Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Knee Pain

**Warning: I've avoided talking about my knee pain, but I'm posting this now in case it helps anyone else.   Other people's health problems are by definition boring though, so feel free to skip this post.***

"The pain in your knee is caused by your alignment," the Physical Therapist explains as he points to the video he's just taken of me on the treadmill.  "The problem isn't your knees, it's the overpronation of your feet combined with your pelvic alignment.  You need to change your hiking form." 

I stare at him blankly.  This is not what I expected to hear.  I thought I had bad knees, would be prescribed knee exercises, or told I'd need surgery.  My biggest fear, and why I'd put off going to see a doctor since May, was that I though I'd be told to stop hiking.  Could it really just be my alignment?  Seriously?  But there it was on the screen, my knees bent inward at an awkward angle, which he explained caused the knee cap to wear away at the bone instead of riding nicely in the groove (this is called "runner's knee").

After a lesson in biomechanics and anatomy, I was sent home with a series of self-correction exercises and stretches for my hip joints to do several times a day, and instructions on how to change my posture and form while I hike and run.

Focusing on keeping my knees in alignment
Last weekend, I tried it out-- a few exercises on the picnic table at the trailhead before the hike, and then every step, trying to remember to keep my butt squeezed and chest up.  The result was no pain on my 18 mile hike!   Or at least no pain in my knees.  My butt was another story! Those muscles were sore from being worked in new ways.

In retrospect, I don't know why I was so surprised that form and alignment mattered for hiking.  Alignment is so central to other types of movement that I do-- in trapeze and aerial fabrics class, our teachers constantly stress proper form.  In fact, my trapeze instructor always urges us to keep our chests open when we are doing certain tricks.  "Show your necklace" she calls it.  This sounds very similar to the instruction from the PT, who says to lead with you chest instead of keeping your head down.  Anyway, I am excited to bring that same body awareness to my hiking now that I have gotten some direction about how to improve my form.  Concentration on form is something that is a wonderful mental exercise during trapeze, and it forges a mind-body connection that is especially calming.  When I direct my attention towards keeping my body moving in a precise way, really feeling the movement, it changes my relationship with my own body.  When I concentrate this way in trapeze on my form, it is just about the only time when I actually feel beautiful and happy with my body.  Rather than pounding out the hike and throwing myself down the trail, I want to try this new way to be more gentle with it, coax it into place, and see if I have a shift in mental alignment as well.

Showing the necklace

I'm still waiting to see what happens when I go backpacking this weekend, but I'm hopeful that changing my alignment will help stop the pain in my knee.   If any of you out there have pain in your knee, I really encourage you to stop ignoring pain and get it checked out!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Gear Review: Dripping Water Collecting Device

On hot August Georgia days, it's a challenge to find water on ridge-top trails.  Many springs are reduced to tiny trickles which flow drop by slow drop from mossy covered rocks into large mud puddles.  Catching the drops in the relatively narrow mouth of a nalgene would take a long time because the mouth is so narrow compared to how dispersed the droplets are as they seep down the rockface.  What's a thirsty hiker to do?  

My favorite gear for such instances is my Special Super-Wide Dripping Water Collecting Device.  It's ultralight weighing only 0.1 oz and made out of ultra-thin plastic, attractively decorated with colorful and informative print.  It has an extra large area for collecting droplets of water-- nearly 5 times the collecting area as a wide-mouthed nalgene, so fills up 5 times faster!  Collect as much water as you need, then pour it carefully into your bottle to purify.  When you buy it at Wal-Mart, it's only $2.18 and comes with 8 tasty tortillas (be sure to remove these from the bag before use).  As with all of the best gear, it also has a dual-purpose and is large enough to store wraps for your lunch.
My Dripping Water Collecting Device came in handy on the Bartram Trail
Disclosure: I purchased this Dripping Water Collection Device with my own funds. I am in no way affiliated with the manufacturers of this item or with Walmart, and the opinions in this review are my own.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Footprints on the Roan Highlands

It was late in the day and we were tired.  The last climb up Little Hump Mountain in the Roan Highlands at the TN/ NC boarder had us all tuckered out (Little? HA! That mountain was high!).  We'd all had a fabulous day of hiking, but we were more than ready to make camp.  But unlike other areas of the AT, campsites were few and far between in the Roan Highlands.  The original plan had been to camp near the Overmountain shelter, but it was so crowded that we decided to press on.  Then, the campsite at summit of Little Hump Mountain was already full of people too.  How how much further would the next place be?  We had no idea.

