Friday, December 31, 2010

More big trees

On my holiday out West, I encountered a few more big trees to add to my list of favorites:

7. Torrey Pines are the rarest native pine trees and grow on the hillsides above the Pacific Ocean north of San Diego.  Torrey Pines State Reserve, California.
I'm a treehugger.
8. Fremont cottonwoods along the San Pedro River in Arizona.
These massive trees are a bit much to get your arms around.
9.  Saguaro cactus tower above the landscape of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona.
Despite being a bit spiny, but this one hugs me back with massive arms.

What a way to end 2010!  Happy New Year Everyone!  And a special thank you to my folks for a fantastic trip!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Hike in Arizona

Today is Christmas Eve and I am in Sierra Vista, Arizona with my parents visiting my Grandpa and Grandma.  And lucky for me, whenever I visit my parents, we always hike.  And they have a flair for picking some really beautiful trails, today's hike being no exception.

We left my Grandparents in town because they had things to do, and we headed for the mountains.  From town, it was only a 15 minute drive to the trailhead at Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains.  What a contrast from the cactus and scrub desert of the valley!  The canyon is lush forest with a clear creek running through.  We passed ruins of cabins built at the turn of the century, and an enormous, sprawling tree even more ancient- it had been dated to 1760!
Arizona sycamore from 1760
 Then, leaving the creek, the trail switchbacked up the side of the mountain, and eventually opened up at a viewpoint where we could see the town spreading across the valley below in one direction, and high cliffs rising up in the other. 
What a lunch spot
My parents at the spring

After taking a much needed break for lunch, we convinced Mom to continue on for a bit longer, and good thing we did!  We passed by a spring filled with water striders (how could Arizona be so GREEN?!), and then descended to the stream again, which cascaded over boulders, beneath trees still holding onto the last of their orange and red leaves (how could it still be late fall here?!).

The trail kept climbing up the canyon, and my parents decided to head back.  I continued on up the trail by myself.  I stopping to chat with a couple who were just coming down after doing a loop up to the top of the mountain, and hearing their description of the views, I longed to continue on.  The couple was also carrying a huge bag of trash that they'd picked up on their hike.  Apparently, many people come across the boarder here from Mexico, and leave behind things from their journey as they cross these rugged mountains. 

I continued along up the trail, picking up the pace and getting into the flow of the hike, crisscrossing the stream several times, basking in the warm glow of the sun as it shown down through the golden leaves.  Finally, I turned around too, since I'd told my parents I'd only be half and hour behind them.  But I told myself that some day I'd return to climb up to the top, when I could plan ahead for a longer hike.  The timing worked out almost perfectly,  and I caught up with my folks again at the last half mile of the hike.

I was astonished at the lushness of the forest here in Arizona, and love hiking in mountains with peaks over 8000 feet!  When I hike in the North Georgia mountains, I usually feel content and find the unique beauty of the Appalachinan mountains.  But being out West, these steep and dramatic mountains remind me that there are landscapes out here that can stir my soul even more, and that there are ecosystems full of plants and birds and bugs that are fascinating and unfamiliar.  It makes me long to leave my home and venture out to more unknown mountains. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Decisions (Part 2)

After deciding to delay my hike this year, that little nagging voice in my head started questioning, "What if you don't hike until next year, or the year after?  What if you end up unhappy, working nonstop for the rest of your life trudging along the strait and narrow path, never having followed your dreams?"  It didn't feel like I was making a decision I'd regret, but I kept thinking of my past tendencies to avoid change, and wondered if I was making the decision for the wrong reasons.

To clear my mind, I headed up to Amicalola Falls State Park.  Even though Springer Mountain is the official start of the Appalachian Trail, for me, the AT begins behind the Visitor's Center at the arch marking the start of the Approach Trail.  I'd hiked there countless times, but as I bounded along up the trail, I realized I'd never hiked here solo.  Words are inadequate to describe to you the freedom I felt and the clarity I gained hiking at this special place.  I was totally unencumbered, despite carrying my full pack (yippee!).  I was soaring, despite the steepness of the trail (ha!).  Even though this part of the park is normally busy, I was there so early that I was totally alone climbing up the Approach Trail from the visitor's center all along the stream and up the falls.  It was absolutely magical, with ice formations along the falls, the smell of the winter air, the stillness.  I was free to go my very own long-legged pace, and realized I usually don't allow myself to just fly. 

Empty trail, icy Amicalola Falls.

And it was such a relief to just hike for the pure pleasure of it.  Not to be in training mode, not to be thinking of my gear or technique or what I'd read about backpacking on a listserv or the internet, not to be scouting a hike.  All my thoughts just fell away.  I was just there, taking it all in, feeling the trail beneath my feet.  I relished my freedom, skipping when I felt like it, twirling in happiness.  It was a clear day, and there were plenty of winter views through the trees.  I passed by familiar trees, and my favorite spot where all the pink lady slipper orchids bloom in the spring.  I thought about them, lying there dormant, waiting for a different season.

I had planned on stopping for lunch at the Hike Inn, but when I arrived there, the place was teeming with people, and the warmth felt oppressive, so I escaped down the trail to eat by myself out under the sky on a cold log.  Hiking along, mile after mile, hour after hour in solitude, I thought about the times I'd hiked this Approach Trail in early spring when it was crowded with thru hikers.  How I'd cut short a backpacking trip then because I didn't enjoy having so many people around, and instead headed over to quieter mountain.  I realized that it might suit me to delay my trip to avoid the bulk of the thru hikers.

It also was totally clear to me that I wasn't making the decision out of fear of change.  I was choosing one path that brought me excitement and joy.  I still feel committed to my long-distance hike, but I want to do it when the time feels right to me.  And in the meantime, I will keep hiking.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Decisions (Part 1)

I had been planning on starting down the trail for a long-distance hike in the spring and moving all my stuff into my parent's basement this winter.  I'd begun to pack.  I was down to one can of beans in the pantry.  I was counting down the number of trapeze classes I'd have left.

But this last month I started feeling really uneasy about the timing.  I didn't feel ready.  The excited, happy butterflies that I'd felt at the thought of starting down the trail had turned into gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I was still clear that I wanted to do the trail, but I wanted extra time.

