Thursday, November 28, 2013


After deciding to attempt to hike the PCT next year, one of the most incredible things has been getting help and advice from some truly wonderful people.  I've learned a huge amount and continue to be amazed by how willing people are to share their knowledge.  Friends, family, hiking buddies, and the internet hiking community- you all sure makes my life feel much richer.  I had no idea I'd get this level of support.  So this Thanksgiving, I just want to tell you all that I'm so thankful for you.  <hugs>

For example...

How will I recharge my iPhone for my upcoming PCT trip?  I plan to use the phone as camera and GPS (in conjunction with paper maps) to save weight.  But as a weekend backpacker who has always used paper maps and a separate camera on the trail, I felt like I had a lot to learn.

Several knowledgeable friends have been helping me out.  They shared which batteries or solar chargers that they use and the pros and cons of different systems.  Leave it to an electrical engineer to give me this answer:
Ask the time of day, learn to build a clock. Special thanks to Peter for this one.
This shows why charging the iPhone battery when it gets down to about 20% and bring it up to 80% to saves about 10% overall.   Gadgets and gear come and go, but if you understand the science- basics of electricity in this case- then you can go a lot further.  I'm so thankful when people are patient with me and take the time to share this level of detail.
Learning to use the iphone as a GPS, with a lot of help.

Trying out the new iphone photo app and HDR functions recommended by another friend.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Congaree National Park

Congaree National Park in South Carolina has the largest remaining old growth bottomland forest remaining in the country.  The trees get so big because the area floods several times a year, bringing in nutrients, and the result is the high concentration of “champion” trees.  I visited the park for the first time this weekend on an overnight backpacking trip with my friend Susan.  We loved the impressively tall trees, gorgeous bald cypress and tupelo floodplains, and the fun off-trail opportunities.  It was remarkably different, though no less spectacular, than my other favorite spot to see big trees, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina.
Tupulo and bald cypress.
Craning our necks to take in the impressive height of the trees.
After obtaining our backcountry permit, we purchased John Cely's map of the Congaree at the visitor’s center.  This map is an exceptional hand-drawn map with exquisite detail not only of the trails and the water features, but also the large trees, forest types, muck, and old roads.  A highly knowledgeable ranger showed us where to find the famous big trees in the park- some can be seen from the boardwalk and established trails, but we were surprised when ranger encouraged us to go off trail to find some more remote ones as well.  The trip became a fun bushwhacking treasure hunt!!
Cely's map with the park ranger’s color-coded annotations was priceless for exploring Congaree.
We set out to find the Harry Hampton Cypress tree, leaving the established trails to follow our map and compass.  We felt like explorers in this pristine forest. (Is this what the country looked like back in the days of John Muir or William Bartram?)  There were enough water features and fallen giants to navigate around to make it challenging, and because old growth forest is more open, it was (relatively) easy walking (compared to more mountainous areas of the southeast).  We log-walked, waded through, and leaped over “guts” (the local term for small creeks), and squished through the muck.  The rewards were solitude and the feeling of utter exhilaration at successfully arriving at our intended destinations.  After the freedom of bushwacking, it’s always a bit sad to go back to established trails.
Harry Hampton Cypress tree with 7 foot tall “knee”
After locating a few giant trees, we set our compass bearing for the Congaree River with the intention of camping along its banks.  It took us longer than we anticipated to get through some of the deeper guts.  We also spent time watching the wild pigs rooting around- fascinating to see how strong they were as they dug up the ground, leaving a wake of destruction across the forest floor.
No wet feet for us!
 As it started getting dark, we kept on bushwacking in the fading light.  We were encouraged by subtle changes in flora that indicated we were getting close to the river-  more pawpaw, a few patches of privet, a few more tangles of vines.  I kept straining my eyes ahead to see if I could spot an opening in the canopy to signal our proximity to the river.  (And I pulled opened up my new iphone and used the Gaia GPS mapping app to check our location- something new for me for my PCT plan).  And, finally, there it was, the glimmer of setting sun sparkling off the Congaree River. 

A few rain sprinkles didn’t amount to much and it was warm enough to sit out in the dark- incredibly lucky for November.  We listened to crickets and owls, and watched the glowworms for several hours after the sun went down.  The temperatures plummeted overnight but at least it cleared up for a view of the moon.
Sunrise over the Congaree River
Fall was an ideal time to visit the park because there were no mosquitoes and and the colors were gorgeous.  There were a few asters blooming and a lone lady's tresses (sorry photo didn’t turn out- please bear with me as I learn to use the camera on my iphone).

While two days allowed us to do many of the trails, Congaree is definitely a place I'd love to explore more in the future and it'd be great to go back with a canoe or kayak.
Beech providing some lovely fall color.
Trip Details
-We hiked the 2.5 mile boardwalk, Oakridge Trail (some of the largest trees were here), and Kingsnake Trails (lots of solitude).  These established trails are highly recommended, adequately blazed and signed at all junctions.  Bushwhacking was even more fun, but be sure to be come prepared with compass, navigational skills, and gaiters. 

-If you go, call ahead because several times a year the area floods so trails can be underwater or muddy. 

