Monday, March 16, 2015

Snow Shoeing on the Black Forest Trail

Got out for another winter hike recently.  And, as it turned out, it was my last chance.  The weather since then has been warm and spring-like.  I went with my hiking buddy Chris, who suggested the location, a short hike along the Black Forest Trail.  Friday was cold but sunny and we were treated to nice views.

There was about 2 feet of snow on the ground and so we used snowshoes.  They didn't help as much as you would think because the weather this year has been so cold.  There was a crust of ice on top and the snow underneath was very dry.  Even with the snowshoes it was like walking on sugar.

I don't own any waterproof shoes appropriate for snowshoes so I just wore my trail runners with waterproof sock on underneath.  That worked reasonably well the first day but not so well the second day as you will see.

The route we took stayed on the plateau with occasional vistas over surrounding valleys.

Unlike last hike, when I ran out of fuel, this time I had my trusty SVEA 123R which I've written about before.  Chris had his MSR stove.  Shug has recently compared these two on a hike.  Just as he found in that video the MSR puts out much more heat per unit time.  But I'm fond of my SVEA becaues I think it has character.

I slept again in my warbonnet ridgerunner hammock with a spindrift cover to keep out any wind or light snow.  No snow was predicted so I didn't even bother with a tarp.  For underquilt I have the 0 degree lynx underquilt that is made for the ridgerunner hammock.  Had one problem tho.  During the night my feet got cold and I reached down and realized that part of the underquilt suspension had failed and the underquilt was not attached on one corner.  It was in the single digits and I was afraid I would have to hike out that night.  But then I remembered that my west german army wook pants have, in each pocket, long ties which are loosely sewn in.  Some have suggested to me that they are there for makeshift tourniquets during war.  But this night I just yanked one loose and used to make a quick repair.  Only took a minute or so and after that I slept cozy.
Chris uses a gathered end hammock.  His new model has an 11-foot length which he says is much more comfortable than the typical 10-foot hammock.

One of the challenges of winter camping is that you need to allow for ventilation (to prevent condensation and freezing) while also keeping your nose warm.  Chris invented this brilliant solution using a wool sock that he put a slit in the middle of.  He pulls the slit over his head and then the leg of the sock forms a kind of elephant trunk.  His mouth and nose stay warm even when it's cold.

In my spindrift I do have problems with condensation.  However at these temperatures it's easy to deal with because it the morning it's just like snow all over the inside.  If I turn it door-side down and shake it all the frost will fall out easily. 

In the morning I had to deal with the fact that my shoes had frozen during the night.  So I fired up the SVEA from the hammock and used it to carefully defrost the trail runners.  One of the fun things about the SVEA is that to prime it in this type of situation is easy.  You just hold the cold stove in your warm hands (or bring it into the bag with you for a minute).  As the fuel inside heats up it builds up pressure so that you can turn the key and enough fuel dribbles out that you can light it and it will prime nicely.
The hike out was a little difficult, just like the hike in.  But it was nice.  My legs were really sore by the end.  Snowshoeing uses muscles I don't often use I guess.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Seven Mountains to Poe Valley

We've been getting a lot of snow this winter and I was anxious to get out in it.  So on January 6th I decided to continue my exploration of the Mid-State Trail.  Below you can see a "selfie" of me next to one of the orange blazes on the trail.  I knew it was going to be cold so I grew a bit of a beard in advance.  It made a huge difference in how cold my face felt. 

My favorite time to hike in the winter is shortly after a snow.  It makes everything more beautiful and magical looking.

One funny thing I found was that my iPhone has a lower temperature range.  Don't know what it is exactly but it was in the teens while I was walking.  So often when I would stop to take a photo the phone wouldn't be able to work until I warmed it up a bit. 

Apparently I was the first to hike the trail since the snow.  Above you can see the trail ahead of me with nothing but snow on it.

The drop in temperature had been pretty recent so the streams were still flowing and not completely frozen over.

At one point the trail looked like it was going to cross over this old bridge.   Thankfully it didn't.  I could easily see myself falling through into the frigid water below!

I think winter is a good time to hike this section of the trail.  There are many upland bogs here and although there are sometimes boards set up for walking on I think that I would have had wet feet during the other three seasons of the year.

