Sunday, February 15, 2009

Interests Relating to Backpacking

I've found that backpacking has sparked my interest in several areas that I hadn't really thought about much before. I'm finding myself googling things more often to learn the answers to questions that come up during a hike. Backpacking puts you more in touch with the natural world that we usually don't see or think about.


Trees are the first thing you begin to wonder about in the forest. You feel stupid not knowing what these trees around you are. After I'd been on a few hikes I began to wonder what kind of trees I was seeing and what were the nuts I kept finding on the ground so I began asking questions. Now I can recognize a Hickory nut and I know which tree it comes from. I never knew what Hickory trees were before. Now I'm wondering if it's Hickory trees that give the Ozarks their particular smell. The smell is subtle but quite nice. The other day I took out one of my tarps and had the family smell it compared with the smell of a brand new tarp that I'd never used. "That's the smell of the Ozarks" I told them. However I don't know yet that it is Hickory that I'm smelling.

I always knew what an Oak tree was but after reading Allison Vaughn's recent blog entry I'm anxious to get back and see if I can tell which of the oaks I'm seeing are post oaks and which are the red or black oaks. Apparently the post oak is adapted to the fires that once were common in the forest. Now that we stop forest fires the red and black oaks (that can't tolerate fire) are taking over.

Astronomy/Star Gazing

Last Thursday night on top of Taum Sauk Hyrum and I were struck with the perfect view we had of the stars. We were on top of the highest mountain in the state, far from any major town, with no leaves on the trees and no clouds in the sky. As I looked around I found that I wished I knew more about the stars I was seeing. I could recognize Orion's belt but that's about all. Here's a picture I stole from the web somewhere. You can see the stars that make the belt. I figured the two bright stars underneath must be his feet and the two upper ones were his hands. A very rough approximation of a person I thought. I started reading about the constellations and found that Orion is the big winter constellation. After spring it falls below the horizon. I also learned that there is more detail in the constellation than I originally thought.

You see that bright area just below the belt? That is often called the sword. Now look to the right of the upper stars. There are 4 smaller stars in a semi-circle. That is the bow that Orion is shooting.

The stars in Orion are among the brightest in the sky. Including Rigel (bottom right) and Betelgeuse (top left). The sword is actually not a star, it's the Orion Nebula.

Pretty cool. I'll have to study up to see what other constellations there are to see and how they change with the seasons.


We all see bugs from time to time but we mostly step on them, shoo them away, or ignore them. In the woods I see some pretty cool bugs sometimes. This fall while on Bell Mountain I stopped to cook lunch and when I finished and turned around to get my pack I met this fellow.
It's hard to get the scale from the picture but he was about 5 inches long. Learning names of insects is much harder than birds or animals because there are so many. But the variety itself is pretty incredible. I never really cared before but while hiking I have time to look at these things and now I'm wishing I knew more about them.


All kids are interested in rocks as a rule. Very few adults are. But once again the fact that you have more time while backpacking makes all the difference. Here's me picking up a rock while hiking with my brother near Council Bluff lake. You can't see the rock very well. It looked almost like a geode to me but not quite. These things were everywhere.

This winter I returned to this same general area to hike the Middle Fork section. The northern end of that trail is near Council Bluff. Here's a larger stone of the same kind. I just had to stop and look at it and take this picture. What in the world is going on here? It's softer than a geode. It seems to be made of sand but why these bumps instead of flat layers like most sedimentary rocks?

Hmmm. Still got a lot to learn.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mina Sauk Falls

With Saturday being Valentine's day I knew I couldn't do a weekend backpacking trip. But Hyrum had Friday off from school and I didn't have a class to teach or a seminar to attend so we headed off to spend Thursday night on a mountain.

Missouri is not the land of high mountains. In fact you can drive right to the top of Taum Sauk mountain, the highest mountain in Missouri, and look at this plaque. There is a campground near this spot where we spent the night.

Here is Hyrum enjoying a brief moment as the highest person in Missouri. (Actually he was the highest person in a several state region since there is nothing higher in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio.)