-Get a free permit for backcountry camping and stop by the visitor’s center to buy John Cely’s detailed map (note it is not waterproof so bring a large ziplock to keep it dry).

**Special thanks to some of the Nature Ramblers for recommending Congaree to me and for the tip about John Cely’s Map***

Sunday, November 17, 2013

PCT training: Bartram in the rain

Cold and wet but still smiling at Rabun Bald.
The first thing on my to-do list to prepare of the PCT is to get in the best shape of my life.  Building strength and endurance slowly prevents injury.  Plus, exercise relaxes me so I don’t get overwhelmed by all the things I want to do to make the leap from weekend-backpacker to long-distance backpacker.  

Starting with my physical preparation reminds me how far I’ve come these last four years since I started backpacking.  Which also helps me feel more confident in my abilities.  I’ve doubled my previous maximum daily mileage of only 14 miles, and am comfortable with over 20 mile days with a full pack.  This progress was in part due to training, but much of it was due to nutrition and technique.  After I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia, I completely changed my diet, and after much work (i.e. using a glucometer to measure my blood sugars while backpacking), I credit much of my ability to hike longer distances to a diet that keeps me properly fueled.  Likewise, I have worked hard on my form after I had an over-use injury to my knee, ended up going to a physical therapist who taught me about body mechanics and the importance of alignment for avoiding injury.  These experiences showed me that learning to hike smarter is just as important as putting in the physical work.  I'll continue to look for ways to improve my technique.

This weekend’s solo training backpacking trip
I went to Warwoman Dell for a solo backpacking overnight on the Bartram Trail out and back to Rabun Bald, 2nd highest peak in Georgia.  28 miles round trip, averaging a steady 2.8 miles per hour even including all my stopping to look at tree foam, make adjustments to my umbrella, and learning how to use my iPhone as a GPS.  The weather cooperated with non-stop rain and cold, perfect for testing my not-dying-of-hypothermia skills.  To make it more challenging, I got a late start to get in some morning trapeze practice, and also loaded up my pack with 10 more pounds of extra food and water, and could tell I’ve been getting soft with my lightweight pack.  Guess that’s the end of my lightweight pack days- from now on, I’m going to keep adding that extra 10 lbs to my base weight so carrying 5-7 days of food doesn’t come as a shock!  Hopefully this, in addition to my morning daily runs and trapeze/silks "cross-training", will help me get into shape for the PCT.  

Training plan for the next 5 months
In addition to the weekly backpacking trips, I'm also arranging some trips to work on particular skills (i.e. carrying a bear canister for a week on the BMT, snow skills course in Colorado, backpacking in arid conditions in Arizona).  My other goal is not getting injured, so I’m building in rest and being careful to listening to my body.  I started to keep a training log spreadsheet to keep me motivated- especially on these cold dark rainy mornings when it’s not quite as tempting to get out of bed.
Camped in the coldest, windiest spot I could find.  And still cozy warm.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Foothills Trail: Around Whitewater Falls

My friend Still Waters joined me for a few hours at the start of my weekend backpacking trip.  From the Bad Creek Parking area for the Foothills Trail in South Carolina, we rambled along side trails to the big trees at Coons Branch Natural Area, and then out to Upper as well as Lower Whitewater Falls.
Tree hugger at the pocket of virgin forest at Coons Branch Natural Area.
I was bubbling with excitement about my plan for the PCT.   I’ve been working on my gear list, sewing some new gear, increasing the intensity of my workouts, and was full of ideas.  I talked poor Still Water’s ear off, but she said she was glad to see me out of my rut and back to my usual joyful self again.  
Look at the awesome new convertible mittens/ gloves that I constructed (0.5 oz less than the old gloves plus they cover my wrists and have two layers of fleece!!!!).
... and here are my new tarp skins made out of an old pair of tights!

Still Waters.
After Still Waters headed back home, I set out on the Foothills Trail towards the Thompson River and Hilliard Falls, which were both running really low. What a contrast to when I’d seen them flowing strong back in January!   

Leaves were at least a foot deep in spots, and I laughed to myself about "postholing" through the leaves. 

In fading light (hello daylight savings time), I scampered up a hillside to find a stealth campsite.   Setting up my tarp (and especially taking it down) was much faster with the new tarp skins.  I'll likely make another set with a lighter-weight material, though I rather like how the orange and black striped fabric contrasts with the real-tree camo print of the tarp. 
Packing the tarp into the new skins.
The next morning, I backtracked to Upper Whitewater Falls (even though I did the whitewater corridor the previous day, it’s worth repeating that section), and then continued on to SC 281, before turning around and heading back to my car at Bad Creek. 
Gorgeous fall foliage at Upper Whitewater Falls.
It’s strange to think about doing a continuous hike, rather than my usual out and backs (this trip involving out and back and out and backs too- another favorite!).  I always marvel at how much more I notice going the opposite direction, how different the trail looks in different light, how much easier the trail is going uphill rather than downhill (especially in thick wet leaves). What is it going to be like seeing new terrain every single day!?!?  Guess I'll find out...