Archive for the ‘The Great Outdoors’ Category

Going West

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

I’m getting a very poor signal, but I will try to let everyone know where I am. Please excuse all the typos and fragments, I’m using my iPhone.

Right now I’m at Lieber State Recreation Area about half way between Indianapolis and Terre Haute. It is getting cold just like it was at 5:30 when I left this morning. I drove almost to Erie before it got light out. I sure feel the pain of driving all day – I think I stopped at every rest area along the road, just to stretch and walk the kinks out.

A funny thing happened last night. Dave and Lisa came to Buffalo to see me before I left. I was telling Dave that I wanted to get a car charger for my laptop so that I could blog on my trip. Dave knew of an AC inverter that would power all my plugin devices and I called Best Buy to see if they carried them. They did and we decided to go pick it up and get something to eat. Before we left I asked Lisa to put my charger cord in her purse so that we could match the specs to the power adapter.

I was surprised when Dave and Lisa presented me with the new power adapter as a gift for my birthday and trip. It was so special. Later that night, just as I was falling asleep, my phone rang. It was Dave,

“Dad, we still have your laptop cord in Lisa’s purse.”

We all forgot to take it out before they went back to Rochester. It should be waiting at Daryl’s when I get there. And anyway, I wanted to practice this on my phone.

Final Section of the North Country Trail

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Shortly before noon on September 6, 2010, Karen and I stepped from the woods onto a road called Minister Creek, completing our trek through the Allegheny National Forest on the North Country National Scenic Trail. We had hiked for three days, over some of the most taxing hills on the entire trail, plunged into thickets of waist-high weeds and briers, and, of course, walked in the rain. Our 100-mile quest for the summer of 2010 was complete. We didn’t jump and celebrate with high-fives or shouts of joy, instead, we reveled in the satisfaction of knowing we had accomplished our goal. Even though we had endured a lot of hardships on this hike, it was a great time, and I will always cherish the memories we made along the way.

For the long Labor Day weekend and the start of our hike, we decided to camp Friday night at the southern terminus of the trail near a little place called Amsler Springs. There was a shelter not far from the road where we could spend the night and get an early start Saturday morning. After positioning one vehicle at the end of our remaining section, we drove back to find the shelter. There were many campers scattered along the road as we headed south, and we were sure that someone would have claimed the shelter before we could get there. But when we arrived, there was no one around and, luckily, we would have the shelter all to ourselves.

Neither of us slept very well that night. First nights on the trail always burdened your thoughts with anticipation and wonder, strange sounds in the night wake you up continually, and the hard surface you lay on makes you toss and turn for a comfortable position. I could hear cars going by on the road just outside the woods and I would listen to make sure they didn’t stop. Karen got up in the night and told me of a phenomenon she had seen in the meadow with her headlamp. There was such a heavy mist in the air that the grass sparkled like lightning bugs and the air ahead of her headlamp was like a psychedelic, underwater shower. I got up later and experienced it too. It was almost like walking through a snowstorm of water vapor.

In the morning Karen made a delightful breakfast of cheesy eggs, strawberries, and pressed coffee. We packed and locked the truck, loaded our packs, and set off into the woods. Both Karen and I were carrying heavier loads on this hike – three days worth of food and extra warm clothes for the chilly nights. The early morning temperature was about 60 and it would stay cool for most of the day. It seemed nice to hike without enduring sweltering weather for a change.

Karen signing the trail register

Karen signing the trail register

We had to agree that the section of the NCT we hiked that day was the worst of any we had hiked so far. The trail traversed many hills almost straight up without the aid of switchbacks to ease the climb. And then on the other side the trail would drop straight down in places leaving you fearful of loosing your footing. When the path followed a stream in the valley, the weeds and briers choked the trail so that it was hardly recognizable. On top of all that, it rained off and on for most of the day. We were careful to keep dry by donning rain ponchos when we could feel sprinkles. With cold temperatures and two more days of hiking, it could be dangerous to have wet gear. In the afternoon, we walked through an interesting section of huge boulders the size of houses, with crevices, caves and ledges creating mazes through their openings. It would be the kind of place that, as a kid, I could have spent all day exploring.

