Saturday, July 27, 2013

Wearing camo

I would have never imagined that I, a tree-hugger, would ever wear camo.  But my attitude towards camouflage print in clothes and gear has changed in the past six months.
Does this camo skirt make me look more like a local?
It started out as an attempt to blend in when I'm up in the North Georgia mountains.  Having my tire slashed while I was parked at a trailhead earlier this year was a turning point.  I'll never know if it was my rainbow flag bumper sticker or that I drive a hybrid.  But it was a liability to stick out in the rural South.

So, I sewed a camo hiking skirt.  In my camo disguise, I feel like people respond different to me.  I don't pass for a southern by any stretch, but I suspect it confuses people enough to pay less attention to my northern accent. 

I'd been looking to get a new tarp with doors for a few reasons, so I opted for the camo version, which also makes it even easier to stealth camp.  Plus, in a conspicuous campsite, someone walking by my campsite won't know I'm not a big macho burly hunter dude.

What I didn't anticipate was that wearing camo has subtly impacted my own experience.  Aiming to blend in by taking on earth-tones makes me feel more like a creature of the natural world.  Dirt only adds to the camo pattern, rather than blemishing the uniform civilized look of solids.  Further incentive to play in the mud.

Camo and Leave No Trace Principles
Back when I first took a Leave No Trace trainer course (with Step Outdoors), the principle that at first seemed utterly ridiculous to me was about choosing gear and clothes that are not brightly colored to lessen visual impact.  I thought seeing any people and their shelters was what made me feel crowded.  And I didn't like the idea of anyone else dictating my color choices- I was fond of wearing purples or blues to match whatever flowers were blooming.  Bright colors also can brighten my mood, and I've got a few bold hand-sewn items like my silver racing stripe sleeves that never cease to make me happy.
Happy in my bright colors.  Photo by Sandi.
Fortunately, we also learned that LNT isn't a set of hard-and-fast rules.  LNT are principles and ethics that are flexible and can change.  We practiced weighing the impact of our decisions on the environment, wildlife, plants, and other visitors.  The important part of this principle is thinking about how your choices impact the people around you and striving to blend in with the environment.  How to do this depends on context.  When making choices in the backcountry, we learned that the answer is often "it depends."  Above treeline, brightly colored tents stick out like sore thumbs.  In the forested southeast, visual impact is lessened by camping or relaxing out of sight of the trail.  LNT principles are effective because they guide decision making.   
Stacy helps us understand how wildland ethics differ from rules.
Safety always comes first, so during hunting season, wearing hunter orange is a better choice.  I also favor bright yellow tarp guy lines, reflective yellow bear rope, and orange tent stakes.  Thermo properties of gear deserve consideration too (i.e. black dries quicker and is warmer, bugs respond differently).   Purchases are often made based on function or price, rather than aesthetics.
Wearing bright colors during hunting season.  Photo by Sandi.
Where camo makes me stick out
On the way home from a recent backpacking trip, I made a short detour to a popular hiking spot full of city-folks (the parking lot was packed with shiny beamers and audi's).  All the dayhikers were looking like REI fashion models and sporting bright colors, which is apparently what is in style right now.  I stuck out in my dirt-splattered camo, and drew some disdainful looks (or maybe they were just responding to my hiker-funk smell).  Their bright colors struck me as overwhelming and loud.  Or maybe it was because people were actually being loud.  It was the first time I could really see how colors other people wear definitely have an impact.  Of course I wasn't mad or annoyed, rather,  it makes me more aware of my own biases and it reminds me of my own socio-economic baggage.

Final thoughts
I'd much prefer folks getting out into nature wearing bright colors if that's what is going to get them out from in front of their TVs and computers.  Kids totally should be exempt too cause we need more kids to get outdoors.

I think it's interesting that camo helps me blend in more down here.  More interestingly, it subtly impacts how I feel.  I wonder if wearing neutral tones helps other people adopt a quieter, more contemplative attitude as well, and if that would cause them to change their behavior (be quieter, camp and rest in less conspicuous sites).

