Sixty Five Down, Forty To Go!

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

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.

Last Day on the NCT

June 7th, 2010

Not long after we started the second day of our hike, we came upon an area where two tents were set up by the trail. It was well into the morning by then and we wondered why no one was about. Were the campers up late last night drinking and still sleeping it off, or was it just a base camp and they were out day hiking or fishing? It brought up an interesting topic about when you should see if someone needed help or be left alone to enjoy their solitude.

The trail was still muddy and slippery in places but the puddles were seldom deep enough to flow into our boots like it did in the bog. Mostly, we hiked along the steep banks of the reservoir except when an inlet would force the trail up a valley. While descending one ridge just before noon, we became hopelessly disorientated. Several trees had fallen over blocking the trail where it switchbacked down the slope. We could see a marker with an arrow pointing one way, but logically the trail should have gone the other. Karen scouted one way and I scouted the other, and eventually we figured out what had happened. One of the trees had fallen over with such force that it actually hit and twisted the tree with the arrow on it, changing its direction by 180 degrees. Karen wiggled the nails holding the marker to the trees and eventually got one of them out. We flipped the arrow over and tapped the nail back in with a stone. We felt proud that we had done a good deed for future hikers.

Through the trees across an inlet we could see a huge, flat rock by the shore. It looked like a perfect spot to take a break and have lunch. We weren’t sure the trail would go by there, but it did, and we made our way down to the shore. From the moment we sat down the Black Flies attacked us. They were in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, and the more you swung at them the more persistent they became. We both had on Deet but they just seemed to ignore that, so we surrendered our lunch spot to the bugs, grabbed our packs and retreated back into the woods.

Just before we reached Willow Bay Campground and the end of our hike, we walked through a beautiful section of hardwood trees. Cherry, maple, ash and oak spread their canopy high above the forest floor, blocking the sun and all growth except for a few ferns and hearty wildflowers. Once in a while there would be several trees that had toppled over, ripping huge bomb-creators with their roots. It always seems so sad that these giant creatures have to fall and die when they are so healthy. Karen asked me why they fall and I didn’t have a good answer for her. The area didn’t seem like a place where high winds would blow them over, and the ground where their roots held to wasn’t particularly soft. I guess it’s just a part of nature.

We could hear laughter and children playing as we got closer to the campground. The sound of cars whizzing by up ahead was proof that we had once again reached civilization. We were both pretty tired – Karen because she didn’t sleep very well, me because I am old. In the campground restroom we washed up and changed our clothes. I couldn’t believe how much mud had been flipped up on the back of my legs from the trail. It felt good to be relatively clean and walk without a pack.

We drove back to retrieve the other vehicle and on the way stopped at a back road restaurant for some greasy, fried food. The food was pretty awful but the waitress was nice. When I told her we were on one of our traditional Father/Daughter hikes, she became all misty and fawned over us like long lost family members. She kept saying things like: “Oh, my Dad and I used to do things together, too… I really miss him. That’s so nice what your doing…it gives me goosebumps.”

We said goodbye at the parking lot and I drove north while Karen drove south. For a little while we were in the world of nature, not worrying about jobs, bills or yard work. We survived rain, mud, insects, and even my little tent kept us secure and protected from bears and deranged mountain men. It was a good trip.

Hiking The NCT – Part2

June 3rd, 2010

Karen and I couldn’t sit around and watch it rain so we walked down by the water to explore for a while. I wanted to show her where an old blacktop road leads down to the waters edge and is swallowed up by the lake. In 1960 the Kinzu dam built on the Allegheny River for flood control changed the landscape of this region making a vast recreational area. On sunny summer days, speedboats, skiers, and jetskis whiz up and down the lake, but today the lake was quiet except for the tapping of light rain. As we explored along the shore, it stopped raining and we returned to the campground to set up our camp.
Karen called my rainhat "Wilson"
One of my favorite things to do while backpacking is build a campfire. Any firewood left by previous campers was completely soaked from the all day rain. It would have been nice to hold our boots up to a fire to dry a little, but at least now that the rain had stopped we could change into dry clothes.

