs in the first 30 miles.

Naturally, Murphy was lurking over my shoulder.  I didn’t get back to Hiawassee until 11:30 p.m. Friday evening.  I was so tired that I locked my car keys in the trunk.  I had to go to Atlanta to get a new one.  Lesson learned!

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This weekend was spent at the Appalachian Trail Kickoff.  It’s a hiking seminar at Amicalola State Park.  The presentations ranged wide and far from bears, to hostels, to lightweight gear.  It’s designed to help hikers learn what would be helpful for them to know prior to starting their hikes.

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It was a special privilege to meet and talk with Gene Espy, the second person ever (1953) to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.

Next week we do it again.

Trail Ambassador

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Role playing exercise

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, February 20, 2015 — I’ve spent the past week gettin’ ready for love.  Oh, not THAT kind. I’ve been with a group of people training to assist hikers on the Appalachian Trail this year.  We love the trail and the people who hike on it.

Our base camp is a modern style house from the late 50s or early 60s owned by the National Park Service.  During the summer it is basecamp for the trail crews that work in the park.

Our mission is to educate hikers primarily on “Leave No Trace”™ principles, encourage them and help them in practical ways.

An estimated three million people walk at least some distance on the Appalachian Trail each year, so Leave No Trace is a big deal.  The national scenic trails, of which the AT is only one albeit the most famous, are being “loved to death.  The number of users continues to increase at a high rate.  Therefore, the impact on the environment from human footsteps alone is enormous.  Add their feces and urine, toothpaste, dishwater, dropped litter, abandoned gear, fires, animal disturbance and all the rest together and the sum is enormous.

Unfortunately, individual hikers fail to appreciate that their impact is additive to all the others.  That’s why Leave No Trace is more than Pack it in.  Pack it out.  Hikers are expected to plan and prepare for everything they might encounter on their hike.  Understanding how and where to camp prevents erosion and unsightly scars.  Knowing how to dispose of human waste properly is critical to preventing water contamination and disease. Respecting wildlife, fellow hikers and campers, leaving what you find undisturbed and generally being considerate round it out.

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Here I’m demonstrating how to hang a food bag in a way that is not tied to any tree.  Bears have learned to break ropes tied off to trees and feast on what falls to the ground!

Human food kills bears.  Once they become unafraid of humans, bears have to be trapped and moved, or worse, destroyed. They are magnificent animals.  Being thoughtless has sad consequences.  The AT-wide bear statistics weren’t encouraging.  Bear territory is shrinking and the animals are only trying to find food.

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Had a small bear encounter at the outfitter in Gatlinburg, TN.

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During the week, the Forest Service taught us a lot about hiker/camper psychology and methods to be persuasive without confrontation.  Nobody wants to hear that they are a screw-up.  Above all, we learned to count small victories.

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Then there’s the weather.  Minus 23 at altitude in the Smokies!  Holy frostbite Batman!!!  My gear will get me to -15F at best with a miserable night.  I’ve experienced and slept outside in -50F in Alaska and northern Minnesota.  I can’t carry that kind of gear over these mountains.  Best to stay in town when the weather forecast looks like this.

Today I drove to Hiawassee in north Georgia to visit a couple of hostels and assess trail and weather conditions.  There weren’t that many hikers around.  Several had been driven back to or into town by the subzero temperatures.  They said the snow wasn’t a big deal, but that there were a lot of downed trees to impede progress.

Ridgerunners/trail ambassadors carry large pruning saws to attack blowdown up to about a foot in diameter.  At a minimum, we can trim away the branches from a large trunk.  The going will be slow next week.  Can’t wait.

Tuesday the Georgia crew meets with the Forest Service and the local trail club for coordination.  Let the games begin!

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Dick’s Creek Gap today.

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Same rock.  Better weather!

Back to the future

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February 14, 2015 — I’m packing up and headed for some training in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has a base camp there used for training year round and for trail crews in the summer.

I’ll be joining a group of ridgerunners.  Ridgerunners patrol in season the Appalachian Trail (AT) from beginning to end.  The onset of thru hiking season is just around the corner,  and it’s time to get ready.

My role is to test the use of volunteers to augment the paid seasonal staff.  The difference is that I’ll be there only for the month of March.  Everyone else is there for the duration of hiking season – until autumn.

The need for the test is that AT (and other trails) is expected to see a large increase next year in thru hike attempts in response to the movies “Wild” in theaters now, and “A Walk in the Woods” which will be in theaters before summer’s end.

