Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fallen Giants

I, like most of you, have a list of blogs I like to read regularly. Two of my favorites are sectionhiker, by a fellow hiker from the Boston area named Philip Werner (on the boards he goes by Earlylite), and Ozark Highlands of Missouri, by an ecologist named Allison Vaughn. A few months ago Earlylite posted an entry about a book he had read called Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. I haven't read the book but it sounds facinating. Often as I'm hiking in the Ozarks I will look around at the forest and wonder "what happened here? why does it look different than it did a few miles back?" By reading Allison's blog I'm learning more about the ecology of the Ozarks and I'm learning to understand what I see better.

Here's a sight that I often see along the trail. A fallen forest giant that has had it's very roots ripped out of the ground.

This was a pretty common sight on my Middle Fork section hike. In fact in that post I showed a picture of my camp that just showed my bivy and tarp. But zooming back a bit you see that I was camped right next to one of these fallen giants.

In fact I was in between two of them. Here was the view looking out from my camp.

Natalie and I saw lots of fallen trees on our Buford Mountain hike also. At first I didn't know what to make of it. But after reading Allison's blog recently it hit me.

Here in Missouri (and all over the Midwest really) we occasionally have winter ice storms. An ice storm is where rain falls and freezes immediately on the first object it touches. The ice build up on limbs can be pretty heavy. In the city that means power outages. But within a few days the repairmen have come with chainsaws to remove the fallen limbs and trees and fix the lines. In the forest the trees just stay where they fall.

I think that's what has happened in these pictures. That would explain why it's the biggest trees that fell (even though they appeared to be healthy and not diseased). They tower over their neighbors and so collect the most ice. Then, if they are leaning slightly, that weight uses the long trunk of the tree as a lever and rips the roots out of the ground. That's how the forest removes the tall trees and makes room for new ones.

There's one more thing I wonder about though. Often these trees fall across the trail and then the trail maintainer comes through and cuts a chunk out of the fallen trunk so a hiker can get through. Often the trunk is hollow at the time. At least I guess this must be true because these cuts don't look very old.

I wonder what this means. Are all tree trunks hollow? Or does this indicate some weakening of the tree due to age or disease? I still have lots to learn about the forest before I really understand what I'm seeing.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Stove Systems

In an earlier post I talked about my gear and briefly mentioned my alcohol stove system. I call it a system because the combination of the stove, pot, fuel, fire starter, and carrying case are more than the sum of the parts. It's clear why you need each item but you also want some way to carry them so they don't rattle in the pack and so that the individual items are all easy to get to. My SVEA 123R is a very clever white gas system that incorporates the pot, stove, fuel container, and windscreen in one compact bundle. It's even more important for a lightweight stove like a pop can stove. These stoves can be easily crushed in a pack and then won't work properly. After struggling with these issues and looking online at what other people were doing I came up with a system that I like quite well. Apparently other people were thinking the same way because now you can purchase similar kits from several online retailers.
The individual pieces are easy enough to assemble yourself. For a pot I use a 24 oz Heineken can (I don't drink beer so I had to get a friend to drink it for me and give me the can). It's very lightweight and about the right volume. In addition the thin aluminum conducts heat very well so it's quite efficient. Around the top I put some of those Livestrong bracelets so that I could pick the pot up without burning my fingers. In addition in the kit I have a windscreen, a stove, a pot stand, a fuel measuring cup, a priming dish and a ziplock container that I also use as a cozy and a bowl. The total weight is 4.7 ounces. The idea of a cozy may be new to people who have never done Freezer Bag Cooking. Basically you combine your dried food and boiling water in a freezer bag and wait while it cooks. The function of a cozy it to keep the heat in while the cooking takes place. I drop the bag into this ziplock and put the lid on. It keeps the heat in well and also serves as a bowl for when it's ready to eat.
The priming dish is the round piece of aluminum pie pan that is under the stove. I put a few drops of fuel there to heat the stove. By the time this fuel is burned the stove is heated and working well. Notice that the stove I'm using now (a Sputnik stove) has the pot stand built in. Previously I carried a homemade stove and a separate pot stand.
Inside the pot I store a lighter, a bottle of fuel, and an ultralight towel. The towel keeps the rattling down and I find I always need one handy when I'm eating anyway. The weight of the total system with full fuel bottle is less than 7 ounces.
I like alcohol as a fuel but sometimes I like using Esbit instead. Esbit tabs don't require any stove. You just need some place to set the tab and a pot stand. I had a homemade system I used to use but it didn't work as well as I wanted. So for my birthday I bought an Esbit system from Ultralight Outfitters and gave it to my daughter to give to me (we're not really into surprises around here). It's really quite cool.

It is designed to be used with a Fosters 25 oz beer can (couldn't find anyone who drinks the stuff so I had to buy it and pour it out). The tray that holds the Esbit tablet clips on to the bottom of the can and can be slide up and down. The the whole thing sets in the wire pot stand. If you want to extinguish the tablet before it's consumed you slide the tray all the way up to the bottom of the can and the flame gets snuffed out.

