Saturday, March 31, 2018

SLAYING THE BEAST

After three buses and an Amtrak train ride, I'm back in Arizona with Gaila. I have learned once again that one thing I know about the weather is that you never know about the weather. I didn't come out this year to take another shot at the PCT. I just started considering it around Christmas because it seemed to be shaping up as another drought year in California. I continued to watch the weather and several ski resorts in Southern California with no significant precipitation. Officially, the wet season ends the end of February. California was hoping for a March Miracle, but what were the chances of that?



My plan was to hike north to south this year. That way I would give myself another couple weeks for what little snow there was to hopefully melt away with warm spring weather before I reached the higher elevations around Mt. Baden Powell, east of LA.
Everything was shaping up exactly as I had planned until my plane landed in Bakersfield, CA on March 1st. I caught a bus up to the small town of Lake Isabella and asked the local Baptist Church if I could sleep in their backyard. It poured all night long. I figured this was just a fluke, even though my weather app beeped a winter advisory warning. I caught a 5:20 a.m. bus further up to Walker Pass where the PCT crosses. People on the bus thought I was nuts, but I was still convinced this was just a freak storm and would pass quickly. I stepped off my first 20 miles through cold wind, sleet and snow flurries. I awoke the first morning to five inches of fresh snow. My only concern was finding the trail. As it turned out, five inches doesn't completely obliterate trail sign. Most areas have some depression, wildlife use the trail, old trail maintenance helps identify the route, and if all else fails I had my Guthook App that tells me if I am two feet off trail.



The results of that storm created snow covered trail all the way to Mojave/Tehachapi Pass. I didn't lose the snow until I started to drop down to Hwy. 58 into the windmill littered pass.
I only had two town stops planned, but that was all about to change. Everything I have is quick drying with just a small slice of sunshine. When things get damp I can usually stop for a couple hours, set up my tent and a clothesline and have everything dried out in an hour. Those first five days I had no sunshine slices, just cold wind and blowing snow. My first non-scheduled stop turned out to be Mojave, CA., a sad little dot on the map where you would only go if you needed to dry out for a day. Across the street from my Motel 6 I spied a hamburger joint. It was very unique. I placed my order and immediately the girl yelled it back to the cook, "I need a fuckin' deluxe, fries and a fuckin' strawberry milkshake." (It was actually worse than this, but I don't want to make this too R rated). That was just the beginning. For an hour I heard her and the cook loudly complain about the owner, dropping the F bomb about three times in every sentence. But, I have to admit it was a really fuckin' good hamburger.
The next leg of the trip is the one most PCT hikers dread. During the popular hiking season of April and May this section is often triple digit hot. In my case I still had all four layers on, two buffs, and my gloves. There is a reason they put hundreds of wind generators here. Fortunately, the first 10 miles was abnormally still, but then a cold wind blew for the next 50 miles.
Cold weather doesn't change the water situation. I found little water over the next couple days. My app gives me clues where to look and I did find water the first afternoon up a canyon called Tylerhouse, about a quarter mile. I hate carrying too much so I only took a couple liters--that was a mistake. I was gambling on a faucet near the LA aqueduct. My app said it would be dripping---WRONG! After dinner that night I had no water left and 16 miles to my next known water at a place called HikerTown. I got up about 4 a.m. To beat the heat, if by chance there was any, and started hiking the aqueduct at forced march speed. As it turned out it was a cold, windy morning again. Many hikers do this stretch at night when it's cool. I did it during the day with all four layers on. This is where I lost my Tilley hat. I had it on over my hoodie and never felt it blow off. The Tilley hat guarantee, I thought I had, is another story.
This stretch of trail made me rethink what I was doing. I thought I had convinced myself last year that I should concentrate the miles my knees have left on the more pristine trails of the world. Why, I considered, do somewhat boring, non-backpacking areas, that just connect the dots on a long trail. I guess I am back out here because I wanted to slay the beast that tried to beat me last year. I wanted to at least finish this Southern California section, and see what it was all about. I don't want to give the impression that there are not some beautiful areas along this first 650 miles of trail, but it is not the most wonderful place to eat up trail miles.
This path stretches through an area just an hour or so from the reach of 25 million people. Like lemmings they stream out of their burrows and devour their surroundings. Land agencies like the Forest Service and BLM let them destroy areas with impunity. Not only is the PCT rutted out by dirt bikes, but much of the surrounding hillsides that pose more of a climbing challenge. Between Tehachapi and Lake Hughes, CA I saw constant soil vandalism in action. Had I been a land manager I could have written a dozen tickets. 
I can only assume that the Forest Service now considers soil vandalism another on the list of, "The Land of Many Uses." Sign Graphs of dirt bikes and mountain bikes, with a lined thru circle, will not stop the lemmings from violating this land, it would take enforcement and setting an example that would communicate to those interests that there are rules and consequences. Mountain bikers use the PCT as their personal turf, and slap their, "Mountain Biking is not a Crime" stickers all over trail signage.
You then have the artistic lemmings that spray paint rocks, bridges, signage, and trees. Some parts of the trail resemble a freight train that has spent too much down time in a metropolitan rail yard. Who knows how many pyromaniac lemmings there are, but much of the apocalyptic landscape from fire damage grows in acreage every fire season.
I go back to my broken record adage, "multiply numbers, divide resources."
So a couple days of dry weather from Tehachapi ended suddenly as I crossed the mountains to Lake Hughes, CA. Met my first northbound section hiker Paul (trail name: usedtacoulda). I could see him ahead of me on the trail. He had his back to me, stopped, looking down at his trail information. It was pouring. I pulled up with my umbrella at full mast and said hello. Paul was contemplating turning around and walking all the way back to Lake Hughes, about 13 miles. Everything he had was soaking wet, and he was currently wearing the layers he slept in. He liked my umbrella setup and I told him it had been getting plenty of use.
When I reached the road crossing to Lake Hughes the sun finally peeked out and I was able to go down into a creek bottom, find a flat spot to camp and dry my gear before nightfall.



