Flag Karma

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Kensington, Maryland, January 4, 2016 — I got myself in big trouble the other day.  The Christmas season was over and it was time to change the banner we habitually fly from our front porch.  More on how much trouble I’m in a minute.

I didn’t give the next flag much thought.  We have so many that I usually just grab one that is seasonal and we haven’t flown in awhile.

We have a storage container full of awesome banners. In total there are more than two dozen. We get them from master flag makers Carole and Mark Bisgrove in Massachusetts.  Some we’ve had for 20 years.  They are indestructible.

By way of full disclosure, Mark and I fished together as kids in the Ashland, Mass. reservoir when I’d pay an occasional summer visit to my cousins who lived across the street.  More on Carole and Mark’s flags here. Continue reading

Walking in the Woods

This is a cross post from my other blog, “A fork in the road.”  There’s more about my adventures in Georgia there.

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Kensington, MD, April 1, 2015 — Bill Bryson wrote a wonderfully humorous book entitled A Walk in the Woods almost 15 years ago.  It is a story about two totally unprepared old pals attempting on a lark to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.  When I read it, I thought it was humorous fiction.  After ridgerunning in Georgia this March, I know it’s not.  It is as true as true can be, and Bryson was an astute observer.

The movie of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, will be out this summer.  I can’t wait to see it, but I worry about those who do and then think they’re going to jump on the trail without a care in the world and hoof it up to Maine.  Not that there aren’t plenty of folks hiking this way already.  I just worry how many more of these unprepared innocents will join in the frolic over the next few years, and more importantly, what their impact will be on the trail and its environment.

This blog has noted the incredible number of clueless hikers  observed last month as they attempted to foible themselves through Georgia.  How anyone could jump into the woods having never set up a/their tent before, or show up with packs stuffed with so much that they can barely carry them – with all their gear still hermetically sealed in the original boxes – is beyond any level of sanity I can conceptualize.

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How people can forget that the sun doesn’t always shine, that the days and nights are not always warm, and that rain or snow can be bitterly cold is beyond me.  Misery does not love company on the trail.

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Under the wrong weather conditions – cold rain sleet for example – you could become hypothermic and cease to exist or be seriously injured in the southern Appalachian spring.  It’s happened recently.

Four components of success defined themselves as I observed both the prepared and unprepared go about their business.  I thought a lot about them, comparing what I saw this March with my previous experience on the trail and elsewhere.  Some may disagree with my priorities here they are anyway.

FITNESS.  Being fit, especially cardio fitness, can cover a wide range of other deficits, particularly in older and female hikers.  I couldn’t count the number of late middle age guys (mostly) who, for decades had been chained to their office desks until the week before they started, when they were suddenly paroled to pursue their retirement dreams on the AT. Too many of them went from zero to 60 and back zero in less than a week.

Guys, your high school sports days were close to 50 years ago!  Take a year to get yourself in shape.  Couch potato millennials fall into this same category. What did they think would happen when they rushed to Springer Mountain with little or no prep?  That’s why about a third of hikers don’t make it past the first 30 miles.

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As I hiked my patrol route, I’d watch the out of shape hikers sweat their way up hill chipping tiny step by tiny step up the trail, their wheezing breath hissing like dying steam engines suffering from leaky piston seals.  Pure panic defined pallid faces as the harsh realization sunk in that they were in for more than they bargained.  Their knees quivered under both the oppressive weight of their bodies and the clutter of unneeded gear strapped to their backs.  Their fun meters were pegged at zero.  So much for a walk in the woods.

Some folks are old school, but they're in shape and prepared to go.

Being fit helps prevent common orthopedic injuries, not to mention that you can hump more weight on your back.  Would anyone think that it might be smart to at least attempt lose some weight and/or get into shape before day one?

