Monday, May 28, 2012

Math Problems for Backpackers

Most of the time, math problems for backpacking involve easy calculations to find the number of miles hiked, hiking pace, or estimates of time to the next landmark.   Backpackers make these estimates all the time, and you get pretty good at estimating your pace for different conditions and terrain.  This is very helpful for planning how far to go, and whether you have enough time before dark to take that extra side trail or linger at a swimming hole.

If I left Woody Gap 8:13 AM, and got to Gooch Gap 3.5 miles away at 9:21 AM, how did I still have time to stop to smell the flowers?

On my solo overnight backpacking trip this weekend, I ended up doing a lot of math that was more complex than usual.  I started at Woody Gap, and did an out and back along the Appalachian Trail to Three Forks.  How would you have solved the following problems:

1.  You end up talking to and then hiking with two friendly thru hikers on their first day on the Appalachian Trail.  They just graduated, and they've been dreaming of this day for years.  They are hiking roughly 1.5 miles per hour, while you hike 2.5 miles per hour on your own.  If it is 2:30 PM now, how long can you hike with them and listen to their engaging and inspiring stories before saying goodbye and striking out at your own pace, if you want to get to certain rocky scenic viewpoint 5.5 miles away for dinnertime (5 PM)?

Who needs a view anyway when dinner looks and tastes this good? (That's baked tofu, fresh broccoli from the CSA, and rehydrated hummus.)

2.  You are at a spring, and the next water source is 6 miles away, over Sassafras Mountain and a bunch of other steep PUDs.   The day is swelteringly hot, you are drenched in sweat, your feet are swollen, and have already done more miles than you have ever backpacked in a single day.  Your pack weighs 13.4 lbs without water, and you will eat your dinner (0.5 lbs) in another hour.  How many liters of water do you get before setting out if one liter of water weighs 2.2 lbs?

Airing out my feet on a cool rock, and "tanking up" at the spring, cause water doesn't weight anything when it's in your belly.

Swimming Holes and Waterfalls in South Carolina

When the weather gets hot in the South, it's time to explore out-of-the-way waterfalls, swimming holes, and streams.  A friend from South Carolina shared a few magical places to cool off with me.

Brasstown Falls in South Carolina was actually a series of falls.  The main dramatic falls was easily accessed via a short trail from the parking area.  Then, scrambles along side trails led to a series of upper and lower falls.  A large deep swimming pool provided the perfect place to swim in the swift current.  This area is know to be quite botanically rich, and mountain laurel and rhododendron were putting on a spectacular show.

Brasstown Falls.
Playing at Brasstown Falls.
Chau Ram County Park was another place we explored.  It was accessible and developed, but very peaceful.  Huge rocks for relaxing and picnicking bordered calm swimming holes above the falls.

Falls at Chau Ram County Park.
Along the banks of the Chauga River at Chau Ram Park, I was delighted to find leather flower (Clematis viorna).  In the buttercup family, this lovely climbing vine doesn't look much like the cultivated Clematis, even though it's a close relative.  Leather flower is native to our region and is really beautiful.  The curvy colorful part of the leather flower is actually the sepal.  The fruits (called achenes) have long whispy tails which help spread the seeds.

Leather flower
Achenes (seeds) of the leatherflower
Summer is also a good time to linger near small headwater streams, which are home to caddisfly larvae, salamanders and other enchanting creatures.  Caddisfly larve build protective homes out of tiny rocks (or sometimes twigs and leaves), and can be found on the undersides of rocks.

caddisfly larvae
tiny salamander are also found by turning over rocks in streams

Monday, May 14, 2012

Frozen Hands... in Summer

The rain started in the afternoon and continued steadily through the night.  After getting wet a few months ago in a storm, I was pleased that my tarp held the rain out, and I was glad I decided to go backpacking despite the forecast and my apprehension about backpacking in the rain.  In morning rain, I packed up, and began the hike back to my car.  The temperature was a mild 60 degrees, cool for Georgia in May.  As the day wore on, winds started whipping and the water soaked through my rainskirt, but I just kept moving fast over the difficult mountainous terrain to keep warm. 