Then, over the span of just two days, things happened which allowed me to change my course.  My roommate told me she hadn't found anyone to take over my lease, and offered that I could stay a few more months.  At work, I discovered a very cool (AND statistically significant) result that had me bursting with excitement about my research.  And my boss found some money to extend my position.

I thought about all the times in my life when I've left things unfinished before moving on, and the other times I've stayed put way too long because I thought it was the responsible thing I "should" do.  Then I pushed my thoughts aside and went with my gut instinct: I decided to stay on here, and delay the start of my long hike.

I've noticed this past week that my life has been energized following this decision, and I've been feeling overwhelmed with appreciation of everyone in my life, and for my good fortune to have options in life.  This feels like the right decision for me, and I really hope I don't regret this decision.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Well, that's the last time I'm gonna leave my rain pants in the car in the winter!  Because this weekend, I discovered another reason to carry my rain pants...

At a large stream crossing only twenty minutes into the hike, my hiking partner, Still Waters, cautioned me to be careful since she'd fallen at this tricky crossing before.  Ignoring her, I confidently bounded across on a wet log.   After spending weeks exercising with my heavy backpack, I'd been feeling quite nimble under it's full weight and I totally forget I had it on.  To my surprise, in the middle of the stream, my foot slid off and I couldn't regain my balance under the weight of my pack.  I ended up waist deep in water, my arms submerged up to my elbows.  Never having fallen before, I was shocked how easy it was with the pack on to topple over once I was off balance.  I was drenched but thankfully uninjured, and felt really lucky that I fell on soft sandy stream bottom. 

It was way too cold to continue drenched as I was up to my waist.  I thought about just leaving on my soaked pants and moving fast to stay warm, but I had already been chilly before the fall, and I started shivering.  I stripped off my wet clothes and wrapped my poncho around me.  Thankfully, Still Waters went back to the car to retrieve my rain pants so I'd have something to wear.  I hiked the rest of the day in my rain pants while my pants dried on top of my pack.

Lessons learned this weekend:

1. Rain pants work great as a spare pair of pants and will keep me toasty warm.   In warmer weather, I could have gotten away with only wearing the poncho (or a stylish, black plastic trash bag) and hiking with bare legs, but in the winter it's too cold (even in Georgia!), to not have coverings for my lower half.

2. I am not immune to gravity.  Sure I may feel strong and light on my feet with my pack on, but I need to be more cautious and realize that I can fall just like anyone else.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Nature Notes: Earthstars

Earthstars really are the stars of the fungus world: stunning, dramatic, and difficult to spot.  Keep your eyes peeled for these beauties after the end of a long rain.

While most of the earthstar fungus grows below ground in a symbiotic association with tree roots, the fruiting body makes its appearance in late fall.  When it first comes up, the fruiting body looks like a giant sphere.  But then in response to rain, the outer star-shaped covering opens up to reveal the central spherical spore sac.  This acts to push aside debris and raise the sac up off the ground, providing the spores a chance to travel greater distances when they are released through the opening in the top of the sac.

I spotted a patch of earthstars at Arabia Mountain (east of Atlanta) this weekend.  The one below is somewhat dried out, so it isn't fully open.  The other earthstar shown below is from last year at Joyce Kilmer in North Carolina.
At Arabia Mountain, November 2011.
At Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, November 2010.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Alternatives to backpacking

Protocol for what do you do if you can't go backpacking:

1. Load up your backpack with extra weigh and hit the trail for a dayhike.  Ignore the stares of dayhikers looking at the size of your pack.  Use up every ounce of your energy, since you don't need to set up camp.  Sweat buckets, since you can go home and shower.  Carry lots of wonderful "extras" such as field guides, a thermos of tea, and a delicious lunch.  Once you get to the end of the trail, turn around and hike it again in the opposite direction.  Notice how the whole trail looks different from this new perspective.
Heading back down into the gorge for a second time.

2. Go home and do something that is (nearly) as fun as sleeping out under the stars, but that you can't do on the trail, like baking bread.  After a strenuous hike, enjoy how the bread tastes like the best bread you've ever made.

3.  Curl up on the couch with your topo maps and guidebooks to plan your next adventure.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Same trail, a week later

Winter wonderland.  Photo by S. Adams.
The story this week was how a group of Nine Warrior Women braved 14 miles of slippery trail as we hiked on the Appalachian Trail from Hogpen to Unicoi.  We faced a night of bone-chilling, finger-numbing, frigid temperatures (18 degrees!), and I will never forget how the Brave Dames on this trip came together as a team and had a total blast.

It's hard to comprehend how the same trail that I scouted just one week ago could be so completely different than it was this weekend, magically transformed as it was by a layer of snow and ice.  At first, I was nervous because I'd never backpacked in the snow before, though I'd done plenty of hiking in worse conditions.  But my fears drifted away as we gazed in amazement at the trees cloaked in snow, breathing in the crisp air, listening to the crunch of frozen leaves underfoot.  Eventually, the sun broke through the fog and clouds, making the forest sparkle and ice shimmer against the deep blue sky.  I felt grateful to be out enjoying my first winter weather of the year, while nearly everyone else in Georgia was down in the valley having a regular fall day.

When we stopped at the Low Gap shelter for lunch, we listened to a group of young guys describe their miserable night in the snow.  I hoped that we wouldn't look as wrenched as they did the following day.

We hiked on and the trail joined an old road.  Icicles were forming along the rocky outcrops.  As we descended in elevation, pockets of snow became more scarce.  Finally, we reached our campsite which was thankfully free of much snow, due to its sunny exposure.  Everyone pitched in to help with making camp, helping set up tents, gather firewood, and hang the rope to keep our food away from bears.  Still Waters had a fire blazing before the rest of us returned from fetching water.  We huddled around, telling stories and laughing, recalling the high and low points of the day.
Draped in my under-quilt, huddled around the campfire.  Photo by S. Adams.
We turned in for the night at 7:45, since we were all getting cold as the air temperature plumited.  At first I lay shivering in my hammock, wondering if I would freeze to death during the night.  Finally, I slipped my pack beneath my feet, and shifted the sleeping pad and underquilt around.   Miraculously, I warmed up enough to finally drift off to sleep.  Whenever I woke during the night, I heard a chorus of soft snores around me.  How could everyone else be sleeping so well?!  In the morning, we'd all discover that EVERYONE had this thought during the night-- we must have all taken turns lying awake shivering and sleeping and snoring.

