Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Everything but the Kitchen Sink (and River Shoes!)

Other than just enjoying the hike and being outside, some of my hikes have a purpose.  A week ago Monday, I had two goals (1) hike a short section of the Riprap Hollow Trail that I'd never hiked before, putting me a tiny bit closer to the goal of hiking every trail in Shenandoah National Park, and (2) getting trail miles in with a heavy pack in anticipation of a six night hiking trip later this month.  To accomplish my second objective, I just started stuffing things in my backpack, things I would never need for a day hike.  My heaviest sleeping bag.  My heaviest air mattress.  A tent.  My cook kit.  Extra clothing.  Far more water than I would ever need, even if I wouldn't be near streams for several miles.  I almost put in a pair of river shoes, but the pack weight was up to 34 pounds and that seemed good enough.  I already had everything except the kitchen sink in there.

The trail is a familiar one to me - the Wildcat Ridge Trail in the park, but instead of turning right on the Riprap Hollow Trail, I'd go left and hike 0.9 miles to the park boundary, adding the almost-a-mile to my SNP miles.  Every other time that I've hiked this area, I did it as a loop, ending the hike coming up the Wildcat Ridge Trail.  This time, it would be an out-and-back, 3.7 miles each way.

This map shows the general location of this hike, in the Southern Part of Shenandoah National Park.
 And this image shows my track, starting on the right and turning back around at the purple arrow.  The red arrow marks the point of a very tricky stream crossing - more about that later.

The hike started and ended on the Skyline Drive at about 3,000 feet elevation.  At the low point, I would be at about 1,600 feet.  So the hike was mostly downhill with some level areas on the way out, and mostly uphill with some level areas on the way back.

I'd hiked in the park 9 days before, and there was little change at the higher elevations as far as spring moving along.

Now and then, I had partial views through the wide open forest.

At lower elevations, there was a little more evidence of spring.

At this point, I came to a lovely stream, and sat there for a few moments.  A half mile ahead was a much bigger stream crossing.  There were four stream crossings on this hike.

You can see that my pack had far more than I needed, just to add weight to get used to carrying a pack.

I've crossed at this point many times, but always in summer.  It's a lot tougher this time of year. I looked across, trying to pick a possible route.  I searched upstream and downstream.  No other good crossing points were evident.  I started picking my way across, balancing on thin, partially floating logs, and got about half way across.  Then, the next log that I put my right foot on sank, filling my boot.  I tried to recover by putting my left foot on a big, sloping, wet rock and my foot slipped.  I fell in, smashing my thumb against the rock and dropping my left trekking pole, which started to float away.  At the last second, I snagged it with my other trekking pole.  I was soaked from about mid-thigh down, and just waded across the rest of the stream.  I dumped the water out of my boots and kept hiking.

At lower elevations (1,600 - 1,700) feet, there were more and more signs of spring, like these maple leaves.

A short way down the trail, I had to cross the stream again to keep hiking on that trail and finish those miles.  Even if my feet hadn't been soaked already, they would be now.  Why hadn't I just put a pair of river shoes in my pack?  Oh, well!  I took off my socks and pulled the insoles out of my boots, and waded across.  Dumped the water out of my boots.  Put the boots back on barefoot and hiked to the end of the trail at the park boundary.

Near the end of the park was this beautiful iris, a sure sign of the coming spring.

I turned around at the boundary and started hiking back.  I just kept hiking barefoot in my boots, taking them off each time I waded through the streams to dump the water out.  After the second one (the place that I fell), I wrung my socks out and put them back on and put the insoles back in the boots.  As I hiked along the lovely stream, I stopped now and again to enjoy it.

Periodically, I would stop and take my socks off and wring them out.  When I got back to the first stream that I had easily crossed, I stopped and made some hot tea.  After all, I'd carried the stove this far, I might as well use it.

Soon enough, I was back in the car, where I slipped my running shoes over my bare feet and enjoyed having dry feet again.  It was a lovely hike in the spring up in the mountains, and I learned a thing or two from it.  If I had to do it over again, I would have brought the water shoes.  If I hadn't, I would have taken my socks off and the insoles out of the boots at the point where I fell, and just waded across.  It would have been safer than falling in such a difficult to cross area, and at least some of my foot gear would have been somewhat dry.