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Historical data establishes a direct correlation between increases in thru hike attempts and popular mass media about hiking or the AT.  Books, television, videos have done it every time.  Now we have Hollywood to help drive up the numbers next year.

My patrol area is the AT’s 78 miles in Georgia.  We walk five days and spend four nights on the trail.  The sixth day is off.  Of interest, we hike southbound (SOBO) for the purpose of meeting as many thru hikers as possible.  Once we reach Springer Mountain, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club shuttles us back north to do it all again.

Among our duties is to help hikers as we can, educate them on Leave No Trace™ principles and trail etiquette, pick up litter, do minor trail repairs, and report issues we cannot handle.  These hikes are not about miles.  They’re about the smiles.

The forecast isn’t friendly, at least for next week.  It’s going to be colder than a well digger’s backside in the Smoky’s.  So much so that we’ve been told that we’ll be spending our nights at the basecamp and none sleeping outside. Yea!  No sense practicing being miserable.

The weather in Georgia will probably whip back and forth between ugly and nice with huge improvements toward the end of March.  Still, the southern Appalachians are high enough that snow can fall into April, even when the temperatures in Atlanta and points south are cooking.

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I’m looking forward to some former stomping grounds.  Dick’s Creek Gap is just short of the North Carolina border and the northern edge of the patrol area.  Blood Mountain is in the center of the sector.  It’s got some interesting native American history with some ornery bear activity on the side.

I plan to blog daily, but publish them as every fifth or sixth day as time permits just like I did on my thru hike.  So stay tuned.  If anyone has read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods, you know this could be interesting.

Mourning bells on Madison Avenue.

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Boiling Springs, Penn., AT NOBO mile 1117.5, Wednesday April 23, 2014 — The mourning bells are ringing on Madison Avenue because I died today.

Really?

As members of the original Pepsi generation, advertisers promised Boomers we were never going age. We weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30.  Our uniform was going to be Levis, mop tops, and sandals!  We were forever young and the most coveted demographic of all time.

Given the degree of indoctrination we endured, I don’t know if this was a shared Boomer experience, but I felt a little strange when I woke up the morning of my thirtieth birthday and nothing changed. I didn’t look or feel any less trustworthy. Same thing when I reached a few other magic milestones that society commemorates with sacrificial candles.

This morning yet another of my life’s supposedly defining markers slipped by. Yup, another birthday.

This time something is different. I really am dead.

Dead, you say?  Like a doornail?  How could that be?

It’s actually a metaphor. As someone who worked in the marketing and PR world for many years, it’s like this: I know that I might as well be dead. 

Here’s the logic.

In some circles, being in a coveted consumer demographic is high status. Everybody wants to talk to YOU. They know that ME is the most important word in the English (advertising) language. 

Oh yes, you’d better be talkin’ to me!

If that’s the case, it’s over for moi. I’m not in anybody’s coveted demographic anymore. 

I’m tuned in, but Madison Ave. dropped me out.  Studies say that most of my brand preferences have been locked in – like NRA paranoia – for decades.  They think I’ve stopped thinking, because I can’t.

Ha!

It’s ironic.  By the time you reach a certain age, overnight the ad industry writes you off – you’re  a non-entity completely unworthy of ad service. In short, you don’t count in the ratings.

Nielsen, I know you don’t love me anymore.  It’s okay. You can have your box back.

As boomers, mainstream advertising no longer covets our eyeballs and ears. Our music has faded from the soundtracks of hit TV shows, and from the commercials that pay for them.  

Our generation’s stars have been reduced to playing grumpy and eccentric grandparents on the new TV shows.  Even the E-D ads target younger men.  To know that all you have to do is look at the age of the women who play the wives.

In the modern American consumer economy, when nobody wants to sell you anything, what’s left for you? You might as well be dead.  As far as the sales department is concerned, you are.

Big deal.  Life’s interesting.  I can personally attest that the mirror lies like a dog.  My hair isn’t gray, it’s only color-challenged. I mean, I’m glad to still have some.  But hey, I hear the Fountain of Youth is somewhere over the horizon, but that’s not why I’m walkin’.  (Or is it?)

“They” think the bell is tolling for me. They are soooo wrong!

Being retired is like perpetual vacation from school.  There’s a lot of time to fill, and there are a million things to do. If you didn’t notice, our generation has accomplished a lot and we still have talent. Most of us aren’t willing to go quietly into the great good night either.

Guess what Mad Men?  There are better roles in daily life than playing manipulated consumers whose primary benefit to society is buying stuff.  Boomers are born activists.  Remember the 60’s.  I know.  If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.