We hiked almost 12 miles to a place called Kellettville, where we were planning to spend the night. The trail joined a forest road for the last two miles before town and we passed many campsites occupied by day campers in trailers and house size tents. It seemed that they all had dogs that wanted to attack us. We didn’t really relish the idea of loud music and barking dogs all night so we decided to spend the money to stay at the state park a mile further down the road.

As we walked into the state park campground we saw two men sitting at a picnic table at one of the sites. We couldn’t see any backpacks, but you get kind of a sixth sense for recognizing other hikers, and these two guys fit the profile. They were Ted and Paul from Meadville and Erie respectively, and they were hiking the trail in the opposite direction we were. We chatted for a few minutes and then they invited us to stay at their campsite. They told us that two tents were allowed on each site and it would save us the cost of another campsite. Karen and I both thought it would be a great idea so we gratefully accepted their offer and pitched our tent at their site.

Ted and Paul

Later on that evening as we made our dinner, we learned that Paul and Ted were both active leaders with the Boy Scouts. It is a tribute to men like these that give so much of their time shaping the character of our younger generation. I remember my days as a Boy Scout and attribute much of my love of the outdoors and backpacking to the time I spent there. I bet my younger brother, Daryl, still remembers the competition we won for flag signaling at one Boy Scout Jamboree.

It rained in the night. When morning came, we packed a wet tent and slipped back into our soggy shoes. One of Karen’s shoes had a sole that was coming loose and she was worried about it totally delaminating on the trail. I forgot to pack any duct tape for emergency repairs, but Paul had a small roll that he offered to her. Everyone that backpacks carries some small luxury items in their packs and one of Karen’s was a small sample bottle of Baileys Irish Cream for our coffee in the morning. When Paul and Ted saw that, their eyes lit up with delight. The trade was made – Irish Cream for duct tape. We were all very happy.

They told us what information they could about the trail ahead of us and we tried to prepare them for what they were about to hike through. We said our good-byes and headed out for our second day of hiking.

As it turns out, the rest of the trail was delightful compared to what we had come through. There was a long section, newly relocated and graded, with bridges across streams and ditching to drain the wet areas. Much of this work was done by a Boy Scout troop that maintains the trail in that area. A lot of the path went along abandoned railroad beds so there was nothing too steep going up or down, and the trail was clear of briars and stinging nettles. We hiked at a good pace, covering quite a few miles by lunchtime.

Perhaps it was the cooler weather, or the fact that the humidity didn’t tire me out as much, but I had a voracious appetite on this hike – we both did! Our food was quickly disappearing and we made joking accusations of what we would do to the other to get their Rice Krispy Treats. Ted even gave me a stick of beef jerky for the trail as we parted. Karen doesn’t like jerky or beef sticks so I leave them out of our backpacking diet. Ether she was very hungry or else the jerky was very good, but she said, “Umm, I like this jerky”, so I was forced to share with her.

We stopped in an area where it was sunny and breezy to spread out the tent and let it dry. Karen had been carrying an extra pound of water saturated in the rolled up tent. Near where we rested while waiting for the tent to dry, I noticed a huge pile of rocks. Apparently, years ago, before this area reverted back to forest, this was farmland. Farmers cleared the land and hauled stones from the fields and threw them in piles. In many parts of the forest, you can see remains of old cellars and stone fences, reminders of a time long ago when pioneers scratched out a living in a harsh land, finally giving in to the climate, steep terrain, and infertile soil of the area.

We were walking blissfully along a short while later and were suddenly startled by a dog standing in the trail ahead of us. We both stopped and waited with apprehension for the owner to come walking along and take command of the dog. You never know if a dog is vicious by nature and neither of us wanted to find out. All of a sudden the dog bolted away up the path and we continued on. Seconds later, Karen noticed it circling around us through the woods and before we knew it, it came up from behind us. It stopped again and looked at us for a while and then turned and ran the other way. Again, we looked back and it was following us. We conjured up all sorts of scenarios: Was the dog lost and trying to find its owner? Was the owner hurt and the dog trying to get us to help? Finally the dog came up to us and we could tell that it was friendly. She wore a collar with the name Emmie and a telephone number embroidered into it. We tried to take a picture of the collar for reference, but she took off again, excitedly darting up the path and out into the forest.

