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. 

Knee Pain- An update

I'm continuing to work on changing the way I hike to improve my alignment, and thus prevent my problems with knee pain that I've been struggling with since May.  A few new exercises have really helped my "runner's knee," so I wanted to share these with you all.  The good news is that it's been working-- NO MORE KNEE PAIN (so far).

In addition to the exercise to loosen and re-align my pelvis that I wrote about last month, my physical therapist also taught me to strengthen my glutes.  Strengthening muscles that support the hips will reshape how my lower legs move (for an explanation see this article).  By using different sets of muscles, my knees will track in a way that won't hurt.  The most difficult thing is that the muscles I relied on previously are super-strong, so when I'm tired at the end of a long hike, I want to revert to my old form.  I'm hoping that by doing these exercises my glutes will get strong enough so that eventually my new alignment will come naturally.

The physical therapist gave me this series of exercises so I can build strong glutes (described in this Runner's World article):
    -Single-leg deadlift
    -Hip hike
    -Three-way leg raises
    -Side-plank leg lifts

Then I do pigeon (from yoga) to stretch my muscles, which burn all the time now.

Sticking with this new program has not been easy.  I constantly remind myself that I am re-sculpting my body.  Over the long term, I have to believe that all this work will pay off with healthy knees and even allow me to push beyond my previous levels of endurance.  This hope helps to counteract the frustration I feel because I'm not as strong climbing hills now that I have to use different, weaker muscles.  Evening runs around the neighborhood have me worn out much faster than usual.  But that doesn't aggravate me too much because I don't identify as a "runner".  But hiking has been a different story.  On one particularly long uphill far from the trailhead, I had a total meltdown and had to stop to talk myself through it.  Miserable, I wanted badly to quit, to be anywhere but on that mountain.  Where was my strong, pain-free body that could fly uphill?   I kept thinking it was a good thing no one was there to see my weakness-- it might have ruined my reputation as a fierce hillclimber!  But seriously, when I got to thinking about it, I was confronted with my own ego.  Having that meltdown reminded me of what it was like to struggle, lose confidence in yourself, and then, eventually, find the strength within to get up and do what needs to be done (i.e. keep hiking).  It reminded me about the joy and sweetness that only comes from pushing beyond pain and exhaustion.   I try to appreciate the lessons the trail provides.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

First timers

A few of us from the Georgia Trail Dames group drove up to meet the North Carolina Dames to help with their beginner backpacking trip at Panthertown Valley.  It was the first time I've hiked with this group, though I'm friends with their leader Sweet Pea.  What a totally wonderful bunch of ladies!!!

Some of women were spending the night out in the woods for the first time.  Seeing the experience through their fresh eyes rekindled the child-like wonder of the experience in me.  Everyone was so inquisitive and it made for such a sweet trip.

We began at the Salt Rock trailhead and hiked a total of two miles on a twisting network of trails.  Since most everyone had borrowed gear, packs were quite heavy, but everyone did a great job hiking into camp.  Our wide-open campsite had a large shelter and was close to a water source, making it ideal for a beginner trip.

Hiking down the trail into camp
The "experienced" backpackers helped everyone choose tent sites and set up camp, get water, hang bear rope, and we had a discussion of peeing and pooping in the woods.

Even though it's early September, the night was cold so we warmed up around a campfire.  We forgot to bring marshmallows for the s'mores, so we improvised using what we had in our packs- peanut butter.  Chocolate and peanut butter melted between toasted (or slightly burned) graham crackers over the fire.  Delicious!  I'm never bothering with marshmallows again.

Graham crackers + chocolate + peanut butter goodness
I normally am too exhausted after hiking to stay up late, but that was not the case on this trip!  An advantage of this shorter-mileage trip was that I had enough energy to stay up well past "hiker midnight" (i.e. 9 PM).   The NC Dames taught us how to play the fun game of "Taboo."  You would not believe how much we laughed!  It was cool how we got to teach the NC Dames the basics of backpacking, while they got to teach me new ways to have fun in camp!  The North Carolina Trail Dames sure know how to enjoy themselves and make everyone feel welcome.  I can't wait to join them again soon for another trip.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fears: Bears

Bears are one of the things that scares me the most in the outdoors.  And I know I am not alone in my fear.  I've spent many hours lying awake at night trying to figure out if the rustling I hear outside is the wind, or if there is a bear outside about to tear through my tarp with its sharp teeth.  Yet, I've never had a bad encounter with a bear, and I know injury from bears is extremely rare.

On our trip up Gregory Bald in the Smokies over Labor Day, my hiking group and I encountered a mother black bear and her two cubs right on the trail (for a description of our trip see Sandi's excellent trip report).  I felt really scared at the time, but what I learned during the experience helps me feel less afraid. 
YIKES! There's a bear up there on the trail!
What is fear?
Fear is something you feel in response to a perceived threat.  When fear is in response to a real physical threat, the fight or flight response that takes over can save you from danger.  But fear can make you act irrationally when the danger is really all in your head. 

In the case of the bear on our trip, I knew this bear wasn't a real physical threat to us.  Fatal black bear attacks are exceeding rare (Since 1900, there have been only 45-recorded deaths that were caused by black bears in the North America).  Most (90%) fatal bear attacks involve only one or two people (and we were in a large group) and most (92%) involve male bears (and our bear was a female).   Given these statistics, my reaction was a result of the stories I was making up in my head, rather than the reality of the situation and the facts.

What to do when you are afraid
The best advice I've heard about what to do when you feel fear is to (1) take stock of the situation, and then (2) take steps to get out of danger. 