Backpacking across the Roans, my new favorite mountains in the East

As we descended down the steep backside of the mountain, our eyes scanned the area for any spot that might accommodate our group of seven Southeast Women Backpackers.  We lingered at one semi-flat place in pristine forest, debating the merits of stopping or continuing on into unknown, down slippery rocks when were were so tired.   This site was tempting-- no one had camped here before and there were enough trees for our hammocks.  But we hesitated, knowing our large group would trample this area flat, possibly killing sensitive plants, or worse creating a new campsite if others followed in our footsteps.  We knew we had enough energy to continue on, but we didn't know how far behind us the other members of our group were, or how tired they were.  It was a tough call, but in the end we continued on down the trail.

Fortunately, we came to an empty spacious camping spot not much further down the mountain.  So in the end, it worked out great.  But this got me thinking about the footprints we make while backpacking, especially while passing through such sensitive, beautiful regions like the Roan Highlands.  It made me wonder how our presence here impacts this fragile place, and what we can do to lessen our impact.

Gorgeous grassy meadows of wildflowers

When I began to read about all the unique plant communities in the Roan Mountains, I learned about all the threats this beautiful place.  In addition to usual risks to rare mountaintop plants like inbreeding, loss of habitat due to development or global warming, the grassy bald plant communities are at special risk due to the loss of natural forces that used to keep the balds tree-free (i.e. the extinction of the elk and bison and other large herbivores that once roamed these hills.  It is also possible Native Americans also may have helped create these places).  Now the balds will grow over with trees without help of volunteers, and introduced grazer like goats and steer.  I was also surprised to read that one of the primary threats for the federally endangered Roan Mountain bluet is "trampling."  This landscape of the Roan, with it's open vistas and grassy expanses, seems to invite exploration and romping off trail.  Could we hikers really trample a plant to extinction?  Does walking off trail really cause that much of an impact?

Apparently, scientists in the field of recreation ecology have been studying how recreation impacts protected natural areas (for an excellent review see Pickering et al. 2009).  They measure damage due to soil compaction, spread of weeds and plant pathogens, and changes in plant diversity.  They use a "hiking resistance index" to describe "the number of passes by a hiker required to reduce vegetation cover by 50%" for any given vegetation type.  Scientists do experiments where they go out and hike back and forth in different areas (for a wonderful description of this research with nice photos see this website).  They have found some plant communities are more fragile than others.  This is why it's so important to learn to follow the Leave No Trace principle to camp and travel on the most durable surfaces (i.e. dirt and rocks) and avoid sensitive plant community types.

Our nice already-established campsite
On this trip, I know we did the right thing in finding an already established campsite.  But looking at my own behavior, I realize that I don't always make such good decisions.  It's ironic that I take a lot of pride in making choices to reduce my carbon footprint during my day-to-day life-- taking the bus, driving a hybrid car, getting locally grown veggies from my CSA.  But when I go hiking, I bushwhack to discover new places, and I "stealth" camping when I go solo.  I don't know that I'll always stay on the beaten path, but I'm going to try watch my literal footprints more carefully and read more about ways to lessen my environmental footprint.

Pickering, CM, Hill, W, Newsome, D., and Y-F Leung. 2005 Comparing hiking, mountain biking, and horse riding impacts on vegetation and soils in Australia and the United States. Journal of Environmental Management 91: 551-562.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Linville Gorge

Linville Gorge in North Carolina is one of those places that never fails to take my breath away.

I met up with my old friend from DC, Cindy, at her family cabin located on the eastern side of the gorge.  When I lived in DC, we hiked together almost every weekend, doing sections of the MD and VA AT, and always discovering plants and having lots of adventures. 

We decided to do our favorite shorter hike in the Gorge, since I'd just driven four and a half hours to get there.  We began at the Table Rock parking area, and climbed one mile to the summit of Table Rock, with its 360 degree views.  One thing that makes Linville Gorge so unique is that each mountain has a characteristic shape, and you can see the chain of mountains as you hike along the rim, providing a fascinating lesson in perspective.  Standing on top of Table Rock, there was a clear view up the valley to Hawksbill (with it's pointy cone) and down to the Chimneys (spiky) and Shortoff Mountain (sloped with stair-stepped side).   It was nice to be able to identify each peak, and then hike along and see how far you actually travel.