After hiking into town the next morning and picking up my resupply at the Post Office, I ran into Paul at the historic Rock Inn. I was sitting by the fireplace having my usual rocket fuel breakfast when Paul came down from his room. He was in much better spirits after a dry night at the inn.
At this point I am still in denial about the March weather, but I am starting to see an evil pattern. My app is calling for a three wave system of the Pineapple Express over the next 72 hours.
When I started this trek I had no intentions of stopping at HikerTown, Hiker Heaven or any of the other social gathering pitstops along the trail. As it turned out I needed HikerTown for water. It is a quirky little property of false facade buildings where many hikers spend a night. I went in to ask to use their water spigot and saw a sign that said, "Do Not Disturb." Perfect, snagged a couple liters of water and on my way.
I reached the town of Agua Dulce in a cold, all day downpour. This one has me reconsidering my rain system. (Look for an update on my blog, "Pack your own pack.") If nothing else, this trip tested a lot of gear and systems I use, and there will be tweaking. My light-weight poncho was like wrestling with a snake in the wind.
 By the time I reached town it was dark and I was drenched to the bone. Hiker Heaven was sounding better with every step. It is a couple that take in and help hundreds of PCT hikers every season. They are Trail Angels on steroids. I had read a lot about this place but finding it actually turned out to be a challenge. I stopped in at a liquor store and asked the cashier if he knew where it was. He said it was up the next street. I said, "How far?" He said, "All the way."  I said, "How far is that?" He said, "All the way to the end." I was too wet and tired to ask one last time in hopes of a sensible answer. I thought maybe I should just buy a bottle of honey whiskey and find a bridge to sleep under. But instead I headed up the road all the way to the end. There I found all the houses looked alike. Nothing to indicate one was heaven for hikers. In desperation I finally knocked at a door for information. The guy pointed to the house next door. I found my way through an iron gate and was greeted by five barking dogs. At this point I don't care if they attack me and tear my face off, "I'm coming in gang." I was a soaked rat. I wouldn't even let me in if I were these people. But they welcomed me in with open arms. I immediately went into a bathroom and dumped all my wet gear in the tub. They showed me around my home for the night which was a mobile home. Gave me a room, let me dry out, did my laundry, let me take a hot shower, and tried to convince me to take a zero day and relax a bit.
Phase two of the Pineapple Express was not supposed to arrive until late the next day. I decline the zero day offer and left early the next morning. My plan was to hike through the Vasquez Rocks area about 10 miles to a KOA campground near the town of Acton, CA. I was hoping to beat the rain and find some type of shelter at this KOA for the night and keep my gear dry until this storm passed. I was relieved to see this big empty pavilion when I arrived. Perfect place to sleep for the night. I was shocked that they wouldn't let me set my tent up underneath it. I was about to leave when trail magic hit me once more. I started talking to a guy with a guitar. He turned out to be a movie producer shooting scenes at the KOA. He had two Avion travel trailers as props and offered me one for the night with heat, water, toilet and bed. Of course, I was all in.