EXPERIENCE.  Knowledge.  Know-how.  Call it what you will.  Knowing how to live in the woods, and what to do if and when, can be priceless.  Traditionally we might consider learning what’s in the Boy Scout Handbook a good starting point, and it is if you have an up to date copy, not the ancient one with which I grew up.  Excellent information is available on line or in a range of recent how-to books.  Then there’s the confidence born of having been spent a little practice time living outdoors.

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Experience is the best teacher and makes for fewer goof-ups in the woods. AT hikers should know how to hike in the rain and stay dry, stay warm and above all, stay clean.  How about pitching a tent in a storm so it won’t be flooded or blown down?  How big a knife does one need, not want, but need?  First aid anyone?  What do you do if you tear your ACL or impale yourself on a protruding branch?  You should know ’cause 911 response is several hours, if not a day or more away. Leave No Trace anyone?

How about them bears, anyway?

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GEAR.  You can buy your back weight down if you can afford it, but more folks are on tighter budgets than I would have thought.  They simply can’t afford to equip themselves with hyper-light gear.

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The reality is that most of us cannot afford a $600 – $800 Cuben fiber tent weighing mere ounces, much less the full boatload of gear made from this miraculous fabric – rain gear, food bag, pack, etc.

So, what do people do?  A good set of lighter weight gear costs between $1,000 and $1,500 depending on how much of it you can buy on sale.  This type of gear, with five days food and a liter of water, will get your total winter pack weight under 35 lbs. or less depending upon what you think you need to bring.

Properly fitting light weight and flexible boots or trail runners along with dry feet help prevent blisters, the scourge of any hiker.

Unfortunately even that much money is too much for many people.  Their alternative is to buy heavy gear from Walmart or army surplus, either that or they repurpose older but much heavier gear from previous generations.  They pack canned food because they cannot afford the lighter dehydrated meals.  This route alone doesn’t deny success, it just makes everything harder.

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Some hikers don’t know what to buy, even if they can afford it.  That’s what produces the over sized 70 lb. packs stuffed with all sorts of useless trinkets.

Binoculars, camp chairs, bear bells, heavy stoves and stainless steel cooking pots, Carhart canvas jackets and other detritus is what finds itself strewn along the trail. Folks start sinking under the tremendous weight and desperately heave it overboard in hopes of staying afloat as did Bryson’s sidekick Katz in A Walk in the Woods.  Remember:  Are you on the AT to camp or to hike?

ATTITUDE.  Like the Little Engine in the storybook, if you think you can, you can.  Self-confidence and a bit of bravado can take you a long way. Yet, self-doubt racks too many hikers.  The most common question is:  “What have I gotten myself into?” That’s when I want to roll my eyes and intone “Duuuuuude! What were you thinking – that is if you were thinking at all?”

Positive attitude!

Being trail ready on day one is priceless.  Showing up on the starting line fit, knowledgeable, properly equipped and confident isn’t a guarantee, but it gets you off to a great start.

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Back to the future

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February 14, 2015 — I’m packing up and headed for some training in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has a base camp there used for training year round and for trail crews in the summer.

I’ll be joining a group of ridgerunners.  Ridgerunners patrol in season the Appalachian Trail (AT) from beginning to end.  The onset of thru hiking season is just around the corner,  and it’s time to get ready.

My role is to test the use of volunteers to augment the paid seasonal staff.  The difference is that I’ll be there only for the month of March.  Everyone else is there for the duration of hiking season – until autumn.

The need for the test is that AT (and other trails) is expected to see a large increase next year in thru hike attempts in response to the movies “Wild” in theaters now, and “A Walk in the Woods” which will be in theaters before summer’s end.

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Historical data establishes a direct correlation between increases in thru hike attempts and popular mass media about hiking or the AT.  Books, television, videos have done it every time.  Now we have Hollywood to help drive up the numbers next year.

My patrol area is the AT’s 78 miles in Georgia.  We walk five days and spend four nights on the trail.  The sixth day is off.  Of interest, we hike southbound (SOBO) for the purpose of meeting as many thru hikers as possible.  Once we reach Springer Mountain, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club shuttles us back north to do it all again.

