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.

Meals

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.

Hygiene 

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.

Sleep

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.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Susquehannock Trail System Hike

As you know I usually am the Weekend Hiker, in that I tend to go on overnight hiking trips.  But back in January I made a New Year's resolution to do a long-distance backpacking trip this year.  Well I recently accomplished that goal.  My hiking buddy, Chris, and I set out to hike the entire 85 mile Susquehannock Trail System loop in six days.  It turns out we had to stop early and so weren't able to complete the entire loop but it was still the longest backpacking trip I've taken since I was a teenager.

Chris and I met Monday morning, the 13th of June, at the trailhead at Ole Bull state park. The weather was perfect. The trail climbs immediately from the trailhead up to a ridge. I have written before about how many more ferns there are in Pennsylvania than in Missouri. But I had not realized the extent. Here's a shot of Chris with a carpet of ferns behind him stretching as far as the eye can see. That was pretty typical of the forest floor during much of the hike.
We picked the best week of the year to go hiking I think.  The mountain laurel was in full bloom everywhere we went -- beautiful white and pink blossoms surrounded us on all sides when we were at high enough elevation.  This picture doesn't do it justice but it was the best I could do.
Chris was a great hiking partner for this trail.  He lives quite close to it and painted many of the trail blazes himself.  He also maintains a section of the trail by himself.  As we hiked along he told me the history of the area.  Apparently there was very heavy logging back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The first to go were the pines.  Then there was a building boom in the country which caused the loggers to go back after different species.  Previously the eastern hemlock had only been valued for the tannin that could be extracted from it's bark.  The hemlock in this area were hundreds of years old (as old as 800 years in many cases) and were enormous.  Only a few old trees survived this mass harvest but the stumps can still be seen.  In almost every valley if you look you can find the old railroad grade that had been built to carry the logs to the mill.  The rails are gone but you can still see where the railroad ties were.  We found several old whiskey bottles from the period.  Chris also pointed out a stand of apply trees that sprung up around an old logger camp, apparently from discarded apple cores.

After the area had been clear cut it became known as "Pennsylvania's Desert".  The state was able to purchase the land for little money and the forest has grown back to where it is very pleasant.

There is one "trail town" on this loop.  It's the little town of Cross Fork.  We stopped at the tiny general store for an ice cream.   

The heavy rains this spring have had an impact on the trail.  The currents in the stream had been so strong that they had carried tons of rocks downstream and pile them up in various places.  You can see an example of this below.

Chris noticed some places where the stream had changed course compared to just a few weeks before as the stream had choked it's old channel with rocks.

The wet spring had a rather unpleasant side effect.  The stinging nettle, which normally just grows in boggy areas of the trail, was thick everywhere.  For some sections we were up to our knees in stinging nettle for a mile or more.  Thank goodness for long pants.

This area is home to a great number of rattlesnakes.  We only saw one on our hike but it made for a little excitement.  I was in front and came upon a snake who was apparently coiled next to the trail waiting for a chipmunk to run by.  I heard the rattle right next to me but couldn't see the snake because of the brush.  Chris told me it was just to my left so I stepped away from it and circled back to where Chris was standing.  From there I was finally able to see it.  A good-sized "black phase" timber rattler, about 5 or 6 feet long.  He was a well-behaved snake I must say.  He gave me a good warning and then when we gave him some room he slithered across the trail (stopping to look at us and make sure we wouldn't attack him).  Here's the best shot I got of him.

Notice the rather large rattle.

On the third day Chris' bad knee began acting up and we realized that we might have to adjust our plans.  By the end of the day it was clear that the best strategy would be to bail out the next day.  I think our total distance traveled was 50 miles or so.  I had a great time.  One of the things that had kept me from doing multi-day hikes before was that I was reluctant to go that long without anyone to talk to.  A hiking partner make a lot of difference.  Chris is a great hiking partner.  He's a very experienced backpacker and a good conversationalist.  I'm hoping that a doctor will be able to fix his knee so we can hike again in the future.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Backpacking in the Rain

In my previous post I mentioned that we encountered a lot of rain, both during the day and at night.  I've only encountered heavy rains during a hiking trip a few times.  I thought I'd summarize what I've learned so far about what works and what doesn't.  Keep in mind that this only relates to heavy rain.  If you are expecting a lot of drizzle then what I say below won't apply.