Buckle your seat belt.  As more of us retire with too much time on our hands, it could get interesting, so let’s get ready to rock and roll.

Enough rant.  There’s something more important to say on this, my first birthday without my mother.

“Thanks for the birthday mom. Without you, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to become uninteresting to advertisers.  I’ll always love you for that alone.”

The long weekend continues.

Raven Rock Shelter, AT NOBO mile 1055.6, Friday April 18, 2014 — My mind is beginning to obsess. It’s starting to be about the rocks and we’re not even in Rocksylvania yet. The border is just five miles away so we’re almost there.

Just as Tarzan vines swung through my head, now it’s rocks. I’ve written two parody songs about hiking so far, and now a third one about rocks is working its way through my synapses. I’ll share a sampler of some random lines derived from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence.”

Hello rocks, my old friends,
I’ve come to hike on you again.

Beneath the halo of my head lap,
I turn my collar because you’re cold and damp.

The hikers bowed and prayed,
To the white blaze god they’d made.

And it echoed with the sound of hiker midnight.

We’ll see how it goes.

A two-time thru hiker who shuttled me back from my snow-aborted slack pack attempt in Buena Vista warned me about the Maryland rocks. He thought they were worse than Pennsylvania’s.

He was right about the trail being excessively rocky, but there is so much more of Pennsylvania. How could a state some people hike across in a single day beat big bad Pennsylvania at its own game?

Not buying it – yet. A Penn native and successful thru hiker named Karma told me that Pennsylvania wasn’t that bad. Best of all the rocks don’t extend to the whole state. She’s batted 1000 so far, so I’m sticking with her.

Tonight’s shelter is new and pretty awesome. I’d put it in the top three. It’s guests include a nice family from Delaware, and on the tent pads an amorous young couple and a solo older guy. All-in-all, good company.

Since last week the forest is really beginning to wake up. The May apples are exploding – that’s a tip of the hat to my friend Karma who wrote about them in her blog last year.

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What I’ve learned so far.

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At the close of every combat operation or training exercise, Army leaders undertake an appraisal known as an After Action Review (AAR) to capture relevant lessons and informative experiences while the knowledge is fresh – both the right and wrong, as well as the bad and ugly.  My first half AAR follows.

Thru hikers learn something new with almost every step.  I came to realize and appreciate just how much I don’t know.  Ignorance is sometimes bliss, but mostly not.  The local history, weather, cosmos, biology and geology are deep subjects, and my knowledge of them only scratches the surface.  Somehow, my thirst for knowledge seemed to grow by the mile.

As the depth of my own ignorance deepened, it also dawned on me that readers may have questions or topics which they might want me to explore.  If so, fire away with your questions and suggestions. You are along for the ride after all. 

About three weeks ago I began scratching notes in my notebook on subjects I thought might be informative for readers or useful for those attempting a long distance hike in the future.  These observations are a product of my unique experience, capabilities and shortcomings.  They may or may not be relevant to others.  I just hope they’re worthwhile.

This post is going to be wordy and a bit inelegantly written, but I can’t think of a way to make so much info pretty. These are broad areas I intend to cover:

1.  Logistics

2. Town visits and zeros

3.  Equipment

4.  Cold weather

5.  Water

6.  Cost

7.  Hygiene

8.  Electronics

1.  Logistics:

When you factor out time off the trail for the holidays and my mother’s passing, but keep zero days, I’m right at 90 hiking days on the trail.  That’s a very normal pace.  I try to average 15 miles per day which generally means staying at every other shelter.  When daylight was more limited, sometimes that was a hard bargain.  Now it’s generally a fair day’s work with time to spare.

Logistics for for the first half are far more simple and I could imagine, even after closely following a couple dozen hikers day-by-day last year.  The towns are easy to reach making both food and equipment resupply easy.  Moreover, many people will go out of their way to help you if need be.  You won’t always find exactly what you want, but you can find what you need to get by. 

I walked off cycle meaning that much of the hiker support infrastructure wasn’t there – many shuttlers, hostels, restaurants, some outfitters and trail angels only operate during peak season which ranges from mid-February through April starting in the deep south with the dates sliding to the right on the calendar as the hiker “bubbles” migrate northward.  Still, I had little trouble finding shuttles, places to stay, getting my laundry done, fuel and groceries at any point.  David “Awol” Miller’s guide book is excellent and the phone numbers listed within are accurate.