From there the trail went straight up for about 15 miles. The rain stopped by early morning and I was back on the trail by dark thirty. Once I topped out late in the day I immediately hit snow. That snow and the snow from phase three of the storm stayed with me for the next 65 miles. By this time I had surrendered to the March Madness. It was not going to stop. This was going to be a winter camping month, and I might just as well get used to it.
Probably the scariest part of the trail was a section I should not have been on. It wasn't by design, it was weather caused and possibly mis-signed. It would have been so much easier had I been paying better attention, but at this point I am head down marching through a snowstorm. There is a beautiful, deep canyon that has been closed off to PCT hikers because of an endangered frog. I knew about it, but didn't realize I had reached it. If there was a sign indicating it, and directing me to road walk Hwy. 2 around it, I never saw it. It turned out to be some of the deepest snow I would encounter. All the way through this steep canyon I was saying to myself, "They need to do some serious trail maintenance here." The tread was eroded away to almost nothing but a line in the soil. On top of that, much of it was covered in deep snow. A summit trail crossed it at one point that was in much better shape and I mistook if for the PCT. Two miles later something didn't seem right. It is so hard to backtrack and kick yourself at the same time. It wasn't until after dark that the trail crossed Hwy. 2 again at a place called Eagles Roost Picnic Area. There I saw a huge yellow sign that made it very clear that I just spent the last few hours on a section of trail that hasn't been used for years. I was frozen, it was foggy, and I was frustrated with myself for obviously making a stupid mistake. I set my tent up in the snow covered picnic area, ate a hot dinner, and went to bed. In the morning my boots were so frozen I could not get them on. It took a half-hour of kneading them like bread dough to finally slip them on my frozen feet. At this point there is only one option. Start hiking hard. The faster you move the more the furnace gets stoked. Within a couple miles your body goes from stinging misery to stripping layers. Then the glorious sun rises and the big, beautiful hydrogen reactor warms your skin and melts away any remaining hypothermic symptoms.



Like Mt. Jacinto I hiked around Mt. Baden Powell. Hwy 2 was closed because of the snowstorm so I had a nice two lane trail to follow.
Once again, I was making an unplanned pitstop. My resupply box was only 20+ miles from Wrightwood, CA at a Best Western motel at Cajon Pass on Interstate 15. Wrightwood was a few miles off trail and I had no plans of going down there. After 65 miles of snow, cold and wet conditions, Wrightwood sounded like a nice little oasis I could not refuse. This was a great decision. I loved Wrightwood. A very friendly trail town. I found the Evergreen Cafe decked out in St. Patty's decor. This was obviously my place. Although friendly, they were crowded. It was a Sunday afternoon. Half of Los Angeles was in the mountains because of this odd weather phenomenon called snow they hadn't seen in so long. I told people, Jerry Brown should hire me as the state hydrologist. I obviously brought this weather to California.



The cafe said I would have to leave my pack outside. I will never do that. Last year a couple brothers lost their packs doing that very thing. I started to leave when a family said, "He can put it under our table, in fact, he can sit with us." Had a great time with them, and when they left, without telling me, they bought my meal." Hitchhiking, eating out, talking to people on the street, registering at the local hardware as a PCT hiker, everything about this town was fantastic.
When I left town the next morning it was a 3 mile,  2,000 ft climb back to the PCT at 8,200 ft. At the top I met Thomas. He now lived in Wrightwood, but has hiked all over the world. He was a very interesting and spiritual guy. We talked hiking gear (he gave me a new pair of gloves), religion, world hiking trails, and personal histories. After a couple hours he decided he would hike with me a ways down out of the snow. He knew the area well and pointed out my route into the valley below. I had a great morning. I was in no hurry. It was 20+ miles, all downhill, good weather for a change, and quickly running out of snow patches the lower I descended.



The next day I hiked into Cajon Pass, reaching the Best Western motel by noon, and took the rest of the day off.
I found a few northbound hikers at the motel settled in for a few days because yet another storm system was scheduled through. Trying to read the weather for the next day, I figured I would have a mostly dry day of hiking before the big storm hit. Everything started out fine, but by noon the following day I was caught in a cold, wet, continuous rain. The other part of my plan was to spend the whole next day, in my tent, under a pavilion next to Silverwood Lake as the big storm passed over. The pavilions turned out to be small and filled with large, cement picnic tables--no place for a tent. I finally settled into a flat spot for the night as darkness fell. It rained all night. I dreaded staying in my tent all day. When I got out to look around, the muddy hillside didn't look all that stable in this downpour. Maybe I have watched too much Nightly News, but I don't want to be found in 5,000 years and have people calling me, "Bog Man" or "Mud Mummy." I packed up. It was going to be another head down, umbrella up day. This was maybe the worst day of the trek. Very cold, strong wind, blowing rain in sideways all day. This is the day I decided a rain jacket and pants would replace my poncho for sure. Luckily two things happened by 5 p.m to save the day. First, I reached Deep Creek hot springs. Second, the sun came out for about an hour before it set. I had not planned to spend anytime at the hot springs. Every thing I knew about the place made it sound like a hangout for a bunch of stoners. I guess stoners don't like foul weather because I had the place all too myself. That was good because, again, I was a bit hypothermic. I set up my tent, hung a clothes line, slipped into the hot springs and spent an hour or so getting my core temperature back to normal.
Although it stayed cold enough to freeze my water bottles every night, the remaining days stayed sunny. I was running into more and more northbound hikers every day. They had it no better than I, as cold, wet weather had been pounding them since the border wall. I had met several who were already dropping out. Many just were packed too light for these types of conditions. I just can't imagine. With a bomb-proof tent, 5 degree bag and inflatable ground pad, I was semi-miserable on several nights. Many I encounter are carrying a pack the size of a purse that wouldn't even hold my sleeping bag. I wanted to ask lots of questions as we passed on the trail but usually it was raining so hard conversations were short lived.
I did have a chance to spend an hour with two who were quitting near Big Bear Lake. I was trying to hitch into town. I had spent almost two hours with my thumb out in a cold morning wind. Suddenly I was joined by a guy from San Francisco and a girl from Florida. She was sick and he was just sick of the weather. They were pulling the pin and going home. I wasn't thrilled when they showed up because now whoever pulled over needed room for three. They hung with me for an hour, even waving a twenty dollar bill at cars, then decided there were 5 cars going down mountain for every one coming up. They switched sides and hooked a ride immediately. Within 10 minutes a car with four Russian kids picked me up. Only one spoke limited English, but within 16 miles to Big Bear I was able to launder some money, get the results for the upcoming mid-term elections and find out that Putin will win his next three elections.
My bus driver off the mountain the next day was, Mick King. We had a great conversation all the way to San Bernadino. Mick is a retired Sargent Major in the British Army. Then he spent several years as a Yeoman in the Queens Guard. I love meeting interesting people. I was able to Google image Mick and find a pic of him standing directly behind the Queen. He was stationed all over the world, met his Californian wife while having his picture taken with her during a tour of the Palace in his Yeoman's uniform.