Silnylon Tarps and Shelters

When you first venture into ultralight backpacking you soon encounter a fabric called silnylon.  It's a ripstop nylon that has been impregnated with silicone.  Lightweight tarps are made of the stuff as are many single-walled shelters.  It's great stuff because it's lightweight and mostly waterproof.  By this I mean that with enough force water will be able to penetrate the fabric.  In a driving rainstorm you experience this as "misting": fine droplets of water that splatter on you.  If the intensity of the rain lasts for a while then you and your stuff will get damp.  I've experienced this on a few occasions and this was one of them.

Gatewood Cape

The Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape is a really neat piece of gear. It's made of silnylon and so misting can be (and was for me) a problem. But it's only 11 ounces for rain gear AND shelter and so it is something of an ultralighter's dream. The more you look at it the more you are impressed with the design. A lot of good thought has gone into it. It sets up with a trekking pole and six stakes. Setting it up takes some practice. Chris had to help me each time.
Gatewood Cape (downloaded from backpackinglight.com)

My Poncho and Bivy


I've used a poncho and bivy (a rather common combination) which means that your poncho is raingear and half your shelter.  You need the bivy because of possible splatter getting on you.  But bivy sacks are not weightless.  The idea of the Gatewood cape is to eliminate the need for the bivy.  In my experience this is only partially true.  The cape does provide 360 degree protection but is quite small if you pitch it close to the ground (even for me at only 5'5" tall).  The usual thing is to pitch it with a gap of several inches at the bottom.  This left me exposed to windblown rain on the first night.  The second night I was able to guess the direction of the weather and pitch one side down.  This would be a great piece of gear for when you thought  rain was possible but that a storm would be unlikely. 

Rainwear

The Gatewood cape or a poncho is rainwear and shelter.  However cool this seems it does raise some problems.  Chris had brought separate rainwear and so the second evening I had just barely finished eating when a storm rolled in so I had to huddle inside.  Chris strolled by and offered to hang my bear bag for me.  If he hadn't done that I don't know what I would have done.  You can't leave your shelter during the rain if you go this route.  I recommend bringing a pee bottle with you if you try this -- worked well for me (I doubt it would work so well for the ladies).

Even with a poncho or cape I would bring a hat.  The hoods on ponchos make your head and neck sweaty. 

The other way to go is to get a rain jacket and perhaps rain pants.  The problem is that your body produces moisture while you hike and if you are inside waterproof clothing you get pretty sticky.  Breathable raingear is a must.  The most breathable and least expensive is DriDucks.  They are not super durable though.  But for $20 you can afford to replace them often.   I don't think I would recommend wearing rain pants, whatever the brand.  My legs got really wet from the mountain laurel bushes that crowded the hiking paths even when it wasn't raining.  Rainpants might snag in such situations.  But my nylon hiking pants dried quickly so I didn't care if they got wet.

Synthetic Insulation

Backpackers are fond of down as an insulation. It's amazingly warm for it's weight and packs down small. However it can't stand a wetting. My modified winter quilt uses high quality down as insulation and since I use it in the cold weather (below freezing) I've never really had a problem with it getting wet. For warmer weather I use a quilt my wife made me using Climashield XP synthetic insulation. It's not as warm per ounce as down and doesn't compress as well but it works great in wet conditions. During the night on this recent hike the outside of my quilt took the brunt of the misting and got pretty wet. However I stayed warm inside.  In the morning the quilt dried quickly.  Down quilts don't insulate when wet and don't dry quickly if they get wet.  For spring hikes I think synthetic insulation is a must.