The trail the next day had some serious climbs, and was treacherous with icy leaves over slippery rocks.  We only took brief rest stops because we got too cold when we weren't moving.  Last week, I'd sailed up these hills, but this time, they left me sore and tired just like they had on my first backpacking trip with the Dames a year and a half ago.   Funny how just when I think I've got everything figured out and am feeling strong and confident (as I was last week), the trail will continue to provide new challenges.

Things I learned:

- Who you're with can make all the difference.  I am so grateful to all the Dames who continue to teach me the meaning of friendship, strength, perseverance, and bravery.

- I need to figure out how to keep my hands from freezing.  I've always struggled keeping my hands warm, and I loose all dexterity when my hands get cold and also I have a lot of trouble thinking coherently when I loose feeling in my fingers.  I've tried various gloves and handwarmers, which work OK during hiking, but my fingers freeze when I take off my gloves to do stuff around camp.  Maybe I need to develop a cold weather camp routine that doesn't require the use of my fingers or thumbs.  Any suggestions on how to cook and get water without either getting my gloves drenched or having my fingers go numb?

- One of the first signs of hypothermia is mental confusion.  Next time we are standing around discussing how we are all having sluggish thoughts, take that as a sign to warm up!  Also, Still Waters kept telling me to take off my wet gloves and put my hands near the fire to thaw out, and I just stared at her blankly.  This was sort of like the tendency hypothermic people have to take off their warm clothes when they are freezing to death.

- My camera is NOT an item I should leave behind just to save pack weight.  What was I thinking!?!?

- Even at the lowest point of the trip when I was nearly in tears because I was so freezing cold, I still wanted to be on the trail more than anything else-- I don't want to be at home.  Even when I'm scared and uncomfortable, I still feel like I belong on the trail.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Same trail, a year and a half later

Milkweed along the AT (May 2009)
This weekend, I went on an overnight backpacking trip from Hogpen to Unicoi on the Appalachian Trail.  A year and a half ago, in May of 2009, I backpacked this section as a new Trail Dame and a beginner backpacker.  I recall struggling up the hills.  Thankfully it was spring and there were plenty of flowers in bloom to examine while I caught my breath.   I remember asking our trip leader a million questions about her gear, taking notes on everything she said.  She was one of the first people I'd met that was a solo hiker (how brave!) and had hiked long distances on the AT (how cool!).

Now, I scouted the trip as a trip co-leader, in preparation for taking a group out there next week.  Walking this same path, it struck me how much has changed-- not just the change of season with the wildflowers all gone to seed-- but how now the hills seem like a breeze, and I'm the one answering questions from the first-time backpackers as they email me about what to expect on this trip.  I sometimes feel like a fraud-- I'm still learning myself-- until I realize that I can help since I remember vividly what it was like to be a beginner myself.

Milkweed pod and seeds in fall
What hasn't change is how much I plan for the hike (and, I'll admit, how I still get butterflies the night before a big trip).  But now, I try to figure out how to provide directions and explain the features of the trail and think through what to do in case of emergency.  I wonder how I can be as welcoming, respectful, and supportive to them as everyone was to me a year and a half ago.

As I walked along, I thought about what makes the Trail Dames a unique group.  Like I said before, I've hiked with dozens of other hiking clubs, so I know there's something special about the Dames.  Is it the caring nature of the group that brings everyone together?  How does this happen?  How can such a diverse group of women get along?  How can we laugh so much?  When I hike with the Dames, I try to keep my ears open to catch incredible conversations-- inspirational stories of challenges faced with courage.  And there is something about being outdoors that allows the conversations to just flow.   I take in this wisdom, and make mental notes about how I want to live my life.

I watch the way everyone looks out for one another- not condescending at all-- and how folks are understanding if someone is having trouble, because everyone else has struggled at one time or another, so we all know what it's like.  (One Dame describes it this way-- "There's No Shame With the Trail Dames!")  I really appreciate this because I've hiked with other groups that are competitive, and I've noticed that this attitude prevents people from coming together as a team, and connecting with one another.   I see these things, but all of these parts don't fully explain to me the incredible things that happen on the trail with the Dames.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Big Trees of Joyce Kilmer Forest

The Joyce Kilmer memorial forest, with its massive tulip poplar trees, seems untouched and unspoiled.  But on my recent trip to this forest, I've learned a different story about these trees (for more info-- see Homan 2007):  this forest used to be dominated by even bigger trees and the trees community is even now changing dramatically.  A hundred years ago, the American chestnuts in the Joyce Kilmer forest were massive compared to these tulip poplars-  in fact some were so large that early settlers lived inside the hollowed out trees.  Now, young chestnut trees sprout from the old stumps, but rarely do they live long enough reproduce before they succumb to the chestnut blight, a fungus introduced from Asia.

On our hike though the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness, I spotted a burr on the ground beneath a grove of sprouts that looked to me like chestnut.  Having just read in the guidebook about chestnuts, I excitedly picked it up (ouch! those burrs are sharp!).  It was spiky on the outside and split in four sections, and the seed was no longer inside.  Could it really be from a fruiting American chestnut?  After I returned home, I consulted an excellent online guide to chestnut identification (link here), and this looks like the American chestnut from what I can tell.  The American Chestnut Foundation says that if you find what you think it is an American chestnut, to send them a leaf and twig for identification.  Unfortunately, I didn't take a sample this time.  The group is trying to identify and study American chestnuts in hopes to breed trees resistant to the blight for reintroduction.
Is this burr from an American chestnut?
The second largest trees in the Joyce Kilmer forest, towering almost as tall as the tulip poplars, are the hemlocks.  Sadly, the hemlocks are now mostly only dead snags, killed by the introduced hemlock woolly adelgid.  On our hike, we learned that next week (link here), the trails will be closed and the tops of the dead hemlocks will be blasted with dynamite.  This will prevent the dead trees from falling on hikers, and the idea is that the blasted-off trees will look more natural than if they used chain saws to fell the trees.  I craned my neck looking up at the huge towering hemlocks, thinking how these snags would be gone in just another week.  How many people before me had looked up at this beautiful tree over the years?  What trees will rise up to fill in the gaps in the canopy?
Ill-fated hemlock snag in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Source: Homan, Tim. 2007. Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer--Slickrock and Cisco Creek Wildernesses. 3rd Edition.