Monday, April 23, 2018


I can't really say why I haven't been hiking much this year.  Maybe I needed a break.  Maybe I didn't want to be out and about in the cold weather.  Maybe I got lazy.  Anyhow, I decided that it was time to head for the mountains, and last Friday, I did just that for two days and 19 miles of hiking.  I went on a circuit hike in the Jones Mountain area of Shenandoah National Park.  Spring is well underway here in Richmond, but barely at all anywhere I hiked on this trek.

The high point was about 3,500 feet, and I camped about 1,500 feet along the Staunton River - a beautiful mountain stream.  Here is a map showing the general location:

And here is my track.  I started and ended at Bootens Gap (red star) and hiked a general counter-clockwise direction.  The short purple arrow shows the location of Bear Church Rock, another one of my hikes.  And north of the little blue box at the top of the map is Camp Hoover, another favorite place to hike.  I camped at the purple star on the lower right.

I headed north on the Appalachian Trail, then headed north on the Laurel Prong Trail, which goes to Camp Hoover.  After about 1.5 miles total, I reached the short Cat Knob Trail, with Cat Knob looming above.  The next half mile is quite steep.

Once cresting Cat Knob, then next 4 or 5 miles is along the Jones Mountain Trail, a lot of up and down for a while.  The forest was very quiet.  Now and again, I would hear a chipmunk squeak or see a gray squirrel, or hear a downy woodpecker or eastern towhee call.  But usually, it was just the sound of my footsteps along the trail.  The woods are wide open, and I could see for hundreds of yards through them.  I hoped to see a turkey or deer or bear, but no such luck.  In fact, I have not seen a bear in the mountains since my very close encounter almost two years ago, and since I bought a container of bear spray to carry when I hike solo.

On Jones Mountain, I actually came upon a tiny stand of living eastern hemlock.  The wooly adelgid, an invasive insect from East Asia introduced to the USA in 1951 near Richmond, Virginia has devastated these magnificent trees.

I thought that this tree was pretty interesting.  I wonder what it would tell you about its long life if it could?

A month or two ago, a huge windstorm came through the park.  It took down trees all over the place.  It would have been a terrifying, and dangerous, time to be hiking or camping up here.  The trail crews, which I take if are mostly volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, has done a magnificent job clearing the trails.  Can you imagine hiking all these rugged miles carrying a chain saw?

After a total of about five miles, I came to Bear Church Rock with its wonderful views.  Other than mountain laurel, there is nothing green to be seen from here yet.  The wind was blasting here at probably 25 knots, so I just stayed a minute or so.  In fact, this is a day where one could not get comfortable.  No matter what I wore, I was always too cold or too warm - just one of those days.

Once I passed Bear Church Rock, I was hiking on new trails.  In fact, of my 19 miles of hiking, nearly 7 miles were on new trails for me, so my total trails hiked in SNP is now up to about 200 of its miles.  Not far along, I saw a tree used by woodpeckers - pileated, I would guess ...

... and a tiny and welcome sign of spring.

From here, the trail dropped steeply for the next few miles.  I detoured nearly a half mile each way to look at the locked Jones Mountain Cabin (Potomac ATC).  It would be cool to stay here some time, and actually sleep indoors with a fire going.

A couple miles from the cabin, I located my camping spot near the Staunton River.  Near this time, I saw the only other humans on the trail - two trail runners and a dog.  They had come from an access point a couple of miles to the east.  After setting up camp and hanging my bear bag, it was time to filter water from the nearby stream.

I'd carried an extra pot and ingredients to make a rather gourmet meal - Mediterranean pasta.  Here are the ingredients,

pasta on the boil,

 and the final result.  It actually was quite good.

When you are backpacking, every ounce counts.  You don't want to carry something unless it is worth the weight.  Well, for Christmas, Mary gave me this backpacking chair from Cripple Creek, and this was my first time to use it.  And trust me, it is worth the weight!  It keeps you off the cold, damp ground and supports your back.  I loved it!

I slept very well, and was awoken about 6:30 by a Phoebe urgently calling: "Phoebe!!! Phoebe!!! Phoe-ber-ee!!! Phoebe!!!"  I had a leisurely breakfast of oatmeal and Irish Breakfast Tea, packed up, and started hiking 9.5 miles out, mostly uphill.  Along the way, there were more signs of spring at these lower elevations of 1,500 - 2,000 feet:

The first few miles were along the beautiful Staunton River, a magical stream.