“If she comes back to look at us again and then runs ahead,” Karen told me, “that’s the universal sign in dog language that someone needs help and she wants us to follow her. What is it girl? Timmy’s fallen down the well?”

A few minutes later the mystery was solved. We came upon a group of campers in trailers and tents and the noises of people enjoying the weekend. Emmie belonged to this group and was just romping through the woods and having a ball.

We started to think about finding a place to camp. We had come well over 10 miles and both of us were starting to get tired. Our water supply was getting low and we would need to find a stream to fill up for the night. There just wasn’t any water as the trail followed the crest of the hills, so we hiked on, through several dry ravines, and along the remains of an old railroad bed. Once we though of stopping for the night and rationing what little water we had left until morning. But for me that sounded too much like deprivation – giving up our dehydrated meal and eating dry tuna fish.

By the time we came to a spring, filled our water bottles, and found a place to camp, it was close to dusk. The sun was low through the trees and the air had that evening chill feel to it. We had hiked over 16 miles, a heroic distance for us. We were both exhausted, and starved for our dinner.

It was a very nice campsite with a fire ring someone had made and a stream nearby for our water supply. Karen prepared our dinner as I started a fire. It would be chilly after the sun went down and the fire would feel good before we climbed into our sleeping bags. I think I could have eaten double the portion of our freeze-dried spaghetti, it tasted so good. Afterward, we sat by the fire drinking coffee, soaking up the heat, and just relaxing after a long tiring day. We fed sticks into the flames for a long time until there was no more wood left, and then we moved closer to the glowing coals until at last the darkness and the night chill drove us into our tent.

During the night, I awoke with pain in my right knee. I had been favoring my injured left knee all day by letting my right knee take all the shock of downhill brakes and steps, now the good knee was screaming from overuse. I needed to take a high dose of Vitamin I (hiker slang for ibuprofen) before I could get back to sleep. In the morning I was sore and achy but the pain went away after I moved around awhile.

The last day was fairly uneventful. It was cold in the morning, making for perfect hiking weather. We only had about 5 miles left to hike, so we broke camp in no hurry, and enjoyed a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. It was almost 9:00 by the time we got underway and I took the lead with a slow pace to work the soreness from my joints.

We walked through a section I had hiked before called Minister Creek, famous for it’s house size boulders and attractive trout streams. I kept telling Karen that we should carry a fishing pole and catch a trout for dinner next time. She thought I was nuts and just had fish on my brain from lack of food. We did find several blackberries on this section, though, and we stopped to pick and eat every one of them.

And that was about it for our North Country Trail odyssey. We found a hometown restaurant in Marionville and gorged ourselves with ham and egg omelets, french toast, home fries, and many cups of coffee. We waited for what seemed a long time to be served, but the food was very good. Karen drove me to my truck and we transferred our gear. And then, in a distracted sort of good bye… figuring out which road to get on… I’ll see you soon…and she was gone. We were already back in the other world.

A hundred miles on foot is a long way. We hiked in rain, endured sweltering heat and humidity, were attacked by swarms of insects, got blisters, aches, pains, and shivered in the chill morning air. We were hungry most of the time, reached almost complete exhaustion climbing some of the hills, and bled from arms and legs while walking through the briers. But here’s the thing: I enjoyed every minute of it. I love the fact that I’m exercising my body, burning calories faster than I can put them in my mouth, and breathing clean forest air. I like being able to cope with basic necessities where goals and wants are simple. And I like being out in nature and seeing what’s just over that next hill.

It’s hard for me to put into words what it’s meant to me to have Karen to hike with this summer, and I know she wouldn’t want me to here. I’ll just say that it swells my heart with love and pride to have a daughter like her. Stay tuned for continuing adventures of the Soggy Shoe Hikers!

