Trail Ambassador


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


Same rock.  Better weather!

Worst Case Scenario

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland

The range of winter weather in the southern Appalachian Trail and mountains ranges from pleasantly mild to bitter cold with heavy snow.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is both noted as the home of the highest peak east of the Mississippi (Clingman’s Dome – 6,643 ft.) but probably more so for its terrible winter weather.  Just this week a group of ill-prepared hikers required rescue from the cold and snow.

With facts like these in mind, I re-evaluated my winter kit over the holidays.

When I left the trail to celebrate Christmas with my family, my basic sleeping system, due to my distance runner’s stature, was based on a woman’s Sierra Designs woman’s dry down 25 degree bag supplemented by “puffy” down booties, pants and two down jackets sized to fit inside one another.

I am a warm sleeper and reasoned that the sleeping bag was good to at least 20 degrees F in my case.  With the booties, pants and jackets I figured that I could get to -10 F comfortably.  A zero degree night of borderline comfort proved me wrong.

So, I resurrected my zero degree 70’s vintage, but weighty, Holubar sleeping bag .  Holubar was bought by North Face decades ago, for the record.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I adore winter hiking and camping.  To be redundant, it’s unique and there’s nothing like it.  To be selfish, this week I spent four days on the AT and guess how many other hikers I saw?  Zero!  The AT was mine alone for that time.  Not a human track anywhere.

I enjoy company on the trail, but those who have thru hiked during the crowded traditional hiker season may appreciate what it means to have the trail and the woods, not to mention every shelter and privy all to one’s self.  It’s an amazing experience and privileged access to a treasured public accommodation not to be lightly dismissed.

When I hit the trail on Tuesday, I knew that the weather forecast for Thursday and Friday was ominous. As I ‘misunderstood’ it, the chance of rain on Thursday was 40 percent with an 80 percent chance of snow on Friday.  The bottom was supposed to drop out of the thermometer Friday night.  I was only slightly off.

Knowing it “might” rain on Thursday, January 2, I prepared appropriately.  When I bounded away from Thomas Knob Shelter, I was ‘armored up’ in rain gear including waterproof mitten shells and my new (and third) pack cover was battened down with a cat 5 hurricane in mind.

What foresight, if I do say so myself.  Ever seen a cow urinate on a flat rock?  That’s how the rain let loose about five steps after I jumped out of the shelter door!

Bam!!! I was swimming in the soup.  The volume varied, but the precipitation didn’t let up all day as my boots squished steadily southward across White Top Mountain in the direction of Damascus. The going was slow.

Here’s the good news and bad news.  First the bad.  The temperature all day hovered around 32 degrees.  The ground remained frozen. As proof, I nearly crashed and burned crossing a gravel parking lot glazed with a hidden layer of slick black ice.  On the positive side, my rain gear and base layer did their jobs.  I arrived in camp in very good shape considering.

I had hoped for a 24 mile day.  If I could do that, I’d be in Damascus by noon Friday and home Friday evening.  That was not to be.  Oh well, flexibility is a key to happy hiking.

At 4:30 p.m. I made Lost Mountain Shelter.  The temp was dropping and the rain was just beginning to mix with snow.  With my quota still six miles away, I realized that I’d be night hiking yet again.  This time with early darkness caused by the cloud cover, it would mean almost three murky hours in sleet and snow.

The decision to stop for the night was a no-brainer.  I was fatigued from the previous two tough days.  Given the day’s rain volume, who knows how heavy the snow might become.  Headlamps penetrate snow no better than car headlights see through fog.  The trail bed was icy in spots.  Check dams can form frozen skating rinks in winter.  Not safe.  Time to check my ambition at the door and brake for sanity.

Good decision.  The shelter was clean and in good repair with convenient amenities thanks to the local trail club volunteers. The spring and privy were handy.  The setting was aesthetically pleasing.  It doesn’t get better than that on the AT.

It also was nice to have extra time to settle in.  I wouldn’t have to cook or set up my bedroll by headlamp.  As the curtain of darkness smothered the landscape, my appetite was satiated and I rolled into my sleeping bag. It was around 6 p.m.  Hiker midnight is a relative condition… set at any time you want if you’re solo.

Since the previous two nights bottomed out in the low 20s, I expected the trend to continue because my understanding was that the super cold would arrive overnight on Friday.  By then I could now anticipate being comfortably ensconced once again at Crazy Larry’s.  Accordingly I chose to wear fewer layers and not don my down pants or booties.  I did, as I habitually do, tuck into bed with me a liter of water, a butane canister and a pair of mittens.  Since it was time to change socks, I put on fresh liners and socks.

