The Ridgerunners are at Full Strength

IMG_7068

Brandon can drive with his eyes closed.

On the Appalachian Trail in Southern Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland, May 29 – June 6 2021 — Memorial Day weekend broke windy, cold and wet, the trifecta of misery for those who tramp around the woods with their house on their back. 

Nobody likes to walk in the rain when the temperatures are hovering around 40 and the wind is popping.  It is a recipe for hypothermia at worst and guaranteed discomfort at best. 

Branden and Kaela shuttled me to Pennsylvania’s Pine Grove Furnace State Park.  The park is the northern boundary of the 240 AT miles that the Potomac Appalachian Tail Club maintains.  There I would meet Darrel Decker and we would hike southbound to the Mason-Dixon Line where his responsibilities terminate. 

After leaving Darrel, I planned to hike solo another 20 miles to my car at Washington Monument State Park in Maryland.  From there, after a zero day, I’d return to rendezvous at Raven Rock Shelter with Kaela who would be hiking in from the Mason-Dixon Line at Pen-Mar Park.  We would then hike south to where my car was stashed. The net AT mileage for me would be about 80.

IMG_7076

This is the official halfway sign between Georgia and Maine.  When I reached this point in 2014 I recall my emotions deflating as I realized that after months of punishing effort I was only half done.  By then I understood the enormity of repeating the challenge.  Pulling up my socks and getting my head in order for another long march was not a small challenge.  In that single moment, I understood why so many people give up and quit.

Darrel is a repeat customer.  He was a ridgerunner in the Michaux State Forest for the club in 2009, 10 and 11.  That experience and time between service is rare and valuable.  He will be able to tell us what’s changed since he was last here.  One thing he noticed right away is the expanded sprawl of tent sites associated with the shelters. 

IMG_7081

Veteran ridgerunners know how to find and haul trash.  He found a bunch. 

IMG_7121

The rain was mostly light and intermittent.  The tread conditions were good though wet rocks are always slippery.

IMG_7083

Damp camp at Burch Run.  I like the patter of rain on my tent fly until it’s time to pack up a wet tent.

IMG_7092

Lunch break at a campsite.  Needless to say we found plenty of trash, especially in the fire pit.  It amazes me that people think that foil among other things is combustible.  Truth is that they don’t think.  They just do.

IMG_7115

Recording a blowdown on the smart phone app we use for reporting.  Not all of them are conveniently located next to a road.

IMG_7135

Quick stop to clean up the Rocky Mountain Shelters.  The sun was welcome; the cool weather even more so.

Spent the might drying out on a tent pad at Quarry Gap.  One young hiker was reminded of the Hansel and Gretel story.  This place was too good to be true, he reasoned.  Would the witch eat him?  I told him I thought he was safe because I heard that the Inkeeper had a freezer full of hikers left over from last year.

 

Tumbling Run.  Snoring or non-snoring.  Strictly “enforced.”

IMG_7094

The mountain laurel are ready to pop.

IMG_7140

Welcome trail magic at Old Forge picnic area courtesy of a former thru hiker.  I scarfed two hot dogs, a Gatorade and a bag of chips.

After our mid-morning snack we marched on to the Deer Lick Shelters and then to Pen-Mar where I continued northward and Darrel reversed course.

IMG_7149

Once across the border into Maryland, adjacent to the AT there is an municipal park known as a graffiti hot spot.  Not Banksy is spreading up and down the AT which is spitting distance away.  Maintainers will remove this with a product called Elephant Snot which essentially is jellied acetic acid formulated to eat spray paint.

I rarely get to hike solo.  Hiking with someone tends to focus attention on conversation and away from nature.  Hiking alone tunes the senses to your surroundings.  Also, as someone who maintains trails, I pay a lot of attention to the tread, weeding and developing problems.

This year I’ve noticed hikers by-passing even the smallest inconvenient rocks, rises and roots.  They are creating social trail by-passes in the process.  It matters because erosion can develop and what is supposed to be a narrow pathway can become a dirt autobahn in no time.  We have ways of deterring social trail development with stacked rip rap or brush.  Just another job to put on the task list.

IMG_7160

Of course the cicadas are out in force.  I can attest that the world’s largest orgy is LOUD!  Of note, some areas are chock full of them while others have none at all.  Can’t come up with any correlation as to why.

IMG_7176

After four days with Darrel and one by myself, I welcomed a zero day with Sophie the shedding lap cat.  Zero stands for zero miles hiked, by the way.

IMG_7158

Here we are, off the grid, hiking to Raven Rock from Wolfsville Rd.  The waving fiddleheads were soothing in the rare absence of cacophonous cicada pick up lines blaring from the branches overhead. 

IMG_7162

No, that’s not an IV line.  It’s a water purification system.