Among our duties is to help hikers as we can, educate them on Leave No Trace™ principles and trail etiquette, pick up litter, do minor trail repairs, and report issues we cannot handle.  These hikes are not about miles.  They’re about the smiles.

The forecast isn’t friendly, at least for next week.  It’s going to be colder than a well digger’s backside in the Smoky’s.  So much so that we’ve been told that we’ll be spending our nights at the basecamp and none sleeping outside. Yea!  No sense practicing being miserable.

The weather in Georgia will probably whip back and forth between ugly and nice with huge improvements toward the end of March.  Still, the southern Appalachians are high enough that snow can fall into April, even when the temperatures in Atlanta and points south are cooking.

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I’m looking forward to some former stomping grounds.  Dick’s Creek Gap is just short of the North Carolina border and the northern edge of the patrol area.  Blood Mountain is in the center of the sector.  It’s got some interesting native American history with some ornery bear activity on the side.

I plan to blog daily, but publish them as every fifth or sixth day as time permits just like I did on my thru hike.  So stay tuned.  If anyone has read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods, you know this could be interesting.

Went for a walk on a winter’s day

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Compton Peak

Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park (SNP), Compton Peak to Jenkins Gap, Saturday February 7, 2015 —  Each inch of the Appalachian Trail has a human who is responsible for its upkeep.  These folks are called overseers.  Stewards would be more like it.

Overseers remove blown down trees, branches, clean and repair erosion control structures like check dams and waterbars, build new ones as needed, cut back vegetation that may harbor ticks and pick up trash when necessary.

As luck would have it, yours truly is about to become responsible for one mile of the Appalachian Trail from Jenkins Gap to the top of Compton Peak (SNP north district).  That’s AT northbound miles 957.4 to 958.7.  I’m about to become a proud papa.

This is a handsome section of trail if I do say so myself.  From the Jenkins Gap parking lot, it’s optically flat for about a half mile.  This part has been burned over in the past. I’m going to have to learn more about the fire.  Consequently it is infested with lots of vines and thorns. These will require a lot of attention.

The second half begins with a nice flight of stone steps leading to a sluice a bunch of us built two years ago.  The Sluice keeps water from a healthy spring from washing out the trail.  The grade to the top is gentle by any standard.  The treadway throughout has a minimal number of rocks.  Yea!  This isn’t Pennsylvania, you know.

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The trail section ends on top of Compton peak.

A blue blaze trail crosses the AT on Compton Peak leading west to a nice overlook and east to a columnar basalt formation which is one of the few on the east coast.  Eighteen months ago we built 68 stone steps to help make the trail to the basalt formation more passable and to help control erosion.  Judging from the tracks in the snow, it’s popular year round.

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The primary reason for building the steps to the basalt formation was a spring that washed out the trail.  Looks like we’ve got more to learn about water management.

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Columnar basalt.

The day was pleasant.  The temps hovered around 32F with zero wind.  The sun was mostly cloaked by heavy lead-colored clouds.

Without overseers, trails would quickly become impassible no matter whether they are in a state or local parks or one of the big ones in the national trail system.

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Before and after.

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In total there were a even dozen obstructions that had to be removed.

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Jenkins Gap.  End of the line.

A blog post about building the steps down to the columnar basalt formation can be found here. http://jfetig.com/2013/06/04/cool-rocks-bad-trail-hoodlums-mission-fix-it/

The Great Northern Ruck

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Experienced hikers helping another hiker decrease the weight of her pack.

Bears Den Hostel, Bluefield, VA, January 23 – 24, 2015 — What’s a ruck?

According to Webster, it’s 1a :  the usual run of persons or things ;  1b :  an indistinguishable gathering.  That’s what it was.

Each year the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) hosts a southern and a northern ruck with the hopes of helping prospective thru and section hikers improve their chances of success.  Think of it as a seminar for hiking nerds.