We tidied up our camp and Karen spread some things out on the picnic table to dry. It was nearing dinnertime so we boiled water for our instant meal of macaroni and beef and ate it with some raw beans and carrots. We also had more coffee making sure it was decaffeinated this time. Karen went to get water and wash our cups while I set up the tent. When she got back and saw the tent for the first time, she had that doubting look in her eyes. “Are you sure that tent will be big enough for the two of us?”

I assured her that it was a two-person tent, however, I was always solo on other trips with it. I told her she could sleep on the picnic table under the tarp if she didn’t think there would be enough room in the tent. She didn’t like that idea either and informed me that I also had to sleep closest to the tent zipper. If something is going to get you in the night, it’s always best if you are the furthest away from the zipper. That’s where they always come in after you.

I was sliding in our air mats and sleeping bags when a lady from one of the camps came by to invite us over to their campfire. Somehow they had managed to gather and dry enough wood to get a nice fire started. We told her that we would try to stop by in a while after we got everything organized. Neither Karen nor I were enthusiastic about visiting but thought they might feel bad if we didn’t go. It was starting to get dark so we grabbed headlamps and walked to their campsite.

When we got to their camp, two more backpackers from another site had joined in and everyone was telling stories of their hikes. It was almost like a competition to see who had the story about the greatest backpacking adventure. One young lady told of hiking into the Grand Canyon – along the treacherous cliff face, through eighteen inches of snow – with such drama that we wondered how she made it out alive. They were nice enough and it was good to visit for a while, but we really didn’t come backpacking to meet other people, so after awhile we excused ourselves and headed back to our tent.

I slept well for the most part but Karen said she couldn’t get comfortable and tossed and turned continually through the night. The morning sky was of parting clouds and the hint of sun breaking through. It hadn’t rained at all during the night and that made it a lot easier to break camp and pack up. We breakfasted on dehydrated scrambled eggs and bacon and more Starbucks instant coffee, swung on our backpacks, and headed up the trail for our second day.

To be continued…

Have You Seen A Blaze?

June 1st, 2010

This is a story I wrote last week about two adventurers who go on a hike in the wilds of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to post it here because it is quite long, but on the other hand, I haven’t written anything for some time and this should make up for it. I broke it into three parts, kind of like what Dick did with his journal of Big Bend, in an attempt not to exhaust the reader. I will post the second part soon.

