Sunday, December 11, 2011

Winter Hiking: Cheaha Wilderness

View at McDill Point in the Cheaha Wilderness.  Wearing a skirt I sewed myself.
This weekend, Still Waters and I went out to scout the Pinhoti- Cave Creek Loop which winds 7.2 miles through the Cheaha Wilderness of Alabama, two hours west of Atlanta.  The overall elevation change was gentle, but the trail featured delightful boulder fields perfect for rock hopping and romping.  This was a great hike for winter because there were lots of views that would have been covered up had there been leaves on the trees.  We followed these very good (and entertaining) directions paying particular attention not to miss any of the side trails.

Part of this loop hike took us along the Pinhoti Trail, which is another long distance trail that extends through Alabama and Georgia and connects to the Appalachian Trail.  I've hiked other sections of this trail including through the Dugger Wilderness as well as parts in Georgia, and every time it inspires me to spend more time exploring this trail.

Only 2,504 miles to Kathadin.
The viewpoint out at McDill Point was especially worth the 1/4 mile trip down the side path.  There, we had lunch out of the icy wind, and gazed in wonder at one particular tree in the valley below that still clung to its red leaves.  It was surrounded by a forest of green pine and the bare brown branches of other deciduous tree that had all already lost their leaves.  It stood out so brightly, all by itself.

Single bright red lone tree in a forest of pine and bare trees.
In the absence of plants and fungi, my usual favorite things to investigate on the trail, the moss/ lichen provided endless sources of fascination.  Seeing such incredible diversity almost makes me want to learn more about them and figure out how to identify them.  Until I looked at the guide to lichen that  my co-worker showed me.  I was drooling over the photos, but am completely intimidated by the keys, and the book is way too massive to take into the field.  I think I'll stick with admiring the lichen from afar for now, even though I know I'm missing out on that joyful wonder that only comes for me from a more in-depth understanding of organisms when I learn more about their ecology and natural history.

Beautiful lichen

The rocks were another highlight of the hike.  They were lovely shades of gray and white, and were unmistakably not-Georgia rocks like I'm used to seeing.  They made neat stacked formations, and in other places were piled up in boulder fields. 

Rock formations

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winter Hiking: NOC to Fontana

Fall seemed to last forever this year, but now it's finally over and winter is here.  The cold, wind, soft light, and short days make me quiet and contemplative.  These are my favorite things to do while hiking this time of year:

1. Sunrise doesn't come until late in the morning.  Be out hiking as the sun rises.

Climbing out of Stecoah Gap with fog in the valley.

2. Without flamboyantly dazzling fall color all around for distraction, small bursts of red stand out.  Investigate the detail of each leaf and the texture of bark and branching patterns of trees.

3.  Notice how each milkweed pod bursts open in a slightly different manner.  Each one beautiful sparkling in the sunlight.  Each one dispersing its seeds to the wind.  Yet all different forms, arrangements, and (I'd swear) personalities.

4. Climb high up onto the backbone of ancient mountain ranges.  Hike along ridgelines that offer continuous view in both directions.  With such a remarkably clear perspective, discover where you are and where you are heading.
Mountain backbone.
View from Cheoah Bald
5. Play.  Climb trees.  Skip.  Sing.  No one else is around.  The trees will dance with you.
Dancing trees.
The photos were taken during Thanksgiving weekend on two dayhikes in the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina:

Day 1: Stecoah to the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
13.6 miles.
Zero other people.
One piliated woodpecker.

Day 2. Fontana Marina to Stecoah.
14 miles.
Two people.
At least 12 milkweed pods.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Arkaquah Trail to Brasstown Bald

The Arkaquah Trail rises steeply for 5.6 miles from Track Rock Gap trailhead to the Brasstown Bald parking area.  From there, it's another 0.6 miles to the summit of the tallest peak in Georgia.  My guidebook says this trail gains 2,000 feet and that the "elevation change from gap to bald is greater than that of any other trails or combination of trails of equal or shorter length in North Georgia."  What more could you want?

Leslie and her friend Heather met me on a cold, windy, overcast morning.   Track Rock Gap Archealogical Area, near the trailhead, contains impressive petroglyphs and is well-worth a detour on the side-trail to go check it out.