Waiting for the snow to melt out of the Sierra before continuing. When I flew out to Bakersfield, March 1st, snow level was 17% of average. It now stands at close to 50%. Will watch and see.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"PACK YOUR OWN PACK"

Besides "hike your own hike" I like the idea, "pack your own pack." It could even be a mantra. You should not let others decide what works for you. Decide for yourself what gear gives you comfort, safety, and confidence. There is a process if you are new to backpacking. It takes time and miles to discover what is best for you. Eventually you will balance the weight of an item to convenience, warmth, comfort, style, budget, and safety. 
The original purpose of going ultra-light included the desire to do monster daily mileage. Getting into the single digits of pack pounds means trading a bit of misery for mileage. If that equates to more zero or nero days, it defeats the purpose completely. 
At 68, I find light-weight, comfortable gear a great way to stretch the years I will be able to continue this addiction of spending days, weeks and months hiking in some of the planet's most spectacular wilderness. Much has to do with new hi-tech materials and innovation, but it still comes down to choice. 
I spend a lot of time on the trail hiking with and questioning people about their gear. I am fascinated how they end up reconciling what they carry. Many are in self-denial, not counting the  five pounds of gear in their cargo pants pockets. There are dozens of ways to calculate base weight. While scanning media, looking for nuggets of wisdom, the due diligence is up to you. 
 Hiking Umbrella
When it comes to weight, I personally find myself in a math roller coaster. When I get down under fifteen pounds I add another layer of comfort. How much is that 8 oz. umbrella worth? I think it is priceless in the Mojave. 
From what I observe, electronics should be added to the "Big Three." It is not uncommon to meet a backpacker carrying under ten pounds of hiking gear with an extra three pounds of electronics--phones, cameras, chargers, cables, and yes, drones. I find it pretty incredible that, besides doing a successful thru-hike, vlogging backpackers like "Homemade Wanderlust" and "Chocolate Balls" can produce professional video on a daily basis, while a majority of others fail to complete a trail or struggle miserably. Most viewers, sitting at home on the couch, vicariously hiking a long trail through this amazing technology, do not fully appreciate how much extra work, effort and weight it takes to carry this off. 
I count every piece of gear, and consider the average weight of consumables. I always look for gear that can serve more than one purpose. I am interested in weight, space, diversity, quality and protective purpose. There are as many options and opinions as there are miles of trail. I hope this helps in you finding yours.

 ULA Circuit
Pack:
ULA Circuit--I have put thousands of miles on this pack, many of them desert miles, that tend to destroy gear. I have had to sew up a few cactus snags, but have never had any issues with straps, mesh, belts, or closures. It is a top loader with adjustable storage space. It will easily hold a bear canister when necessary, and has enough pockets and mesh to keep gear organized. When I switched to this pack it saved an incredible 5 lbs. of weight without giving up any convenience or utility.