The Wrong Impression

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

After posting several backpacking and hiking stories on my website this past year, I was a little surprised at many of the comments I received. It seems that I have conveyed to the reader the perception that my hikes are filled with anguish, suffering and agony. When I write about Karen and I on a hiking adventure, I sometimes focus on mishaps, mistakes and bad luck, just to add a little spice and drama to the story. I do this because I think it will be more interesting than describing things like beauty and peacefulness of nature. You know my sense of humor and the way it gets me in trouble. Instead of talking about happy experiences, I tend to focus too much on what can and did go wrong. I can totally see how this would lead the reader to think our hikes are some gruesome ordeal and that’s not what I want everyone to believe.

I’m not very good at writing about the way it makes me feel when Karen and I go hiking on the weekends. For those of you who haven’t seen her comment on my last post, I’m going to repeat it here. I couldn’t have said it better in a million years!

Comment by Karen, 8/10/10, “Sixty Five Down, Forty To Go”:

Shortly before we embarked on our quest to hike 100 miles of the NCT, I came across this quote:
“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” Anonymous

This is the mantra with which I step on to the NCT each weekend. I love to be out in the forest spending time with my dad, finding humor in our discomfort, contentment in the minutia of the experience, and joy in the practice of “dancing in the rain”. It may sound crazy but don’t knock it until you’ve walked a mile in my soggy shoes. lol 🙂

Sixty Five Down, Forty To Go!

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Karen and I went on this hike shortly before Dick, Dianna and Dom arrived here in Western New York. It was great to see them again and meet some new faces. We tried to cram a lot of activity into the short time they were here and it left me little time to tell this story. I apologize for the length and rambling nature of my writing, but it is also a chronicle of our quest to hike the North Country Trail this summer. I will try to get a couple pictures up soon. Anyway, here it is:

Imagine if you will, high winds, torrential rain, thunder and lightning, throw in flash flooding and about 4 tornadoes, and you will have some idea of the weather that ripped apart the small town of Randolph, NY in the wee hours of the morning on July 25. Now think about this: On that very same night, 30 miles south of Randolph on a high, lonely forest hill are two souls spending the night in a little backpacking tent. I may be reaching for drama here, but there was nothing except for a little luck that prevented what could have been – to say the least – an interesting night for Karen and I.

A week before our latest backpacking adventure, Jennifer and Louie, David and Lisa, along with the grandkids, Nate, Noah, Vinny, Carmen and Lucy, joined Karen and I on a fun filled camping weekend in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest. Karen found a campground near Sheffield, PA that had a swimming pool and activity room for the kids, a nice secluded area for our tents, and several hiking trails nearby. We spent Saturday morning hiking 6 miles of the North Country Trail with Dave, Lisa, Nate and Noah. We thought it would be nice for the family to share in our quest to hike the entire NCT through the ANF this summer. I’m not sure if the family day hikers understand the historic significance of our expedition, but they got a taste of what we do anyway. On Sunday, Karen took everyone but Louie and I on a hike to a waterfall nearby. It was only a mile long hike so even the youngest made it without a hitch.

When the next weekend rolled around and it was time again for Karen and I to backpack another section on the NCT, we were a little concerned about the weather report but not for the reason you might think. The forecast temperature for Saturday was predicted to be high 80’s with humidity so heavy that something called a “heat index” would peg at 99 degrees. On our last hike, I didn’t do well on some of the climbs when the heat, humidity and stagnant air pushed my core temperature to a point that had Karen concerned for my health. I really wanted to hike so we decided to drive in early to take advantage of the cool morning, drink lots of water, and take it easy on the hills. I also noticed from looking at the map that the trail followed ravines with large streams for most of the day. If I got too overheated, I would go splash in the water.

As we progress continually southward on the trail, our meeting place gets increasingly further away for me and closer for Karen. We both arrived almost simultaneously in Kane, PA, picked up a last minute supply at the grocery store, and headed up to park my truck by the trailhead. From there we drove Karen’s car approximately 20 trail miles away to a place known as Minister Creek recreation area. Even though we arrived at Kane before 8:00 am, it was almost 45 minutes before we were ready to hike.