Well-done interpretive signs

The trail climbs relentlessly the first two miles.  Most of the leaves were off the trees at this elevation.
One lone little tree still showing some color.
Lovely but dead monarch.

 Upon reaching the ridge, the tower on top of Brasstown Bald looked like a speck on the horizon. 

The trail continued along the ridge with views off to both sides.  Just when we started to think the walking was getting easy, the trail would start to climb, or, worse, descend steeply, only to climb again.

Ridge walking

We'd get occasional views of the tower, off in the distance, getting bigger ever so slowly.  We knew we were getting close when we finally saw some other hikers.  At the summit, a few rays of sun poked through the clouds.  This is one beautiful trail and one great workout.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Savage Gulf Backpack

I know I say this after every trip, but Savage Gulf State Park in Tennessee is one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited.   This unique gorge has limestone cliffs and lots of waterfalls.  I was delighted to join JJ, on her annual 3-night backpacking trip, along with Greg, who also knows all the trails, and my friend Kristen.

After filling out our permits at the Stone Door Ranger Station, we followed the Stone Door Trail to our first breathtaking view, before descending into the gorge.  The autumn leaves were lovely red, orange, and richly brown, we ohhed and ahhed at the scenery.  At the valley floor, we turned to follow the Connector Trail towards Hobbs Campsite.  The swinging bridges were especially fun because they swayed forward and back and side to side, making it easy to bounce along joyfully.

View of Savage Gulf
Hiking through the "Stone Door"
Swinging bridges. Photo by JJ
The terrain was rocky and challenging due to rain-soaked rocks and leaves.  Kristen's shoes had lost their traction and she had the most difficult time of all, and by the end of the day she was feeling tired and unwell.

The next morning, the plan was to cover 20 miles.  We set out at a quick pace along the North Rim Trail to overlooks revealing wisps of fog sparkling in the valley.  Kristen still wasn't feeling well, and made the difficult but smart decision to end her trip early by hiking out to the ranger station.  We hiked with her most of the way, and she set off down a side trail assuring us that she'd be fine by herself.  About a mile later, I started feeling bad and doubted if I should continue on myself.  I was wearing new boots, and blisters were erupting on my toes and my foot was swelling up.  All I could think about was the pain of each step, and I realized I was no longer looking around at the beauty around me and I certainly wasn't having fun.  I was overwhelmed by the pain, and there were still 13 more miles to our designated campsite.  I knew I could do it if I absolutely had to-- I certainly had an abundance of energy, but I doubted I could keep up the pace with JJ and Greg without causing further damage to my foot.  And I kept thinking of Kristen making her way to the ranger station, and so I decided to bail from the hike along with her.  So I turned around and headed after Kristen.

I'd never done anything like that before, and I was upset with myself for wearing new shoes (and probably carrying too much packweight creating additional stress on my feet on the rocks the previous day).  The worst was being so embarrassed that I wasn't going to tough it out, and that I was a quitter, that I was struggling so much.  My ego was crushed.  I mentally beat myself up and tried to hold back my tears.

I caught up with Kristen after just a short while.  Then, step by step, everything started getting better.  Walking at a slightly slower pace, my foot stopped hurting so much.  Kristen and I talked.  I ate lunch.  I started enjoying the hike and scenery again.  When we got to the ranger station, Kristen call her husband (at no charge- THANK YOU TN State Parks!) and her husband agreed to pick us up the following morning.

It felt like Kristen and I were on vacation or playing hooky.   We lounged around on the picnic tables and soaked in the sun.  Filling up water bottles and using the heated bathrooms at the ranger station felt delightfully wicked.  We hiked to Savage Falls and then our campsite two miles away.  The evening was spent relaxing,  laughing, and doing yoga.   My feet felt much better after airing them out and bandaging up the blisters properly.  Sure I was disappointed that I had only done 10 miles instead of our planned 20, but I realized I made a choice to take care of myself and that was OK. 
At the ranger station

Savage Falls

Our pair of warbonnet blackbird hammocks.