As with any other trail there are maintenance problems.  There were a few downed trees the blocked the way forward and so I had to bushwhack a fair amount.  I was grateful for my West German wool army pants.  They kept me toasty warm and I didn't have to worry about hurting them during even the worst bushwhack.

In fact I was quite pleased with my entire winter setup.  On top I worse my synthetic hoodie and a light-weight fleece jacket.  On top of the hoodie I wore a hat that I could take off and stuff in my pocket when I got warm.  Similarly with my OR Meteor Mitts.  I could slip the outer shell off and let it hang from it's cords around my wrist and just wear the liners when I was warm and I could slip the shells back on when needed.  I really value being able to regulate my temperature without stopping to repack.

In the evening I stopped and made camp just off the trail and got ready to make dinner.  Here I discovered my big mistake of the trip.  I had recently bought a Primus Eta-Lite canister stove.  My son and I had used it on a hike and I had done a test boil or two but I had never tried it in the cold.  What I discovered was that those little canisters run out faster than I had thought.  So I had no warm dinner that night.  I should have brought an extra canister because not only was I not able to cook dinner but my water froze during the night.  Ideally what I wanted to do was boil some water, put it in my water bottle and sleep with it so that I would have plenty in the morning.  As it was I ate cold snacks for dinner and drank from a cold stream in the morning.  Man is it hard to drink much when the water is that cold!

Fortunately my sleeping system worked great.  I brought my Warbonnet Ridgerunner hammock with a new (well, since last winter) Lynx full-length 0 degree underquilt.  Slept toasty though the temps dropped to near zero.

Poe Valley State Park, where I ended up looks like it would be a very nice park in the summer.  I might have to come back so I can finish a hike with a swim in the lake.

My wife came and picked me up at the park and on the way up out of that valley there is this great view of Penns Valley.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Quehanna East

I'm finally getting around to documenting a hike I took a long time ago.  Chris and I hiked the Eastern half of the Quehanna trail.  It's one of the nicest places I've hiked in Pennsylvania.  There are many fields like this just covered in wild blueberry.

As always, I'm a sucker for a nice view of a creek or river.

There are large areas where birch is the predominant tree.  It makes a nice change from the oaks, maples, and hemlock I see most of the time when hiking.

Another really nice view.  As I said this was a beautiful hike.

It was interesting for me to see my first "bear tree".  Here you can see where a bear has marked the tree with his claws to show his territory.  

We camped near an old farmhouse.  The farmhouse is long gone but their "plumbing" is still working.  They carved troughs in logs to bring water from the spring to near the house.  Since wet wood doesn't rot it remains to this day.

We camped near this convenient water supply.  We both went with a ground setup rather than hammocks this time.  I packed my pad and synthetic quilt inside my bivy so my setup was literally 30 seconds (plus the time to inflate the pad).  Of course the next morning the inside of the bivy and the quilt were damp but I set them in the sun and they dried quickly.

This part of Pennsylvania is the only part with herds of elk.  These spots have been cleared and during the mating season the males stake out a part of one of these fields and bugle to try and attract a female.  People come to watch often.  We saw a number of elk but not close enough for a picture.

Nearly stepped on this guy.  He was sunning himself in the trail and I walked right over him and then heard the rattle.

This was one of the best views near the end of the hike.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

NW PA Hang at Hickory Creek

This past weekend was the 2nd Annual NW PA Hang.   A "hang" is a meeting of hammock enthusiasts.  Last year it was held at the Marion Brooks Natural Area.  This year we were at that Hickory Creek Wilderness in the Allegheny National Forest. 
A "hang" is pretty much what is sounds like: hammockers get together at a campsite and hang their hammocks and talk and have fun for a few days.  Not much hiking goes on.  So Chris and I decided to go up a day early and hike the 12 mile loop that goes through the Hickory Creek Wilderness.  The forest service has decided not to maintain this trail anymore -- they want to let it revert to it's natural state -- so the blazes have not been painted for a number of years and there are a lot of fallen trees to climb over while following the trail.  But despite this the trail wasn't that hard to follow and we had a good hike.

Daytime temperatures were in the high 30s.  The first day we had some rain in fact.  I expected this and so wore my DriDucks rainsuit.  There were only a few inches of snow on the ground.  We were the first people to have hiked the trail since the last snow, judging from the lack of tracks.