Halloween Backpack: Third Time's the Charm

No other place had taken on such mythic status to me as "the Hangover" and Bob Stratton Bald in the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area.  I have made two previous attempts to reach these places, hidden high up in the wilds of North Carolina.  In June 2009, we had only hiked two miles into the wilderness area before the blackberry brambles that were overtaking the unmaintained trail scratched one of the members of our group so bad that he was bleeding on his face, so we turned around.  In November 2009, I returned again to Joyce Kilmer, backpacked in to just 1.5 miles short of the Bald, and spent the night in a fierce rain, watching the trees dancing in the wind.  It was so socked in the next morning that we turned around because there wouldn't have been a view anyway (see photos from this trip here).  On these two trips, I'd gotten a taste of the incredible beauty of Joyce Kilmer, and I longed to return.  So I jumped at the opportunity when my friend told me she was coleading a Halloween backpacking trip there with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.

Our group of five got an early start up the Haoe Lead trail from the Maple Springs trailhead.  We met a half dozen small groups of hunters and their dogs within the first two miles of trail.  I was happy to learn they were hunting wild boar, an introduced species that are very destructive to the forest.  The Haoe Lead trail became even more wild, rugged, and technical as we hiked deeper into the wilderness.  Our pace slowed to about one mile an hour as we negotiated over loose rocks and gnarled roots, all obscured from view by a layer of slippery fallen leaves.  We practiced our acrobatics through the obstacle course of downed trees, tossing our packs ahead of us to squeeze through the tangles of branches. The trail, which probably sees more deer and wild boar traffic than human feet, was so narrow in spots that my wide feet hung over the edge and were at constant risk of slipping down the hillside.  Thickets of blackberry brambles towered over us, though they weren't as impenetrable to us in our long pants as they had been the previous June on my first attempt.  And yet, I was in heaven!  I marveled at the rugged beauty of this wild forest, which, to me, seemed protected by its very remoteness and these inaccessible trails.
Gnarled old tree.
We took the side path over to the Hangover.  There, we perched on jagged rocks and looked out over the mountains that surrounded us in all directions, ablaze with fall color.  I celebrated FINALLY making it to this spot after my two other attempts.  This place was absolutely stunning-- in the distance, we could see the ridge we'd followed to get here, and in the other direction, Bob Stratton Bald towered up before us.
View from the Hangover.
Then, we set out again, stopping briefly to fill up our water containers at the spring below Naked Ground.  Our trip co-leader, an enthusiastic naturalist, found a record-breaking FIVE salamander under a single rock at the spring!  (When we hike together, we always compete to see who can find the first salamander-- seems like I will have to practice my salamander-hunting!)  We reached the huge bald with plenty of time to make camp and explore.  We found huge candelabras of Turk's cap lily seed pods, and purple clusters of carrion flower fruits (Smilax lasioneura).
Carrion flower fruits.
Turk's cap lily seed pods.
As the sun set, we dressed up in our Halloween costumes, this being the annual GATC Halloween hike, and exchanged treats within our group (mmmm-- candy, dried fruit, and handwarmers).  Under the full moon, we went "trick-or-treating" to the other campsites dispersed across the bald.  No one gave us candy, but we got lots of laughs!

On top of the exposed bald, the wind howled all night, and even with the low end of my tent pitched into the wind, my tent shook.  Fortunately, I stayed toasty warm.  (Note: because I knew we'd be camping on the bald where trees were scarce, I brought along my tent instead of my hammock.)

In the morning, we descended down the Naked Ground Trail into a beautiful, old growth forest, crossing rivulets, and then following the Little Santeetlah Creek.  Amazingly, this whole valley escaped loggers and miners, and this forest has incredible plant diversity and huge trees to show for it.  We ended our hike at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest loop, which has the highest concentration of big trees (and unlike some of the other trails, this loop is very popular and accessible to everyone).   I know I have a habit of saying this after every trip, but this really was the best backpacking trip EVER and I can't wait to return to Joyce Kilmer!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mixing things up

It's fun to mix things up.  Some things go well together like peanut butter and banana, or campfires and conversation.   My two favorite forms of exercise, backpacking and trapeze, are wonderfully complementary when performed separately.  After a kick-ass backpacking trip, I can hobble to trapeze class for another intense workout, which uses mostly non-overlapping muscles.  Unfortunately, the practices I pick up in these two activities don't always mix:

1.  While deodorant doesn't work for me for backpacking, wearing it to trapeze is the polite thing to do.  You never know where your partner's head might end up.

2. You can never have too much glitter.. except when it gets all over your tent and sleeping bag.

3.  A big mug of hot chocolate warms you up in the morning and gets you hydrated after a long hike, but doesn't feel good sloshing around when you are hanging upside down with the bar pressed up against your stomach.

4.  Getting slippery silicone seam-sealer all over your hands while waterproofing your tent right before trapeze class does not improve your ability to hang on tight to the ropes during class.

5. Doing trapeze tricks from vines hanging from trees may get you closer to the ground than you'd expect.  Like, ON the ground.