Around 30 – 40 folks gathered for the northern ruck this past weekend.  Fifteen of them were prospective thru hikers who came complete with all the common anxieties – Will I make it?  Is my pack too heavy?  What happens if it snows?  Will I run out of food?  Will I be able to get to town when needed?  What if I get hurt?  Bears?  Snakes? Lyme Disease? Ticks?  What if I meet a psychopath?  How will I navigate?  And all the rest.  I can only hope we were useful to them.

The two-day program featured a raffle and presentations on past hikes, the Grand Canyon, pack weight reduction, a bull session where folks could raise questions; all of which was capped off by loads of pot luck fixin’s.

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Food!

Bears Den is one of the best hostels on the trail.  Dana and her husband John do a marvelous job of welcoming hikers and helping them get ready to press on.  Believe me, they’ve seen it all.

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Bears Den in winter.

Bears Den and its surrounding acres was once a summer home for a wealthy doctor and his wife who was an opera soprano.  Ultimately the Appalachian Trail Conservancy bought it and contracted its operation to the Potomac Appalachian Tail club.  It’s ideally located following a strenuous section of trail known as the “Roller coaster,” a day-and-a-half south of Harpers Ferry.

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Several hostels post photos of past thru hikers.  These are several people I know from the class of 2013.

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Each year thru hikers sign a poster.  Several years’ worth are hanging in one of the bunk rooms.

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Lots of help in the kitchen.

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This guy reminds me of my cat Mustache.

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Bears Den as few thru hikers see it.

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Did I mention ice storm?

Winter Test Drive

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Shenandoah National Park, Appalachian Trail NOBO miles 917.2 to 937.2 (20 miles), January 19, 2015 —  Just like a new car, it’s best to test drive hiking and camping in the winter before buying in completely.  So it was with my friend and trail crew colleague.  She knows her trail craft and is quite comfortable in the woods, but she wanted winter experience.  She’s hoping to thru hike the AT in the future and knows that partying in the cold and snow is almost an automatic on an AT thru hike.  Unlike most guys who would not admit it, she embraces her desire to learn with gusto.

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Denise

So, off we went this weekend on a 20-mile, three day/two overnight, trip along Shenandoah’s most scenic vistas and popular places including Hawksbill (the highest peak in the park), Big Meadows, Rock Springs, Skyland, Stony Man, the Pinacles and Mary’s Rock.

Though the sun smiled upon us most of the time, the temps averaged in the 20s with a biting wind entering stage right and left at cheek chapping intervals. The objective was not to cover ground.  It was to live in the winter weather for the better part of three days and two nights and see what we could learn.

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So off we went… Enjoying the winter wonderland.

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The first day’s walk terminated at Rock Springs Hut.  I stayed there on my thru hike last year.  It’s setting features a gorgeous view through the trees in front of a nearby cabin owned by the Potomac Appalachian Trail club.

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Rock Springs Cabin

Four adult Scout leaders were using it – getting away from the boys for a weekend.

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After camp chores at the shelter, we went down to the cabin to snap some pics.

On the Appalachian Trail, shelters are called “huts” in Shenandoah and “lean-toos” in Maine.

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Would you believe it was cold outside?

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The view from the cabin.

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Sunset behind the privy.

Overnight the wind snarled with gusto, but the dawn air was so still you could hear yourself change your mind!  We popped up, packed up, and after a quick meal of coffee and oatmeal, made a quick giddy up.  No sense wasting time when it’s temperature is singing bass notes toward the low end of the register.  Movement = warmth!

The scenery during the second day was worthy of being memorialized by the likes of Winslow Homer.

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Same scene.  Different vantage points.

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Winter is nature stripped down to its birthday suit.  Not much to hide.

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Birds Nest 3, our final shelter is a party spot and not the most hospitable place.  The fireplace doesn’t do much good in a three sided enclosure.  The wind howled all night and occasionally spit enough granular snow to remind us who was boss.

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The morning made for a quick get-away back to our cars.

All in all, a weekend marked by challenge and success.