In a previous post I described hiking the trail that leads to the top from the Ketcherside trailhead. During that trip we hiked down to Mina Sauk falls, the highest waterfall in Missouri (132 foot drop in total) but I forgot my camera back at camp and so got no pictures. It didn't matter much because on that occasion there was no water. The falls only run after wet weather. We got quite a bit of rain on Wednesday so I thought we might get a nice view on Friday morning. We weren't disappointed.

The side of Taum Sauk where the falls are located (a little over a mile hike from the peak) is very rocky. The creek cascades down a rocky cliff but not in a straight line so there is no way to get a view of the entire falls without a helicopter. No picture from the ground really does them justice. Here is a shot from quite a ways back. But you can really only see the middle part very well. At the top of the picture you can catch a glimpse of the uppermost part of the fall.

Standing at the top this is the view you have looking down.

There are two trails from the peak to the falls and we took one going down and another coming back. The entire loop is just under 3 miles.

All in all we had a great time. Hyrum is a natural camper. Once his head hits that hammock he is asleep and doesn't stir til morning. Even with a comfortable hammmock and a quiet night (like we have in the winter) it's not that easy for me. I have to lie for quite a while before I can convince my body that it's okay to fall asleep even if I'm not in my bed at home. One of the difficulties of age I guess.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tent Stakes

The weather lately has been very interesting. Just a few days ago the highs were in the teens. Today it was near 70 degrees. There's Missouri for you. The nice weather makes me anxious to get out on the trail but there's still a lot of snow on the trails (now a lot of slush) which makes for unpleasant hiking. So instead of reporting on a trip I'm going to talk about gear again.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was having trouble with my Tite-Lite stakes. In general I like these stakes a lot. They are very lightweight and work great for pot supports for cooking (as I described in this post). The problem is in the winter when the ground is frozen. I've bent a stake trying to get it into the ground.

I've also lost a stake when the wind caught my tarp and ripped the stake out of the ground, sending the stake flying to who knows where. So I purchased some 8" Easton Aluminum stakes. These stakes are surprisingly light and strong. You can pound on them without worrying about them bending. Also, rather than a shepherd's hook at the end they have a cord which you can tie to your guy lines. That means that even if the wind rips the stake out of the ground it will stay attached to your tarp and not get lost.

I set up my tarp in the back yard and slept under it during the snowfall last week. Pounding the stakes into the frozen ground worked great. I was very impressed. Unfortunately it's much harder to get them out. I suppose it's a testament to their staying power but when I tried to remove them I had to really pull and this was all I got. Actually I had 4 to begin with and it only happened on half the stakes so it wasn't a total loss.

One of the good things about buying gear at REI is their return policy. You can return anything at any time in any shape. Sometimes this gets abused I'm afraid, leading people to joke about REI standing for Return Everything Immediately. In this case I felt justified since my stakes had failed on the first use.

So instead I got some MSR Ground Hogs. These aluminum stakes aren't as light or as long as the Easton stakes but they are all one piece so they can't come apart. And they still have the cord attachment rather than the shepherd's crook. I've talked to people who use them and they all say they are really strong and can take a beating. I won't often need that kind of toughness since the ground isn't often frozen in these parts. But I do need it occasionally.

Actually the best thing to do is often to use no stakes at all. If you can find trees or bushes to tie your guy lines to then that is stronger than any stake. I really try hard to pick a spot where I have things to tie to. Sometimes if there isn't a tree in the right place you can find a heavy fallen tree limb and drag it to the spot. Backpackers who often camp in deep snow really like this method because you can't find any ground to pound into. There are stakes that are designed for holding in snow but I have no experience with them.

There's another trick that I have used when I'm concerned about my stakes not holding. The worst wind I ever camped in was early last spring with Kimberly. We hung our hammocks right next to each other so we could talk. Good thing too since we didn't get a wink of sleep. The wind was gusting to 45 mph and the sound that a tarp makes in that kind of wind would wake the dead. The campground was very sandy and so I was concerned the stakes wouldn't stay. Fortunately there were large rocks around. I pushed the stakes into the ground and rolled a large rock on top of each. The wind didn't yank the stakes out of the ground all that night although it tried pretty hard.