Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My Epic Thru-Hike of the PMT

I've been dreaming for a long time of doing a thru-hike, which is hiking an entire trail from end to end in one continuous trip, and I finally got my chance!   I was able to compress the thru-hiking experience into a single weekend by taking on the 23-mile Pine Mountain Trail in FDR State Park. 

Thru-hiking involve serious planning and preparation.  I spent a solid 30 minutes the night before the trip packing and repacking gear, carefully weighing the decisions that could make or break the trip.
Starting out from the Country Store trailhead with fabulous hiking companions Kristen and JJ.
Thru-hiking, in the "purest" sense, involves passing every single blaze on the main official designated trail.  I expected this would be especially difficult for me because I've always been a "blue-blazer" veering down side trails at every opportunity.  Thankfully, the PMT blaze system is reversed from the AT (blue for main trail, white for side trails), so all I had to do was follow the blue blazes and avoid the white blazes, which is already instinct for me, to maintain the true integrity of my hike. 

Water crossing present major challenges for the thru-hiker.  The unseasonably rainy week before caused the banks of the normally small streams to rise to dangerous levels, flooding the trail and low-lying campsites.
Experienced PMT thru-hiker JJ fords a major river.
Luckily, we all made it to the Whiskey Still campsite and got tarps hung before the evening's rain began to fall.
Obligatory photo of camp.
The next morning the fog lifted, and we enjoyed a mid-morning feast at a scenic overlook.

Roughing it in the remote wilderness.
Then, we got ready for the last leg of our journey-- the slackpack.  Slackpacking is an advanced thru-hiker technique that many don't realize presents difficult emotional challenges.  The prospect of being separated from all my beloved gear for the last few miles was extraordinarily heart-wrenching.  While skilled slackpackers, like my companions, are able to leave most of their gear in the truck and hike with only water, snacks and emergency items, I hung on to a few "comfort" items including my treasured hammock.
Preparing to slackpack by stashing gear in the truck.
Just like Mount Katadhin, the shadow of the massive TV tower looming before us the last mile was a  symbolic and bittersweet reminder that the end of our long journey was fast approaching,   The 30 or so hours on the trail had transformed me into a real Thru Hiker, readily distinguishable from all the dayhikers by my distinctive odor.  I know I will cherish the memories of this epic adventure for years to come.
See JJ's trip report and awesome photos here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

DIY Karo Top Quilt

I'd been thinking about sewing a down top quilt to replace my sleeping bag ever since I converted to hammocking.  But I'd always been confused by all the different quilt designs, and had heard horror stories of working with down.  At my first Hammock Forums group hang in January, I was inspired by all the DIY gear, and one of the HF members recommended the karo pattern as a good first project.  After many hours of reading, consulting with HF members, and sewing, I just finished my first DIY down project, a lightweight TQ for summer.  It was enjoyable learning how to design and construct this quilt, and am really eager for warmer weather so I can test it out.
My first DIY top quilt.
Top quilts provide a lighter-weight alternative to sleeping bags and are especially great for hammockers.  This top quilt design is called a karo step because it has many short baffles arranged in open squares, and they have several advantages over traditional quilts with many closed baffles.  I choose the karo quilt for my first project because I want a summer quilt that I can shift the down to regulate temperature, and I thought it'd be easier to stuff the down into the single chamber.
The quilt packs down into a 2 L dry sack- much smaller than my sleeping bag
Finished specs:
    Weight:  11.4 oz (5 oz 850 fill down)
    Quilt size: 75" x 36" x 40"
    Baffle height: 1" (but ended up being about 1.5")
    Box size: 12" square, with 6" baffles and 6" gaps
    Fabric: 1.1 oz ripstop nylon 2nds- DIY Gear Supply - $16
    Down:  $33.75 + $6 shipping from Wilderness Logics
    Baffles: white tulle, $1.25 from Joann's fabrics

    Total cost of materials: $51 (plus $16 shipping)

-Since it's a summer quilt, I used fabric that isn't treated with DWR so it will breath and dry out faster when I sweat.  I used 1.1 ripstop that was down-proof, and Scott at DIY Gear Supply quickly answered by question about this fabric-- both sides are calendared so there is no "shiny" side.    I was tempted by lighterweight fabrics, but since this was my first project, I opted to use inexpensive (and easier) material.  Plus I could just cut it with regular sewing scissors and give the edges a rolled hem and didn't have to bother with the various methods to heat seal the edges which many use on thinner fabrics.  It just took me a few tries with scrap material to get the tension adjusted on my sewing machine (i.e. longer stiches) so the fabric wouldn't pucker.  It was nice material to work with.

-The design is based on karo quilts made by MAD777, teedee, animalcontrol, and chickenwing.  The wealth of information on HF contributed by these guys and others was incredibly helpful.