I'm also glad this LNT principle has helped me think even more deeply about the impact I have on other people, and what I can do to be safer in the backcountry.  The fun part for me was this increased awareness, and trying some different things that definitely got me out of my comfort zone.

More information:
On gear and color choices, and leave no trace principles.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bartram Trail- Osage to Whiterock Mountain

A short 24-hours on the Bartram Trail.  Been getting ready for another aerial silks performance, so had practice in the morning and also needed to work on my costume.  But I also really needed to get out and stretch my legs.

I opted for the high-elevation section of the Bartram Trail in NC from Osage Mountain Overlook to Whiterock Mountain (4480 feet).   The flowers were gorgeous and blueberries were ripe, just like last year.
Phlox and white bergamot.
By the time I got to the trailhead, thunderstorms and heavy rain were going strong.  When I stopped for a snack, I readjust my pack.  I was trying out a pack that I'd borrowed from my friend JJ (THANKS JJ!).   After I redistribute the weight in the pack, I was so stoked because I found the sweet spot where it sits just right and feels like a natural extension of my body. 

After that, I flew up the trail, making it past Jones Knob all the way to Whiterock Mountain, much further than I did back in January.  Oh the benefits of summer-weight gear and longer daylengths.
My stealth site near Whiterock Mountain was well away from the fragile mountaintop plant community.
 After setting up camp, it finally quit raining, so I hiked up Whiterock Mountain for dinner and the sunset.
Going barefoot on the rocks to air out my water-logged feet.
The next day, I took a detour on the side trail to Jones Knob.  It was still fogged in, but the rocky outcrops were lush with mosses and flowers so I spent some time enjoying the small things.  Last weekend, my friend Renee, who took a vacation from thru hiking the AT to go up to the Smokies, used the term "hiker entertainment" to describes the simple things that hikers do for fun.  Like getting mesmerized by water flowing over rocks in a stream, or watching insects buzzing around.  At home I often get caught up trying to get so many things done, that even fun activities seem rushed and distracted.  For example, listening to the podcasts while painting more sparkles on the  costume for our show.  Not fully paying attention to either thing.  That's why hiker entertainment is so awesome- becoming fully absorbed in the smallest things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
On Jones Knob.
Back at my car, I weighed my pack- getting the "base weight" (i.e. without food and water, but with everything else).  I don't write about packweight much anymore, but I still measure it.  I suspected my base weight would be light because JJ's pack that I was borrowing was much lighter than my old one.  But I was still shocked when I read the scale.
10.8 lbs.
The cutoff for "ultralight" is 10 lbs, so clearly I haven't yet achieved that status.  To go any lighter, I might have to take some extreme measures.  At home as I unpacked, I contemplated changes I might make to my gear selections.  Like empty out the all trash I'd picked up along the trail from the pockets.  Or dry out my poncho, tarp, and soaking wet socks-- probably a half a pound of water right there.  My toasty warm, bombproof 12 oz PVC rainpants?  An obvious candidate, unless you know how often I get cold (and even hypothermic) in continuous, soaking rain if I am really pushing myself physically.  (side note-- normal people would find PVC oppressively hot and clammy, but I am not most people.)  Plus, then I wouldn't have a luxury item (since I do consider being toasty warm a luxury), and having a luxury item is very important for backpacking.

Not sure what changes I'll make next, or if I'll ever get below the magic 10 lb cutoff, but I sure had an enjoyable trip.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Into the Smokies with friends... and Buddy

I joined friends Pathfinder and Holly for a short overnight in the Smokies.  We started from Abram's Creek Ranger Station and hiked the Cooper Road Trail and Little Bottoms Trail to campsite #17.