Like every forest in Pennsylvania the Allegheny National Forest was once logged bare of all trees.  In places the trail follows old railroad grades which were built to carry the logs out.  The rails were removed as soon as the job was done but here you can still see pattern in the ground of the old railroad ties, which were left behind.

One of the exciting things for us was to discover that this part of the forest was inhabited by a family of fishers.  Fishers are members of the weasel family.  They were introduced to Pennsylvania to control the porcupines.  Porcupines have very few predators and they do a lot of damage to trees (especially cherry trees which are a favorite).  Fishers are not put off by the sharp quills and make short work of a porcupine.  Fisher tracks have five distinct claws as you can see below.  They also have a bounding gait so the tracks are in pairs as you see below.  Judging by the number of tracks we saw the fishers seems to be thriving in this area!

Chris and I spent Thursday night on the trail and then on Friday we completed the loop and joined the others who had just arrived.  We spent Friday night at the hang.  There was a fire and good food and conversation.  Below you can see FixedByDoc (his trail name) who gave us a demonstration of starting a fire with a fire-bow drill.
I used my bridge hammock as usual.  But rather than an underquilt I brought pads which I slipped between the layers of the hammock.  Nighttime temps were in the mid-20s and I was very comfortable. Underquilts are a little nicer than pads because pads don't breath and so can feel a little clammy.  But it wasn't too bad.

The hang continued through Saturday night but I left late Saturday afternoon.  That turned out to be a good thing because it started snowing heavily just as I was leaving and I was the only one without a 4-wheel drive.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

MST to Penn Roosevelt

I have written in a previous post about the State College section of the Mid-State Trail.  In January I decided to explore further.  I began where Little Shingletown Road (a gated road in Rothrock state forest) comes out at Laurel Run Road.  But this time I headed north on the trail (which, strangely, is almost directly east at this point).  The beginning segment of this trail seems to be along an old railroad grade from the logging days.

The trail goes through very forested areas and then comes out occasionally into more open areas that are thick with Mountain Laurel. It would be gorgeous in the summer when the blooms are out.

The trails toward the old fire tower and the area called the "Little Flat on Tussey Mountain".  The tower is now closed to visitors.  That's a shame because I'm guessing the view from the top is amazing.  After a bit the trail heads back along a very rocky ridge, just as it does heading south toward the Joe Hayes vista. The views over the nearby valleys and the Bear Meadows natural area are great. This seems like a great place to go in the fall when the leaves turn color.
My intention was to night hike for a few miles since it was going to be a full moon.  However the clouds obscured the moon around dusk and it got too dark to hike so I spent the night in my hammock up on this ridge.  The next morning I got back on the trail as it descended into two natural areas (Alan Seeger and Detweiler).  This area is totally different.  The trail follows a creek through a thick jungle of Giant Rhododendron.  Just a gorgeous area.

After leaving the creek the trail climbs over the ridge of what I believe is called Thickhead Mountain. On the other side the trail descends steeply into Penn Roosevelt state park. It's a small park with a little lake in the middle. I'd like to bring the family here someday.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Allegheny Front Trail -- Southern Section

The day after Thanksgiving Chris and I set out to explore the Allegheny Front Trail.  This trail is relatively close to where I live in State College and my understanding is that it is a fairly new trail.

State College itself is in the ridge-and-valley part of the appalachian mountains (some of the ridges are really sharp as I've noted in a previous post.  But just to the north and west of us is the Allegheny Plateau.  The boundary between these two regions is an escarpment known as the Allgheny Front.  It's easily visible in google maps if you look at Terrain view.  The trail is partially in the Black Moshannon State park which you can see in the map below.

View Larger Map
One thing I wasn't prepared for was that much of the plateau is upland bogs.  In places there are boardwalks as you see below.  But they weren't everywhere so I ended up with wet feet.

One of the reasons we decided to do the southern part of the trail is that that the trail passes near the escarpement and there are views into neighboring Bald Eagle Valley.  These "views" are actually places where they have cleared the trees to allow for views.  They've been given names too.  Here's Chris posing by one of them.

The first day we did about 12.5 miles.  Then we set up camp and had dinner.  Chris was nice enough to make a hot water bottle to warm up my wet feet (he had read up about about the trail and knew enough to wear waterproof footwear).  We had decided to try camping on the ground rather than doing hammocks.  Below you can see me having breakfast in the morning from the sleeping bag.