I fell asleep almost immediately.  When I winked out, rain drops were still tapping the shelter’s tin roof.  In time nature called.  Without glasses I glanced at my watch.  I thought it read 5:30 a.m.  I felt like I’d slept through the night.  That would be a record.  As I parked my glasses on my nose to confirm the time, I realized it was only 9:30 p.m.  Oops!

The weather was calm.  The rain had stopped.  Not much snow was falling.  The temperature was moderate.  I plugged in my iPod to a vintage radio playlist and drifted off to an episode of “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.”

Ever imagined what sleeping next to a thousand-car freight train at full speed sounds like?  That thought jerked me awake around 11:15 p.m. as the wind howled and trees cracked and groaned.  Thank you Benton MacKaye for imagining shelters built like military bunkers.

The snow was swirling like icy diamond dust as it sprinkled my face with surrealistic pin pricks.  I cinched down the opening to my sleeping bag to the size of  grapefruit.  My nose was colder than I could remember it being for a long time, yet my body was toasty.  Back to sleep.

The wind kept blasting away.  Falling branches and trees served as multiple alarm clocks trough the night.  My exposed nose-o-meter sensed remarkably lower temperatures.  What layers should I wear tomorrow if this continues, I worried?  That the next day’s destination, 18.5 miles away, was Damascus was the saving grace.  With that in mind, I reasoned I could gut through most anything.

A sudden silence awakened me around 5:30 a.m.  The driving wind stopped like Mother Nature flipped a switch.  Check.  The front moved on.  One problem solved.  Extreme wind chill was out of the wardrobe and safety equation.  Amen!

Knowing I had big miles to go, I was up and moving well before six.  As I stumbled to the privy in rock hard boots, the light powdery snow squeaked and crunched.  Oh oh.  It’s colder than I thought.  Snow doesn’t make that sound unless it’s 10 F or colder.

The thermometer on my pack read -15 F.  The bottom had fallen out a day earlier than I expected.  In spite of all that, I was comfortable through the night without the benefit of my full kit.  The added tonnage on my back paid its dividend.

Think about it.  At 4:30 p.m. the previous evening, the rain had soaked all my exposed equipment.  My pack straps, nylon webbing, including my trekking poles, had been thoroughly dunked.  How about my rain jacket and rain cover?  Oh boy!

I’d hung my gear up in hopes that dripping and some evaporation would occur before everything froze.  As every professional manager knows, hope is not a method.  By morning everything was crunchy to say the least.  What an understatement.

This is the worst case scenario that I have seriously worried about since contemplating a thru hike.   What happens when hikers get soaked right before the temperature crashes to a dangerous level?  At -15 F, skin freezes on contact with any material that rapidly conducts heat.  Frostbite and hypothermia are clear and present dangers.  You can be serious trouble before you even know it.

Fortunately I have profited from previous soakings.  In those cases, luckily timed town stops saved my bacon as I slopped thoroughly waterlogged beyond imagination into Erwin, Tenn. and Damascus, Va.  This time, the cargo compartment of my pack was dry inside and out.  The base layer I was wearing dried out because it was only damp with sweat.  The waterproof mitten shells worked.  For redundancy’s sake, back up gloves, mittens, socks and a base layer were in the ready rack if need be.

When it is seriously cold, everything takes at least twice as long.  After unzipping my sleeping bag, I slipped on my glove liners; then my mittens.  You never want bare skin to touch anything.  When I needed dexterity to stuff cargo sacks or manipulate zippers and the like, I took off the mittens.  When the task was complete I jammed my hands back into the mittens until they warmed up again.  Only then did I attempt the next task.

The valve on my NeoAir was frozen shut.  Why not?  Breath is full of water vapor.  Only bare hands could wrench it open.  That smarted.

Once the pack was set, the real adventure unfolded.  Everything that had been exposed to rain was stiff and solid.  Think of a pack harness forged of wrought iron.  Board-like straps didn’t slide in buckles.  The frozen-solid rain jacket stood up by itself.  The straps on my trekking poles which had been hung on a peg resembled rabbit ears…

Fortunately, I always loosen the laces on my boots before bed.  If I had known just how cold it would get, I would have put them inside my sleeping bag.  Thanks to the thick dry socks, my feet never got cold in spite of wearing icy boots.  Walking saved the day.  Gaiters kept the snow off my socks and out of my boots.

The snap, crackle and pop sounds of Rice Crispies echoed off the walls as I struggled into my gear. Had you been there, you would have had to pardon my occasional “french” expletives.