Pathfinder has been thruhiking the Appalachian Trail this year, but was taking a vacation from the Pennsylvania rocks.  I hadn't seen her since when I backpacked with her during her first days on the AT.  Now she's a seasoned thruhiker with over a thousand miles under her belt, and it was so cool to see how she has transformed and to hear about her experiences.   *check out Pathfinder's Trail Journal Here*

Immediately upon arriving at the trailhead, we were greeted by a stray dog named Buddy (according to his collar).  Buddy ignored the fact that dogs aren't allowed in the Smokies, and that I usually avoid hiking with dogs, and despite our best efforts, he proceeded to join us for our trip.  We didn't have cell service to call his owners, but we were reassured that his tag proclaimed "Buddy knows his way home."
Buddy provides encouragement on the water crossings.
Wide Cooper Road Trail followed the creek about half a mile to the closed Abrams Creek campground.  From there, it was a little less than a mile to the turnoff for Little Bottoms Trail.  We took our time switchbacking up the ridge and Buddy trotted up and down to check on everyone when we got spread out.   It was fun watching Holly interact with Buddy- she sure has a way with animals.

Upon cresting the ridge, we were greeted by the sound of Abrams Creek which would be the soundtrack for the rest of our trip.  The trail was narrow with tricky footing on the descent to the river.
On Little Bottoms Trail following Abrams Creek.
After arriving to campsite #17, Buddy proceeded to circle around and check the perimeter of our spacious site.  It was a super campsite with three bear cables, sandy beach, and excellent water source.  We enjoyed a leisurely evening with awesome conversations.
Holly and Buddy got along fabulously, but we didn't see Buddy the next day.
The southeast is in the midst of unusually wet summer, and I can't recall a day when we haven't had rain.  In the evening, we heard thunder and clouds looked ominous, but it never rained, despite what Holly declared was 400% humidity.
Soaking feet in the cool waters of Abrams Creek and watching the sky turn from dark gray to sunny blue.
A glorious site- sun, not rain, on my tarp.
I was delighted to be around friends that shared a love for the outdoors and that have similar backpacking styles.  Trips like this one remind me that sharing the trail with others can really deepen the experience enormously.  I sure hope we can do another trip again after Pathfinder finishes her AT adventures.
Rhododendron along the Little Bottom Trail.
For more information:
-Get a Smokies backcountry permit here.  It's easy, you just need to do it ahead of time.
-Hiking Trails of the Smokies, for trail descriptions and elevation profiles. 
-Trails Illustrated map #316 Cades Cove/ Elkmont.

How many hobbies?

How many hobbies do you have?  Do you think variety is the spice of life, or do you restrict your free time to just one or two activities?

I've applied the minimalist approach of less is more to my free time activities, and currently focus on just two things- backpacking and aerial dance (i.e. trapeze and aerial silks).   It's not that I don't enjoy other activities, but I like how it feels to specialize and be fully immersed in something.  I like to geek out and take things to a PhD level.  

During my vacation in Michigan and Wisconsin, I left behind my backpacking stuff, and took advantage of the opportunity to kayak and bike every day.  It was fun being a beginner and not being so goal-driven.
Paddling on Lac Vieux Desert at 5 AM.
I used to pursue broader interests, but have pared down.  Giving away my bike, selling my car camping and scuba equipment, quitting yoga class, and resisting the urge to take up climbing or buy a kayak.  Not having extra gear allows me to live in a small, inexpensive space and I enjoy a more uncluttered life.
Pedaling into town on a borrowed bike and stopping to see the columbine.
But I also really enjoy what I get from specializing-- there is a tradeoff and I think I enjoy my two main hobbies more because I have developed expertise in my chosen areas. 

On the other hand, it was refreshing to see some beautiful sights along the road and on the water.  I'm certainly not about to go and buy a bike or kayak anytime soon, but I'll keep an eye open for more chances to take little vacations from my two main hobbies.
Watching the bald eagles near the source of the Wisconsin River.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Sylvania Wilderness of Michigan