Food is the heaviest item in most hiker’s packs, and I seemed always to have too much of it.  That’s mostly because I didn’t trust the resupply system.  In retrospect, I could have schlepped a lot less food and resupplied more often without slowing down one bit.

The average Dollar General, Kroger or other grocery has most everything with the exception of dehydrated hiker meals manufactured by companies like Mountain House.  With that caveat, the remaining choices are more than serviceable.  Ramen is ubiquitous.  It became a staple that I fortified with spices, hot sauce and meat from other sources.

I didn’t start using mail drops until I reached central Virginia.  I was unsure of resupply there, so I mailed food and other expendables to Woods Hole, my friend near Roanoke, and to Bluedogart.  I’ll continue the practice of mailing directly to places where I’m going to stay.  That way I don’t have to hunt for the post office or go grocery shopping.  I do call in advance to see if they’re open and willing to accept a package; and let them know approximately when to expect me.

2.  Town visits and zeros:

Some of this is individual preference and some is driven by social factors for hikers in season. Since I was solo and alone most of the time, hanging with anyone or any group wasn’t a consideration.  I could hike or go to town on my own schedule without fear of hurting anyone’s feelings.

Hostels are as unique as their owners.  Some cost more than others.  Each is special.  They’re hard to rate, but my favorites for the first half is a tie between Woods Hole near Pearisburg, Va. and Bears Den about a day-and-a-half hike south of Harpers Ferry.  Each is unique and offers hikers a special high value experience.

Hostels are not hotels.  Mostly they’re operated for love, not profit.  Being solo offered me the opportunity to spend quality time with many of the owners.  These are good folks who will take good care of you.  Please take good care of them.

Stopping in town every five to seven days seemed about right.  I needed to shower, do laundry, recharge my electronics, and buy groceries.  To compensate for winter, I carried some emergency rations (chocolate bars and the like) to cover for unforeseen weather, but not enough to extend my range much.

I did learn that rest days were not required.  In my case a hot shower and a soft bed was as good as an entire day off!  Weather stops were another matter.  On seven occasions I stayed in town at least one extra day to wait for severe weather to clear. 

A good example of a wise weather zero is when I chose to spend a second night at Woods Hole Hostel.  The forecast was for snow, 11 F ambient air temp, and wind gusts up to 50 mph.  That howling night Mother Nature delivered on her promise.  Meanwhile, I was inside, warm, dry and safe.  The next day dawned with the weather improving, so I hiked out bright and early in a residual snow squall.  By nightfall, the sun was shining.

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These photos were taken on the same day, about 15 miles and 10 hours apart.

Another thing I learned was not to pig out on town food in spite of my worst instincts and deepest desires.  Subsequent to the first couple of zeros, I waddled out of town stuffed with rich food like a Thanksgiving turkey crammed with oyster dressing.  It generally took about three days to recover from the ensuing lethargy and bloating. 

I learned that one hamburger was sufficient, and to eat only until full.  For the second meal and beyond, I shifted my diet toward more nutritious green food – salads and the like.  Did I mention I have a weak spot for onion rings?

It seems that hiker fare on the trail is low volume and high calorie.  Unfortunately, too much of it is sugar.  While town food is high volume, but lower in calories except for the beer maybe.  The human gut has a hard time making the switch.  It needs help from upstairs in self-control HQ.

3.  Equipment:

The aphorism goes:  You can have your equipment lightweight, sturdy or inexpensive.  Pick two.  It’s also a trail maxim to make three piles of gear – survival, nice to have and luxury.  Pack everything in the survival pile and one thing from the luxury pile.  Everything else stays behind.  It’s all sage advice unless you’re okay with the weight of a blacksmith’s anvil on your back.

From the time my hike began until winter closed in, I developed three different packing schemes to cope with expected temperature ranges.  One each for expected lows of 30F, 20F and 0F.  The 30 degree set up weighs 26 lbs with five days food and 1 liter of water.  The 20 degree weighs 32 lbs with the same food and water; while the zero degree kit slams the scales at 38 lbs complete with optional micro-spike crampons.  Thirty eight pounds is a hard load to tote.  There’s no spontaneous dancing on the trail for sure.

Two schemes involved my 40 liter Deuter ACT lite 40 + 10 pack (color red).  The zero degree mash up required the purchase of a 65 liter Deuter ACT lite 65 + 10 pack (color blue).  I chose Deuter because I’m short and their pack suspension system allows for infinite height adjustment. Deuter packs fit both short and tall people equally well.  Really! The cargo compartment design also is ideal for the way I like to organize my gear.  http://www.deuter.com/US/us/backpacking-trekking-120.html

The two packs have an identical suspension and cargo compartment design, the difference is that the blue one is larger.  Regardless of which I used, the system for organizing my gear in my pack and when I made and broke camp, remained the same. Staying organized on the trail is a critical component of success.