Kristen's husband arrived early the next morning.  I was feeling much better and Kristen helped me figure out a plan to continue my hike and meet back up with JJ and Greg.  We drove to another trailhead where they took a stroll, and dropped me off.  I was hoping JJ and Greg stayed with the original planned route and campsites so I could meet back up with them but I also left a note on their car just in case I missed them somehow.  (When I left them, I hadn't told them my plan since I didn't have one, so they had no way of knowing I was looking for them.)  First, I made a beeline for the food cache, calculating they'd be there without hours to pick up provisions for the rest of the trip.  Fortunately, the food was still there when I arrived, so I was able to retrieve my own food and leave a note.

Leaving a note at the food cache

Next, I headed down the Big Creek Gulf Trail.  At the Sinks, which is where Big Creek disappears underground, I stopped for refreshingly icy but refreshing "shower" at a waterfalls.

The Sinks, where Big Creek disappears underground

By afternoon, I climbed back up out of the gorge to stunningly beautiful Alum Gap campsite on the rim.  I set up camp, and was thrilled when Greg and then JJ finally arrived.  We sat around the campfire as the sun faded and the moon came out, sharing stories of our adventures. 

Sunset at Alum Gap campsite

The next morning, we followed the Big Creek Rim trail back to the overlook when we began our trip.  We lingered there for a long time, not wanting the trip to end.

Photo by JJ

This is the list of changes I made to my pack this trip:

1. Trash compactor bag pack liner.  This is lighter and said to be more waterproof than a pack cover.  The hard part for me was deciding what goes in the liner, because when I seal it up it provides limited access to those items.  (i.e. Does the first aid kit go in the liner so it doesn't get wet, or do I leave it out to get at the bandaids?  If I wear my fleece hat because I'm cold in the AM while hiking it doesn't get safely stored away either.)

2.  Leaving behind my cell phone.  This was the first trip I've traveled without at least one cell phone, and also one trip where we actually needed to make a phone call.  Fortunately, the ranger station was open and making the phone call was no problem.

3. Leaving behind my sunglasses and hat.  Not sure I'd do this every trip, but every bit helps and I didn't miss them too much.

4. Repackaging my hand sanitizer into a smaller dropper bottle.  This worked well!

5. Back to going stoveless.  I left behind my stove, but did get a hot meal the first night because JJ and Greg packed in hot dogs and let me tell you they were really delicious!  On the other nights, I stayed warm at night by wrapping myself in my underquilt and huddling around the fire, and eating a cold, but calorie-rich snack before bed.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Back to Being a Beginner (Part 2: Backpacking)

After backpacking frequently this summer, I've been feeling confident and comfortable with my gear and routine.   In preparation for teaching two beginner backpacking trips for the Trail Dames, I spent time thinking about backpacking and developing my philosophy to the extent that I could explain it to others.  My ego grew enough that I even considered myself an "intermediate" backpacker.  But then I took a backpacking class a few weeks ago taught by lightweight backpacker JJ (trip report here) and was introduced to lightweight backpacking techniques.  I find myself back to being a "beginner" again and rethinking everything I thought I knew. 

At first I admit it was frustrating-- hadn't I already figured this stuff out?  But I quickly embraced the excitement of learning new techniques and the thrill of challenging old ways of thinking.  I shifted to the Beginner's Mind-- to being open to the joy of trying new things and am now so excited about learning about going lighter-weight.

This past weekend, I went on an overnight backpacking trip from Tellico Gap to Winding Stair Gap along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.  JJ provides a trip report here.  This was a great trip not just because of the wonderful companionship and scenic splendor of the fall leaves and the beauty of the snow remaining on north facing slopes.  It also stood apart because we did a bunch of things that got me out of my old routine:

1. Paying for a shuttle.  Ron Haven shuttled us from Winding Stair Gap up to Tellico Bald.  Not only did this save us driving time, but got benefit of stories-- especially local history and origin of names such as Wayah Bald (from wolf/ warrior in Cherokee).

2.  Water cache.  Springs have been low or not flowing recently, so JJ set up two water caches.  Because I knew for sure where water was located, for one of the first times ever, I hiked with less than my normal (excessive) amount.   This made me nervous, but I still did it and realized that I (shockingly) did not die of dehydration. I appreciated having less weight to carry, because 1 L of water weighs 2.2 lbs.

