Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Wet again- gear-technique failure

I was going to call this a "learning experience" but since it's the second time it's happened, I obviously haven't learned my lesson.  Basically, my hammock got wet again in the storm up at Bly Gap on the AT this weekend.  Everything was fine during the steady rain, but then around midnight, the wind kicked up, swirling in all directions.  The gusts were so fierce that they drove the rain horizontal, and shook my tarp.  Water was dripping down the bug net over the hammock, and droplets covered the underquilt.

My sleeping bag was still dry, so I arranged my driducks poncho over it, and put my rainpants over my feet, just in case the rain started coming in.  This was risky because if I sweat a lot it, the condensation could soak me, but I draped it loosely and my raingear is fairly breathable and it was cold enough that I wasn't close to overheating.  My ridgerest sit pad and pack were already arranged like they always are under my legs, and my feet were still toasty in my down socks. Though I was warm enough, it took me a while to get back to sleep because I was so terrified that the rain would get worse and soak my bag, and I wondered if I could die of hypothermia in my sleep.

Incredibly, when I finally woke up in the morning to a more gentle rain, the water was gone off the bug net, the underquilt was free of visible water, and the hammock was damp in places, but not terribly wet.  Could my body heat must have dried things off a bit?   I think I had lucked out.  If the storm had gone on longer, things might have gotten much worse.  
Can you see how my hammock is on an exposed site, oriented towards the wind.
In retrospect, I know why this happened-- I was aware rain was coming, and I also knew I was camping in a site that put me at risk.  It was exposed, it was in a high gap.  I was not tucked against a hillside or down a bank like I normally do.  Basically, I was asking for trouble and I knew better.  It is not a coincidence that the only other time this has happened was when I was camping on a ridge/ gap site.

My tarp is also pitched really open to the wind- another mistake.
Possible solutions
There are three gear items I could buy that could prevent this problem.  Though I'm reluctant to get anything that would add additional weight to my pack.  Could other gear offer other advantages (like warmth)?  Perhaps I could make these myself?  Does anyone have any other suggestions?

1. Add on doors or a beak to my existing tarp
    -advantage is provides wind protection and extra warmth, and I could bring them along when I want to hang out with tenting friends or in winter, or when there is 100% chance of rain.
    -disadvantage is that they are heavy (8 oz)

2.  Cuben fiber tarp with doors
    -advantage that lighterweight (6 oz) than my current tarp (the MacCat Deluxe SpinnUL, 12 oz) and provides extra wind protection
    -disadvantage is that cuben fiber is expensive.  I'm tempted to try to make my own, because I really enjoy making my own gear, but it might take me a while, it might be harder than I expect, and I might end up wasting a lot of money when it would just be easier to buy one already made by one of the great cottage gear folks.  But I might try to make one myself cause it would be way more fun and rewarding if I could actually pull it off.

3. Hammock sock- this is a DWR nylon bag that fits over the hammock.
    -advantage is I can easily sew one myself inexpensively, and it will also makes it warmer.
    -disadvantage is it's only water resistant, and it's heavy (8 oz), and I'm not sure where to pack it if wetish, and I don't like having another extra thing in my pack.

4. Site selection- I could not change my gear, and be more careful with site selection.
    -I might have to just camp where need to camp if I know I'm going to be out for more than just an overnight.  In this case, I made the choice to camp in that exposed site cause I knew I was going home the next day, and I knew that if it was really bad that Pathfinder had enough room in her tent for me.
    - This does show one disadvantage of hammock.  I am less flexible about where I camp.  I normally spend extra energy and time finding a site, sometimes hiking extra miles.  I don't always camp in the most scenic site.  Even when I had a tent, I never liked camping in exposed sites where the wind was loud.   I'd rather hike to a sunset view and camp in a sheltered spot.  This goes with my backpacking style- I like the hiking part the most, rather than sitting around camp.  I choose to carry less gear for camping, allowing me lower pack weight for hiking.  
    -My understanding of the topography of the southeastern mountains allows me find a sheltered site in the southeast.  Here I know how the wind curls around mountains and forest types that indicate local favorable/ sheltered conditions.  When I solo, I have always been able to find a sheltered site that has kept me warmer.  I think I could get away with my current tarp as long as I am solo backpacking in the southeast.  But what about out west?  Would a tarp with doors would be safer out there, on the PCT for example?

If anyone out there has other recommendations, or can offer encouragement or advice (or warnings?) about working with cuben fiber, please let me know.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

AT: Dick's Creek to Bly Gap

After such a fun time last weekend, I met Pathfinder again a week and a half into her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.   We hiked together from Dick's Creek Gap to the North Carolina border.
Saturday started out rainy...
and perfect for photographing...