Attempting a shoulder stand on a vine, but ending up on the ground.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Brasstown Bald with the Dames

This weekend, I led a trip for the Trail Dames to go see the leaves changing at Brasstown Bald, the tallest peak in Georgia (4784 feet).  We hiked the Wagon Train Trail, which follows a ridge north from Brasstown Bald all the way to Young Harris, a college town.  This hike is all about the journey, rather than the destination-- especially the views along the ridge and watching the trees change as we drop elevation and go through different forest types.
Down the Wagon Train Trail.
Eleven Dames met at the large parking area early in the morning.  We had a wonderful mix of women- it was one woman's second hike ever, while others had been hiking for years.  We started down the wide, relatively flat path, and reached a viewpoint after an hour.  We stopped for a break and marveled how far we'd come.  The tower at Brasstown Bald, near where we began our hike, looked so small in the distance and it was hard to imagine we'd so easily traveled all this way already.
The tower on Brasstown Bald appears tiny.
After a very long and hot summer, the crisp fall air was quite a relief.  The leaves were spectacular red, orange, and yellow, contrasting against deep blue sky.  As the sun shone through the red leaves, it gave everything a rosy hue.  Leaves crunched beneath our feet.  Though most of the time we were walking through forest ablaze with red leaves, we passed through one part of the trail was all golden yellow.

The Dames that went with me on the Blood Mountain hike recognized the turtleheads clustered around small springs.  We also saw quite a few striped gentians.
After getting back to the trailhead, some of the Dames still had enough energy to climb the remaining 6/10 mile up to the observation tower and visitor's center at the summit.  Stepping off the Wagon Train trail, where we'd seen very few other hikers, was quite a culture shock, because the summit area was crowded with tourists.   At first, I felt annoyed that this summit had been "ruined" by all the development.  But then, we met a woman in a wheelchair that was 95 years old!  She had visited this mountain many years ago, and was excited to make this return trip, even though she couldn't walk anymore herself and had to take the shuttle bus to the top.  Of course this made me instantly appreciate that this mountain was accessible to everyone, and I smiled looking around at all the different people, up there, enjoying the fall day.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gregory Bald Backpacking Trip

I joined the Atlanta Wilderness Backpackers for a 15 mile loop to Gregory Bald in Smoky Mountain National Park.  There were four of us: Dmitry (hike leader) and Margaret (another flower enthusiast) were taking their first trip as a married couple and were terribly cute together, and Wild Bill is the nicest guy with a great sense of humor.  The trip featured beautiful fall colors, spectacular wildflowers, and incredible views.   I also got to face another one of my fears: night hiking.

It was several hours drive getting to the Twentymile trailhead in the southwestern Smokies, so we didn't start down the trail until 1PM.  The first few miles followed a lovely stream lined with purple asters, blue lobelia, and other fall flowers.  All the worries from my week melted away as I settled into the rhythm of the trail.

Wild Bill taught us the 50:10 method of hiking (hike 50 minutes, rest 10 minutes) which we happily followed.  Studies show this is very effective for hard exercise requiring endurance-- just the ticket for trip which had a climb of 3,000 feet in the first 5 miles and then another 3 miles after that.  Ten minutes sounds like a long time to rest, but it allowed us to chat, snack, stretch,  look around and enjoy the view, and talk some more.  On the second day, ten minutes stretched into 50 minutes as conversation deepened and we were lost in the moment.  We joked that we'd switch to 10 minutes of hiking and 50 of rest and never make it down off the mountain.
Wild Bill and I taking a rest break.  Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
We kept a comfortable pace on our way up the mountain, and it was a good thing because it was a tough climb.  We passed by four nice backpackers who warned us that it would be getting dark soon and there was more steep trail ahead, but that there was a good, though illegal, campsite if we couldn't make it all the way to the top (in the Smokies, you are required to camp only in designated campsites).   After hearing this, I could feel the fear wash over me as visions of night hiking crept into my mind.  You see-- I've always had a fear of getting lost after dark and I felt uneasy about setting up camp in the dark. 

The climb continued and I tried to push these fears from my mind.   I kept telling myself to focus and look at the flowers.  (Don't laugh!  This never fails to keep me happy and motivated!)  When we finally got to the flat illegal campsite they described, we paused.  Dmitry checked to be sure that everyone was feeling OK and had headlamps.  I gulped thinking about my very lightweight, but somewhat dim headlamp.  Dmitry encouraged us to press on, and we trusted his judgment.  And it turned out to be a good thing too!

Because after hiking all day beneath the golden-green canopy, the sky opened up as we emerged onto the bald around dusk.  Dense, knee-high blueberry bushes were interspersed with patches of  meadow.  Gregory Bald was like a large dome, with a 360-degree view of mountains decked out in full fall color as far as you could see.  At the top, we met another group of four old friends who were also enjoying the view, and we chatted with them pleasantly.  Together, we watched as the last of the sun's rays lit up distant mountains and the sky turned pink-red.  The stars slowly appeared, the sliver of moon brightened.   It was absolutely breathtaking.  I understood the logic of our timing-- to see this spectacle, we needed to night hike.  And it also allowed us not to rush the hike, which made the ascent more pleasant for everyone.
On top of Gregory Bald. Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
Crescent moon from Gregory Bald.  Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.
Finally, Wild Bill, Margaret and I set off the 0.5 miles down the trail to camp, while Dmitry hung back taking pictures.  Turning on our headlamps as we entered the forest, it took all my concentration to focus on the small patch of trail illuminated by my weak headlamp.   But I quickly adjusted, and followed the others more confidently down the trail.  The forest around me transformed as a chorus of frogs and insects began their nighttime songs.  Woo hoo!  I was night hiking! 

When we reached camp, Wild Bill put us "ladies" up in front to approach the other campers to find out if there was space to camp and locate the bear cables to hang our food, saying other people would be nicer to us girls.  The other campers kindly pointed us towards a free fire ring with level ground around it, and even invited us to join them around their campfire after dinner.  I had my tent pitched, gear efficiently put away, and dinner cooked in record time, like to was second nature to me.  And I must say I was totally pleased with myself, because once again, I did something that I'd been fearing, and once again, I found out that it was actually fun.

One more thing that I want to add is that this was such a great trip because the group came together so well.  It's always amazing how people who are strangers to me in the morning become trusted companions that share conversations about deep things by the time we are sitting round the campfire in the evening.   There sure is something wondrous about backpacking.
What a great group! Photo by Dmitry Shishkin.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Caving with the Dames

Hanging out.  photo by R. Cantrell
This weekend I went on a caving trip with the Trail Dames.  We were fortunate to have several experienced guides and the Dames, as usual, were incredibly helpful and supportive.  Even though we went to a so-called "horizontal, easy" cave in northwest Georgia called Howard's Waterfall, it offered plenty of challenges for us nervous first-timers. 