Bag:
 Zpacks Classic Sleeping Bag
Zpacks Classic, standard, 5 degree bag--Many people make the mistake of going by a bag's temperature rating. You have to take ratings with a grain of salt. For the average person, a 30 degree bag will keep you comfortable at around 40 degrees. You can layer up, but if you are carrying layers just to stay warm at night, you might just as well put your money and weight into more down. A good night's sleep will be a huge part of your success and enjoyment when hiking. It is so much easier to let heat out than keep it in. This bag weighs less than 25 oz. compared to my older 0 degree bag that weighs in just under 4 lbs. As a cold sleeper, my 30 degree bag is only useful on warm summer nights. This bag saves weight by sacrificing a hood and zipper draft collar. With a 3/4 length zipper it can also function as a quilt. 
 Hilleberg Enan

Tent:
Hilleberg Enan--This has just replaced my Hilleberg Akto. Same design with much lighter material. Like my Akto, this tent is a bomb shelter. I have already spent a night caught on a ridge in a 60 mph sleet storm that turned to corn snow. It blew so hard and steady all night the center ridge pole laid across my legs most of the night. The reason is because I eliminated the side guylines to save a few ounces. I have now replaced one--lesson learned.  In the morning, everything in my vestibule was covered in mountain mortar (frozen snow and dirt). It was like sleeping inside a flag during a hurricane, but never a doubt that this tent would do what it was designed to do--keep me dry and protected from the madness just a mere ripstop away. 
It has plenty of room for me to pack everything up inside the shelter of the tent. When I step out into the elements I only have to pack up the tent and strap it into one of my water bottle pockets. I never separate the tent from the fly. I have put it up many times in a downpour and find very little moisture to deal with before I climb in.  The Akto served me well for 17 years and thousands of miles. I expect the same quality from my Enan. I study other tent options, but it will take some real innovation to move me out of this double wall, light-weight, small footprint shelter. 
To protect my investment I carry a TYVEK footprint. I have opted for the light weight 1443R material. It is 5 oz. lighter in my configuration than the normal house wrap. It also protects my tent as it is carried on the outside of my pack. I wrap the tent in the footprint before stuffing into the carry sack.

Clothing system:
Running shorts seem to be the norm on the trail, but I'm not normal. I never where shorts. I'm Irish and old, so keeping the sun at bay is always a top priority for me. I wear quick dry pants with lots of cargo pocket storage, and zips for securing valuables. I have one Columbia Silver Ridge long-sleeve shirt that is stink-proof (NOT!). Ex-officio boxers, Darn Tough socks, a Buff, and a Tilley hat. 
I carry another set of clothing I call town clothes, sleeping clothes or insurance clothes. I used to joke, in the old days when there were restaurant smoking sections, that I could go into any eatery near the trail and sit wherever I wanted and people would just move. It is most likely still true today, but I prefer to clean up a bit before going in to represent the hiking class. I now carry Patagonia Houdini pants (actually, they're ballet warmup pants) and pullovers that work as town clothes, laundry clothes and sleeping clothes. They can also be used in light rain and wind, and assure me dry clothing after a day of hiking in continuous rain. I carry a second set of Ex-officio and Darn Tough as well. 
 Patagonia Nano Puff Bivy Hoody
For warm layers I carry two Patagonia Nano Puff pullovers. One is a hoody with a kangaroo zippered pocket, which is great for storage convenience. You start out at dark thirty in the morning when it is freezing, all layered up. This hoody pocket allows you to manage glove, hat and mitt storage on the fly. It is also a secure place to store phone, batteries and water filter on freezing nights when I often sleep with it on. The second pullover I use in frigid weather as insulated pants. (Sorry, no video here). Call me goofy but I'm warm. I just put my legs in the arms and it works like a charm.
 Patagonia Houdini Pullover Wind Shirt
I also carry down socks and a second merino Buff. I'm a cold sleeper and often deal with temps in the teens. This is what I would call valuable weight to comfort ratio. We are talking under 4 oz. for excellent heat storage. Add to that Zpacks possum hair gloves. Weighing in at 2 oz. these replaced my half-pound down mitts. I made glove liners using Tyvek envelopes and fabric glue. I find this combination as warm as my mitts. They can also be worn to bed on a cold night.
I carry the town clothes in a Zpacks cuben fiber bag that my sleeping bag came stored in. It is light and waterproof. 

 Sea to Summit Poncho
Sea To Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp Poncho--This is a great piece of gear. I have never carried rain pants or jacket. I have always found them restrictive, clammy, and limited. A poncho breathes, covers the pack, makes a great ground cloth or rain shelter. This poncho is light, fits in my belt pocket for easy access, and can be parked on my pack during those days when the weather can't make up it's mind to rain or not. I also carry a small web strap to hold the poncho tight to my waist in a wind event. It has a hood and bill cap to direct water away from the face, snaps on the sides for adjustment, and tie-outs for shelter use. 

 Sea to Summit Pillow
Sea to Summit Pillow--This would be almost sacrilegious for a gram weeny to carry, but I will plead the case that a good night's sleep is worth its weight in gold. Over the years I have used my pack, my clothes, my platys, or a combination of the whole bunch, but for a couple ounces this is consistent comfort. It takes seconds to inflate to an adjustable level.