...tiny bluets.
Given the forecast, we'd expected rain all day.
So it was exciting when the sun came out and the fog lifted.
We celebrated when Pathfinder crossed the NC/GA border...
...and set up camp at Bly Gap near a bunch of other backpackers.
We hung around the fire late into the night (i.e. 8 PM), well past when everyone else went to bed.
In the morning, I parted ways with Pathfinder at the gnarled oak tree at Bly Gap...
...and headed back to my car at Dick's Creek Gap while she continued on into North Carolina's Nantahala Wilderness.

Have a great hike, Pathfinder, until I see you again...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Wildflowers at Station Cove Falls

On a warm early spring day, a friend and I enjoyed the spectacular display of wildflowers at Station Cove Falls in South Carolina.
The 1.5 mile round trip trail goes through a cove forest with the highest density of herbaceous plants in the area...
especially large populations of sweet betsy (Trillium cuneatum),
and a few yellow trillium too.
Also blooming were sharped-lobed hepatica, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), delicate rue-anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), and halberd-leaf violet (Viola hastata).
The trail ends at the base of a 60 foot falls. 
And yes, there were cute little salamanders swimming around in the creek.

If you do visit, please protect this pristine place and keep it clean and unspoiled by staying on the trail as much as possible.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

AT: Three Forks to Big Cedar Mountain

I joined my friend Pathfinder for two nights at the start of her thru hike of the Appalachian Trail.
I met Pathfinder last year on a Leave No Trace Trainer Course Backpacking trip in New Mexico.  She'd been talking about doing the AT back then, and it was so wonderful to see her at the start of her journey!   
Pathfinder and me at Long Creek Falls
Instead of doing a shuttle, I did this trip as an out-and-back, setting out southbound from a cold, blustery Woody Gap before sunrise, and flying south 15 miles to Three Forks.  I was overjoyed when Pathfinder, heading northbound, finally intercepted me with hugs and a radiant smile.  Bubbling with tales of her night at the Hike Inn and her start at Springer Mountain that morning. 
First night's campsite at the junction of the AT and BMT.
Pathfinder's warmth and positive energy was infectious.  The evening was filled with hysterical bear-rope hanging antics, delicious pumpkin pie dessert (rehydrated pumpkin + sweetened condensed milk over ginger snap cookies), and absorbing conversations that lasted well into the night.  Pathfinder shared details of planning and preparing for her thru with me-- which were so valuable because it turns out we are in similar stages of life in many ways.  Pathfinder's story of decided to quit her job and live her dream really resonated with me.  Can you imagine what that would be like?!?!
Stopping to look at the little things.
 How refreshing it was to be with a like-minded hiker-- noticing the beautiful colors that come alive in the early light, appreciating the simplicity of backpacking, and laughing in the face of the ridiculous misadventures that are inevitable on the trail.
"Over there?"   Bushwacking down the hillside to get water from a small stream.
Pathfinder had never stealth camped on the AT before, so it was fun to share the treasure hunt of finding a stealth site with her when we decided we were ready to stop for the evening before we'd reached Justus Creek.  In no time, the unremarkable site was transformed into a temporary home for the night.  And then the next morning when we left, you'd never know we'd been there-- we both fluffed up the foliage just like we'd learned last year at our LNT course when we first backpacked together.
Stealth site down an old road out of sight from the main trail.
The last day, we hiked to Woody Gap, and then continued up Big Cedar Mountain to Preacher's Rock, one of my very favorite campsites on the AT in Georgia, which was amazingly empty.  We shared some dinner before saying goodbye, until the next week where I'd join Pathfinder further up the trail.
View from Big Cedar Mountain.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Snow Storm Adventures Part 2

***It took me a while to post this, even though it happened in early February...***

After the unexpected snow storm on a the first Saturday in February (read about the Snow Storm Adventure Part 1 here), my car was stuck in the mountains for a few days while the snow melted and I took the bus around town.  But the adventure continued on Wednesday, when my awesome friend JJ volunteered for a car recovery mission.  She was so generous and drove me all the way up to pick up my car at Watson Gap.  I'm not sure how she knew this would be an "adventure" but she didn't seem as surprised as I was to find this:
My tire was dead flat.
JJ pointed out the big cut in the sidewall where my tire had been slashed.  I couldn't believe it!  Nothing like that had every happened to me.  Sheesh-  I'm a nice person. 

