Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lessons Learned at Saunder's Shelter

The accomodations at Saunders Shelter
After resting for a short time, we did several things at Saunder's Shelter that we had never done before.  Remember all of this backpacking stuff was new to us, so these were real "firsts."  It took us a little while to gather our strength back, but eventually we trekked off down the path to the spring to get water and use our new MSR Miniworks EX water filter pump for the first time.  We were pleasantly surprised at the efficiency of this pump and how quickly it filled our water bladders without a tremendous amount of arm strength (of which we had little left) expended.  We found out that the trick seems to be allowing the little chamber (about the size of a film canister) at the top to fill up before pumping each time.  That seemed to get the most bang for each pump, so to speak.  We did notice however that several bear had been visiting this little path to the spring because they were leaving fairly large "presents" for us.  I thought the first time I saw this it was horse poop, but it was bear...pretty good sized bear.  It left little doubt that we would also have to learn how to do another "first" and that was learn how to hang your food bag in a tree.
Saunders Shelter Fire Pit

But first, we settled down to eat dinner.  We learned that those little individual pouches of Propel or Gatorade are wonderful to have on the trip.  We drank several of the Propel pouches on the trip and they really helped us regain our strength by replacing those electrolytes.  We also were about to prepare our first freeze-dried dinner and weren't sure what we would think about that.  When we were discussing this, Smooth and Spot said they really liked the Mountain House meals, which is the kind we had brought.  So we got out our JetBoil cooking system, boiled two cups of that precious water, and poured it into the pouch with our dinner to rehydrate for 9 minutes.  Sure enough, when we had finished preparing the Spaghetti with Meat Sauce we had for this first night, we were really pleasantly surprised at how GOOD it was!  Of course, I guess it could have been affected by how tired and hungry we were, but really it was very tasty.  After dinner and setting up our tent on a bed of pine needles, we got around to trying to hang the food bag.  That was quite an adventure!  You had to find just the right limb--not too close to your camping area, yet hanging out far enough from any tree trunk that a bear couldn't climb the tree and just reach over and pull it toward him.  After a couple failed attempts, we finally got it hung.  I asked Smooth to look at it and see if he thought it was alright.  He said, "well, I don't really expect a bear will come through here tonight."  That was a nice way of saying, "that's easy pickings for a bear!"  So I told him I guess that really meant that I needed to find a better limb!  This one was too low and a large bear could have reached it if he stood on his hind legs.  So, we found another limb and this time, felt better about the final location of our food when it was hung.  The trick Smooth taught us to make it easier to hang the bag was to tie a shoe (Keen sandal) to the end of the rope and throw the sandal over the limb.  It proved heavy enough to carry the rope where it needed to go and also be heavy enough to fall down from the limb once it had wrapped the rope over the top.  At that point, we just secured the food bag to the rope using a carabiner clip and hoisted it about 15 feet into the air, then tied it off to another tree.  The next morning, all food was safe, so we were happy!
Our Hubba Hubba Tent

The following morning, we had Breakfast Skillet wrapped in tortillas and it was absolutely delicious!  I was so surprised that freeze-dried food could taste so good.  I had packed some regular food, such as oatmeal packets and Ramen noodle soup in case we didn't like it, but I will leave those things at home next time--save those ounces!  We said goodbye to Smooth and Spot and wished them well as they planned on going 18 miles that day.  Spot was looking forward to a "soda" at their final stop for that day because there was a little store there.  She said she "loved 'pop'."  :)  We carefully packed our supplies back into our backpacks using the picnic table to lay everything on before we packed it up.  I thought at the time, we were going to miss this picnic table the evening of Day Two, and we did.  I knew our campsite along the Creeper trail, near Whitetop Laurel Creek probably wouldn't have a picnic table.  At this point, I considered that picnic table a real luxury!  Funny how your perspective changes even on a trip this short.

The Ascent to Saunder's Shelter

Relaxing, finally, at Saunders Shelter
This was already burning when we got there!
This last part of day one proved to be a serious challenge to these two newbies to backpacking.  Come to find out, I had misjudged our remaining distance to Saunder's Shelter by about a mile, so we still had about 4.5 miles to go and most of it was a climb.  The first part of the day had been somewhat downhill, relatively level, or only slightly uphill, but this section was predominately uphill.  The path was rocky and single-file much of the way.  We found ourselves stopping to rest quite often, leaning against a tree, or plopping down on a rock or log along the way.  The afternoon drug on.  We were both tiring and Bunk's heel issue (plantar's fascitis) was really bothering him.  The weight on our backs seemed to be getting heavier all the time and we discussed the need to pack lighter next time, cutting back ounces wherever we could, before doing this again.  The waypoints I kept looking for seemed to never get there and except for the fact that we were still following those white blazes, I would have begun to doubt our course.  What I did begin to doubt was whether or not we had unknowingly passed by Saunder's Shelter.  We were unsure as to whether all shelters on the AT were marked as clearly as Lost Mountain Shelter had been.  I knew that Saunder's Shelter lay approximately 1/4 mi off the path, but I didn't know for sure that it had a sign that would point us to our destination for the night.  I did know that there should be blue blazes marking the path to the shelter since there is a reliable water source there that is in all the guide books.

