Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Section Hiking the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama- Part 2

"Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike.  And I know you'll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are." - Dr. Seuss

Over Christmas, I went on a  69 mile section hike of the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama between High Point and Cheaha.  I already wrote about my first three days of that trip in Part 1.  On my fourth day, I met Fireflo and her dog Buddy at the Talledega Shoal Creek Ranger Station.  Fireflo had previously completed the Alabama Pinhoti Trail, so I was excited to hear about her experiences.  Our plan was to hike to Cheaha State Park and spend one night out.  The forecast called for rain and thunderstorms, but we decided to go anyway for the adventure. 
Buddy sporting a pack and blaze orange too.
Fireflo is a lightweight backpacker and was testing out some new gear including a tarp made by her friend Brawny and some Gossamer Gear items I’d never seen- a Solar Light (that doubles as a pillow) and a warm sak pot cozy.

Despite our mutual lightweight gear philosophies, it wasn’t long before both of us confessed we’d chosen to bring two sets of raingear- raincoat and rainpants AND ponchos!
Wearing my poncho over my other raingear.
We sure had a laugh about how we both had made a gear choice that could raise some eyebrows.  I've always heard people talk about either a poncho or a raincoat, but not both.  But I've backpacked in the southeast in winter thunderstorms enough to know how cold it can get.  In winter, rain out here is quite different in intensity and duration than what I'd encountered on the PCT (though granted I haven't done the Washington section yet).  Here, I’ve had mild hypothermia more times than I care to admit.  I know that a poncho over my raincoat and rainpants keeps me warm because I've tried many other combinations that haven't worked.  Other times of year and while I was on the PCT I loved my umbrella, but it doesn't provide warmth like a poncho.  And at night, I use my poncho as a cover over my underquilt of my hammock as extra protection from horizontal rain. 
Fireflo wears a rainhat and packcover when the rain is very light.
After some early sprinkles, the sun made a brief appearance and the majority of the rain held off until evening.
This waterfall was one of the prettiest places on the trail.
Anticipating thunderstorms, we choose our campsite for the evening carefully-  a spot that was high enough to have good drainage but low enough to be protected from the wind by surrounding hills.  I tucked my hammock against a slope, and pitched one side of the tarp nearly to the ground in the direction I thought the wind would come from.  

Fireflo’s tarp was large enough that we could hang out for a little while as the evening rain intensified.
Warm glow of Fireflo's new light under her tarp.  There's plenty of room for Buddy too.
Rain fell all night.  By 1 AM the wind shifted direction.  I woke to thunder and lightening and felt my back was soaking wet.  I hoped Fireflo was faring better in her tarp (turns out she was doing great!).

Water was streaming down my hammock from the head end, the down underquilt was wet inside and out, the down jacket I use as a hood was partially soaked.  I sprung into action, stuffing my still-dry top quilt into my stuffsack, taking off my sleeping clothes so they wouldn’t get any wetter, and getting up to find the problem. 

I saw that the rain was blowing in from the side through the doors of the tarp.  I had oriented my hammock so the broad sides of the tarp faced the wind when I’d set up (this setup has kept me dry for many years in previous storms), but the wind shifted so it was blowing in from the ends.  Normally, the tarp doors provide protection, but gusts of wind were stretching the shockcord I used to hold the doors closed and the doors opened to let the water in from high up.  Rain was streaming down above the poncho that I was using as an underquilt protector. 

My solution was to lower the tarp a few inches and tighten the doors so they wouldn’t flap in the wind.  I also zipped my rainjacket around the top of the hammock and tucked the poncho underquilt protector under it so that any more rain that did get through the tarp would be shed off.  I couldn’t think of anything else to do- it would be too difficult to totally take down the tarp and hammock to find a new set of trees oriented in another direction- so I dried off and got back in my hammock to assess my insulation.
My white raincoat rigged over my green poncho underquilt protector at 1 AM.
The DWR fabric on my underquilt had done an excellent job shedding the water, and the down loft hadn’t been compromised.  The hammock itself was still wet, so I spread out my rainpants to act as a vapor barrier and laid down on top of them.  I tucked my top quilt around me and waited to see if I could get warm again.  As I listened to the thunder, I realized I wasn't very cold. 

When I made mistakes as a beginning backpacker, I remember I’d lie awake at night running over what I should have done differently and worrying about what might happen.  I realized how far I’ve come mentally in how I cope with problems in the backcountry.  I can improvise even when I’m half-asleep.  I don’t stay awake worrying needlessly.  I accept that I will make mistakes sometimes and that it will make me a better backpacker because I'll learn from my experiences.  I fell fast asleep until morning.

