Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Score one for the polar bears

(stock photo)

I have heard that polar bears are one of the few predators that will actively stalk humans.


Basically, mature and immature bears are patrolling around the base, and one large female is literally camped out on or under their building, waiting for them.   They've run out of flares to scare them off, and lost a sled/guard dog (poor thing) as well.

Bet on the bears - they were there first.

It's not unusual for polar bears to approach human outposts in the Arctic, where waste is often difficult to dispose of and attracts carnivorous predators. The phenomenon has intensified, though, due to climate change.

Arguably this is related to climate change - but arguably, hairless apes wandering the Arctic wilderness are much tastier and easier to kill and eat than seals, especially when the sea ice hasn't formed up yet.

Composting Privvies - how do they work?

During my summer as a Maine Appalachian Trail caretaker, I was "privileged" to take part in an event called "a mixer".   All 4 caretakers, plus some MATC volunteers, converged on the Horns Pond shelter area for a mid-year roundtable summit, a bit of a swim, and some hard, disgusting labor.

Horns Pond is high up on the Bigelow Range, and the thin alpine soil offer the traditional outhouse/privy dynamic; the waste won't decompose due to the lower temperatures and lack of organic matter.   So, the MATC has two composing privvies.

These do not compost themselves.  This is a thoroughly disgusting process.

In early summer, the caretakers and volunteers backpack many 40-50 lb. bags of mulch up the famed Firewarden's Trail, aka the MATC Stairmaster.

There are two privvies, each set high up on the edge of a hill and over a very large galvanized tub.  The entire area behind the privvies is roped off with biohazard signs, and it's on the downhill lie from the pond and spring which serve as the water sources.  The "droppings" fall down into the tubs.   Here's where its important not to throw trash into the privvies.   When full, volunteers don goggles, aprons, thick gloves, masks, and slather Vicks Vapo-Rub under their noses for the smell, and shovel forkfulls of mulch into the "droppings", at the same time picking out the Coke cans, wine bottles, flashlights and tampons from the more biodegradable stuff.   These are all bagged in multiple layers of plastic for pack-out.   Once there's a good amount of neutral carbon-based mulch/chips turned into the droppings, they're emptied out into covered compost bins.

At this point the volunteers are pretty much done.  Throughout the process, people manning water bottles are providing drinks so that no one touches their water bottles.  The workers frequently swap rubber gloves as the fingertips literally fill and overflow with liquid sweat.  Everyone washes their boots in bleach, and changes clothes - if you do all this in full sun you end up soaked to the skin, as everything you wear is impervious.   Fortunately, the Horns Pond is nearby, and a nice chilly 50 degrees or so.

The full-time caretakers then monitor the temperature of the compost piles, ensuring that they heat up enough to kill off all the bad bacteria, turning and managing as needed.   Once this happens for enough time, the now-composted mixture is spread out on screens to dry.    As it dries, the newly formed 'soil' falls from the chips, and once dry, the chips are further rakes to further separate the new soil from the chips; the chips are used again.   The soil is then manually dispersed throughout the area.

Next time you're up near treeline and there's a privy, give silent (or vocal!) thanks to the caretakers who quite literally, shovel your shit.

Here's a video from 2014, MATC is now using a rototiller (who packed THAT up the mountain?) to do the mixing.  Not sure I entirely support the mechanized, and LOUD equipment, but it probably does a more thorough job.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Trip Report - VT 4000 footers

I spent 3 days in Vermont, bagging the 4 remaining 4000 footers (I did Pico/Killington years ago).

New gear / new hiking methods tried this trip:

  • Coolmax socks + coolmax/silk liners - giving this a try since I still get these weird blisters on the outside of my heels
  • Skipping breakfast and eating on the trail - you dont eat as soon as you wake up at home, why do it here?
  • No candy/junk - sticking to pretzels and trailmix
  • No coffee in the morning - the fresh air is all you need, plus it makes you poop

I first made my way up to the Lincoln Gap trailhead, where even the torquey TDI I drive had trouble on the 24% grade and the tight turns; I had to drop to 2nd gear to make it.   The Lincoln Gap road is the steepest paved road in America.   Of course some guys make a sport out of it - http://mountainpeakfitness.com/blog/2009-vt-6-gaps-ride !