As we trudged along the ridgeline that topped Straight Mountain, exhausted as we were, there was little conversation going on between us.  Suddenly we rounded a slight bend in the path and Bunk stopped in his tracks and said "Bear!"  We backed up a little ways, and I asked him, "are you sure?"  He said "it was not a black lab!" so we retreated even further.  It had been a male bear sitting only a foot or two off the path who had apparently not winded us because he didn't move until he heard Bunk speak.  At that point, he scampered down the mountain.  Actually that was the only direction he could go because at this point the mountain went down on our left side (where the bear had been) and also down on our right side since we were literally walking along the ridgeline.  We were afraid the bear would double back and come up behind us, so I fished the 32 caliber pistol Bunk was carrying in his backpack out, Bunk put the clip in, and it remained in his hand for a while.  Thankfully, the bear never returned.  After the adrenaline rush from this encounter subsided, our spirits were quite low, thinking we should have already arrived at our destination for the night.  Bunk kept saying he was going to have to just camp wherever we could find a spot, but our need for water drove me forward.  I took the lead for the last mile and a half or so and prayerfully kept pushing forward.

At one point, we came to an old roadbed that took off in the right direction for it to lead to the shelter and low and behold, there were the blue blazes I had been searching for!  So we took that roadbed, although it didn't appear to be as much used as I expected that it would be.  After a while, the blue blazes just stopped.  I kept calling out in hopes that someone in the shelter ahead (hopefully ahead that is) would hear us and we were almost there.  No answer.  No water.  So after praying for guidance again, I turned around.  I bet we added at least another 3/4 mile to our trip that day because we went down the wrong path in search of the shelter.  I've never been so glad to see a white blaze again, when we finally reached the AT again!  And so we trudged on.  I had decided at this point that we had probably passed the shelter because I just knew we had traveled more than 3.5 miles.  But I knew we had to have water.  Bunk was running on fumes and I was afraid we would have to hike all the way down the mountain before we found water.  I was saving my water for him, and he was sucking hard on what he had left.  I was praying fervently now that we find Saunder's Shelter SOON!

And then, it was there!  A wonderful little sign that said "Saunder's Shelter 1/4 mi"!!!  I've never been so thankful in my life as I was to see that little sign!  Even that last 1/4 mile was hard.  But finally, we were there, and the shelter was AWESOME!  As we neared the shelter, a thru-hiker we would later know as "Smooth" asked how we were.  I said, "we are whooped!" He replied, "you look a little 'whooped'!"  Turns out there was a very nice young couple, Smooth and Spot, who were thru-hiking the AT during this summer after they graduated from college already staying in a tent near the shelter that night.  Since they got a late start due to graduations, they were going to "flip-flop".  They were hiking up from Springer Mountain, GA and would go into Pennsylvania.  Then their parents were going to pick them up and take them to Katahdin, MA and they were going to hike back down to their stopping point in Pennsylvania.  They were doing this to beat the cold and snow that would close that part of the trail before they could get there.  They have already completed about 1/4 of the AT and another 1/4 runs through Virginia.  They hike about 18-20 miles per day because they have to average just over 100 miles per week to stay on schedule.  I will think about them often this summer and wonder where they are along the way.  I really hope they make it!

Appalachian Trail--all about ounces, steps, and overcoming challenges!

Our first steps on the Appalachian Trail at Summit Cut in Virginia

Well, we actually DID it!  On Friday morning, June 24, 2011, we set out on a three day adventure hiking and fishing along the Appalachian Trail, Section 45 in Virginia.  We got plenty of "stuff" stuffed into those backpacks, probably too much "stuff".  By the time we added our water in Damascus, they probably tipped the scale at about 30 lbs. each.  I must say, I was worried about being able to carry that much weight on my back for a considerable distance.

We began our hike at Summit Cut, approximately 17 miles north of Damascus, VA where we had left our truck parked at Sun Dog Outfitters.  We rode the shuttle which carries folks and their bikes up to begin riding the Virginia Creeper.  The driver let us off at Summit Cut where Hwy. 58 crosses the AT.  We were fortunate enough that another hiker was standing there when we got there, and he took this picture for us.  He was only dayhiking, so he took out ahead of us and we never saw him again.  We began this trek a little timidly, taking our time to adjust to the weight and the challenge of balancing those 30 lb. packs on our backs as we traversed the rocky, somewhat muddy path that would lead us, hopefully to Saunder's Shelter by nightfall.  We had plenty of time.

Our first waypoint of interest was Lost Mountain Shelter which was approximately 1.1 miles into the hike.  I was pretty excited about how quickly we got there and how good I was feeling even considering the burden on my back.  I was also encouraged at the condition of the facilities at the shelter.  There was a picnic table and a beautiful area where tents could be pitched.  The privy was clean and well-maintained, so I figured Saunder's Shelter would be very much the same.  We stopped there briefly, but didn't disturb the thru-hikers staying in the shelter and ventured on our way.