Kaela struggled into Raven Rock hauling 30 lbs. of trash gift wrapped in a cheap green plastic camping tarp she found.  She was daunted by the prospect of dragging that mess another 30 miles.  She earned her ridgerunner challenge coin with this effort. I was reminded of my own travails as a Georgia ridgerunner where similar trash hauls happened.

This scenario is exactly why I like to hike with new ridgerunners.  Call it OJT, spring training or what you will, the old guy knows a few tricks like the one where you take the trash to the nearest road and cache it to be picked up later.  The spring was on the way to the road, so when we went to get water, the green tarp and its contents came along for the ride.  I picked it up two days later and the dumpster is its new destiny. 

IMG_7165

Occasionally a little adventure.  We cautioned a couple of very tired and reluctant thru hikers to relocate their tent which was pitched next to three dead trees.  With high wind gusts in the overnight forecast, we were in no mood to medevac people in the middle of the night.  We shared our concerns with the Maryland Park Service which can fell the potential widowmakers.

IMG_7163

We ate dinner with four lovely ladies from the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club who are hiking the AT in sections.  Their accents, smacking of cheesy grits and buttermilk biscuits, reminded me of friends it turned out we share in common. After momma nature turned out the lights, they built a fire and talked well into the night.  When I got up at six thirty, they had already beaten feet.  You go girls!

IMG_7170

People like to camp at an interesting rock formation about a half mile south of Raven Rock.  In Maryland dispersed camping is illegal so we have to “clean it up.” 

Three years ago Kiki Dehondt and I tossed about a million rocks into crevasses between boulders thinking we could eliminate the fire rings.  (Kiki and his fiance will appear in this space soon.) 

We were right and wrong.  Now the campers build fires without the benefit of a fire ring.  We bagged the ashes and scattered them in the woods before covering the area with leaf litter.

IMG_7173

1960s vintage bike.

IMG_7171

Water and snack break.

When we reached the Cowall shelter, I noticed Kaela was really hungry.  Since my car was a quarter of a mile away and knowing the town of Smithburg was just down hill from there, I offered to buy Kaela , whose trail name is Pizza, an eponymous lunch.  We couldn’t find an open pizza place so we refueled at a Mennonite grocery and deli.  After hiker food, it was glorious.

Next I dropped Kaela to finish her patrol; then headed to Devil’s Race Course to snatch to cached trash and on to home.

In training we tell the ridgerunners that they are about to meet the dark side of the trail.  That side has many forms from the often bureaucratic to the rarely malevolent.  In addition to help search for a missing hiker who ultimately turned up in a Gettysburg bar, Darrel and I encountered a hiker who said he’d been bitten by an aggressive dog at the Pine Knob shelter in Maryland.  He said he would report the bite to the National Park Service AT incident line: 866-677-6677.  Later Kaela and I found the dog.  It was not friendly and the owner was unconcerned about it.  We moved on and notified the the right folks.

Protecting food from bears is important.  A bear conditioned to human food becomes a safety problem and sometimes must be put down.  “A fed bear is a dead bear,” the saying goes. 

I’ve previously written about bear canisters and Kevlar sacks.  I noticed the Georgia ladies were using Ursacks.  The one depicted is properly tied to a tree.  The problem is that bears can always crush your food and sometimes they can get in. 

Fortunately every shelter in the PATC section has a bear pole, bear box or cables to help hikers protect their food.

The forest is a magical place.  You never know what you’ll find be they witches, beasts or fairies. 

Sisu

Bear-Resistant Food Storage

IMG_0113

BV 500

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

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

IMG_2385.JPG

Fifty feet of rope.

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

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

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

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

D50B1748-477F-4BC5-B9CC-B7B9A10CE55F

Bears do what human’s teach them.

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

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

IMG_2380

PCT Method.

BV&Ursack

BV 500 and Ursack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

bear vault

BV 500 and BV 450.

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

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

bear safe

Frontiersman Insider Bear Safe.

Frontiersman. 3 lbs. 7 days.  $78.95

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

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

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

Ursackmetalsleeve

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

 

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

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

Ursack aluminum liner.  $39.95.

Ursack also recommends odor reducing bag liners.

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

IMG_3697

Bad news for a Bear Vault.

IMG_4483

The bear got a taste of Sriracha.

Ursack

Ursack contents, post chew.

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

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

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

Sisu.

 

 

 

Waiting for g OD ot.

IMG_4465

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

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

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

IMG_4432

The PATC 2016 Ridgerunners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4472

IMG_4471

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

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

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

IMG_4469

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

IMG_4470

Sometimes your dogs need a dip in cold water!

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

IMG_4476

Raven Rock, VA

IMG_4477

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

IMG_4480

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

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

IMG_4482

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

Oh the adventures OD has had!  Stay tuned…

To bear or not to bear a Bear Canister

IMG_2264_2

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2314

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3799

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

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

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

IMG_2275

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

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

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

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