Everything has a place, the same place every day. Call it SOP or Six Sigma.  Process consistency pays.

First thing out is the last thing in.  In my case it was a medium size Sea to Summit waterproof compression sack guarding my clothing.  First thing out of that sack was a fleece hat followed by a fleece shirt, down jackets, pants, dry socks and booties.  Once my body was going to remain warm, I could prepare to sleep and eat.

I also separated my sleeping gear and first aid kit from food, stove, personal hygiene items and clothing.  Deuter packs have two inside compartments.  The sleeping gear – bag, air matress, pee bottle and first aid kit – snuggled in the bottom compartment.  Everything else jammed the upper one.  Those items that might be needed on a moment’s notice – rain gear, waterproof pack cover, gaiters, TP, headlamp, and water canteen resided in the top or outside quick and easy access pockets.  My tent was usually strapped outside whether I had room inside or not. Don’t ask me why.  I just liked it that way.

My ample first aid kit was in a place quick and easy to reach with only a zipper to protect it.  No straps or buckles to be undone. Inside you’ll find first aid for me and also for my equipment. 

Everything in both compartments that could be affected by water was packed in Sea-to-Summit waterproof compression sacks.  The entire contents were inside trash compactor bags. 

Twice the inside of my cargo compartment got soaked by rain which only underscored that staying dry has to be fail safe.  Let’s just say that it is now.

Both packs were durable.  They do take about 200 miles to break in though.

Shortly before returning to the trail in March, a friend found my favorite piece of equipment.  While Mary Manley and I hiked together, she heard my complaints about not having pockets or pouches that would provide quick access to frequently used items without having to take off my pack. She discovered Ribz (www.ribz.com)  Ribz resembles what the military dubs “load bearing equipment or LBE.”  You don Ribz before your pack.  The pouches and pockets can carry gloves and hats, snacks, tools, hand warmers, guide book pages and virtually every small item you need.  After 350 miles, I declare Ribz a winner.

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Wearing Ribz

My food bag is a ZPack Cuben Fiber bag designed specifically for that purpose.  It was expensive, but held up fine.  In a pinch I could cram up to eight days rations within.

“Feets don’t fail me now” is a slogan seen occasionally on marathoner’s shirts.  If it’s true for marathons, it applies ten-to-the-tenth for thru hikers.  Foot health is everything, and it all begins with boots. 

I got really lucky in the boot department.  I have a high-arched, narrow foot and 30 years ago I discovered that Salomon’s last conforms perfectly to my foot shape.  I haven’t had a blister since. 

My current hiking boots aren’t really boots per se.  They are actually high-topped lighter weight Gore-Tex trail shoes –  Salomon model X Ultra Mid GTX.  The rocks on the AT are so ubiquitous and unstable that, with the pack weights I had to carry, I needed high tops to protect against rolling my ankles. The insides have a silver threaded lining that seemed to work like my Columbia Omni-Heat base layer to reflect body heat back.  My feet never got cold – never!  Not even at sub-zero temps.  I wore polypropylene sock liners with heavy “Smart Wool” socks.

Here’s the bonus.  My first pair of boots lasted 850 miles!  The norm is 500 or less. The reason the boots lasted so long isn’t brand magic.  There’s a special circumstance.  I spent most of my time walking on fluffy leaf litter and snow.  The soles show plenty of wear, just not what one might expect from 850 miles. 

Toward the end though, my faithful boots started giving up the ghost.  The stitching in the uppers stretched to the point where the toe and forefoot areas leaked in the snow.  I also poked a stick through an upper toe box which I repaired with Tenacious Tape and silicone seam seal.  RIP my intrepid friends.  Ya done good, and I’ll miss you. 

I bought two identical replacement pairs of boots with my REI dividend.  One for now and one for a planned tire change in Hanover, NH. 

4. Cold weather:

When I decided to hike on after my planned trip from Springer to Fontana ended, I thought I was well prepared for seasonal weather, even in the infamous Smokies.  After all, it was barely the first week in November. I planned to heavy-up my gear during the Thanksgiving break which was slightly more than 10 days away at that time.