Caving was a fantastic experience, both for the physical challenge and because being within the earth proved utterly peaceful.  After getting the hang of it (thank goodness for the kneepads and helmet!), I enjoyed squeezing though the tight spots on my belly while pushing my pack in front of me, and rolling down the passageway, which turned out to be easier than crawling.  My arms, shoulders, core, and legs all received a satisfying workout.   I went through holes that I couldn't believe I'd fit through and went down inclines that scared me, and felt such a sense of accomplishment after I realized I could do it!  Also, the cave was such a different, simplified environment-- constant weather, fewer sounds, darkness.  Instead of being scary and claustrophobic, I found this environment enhanced and focused all my senses:  I could really smell the cave, listen to the sound of the drops from the ceiling, and see the glint of rocks.  I felt utterly alive and fully present.

A few times on the return trip, there was no one ahead of me and I tested my route-finding skills.  It took my brain a while to adjust to reading the cave.  Where was the easiest route?  Should I crouch, crawl, or roll?  Which way had I gone before?  Trying to remember the route, I visualized not just a two dimensional trail, but the series of interconnecting tubes that branched in three dimensions.  Using rocks and mud as landmarks was challenging for me because I am normally use plants and trees for navigation because for me they are so easy to remember.  I began to develop a better eye for subtle differences in rocks and formations, like how in winter, tree shapes and shades of brown become totally fascinating.   Mud in some places was dryer like clay for pottery and resisted pressure, while in other places it melted beneath your feet and stuck and slurped.  Caving was thus totally mentally engaging in addition to providing a full-body workout.

During rest breaks, our trip leader instructed us to lay down on the rocks and let our body heat radiate into the ground.  This had such a calming effect.  Much more so than just sitting down or standing during breaks.  The physical connection to the ground is so peaceful, and it reminds me to practice my yoga relaxation and breathing techniques.  I would love to take this practice back with me to the trail.  I normally stand during resting moments, but I think I will experiment with reclining against a tree or even laying down and being aware of my connection to the earth.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nature Notes: Paw Paw

Fall is paw paw season!  So I thought I'd tell you the story of my favorite native fruit...

It was the tropical fruity smell that caught our attention first.  My Maryland hiking partner and I were hiking up past Weaverton Cliffs on the AT in MD one fall.   It took us a while to find the source of the wonderful fragrance.  When we finally found the smooth, oblong fruits with dappled yellow-green skin on the ground, we had no idea what they were.  I brought a few home, and they ripened on my dresser.  Cutting the fruits open revealed several dark, fava-bean shaped seeds.  The flesh was bright yellow, juicy, and tasted like a cross between a banana and a mango.

A bit of research showed they were pawpaw, one of the few native fruits in the eastern US.  They are delicious raw and in pudding, and make marvelous ice cream. 

Why aren't pawpaw lining the shelves in supermarkets, a staple in kid's lunches, and served for dessert in restaurants?  I mean, this fruit is WAY tastier than bananas and it's AMERICAN. 

It turns out that they don't have a long shelf-life and are hard to transport.  But I just think people just don't know about them.  I mean, I can't imagine that with some selective breeding or genetic engineering...  I also can't figure out why everyone doesn't grow them in their yards-- then there's no need for transport.  But until I get my own garden, I search the forests and river valleys on all my hikes for the pawpaw tree, and I eagerly anticipate paw paw season (Sept. and early October).

Since moving to Georgia, I've searched high and low for pawpaws.  I still haven't found fruits yet, but I finally found a grove of the small trees up in the Cohuttas on the trail to Jack's River falls.  I've read that they are also located at Warwoman Dell.  I can't seem to time my hikes right to find ripe fruits though.  But around September and October, I keep my eyes peeled and sniff the air expectantly, because you never know what might turn up.
Cross-section of a pawpaw fruit

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fears: Loneliness

In preparing for my long-distance hike, I've been reading about what makes for a successful thru hike.  In addition to physical training and gear, I've learned that mental aspects are very important.  I have begun examining my fears, in hopes that I can figure out ways to cope with them and prevent them from getting in the way of achieving my dreams.

There are lots of things to be afraid of on the trail, and I've felt scared at one time or another about pretty much all of them.  Sometimes, it seems like I'm working my way down through this list, as if I will eventually go through each one, checking them off as I go, and maybe after that I will have nothing left to fear.

There are bears habituated to humans (and their food), disease-causing ticks, giardia, and rodents that crawl across you in the night.  There are scary people.  Plus, lightening (this summer I ruined a hike because I saw thunder clouds in the distance and freaked out that I would be caught on the ridge in a storm and it interfered with my ability to marvel at the 2000 year old Bristlecone pine trees).  There is the possibility of falling down and breaking a bone, and getting hypothermia.  But the thing I fear most, the thing that I think puts me most at risk for failure is loneliness.

Feeling afraid, despite the beautiful bristlecone pine tree at Cedar Breaks Nat'l Monument.

What if I don't make friends on the trail?  What if I don't fit in with the other hikers?  What if I loose my connections with my friends and family?  What if I hike alone day after day?  What if I pass by the few people I do happen across but without any meaningful conversations?  What if I become consumed with longing for connections and, without the strength and meaning I derive from interactions with others, I become depressed? 

The reason this scares me so much is that in my past I have experienced depression.  In my early twenties, I didn't have many friends-- it just wasn't my priority.  Then I went through a difficult time where I felt utterly alone and depressed following end of my 10-year relationship and all the changes that went along with that.  It was the most horrible thing that I've ever experienced.  I couldn't eat.  I couldn't work.  I cried every night.  Slowly, with much work, my life has changed.  In the past five years since then, my friendships have become one of the most important thing in my life.  I fear going back to that horrible time when I felt incredibly lonely, unconnected, and afraid.  I also know that I got through it, and that the experience changed my life for the better.