The Sylvania Wilderness in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan has 34 pristine lakes which can be explored via a trail network or by kayak or canoe.  During a week-long trip to Michigan with my parents, we liked this area so much we kept coming back day after day.
The clear waters of Clark Lake.
Sylvania is remarkable because it has one of only three old-growth forests in the Great Lakes Region.  The forest here feels primeval- with large trees and an open understory dotted with wetlands, and rich with moss, fungi, and ferns.  The paleoecology and patch dynamics of this forest have been the subject of some fascinating research- more on that before the hike details, since I thought it was so cool to learn about. 
Rotting log with polypore mushroom (Ganoderma tsugae, the hemlock varnish shelf fungi).
The hemlock-hardwood old-growth forest
It's not just the ages of the trees that are old at Sylvania.  This forest community (i.e. the types of plants and their interactions) has been around for thousands of years.  Scientists can look back in time using pollen cores and fossils to reconstruct the history of plant invasions and extinctions, and to determine forest species composition over time.  9700 years ago, Sylvania used to be predominately black spruce forest, but this was replaced by pine and red oak and maple, and then the hemlocks invaded the area 3100 years ago (Davis et al. 1998).  If you are in a grove of hemlock in Sylvania, chances are there have been hemlock there for at least a thousand years.
Hemlocks along the shore of High Lake.
Old-growth forests of Sylvania are a mosaic of either predominately hemlock or predominately sugar maple patches.   We noticed this on our hikes- the Clark Lake area had many hemlock patches, and the forest around the Bear Lakes was brighter and had more maple.  Forest patches are maintained because each of these competitors have seedlings that do well under the parental tree types- baby hemlocks need the rotting hemlock nurse logs, while baby maples do well in maple forests where they get enough sunlight in spring.  It was neat to see the contrast and understand why the trees are patchy rather than all mixed up.

Eastern hemlock-hardwood forests used to be one of the most abundant forest types, but are now restricted to 0.2% of their original range and the hemlocks are at risk.  The hemlocks of Sylvania appear huge and healthy, but their numbers are decreasing in Sylvania due to deer overpopulation and invasive earthworms (Salk et al. 2011).  In the southeast where I normally hike, hemlocks have been devistated by the invasive wooly adgeldid, but this pest hasn't reached the Upper Peninsula.  Its sad that hemlocks, which I think are such beautiful trees, are threatened in so many areas for different reasons.

Clark Lake loop hike
The Clark Lake loop goes around it's namesake lake through some marvelous hemlock stands and makes for a great dayhike.  Some websites say it's only 7 miles but others say 8 or 9 miles.  By my reckoning, it was definitely on the longer side though it was mostly flat.

After paying the park fee, we set off from the trailhead near the swimming beach going counterclockwise around the lake.  Blue-blazes were intermittent, and side trials were confusing so we were glad to have picked up extra maps from the ranger station.  There were fewer campsites on the western bank where the trail was more rutted and muddy.
A refreshing dip in Clark Lake.
East Bear Lake, West Bear Lake, and High Lake
The following day, we began our hike from the signed trailhead at the northeastern side of the park on FS 6320.  There were no blazes or trail markings, and trails were often faint.  Campsites were (sometimes) marked from the lakeshore side, reflecting fact that most people access this wilderness by kayak or canoe.

Mosquitoes were thicker than I'd ever encountered anywhere.  But we got to watch a loon float on the dazzling turquoise clear waters of High Lake.
Overgrown path to High Lake.
Crooked Lake and Katherine Lakes
We also did another short hike starting from the trailhead east of the Sylvania Entrance Station but before the boat landing for Crooked Lake.  This unblazed trail followed an old roadbed south through both types of old growth forest.  Turnoffs to both lakes were not signed.  The rain didn't seem to have any impact on the mosquitoes which were relentless.
Katherine Lake.
For more information:

Friends of Sylvania-information for visitors, natural history, maps, and how to help protect Sylvania.

Check out this awesome paleoclimate animation by clicking on the map and then selecting a species (try Tsuga/ hemlock).

Davis, M. B., R. R. Calcote, S. Sugita, and H. Takahara. 1998. Patchy invasion and the origin of a hemlock-hardwoods forest mosaic.  Ecology 79: 2641-2659.