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The season’s first winter storm on Nov. 5th challenged that premise. The overnight temp unexpectedly plunged to 0F and the trails turned to sheet ice. In spite of having only a 30F kit, I dozed off and on at the Ice Water Spring Shelter that night, but only after wrapping myself in my tent fly for extra insulation. I was not as comfortable as I would like.

The real issue was the absence of mittens.  I did have thick gloves and liners, but they were not sufficient to prevent light frost nip.  I backtracked into Gatlinburg to buy mittens and microspikes from the large and well-equipped Nantahala Outdoor Center outfitter there. 

SOL.  No mittens in stock!  I was stunned, so I bought a pair of extra large fleece gloves into which I could cram the gloves I already had and pushed on. A couple of fingertips got nipped, but a warming trend prevented further damage.

Staying warm is all about light weight layers.  Purely by accident I discovered Omni-Heat clothing by Columbia.  The premise is that Mylar microdots embedded in the fabric reflect body heat back and improve the R value.  I’m a data guy without real data in this case, but in my experience Omni-Heat is nothing short of magic.  It really, really works.  As an added attraction, the base layer wicks moisture well too.  I also have a lightweight Columbia down jacket with the same feature. Everything has withstood heavy laundering.  Score!  http://www.columbia.com/Omni-Heat-Reflective/Technology_Omni-Heat_Reflective,default,pg.html

The layering concept is the basis of my various temperature-based packing schemes. Clothing worn while hiking wasn’t a big deal.  Hiking generates so much heat that it didn’t take much to be warm.  The real issue was not to sweat too much and get soaked. 

On my coldest hiking day it was +5 F with 18.5 miles on the menu.  I wore my Omni-Heat base layer with a light fleece over that. The top layer was a hooded, high collared rain jacket with pit zips.  The windchill was about 10 below.  My hands were protected by fleece glove liners and thick mittens inside water/windproof shells.  That’s why I only took two photos that day – about 50 yards apart.  It was just too hard to unwrap everything.

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The real challenge to staying warm isn’t walking, it’s sleeping.  My sleep system is based on a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite air mattress.  Most heat loss while sleeping is from the bottom.  This air mattress is also magic.  I was warm every single night.  http://www.cascadedesigns.com/therm-a-rest/mattresses/fast-and-light/neoair-xlite/product?  Its technology also captures radiant heat. 

My sleeping bag is a Sierra Designs Dry Down 25F-rated woman’s bag.  I’m 5’6″ and it fits my stature well and saved me about $100 over a comparable men’s bag designed for longer people. 

The sleeping bag is supplemented by combinations of the following:  A silk liner, a light weight fleece hat and shirt, light weight down booties, pants, and two light weight down jackets sized to fit one inside the other.  Add fleece gloves and dry socks and I’ve slept in an open shelter, warm and toasty, at five below with degrees to spare. 

These items are mixed and matched in various combinations and are supplemented buy extra hats and gloves as the various temperature ranges dictate.

One important cold weather factor is keeping your hands warm and DRY.  Waterproof hand coverings are essential.  In fact, rain and 34F can be more threatening than snow at 30F.  I used REI mittens with a waterproof shell – and sometimes the shell alone supplemented by fleece gloves – or dishwashing gloves with glove liners inside as circumstances dictated.  No problems.

Cooking in colder weather also has a different dynamic.  I purchased a highly efficient Jet Boil stove to replace my Pocket Rocket.  Boiling ice cold water took less fuel and time with the former.  I also made an insulating cozy into which I could put my food while it rehydrated. 

If it’s cold enough, your food can cool dramatically during the 10 – 15 minutes it takes to fully rehydrate.  The cozy is simply a double layer heavy duty plastic frozen pizza bag cut down and taped together with HVAC tape.  It works well and weighs little.

5.  Water:

In the beginning I was trucking two liters of water.  That’s four fat pounds worth.  Ultimately realizing that water would be plentiful, I cut back to a single liter and purchased a Nalgene two liter collapsible canteen for in-camp use. I’ve never run short.

Water treatment is personal preference.  I use iodine tabs because that’s what I’ve always used, and I know they work.  They’re light and take up almost no space. 

I buy several bottles of the tabs, and the white clarifying pills that remove the bad taste, and repack them into two-inch plastic tubular containers.  The one drawback is that iodine tabs take 30 minutes to be effective.  In contrast Filters are immediate, but they freeze, clog, require maintenance and take up valuable space. 

I did pick up a Life Straw filter to take on the second half for emergency use.  Sometimes in the summer heat, you can’t wait 30 minutes to rehydrate.