I've read that being alone is totally different from being lonely and I've found this to be an important distinction.  I've been thinking about other times in my life I've been alone, and how I've always enjoyed those.  In college, I did field work for several years where I worked for many hours outdoors by myself, both in the dunes of California studying lupine and in the forests of Maryland working on beech.  I was alone but was perfectly happy working outdoors and thrilled to be involved in fascinating research projects.  But in both cases, I'd return in the evenings to the research stations for lively dinnertime conversations.  Perhaps on the trail, I will camp and have great interactions with other hikers.  Perhaps too, I will be by myself, and enjoy that time, and learn from it, and have it change me again.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Chattooga River Backpack

Over Labor Day, my hiking partner, Still Waters, and I backpacked for two nights on the Chattooga Trail sections 1 and 2, from the 76 bridge to the 28 bridge (19.2 miles total). This was a fairly gentle section, with just a few hills, and soft trail padded with pine needles ("every footfall is a pleasure").  Despite the holiday weekend, few other backpackers were out, and only the 0.5 miles around the road crossings were busy.

I noticed that I pushed myself hard on this trip. I'd fly down the trail, thinking about how I need to be strong for next spring. I also practiced pushing myself when I was tired: in the afternoon of the second day, after filling up my water containers at a nice spring, I struggled climbing the steepest uphill section of the trip. Normally, I bound up hills. But this time, the extra weight in my pack was a huge burden. So, I kept saying to myself-- pretend your pack is heavy with a resupply out on the AT-- find those extra energy reserves! And I could feel the energy flow and my pace quicken, the muscles responding, and the confidence surging within me-- that I CAN DO IT!

What's cookin'?
Cooler temperatures this trip provided plenty of practice staying warm. I have two sets of clothes-- one for hiking and one for sleeping, and I struggle with figuring out when to change. There is a tradeoff: my hiking clothes are wet with sweat, so I want to change right when I get into camp. But then I need to avoid getting them dirty too (especially with food smells that might attract critters), so sometimes I don't want to change until after I've eaten. This time, there was another consideration-- Still Waters built a fire, so we could dry out our wet clothes, so I decided to change. The steam rose out of our socks, bandannas, and bras as we hung them over the fire, and we joked about how we were roasting our clothes for dinner!

Sunrise over the Chattooga
I tested out two new pieces of gear:

First, I love my Blackbird hammock!  I fell asleep instantly, though I woke up more than usual when I had to turn over because I'm still learning how to find the "sweet spots".  It took me a while to learn to sleep soundly in my tent too. There was no shortage of suitable trees and it set up easily. The best part is all my stuff stays cleaner because I'm out of the dirt. Since there was no chance of rain in the forecast, I didn't pitch the tarp, and so enjoyed looking at the stars and watching the sunset and sunrise from the warmth of my sleeping bag.

This was also my first trip with a steripen (4.4 oz). I switched from my trusty, bulky, heavy pump (17 oz). I'm not convinced the steripen will work as well as my pump, but hopefully I won't get sick, and I will learn to love my steripen. For me, this is a process, so I try to remember how far I've come-- my first backpacking trips, I carried in all my water from home!

I also practiced leaving some gear (intentionally) at home (with my pack down to only 26 lb pack with 3 days food and 3 L water). I missed my campshoes until Still Waters reminded me to take off my shoes and air out my feet. I propped up my bare feet on a rock, and warmed them near the fire. Worked like a charm! I also didn't bring a hat or sunglasses, which works OK for me because I usually stick to shady spots and would rather be a little uncomfortable for a short while than bring the extra stuff.

Besides gear and physical preparations, I have been thinking about practicing *how* I want to hike. My tendency is to hike fast, but I value spending the time to fully savor my surroundings. As I hike along, my eyes constantly scan for flowers, and I usually take the time to stop, investigate, and photograph those that I find. This is second nature to me, and keeps me motivated, curious, and open, and not lost in thought or mindless brain-chatter. What does not come as naturally for me is stopping and sitting down, just to look around. On the second day of the trip after lunch, Still Waters wanted to stop to rest. My initial reaction was frustration, because I wanted to hurry up and get to camp. But we found a spot by the river, and while she lay down, I cooled off in the river and sat on a rock, watching the water flow and a flock of geese, being aware of the changing seasons. It reminded me that this is a valuable skill to have-- being still and just observing. One of my reasons to hike long-distance is that I believe in the personal transformation that happens during this process. I have noticed that the quality of my thinking can be enhanced when I am simply sitting and being still.

Nature notes:
Spotted many wispy white featherbells, a type of lily.
Cardinal flower along the river.
Orange fringed orchid was past it's prime, battered and dried out. Still excited to find it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Training: Trapeze

Photo by Lauren Puls
I've been taking trapeze and aerial fabrics several times a week for the last year. Trapeze captivates my imagination, and provides a full body workout like no other. I keep going back week after week for comradery and the pure joy of it. It challenges my brain to think in three dimensions, to remember routines, and develops mind-body connection. It makes me feel beautiful and graceful and strong. It reminds me to play and dance and feel like a kid.

Lessons from trapeze that help me (in hiking and in life):

1. It's not all about strength. Flexibility and balance are just as important. But you can't do it if you aren't strong, so practice those situps, pushups, and pullups *and* stretch!

2. You have to learn to let go at some point, and trust that you've prepared sufficiently, so that when you fall, the fabrics and knots you've created will be enough to keep you up.

3. You can tap into your energy reserves and go beyond what you think you can do.

4. You have to know when to stop when your muscles are shaking and your brain is too tired to think clearly.

5. It's not about the tricks and the poses, it's about finding the beauty in getting from one move to the next, and savoring the flow, making the in-between the most interesting part. Because most of the time is the in-between time.

Trying my new hammock

Today, I got my new Warbonnet Backbird hammock in the mail.  I was so excited to try it out, that I used cheap carabiners for the rigging because I couldn't find any others.  Guess what?  Boundless enthusiasm alone will not keep you aloft like in Mary Poppins.