Hidden behind some leaves...
...our water cache.

3. Hot dinner.  I've been going stoveless for a while, but JJ lent me her lightweight esbit stove and showed me how to use it.  I think that having a hot dinner helped keep me warmer.
Learning to use the esbit stove.  Photo by Monica.
3. Nighttime snack.   I "always" hang my bear bag before dark, which means I never eat after sunset.   But on this trip we had a "late night" snack of JJ's delicious brownies, and that energy-rich snack kept my body fueled and toasty warm all night.

4. Camping on the bald.  Normally, I camp at middle-elevations under dense canopy.  But camping on the bald allowed us a spectacular sunset lighting up red leaves and view of the clear night sky.  It was thrilling to spot half-dozen shooting stars, the milky way, satellites moving across the sky, and a million stars.  I ate my breakfast while watching the sunrise and fog swirling in valleys around mountaintop islands.

Hammock and tents right near Wayah Bald
Sunrise and moon.
Breakfast with a view. Photo by Monica.

5.  Setting up the hammock in dark (AND while wearing my new fingerless gloves).  I loved the challenge of hanging my hammock in the dark (even though it did take me twice as long!).  I had to completely understand the process more thoroughly because I couldn't rely on visual cues.  I did end up needing to make adjustments after I was all zipped up, but in the future, you can bet I'm not gonna forget to check these things while setting up next time!  Also, I tried something new that kept my head insulated underneath- tying my purple windbreaker sleeve to the ridge-line so it hung down under my head.  It stayed put rather than sliding down during the night.  I slept warm and more soundly than I ever do at home.
Warm in my hammock with purple windbreaker under my head.

Things I will consider doing different next time:

1. Retire my old heavy boots.  I was worried about cold feet in the cold and snow, so I wore my old gortex high-top hiking boots, and they gave me blisters and were too tight.  I missed my lightweight, low cut comfy hiking shoes that I'd switched to in the spring.

2.  Bring only one map.  I typically bring two maps, one AT map with elevation profile and water sources, and one Trail Illustrated Map showing larger scale perspective.  I could have done without the Trails Illustrated map because we had a shuttle driver take us to the trailhead so I didn't need it for the forest service road details.

Checking my map.  Photo by JJ.
3.  Bring less food.  I brought too many extra snacks, anticipating eating more in the cold weather.  But I ended up eating the same amount as usual.  Perhaps because I stayed warm by staying moving.

Trail lined with snow.
But the main thing I got from this trip was the wonderful feeling of having the "beginner" mindset-- maintaining curiosity, experimenting, and questioning my assumptions about the ways to do things.  It's about sticking with new things even though they are uncomfortable at first, and practicing until it becomes second nature.  It's also about laughing and not holding on to tight to anything.

Back to Being a Beginner (Part 1: Fabrics)

In addition to taking trapeze class, for the past year I've been learning another type of aerial dance, fabrics.  Fabrics requires more strength and skill, and I find it exceedingly difficult.  I've come close to tears, been full of frustration, and contemplated quitting countless times.  I stay with it only because it is exceedingly beautiful, it pushes me physically to totally new levels, and because I love my teachers and classmates.  But each week I have to give myself a pep talk before I can open the door of the studio.

With the start of the new class session, two thirds of the students in our class advanced to the next level.  The rest of us stayed behind.  It felt like being held back a grade and returning to "remedial" beginner class.   I know I was slow and timid learning the new tricks and many of the other students were much stronger.  Fabrics class is more difficult than anything physically I've done--  I also take trapeze class, and quickly master new tricks and feel strong in that class.  But fabrics is a different story--  sometimes my body just refuses to do the moves.  I try over and over again, muscles quivering.  I get so frustrated watching my classmates do the moves that I can't do.  When I saw my old classmates who advanced to the intermediate class, it didn't make me feel too good about myself.  Why should I continue if I wasn't a "natural" like all of them?

But during our beginner class, I started to have more fun.  We reviewed old tricks, and I could focus on technique and challenging myself to try them higher up in the air, and I found I could do some things I'd never been able to do before.  A few times I got caught up in the moment-- spinning, climbing high, twisting, flying.  Sure I was in the "slow" class, but that didn't matter because I was finally dancing and it felt beautiful.  I was finally achieving flow, because the level of difficulty of the class matched my ability.