As I pulled my things from Karen’s car, I realized with a sinking heart that I had forgotten my new hiking poles. I had just bought these poles before the hike to replace the ones I had carelessly left propped against a tree when I loaded my truck on our last hike. My hiking poles serve two purposes. My tent uses one as a prop on one end, and the poles also take some of the shock of downhill strides away from my legs. I’ve had a little trouble with a sore knee lately. Karen wanted to go back and get them but I wouldn’t let her. I told her that I could make a pair out of some sticks we would find. I know Karen uses a checklist that she has on her iPhone and I think I would do well to make one also.

The trail that day was mostly level with some gentle hills now and then. We found a few tasty blackberries early on the trail but would not see anymore on the rest of the trip. The briars from the blackberry bushes, however, would continue to rip at our legs on many sections, leaving red scratches, and later welts in thin lines. Usually briars don’t affect me except for a few hours and then their effects disappear a day later. For some unexplained reason I got into a plant of poison that caused the scratches to turn into red, oozing sores. For a week now my legs look like I’ve been kicked by a dozen angry children – they are just now getting better. The funny thing is that Karen didn’t get any reaction, and we walked almost exactly the same places except when I would go off into the woods to pee. I may wear long pants on our next hike even though my legs may be hot.

The weather that day was not as bad as predicted. It was a little cooler and not as humid as what we had experienced a couple of weeks before. Dark clouds would build behind us in the afternoon, but then the sky would grow bright again and the sun would pop out. There were several road crossing where we lost the trail and had to backtrack. Each time this happened we would jokingly add mileage to our trek to pay for the inconvenience of hiking out of our way.

We had hiked our nominal ten-mile day when we descended a long logging road late in the afternoon and entered the small town of Henry Mills on Rt. 943. We knew that we should set up camp soon but decided to hike a few more miles into the woods. We wanted to get away from any form of civilization, and the hike out the next day would be easier if we could climb some of this hill today. The trail took us up a steep dirt road for about a mile and then veered off and followed an old logging trail towards the summit. The sky behind us was beginning to get dark and every now and then we could hear the faint sound of thunder. I didn’t want to hike any higher on the hill because of lightning danger so we finally found a level spot where we could pitch our tent and make some dinner.

It was a good thing we got the tent up when we did. Shortly after Karen poured the hot water from our camp stove into the freeze-dried Pasta Prima Vera meal, it started to rain. I had an umbrella – bought from the dollar store as an experiment – that we huddled under for a while. Then we propped the umbrella over our food and used our foam mats as umbrellas as the rain continued to build in strength. We both had emergency raincoats – kind of like a garbage bag with a hood built in – but the plastic would be too hot to wear around camp. We stood for a while in the rain and then decided we might just as well get in the tent. It was only about 7:30 but at least we would be dry and prone after a long day of hiking.

I think using a stick for the pole on my tent created more problems for me. The stick I found was not long enough for the opening, causing a low roof that closed off the screen for ventilation, and built condensation that brushed on our bags as we turned in the night. On top of that, my sleeping bag was wet when I entered the tent from leaving it too close to the screened sidewall. It was a good thing it was warm because I had made a lot of mistakes that could be dangerous in cold weather. I hoped I was learning what not to do next time.

We listened to the rain drum on the tent and eventually we drifted off to sleep. Thankfully the lightning never came close. We could hear it to the north and west of us but nothing struck anywhere near us. Sometimes, off in the distance, the rumble of thunder would make the sound of a continuous pounding like the finale of a huge fireworks display. The possibility of a bad storm moving through our area was on our minds, but we didn’t speak about it. There would have been nothing we could have done in any event.

After what seemed like a long time of dozing on and off, I sensed that Karen was awake and I asked her how she was doing. It is always a little uncomfortable, sleeping on thin air mattresses, in the cramped confines of a little tent. We were both hoping for morning and daylight so that we could crawl out, stretch stiff aching backs, and resume our hike. I pressed the nightlight on my wristwatch and once I got my eyes to focus, realized it was not even midnight yet. That brought a groan from both of us as we realized we would have to endure several more hours of captivity.

When morning light finally filtered through the trees, we crawled from our tent to an overcast sky and hazy mist. Everything was wet but it had stopped raining for now. The forecast for Sunday was increasing clearing and sunshine for most of the day. We breakfasted on oatmeal and coffee, broke camp, slung packs heavy with rain soaked gear onto our backs, and headed up the trail.