But I also learned that if your hammock rigging does slip and cause you to fall to the ground, it's not a big deal.  Startling, but not painful.  I will have to remember to not be afraid to fall.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What I love about hiking

One of my friends told me that it seems like I've written lots about my hikes and about nature, but encouraged me to write more about myself, so here are some more things about me....

What I love about hiking

I love the physical swing of my legs as I move down the trail.  I love how my connections with other people happen so naturally while hiking.  I love the mental aspects-- the clarity, awareness, looking, watching, finding and sensing the world around me.  I love watching the ideas flow through my mind and then seeing how my mind relaxes as I settle into the pace of the natural world.  I love experiencing the changing weather and terrain. I love feeling tired and hungry afterward.

On hiking every weekend

As I've mentioned before, I've hiked every weekend for the past five years, only missing a week if I'm really sick.  It's my passion and as essential to me as eating and sleeping.  Honestly, there is nothing I love more than hiking.  (As you can imagine, this has not always gone over so well in my relationships.)  During the busiest time in my life, while I was finishing my thesis and working harder and longer than I ever have, ignoring practically everything and everyone, consumed only with writing and thinking about my research, I still hiked every Saturday.   During that time, I brought my notebook with me and wrote down lots of ideas about my research while on the trail, and the flashdrive with a copy of my dissertation stayed in my pocket the whole time ('cause you never know if the whole university will burn down and destroy all my precious writings and data).  The week before my PhD defense, as I was hiking along, I was so consumed with thoughts of my research that I walked smack into a tree and got a huge bruise on my forehead, which, thankfully, no one on my committee commented on at my examination.   But I knew I needed to hike especially during this time because it calmed me and got me through it, relatively in one piece.

On tradeoffs

I've made certain choices to have this life filled with hiking.  I don't have a house, marriage, pets, or kids.  When the conversation turns to sports, TV, or pop culture, I have embarrassingly little to contribute.  While other people my age go out on Friday night or stay late at work to further their careers, I go to bed early so I can be on the trail early the next morning.  I've simplified my life, and I've made these choices deliberately.  That's how I get to hike so often.

The red bump on my forehead from walking into a tree.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nature Notes: Pinesap

I find parasitic plants totally fascinating.  Parasitic plants don't have any chlorophyll, and instead of getting energy from the sun like most plants, some of them have their roots connected to fungi, (often mycorrhizal fungi) that may be associated with the roots of other plants.  So the energy and nutrients are shuttled from one plant (like a tree) through the fungi and then into the parasitic plant.  Imagine all the complex interactions that are happening below ground that we don't see!

I've found two common parasitic plants on my hikes:

Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys) is a fantastic reddish hue in the fall, and there is a large patch of it that I like to visit on the Coosa trail on the side of Blood Mountain.

Pinesap is related to Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), which is also found in our area.  Indian pipe is usually white and has only one flower per stalk, while pinesap has a few flowers. 

Indian pipe

Saturday, August 14, 2010

First Hang: Bartram Trail

For my first hammock trip, my friend, Pyro, and I did an overnight trip on the Bartram trail.  We hiked about two miles from Warwoman Dell and set up camp near Martin Creek Falls.  There is a nice open camp site with plenty of trees right by the stream.  After getting set up, we decided to keep hiking up the Bartram Trail.   After a ways, Pyro headed back to camp, while I continued up to one of my favorite viewpoints, Courthouse Rock, where I enjoyed a clear view before returning to camp.

My goal on this trip was to try sleeping in a hammock, and Pyro was kind enough to let me borrow her HH Ultralight Asym with MacCat tarp and show me how to set it up.  I wanted to try hammock camping after having trouble finding a level stealth camping spot on my first solo trip.  I realized that I would have had a much easier time finding a good hammock stealth site because there are never a shortage of trees.  Hammocks also have a big advantage in the rain because the tarp can be quickly set up and provides plenty of living space. 

A dog adopted me this trip-- guess she didn't realize I'm not a pet person-- and this served as a wonderful learning experience for me. She just came out of the forest and though I never petted her and sternly told her that she should go home, she accompanied me to the summit (what a hiker!), lay in the shade while I soaked in the view, followed me back to camp, and slept under my hammock all night long. When I'd get up to go to the bathroom, she followed me to be sure I was OK. It made me realize how people can be so attached to their dogs-- this was serious loyalty and protection. I felt such a bond with her. I wished I could find her a home, but I also am confident that she'll find someone to take care of her. What a sweety!

Things I learned:

1. I slept well in the hammock. I think this will get even better over time. I also liked the ease of setup and takedown, and not being in the dirt. Not that there is anything wrong with the dirt!  I am so grateful to Pyro and Sweet Pea for introducing me to the idea of hammock camping, and for being so enthusiastic and sharing their knowledge with me.

2. Couscous rehydrates well with cold water.  Good news for saving fuel.

3. Scrambled eggs success-- I've been trying to get more protein in my breakfast, and eggs are my staple at home. Other egg powders were gross, freeze dried mountain house eggs were terrible, and my homemade dehydrated eggs were inedible.  I tried ovo egg crystals cooked in boiling water in a freezer bag!  Delicious and delivered energy all morning.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Nature Notes: Cranefly orchid

After years of searching, I finally found the elusive cranefly orchid in flower up in Tennessee!!!  This was cause for much excitement because I've been seeing the distinctive and unusually beautiful leaves of this plant for years now (which are purple on the underside!).  The trouble is that the leaves are out in fall and winter, but then the leaves shrivel up.  They bloom for only a short time in July or August.  The flowers were tricky to spot because they blended in so well with the forest.

I saw this orchid on the Lowry Falls Trail near the Hiawassee River in Tennessee.  This was a short, easy trail along the banks of a little stream that lead to a waterfalls.  It featured some impressive limestone rock formations.  You have to park across the road and walk to the trailhead on the road, but it's well worth the short walk of less than 2 miles round trip.  Even though this trail is located on a busy road, I didn't get the impression too many people do this hike.  Most of the people seemed to be heading to the whitewater rafting outfitters.

Cranefly orchid
(the stunningly beautiful purple underside)
Cranefly orchid leaf
(taken in April on the Approach Trail near Amicalola Falls)

Lowry Falls