The windscreen works just like you would think it would. But the manufacturer suggests and additional use for the windscreen. The windscreen stays relatively cool so when you ready to pour out the hot water (or drink the hot beverage as the case may be) you grip the windscreen and pick the whole assembly up.

The white strip at the top of the top of the can is actually a strip of silicone that serves as a lip protector if you drink from the pot.
The system packs up quite nicely. You just put the windscreen inside the pot stand and then put the pot and fuel tray inside.

The fit is nice and tight so there is no rattling.

Inside the pot there is plenty of room for fuel tabs, a towel, and matches. I prefer matches for Esbit because it takes a few seconds for the tablet to catch fire. A lighter can get pretty hot in those few seconds. It's much nicer to just light a match and set it on the Esbit tablet. I use REI stormproof matches which burn very hot for several seconds and can't be blown out by wind.
There's extra room in this system for something else. I'm thinking I may make a cozy out of reflective bubble wrap as described sectionhiker here. The one thing I will be missing compared to the alcohol system is the ziplock container. That's a bit of a problem since I use it with my Steripen for sterilizing water (see my Middle Fork hike entry). I'll have to come up with a different solution for that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


In my wildlife blog entry I mentioned that I was hoping to see a beaver dam on my trip to the middle fork of the OT. But in the subsequent blog entry, where I document that trip, you'll notice I didn't mention seeing any beaver dams. I was really bewildered. I had seen the following pictures by Danny M (whose motrails site is the definitive guide to hiking in Missouri) which looked pretty impressive. These were taken near Barton Fen, about half-way through the middle fork section.

When I got to Barton Fen and didn't see any dams I actually took off my pack and went exploring to see if I had missed them somehow. I did photograph the following tiny thing which hardly looks like Danny's pictures of beaver dams.

I was really disappointed and worried I had somehow missed what I had come to see. Then it occurred to me that the severe flooding we had had in Missouri during 2008 may have wiped out the dams (and maybe the beavers!). When I got home I made inquiries on Danny's yahoo group. John Roth, president of the Ozark Trail association, told me that the beaver dams get obliterated every few years due to flooding. In fact the pictures on the Barton Fen gallery at are of a previous set of dams which existed in early 2002 but were destroyed that year by floods.

So it appears that flooding is an occupational hazard for beavers. It may be that the little dam I saw is the beavers attempt at rebuilding.

I learned something else as well. Beavers are kind of like suburbanites. They are always remodeling their homes. So if their dam is not knocked down by a flood in a given year then they raise the dam and make it higher. Actually this can be bad for the surrounding ecosystem because the dam pond grows and grows. So an effort was made to keep the most recent set of dams from growing. A PVC pipe with holes drilled through was laid across the top of the dam so that even if it the dam were built above it water would continue flowing through so the pond wouldn't get any higher. Thinking back I did see the end of a PVC pipe sticking out from the bank at one point. That must have been the location of the dam. Perhaps in a few years there will be another 6 foot dam on the creek.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Middle Fork section of OT

The Ozark trail, as can be seen from the offical website, will eventually stretch from St Louis down to Arkansas with a large loop around the Missouri Ozarks. The trail splits to form this loop near Council Bluff lake where I went hiking with Grant. Most of my recent hiking has been on the eastern side of the loop (which is still incomplete). This weekend I tried the west side of the loop.

The trail is broken into sections between 18 and 40 miles each. The section I hiked is called the Middle Fork section. I've never hiked a complete section at one time before but this time I did. Of course it's a fairly short section, just over 22 miles.

This trail is just delightful. The thing that characterizes this section is the numerous creeks running with crystal clear spring water. That makes hiking so much nicer because you don't need to carry much water. And of course it makes the trail much more scenic. Perhaps it's because I grew up in the desert but I really love creeks and streams. In fact I took way too many pictures of the creeks I came across because each one looked so good to me. Here are just a few to give you an idea.

I think waterfalls are especially pretty. These are small creeks of course so there aren't big falls. But they are nice to look at. The picture above is of the largest waterfall I saw on the trip. I've read that it is 12' from top to bottom.

I noticed afterward that I took more picture of the small creeks than the big streams. Some of them were a challenge to cross. For a few there was nothing to be done except wade. I guessed this would be the case in advance so I wore my sandals with sealskinz waterproof socks. These socks keep water out but allow sweat to escape in some way. They work pretty well. My feet stayed dry after many river crossings.

The trail, as you can see from the map above, heads west and then turns almost straight south. I started hiking about noon on Friday and made good time, about 2.5 miles per hour, and reached a high plateau just before the southward turn just after 4pm. I camped there for the night. There was a forecast of rain so I set up my poncho/tarp above my bivy in a lean-to configuration.

