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.