View of Hawksbill from Table Rock
After climbing around on the rocks on Table Rock, we descended back to the parking area.  Next we hiked in the other direction along the ridge to the Chimneys.  At each viewpoint, we could see the distinctive two-humped shape of Table Rock and Little Table Rock getting smaller and smaller each time we stopped to look back at it. 

Table Rock in the distance
Table Rock even further away, Hawksbill peaking out behind it on the left
Past the Chimneys, we turned down an unmarked overgrown side trail and descended steeply for about half a mile to our favorite spot-- the amphitheater.  A narrow shelf of rock extends out to a point and there are sheer rock faces all around.  From there, you can see and hear the river below.

The amphitheater with Shortoff Mountain in the distance
It was such a pleasure hiking with Cindy again.  Even though we hadn't seen each other for a few years, we instantly synced up and were hiking in our old rhythm.  I'd forgotten how much I enjoy hiking with another person who does my same pace (i.e. fast).  I felt so lucky to have gotten a chance to return to this incredible place with it's amazing perspectives.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Stoneplace Trail at Tallulah Gorge

It was a day for hiking and moving, not smelling the flowers, not lingering at viewpoints, not soaking feet in rivers, not talking to anyone (except the ranger when I picked up my permit).  Just swing legs, pumping arms, and the joy of moving along the trail while working through my anxiety about classes starting again after three summer months.  There is nothing like a long hike for thinking and working through stuff.

Stoneplace Trail

The Stoneplace Trail at Tallulah Gorge State Park in Georgia was long and empty, so I could be alone and not feel bad about not stopping.  It was my first time on these trails, though I'd done the trails around and through gorge many times.  I'd never heard about the Stoneplace trail, and I found out why--  the well-marked trail follows an old dirt/ gravel road through scruffy, recently logged and/ or burned forest and is also open to mountain bikers.  Only towards the end did it pass by a few streams with pockets of mountain laurel.  There weren't views (though there might be winter views) and the forest wasn't very pretty (to be perfectly honest), and there were so many gnats flying in my eyes, I could hardly see anything anyway.   There were also a ton of spiderwebs across the trail that I kept running into.

One spiderweb I managed to avoid

On the plus side, the terrain was rocky, dirty, sandy but I could swing my legs freely the whole time (i.e. no big rocks or roots or anything "technical") and get a good rhythm.  After five miles of gradual downhill (only dropping about 800 feet), the trail intersected another access road for the boat ramp for Tugaloo Lake.  I'd been looking forward to going swimming in the lake since the day was so hot, but there was a no swimming sign, so I just turned around and headed back up the trail.

Tugaloo Lake

After three miles back on the Stoneplace Trail, I turned onto the High Bluff Trail, which was a narrow path through more recently burned forest, sunny with wildflowers.  This trail added about a mile to the return trip and was much more scenic compared to the Stoneplace Trail, and ended at the popular North Rim Trail, where I finally stopped to rest at a viewpoint of the falls. 

Because the Stoneplace Trail and High Bluff trails were gradual enough that I never felt my heart pound, I turned down the trail into the gorge so I could do the North Rim/ South Rim loop trail (about two miles) down all the stairs, across the bridge, then back up the stairs.  Finally, I got my heart pounding and my legs could really feel it after all the miles. 

When I got home, I did something I hadn't done for a long time-- I went to yoga class.  Lucky for me, the class just happened to focus today on hip-openers and leg stretches.  My legs felt so good to have gotten a good workout and then a good stretch to top it off!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

AT Series- Unicoi to Tray Gap

Both long-time Trail Dames and women entirely new to the Appalachian Trail (AT) came up for our Georgia Trail Dames AT Series hike.  By the end, everyone seemed like old friends!  We met up at Unicoi Gap parking area (2949 feet) on GA 75 north of Helen.  Then, Kellye, Jules, and Linda shuttled cars to Indian Grave Gap, while we waited for everyone to arrive.  After passing out hiking poles, our hike leader Kellye gave the introductions, and then ten Dames set out for our hike.

Dames ready to take on the AT.
The first 2.7 miles up and over Rocky Mountain (4017 feet) to Indian Grave Gap were by far the most difficult.  The trail is rugged-- rocky and rooty-- and climbs so steeply, especially in the first mile, that some places had stairs created by rocks.   We stopped often, and sat down for snack break at a small spring 0.5 miles into the climb and it was fun to get to talk to everyone. 