I ran into my first human of the day, a volunteer from PATC doing trail work with a machete.  We chatted for a while, and I thanked him.  He had parked his jeep on the Fork Mountain Fire Road, which was my next trail.

After a mile or so on the fire road, I encountered a couple hiking down from Cat Knob.  We chatted about the four major tree blockages that they had run into on that short trail.  They were 10 miles away from completing all 513 trail miles in the park!  (I still have over 300 to go).  The ten miles will take them four days, because each area is a short trail that they need to hike into a good distance.  That is the nature of completing that quest: the "Shenandoah 500."

Speaking of blocked trails, I encountered two major roadblocks hiking down the Fork Mountain Trail  They were not easy to get around.

Soon enough, I reached Laurel Prong - more signs of spring: skunk cabbage:

crossed the stream,

and took a lunch break.  Camp Hoover is only about a mile from this spot, but I still had several miles uphill left, so I got to it after eating, and reached my car about 3:30.  It had taken me 6.75 hours to hike the 9.5 miles out, including some breaks to take pictures, eat, and chat with people.  Not a meteoric pace, but I am trying to hike into shape, it was mostly uphill, and I was carrying about a 35 pound pack.  I am glad I did this hike.  It was good to camp out, see the mountains, and get a gauge of my general hiking condition.  I have a long hike coming up in less than a month, and have a long way to get ready for it.  This was a start.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Isle Royale National Park Trip - One Vacancy for VA Backpacking

This notice is for the Virginia Backpacking Group: I'm leading a seven night Isle Royale National Park hike in September for the Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club.  I have a six person limit, and one of my six just dropped.  So I can add one more to the current group (three women, two men).  If you are interested, leave a comment to this post with your email address (or contact me on the Virginia Backpacking Meetup Site through Brian).  We are beginning to make our reservations now, so don't delay.

Here are some details:

IRNP is the least visited national park in the Lower 48.  It is a large (45 mile long) island in northern Lake Superior.  There is abundant wildlife, and seeing moose will be almost certain.  That time of year, there won't be biting flies and there could be some fall color.  Weather will likely be cool and uncertain.  We will be hiking for 8 days and 7 nights, and averaging about 7 - 11 miles each day.  Everyone will have to carry their gear and 7 days of food.  We will try to camp at a different place every night, but will have the option of staying over if we particularly like a spot.  We will have plenty of time to relax, observe wildlife, study nature, paint, draw, fish - whatever you enjoy.  It is a spectacular place, and if it's not on your bucket list as a hiker, it should be!

Travel: We will take the ferry from Copper Harbor, Michigan to IRNP on 9/14 and take the ferry back to Copper Harbor the afternoon of 9/21.  Plan on flying (or driving) for arrival 9/13 and departure 9/22.  I've reserved a cabin for the women and a chalet for the men the nights of 9/13 and 9/21, and have reserved a shuttle from Houghton where the airport is to Copper Harbor for the afternoon of 9/13 and a return shuttle for the morning of 9/22.

Costs: airfare is about $450 - $600 round trip including checking a bag.  The shuttle cost is $90 each way, plus tip, split evenly among the riders.  The cabin for the women is $136 for each of the two nights, the chalet for the men is $120 for each of the two nights.  These costs will be shared evenly by the people staying in each.  Plus, there is an optional $10 charge per person for sheets and towels.

Plan on money for a couple dinners and breakfasts.

The round trip ferry cost is $126.

Friday, December 29, 2017

193.8 Down, 318.1 to Go!

I recently decided that hiking every one of the 511.9 miles of trail in Shenandoah National Park would be a fine goal for me.  I downloaded a spreadsheet that lists the mileage of each trail, and I've spent several hours today pouring over maps and my blog posts, and figuring out exactly which trails I've hiked.  And the total miles of trail hiked in the park by yours truly are: 193.8!

I'd taken a rough guess that I'd hiked somewhere between 100 and 200 miles of the trail in the park, and it turns out that I was closer to the larger number (of which I am glad).