The rhododendron were blooming along the trail, especially in these lower elevations, making our path encouragingly beautiful as we continued.  Other than the rhododendron, we saw very few wildflowers on this first day, but there were many different types of fungi proliferating in the dampness along the trail.  We did see Indian pipe and an interesting plant/fungus that looked like ears of corn growing up out of the ground in bunches.  Not sure what that was.  There was also some deep orange "fingerlike" projections growing up from the ground too.  Not sure what that was either. :)  Oh well, neither are in my fungus book which I didn't take with me because of the weight.  Maybe I'll get them identified eventually.  Anyway, on Day 1, the fungi were the stars of the show.  Many shapes and colors were prevalent all along the trail.
The White Blaze!

By about 11:30, we made our way to the first point in the trail where the AT comes in contact with the Virginia Creeper and Whitetop Laurel Creek.  There is an awesome campsite here complete with a fire pit and nice logs laid out to sit on.  The creek provides ample water, however, we did not pump any here.  We still had plenty to have to carry up to Saunder's Shelter.  This campsite is below the trestle which is the Creeper Trail crossing high above, so you are somewhat sheltered from the busyness above.

It was still quite early in the day, so we decided to fish!  I put on one of the flies Dad tied for me, learning to actually tie that knot for the first time with fishing line, switched into my Keen sandals which would serve as waders on this trip, and put my line in the water.  I got a strike on that first cast, and before Bunk could even get his line in the water, I had landed my first fish--a rainbow trout, on just the second cast!  He was small, only about 5-6 inches, and he went back in the water, but what a rush!  We continued to fish up and down this short section near where we had left our packs and caught a couple more small fish--enough to keep it fun!  I LOVE dry fly-fishing!  I love to watch the fish come up and snatch that fly off the top of the water!  However, about 1:30 we decided to pack it up and continue our hike.  Before we left that spot, though, we had our first meal on the trail.  I made tuna salad sandwiches on wraps and they were good!  Bunk says he's not overly crazy about the wraps, but I think they make a great alternative to bread on the trail.  We had some nuts to go along with our "sandwiches" and then decided not to filter any water before we left--probably a blessing as it turned out.  We shouldered our packs and headed out on the final leg of our journey for this day.  I thought we only had about 3.5 miles left to go, but I didn't realize the challenges those 3.5 miles would present for us.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

It's beginning to seem real!!!

The preparations for our Appalachian Trail Hike
Ok, so it is finally seeming real to me that we might actually hike a section of the AT this summer.  We finally bought our backpacks!  Bunk's is a Deuter ACT Lite 65+10 and mine is a Deuter ACT Lite 60+10.  We got them on sale at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports this morning for 20% off!  So we saved nearly $40 per pack.  So, now it's a matter of gathering all our stuff and making it fit into the packs!  We'll see how that goes.  :)

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Virginia Creeper Brings Back AT Plans

Yesterday, Bunk and I got up at 6:00 a.m., loaded the bikes, and headed to Virginia to ride the Creeper. We had reservations for the noon shuttle from Adventure Bikes in Damascus, but after looking at the weather forecast the night before, decided we'd try to get there in time to take an earlier shuttle to Whitetop. Even though we stopped for breakfast and then later for coffee, we still made it to Adventure Bikes in time to catch the 10:00 shuttle. We hoped this would put us off the trail before the afternoon thunderstorms that were predicted moved into the region.

The weather was perfect for a bike ride in the mountains--just cool enough to be comfortable even in the shade. And, the mountain laurel were blooming along the way which made it even more beautiful than my previous ride. The trail seemed rockier than before, so we had to be careful to not let a rock or loose gravel throw us. The top of the ride was fairly uneventful, but as we made our way down, we began to notice the creek that that trail crosses numerous times. This creek, it turns out, is Whitetop Laurel Creek and is apparently one of Virginia's best trout streams. We didn't know that at the time, but we kept commenting that it sure looked like there should be lots of fish in that creek! We also noticed several places where the Appalachian Trail crossed over the Creeper trail and even ran together with the trail at one point. All of this together got us to thinking about our desires to hike a section or two of the AT this summer. We had decided back in January when the AT planning began that we wanted to try to hike where there might be an opportunity to fish. I've already purchased a collapsible rod for Bunk's birthday, so now I'll just have to go get one for me! This part of the trail definitely meets that part of our criteria!

As we rode along and after talking to the people at the bike shop when we were done, we began to pull together ideas about how we could hike this part of the AT, including a shuttle to Whitetop Summit which would allow us to park our truck safely in Damascus at the bike shop. It looks like it can easily be done with just one night spent on the trail, which will break us in slowly. According to the 2011 Data Book we purchased in Damascus, we would be hiking Virginia Section 45 beginning at Summit Cut, VA where US 58 crosses the AT. There's a campsite about 5 miles in and Saunders Shelter at 7 miles in. Fishing would be done on Day 2, south of Saunders Shelter during the four miles where the AT and the Creeper Trail run together along the creek. We should probably be prepared to spend a second night on the trail in case we have a really good day fishing and don't make much time. We could fish and camp close to the river and then finish the hike where the AT goes back up and runs along the ridge leaving about 5 miles for Day 3.