Salk et al. 2011.  Poor Recruitment is changing the structure and species composition of an old-growth hemlock-hardwood forest.  Forest Ecology and Management 261: 1998-2006.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Trap Hills of Michigan

My dad passed onto me a deep appreciation for wild places and trails that are off the beaten path.  It's rare finding such places without hiking long distances.  But my folks and I enjoyed such a hike on the North Country Trail in the Trap Hills in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  This 20-mile long escarpment receives far fewer visitors than the more popular Porcupine Mountains, which were only 6 miles away.  
The Trap Hills.
We parked in a small, overgrown, unmarked lot on the west side of Norwich Road where it crosses the North Country Trail just north of the intersection of FS 630.
A premier hiking experience indeed.
After crossing Norwich Road, we climbed east up the bluff on the North Country Trail.  The trail was well marked, blue paint splattered along trail showed just how recently the blazes were refreshed.
Fresh blue blazes on the North Country Trail.
My dad flew up the steep, muddy trail.  I sure hope I can hike like that when I'm in my 70's!

The trail passed through a diverse, predominately maple forest, with occasional hemlock.   The understory was rich with mosses and ferns, the trillium and solomon's plume already gone to seed.

After passing by a few smaller viewpoints, we lingered at the expansive overlook of Norwich Bluff, soaking in the sweeping views of Lake Superior, the Porcupines, and the higher reaches of the remarkably picturesque Trap Hills.  Butterflies and birds (but surprisingly no mosquitoes!) fluttered around the rocky outcrop amongst the dense flowers. 
Harebell amid a meadow of flowers.
Compared to the Porcupine Mountains, this was arguably less dramatic as the view from the Lake of the Clouds overlook.  However, I instantly loved it more for it's rugged beauty and the quiet that allowed sounds of nature to dominate.  It was also remarkable because we didn't encounter anyone else all day- another thing my dad and I agree is a gold standard of a truly wonderful hike.  What's so special about these unspoiled landscapes?  I suspect it goes beyond mere aesthetics.  For me, it also reinforces my identity as an adventurous, independent, non-conformist who is daring enough to venture places that few others do.

I felt really lucky to have shared this hike with my parents that we all agreed was really wonderful.

For more information on the Trap Hills:

-Peter Wolfe Chapter of the North Country Trail Association's great webpage with maps, elevation profile, trail description, and history.

-North Country Trail Association map MI-13 (Alberta to Cascade Falls) is available here.

-Backpacker Magazine article on the Trap Hills.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Hiking with Mosquitoes

This year is a particularly bad year for bugs due to the wet, cool spring.  But don't let that keep you inside. 

I just got back from a week in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my folks where the mosquitoes were the worst we'd ever seen.  We followed some simple guidelines so we could still enjoy some gorgeous hikes in the Trap Hills and the Sylvania Wilderness (stay tuned for more trip reports...).

Here is what worked:

-Covering up with long pants and long-sleeved shirts.  Headnets or bug shirts were essential for keeping the bugs from flying into eyes, nose, and ears.  Tucking long pants into socks or wearing gaiters also provided protection against ticks.
Mosquitoes can't bite through these long pants.
 -Frequently applied DEET to all exposed skin.
My parents spraying on the DEET.
-Jumping into a lake.  It got hot wearing long pants and shirts, plus headnet, in the summer.  Thankfully, skeeters weren't as plentiful at some of the lakes so we jumped in to cool off.  They were bad at other lakes, so we poured water on our clothes which was like having a natural air conditioner.

-Escaping to a sunny, rocky overlook.  For some reason, there were fewer bugs out there than in the forest.
At this overlook in the Trap Hills, there were so few skeeters that I could zip open my bug shirt.
-Switching to another area.  Mosquito density was patchy and some areas were much worse than others.  For example, the mosquitoes were so bad at one trailhead that the moment we opened the car doors they flooded in and filled the car.  They were like water rushing in to a submerged car.  I'm not kidding-- it was insane!  We went hiking anyway, but they weren't as bad one trailhead over.

-Relaxing and living with them.  Eventually, the constant buzzing doesn't get on your nerves so much and you give up trying to fight them.  Change your mindset and accept that getting a few bites is a small price to pay for being able to enjoy some time outdoors.