The trail is no cakewalk either.  1.8 miles to the shelter at around 2900 feet, with most of the gain coming in the middle third.   Still, a nice walk through hardwoods most of the way, I saw a cool bright green caterpillar (I think Orthosia hibisci), and a lot of mountain aster.

I stayed at the shelter, the Caretaker was off, probably recovering from a busy Labor Day weekend.  Two section hikers rolled in around 5:30, but pushed on, to bootleg camp on one of the ski slopes.  Up around dawn, I jumped on the trail and hit the summit a few minutes after sunrise.  In an area as hilly as the Green Mountains, sunrise comes to different places at much different times.

After this, I started the ridgewalk through some ski areas and a couple of tiny cols to make it over to Ellen.

The trails in VT are great - not so steep like Maine, but not so blown-out as the ones in NH or NY.  I think it's a combination of less traffic (since the mtns aren't so sexy and high), and good trail maintainers.  Very enjoyable to walk on, some places even have leaf-litter covering the trails.  Contrast that to the High Peaks region where there are beach-ball sized boulders in the trail (Looking your way, Van Hoevenburg!).

Packed back along the ridge and down to the car, the nice thing about hiking early is that the sun is low enough that when you retrace your steps, the trail has a totally different aspect.
Wound my way down the cowpaths to Bristol for lunch, then drove up to the Huntington side of Camel's Hump.  After all, I'd done 12 miles with full pack, I might as well knock off a few more!   After collecting my thoughts I opted to do it with a daypack and come back down - the camping on Camel's Hump is WAY off ridge in either direction (E or S), and I just couldn't make myself lose all that hard-earned elevation.

Camel's Hump was hard, I guess because I started off already tired, but it was just damn steep (2400 feet in 2.4 miles).  Still, terrific trail conditions made it a lot better.   On the summit I was besieged by flying ants - apparently they ride the thermals up the hill to mate on the summit.   The summit steward(ess?) was awesome.

Once I got back down, I shared a beer and war stories with a fellow ADK46er, then drove north to Underhill State Park, where I camped for $20.  Great place, super friendly Ranger, very knowledgeable about the trails.  They mandate leashed dogs and were SO into Leave No Trace that they told people to pack out their own poop.  Not from the park of course (they had portapotties) but from the trail.

Great trail map from the State of Vermont:

Next morning on the way up Mansfield started easily enough.

Then things got real on the Maple Ridge Trail up to the Forehead, topo map shows about 1500' in just over a mile.

Getting up to the Forehead, there was real weather rolling in from the East.   The ridgewalk became a subtle race against time as I could feel the normal thermals kicking up.

After a roadwalk past the visitor center area and gigantic radio antennae, I hit the Chin, completing my 4000 foot peakbags of VT.  Looking S, I could see the weather really coming in now.   What the still pic doesn't show is the "flow" of the clouds up and to the west (to the right):

I hung out with the Summit Steward for a while, once again a great experience, the GMC knows their stuff.  Over the time I was there she went from wearing a Tshirt and shorts to pants, a long sleeve shirt, down jacket, hat, and scarf.  Finally, I was too freezing to stay so I headed down the Sunset Ridge Trail.   On the way there's a side trip to "Cantilever Rock" which is exactly that.

The picture doesn't really do it justice.  There's a nice flat lawn under it, a good place to take a break for lunch (tortilla and cheese).

A mile or so later, it was back on the Park road and the car.

I'm definitely heading back to VT for some of the other peaks, the people were great, the trails were great, and VT is a beautiful drive.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Glaciers might be forming on Ben Nevis in Scotland

A repost from the Beeb.   I saw snow on Ben Nevis when I hiked the Great Glen in 1993.  "Neve" snow is the snow that lasts from year to year, and can form a positive feedback loop as it keeps the surrounding area cooler and more reflective (higher albedo), which can lead to the creation of more snow, etc.   I haven't looked at the relative precipitation levels in Scotland, but it's fair to say they're always rainy.   Joking aside, there might be scenarios where warmer temperatures bring disproportionately more snow, which means you get this sort of accumulation.