On of the interesting things about this trail was how many spring we came upon.  In fact our camp was just 30 feet away from a quite substantial one.  You may not be able to tell from the picture but a pretty substantial flow starts from this small spring.

Despite the views and springs though I'm afraid my opinion of the southern part of the AFT is not very positive.  A few years back insects destroyed a huge swath of the forest and for several miles the trail goes though this wasteland of dead trees and open areas where the dead trees have been removed and are being replaced by less desirable foliage.  It's pretty bleak for several miles and just depressing.   But I suppose that is the way with almost any trail of significant length.  It can't all be good.

We're going to go back and do the northern part of the loop at some point.  We hear it's very different from the southern section.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Comfort on Long-distance Hikes

Backpacking provides many uplifting sights, sounds, and experiences.  However it also brings its share of irritations and adversity which can detract from the experience if we let them.  So it's important, especially on a long-distance hike, to provide enough comfort for yourself to keep your spirits high.


We don't use the term "comfort food" for nothing.  Eating, and the satisfaction you get from eating, is one of the most important things one can do to maintain a happy feeling on the trail.

Sometimes hikers get obsessed with things like calorie density and getting the thousands of calories you would need to replace the calories you are burning.  I, at least, can't eat that much.  Thru-hikers apparently get a big appetite after a few weeks on the trail but for most people, even on a hike lasting up to a week, that's not going to happen (see a related post by SectionHiker here).  I find that I eat about as much on the trail as I eat at home, perhaps just a touch more.

I think we need to worry more about WHAT we eat.  Basically you are happiest if you eat very similar things to what you eat at home.  On my West Rim Trail hike I brought pop-tarts for breakfast.  Many hikers favor them because they pack a lot of calories.  After the second day I could hardly face them.  My hiking buddy Chris was eating cold cereal for breakfast with powdered milk that he mixed-up.  That was really what I wanted because cereal is what I normally eat.  So on my Susquehannock trail system hike I brought powdered milk and cereal and was much happier.  I took some Archer Farms granola single servings like Brian recommends on his blog (tastes great and provides lots of calories) but also some stuff I just had around the house.

I also think the evening meal should be a warm meal.  Won't energy bars provide as many calories without the fuss of a stove?  Perhaps, but there is something nice about eating a warm meal before bed, even in the warmer seasons of the year.  It's what we do at home so we should do it on the trail to keep our minds and stomachs happy.


Perhaps our ancestors, who went months without bathing, would not be distracted by dirt and sweat.  But for us modern folks it's pretty distressing to be really dirty.  Now we have to be practical here.  We can't bath every day on the trail or pack clean clothes for every day.  But we can do a few things to help us feel human.

Chris and I had wonderful weather on our hike.  But even at 69 degrees F you are going to work up a sweat on a steep climb.  It's not so much the sweat that is the problem, it's the layer of salt that builds up on your skin.  That tacky feeling is unpleasant and can cause chaffing. So one thing Chris and I did frequently was to stop at a water source and take an upper-body sponge bath when we felt dirty.  I used soap on my face but just plain water on the rest of my body.  It's amazing what clean skin can do for your outlook on life.

I also brought along two pair of quick-drying nylon mesh underwear.  So after a particularly sweaty day I could wash the one I was wearing and change into the other, letting the first pair dry.    Not a big weight penalty but a big difference in happiness and comfort.


If most of us are honest we would have to admit that it's harder to sleep in the woods than in bed. Perhaps this wasn't true when I was a kid but a good night's sleep is harder to come by as an adult. Lack of sleep makes even the nicest day in the woods a burden so we have to learn to sleep.

For one thing the woods are noisy and that can be quite a distraction when trying to sleep. I've found that a pair of foam earplugs work wonders. They don't block all sounds but they are very good at the high pitched sounds made by many insects and critters scurrying about in the leaves.

If you worry because you don't sleep well on overnight hikes then take hope. Chris taught me, and I found that it is true, that your body adapts fairly quickly. The first night won't be great but the second is better and by the third night you will find that you sleep amazingly soundly.  I had brought along a book to read during sleepless hours but by that third night I was asleep within seconds of lying in the hammock.