It wasn't until that hollow feeling of low blood sugar stopped me for my morning snack that I realized anything was wrong.  My fingers were literally frozen and numb from the rain and wind.  I fumbled for five minutes to get my pack buckles opened.  I had lost all dexterity-- this is a problem I've struggled with repeatedly in winter, but I couldn't recall having it this bad.  I could barely do the simple task of opening my pack, pulling out the food bag, opening the ziplock bag with my snacks, and pulling out my protein bar (anything requiring a spoon was out of the question).  I summoned all my strength and channeled it to my fingers-- just grip the wrapper and tear it open.  But I could not!  My lame fingers fumbled but I was unable to open that darn wrapper.  My stomach growled in protest, but I could not physically get any of the food-- which was all there in front of me-- into my mouth.  I tore at the wrapper unsuccessfully with my teeth.  My knife was in my pack, but I knew my useless hands couldn't open it anyway. 

Negative thoughts and fear swirled inside me.  If I couldn't move my hands, I couldn't set up my tarp, or do other things to stay safe.  I started shivering-- I was mildly hypothermic, and not thinking clearly.  I felt helpless and very scared.  This seemed like the complete antithesis of self-sufficiency.

Was I really having this problem in Georgia in SUMMER during a f?@?#$ing DROUGHT!?!?   

What do you do in these difficult moments?  When you haven't seen anyone for two days on the trail, you have to pull that inner strength.  Meltdowns are for safe places like at home or with friends.

I fell back on what I know I do well, which is hike fast.  I reluctantly put the unopened snack away, put on my pack, tucked hands into my shirt, and felt my legs carrying me swiftly down the trail.  As I generated internal heat from the exertion, I could feel the life creep into my hands as I nestled them in the warmth of my armpits.  (Though it wasn't until a full hour later that I had enough dexterity to do anything that required fine motor skills like undoing my buckles of my pack again.)  And I didn't stop moving until I reached my car where I could blast the heat.


Backpacking brings us to places far outside our comfort zone.  Difficult situations are inevitable in the wilderness-- nature has a way of throwing us storms, wild animals, dry springs, rocks, and mountains that never seem to end.  You can pack your backpack with expensive and heavy gear to protect yourself, but let me tell you-- no amount of gortex is going to keep you dry in the end.   When confronted directly with our fears with no one else to fall back on, resourcefulness and inner strengths shine through.  What we discover about our ourselves when things get scary is often more beautiful than any flower or viewpoint.   While I was disappointed about getting hypothermic in the first place, I also know I can take care of myself.  Each time I struggle this much but still make it through, I see myself as someone who is strong and capable, and this is incredibly empowering and one of the true joys of solo backpacking.


Note: This trip was a solo out and back on the Benton Mackaye Trail Sections 1 and 2 from GA 60 to Long Creek Falls and then on to Springer.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Toilet Paper on the AT

Each year in March and April, the Appalachian Trail through Georgia gets heavy use from thru hikers and with that comes a surge in trash left in their wake.  I find piles of food wrappers in campfires, fuel canisters near shelters, and invariably puffs of toilet paper strewn all over the place.  The former get stuffed into my extra garbage bags and taken out with me.  The latter cause me to fume-- I feel powerless to do anything constructive about it since it's too gross to pick up.

At a campsite past Low Gap Shelter this weekend, I found the following note propped against a tree and weighted down by rocks. 

This note was near a partially buried pile of poop buzzing with flies just at the edge of a campsite.  I especially like this part: "Would you leave TP in your garden?  Well, this is nature's garden.  Please be responsible."  I hope other hikers read the note and it made some people think and reconsider their practices. 

Especially along heavily used trails like the AT, it is always best to poop at privies or anywhere far away (200 feet) from campsites and water.   If you do go near to where people often walk, take extra care to bury waste completely (in a hole 6-8 inches deep).  Pack out toilet paper in a plastic bag.  The AT is such a special trail that it deserves to be kept beautiful.   Please, Dispose of Waste Properly!

(Note: The trip this weekend was a solo out and back from Unicoi Gap to Low Gap shelter and back (19.2 miles total) to scout the water sources for the trip I lead next week for the Trail Dames.)