This is the most common pitch for a poncho/tarp and I found I liked it quite well. It's probably not particularly strong for high winds. The winds that night were very mild but I found it surprisingly robust. If you look carefully you can see that I ran a line from the hood of the poncho backward to a tree. This keeps the wind from pushing the tarp against you when it blows. The rainfall wasn't that significant but this setup kept me very dry.

I set my woodgas stove near my head with some fuel I had gathered the night before so in the morning I could make some hot cocoa without getting out of bed.

The woodgas stove worked out very well on this trip. There was lots of fuel available and I found it pleasant to cook on. For dinner I had Parker Pass Potatoes from Enertia Foods (which was excellent!) and I found that one batch of wood was able to boil my water and then simmer the soup for an additional 5 or 10 minutes or so afterward while I stirred.

The next morning a misty rain was still falling. So I packed my gear (leaving the poncho/tarp up), put my pack on, and slipped the poncho over my head and wore it while hiking.

Later the rain stopped and the fog cleared a bit and I had a very nice hike. I stopped for a warm lunch at about noon. Since the wood was wet I turned the woodgas stove upside down and used it as a support for a block of Esbit fuel.

I stopped regularly to fill up on water from the creeks. It was beautiful, clear water but of course one must always be careful about water borne pathogens (mainly Giardia). Many hikers filter their water but I like my Steripen Adventurer better. It sterilizes the water using UV rays. I fill a wide mouth container from the creek and then stir with the pen. UV light is invisible of course but a blue light shines to let you know it's working. I dislike filters because they are hard work and get harder the longer you use them. Some people use chemical tablets but this seems even worse because it ruins the taste of the wonderful spring water. I do carry tablets as an emergency backup for the Steripen but so far haven't used any.

At the end of the trail I met a friend who shuttled me back to my car. As I waited for him I made another instant soup like I had for lunch. I learned something interesting. It turns out my system can't take more than one instant soup per day. It didn't agree with me. I think I need to bring more homemade food in the future.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


When you are backpacking you get a chance to get away not just from the city but from farms, roads, established campgrounds, and other places that people are. You really get out into the "backcountry" while backpacking. So you would think that backpackers would see a lot more wildlife. In my experience this isn't the case. Sometimes I'll go on a hike where I see no animals at all and then in my own subdivision I'll have to stop my car while a whole herd of deer cross the road. I'm much more likely to see rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, and possum in my backyard than on a backpacking trip. Missouri is full of beautiful birds of many kinds. But most of them are more easily seen by hanging a bird feeder in your backyard than by seeking them out in the wild. Even hawks are relatively common to see along the highways.

I think the reason is that suburban animals have learned that humans are not dangerous most of the time and so they don't bother trying to avoid us. Animals in the backcountry still have the fear of man and even a lone backpacker on a trail makes plenty of noise to send wild animals scampering.

However in the backcountry there are animals that you will seldom or never see in the city. But you may have to be content with seeing signs of them.

Above is a picture that may not look like anything to you. But as I was hiking the Western Taum Sauk trail recently it really stood out. The forest floor was covered in leaf litter. But I kept seeing places like this where the leaves had been pushed away and the ground had been dug up. This is where a feral pig has been rooting around, searching for something to eat. You can learn about the problem of feral hogs in Missouri here.

On my Bell Mountain Wilderness hike I came across the following set of prints near Joe's Creek.

Since the prints seemed to be following the trail I thought they might be from a large dog accompanying some previous hiker. But then I realized they were much too big for any dog I know of. Notice the comparison with my own foot below.

Afterward I checked with some people who know a lot about such things and they confirmed that these were bear prints. (The clue is that all the toes are in a line rather than the center toes being forward as they would be for a cougar or dog.)

I've also seen a lot of scat (droppings) while on the trail. Lately it has been largely composed of persimmon seeds. Persimmon trees are native to Missouri and produce a lot of fruit. I'm not sure whether these are hog or bear droppings.

Owl pellets are another sign that is common. You even see them in the suburbs sometimes. As a scout I would sometimes see owl pellets in New Mexico. They were small and contained lots of tiny bones. The owl pellets I see here in Missouri can be really big! We have larger owls here I guess. The big pellets seem to be from owls that have eaten a rabbit because large amounts of rabbit fur are what you see.

Beavers are also common in Missouri but I've never seen one. Generally you only see the dam they make. This weekend I'll be hiking in an area where people have reported seeing beaver dams. Perhaps I'll take a picture.

I'd like to see signs of a bobcat or a cougar. Bobcats are common in the Ozarks. It used to be thought that there were no cougars in Missouri but recently they have been seen. A cougar could live pretty well off the deer and feral hogs so it wouldn't surprise me.

The animals and birds I actually have seen in the wild that I don't typically see in the city are

1. Groundhogs
2. Turkey, typically in a flock of about 10
3. Snakes (Osage copperhead, black rat snake, some kind of water snake I can't identify).
4. Turkey vulture
5. Bald Eagles

Hopefully this list will get longer as I spend more time backpacking.