6.  Cost:

Ker-ching!!! Being out of cycle and buying extra gear for winter has been costly.  The rule of thumb for an in-cycle hike is amortized at $1,000 per month which includes the cost of gear.  Gear for a largely summer hike reportedly ranges from $1,000 to $1,500. 

My costs have averaged about twice normal – including a lot of extra winter gear.  Off cycle, there’s usually no one with whom to share the cost of shuttles and lodging.  Some of these services cost extra then too.  The weather zeros add up as has some down time waiting until my wife could come and collect me for the holidays.  Towns are expensive, especially the restaurant food.

After crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, I’ve noticed that I can anticipate fewer inexpensive hostels and more expensive motels.  The price difference is up to a factor of four in many cases.  Ouch!

Could I have shaved some of these costs?  Not really, unless I switched to a normal hike.  It is what it is.

6.  Hygiene:

After packing my “survival pile,” the luxury I chose was personal hygiene.  My mother is the principal reason.  She used to admonish us as adolescents for smelling like “Boy Scouts” when we’d come home from a camping trip.  Later, as an Army leader, I learned that throughout history more soldiers have died from preventable diseases than at the hands of their enemies.  Keeping clean is the key, and I am obsessed with it.

My hygiene kit includes a comb, plastic mirror, tooth brush, floss, waterless shampoo, Dr. Bronner’s (very eco-friendly) soap, hand sanitizer, fingernail clippers and file, a ration of two “Wet Ones” per day, and a small microfiber towel.  The hand sanitizer doubles as deodorant.  Just remember to rub it in to activate the alcohol. 

I also use table napkins as TP – much stronger and less likely to tear.  When digging a cat hole, I carefully burn the paper before filling it back up.  It’s an old practice I was taught in dry climates where paper can last a hundred years.  Just don’t burn down the woods.

Keeping clean differs some between winter and summer conditions.  Below 40F, I don’t wash my hair daily or shave everyday.  Too cold.  But hands can be washed, body wiped down with Wet Ones, and teeth brushed. 

In summer, I sponge off he sweat residue as soon as I reach camp.  Clothes can be washed and rinsed in a trash compactor bag, two liters of water and Dr. Bronners.  Just fill up the bag and shake.  Repeat for the rinse cycle.  Oooom. Irish Spring.

I carry two base layers in winter, plus several light outer layers.  In summer, I always have two sets of shorts and t-shirts, plus a cotton sleeping shirt and a decent shirt to wear in town that only comes out in town.  Accessorize sans hiker funk, and note the clean hair and fingernails.  No hiker trash here.

7.  Electronics:

Cold temperatures raise hell with lithium batteries.  Once the battery itself reaches temps under 50F, it can shutdown in a matter of minutes.  By March I was carrying 4 1/2 extra iPhone battery equivalents, plus the phone.  Most of them were manufactured by Mophie.  During the day I couldn’t do much except keep my phone as close to my body as possible.  Twice I used dry handwarmers to keep my phone battery viable enough to phone for shuttles. 

At night the batteries snuggled inside my jacket pocket.  Once warm and bedded down, I’d recharge my phone or iPod as needed.  Not an ideal situation, but the best I could do.

In town, most hostels don’t have enough plugs to charge several devices at once.  During hiking season it must be a zoo.  I purchased a single plug, multi-port charger into which I could connect everything I carried.  It was slow, taking all night to recharge everything, but much better than charging the phone and storage batteries one at a time.  Can’t wait for summer.

Summary:

The age old truths apply.  In particular, when there is will, there is a way.  Best of all, if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. 

 

Sisu – Makin’ tracks …  

Hair today. Gone tomorrow.

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I started cultivating my beard the day after my mother’s funeral. I just needed to change things up a bit.  If nothing else, I needed to see something different in the mirror.  We were beyond the fuzzy stage when I returned to hiking in early March.

Until the stubble showed up, I was clean shaven on the trail.  As winter progressed, the cold forced me from shaving every day as had been my previous habit. So shearing the crop shifted to join my weekly town routine along with laundry and a shower.  I should reverse those because the shower always comes first!

Believe it or not, on the trail having a beard made a huge difference.  Sans beard I had a hard time convincing people I was a thru hiker.  I just didn’t look the part. Thru hikers are supposed to be scruffy.  Almost by definition facial hair is an expected part of the male uniform along with a distinct odoriferous funk and filthy fingernails. 

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I didn’t fit the picture.