The shelter faded behind me around 8:30 a.m.  Not bad considering.  As the day unfolded, body heat thawed the equipment, the straps loosened, and everything ultimately began to fit properly.

The day’s high hovered around 5 above.  My water bottle even got slushy inside my jacket.  That NEVER happened at -20 in northern Minnesota!  I had different and a heavier outer layer then which may account for the difference.

The day and trail itself were awesome.  Brilliant sun reflected off a snow frosted landscape.  The tracks on the pristine path read like a story book with Br’er Rabbit and his pals eluding foxes and bobcats.  Wild boar and deer made their separate grocery shopping trips.  Guess what?  No bear tracks.  That was a surprise.

I’m home now in preparation to fly with my daughter to Colorado on family matters.  I can’t wait to get back on the trail.  As for future weather? We’ll see.


Rock Taxonomy


Tennessee Tripping Stone.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say cheese!


Everybody wants to make National Geographic quality photographs to document their hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Well, maybe most would just settle for some nice snaps of the folks and places that will help keep cherished memories alive long after the trail is done. 

Fact is that with a little luck related to available light, chance timing and the right clouds showing up over a placid pond …and you never know…  You certainly don’t need “professional” photographic equipment to make really good pictures.

Big boy camera gear is large, expensive and technically complicated.  Visualize those sideline photographers at sporting events with their howitzer-length lenses.  Besides, you’d almost need a caddy to drag a camera bag that size up and down the mountains.  The advanced amateur versions of these cameras and lenses produce fantastic photos, but still they are relatively expensive, bulky and heavy. 

Modern professional photography equipment is feather light compared to cameras back in the day. Here’s where I’m going to date myself.  I used to lug a Nikon FTN with a couple of lenses, filter stack, 2x tele extender and a dozen rolls of Kodachrome.  The weight was roughly the equivalent of three bricks.  The cube (amount of occupied space in my pack) was even more than that. 

When technology advanced to the Olympus OM-1 miniaturized 35mm SLR, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  This leap forward reduced the weight by about two bricks and the cube by about half.  The downside was that those chunks of metal and glass still weighed a lot.  You always had to worry about running out of film.

Then came digital photography with cigarette pack-sized cameras.  The early cameras by Nikon and Sony took decent photos.  Now the options have expanded enormously, and the photographic quality exponentially, as sensors and chips have improved.

Good light-weight camera options are plentiful.  I know at least two video bloggers in the class of 13 who rely on their GoPro rigs. 

GoPros are the cameras that capture the helmet cam dare devil shots you see on TV. These small water and shock proof hummers mount on trekking poles, chest straps, helmets, snow boards, etc.  You do need WIFI to transfer their photos to your Drop Box, Flickr , Smug Mug or one of the other  web based photo sharing/scrapbook sites.

Plenty of other hikers are carrying small cameras by Lumix, Nikon, Sony and others. 

The vast majority seems to be using the camera built into their phone.  Unless you’re using expensive cameras, all the others will have technical trade-offs.  iPhones, for example, have difficulty handling high contrast lighting situations that the Photo Shop app can’t always fix.

For a good test of two cameras check out “Man Cub and Kit Fox Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail 2012” on You Tube. 

The first half of this charming video was shot with an iPhone; the second with a GoPro.  With the exception of the underwater scenes, obviously shot with the waterproof GoPro, it’s hard to tell from the video which camera is which.  It ends with a special treat.  If you haven’t seen it, look for the marriage proposal atop Mt. Katahdin. 

The majority of hikers I’ve encountered who are blogging from the trail are using a smart phone as their primary camera.  It’s just easier to post directly to Trail Journals, BlogSpot, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter.  One sent her GoPro home.  She didn’t need it or its weight. 

Using your smart phone camera offers the Swiss Army knife advantage – one tool that can do many things.  With apps like Photo Shop and iMovie, a smart phone can produce amazing work.

The smartphone story only gets better.  The photographically savvy will want camera lenses. 

Never fear, lenses are here.  The website sells an array of equipment, and lenses that attach magnetically to any smartphone.  I have several, ranging from fisheye to 2x telephoto and they do work.  I also found an 8x telephoto that screws onto a threaded phone case that comes with it.  It does not interfere with the other lenses. 

What’s the secret to great photos?  I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture once at the National Geographic Society in Washington by one of the best wilderness photographers who ever lived.  That evening Galen Rowell’s presentation was entitled “The Edge of Light.”  Unfortunately, he met an early demise. 

Google Galen Rowell and check out his work.  You might not be able to duplicate it with a smart phone, but judging by some of the Appalachian Trail photos on TJ this year, you can get pretty close.