Monday, August 8, 2016

2002 Caretaker season logs - Piazza Rock, Maine

I found my old logbook from when I was a caretaker at the Piazza Rock shelter area on the Appalachian Trail in Maine.  What a terrific experience, it really opened my eyes to Leave No Trace as a philosophy, and the overall effect that small impacts have when multiplied by hundreds.  I spoke to hundreds of people that summer, and spent a lot of time on Saddleback mountain as a summit steward, keeping people off the alpine terrain and helping preserve the blueberries and mountain cranberry for the bears.  I count "section" hikers rarely, only if they told me they were section-hiking, else, everyone was a dayhiker.

I've posted the daily hiker counts in my Google Docs, the link is here:

Gaps exist due to time off.   I was 10 days on, 4 off.
As expected, a big surge of northbound thruhikers came in September, racing the closure of Katahdin.  What I had forgotten about, was a strange trickle of SOUTHbound hikers in September as well.

This tells me that if I want to climb Saddleback with minimal traffic, pick some time in early August - for a year which had the same kind of Spring as 2002!   Some years the Mountain is open early, som late.

What's funny are the notes I made, apart from weather observations and trail conditions from my ridgeruns - I had some unkind things to say about a lot of the northbounders I met, and based on my own experiences hiking, I want to say its for 2 reasons: they're very proud of themselves, and assume you know nothing about what they've experienced, and secondly, they've just made it through the Whites and the over-sanitized, restrictive rules of the AMC.   In Maine there's no fees, and the caretakers have a much different role.

My biggest official duties included cleaning graffiti from the summit of Saddleback (yep, really), chasing an ATV rider off the Trail corridor, and getting Colby college in trouble for camping above treeline.

The next time you're at a backcountry site with a privy, or there's a bog bridge, or stone stairs, or a piped spring, give a little thought to the folks who invested their time.   By providing a permanent, convenient place to camp, it focuses the impact on 1 area instead of spreading it out along the entire trail like a strip mall.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hiking closer to home: Foster Land Trust Hayfield property

I took a few hours the other evening to do a stroll through some tame woods in Foster, RI.   The property was left to the Town Land Trust some years ago, and has recently had its old roads and game trails blazed.
The map is here.

No major elevations, just a stroll through some woods that recently were farm - you can still see stone walls, a few cellar holes, and a mill site, straddling the sleepy little Poneganset River.

Once I got to the river, I left the "official" trail and kept to a less worn trail (probably the old road) along the river.  Across the river were several fords; the land on the other side is RI DEM land, probably used exclusively by hunters.

Hearing thunder in the distance, on a hot sticky evening, I started trying to make my way back.  Minus the map, I dead-reckoned my way to a path that led to a hayfield, where I made my way along the edge.

The storm was moving in, so I picked up the pace, coming eventually to Winsor Rd, a twisty country lane in Foster, and back to the car.

I'll head back sometime to complete the trails, and definitely hit the place in the winter for snowshoeing.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Trip Report: RI North South Trail

Over the holiday weekend I thru-hiked the Rhode Island North/South Trail, a 78 mile path from the Atlantic Ocean to the RI/MA border in Burrillville, RI.

Total time: approx 3.5 days
Total mileage: approx 80 miles including travel from the trailhead

If you JUST want pictures, the full album is here (on my personal server, ignore the self-signed cert warning):

Overall, a great time, I saw a lot of wildlife, encountered some nice people, saw some interesting relics of settlement, and got to really see the terrain and weather changes as you move away from the coast.   The biggest takeaway is that this is not a hike, it's a walk.   I could count the # of times I got out of breath due to terrain with one hand.  Walking this long on this kind of low elevation gain trails is more an exercise in blister and boot management, than it is a test of endurance.   Contrast this with a trip in the mountains of Maine or New York, where you're more often than not limited by your lungs.  At least I am, your mileage may vary.