-I custom sized the quilt based on my measurements, following this discussion.  I calculated a length of 75 inches by taking my height of 5'9" and adding 6 inches.  For the bottom width, my size 11 shoe size (men's) yielded a circumference of 34.5 inches which I rounded up to 36 inches.  Determining the width at the top was more tricky.  Standard quilts are 45-50 inches, but I wanted to try narrower since I don't intend to use it to go to ground.  My shoulder width (measured from the floor across the top of my shoulders) was 28 inches so theoretically I could get away with 33 inches (width plus 3-5 inches).  But I went a little wider so I'd have plenty to tuck under me.   Guess I'll find out how it works, and make adjustments in the next quilt accordingly.

-6 inch baffles with 6 inch gaps left enough room to make the sewing easy, but hopefully will be close enough together to prevent excess down shift. 
Finished size is shown by solid lines, dotted lines include 1.5 or 2 inch seam allowances.  Most baffles were 6 inches except for the side baffles which were 2 or 3 inches (caution: not to scale).

-I generally followed chickenwing's detailed instructions for the construction of the quilt, cross-referencing te-wa's instructions as well.
Triple checking the measurements and laying out the baffles with a cardboard template.
-There was a trick to cutting the baffles.  I rolled and then folded the tulle before cutting it into long strips, then used a cardboard pattern to cut each baffle down to size.

-All baffles and baffle locations on the shell were numbered with masking tape to prevent mistakes sewing the baffle to the outer shell.  Then I sewed the baffles on following this video as well as this video.  One thing I'd do different next time is to make the baffles a little shorter- they turned out to be closer to 1.5 inches, since I was so focused on sewing the baffles to the correct place that I wasn't as careful getting them the proper height.

Sewing the baffles to the outer shell.  Clothes pins keep the extra material out of the way.
-The amount of down was calculated with this google doc.  I went with 20% overstuff as recommended for the karo design to prevent down shift.

-Fronkey's method for stuffing the down was fast and efficient, and I used a vacuum with a net over the hose to pick up the few stray feathers that escaped onto the floor of the bathtub. 
Stuffing the down in my bathtub.  Hardly any mess at all.
I was delighted by how smoothly the entire construction process went.  The actual sewing went so well after reading the helpful tips on HF that I didn't even have to get out my seam ripper-- which is another first for me since I'm always messing up and making adjustments as I sew.  The step that took the longest was sorting through and deciphering all the posts on HF (I have a lifetime of experience following clothing patterns, but the terminology for "gear construction" using a "thread-injector" took some getting used to).  Next time that will go faster.

The best thing is that now I've caught the DIY gear bug.  Now, on to researching the next project...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Chattooga River Trail from the 76 bridge

There were signs of early spring but it still felt very much like winter on the Chattooga River Trail Sections 1 and (part of) 2 this weekend.  Starting from the US 76 bridge, I wasn't even warmed up before spotting the first wildflowers.
Fragrant trailing arbutus.
The Chattooga River Trail, as the guidebook points out, doesn't spend much time following along the river.  Instead, it climbs up over hillsides, meanders through hollows, then dips across streams.
Chattooga River in the distance
One of many bridges over feeder streams.
By mid-day, snow flurries drifted calmly through air.  Unlike two weeks ago, this didn't accumulate on the ground.  By afternoon, the winds had kicked up, driving off the clouds.

I continued on three more miles past Sandy Ford Road and the intersection of the Bartram Trail to the lazy doghobble-lined banks of Warwoman Creek.  At Earl's Ford Road (about 13 miles from my starting point at the 76 bridge), I turned around so I would have time to make it back to Dick's Creek Falls for dinner.  This falls is one of the highlight of this section- where Dick's Creek drops 60-feet into the roaring Chattooga River directly below the rapid spanning the Chattooga called Dick's Creek Ledge.
Dick's Creek Falls.
Chattooga River falling over Dick's Creek Ledge
The forecast was for an overnight low around 24.  It turned out the temperature was absolutely perfect-- it was cold enough to partially freeze my water bottle into a slushy, icy state while it was tucked in my raingear overnight.  That meant for breakfast (since I still go stoveless) I got to make Oatmeal-Nido-Milk-Slushy!  This is one of my very favorite treats on the trail-- it's so special because it can only be made when the temperatures are just right to not free the water solid, but to get it just slushy enough that the ice crystals don't melt after getting stirred into the oats, nuts, dried fruit, and powdered nido milk mix.  Delicious.
Hanging away from the river out of the wind.
Another great overnight trip along the Chattooga!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Snow Storm Adventures Part 1

Like any true adventure, I learned more and ended up having way more fun on this trip than a typical trip where things go according to plan.

After setting up the shuttle, the trip began at Bushy Head Gap on the Benton MacKaye Trail.  The plan was for an overnight backpack on Sections 8 and 9 with a guy I met on the Hammock Forum hang.  Rain was forecast in the evening, but the morning started off cool but dry.
By mid-morning the first snowflakes began to fall.  "Surely the snow won't stick!"   The forecast didn't say anything about accumulations...
Gorgeous snow quickly transformed the forest.
Nevertheless, several inches cloaked the forest by lunchtime, and the large puffy flakes showed no sign of letting up.  I was prepared for cold temperatures and rain, but this?  Continuting on meant higher elevations, more remote terrain, and potentially dangerous weather.  We decided to hike back out to Bushy Head Gap.  It turned out to be a good call- I would later find out that my car (parked at Watson Gap) would not have made it down that steep mountain road with all that snow for a few days.

