Busy Week on the Trails

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Tiny toad next to a blue blaze.

Shenandoah National Park, Antietam National Battlefield and C&O Canal National Historic Park, Maryland, July 20, 23 and 26, 2019 —  The week started with the Hoodlums trail crew work trip Saturday in stifling heat and humidity.

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We cleared the leaner with a 24 inch pruning saw.  The chainsaw vapor locked.

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 Monday the heat broke and I dashed up to the park to weed the AT section I maintain.

The warning sign is about a rabid ground hog that has been spotted in the area.  Of course I immediately imagined that our local bear would find and eat the dead ground hog, then we’d have a rabid bear on our hands … Nooooooo!  With that I put my imagination back in its box and got to work.

Tuesday featured a Maryland AT Management Committee meeting where the various organization involved with the AT in Maryland convene to sort out issues and coordinate activities.

Traffic is always horrific coming out of Washington so I usually leave early and meet the ridgerunner for dinner.  Then we attend the meeting.

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Dunkard Church taken from near this vista.  It is one of the iconic photos from the battle.

I had 90 minutes before the time I arranged to meet Mary, so I dropped in on Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, MD.  Link to Antietam Battlefield website

When I was a student at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, we spent some time studying this battle to learn what we could from the decisions its various leaders made on that bloodiest day in American military history.

“23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of savage combat on September 17, 1862. The Battle of Antietam ended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into the North and led Abraham Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation,” according to the website.

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After falling into disrepair, the church was rebuilt for the civil war centennial.

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Inside of the church as it is today.

The Dunkard faith tradition is alive today.  Link to the Dunkard Brethern website.

Now for the highlight of the week.  It’s time for another Gang of Four (again minus one) hike.  Alexis was booked as an analyst on NPR’s 1-A Friday domestic news round up.

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Three sunny faces at 8 o’clock.

We were back at the C&O Canal’s great falls.  There are many trails in the park, but the Billy Goat trails are the best.  Last time we hiked Billy Goat B because A was flood damaged.  Yesterday A was open and we were ready.  Link to our last visit.

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Billy Goat A is similar to B.  It’s located on the Potomac floodplain and features rocks and sand.

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The C&O offers excellent aquatic habitat.

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Butterflies were abundant.  This is Viceroy, not a Monarch.

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Rock monkeys atop the featured rock scramble.

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Selfie!

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For the record.

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Balance beam yoga.

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Readers may recall last year.  Area rainfall for the year was nearly double normal.  The river roared through Great Falls as if wasn’t even there.

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What a difference a year with normal rainfall makes!

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With that, we called it a day and repaired to a local watering hole for an al fresco lunch.  We had to sit outside.  I forgot to bring a dry shirt.  Stay tuned for our August adventure.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Doyle’s Brand Promise

Duncannon, Penn., Doyle Hotel, AT NOBO mile 1143.1, Thursday April 24, 2014 — The Doyle has been one of the iconic AT destinations for a very long time.

Priced for a hiker’s budget, this vintage 1905 hotel welcomes hikers with a smile and open arms. The owners, Vickey and Pat Kelly, led the initiative to make Duncannon an official AT “Trail Town.” They truly are hiker-friendly folks.

The Doyle features everything a discriminating guest could expect from an unrenovated and threadbare late Victorian era working class hotel building.

One Doyle fitness exclusive is the absence of elevators which helps maintain hikers’ leg strength, a critical characteristic that often diminishes while they languish in hamburger-stuffed towns.

Ambiance exudes throughout the hotel. Reminiscent of nature, critters found along the trail are conveniently located in guest rooms and throughout the building. The antiquarian shared baths and room appointments would be impressive to the 18th century experts on “Antiques roadshow.”

The bar and kitchen are to be commended for their hiker fare. Army surveys for years have shown that soldiers value temperature and volume above all else. The Doyle’s menu scores a hundred percent on both. It’s selection of craft brews is excellent.

Karma rated the Doyle cheeseburger “best on the trail.” She makes a valid point. By the time she reached the Doyle, she knew her cheeseburgers.

The Doyle may not have earned any Michelin stars, and there is no expectation that it ever will. But, I’ll have to award it at least one asterisk for brand consistency. It promises nothing but delivers so much more in its unique way. It is a hiker-friendly place indeed, and best of all, a friendly home away from home.

Today’s trek chugged through the farmlands of Pennsylvania’s fertile Cumberland Valley complete with curious cows. The view of Duncannon along the Susquehanna River was magnificent.

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The good, the bad and the ugly days.

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Someone asked me if I’ve ever considered quitting.  The short answer is a resounding, “No.”  The question did prompt a reflection on how I classify my days.

They say never quit on a bad day ’cause the next day’s always better and you’ll most likely get over it.  Well, I’ve had good days, hard days, but fortunately no bad days though I’ve been close twice.

Almost every day has been a good day.  That means everything has mostly been routine.  I got up, got where I was going, and got fed, all with minimal discomfort.

There have been a few hard days.  I had three of them in a row after returning to the trail in early March.  I was trucking my full 0F, 38 lb. winter kit, enough out of shape to notice, and a total slug from a mental perspective.  Moreover, the climbing was bigger and harder than I anticipated, not to mention that my cake got frosted with snow on the second day.  Woe was me!