During the night, my bodyheat worked to dry off much of my clothes and gear.  My middle of the night fiddling had worked!  And I’d used all of my raingear not just for hiking but for my sleep setup as well.  Sure it would have been better if I’d rigged my tarp better to begin with, but I felt pretty thrilled to know just how wet my setup could get, at least under those warmer night temperatures.

More challenges awaited.  Significant rain had fallen during the night.  Fireflo knew that a stream crossing lay ahead that was normally quite high, and it would likely be in full out flood stage.  We made a plan to hike out a road to avoid the potentially very dangerous ford.
Overflowing stream after the storm.
Between us and the road was a stream that had flooded its banks.  We spent about an hour hiking up and down looking for a safe place to cross the swift water, finally choosing a relatively wide spot.  Buddy was reluctant to cross with his pack, so Fireflo brought him across first without their packs, and then came back across to bring their gear so she got in extra adventure by doing the crossing three times.  It looked pretty scary, but once I got going, I remembered all the times I’d done similar stream crossing in the Sierra when I was hiking on the PCT.  We all made it across safely!  Yay!
Fireflo fording the creek.
Roadwalking is always hard on the feet.  We stopped after a few hours of walking at an overlook, and just as we were taking out our lunches, a father and son stopped in their pickup.  They had camped out the night before too, and we exchanged stories of how we’d weathered the storm.  We ended up yogi-ing a ride with them back up to my car at Cheaha- THANK YOU for the ride! 

We finished off the trip with a satisfying lunch at the AYCE buffet at the Cheaha Mountain Restaurant.  The gorgeous stone building was decorated for the holidays- including a Christmas tree with beer can ornaments.   That sure was something else!

I hope to be back to the Pinhoti to finish the other sections someday- it was a great trail.  It felt good to experience the satisfaction of facing challenges and enjoying the camaraderie of hiking with a kindred spirit.  Overall, this was a fun and memorable trip. 


  1. You handle your challenges so well! I would have most likely laid in the hammock, soaking wet, all night, with little or no sleep. You amaze me!

    1. Hi Don! This was a new thing for me. I've been surprised how much better I am at sleeping outdoors after getting so much practice this year. Didn't realize that sleeping well was a skill that could be developed. :) (I wonder if I could put that on my resume- haha!)

      I used to stay awake all night, especially during storms, counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, shining my headlamp into the darkness to make sure no water was getting in. The next day I'd be a zombie.

      Happy New Year to you and looking forward to seeing you in the new year!

  2. Looks like a great trip. Glad you were able to fix the rain issues and get back to sleep. Love the sound of rain on the tarp. Looking forward to your up coming adventures in 2015!

    1. Hi Tracy,

      Totally agree about the sound of rain on the tarp- truly one of the most lovely of sounds. Happy 2015 to you!

  3. I think you can add bad-ass to your resume! I bet that rainy night and day were made so much more enjoyable with the company of Fireflo and Buddy. I made the mistake of not getting up and fixing the situation during a severe wind/sand storm in the Enchantments this year. It takes a lot to get out of our cozy sleep environment during the cold, wet or windy, but it's usually the best decision, sort of like when you need to pee, just go . . . then sleep is oh so much better.

    Knowing rain and cold were strong possibilities, I'd have gone extra prepared also. Hypothermia is not worth the risk.

    I really appreciate you sharing your experiences. I continue to learn :)

    Happy New Year and see you soon!

    1. It sure is tough to get over the inertia and get up and brave the rain and cold. Plus, I can never figure out what to wear into the rain when I'm using my raingear as part of my sleep setup- don't want to get my dry clothes wet.

      Thanks for the encouragement to share my mistakes. It's kind of embarrassing to admit this happened to me, but glad it can be helpful to others.

      Happy 2015 to you Jan! Can't wait for our trip!!!

  4. Wow, what a bummer about the rain in the hammock but I'm glad you worked it out. That ford is looks rough, your friend is definitely daring!

    1. Fireflo sure is daring! I love it when my hiking buddies are so confident- she went right into that water, and I knew I could do it after I'd watched her already cross it two times. :)

    2. The water crossing was much more exciting than usual! Buddy's pack really caught the current and he was getting swept away by it. He weights 80 pounds and it was pulling me off balance trying to cross with him. Once he was packless it was was easier for us to cross. He did not like it when I tied him to a tree and went back for the gear! This small creek is normally just a few inches deep. I have never seen it this high volume before.

      Joan you were pretty fearless too! I figured you would hit the Spot if Buddy and I got swept away.