There's a lot of roadwalking, I mean a lot, one stretch is over 11 miles.  If this is not your thing, then skip the trip.

If you can, find the Cliff Vanover book, available from Great Swamp Press.  You can do it without the book, or even without maps, but there's neat info in there, and has a good section for off-trail resources such as local campgrounds.  The signage is aggressive, overly so.   Instead of the 'double blaze' at trail forks, it's everywhere you make a turn, even if there's nowhere else to go.   It's often accompanied by a plastic N/S Trail sign, with arrows drawn on in marker.  You CANNOT get lost.

There's also no legal on-or-near-trail camping, except in the northern section where it goes right through a state campground.   Bootleg camping is not permitted.   I will leave this as an exercise to the reader.   As always, follow LNT principles.

Water can be a challenge.  I carried at most a gallon, and only dipped down into my emergency quart once.   There's only a few places where you can get free clean water, so carry at least something like iodine, and consider a water filter, as the water you find might be contaminated with suburban or rural runoff - oil, fertilizer, etc.

Day 1: Charlestown RI, the Blue Shutters Town Beach
I got dropped off at 6:30 at the beach parking lot.   The first few miles were a roadwalk through a nice neighborhood, complete with joggers and dogwalkers.   After a mile or two, my feet started to feel the pain of walking on asphalt.

The trail quickly moves into woods roads and state hunting/management areas, a mix of dirt road and trail.   At one point you pass through a sod farm.   The eerily flat/smooth soil and stench of nitrogen was unpleasant.

There's a nice pond/beach area at mile 11.93.

Day 1 ends with a long roadwalk, then a walk along the old highway, the New London Turnpike, now a dirt road under power lines, littered with trash like broken TVs.   From here the roar of I-95 is omnipresent.   You cross under it later, and for a while walk along it - at least its visible through some trees.

Shortly after this you enter the Arcadia Management area.
It was here I encountered trail magic!   A woman stopped her truck and gave me a fistful of "sweet fern", which when crushed and rubbed all over, repels mosquitoes and deerflies.

A note on bugs:
Deerflies, blackflies and mosquitoes are a constant challenge.   One thing I discovered is that by wearing a floppy straw hat that covers the ears, and good sunglasses, the deerflies cannot divebomb your ears, and the blackflies cannot fly into your eyes.   If you can steel yourself to hearing the deerflies endlessly circle, and the blackflies bouncing off your sunglass lenses, it's not too bad.

In the Arcadia Mgmt area, there's a beautiful pond/brook called Roaring Brook Pond.  This is at around mile 25.5.   One should always camp near a water source - but of course not too near!

Day 2:  Mostly Arcadia, then into Moosup Valley/Coventry/Foster
Arcadia is great, especially when there's not a lot of people.   Hiking through at 7am is a great time.   Hawks, deer, songbirds, and the bugs not too bad.
At Stepstone Falls I stopped and took a brief nap, and was amazingly recharged.   I think 10-15 minute naps are going to be my new thing.

Moving through and out of the area, I crossed through the old Escoheag Ski area.   There's some random machinery in the woods still, and here's the parking lot.

Then a long roadwalk, uphill.   But, after passing an area recently cleared to provide Cottontail habitat, I hit the halfway mark!

Through here, the gypsy moth caterpillar devastation is so great, it's winter.  Not only have they stripped the oaks, but the undergrowth/blueberry thickets as well.   Bears will go hungry, so people of western RI, lock up your trash extra tight.  I hate gypsy moths and tent caterpillars.

Coming out of here, some more walking and you cross the Moosup River on a high trestle bridge.   You're at about mile 40 here.  At this point the trail goes past a beautiful pond, Carbuncle Pond, where I took a nice long 2 hour break.   My feet were blistered heavily at this point, so I didn't swim, but I got all new water, and had a bit of a wash.

I live sort of near here, and at this point there's no state owned land for another 20 miles, so I pushed on, figuring I'd eat miles and walk as far as I could to split up the next 12 miles of roadwalk.  You pass through little hamlets like Rice City and Vaughn Hollow.
On the old Plainfield Pike (the other highway) I passed one of the old toll houses.  20 miles to Providence, if I wanted to walk there.