I sucked it up and got over it as I ate the weight out of my food bag and my body and mind readjusted to hiking.

Even the nasty early November storm in the Smokies was just hard.  A little frost nip is nothing and the adjustments I had to make weren’t that big of a deal.

Twice I was soaked through to the skin and everything in my pack was wet enough to have been in a Dunkin Donut contest. I had nothing dry to change into though my bedding was dry as a teenage guy’s mouth when he’s trying to talk to a pretty girl.  In each case I’d made a costly mistake, but had the fortune to be walking into planned town stops each time.  Warm and dry Erwin, Tennessee and Damascus, Virgina never looked so good.

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It’s 34F and raining in this photo – that’s cold – and I’m soaked inside and out.

Had the towns not been there, we might be telling a different story.  As they say, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

What’s a bad day?  How about when you break a bone, fall and knock yourself silly, or run out of food?  Bears, racoons, skunks, mice, porcupines, pit vipers, rocks, widow makers, lightning and a whole lot more have propensity to turn the odds in their favor.

In the interim the best advice I have is this: Don’t dwell on it.  Just hike.

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.

 

Rock Taxonomy

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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

Don’t Ask for Whom the Trekking Pole Clicks

 

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The Appalachian Trail in the central region is a lot quieter now.  The northbound (NOBO) bubbles are long gone.  Students are returning to school.  And the southbounders (SOBO) are still many miles to the north.  The trekking poles are quiet.

I took a long walk along the AT Friday NOBO from the Compton Gap parking lot in Shenandoah National Park.  It was a chance to test some gear and carry a full winter weight pack as a prelude to the Hoodlum’s monthly trail maintenance Saturday.

Wouldn’t you know it.  I started breaking spider webs right from the get go.  There aren’t too many things in this world that I actually hate, but spider webs are on the list.

Walk through a spider web and it sticks to your hair, glasses, face or arms in the most inconvenient and annoying way possible.  You almost never see ‘em comin’ either.

Then I thought about it.  If the trail was heavily draped in spider webs, that meant nobody had passed by in quite awhile.  Me and the critters had the woods to ourselves.  That’s pure joy.

The day was especially perfect.  Just warm enough and sunny with low humidity.   Then bingo!

I hadn’t yet schlepped a mile when a bear cub trundled across the trail not more than 50 feet ahead of me.  I think it may have been the tail end Charlie because I never did see the momma or a sibling, but I sure was lookin’ for all the obvious reasons. 

Later I saw a huge doe that was big enough to remind me of an elk.  At first I thought she was a buck, but they’re sprouting horns now, so she was just big.

Within a short time I cruised by the Tom Floyd shelter to read the register and snack.  I was greeted by a friendly toad, and best of all, lucky enough to find amusing entries from thru hikers whose blogs I’ve been following.  Some of the handwriting didn’t seem to match their personalities.  That was enough to make the day by itself.

Near the end of the return trip, a couple of bard owls serenaded me with their hooting – the decibel level can drown out a heavy metal rock band. I camped at the Indian Run maintenance hut with a few of my Hoodlum crewmates.  The owls played their rowdy concert all night long.  We loved it.

One gear item I was testing was my new (and first ever) set of trekking poles. 

Poles first began to appear back in the days when getting home to hike in the Colorado Rockies was regular fare.  They were seen most often in the hands of clueless tenderfeet.  These dude ranch types always appeared to have been outfitted by Abercrombie and Fitch.  This was back in the days when the store equipped great white hunter wanna bees headed out on city park safaris.

We (then) studly types thought they were pretty dorky.  Not for us.  Moreover they were a European invention where the trails are very unlike most of ours here in the U S of A.  So, in spite of solid recommendations that I try them, I never seriously considered acquiring poles.

Jump ahead to now, and trekking poles have almost become prosthetic aids for hikers.  Everybody’s leanin’ on ‘em.

Honestly, I was surprised.  The test didn’t go well.  As a cross country skier, I expected far better results.

The good news is that poles do provide thrust and tend to slow me down.  I desperately need slowing down.  Their use may be worth that much alone.

The bad news is that on ugly rocks and rough terrain, I kept much better balance without them – a key point when remembering how damaging and frequent falls tend to be.

The AT is mostly down hill from Compton Gap to Virginia highway 522.  The opposite is true for the return trip.  Just after Tom Floyd, the trail gets steep and rocky for a good stretch. 

From my point of view, the poles were useless in either direction in rough terrain.   I actually tripped on one pole trying to negotiate some large rocks, but enjoyed a fortunate outcome.

I didn’t like the tick, click, tick noise they make either.  The racket makes sneaking up on wildlife especially challenging.

Not going to toss ‘em.  Not gonna do it – yet. 

On September 24th my first long shakedown hike will be the 160 miles from Waynesboro, VA to Harpers Ferry, WV.  The trail is well maintained over that course by my PATC compadres. 

If the sticks haven’t won me over by the time I reach the Appalachian Trail Conservancy GHQ, they get aced off the gear list.  If that’s the case, I’ll have to find a new handy spot to stash my bright yellow duct tape.  Damn!

The trekking poles may click the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, but probably not for me.  Like my mom used to say, “Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. “  Could be that I’m just incorrigible.  Time will tell.

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A Hoodlum trail crew on the march.