      As much as I dislike road walks, I was glad we did not attempt to cross Hennibee Creek during the flooding. It would have been chest level and moving fast and class 3 or 4 rapids.

      In any event, I highly recommend Cheaha Lodges AYCE on Sundays! Food was awesome and the view was foggy. Had to ask our waitress if she drank all the beers for the tree ornaments. She had not, but they usually use beer bottles, so the cans were a first for this year.

      Hope we can hike and eat there again, Rambling Hemlock!

    3. I was so glad we were able to avoid Hennibee Creek too. Definitely will have to do it some other time, and for sure eat again at the Cheaha AYCE! It was really cool seeing how fast the creeks and streams rose, I felt such a deep appreciation for the power of water and floods. I don't think I'll forget the huge roar of that water either.

  5. I had a similar experience this summer in the Cascades where my MLD cuben hex tarp with separate doors on one end failed to keep my HG UQ dry from side blown rain. It was in the upper 30's and I did not sleep much, worrying about my condition but amazingly the DWR treatment of my UQ kept the down dry. However, as a result, I have ordered a HG Winter Palace tarp with an extra 1' on each side and attached doors to give me greater protection.

    Most of my hiking is in the Arkansas Ouachita and Ozark Mountains. As you say, rains in the south can be very intense and dangerous. A few years ago in Arkansas I experienced a storm where it rained 8" overnight!

    I really like your idea of a poncho over your regular raingear but am wondering your layering scheme underneath to remain comfortable while hiking.

    Thanks for your blog. It is always interesting, inspiring and educational.

    1. Glad I'm not the only one this has happened to, Gerry. I am so impressed by the DWR of the UQ. Would be interested to hear how you like the extra coverage provided by the HG Winter Palace. The storms in Arkansas can be so intense. It isn't often that I've been in conditions that would warrant a tarp that large, but it sure would be nice for winter trips like this one to have that extra margin of safety.

      Layering the rain gear is only comfortable under certain conditions- mostly in the cold of winter and very heavy, prolonged rains that goes for days and days. And more often when I am hiking with other people with a slower pace, or doing hikes that have less elevation change or where the footing is more technical- all cases where it is more difficult for me to generate enough body heat to stay warm.

      Thanks for your comments, Gerry! Great to hear from you!

    2. I am hoping to get my 11' HG Winter Palace sometime in January and I'll be sure to get back in touch with you with feedback.

      One of the problems with my current tarp is that I had it lengthened to 11.5' as a custom modification when I bought it and it was really too long for my 10' WB Traveler hammock which has an 8' ridgeline. As a result I could not lower the tarp enough in bad weather to protect from side-blown rain. I have since switched to an 11' BIAS gram weenie hammock which has a 9' ridgeline. If my current tarp had attached doors, I would not have bought the Winter Palace and would have stuck with what I had. But I chose the Winter Palace because it gives me attached doors and the extra size for only 8.6 oz, the very same weight as my smaller, doorless MLD tarp.

    3. Wow you're going to have a really lightweight setup! Do let me know what you think.

  6. I really had a fantastic time hiking with you, Joan! It was great to have all that rain to see how well our gear and problem solving worked. I was delighted I brought two sets of rain gear. My excuse was I wanted to see if the Frogg Toggs rain suit or Equinox Terrapin Poncho Tarp worked best. I really liked that the Frogg Toggs kept me warm without overheating, but I destroyed the rain pants on a seam within 5 miles of hiking and stream crossings. The poncho was great coverage for my backpack so I did not need a pack cover with it. The down side was it had a lot of material and it would snag easily and I would step on it when the trail got steep.

    The poncho was invaluable when the wind changed direction and intensity after we set up camp. My tarp had an open side and I had to hang the poncho over the entrance and tie it down. Both the tarp and poncho had loops so it was easy to tie them together with extra paracord. Then I wore the Frogg Toggs to stay dry when I had to go out in the rain. Very happy I brought both, it would have been miserable if I had not!

    The solar pillow light by gossamer gear was awesome. One charge lasts 15 hours. It really kicked out a lot of light on low and Joan could see all the way back to her hammock. I used it as a knee pillow since I sleep on my side and it was good. The warm sak cozy by gossamer gear is the perfect size for a beer can pot or small less than a liter cooking pot. I used it to store my cooking system and keep food and tea/coffee hot. I also like that it keep the cook set from rattling in my backpack.

    1. Sure was a wonderful trip, Flo, and I enjoyed testing and analyzing all the gear. Thanks for including your report on your poncho tarp and rain suit here, as well as the GG light and cozy. Definitely had some gear successes on this trip!