At this point I should insert another trick that I had heard about but never had to try.  In the evening my clothing was wet (especially my pants).  I didn't bring extra dry clothing because I wanted to try this trick.  Just go to bed wet.  The heat from your body dries your clothes at night, provided the moisture can escape (wouldn't work if you were in a bivy that wasn't very breathable).  This worked well for me.  So I went to bed with wet clothes under a somewhat wet quilt and woke up mostly dry.  Cool huh?


Footwear

There were lots of creek crossings as you can imagine on this trip. But when hiking in heavy rain the trail itself turns into a creek so your feet are constantly wet. My hiking companions wore waterproof Gore-Tex boots but found they still had wet feet by the end of the day. The first day I felt smug with my sandals and Sealskinz socks. I could cross creek and hike through water all day and no water would get in. When the rain stopped I took them off and just wore liner socks with my sandals. So my feet were cool while my companions had hot, sweaty feet. I've used this strategy before successfully. But this time I ran into a problem. The second day the sealskinz socks were still wet from the day before, both inside and out. I think the issue is that the membrane inside is somewhat breathable and the heat from your feet allows sweat to pass from inside to outside. When the sock is off there is no temperature differential and so moisture seems to pass from outside to inside. At any rate it didn't look fun to put them back on so I just hiked in regular socks and changed them when I could. Not super fun. I think the better solution would be to continue to wear the sealskinz until they are dry outside and then take them off.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

West Rim Trail Hike

The day after Easter I went with a buddy from Hammockforums named Chris and a friend of his on a hike on the West Rim Trail of Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon, more correctly known as Pine Creek Gorge.  The trail is 30 miles long and we decided to take it in 2 1/2 days.

Chris' friend turned out to be  Curt Weinhold, a photographer from the area. If you have used guidebooks for hiking trails in Pennsylvania then you may have seen his work. If you click on PA Wilds or Nature on his page then you will see examples of his work. Some of the photo's I've posted below are actually his also.


Here's the man in the flesh, just as we began our hike, at a bridge over Pine Creek. We started at the southern end of the trail and hiked north to Ansonia, PA.


Another shot of him looking every inch the outdoorsman that he is. He has spent a lot of time in these woods.  He probably knows this trail better than any many alive actually.


It was wet when we began our hike as it has been all spring. We had a lot of rain during the hike as well. That made things uncomfortable but did make for some gorgeous views of waterfalls and creeks.

There were so many gushing creeks and waterfalls that after a while we realized that if I stopped hiking to take pictures of each one we'd never make any progress.

On top of the rim I was stunned at the quantity of Mountain Laurel. Mountain Laurel is a flowering bush which is evergreen and is the state flower of Pennsylvania. Here's Carl standing on the trail with Mountain Laurel behind him.


A first for me was to see porcupines in the wild. They are actually easy to spot because they make a lot of noise as they scamper up trees to get away from you. It was fun to see but my hiking buddies tell me they are a major nuisance. While you are hiking they will often eat through the tires, brake lines, and other important parts of your vehicle. Experienced hikers put mothballs near their cars when they leave them at the trailhead.  Apparently porcupines don't like the smell.


The problem with hiking a rim trail is the temptation to camp on the ridge to get nice early morning views. That left us exposed to windblown rain from the thunderstorm that raged all night. I was on the ground under a tarp rather than in a hammock so I got quite a bit of spray on my quilt during the night. In the morning we woke up to mist filling the gorge.

As the sun came up I hung my stuff out to dry and watched the mist clearing out.




The second day was sunny for most of the day but then thunderstorms came in the afternoon.  Below you see me hiking in a piece of gear called a gatewood cape that Chris loaned me to try.  It's like a poncho tarp but sets up into a shelter with 360 degree protection. On the right you can see it set up for our second night.



Near my cape setup you can see an ad-hoc creek forming. The ground was so waterlogged and there was so much rain falling that little creeks were forming everywhere. This one got within a few inches of flooding me out.

Here's Chris looking much drier than I was because he was in a hammock. While I enjoyed trying out the cape this hike reinforced my opinion that hammocks really are the way to go in rainy weather.



The next day provided some more great views of the gorge.









Here's me at the end of the hike. Not looking beautiful but feeling good.