 Compression Dry Sack
Sea to Summit waterproof compression sack-- I like this as much for the compression as the fact that it is waterproof. I use it for my Zpacks sleeping bag, pillow, and down socks. Pack space is at a premium the lighter you get. I like to compartmentalize my gear and everything has a parking space. Being consistent will save a lot of frustration in adverse conditions when you need to be productive and not scattered. Think like a fireman. Finding and deploying gear should be muscle memory. Keeping gear compact and giving it access seniority will leave you some breathing room for shuffling around in your pack. Building good hiking habits make setting and breaking camp, as well as cooking, faster and more efficient. 

 Sleeping Pad
Thermarest NeoAir Xlite--I run into a lot of backpackers that don't remember when phones were hooked to a wall, or when sleeping on pine boughs was the only way to have a soft bed in the backcountry. After years of sleeping on a Thermarest 3/4 self-inflater, sleeping on the Xlite is like dying and going to heaven. It's better than a waterbed. They will have to take my NeoAir from my cold dead hand. Full length and insulated, it only takes a couple minutes to inflate, 13 oz. (Enough said). Don't forget to carry a patch kit, especially in the desert. 

 Jetfoil stove
Jetboil cookstove-- I have an older model. That means this gear passes the test of time. Nothing is infallible. I have had the FluxRing disintegrate a couple times, and both times the company replaced my cup at no charge. I don't even expect that kind of customer service, but that is a breath of fresh air and speaks volumes about the company's commitment to product. They now make a burner that is less of a blow torch and will simmer much better, but I am not a cook. I am a water boiling, freezer bag chef who appreciates the fast action of a good blow torch. I modify everything. With the Jetboil I replaced the thin plastic cup, that protects the FluxRing, with a tin can. When I run out of fuel on a long stretch, I can use the can to build a small hobo fire and still boil water. I don't even want to be stove-less when I'm fuel-less. 
I carry a canister refill adapter that allows me to refill my canisters with butane available at most hardware stores. Instead of paying five bucks for a small fuel container I can refill for under a dollar when I find butane on sale. 
I have built, designed, refined and tested alcohol stoves. They just are not for me. Cooking with alcohol is like watching glaciers race downhill. They are also being restricted in more and more areas for good reason. Tipping one over is an instant, out-of-control, fire. I used a ZipZtove, which requires carrying no fuel, for many years. I learned to use it quickly and efficiently in all kinds of weather. As fire events have become so common they were frowned upon by more and more agencies and I just got tired of the hassle. Used properly they are safe, reliable and light.

Kitchen Gear-- I use three Ziploc, screw-top quart containers, that nest together, for eating and drinking. I carry two lids. When in the pack they hold part of my food and my Jetboil collapsible spoon. I add my food to the container before pouring in boiling water and screwing a lid on. I have no need for a cozy, I just set the container in one of my pullovers and wait a few minutes. They are great for mixing instant pudding and instant breakfast powders. I add all ingredients, screw the lid on and shake it like a paint mixer. For clean up I add a drop of Dr. Bonner's soap, pour in some hot water and shake again, with the lid loose, so it doesn't blow up. It's that simple, rinse and store. 

My Trail Chrome Umbrella--I mentioned the math roller coaster before. This is one of those items that kept calling my name once I hit the 14 lb. base weight mark. It is much like carrying hiking poles in the 90's. If I had a quarter for everyone that said, "Hey, where are your skis?" I would be as wealthy as a dot com billionaire. Now people give me the weirdo look as they approach me on the trail with my umbrella deployed. The difference is, they are sweating under various hats and I am hatless and cool as a cucumber. It also keeps me from pulling out my poncho in the rain until it really starts to pour. To be hands-free took a bit of experimentation. I read all kinds of ideas that didn't work for me. Most tied you into the shaft like Harry Houdini in chains. Every time you needed to deploy or demobilize, it meant taking the pack off and wrestling with the umbrella. The easy fix turned out to be water bladder tubing strap clips. I attached three clips on my shoulder strap and weave the shaft into them. This method takes a few seconds as you continue to hike. Removing it works the same. This is very secure, hands-free. The umbrella is designed to drop down if the wind catches it, instead of turning inside-out like a conventional umbrella. It fits next to my tent in the water bottle pocket and I can reach and attach it without missing a stride.

 Pee Bottle
Nalgene collapsible canteen-- I already explained how much I love my tent. I am not getting out of my warm bag and tent in the middle of the night when nature calls, and at my age nature calls are a constant echo. Without going into a lot of detail, this works perfectly for me. 

First Aid Kit--On my first thru-hike I told my doctor friend, and backpacking buddy, that he was in charge of my first aid kit. I told him I wanted to be able to do everything but open heart surgery, but it had to weigh less than 12 oz. He gave me drugs. Sitting on a rock along the CDT in the middle of New Mexico one hot afternoon, I decided to look at the list he included with content descriptions and instructions. It was useful information. Example: "If having a heart attack take two of these every hour until you die."
Today I carry very little. A few basic bandages and gauze, vitamin I (Ibuprofen), Pepto Bismol tabs for the bad belly, triple antibiotic cream, tweezers, needle and floss, Benadryl, and Tylenol. I carry a lot of Gorilla tape on my hiking poles to wrap gauze and fix sleeping pad holes.