We hiked for about 2 hours in the gloom of a storm that was not quite done with us yet. Once, I thought I saw sunlight break through the low clouds but it didn’t last long enough that I was sure. We became lost a couple more times where the trail crossed oil well roads, and one time we walked a half-mile on the highway before we found the path leading into the woods again. It was not long after that that it started to rain again.

It began as a light sprinkle and I was thinking that it wouldn’t last long. Then it began to rain more steadily. Then it began to pour. And it did not stop for 4 hours. At first, we tried to stand under the cheap umbrella (Which was a piece of crap. It bent after the third time I put it up and it had pointy ends that could put an eye out). Then we just hiked in the rain.

Along towards the end of our hike, we entered an area of interest and – as it turned out – irony. Back in May 1985, the Tionesta Scenic Area was hit by an F5 tornado. Winds over 200 mph cut a 2-mile swath of utter destruction and devastation through where Karen and I now walked. Trees were not just blown over but twisted off 50 feet in the air. For years scientists studied the area to gain insight into the way tornadoes behave. Usually tornadoes follow a ridge or ravine, but this particular twister was so powerful that it went in a straight line, up and down hills destroying everything in its path. We had no idea as we walked through the area that just north of us there were several tornadoes the night before.

Not long after leaving the tornado area we hiked down a ridge and came to the road where my truck was parked. And… of course, it stopped raining and the sun came out. We had hiked a little over 20 miles in the last two days, learned a lot about what to do and what not to do in the rain, assured ourselves that we were fit enough to do it again, and enjoyed the experience enough to stay motivated to the end of our quest. 65 miles down, 40 to go.

Newt and Trudge

Monday, June 21st, 2010

On the weekend of June 12, Karen and I conquered another section of the North Country Trail. We now have completed 35 miles – about a third of the trail through the Allegheny National Forest – on our quest to hike the whole thing this summer. Once again, rain and mud were our companions for most of the second day. We both agreed that this section of trail would not be recommended or engaged by us again.

The weather was hot and muggy. We both had rain jackets but it would have been unbearable to wear them while hiking. With the humidity so high and nary a breeze, I had to take many breaks when the trail would climb a ridge. It seemed like forever before we reached our campsite, and I had convinced myself with several rationalizations that the mileage on the map was wrong. Comparing the mileage with the time it took to get to camp, we had only averaged a little over 1 mph, not a very respectable rate for even weekend hikers.

The campsite we found was lovely, however, and it had everything we needed: A level, wooded spot for pitching our tent, a stream nearby for filtering water, cooling our feet, and lulling us to sleep, and a ready-made fire ring for our campfire. Rain held off for most of the night and early morning allowing us to pack relatively dry. By mid-morning of the second day, the rain started again and increased until, at times, you could say it was a downpour. So we hiked on in the rain, there was little else we could do.

Karen in the rain

Karen in the rain

Except for the wet treacherous trail, it was almost fun to hike in the rain – it certainly kept us cooler – and when it would rain hard, the bugs would fly for cover and leave us alone for a while. Karen already had several welts on her legs and shoulders from bug bites, and along with scratches from berry briers, she looked pretty abused. The bugs didn’t bother me as much. I think I used more Deet than she did.

All serious hikers eventually take on a trail name. We have joked several times at different occasions with a name that defines us when we are on the trail and nothing has ever stuck. The thought once entered our minds that we should call ourselves “Hot” and “Muggy”, but it ended in a debate over which one should be “Hot”. Then on our last day we came up with the perfect name for Karen. Karen was always thrilled when she would spy a newt on the trail. She would crouch down and talk to the tiny creatures as if she was a newt herself, so, of course, her trail name has to be “Newt”. I, on the other hand, felt like this hike took a lot out of me and on some of the climbs all I could do was trudge. So my trail name became “Trudge”.
nct2 004

It may be a while before we do any more hiking. Karen will be busy for a while shuttling her boys to sports. Zack now has a job and it won’t be long before he gets his license. We have talked a little about having family and friends meet us for a weekend of camping and day hiking to join in on our quest. We will keep you informed.