Friday, April 13, 2012

"Stealth" Campsites for Solo Backpacking

Some of you may be wondering what I mean by "stealth" camping when I backpack solo.  I use this term to refer to camping in an unestablished or pristine site which is out of view of the main trail.  (Note: it does not mean camping illegally.)  My primary reason is it makes me feel safer as a solo female.  When I am in a group, I prefer to stick to established sites to lessen our collective impact on the environment, but when I'm solo, I go stealth on certain trails or if I'm within a mile or two from a trailhead where I feel more likely to encounter non-backpacker types that I think could give me trouble.

In choosing a stealth site,  I find somewhere that will have the smallest impact from my presence.  Most often, this means choosing a site where no one has camped before, rather than further developing a lesser-used site (a basic LNT principle).  Sometimes, stealth sites require effort to find.  In addition following LNT guidelines (i.e. away from water and sensitive areas), plus the hammock-specific guidelines (i.e. to stay warmer and out of the wind), my goal is to find something hidden.   But if I take the extra time and follow my gut instincts, I can always find a spot.  One of the biggest advantages of hammock camping is more options for where I can camp-- I am not restricted to flat ground or bare dirt, and I believe I make much less impact on the environment when I hang.

When I leave the trail to find a site, I take care that no one else is watching where I am going.   After I set up, I walk back up to the main trail to be sure I am truly hidden from view.  When I leave my hammock site, I turn around and take a photo of where I leave the main trail and note any distinguishing trees or rocks so I can find my way back and not get lost.  Then, I walk along the main trail to check that my hammock is not visible.  Honestly, this may sound totally paranoid, but it makes me feel safer.  When I'm on the AT or the Foothills trail, I feel safe and don't bother, but I like doing it in other areas.
Looking down at my stealth site from the main trail.
When I camp in a pristine site, I follow basic leave no trace practices (UPDATE: for a great review-- see this post).  I take extra care to avoid walking around excessively and trampling plants.  I disperse my impact by taking different routes to walk around the site, so I don't make any trails.  I never have a fire, and I don't move logs.  Usually after I set up, I get into my hammock and go to bed early.  If I have any energy, I go for a night hike and watch the stars.  The next morning, I pack efficiently, playing games to see the fewest number of steps and motions I can take.  Then, I move the leaves around to eliminate any trace that I've been there.  If I pick my spot carefully and watch where I walk, there is no sign I was ever there, which makes me happy.
The other thing I love about stealth camping, though, besides the safety factor and my reduced impact on the environment-- is the feeling of being in the wild, how the forest smells so fresh and unspoiled, and how it looks so pristine when I peer out of my hammock.  That's what really makes it all worthwhile.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Nature Notes: Gaywings

 Not only are gaywings (Polygala paucifolia) improbably cute and small with bursts of fringe, but they also have a hidden secret.  In addition to their regular, colorful and showy flowers, gaywings have hidden, small flowers underground called "cleistogamous" flowers which self-fertilize to make seeds.  The downside of selfing is that the offspring could suffer inbreeding depression, but at least some offspring result, so it may be better than nothing.  With cool fringe on their regular flowers to lure in the bees, it's surprising they need a reproductive back-up plan, but sometimes pollinators are scarce.  Plants in this family (the Polygalaceae) tend to be rare or endemic so there may not always be other plants around to fertilize the regular flowers.  Gaywings in Georgia can be locally abundant, but they are only found in a few sites around here.
Above-ground regular flowers with fancy fringe
I made a special trip to Panther Creek Falls in Habersham Co., Georgia to see these remarkable flowers for myself.  This trail tends to be a popular place, so given my love for quiet, I'd only ever been there in winter.  But it was worth it to brave the crowds over Easter weekend to find the gaywings carpeting the forest floor in simmering lilac.
More gaywings!
In addition to gaywings, there were many other plants in bloom all along the trail. 

Showy orchis
Catesby's trillium
Toothwort (with spider)
This rhododendron attracted a pollinator.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Trail Dames at the Pocket

"Happiness held is the seed; happiness shared is the flower."  ~Author Unknown

You may have noticed that I've been doing a lot of solo backpacking trips this spring.   But this weekend I took a break from my loner ways, and instead led the Trail Dames on the Third Annual Hike to the Pocket. 

The Pocket of Pigeon Mountain is an extremely special place for wildflowers in Georgia.  The setting is stunning too, with steep rock walls surrounding the valley and a clear blue-green stream and waterfall.  The remote location-- lack of signage, (sometimes rough) dirt road, stream crossing-- combine to keep this place protected.  Though it's several hours drive away, I've taken the time to visit the Pocket repeatedly each season for the past few years and it has always filled me with awe and wonder.

I arrived at the Pocket at dusk the night before the Dames hike, hot tired and cranky after a long drive.  My mood darkened further as I walked around the short boardwalk.  The plants I'd been eagerly anticipating, the Virginia bluebells and poppies, had dropped their petals and gone to seed already.  All I could see was a drab, empty forest.  I was horrified and mad at myself for not changing the timing of the hike to coincide with the earlier emergence and warmer temperatures this year.  I thought, "What if all the Dames were disappointed and felt like I wasted their time bringing them all the way out here?  What business did I have leading hikes anyway?  I didn't know anything!"  I contemplated canceling the hike.  In retrospect, I was having a serious case crankiness and (what I later recognized was ) Imposter Syndrome.
Faded Virginia bluebells
Thankfully, an evening spent listening to owls calling back and forth across the valley, a good night's sleep in my hammock, and an early morning walk around the Pocket cleared my head.  The magic of the place soaked into me.
Morning beauty
Rather than missing the familiar early bloomers,  I noticed flowers I'd never seen before, including wild hyacinth.  Masses of wild blue phlox, wild geranium, and purple phacelia created a sea of purple.  I was actually lucky to have gotten the timing "wrong" and to find these late bloomers I'd missed in previous years.  More importantly, I remembered that the thing I do best (or so I've been told) in leading hikes is sharing my enthusiasm for nature.  I resolved to keep my lack of self-confidence hidden, and try to be myself and be there.
Purple phacelia
Wild geranium
Wild blue phlox
Wild hyacinth
Bent trillium
When the Dames arrived, I watched with delight as everyone started pointing out plants and bugs and a million other things, and asking all sorts of fascinating questions.  I could feel their excitement echoing off the walls of the valley.  They totally felt the magic of the Pocket too!  Listening to their laughter and seeing the wonder in their eyes, I realized that what makes the natural world come alive, more than anything else, is having the opportunity to experience it and share it with friends.

Photo by Jules
Photo by Donna

Please note: if you are lucky enough to visit the Pocket, please keep this place preserved for future visitors and generations by staying on the boardwalk and trails, never ever picking or trampling the flowers, and please pick up the GORP pass (which is now required) to help support this place (there is no way to get one at the site, so order it ahead of time online).