To "take stock", our group stopped to watch the bear for a long time.  All the other black bears I've encountered have run off far away immediately, but this case was different.  Still Waters figured out that this mother bear had her cubs hidden up a tree.  The bear walked over to the base of the tree where her cubs were, and we could see that she was refusing to leave the area. 

We decided to literally take steps around the bears.  Rather than continue on the trail towards the mother bear and her cubs, we stepped off down the hillside and made a large circle around the bears. 
Walking off trail around the bear in a wide arc
Becoming less afraid
Since bears don't pose much of an actual danger, how do I become less afraid?  The steps to take to overcome fears involve learning the facts about the danger and exposure to the thing you are afraid of.  One thing that really seems to work is making up new positive stories about bears.  This is my own version of the "Riddikulus" spell from Harry Potter.  To defeat the scary-Boggart (creatures that take the form of whatever scares you the most), the Riddikukus spell transforms the Boggart into something humorous, thereby making them harmless.  For example, Ron is scared of spiders, so he defeats the Boggart by imagining it as a spider wearing roller skates to make it silly.   I picture us laughing as we walked through the land mine of bear poop to get around the bears.  I also picture the memory Still Waters as "Bear Whisperer" talking to the mother bear in a gentle voice.
  It's hard to be afraid with sweet memories like that!  With each bear encounter, I become less afraid.

Remembering to respect wildlife (including bears!)
While I can't say I really "like" bears, I respect that the forest is their home, and that I'm just a visitor in the wilderness (as much as it feel like home when I'm out there).  I understand that giving animals their space prevents them from becoming habituated or stressed.  (Leave No Trace principles say that you know you are too close to a wild animal if it changes her behavior.)   I also appreciate that bears play an important role in decomposition (Just imagine where we'd be without decomposition... up to our ears in old icky dead things!).  Bears also disperse seeds and berries (Thank you for spreading around berries for everyone to enjoy!).   As someone who really loves plants and wild places, I am happy to be in an ecosystem that has bears.  But I honestly, I'm still happy if all I see of their presence in the wild is their poop.

To learn more about bears:

Friday, September 2, 2011

Carrying less

"The less you carry, the more you'll find" -Garlic

On my first backpacking trip, I carried 35 lbs. of stuff that all seemed absolutely essential for my safety and security in the (scary) wilderness.  Two years later, my pack is ten pounds lighter.  How, and more importantly WHY, did I make these changes?
On my 1st trip with a huge tent and 35 lbs of stuff.
Going lighter-weight gives me more energy to do the things I love-- investigate flowers and explore side trails-- because I'm not worn out hauling around lots of stuff.  The extra gear I didn't use cluttered my pack.  Now, I feel free when I moved more nimbly down the trail with my lighter load. 

Skipping through the wildflowers near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  This is what it FEELS like to carry 23 lbs.

Let's get to the "how."  Each trip, I try to leave some carefully-chosen item out of my pack.  Then, I find out if I miss the item, or what I can make due without.  I learn WHY I take an item, rather than WHAT piece of gear I choose.  This type of controlled experimentation has show me I don't miss:

1. My stove.  No-cook meals involve less fuss and can be eaten immediately.

2. Extra clothes.  I now hike in one set of clothes (my "dirty" clothes), and sleep in my long-underwear (my "clean" clothes). 

3. Camp shoes.  I now air out my barefeet at rest breaks. My hiking shoes are so comfortable I don't need to walk around in anything else.

4. Long pants (in everything but the coldest weather).  I love the breeziness and easy peeing of my hiking skirt.  Gaitors keep my legs warm and protected.

5. My tent.  I used to take comfort in the protective cover of my tent, which created the illusion of security.  I've since embraced the open view of my surrounds offered by my hammock and tarp.  It makes me feel more connected with nature and I sleep soundly off the ground.

Finding what items I was OK with leaving at home (and what I found essential) helped me to understand my individual style of backpacking.  It clarified, in essence, WHY I backpack.  The less I carried, the more I found out about myself.

Sometimes my experimentation showed me what items I should keep in my pack.  When I left behind my camera, I learned that taking pictures is something I do as a way to focus my observations and see the beauty of nature.  Having a notebook in my pocket and writing down my nature discoveries and my thoughts helps me clear my mind, and without it my brain felt cluttered.  My steripen allows me extra flexibility.  I drink instantly when I reach a spring and "tank up" by drinking an extra half liter at to rehydrate, rather than having to wait 30 minutes for the chemical treatments to work.  When I forgot my underquilt (oops!), I realized that I could stay warm enough (in summer) by using my pack under my torso as insulation in my hammock.  But I also really appreciated being surrounded by the soft cozy down of my underquilt, and I realized the huge difference a good night's sleep made in terms of how much energy I had for hiking. 

Overall, I've learned that what brings me the most joy while backpacking is the hiking part of backpacking (rather than the camping part).  Other people tend to enjoy the camping part of backpacking, and the items that make them comfortable in camp.  Some people really like backcountry cooking, so they would never be happy without their stoves.  The key thing is finding out why *you* backpack, and then consciously making gear decisions that enhance your enjoyment of the outdoors.

**Disclaimer-- I also totally admit I have the money to buy (or sew) the gear that I want.  I've been extremely lucky in terms of my family (and thus socioeconomic status), eduction (thanks Mom and Dad!), and my ex (who seriously is the best ex ever!).  But I've also made tradeoffs-- i.e. cheap rent, fuel-efficient hybrid car, no kids.  The point of this article is that some things that are helpful in backpacking are not what you HAVE, but what you DON'T have.**