 Hiking PolesHiking Poles--I have carbon fiber poles. The majority of the time I am using them, but I do want them as light as possible. On cold mornings I strap them to the pack so that I can be hands-free and keep my frozen fingers toasty warm in my pockets if necessary. When the sun flies I pull them out and use them the rest of the day. They have many pros and few cons. I would not hike without them for balance, upper body movement, noise maker (especially in grizzly country), camera mount, rattlesnake pusher, and possible ice axe. I would caution against relying on poles for self-arrest. I slid a thousand feet down Fuller Ridge on the PCT trying to use my pole as an ice axe. The snow was so hard the tip of my pole did not make a dent or slow me at all. I was gripping the pole right at the bottom of the shaft and giving it all I had. Lucky for me there were a lot of unfriendly trees and rocks to slow me down. A true ice axe will help guarantee you do not become a human pinball.

 Water FilterSawyer Squeeze--Most people would not think of this as a luxury item, but I do. I have been hiking for 50 years and have never filtered water. My wife thinks I will die from giardia or grizzly bear. The Griz might be a lot less painful. This year in Arizona it has been so dry and water is tough to find. I have ingested some real nasty stuff and the Superstition Wilderness has had an outbreak of rabies. More than once, I have found dead animals at scarce water holes. Since filters have come a long way, I decided to try one. Like cooking with alcohol, I have no patience to wait for results. I modified the Squeeze to hang off the back of my pack and filter as I walk. I still only filter the nastiest pools, but in Arizona a mud puddle is often a hallelujah moment. The opening on the Squeeze allows you to insert a common faucet, screened grommet, to filter the big chunks before they reach the filter itself. I am not suggesting everyone should stop filtering. If you drink the water in Mexico, you might get the screamers, but the people of Mexico do not. I think it is building up your immunities. 

 2L Water Bag
Water containers: Two 1-liter Platys, two SmartWater bottles, one CNOC 2-liter dirty water bladder. This gives me a six liter capacity if I ever need it. In most cases I am only carrying a liter or less. Much has to do with distance. The more distance you cover in a day the more water options you will have, even in the driest environs. 

 Headlamp
Petzl Zipka light: This is another long term piece of equipment. It is compact, with a retractable head band. It has two settings, and is great for reading at night, early morning hiking in the dark, or setting up camp in the dark. It takes 3 AAA batteries and is very efficient. I carry one set of extra batteries. 

Knife--Okay, I could lose an ounce here, but there is something to be said for nostalgia. I have had this 3.5 ounce knife for many years. About the only time I used it was to cut some moleskin on Isle Royale. I dropped the knife and it stuck, in the upright position, in my thigh, as if I were winning at a game of mumbly peg. I still have the scar. The point is, I may need it one day. It's in a scabbard, it floats, it has a flint hidden in the handle, it is razor sharp and it is strapped to my shoulder harness encase I am attacked by a grizzly and need to quickly kill myself.  

Food Bag and hanging rope: I carry my food in a Zpacks Cuben Fiber bag that is easily accessible, waterproof, has a Velcro closure, a plastic clip closure and a few loops for hanging. Attached I have 100 ft. of light nylon rope that is more than enough for many variations of hanging techniques.

Misc.--I carry extra eyeglasses because I am actually blind in one eye, but I like to see out of the good one. Most other items I carry are by choice, light and self-explanatory. They include: Bug head net, credit card, cash, microfiber cloth, mini BIC lighter, toothbrush/paste, Dr. Bonner soap in 1/4 oz. bottle, lip balm, sunscreen, safety pins, rubber bands, GI can opener, micro carabiner, a small washing machine (if you were sleeping that might have piqued your interest). I use a 2 gal. Ziploc bag to do laundry in a pinch. 

Luxuries I might add when I get back down to the 14 lb. base weight threshold again-- I really like the Vargo titanium dig dig tool. I now use a hiking pole for cat holes, but the Vargo design can be used as a tent stake. I sometimes need an additional stake if I guy out the side of my tent in a strong wind. 

 Solar PanelHow will I get down to 14 lb. again? I only have to lose one ugly pound, and I don't mean cutting off my head. What we need is better battery technology. I just read about the research development of a nano battery the size of a red corpuscle, yet as powerful as a car battery. Now we're talking. Backpacking electronics would have to be considered today's Achilles heel for a respectable backpacking ultra-lighter. I personally only use my iPhone 5s as a GPS and occasionally a call or text. I don't listen to music, play games, watch TV and movies, VLOG, Tweet, or Facebook, and take very few pics. I simply turn it on occasionally and see where Guthook thinks I am. In the old days I was like Davy Crockett - never lost, but confused for a couple weeks. It takes over a pound of gear to guarantee power for 10 to 12 days. I rarely make town stops, zero's, or nero's. I have my phone off or in airplane mode and still go through battery power fairly quickly. My current solution for a thru-hike is a very large fusion reactor collector. That would be my solar panel. It is one of the first items many thru-hikers jettison, but I find it efficient if used properly.  Besides the IPhone and cables, I have an Anker 15W PowerPort solar panel stripped down to 9 oz.  When not exposed to constant sun these panels are finicky. When I get desperate I have to stop and dedicate time to recharging by insuring the two panels full continuous sun. There are many reliable backup battery packs available if you do not mind carrying a brick. I personally like the fact that I can plug into the sun and will continue to play hide and seek with it's magical rays until I can get my hands on one of those red corpuscle batteries. 