I love fabrics because it teaches me life lessons.  How I compare myself to others.  How only when I believe in myself can I do certain moves.  How when I hesitate, I fail.  I see the importance of intense concentration and attention to form.  I also appreciate feeling what it is like to be the slow one, because it makes me realize that I'm doing this for the process of learning and not for any goal.  I savor doing something for the pure joyful experience.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Flow on the Trail: Finding Your Own Pace

I have been thinking a lot lately about hiking speed.   After the news that Jennifer Pharr Davis set the record for the fastest thru hike of the AT, I started hearing comments from various sources criticizing "fast hiking".  The implication is that if you hike fast, you don't "see as much" of the natural world and you don't enjoy the experience as much.

What really puzzles me is that, in my experience, mental state and attention, not hiking speed, is the determining factor for how much you observe in nature.  On my own, I tend to be a much faster hiker than many of my friends.  (Though at 2.5 miles per hour on average on AT-type terrain, I'm clearly not fast compared to many other people).  And yet, I see plenty of plants and feel more connected with nature when I hike at a pace in tune with my natural rhythm.  When I am distracted, uncomfortable, cranky or engrossed in conversation, that's when I tend not to see things.  One cause of a distracted mental state is hiking at an uncomfortable, unnatural pace, which could either be too fast or too slow relative to what suits your body.  But I don't believe that it's the hiking pace that's the issue and I think that blaming it on speed is inaccurate.
Climbing up the Benton Mackaye Trail at her own pace
What do I mean by the "natural rhythm"?  Anyone who has ever danced around their kitchen knows what it's like to follow the silent beat that comes from the inside of yourself.  Sometimes you feel like an elegant waltz, sometimes a crazy headbanging punk-rock jumping up and down is the only way to go.  The important thing is listening to your own body and maintaining awareness of your energy level, heart rate and mental state, rather than following the pace of anyone else.  It is giving your body what it needs to stay healthy.

Natural pace seems to be a product of genetics and experience.  My Dad and I hike a remarkably similar pace.  Also, because I hike on such a regular basis, hardly ever skipping a weekend, my body has grown accustomed to steep slopes and uneven rocky trails. 

Last weekend, Still Waters and I did a "timed hike" that allowed us each to hike at our own natural pace.  We did an out and back along the Benton MacKaye Trail near Aske in GA.   At the trailhead off Stanley Creek Road, we synchronized watches and agreed to hike for a certain amount of time, and then stop and turn around.  We each covered different distances and hiked at our own paces.  Still Waters saw a bear and a turtle, while I saw a chinkapin tree, which doesn't suprise me because she's more in tune with animals and me with weird plants.  Anyway, we both saw the lovely Falls Branch Falls and lots of cool mushrooms.  Both of us felt refreshed and energized afterward.
Mushrooms along the Benton Mackaye Trail
That's the thing-- you know you are hiking at your natural pace when if feels easy and smooth.  A few wonderful things happen when I hike my own pace:

1.  I can hike all day.  Starting before the sunrise and ending at dusk, both times when the forest comes alive.  Covering more miles also increase the opportunity to find a new and exciting place (or plant).

2. I experience flow.  I feel more relaxed and tuned in.  Many times, I stop to investigate nature, especially plants.  And when I do, I immerse myself fully in the experience-- hunching down or even lying down on the ground, touching, smelling, and getting the "bug's eye view" of plants.

3. Because I consciously set my own pace, rather than the pace of someone else, I can tailor my speed to fit my immediate, ever-change needs.  I may decide to push myself and to feel like I'm progressing and getting stronger.  Working towards my own goals provides a sense of purpose and success.  Or if I'm in the mood, I can swing my legs so my heart rate slows.  Either way, I can do what feels right to me.  I guess this is why researchers found that AT thru-hikers tended to experience flow more often when they hike alone (Mills and Butler 2005)-- because that's when they are setting their own pace.