The North Country National Scenic Trail is a continuous footpath stretching over 4600 miles from the Adirondacks in New York to the Grasslands of North Dakota. Passing through seven States, 10 National Forests, and numerous State Parks, the NCT is a hiking trail that traverses some of the most beautiful areas in Northern United States. Forests of stately hardwoods, waterfalls, glens, and mammoth rock formations, are scattered along the trail throughout New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Scenic vistas of the Great Lakes and colorful cliffs along the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior greet the hiker through Michigan and Minnesota. And who can say “Cheyenne River” or “National Grasslands’ and not be tempted to do some wandering in North Dakota.
The NCT is within easy driving distance from several metropolitan areas, making it a great recreational opportunity for many people. Few people, however, have hiked the whole thing. Imagine my surprise when Karen called and said, “Dad, do you want to go hiking next weekend?”
“Oh, I would love to! Do you have any ideas where we could hike?”
She thought for a minute, “Why don’t we backpack the North Country Trail?”
“What? That’s over 4500 miles!”
“No, no silly, just the part that runs through the Allegheny National Forest. It’s about 90 miles. We could do it in sections over 4 or 5 weekends. After each hike,” she added, “you could blog about it.”
I didn’t have to think for long – several weekends of hiking, backpacking along the Kinzu Reservoir amidst scenic hills and vistas, walking on a famous National Scenic Trail, and spending time with my daughter. There was nothing I would rather do.
We made plans to drive up early on Saturday, May 22, and meet at Willow Bay campground on the PA/NY border. From there we would drive one vehicle south to strategically place ourselves a distance of two days hiking. I voted to make this first hike relatively short because of a winter of city-soft inactivity, and build up to greater miles as I optimistically became more in shape. The weather was predicted to be warm but with a chance of showers all day Saturday.
I arrived at the campground shortly before 9:00 am. The last time I talked with Karen – there is no cell signal in most of the Allegheny National Forest – she planned on reaching the campground around 9:00 am also. I parked and read some of the literature and maps by the check in gate as a lady opened the booth to collect camping fees. After about a half-hour I sensed that something was wrong. Karen should have been there. I started to worry and explained the situation to the collector. She was kind enough to let me use her landline phone and I was relieved when Karen answered almost immediately. Sure enough, Karen’s GPS had taken her to the wrong location and she was now over half an hour away. I was more relieved that she was OK than I cared about loosing a little time hiking.
When she finally arrived at the campground she said, “All I could think about as I drove here was…great! This is going to totally be in the blog!”
It was only a short while after that that she was waiting for me as I struggled with adjusting a broken hiking pole. Ironically though, the pole was fine, I was just turning it the wrong way. We finally entered the woods and began hiking north at about 11:00am. It was raining lightly but the temperature was warm. We put covers over our packs, donned rain jackets, and tried unsuccessfully to walk around most of the muddy parts on the trail. After a while, our shoes gave up the will to be dry and we walked with the squish, squish of wet socks.
Throughout most of the day the skies were cloudy and it would rain periodically. There were also long stretches when it wouldn’t rain. Sometimes it was hard to tell if it was raining or not because of the thick canopy of leaves. The trees would shed the rain for a while until they couldn’t hold back anymore, and then drip long after the rain had stopped. Most of the trail was well marked but once in a while we would lose track of where exactly it was. It was common for us to be talking and not paying attention and suddenly realize we had not seen a blaze marking the trail for some time. Then we would have to scout around until we found the markings again. Eventually it became a catch phrase to turn around and ask: “Have you seen a blaze lately?”
We hiked through a boggy section for a couple of miles and then ascended a long hill on an old logging path. Now and then we came to oil or gas pumps (we were not sure which) scattered along the hillside, and once in a while we could see remains of abandoned pipes. Most of the trail, however, was located deep within the heart of the forest with no trace of human touch. It was nice to hike in these areas of pure wilderness.
As we descended the ridge on the other side of the hill, the Kinzu Reservoir came into view through the trees. We were looking for a place to stop and have lunch when Karen stopped short and exclaimed, “Oh how cute! Don’t step on him! Look Dad, it’s a newt!”
I couldn’t see anything until Karen actually pointed him out to me. Apparently, they are bright orange, which to me – and I’m guessing my brother Dick – look like a green leaf, but to non-colorblind people they are quite easy to spot. All the rest of the day Karen would point out the newts so that I would not step on them. She took several pictures of the little lizards along the way, but just like the wildflowers and pink apple blossoms she photographed, I imagine my perception of their beauty is different from hers.
We stopped by the shore of the Kinzu and had some lunch. For some reason I had a desire for a cup of coffee. Karen had brought a couple of packets of rich instant coffee from Starbucks and we both drank a cup of the strong brew with our meal. Not long after that we were hiking up the trail like the machines in Ironman2. Were not sure how much caffeine was in that coffee but we joked that if one of us tripped and sprained an ankle, the healthy one would be able to carry the other out.
In the afternoon we entered Tracy Ridge hiking area. I had hiked here several times before so I knew we were getting close to the camping area where we planned to stay the night. We met one hiker – the only other person we would meet on the trail – as we descended to Handsome Lake camping area. We could see a couple of tents set up but it was raining quite steady by then and the hikers were hunkered down under tarps. We choose a site, rigged a makeshift tarp over the picnic table and unpacked things we would need for our dinner.
To be continued…