It will be a challenge to make up the difference.  In many cases, it will mean covering ground I've already hiked to get a tiny section that I'd ignored.  In other cases, the trails are out and back - meaning you hike the miles twice - and in still others, multiple trails radiate and loop through sections, meaning one has to hike through the same areas 2 or even 3 times to get every trail.

Here is a perfect example of this, a section in the Southern district around Brown and Rockytop Mountains.  I've hiked the purple trails but not the orange.  (The AT is marked in yellow, and I've hiked some of it here.  The Skyline Drive is in red).  Note how the orange trails meander and merge all over the place?  I'll have no choice but to hike some of them twice or even three times to complete every trail.

SNP is divided into three sections, conveniently enough Southern, Central, and Northern.  I think I will mostly focus on one section at a time, maybe trying to complete the Southern Section first since it is the closest to me.  Doing some backpacking would be a good idea because I can camp in an area of the backcountry and try to bag all of the trails in that area.

Well, I plan on having fun with this goal over the next couple of years.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Rockfish Gap to McCormick Gap - The SNP 500

I can only think of five reasons why someone would want to do this rather mundane hike:

1. They are through-hiking the Appalachian Trail
2. They are hiking the southern half of Appalachian Trail
3. They are hiking all of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia
4. They are hiking all of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park
5. They are hiking all of the trail miles in Shenandoah National Park

There are about 511 miles of trails in Shenandoah National Park, and I have decided to hike them all as a goal, which is known as the SNP 500.  I am tabulating which ones I have already hiked - my guess is between 100 and 200 miles worth - but a section I know that I never hiked is the 3.7 miles between Rockfish and McCormick Gaps along the Appalachian Trail.  It runs a short distance from the Skyline Drive through the southernmost part of the park and through a very narrow section of park land.  Here is the track, starting at the southern point, hiking north for 3.7 miles to McCormick Gap, and turning around and hiking back.  So, to get the 3.7 miles, I had to hike 7.4 miles.  And that is one of the dirty little secrets of hiking all of the trails in the park: to get them all, one has to hike something like 800-900 miles, not 511.

From my topo map, here is the elevation profile.  I started at about 1,900 feet and climbed as high as about 2,600 feet.  Above about 2,300 - 2,400 feet, the trail and woods were mostly snow and ice covered.  When I started, the temperature at my car was 25 F, and when I finished about four hours later, it had shot up to 28!  Along most of the hike, there were light snow flurries going on.

When they say "every trail," they mean every trail.  Even tiny ones like this 0.1 mile trail connecting the AT to the Skyline Drive have to be hiked.  So I did - 0.1 miles to the Skyline Drive, turn around, and hike 0.1 miles back to the AT.  The 500 mile quest is "scout's honor!"

This hike starts by crossing Interstate 64 a hundred feet or so from the parking area.  It's the least scenic part of a generally not very scenic hike.  The sound of traffic on the interstate was noticeable at least a couple of miles up the trail on what was otherwise a very quiet hike.

After a half mile or so, we enter the backcountry of SNP.  There are instructions about dealing with bears and registering for camping, and rules on where you can and cannot camp.

This picture is pretty representative of the Appalachian Trail in this part of the woods.  At this elevation, there was not any noticeable snow.

Pileated woodpeckers have worked this dead tree over looking for grubs.

I started seeing some snow at times as the trail climbed.  Other times, the snow would disappear.

Now and then, I came across large boulders right along the trail.  Wonder how it got here?

Although it would be a miserable night, if you got caught out in a storm and had to hole up overnight, this rocky overhang would offer at least some protection.

For the last 1.5 miles or so, it was continual snow and ice along the trail.  I had to slow down to avoid taking a fall.  It was quite slippery at times.  In the distance through the gloom is Bear Den Mountain.

At McCormick Gap, my side of the road was snow covered, while...

...the other side was not.  I sat on the ground and ate lunch.  By the time I left, my hands were freezing, and it took a good 30 minutes of walking to warm up.  I hiked back to the car, glad when I got out of the icy areas, and headed for home.

Would I do this hike again?  Only if I was doing one of the quests 1-4 mentioned at the start.  It was an unremarkable hike.  But now, I can cross it off the list.  Total distance hiked: 7.6 miles.  Total credit towards the SNP 500: 3.8 miles.