The road was so slick and steep that we didn't make it even a mile before my friend's truck got stuck in the road.  Local guys, driving around in their trucks around seemingly for fun, offered to help move the truck.
A rope tied around a tree prevented the truck from sliding down the cliff...
...though unfortunately it still ended up stuck in the ditch on the other side of the road.
 I was quite impressed how everyone was so willing to help out.  (Though granted their path was blocked...)  Some of these guys willingly put selves on the downslope side of a truck on such slippery footing -- for complete strangers-- this was dangerous stuff.  It was something else!

And the kindness didn't stop there!  A couple who had stopped to help also offered a ride into town in their jeep.   We lucked out because they knew where to drop us off too--  the Waffle King, the local hangout and place to be in Blue Ridge (waffles AND beer!) where there were more offers of help along with the endless refills of hot coffee.  Seeing our backpackspacks and overhearing our story, strangers (whose nephew had hiked the AT) offer to buy us a hotel room.  More sweet folks at Waffle King offered advice and wrecker service recommendations, then finally offered us a ride to cars- offers that we didn't accept but for which I am grateful.

As evening approached, I informed my super-awesome friend Kellye and also my wonderful roommate Karen of my situation.  Let me tell you-- there is nothing in the world like getting a message saying "Do I need to come get you?" on a snowy day when you are a hundred miles away.  Due to the hazardous road conditions, we ended up staying the night at a hotel.  But the next day, my friends totally came through for me- both ended up driving me parts of the long, long way home.  Now that's real friendship! 

But the adventure wasn't over yet....  Stay tuned for Part 2...

Friday, February 1, 2013

Nature Notes: Wild Boar

I had just been cursing at the jumbled mess that had been made of the remote stretch of the Bartram Trail when I heard the loud snort.   Three wild boar (also called feral hogs) and a swarm of their babies were directly in front of me-- they were the ones responsible for all that rooting and upheaval of the trail.  There was brief moment when we locked eyes and sized one another up-- I was alone and weaponless, while the they seemed enormous and I imagined that their sharp tusks could slice right through me.  Much to my relief, they bolted off in the opposite direction, while I yelled at them in hopes they would keep running far away. 
When I first saw them, this is exactly what the wild boar looked like.
Numerous people have told me that wild boar are very dangerous-- and these were people unafraid of bears.  I've only seen them twice before, and didn't know much about their behavior.  Even though my plan had been to camp another mile up the trail,  I couldn't tell how far they had gone, so I turned around and headed back in the direction I'd come.   I hiked until dark and then set up camp.  I figured five miles seemed a very safe distance away.  In fact, I felt so safe that evening that I went on a night hike for an hour-- the longest night hike I've ever done solo-- and was rewarded by getting to see an owl up close!

On the way home, I felt disappointed with myself for turning around when I saw the wild hogs.  I've been working on being more fearless, and didn't know if I was being a scaredy cat or being sensible.  How dangerous are wild boars?   So when I got home, I started researching.  The facts are shocking, but not for reasons you'd expect. 

Attacks of hikers or campers are exceedingly rare.  Wild boar are highly wary of people, mostly run away, and probably the only reason I saw them was I was being quiet and it was late afternoon.   If you corner them, they will defend themselves though, which is why hunters and their dogs may get injured on occasion-- though there have only been four deaths since the 1800's.  After learning this, wild boar definitely go on my list of things not to be afraid of! 

What I was shocked to learn about is all the horrible environmental destruction caused by wild boar.   Specifically to salamanders and ladyslipper orchids!  How maddening!  Wild boar in Georgia are invasive pests that dig up vegetation in large areas of forest as they root around for acorns, plants, and even little critters to eat, and they wallow in springs and streams which fowls up water sources.  Plus they transmit disease.  Hogs were introduced to North America as livestock, but became feral upon escaping from captivity.  They also interbred with European wild boars that were introduced for hunting, and the wild boars are a hybrid mix of these wild and domesticated types.  They certainly don't belong here, and I was glad to read that the DNR has an aggressive control and eradication effort underway.


Really interesting article in the New Yorker on the problem of wild boar:  
    HOGS WILD. By Frazier, Ian, 12/12/2005, Vol. 81, Issue 40.

How wild boar aren't a problem for hikers:

For hunters, but talks about the Warwoman Wildlife Management Area, where I was hiking:        http://www.gameandfishmag.com/2010/10/04/hunting_big-game-hunting_ga_1102_08/

Information about wild boar in the Smokies:

Trip Details:

This was a New Years eve solo, out and back, overnight from Warwoman Dell north on the Bartram Trail up towards Windy Gap.