4.  I know this sounds crazy, but it's MORE tiring for me to hike slower than my natural pace sometimes.  It takes extra energy for me to saunter and take unnaturally shorter steps.  It fuels me to just let loose and swing my legs.  That's not to say I don't like hiking slowing when I'm with other people-- I LOVE BEING SWEEP on hikes for the pleasure of companionship and being supportive and sharing the experience with others-- that's why I lead hikes. This brings me meaning and joy in a different way.

I sincerely believe that what is important in hiking is finding what works for each of us, and finding the experience that each person finds meaningful.

Mills, A.S. and T. S. Butler. 2005 "Flow" experience among Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.  From Proceedings of the 2005 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium.

Feeling the Flow

Half an hour into the hike it happens:  the climb becomes effortless, my body relaxes, my breathing falls in sync with the rhythm of my footfalls and heartbeat.   Worries from the work week and other mental chatter fade away. The focus of my awareness shifts-- while some attention stays on my breath and the rhythm of my stride,  I also fall in tune to the outside world.  The colors of the leaves intensify.  The textures, scents, and shadows of the forest come alive.  I notice how the wind gently touches my skin and how the earth presses against the soles of my feet.   Plants wave their branches at me, and (crazy as it sounds) I see the interconnectedness of this ecosystem and the kinship all living things share.  I am at home.  I can hike forever.

Flowing down the Zion Narrows (Photo by P. Soukup)
It happens also when I'm up on the trapeze at my aerial dance class.  I am totally in the moment.  It is a delightful challenge to focus intently on many things at once: moving with the music, legs extended and chest open, keeping balanced, staying in sync with my classmates.  My thoughts are clear, time loses meaning, I am free and flying.  On the ground, I may dislike my body, but up in the air, I have plenty of strength, flexibility, and poise and am decidedly happy in my own skin.  Afterward, I have bruises and rope burns, but the pain doesn't even register when I'm up on the trapeze.  I am utterly happy.

I found out that this mental state that I experience both out on the trail and up in the air has a name: flow.  Wikipedia says flow involves being "fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." It results loss of self-consciousness and feelings of joy and transcendence of normal awareness.  It happens when the task is challenging but matches one's ability level and offers immediate positive feedback.  Tasks that I enjoy most are the ones that allow me to experience flow.  Things that I find either too easy or too difficult, and that don't require a lot of skill, very rarely give me the same sense of bliss.

One of the benefits of flow is that it has a meditative effect similar to what many experience in yoga or sitting meditation.  It trains your mind to stay focused for sustained periods of time, and it helps you practice controlling your thoughts.  I believe this is the key to being happy.  When do you experience flow?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Beginner Backpacking Trip

After the success of our North Carolina Trail Dames Beginner Backpacking trip, we brought the show to Georgia.  Eleven beginners turned out, some never having spent a night out in a tent, others with some camping experience, all with plenty of enthusiasm and inquisitiveness.  Five "experienced"* Dames helped out-- Salt, Kellye, Monica, April, and myself.  We were also lucky to be joined by the Head Dame herself, Anna (AKA Mud Butt).

Monday evening before the trip, we went over the gear list at a pre-trip meeting at Dame North Star's lovely farm.  The experienced Dames brought our own spare gear and gave it to the beginners to use, supplemented with items from Trail Dames.  The experienced Dames also brought along our packs and we each explained what gear we use-- the idea being to show different gear options.

Sorting through gear at the pre-trip meeting
On Saturday morning, we met at the Warwoman Dell trailhead full of nervous excitement.  Packs and gear exploded once more onto the picnic tables.  Camping-type sleeping bags the size of a small refrigerator were exchanged for foot-ball sized bags.  Heavy lanterns were removed, and we tried to help rearrange gear in packs for optimal load carrying.   We showed everyone how to put on and adjust their packs.  Fitting packs was challenging because many were just too big or too small, but we did the best we could and hoped that none would be so uncomfortable that it would ruin anyone's experience. 