A typical conversation would go like this: 

Q: “Where’d you start?”  A:  “Georgia.”  (I didn’t want to complicate matters by explaining that I started first in the north before going south.)

Q:  “Where ‘ya headed?”  A:  “Maine.”

Q:  “What section are you doing this time?”  A:  “Not doing sections. I’m a thru hiker.”

Puzzled look.  :~{ 

Q: “Geez.  You don’t look like a thru hiker.  When did you start?”  A:  “Late September…”

And so it would go. Even Crazy Larry labeled me a section hiker on his hostel’s Facebook page – after I had explained my unconventional hike more than once, but then again Larry admits he’s crazy.

Once the beard showed up, the entire social dynamic changed.  People assumed I was thru hiking and were interested in the number of miles I averaged each day, how much my pack weighed, and how long I thought it would take to reach Katahdin.  It just goes to show that judging a book by its cover can be very misleading.

By now, someone out there is wondering why I whacked off the whiskers.  It’s simple.

Last week I chanced to stumble through a swarm of freshly hatched gnats.  There were ‘zillions’ of them, and more than a fair share opened a game of hide and seek in my facial hair, and were still squatting on my property several hours later when I reached camp for the evening.  Combing them out was a pain in my posterior.  While tending to my nitting so to speak, my subconsciousness recalled reading last year about guys combing ticks and other unwelcome guests out of their beards. Yuck!

Fear the beard!  The scariest animals on the AT are not bears.  Lyme Disease carrying deer ticks strike deep dread in every hiker’s heart.  Why offer those pests an extra opportunity to lay you low?  So it was bye-bye beardie. 

Maybe the beard and I will meet again when this is over.  I’ll think about it.  My buds at Fitness Together like it, though my spouse does not.

 

Major Milestone Complete

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George Harrison with the Beatles had it right.  “Little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely, winter!”  You bet!  One thousand and eight, point eight northbound miles on the odometer. 

“Here comes the sun,” I hope.  Of course, along with warmer weather I realize that in trade I’ll be sharing the trail amenities with other thru hikers, section hikers and recreational users of the trail.  That’s been the (very welcome) case pretty much since spring break.  Actually, it’s been nice to have some company after weeks playing a combination of Daniel Boone/Grizzly Adams/Kit Carson going solo in the wilderness. 

Being alone does help foster peace of mind.  I’ve come to understand and embrace the appeal that solitude brings monks, nuns, hermits and those who spend hours in meditation.  On the other hand, sometimes your mouth fills up with stuff you just have to share with someone.  In those cases, when two hikers paths cross, the stacato wordy eruptions from the two parties can be positively Vesuviun as they lock on like Blue Tooth, spouting information at rates that would melt fiber optic cable. 

Since I trekked from Rockfish Gap to Harpers Ferry in the fall, when I closed on the Gap, my hike flash forwarded the 160 miles through Shenandoah National Park and on to the Maryland border where the Potomac washes the West Virginia line. 

As I ensconced myself at a convenient popcorn stand, Tim, my high school classmate once again saved my bacon.  He scooped me up for an Italian lunch in downtown Waynesboro, a shower at his house and a visit to a very cool museum within walking distance of his house as we killed time until my wife could arrive and drag me home. Of course we treated our spouses to fine dining first.

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Day 1:  10:04 a.m. Sept. 24, 2013

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11 a.m. March 3, 2014 – 25 lbs. lighter.  Notice the big difference in body language.

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A popcorn/jhot dog stand right on the trail.  What a concept!

The Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Va. (http://www.frontiermuseum.org/)is a living history affair modeled on Colonial Williamsburg, featuring the ethnic groups that settled the Shenandoah Valley – including the original Americans and the ethnic Nigerian Igbo enslaved population.  The perspective it offers about how the valley was settled and evolved was absolutely awesome. 

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Along the way, I learned that those stone walls I previously wrote about were actually built by rented slaves.  That tale is not as romantic as the image of hard-scrabble farmers clearing land by the sweat of their brow.

When to reenter the northbound hiker flow is to be determined.  The Conservancy staff suggests waiting until late April or early May or risk riding winter’s tail all the way to the end.  That option would add the social factor associated with more people too.  On the other hand, I’m not inclined to wait that long.  Therefore I’ve arranged to consult with several successful of thru hikers who reside in the northern states and seek their advice.  My departure date will be based on how their insights fit with the experience I hope to have. 

Meanwhile, there’ll be more in this space on lessons learned, Tarzan, and a couple of other subjects that banged against my skull as I bumped along the trail.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Sisu – Makin’ tracks …