Trudging along (really trudging at this point, all roadwalks, 40+ miles in 2 days, just wanting to sit or sleep), I got to the historic village of Moosup Valley in Foster, where my ride awaited at mile 46.

Day 3:  Foster-Glocester (July 4)
More roadwalking, down 1 lane country roads and past farms.   You can tell its an election year.

At mile 53 you cross Interstate 6, the busiest road so far, but early morning it's not too bad.  At the Shady Acres restaurant I had a nice, shady break, complete with coffee, a muffin, and a tiny nap.   I got to watch a group of Revolutionary War re-enactors muster in the parking lot, then climb into a car and drive off somewhere.  A brief trip back into the woods by an old shingle mill, then its back onto the road for more miles.

Entering the Killingly Pond area, you cross into Connecticut briefly.   This park was awful, really beat up roads, nothing smooth, but nothing soft because its stripped to the rocks, and you walk through a "wonderful hemlock forest", which as everyone knows, is code for 'dark, mucky, and full of mosquitoes".

Emerging back onto the asphalt, I went through some rural neighborhoods until I got to the Oak Leaf Campground, at around mile 62.   At this point it was midday, and about 85 degrees, so I stopped at the camp store for some cold drinks.  An hour later, saddled back up and did the 4 mile trip through the Durfee Management area to the George Washington Management Area, at around mile 66.5.   Durfee was pretty bad, roads tough, muddy, and plagued by ATVs.

For $14 I got a campsite at the state campground at George Washington, and was then reminded of the perils of staying in a public campground on July 4.   Dogs, generators, and fireworks.   At this point I'd done 66 miles in 3 days, much of it on roads, and most of it in 80+ weather.  The blisters at this point were torn open and lets just say, painful.  

And then the rains came.   Fortunately I had some raingear, and had staked the tent well.   

Day 4: To the end

The rains lasted until around 9:30 on the morning of the 5th, at which point it started to get warm.   Dreading the combination of wet woods, hemlock groves, and 80 degree weather, I rebandaged my feet and saddled up.   Here the trail follows a set of other trails known as the Walkabout Trail, but thanks to the aggressive signage, you can't get lost.

Working through the Management Area, it started to feel a little more like hiking.  Some ups and downs, nothing major, but the terrain started to lose its sameness, and being off even a dirt road gave it a more rural feel.   The start and the end of the trail are definitely the best parts for that.

Coming out into another neighborhood and passing some powerlines, you come to the final road crossing, where you move into the Buck Hill Management Area.   This is the Maine of the trail - totally away from anything, steeper ups and downs, blueberry thickets, and bugs.

I got to a trail register, and knew I was nearly there.   Feet sore, hot, tired, I was instantly invigorated and pushed on.

Through more wet blueberry thickets (these untouched by caterpillars), I stumbled out onto a dirt road, and reached the end.

A two mile hike through the Management Area, past a neat wildlife marsh complete with beavers, and my ride awaited.

Final thoughts:

Would I do it again?   Probably not, certainly not the same way.   I might try to combine it with a bike ride.   The roadwalking really wasn't fun.   Not because of cars, or annoying dogs, simply because of the physical impact of walking on asphalt.

Glad I did it?  Absolutely.  I've wanted to do this since the trail was built.

Rhode Island is really a neat state.   Within 40 miles you have a capitol city full of universities, you have both the bay and ocean beaches, and you have some beautiful wooded areas to explore.  No real climbs, no summits, no real views except for in rare instances, but it's like going back in time.   At one point almost all of RI was cleared farmlands, now you see the cellar holes, the stone walls, and newer things like ski resorts that closed 40 years ago.   You get to walk through old hamlets like "Wood River Junction" and "Vaughn Hollow" where probably everyone knows everyone.  There's wildlife everywhere.   Best of all, if you're from here, getting to any of these trails or getting a ride back is an easy <1 hour drive.  Get out and go hiking!