While I was changing the tire, a couple stopped to talk to us.  They were out picking up their car from a trailhead two miles further down the road, which had been left there since Sunday too.  They'd tried to pick it up Monday, but there was too much snow.  His window had gotten smashed and a few minor things had been stolen.   They figured it was probably the same guys that got my car and theirs.  It didn't seem particularly malicious-- and knowing it happened to them too made it feel less personal-- if it had been I'd have had 4 slashed tires, but it would still cost me both in money to fix it and time.  Plus, the psychological costs.

(Note that the next part was written a month later...)
In the past few weeks since it happened, having my tire slashed did had me reexamining my trailhead practices and attitudes.  It was tough questioning my sense of safety in the place I feel most comfortable-- the outdoors.

I already take many of the recommended measure to prevent trailhead problems.  For example, I call ranger districts and read online to find safer trailheads to leave my car.  One suggestion I haven't done yet- getting a beeter truck- is very tempting and all my friends suggest this to me.  But since this has only happened once in the four years I've been leaving it at trailheads practically every weekend, I'm reluctant to spend the money to buy another vehicle when my car is already paid off, and I cringe at the thought of paying any more at the pump for driving a gas-guzzler.
50 MPG = Why I'm reluctant to get another vehicle
But what about car a makeover so my car will blend in better in rural Georgia?  Perhaps some new tires, a camo paint job, or a few bumper stickers could make my fit in better at trailheads?  (Any other suggestions, y'all?)

Even though I understand that it's totally ridiculous endevoir because my car will always be a honda civic hybrid no matter how much I dress it up in rural camouflage.  Sort of like me attempting to fit in in the South-- rather hopeless, but it's fun to joke about.
Studying up and researching local culture.
This whole experience-- from getting stuck in the mountains in the snow to getting my tire slashed-- it all had the potential to take away my sense of freedom and safety.  But remarkably, that hasn't happened.  At least not much.  Instead, I have gained a profound appreciation for the kindness of strangers, and especially for the kindness of my friends that have given me so much support.  The biggest lesson has been that when the unexpected happens, I know I can still maintain an unwaveringly positive outlook, and I can count on my dear friends to be there for me.  Each time something goes wrong on the trail or I have to face something that scares me, it strengthens me.  Thick skin, scars, calluses, these take a while to build up, but make you tough.

Bartram Trail: Warwoman Dell to the Chattooga River

A solo, early spring overnight on the Bartram Trail along most of Section 2 in Georgia.  From Warwoman Dell (1920 feet), it was a short climb over Rainy Mountain (2560 feet) and pleasant ridgewalking on old roads, before dropping to the Chattooga River Trail at Sandy Ford.  The quiet simplicity of unremarkable trail with no distractions (i.e. no flowers, dramatic views, water features, or people) provided a soothing counterpoint to a hectic week.
Mossy-covered rocks sparkling with mica.
Winter views of pine-covered hills.
Springy trail of soft pine, gently curving around knobs.
At Sandy Ford Road, one of the numerous granite-carved boulders marked the Bartram. "12 miles" to Warwoman Dell?!?!  No way had I just hiked 3 miles an hour for 4 hours.  More like 10 miles.  But did I trust my own feel for my pace over the rock-solid certainty of a granite boulder?  Yes I did.  And, I found out when I got home that the guidebooks agreed with my estimations.
Wrong!  It's only 9.4 miles to Warwoman Dell
A mile after joining the Chattooga River Trail, where I'd hiked a few weeks ago, the Bartram drops to the Chattooga River.
Green waters of the Chattooga River
I continued on leaving the river after a mile, climbing another knob, crossing hemlock-shaded Warwoman Creek over an iron bridge, climbing yet another knob, and finally arriving at Laurel Branch, where I'd camped several years ago the first trip I used a hammock (oh what memories!).  After a 3 PM snack, I decided to turn around.  After carrying the extra weight of my winter underquilt and warm down jacket, I wanted to put them to good use by camping on the cold banks of the Chattooga.  On the final descent, my leg was getting really sore.  I'd hiked a total of 18.8 miles that first day.
Dehydrated big shrimp (cut in half) rehydrated in cold water.  Sending "OK" message on my new SPOT.
Stretching and watching a great blue heron fly up river.
Celebrated daylight savings time by going to bed ridiculously early.
The next day, it was 10 miles back to Warwoman Dell, and my leg was hurting on the downhills so took it easy.  Water was flowing at intermittent streams when only a slow drip had been previously in summer.  Back at Warwoman Dell, I took the nature trail to find more signs of spring.
Little friend.
Spear-leaved violets at Warwoman Dell.
Two tiny salamanders were under a rock beneath Warwoman Creek Falls.