Packs loaded and spare gear stashed in cars, we circled up for introductions.  So many unfamiliar faces!  I wondered if the beginners were as nervous as I had been my first trip, before I leaned just how quickly strangers become trusted companions out in the woods.  As we went around the circle giving our names, everyone was also asked to describe what they liked most about being outside in nature.  The answers:  watching the change of seasons, the spiritual experiences, connecting with others, feeling peace, getting exercise.  I felt all my anxiety from the work week melt away as I breathed in the crisp mountain air and listened to everyone remind me of the important things.
Introductions at the trailhead
Then we were off on our two mile hike to camp near Martin Creek Falls!  What a gorgeous site to see our group of women heading down the trail carrying everything we'd need for the night in our packs.  After climbing out of the Dell, the Bartram Trail crosses Warwoman Road, and then circles up to Becky Branch Falls.  We went slow, and stopped for breaks often to snack, eat, and adjust clothing layers.
Photo by April.

Right before we got to camp, April demonstrated how to filter water from the creek.  One of the few "rules" we'd learned backpacking is to get water before setting up camp.  If you can't find water, you need to relocate, so doing it first ensures you are set for the night.

April demonstrates using a water filter.

Then everyone set up tents and hammocks.  Lending hands, discussing dry ground, looking above for dead branches to avoid.  Aja's new tarp provided the most challenge, and she mastered it, achieving a nice taut pitch!   The plan had been for her to share it with Connie, but the tarp had no bug netting and was smaller than expected, so a plan was devised.  Monica and Terri went along with Connie to retrieve Connie's tent from back at the trailhead.  Thank you Monica and Terri!

Hanging bear bag rope was next on the agenda.  We'd chosen this site because of the proximity to water, gentle trail, low and protected and large soft campsites.  NOT for abundance of suitable branches for hanging bear bags.  I will NOT reveal just how many hours were spent searching for enough branches and throwing enough lines to accommodate 18 people.  We finally found a good "teaching" branch-- one with enough area below it that was a good height.  Salt and Kellye explained bear bag theory and demonstrated the PCT method and variations.  Then we dispersed and everyone got the opportunity to hang lines. 

It's always fascinating to find what everyone brings for dinner.  Everyone was drooling over Terri's  mashed potatoes, salmon, pudding, and even after-dinner mints.  She definitely got the prize for most creative, delicious-looking meal, presented with style!

Kellye and Sandy got the fire going.  Then we had the "peeing and pooping" discussion, amid lots of giggling. 

Then, fireside yoga!  Salt developed a special yoga routine for backpackers that both stretched muscles and didn't require touching the floor.  Brilliant!  This really helped keep our bodies happy and relaxed.  Everyone was amazed in the morning how much yoga helped us, and I'm definitely adding this to my regular backpacking routine.  Thank you Salt!

Fireside conversation lasted well into the night and was significantly enlivened by Aja's hilarious stories and commentary. 

I also want to mention that all the questions everyone asked, especially by Jules, Dennice, Sue, Jo Ann, Susan, Connie, and Aja, were really super!   You all made it so much fun by your enthusiasm and curiosity!!!   it was fun watching someone climb a hill with a fully loaded pack or throw a bear bag rope for the first time and seeing the joy on their face.

In the morning, we compared reports of snoring, pee trips, and all agree that the bright light must have been the clouds parting briefly to reveal the moon.  We relaxed, had breakfast, and packed up.  Monica directed the fun group photo-- I don't know how she does it, but she always captures the fun spirit of the trip.  Thank you Monica!

Group shot.  Photo by Monica

A short detour took us one more time past Martin Creek Falls, and then we made our way back to the trailhead.

Martin Creek Falls
This trip really deepened my love of backpacking.   In thinking through what things to teach the beginners, it really made me understand more of the reasons why I love the whole experience.  Explaining the techniques really forces you to think through each step, and get a deeper understanding of the whole process.  It's true that you don't really know something well until you have to teach it to someone else.  Salt used this quote to describe it: "To teach is to learn twice." -Chinese proverb.

This trip also showed what amazingly awesome women the "experienced" backpackers are.  We do trips together all the time, but seeing them in action made me really appreciate their skill, kindness, and how well we all work together as a team.  Each of us has our specialties, and I learn so much for them.  I am so lucky to have shared this trip with you all!

*By "experienced", I mean we'd been backpacking a few years, and had a ton of love for backpacking, so much that we wanted to share that with others.  But I don't think any of us had ever taught backpacking before.