After two hours of climbing, we reached the summit of Rocky Mountain, and stopped for lunch in a grassy spot.  It was the first time several Dames had scaled 1000 feet and they did such a great job!!!!

Woo hoo!!
On top of the mountain, we lingered at the viewpoint, watching a distant Mount Yonah fade in and out of view as clouds moved across the sky.   Bees buzzed around the mountain mint near the rocky overlook.

As is typical, it was pleasantly cool in the mountains compared to the heat we've had down in the city.  Other hikers don't seem to be aware of this, and the trail was virtually empty.

The descent to Indian Grave Gap (2.7 miles into the hike) was just as steep and slippery as the ascent, but the going was easier and the sound of laughter and conversations filled the trail.  As we rested at the Gap, Kellye passed around water bottles that she'd stashed in her jeep.  By the way, this was the first time Kellye was leading a hike for the Dames, and we were all so grateful for the super job she did! 

We also had another treat at the gap- we got to see incredibly beautiful yellow fringed orchids in an open spot along the roadside!  Yellow fringed orchids have really long nectar-holding spurs (i.e. long tube thingies), so only those butterflies with really long tongues (like some swallowtails) can reach the nectar in the bottom.  When butterflies lap up the sugary nectar, sticky pollen sacs get attached to their eyes.  Then, the butterflies visit other flowers, brushing the pollen onto the other plant allowing for pollination.  Cool!

Yellow fringed orchid
From Indian Grave Gap, the trail traveled through a mountain laurel and rhododendron tunnel full of mushrooms and galax.  We saw the "cheese factory" site (mile 3.6) which was just a large grassy campsite now, but in the 1840's had been a dairy where they made cheese.  But we kept calling it the "cheesecake factory"-- ha ha!   A big slice of cool creamy cheesecake sure would have hit the spot!  After climbing again (would it never end!), we reached another rocky outcrop with a view of Tray Mountain and waves of bright green trees.

We met up with Kellye and Jules, who had decided to take the car up to meet us at Tray Gap (mile 4.4).  Jules told us about a huge beautifully patterned rattlesnake she'd seen and photographed before it slid into the bushes.  What a neat find!

Kellye shuttled half the group back, while the rest of us traced our steps back to Indian Grave Gap.  Then we all squeezed into cars for the bumpy ride down the forest service road, over a ford, and back to Unicoi Gap.  It was such a fantastic hike with a great group of women!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Daisies and hope

The first yellow daisies of the season are now in bloom up on Stone Mountain.  One of the first sign that late summer has arrived, that the seasons are change, that maybe these hot days will come to an end in the not to distant future.  The daisies are bright and sunny.  But the sight of them stirs a deep sadness in me.  Because, you see, daisies are my sister's favorite flower.

After two years of being estranged from my sister, I'm fairly used to not having her in my life anymore.  But sometimes, unpredictably, I can still get overwhelmed with a sense of loss, and the tears can still flow.  I've heard this is not uncommon. 

My only sister is two years younger than me.  We were always very close growing up.  She was more outgoing and popular than me, and tended to get into more trouble.   I always admired her, and in many ways wished I could be daring and beautiful and defiant like her.  We'd hang out a lot, and we lived close by most of our lives.  She was always there for me, and she was the one person that I felt like I could share absolutely anything with because we are so similar in many ways.

Two years ago my sister took her one-year-old daughter and left her husband, and sought help with a Women's Shelter.  My parents helped her, and I flew out to offer my support too.  But then she went back to her husband, and hasn't spoken to my parents since then, and refuses any contact with them.  I hear from her once every month or two.  Brief phone calls when she's out running errands.  Updates about her kids:  My niece loves swimming lessons.  She is pregnant again and it's a boy (but don't tell our parents!).  Then, how her son has a birthmark just like mine.   Earlier this year, her husband said I could come and visit them, and meet my nephew for the first time and celebrate his first birthday with them, but then I got another phone call that he'd changed his mind.

I've been told that the loss experienced following estrangement is unique because there is always the hope that things will change, and that old wounds of the past will heal and there will be forgiveness.  I don't know what life is like for my sister, but seeing these sunny daisies, I have so much hope for her and her family, that they are happy.  Just as the seasons change, and the bouquets of flowers on mountaintops change, family dynamics change, and there is hope that things will change between us.  But I am also sad that I cannot watch my niece and nephew growing up, and miss having a close relationship with my sister.