Without giving individual scale readings, this whole collection weighs in at 14 lbs. 8 oz. That is excluding the clothes I wear everyday, my poles, and the phone in my pocket. To this I add 1 lb. of calorie dense food per day, one small fuel canister nested in my jetboil, and water as needed. I seldom do less than one week trips and usually 10 to 12 day stretches during thru-hikes. If I can leave the trailhead with less than 30 pounds on my back I find it a constantly diminishing, comfortable load that provides me everything I need for comfort, safety and confidence in any conditions. 
—Keep Smilin’



Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ultra-Light Weight Backpacking = Hiking Without Stuff



It is important not to carry too little. Not having gear can create more safety issues than benefit. The true success to ultralight backpacking is to hike with people who have STUFF!

I have noticed that since super lightweight backpacking has become popular I find more people on the trail wanting to borrow stuff from me. Many of them look like they are cold in the morning and hungry in the afternoon. If you use some common sense and lighten your load to a reasonable extent you will find you can comfortably do just as many miles in a day with thirty pounds on your back as people carrying half that weight.

Light weight hiking is not only restricted to backpacking. If you day hike you can also drop pounds just by thinking about what you really need to have along and what you may be able to replace with lighter gear.
One rule of thumb that does not always work is, "If I haven’t used it in a hundred miles I don’t need it." I tried that last summer while hiking the Great Divide Trail in Canada. I started out with great weather and no bugs. After a week on the trail I came in for a resupply and went through my gear so see what I might leave behind on the next section. I came across my bug repellent and thought, "I haven’t used this. There haven’t been any bugs."

I left my bug repellent and the little beasties devoured me for a week. It was like they had put out a newsletter and every bug in the Rocky Mountains knew I was fair game. No bug juice. Saved myself about 3 ounces. Actually I saved a lot more weight than that because the insects took at least a pint of blood and blood is heavy.

So my point is—don’t get carried away. Take what you need and trim what you can. Save weight on items that do more than one job. Example: a rain poncho that also works as a ground cloth. If you hike with others you can share the load with community items like the cooking gear, shelter and water purification equipment. The more you think about it the lighter you become and the lighter you become the more you are going to have to start looking down the trail for people with STUFF! —Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Hiking James Bay


I wanted to go backpacking where I wouldn’t see another soul. I decided on James Bay in Ontario, thinking it would be a remote area and a good spot to find some interesting birds.
I drove into Ontario, Canada and took the road as far north as it would go. I then boarded a train called the Polar Bear Express for another 186 miles straight north. I ended up in a town called Moosonee. It reminded me of a lot of Alaskan towns: a few miles of road and everyone had a vehicle that would take him nowhere.

I had not come looking for a frontier Chamber of Commerce, so I hiked across town to the Moose River and hired a Cree Indian to taxi me across to the Tidewater Provincial Park, an island in the middle of the Moose River.

I set up camp and had lunch then went off to explore the island. It didn’t take long to discover that there were more people camping on this island than the state park back home in Traverse City, Mich., during the Cherry Festival.

I broke camp and decided to go back to the mainland and see if I could find a trail less traveled. I stopped in at the Ministry of Natural Resources in Moosonee and found a brochure on the Coastal Trail. It was just beginning to be developed and promised possible encounters with spruce grouse, boreal chickadee, black-backed woodpeckers and gray jays. It also said pine marten are common.

This sounded more like the adventure I was looking for. It recommended rubber boots as a minimum (hip waders recommended)—they should have mentioned a submarine. When the tide is in (twice a day) finding a dry camp would be almost impossible.

Up the trail several miles I noticed it was low tide and still the ground was too wet to pitch a tent. I would need an air mattress to set my tent on and then float around all night.

I returned to Moosonee and hopped the first train going south. I plan to go back and explore this area one day but I will take a rubber raft to sleep in during the twilight nights and knee high rubber boots to hike the marsh like landscape of James Bay.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Acceptance is the Rule When Lost


The most important tool we carry with us in the outdoors is between our ears. Our brain and common sense are the most important tools we have. Individuals who have had life-threatening illnesses have many different outlooks.

Some individuals give up and do not have a propensity to live. Subsequently death is imminent. Others have a will to survive and move on, to live. There are many factors contributing to this. One’s personal view and outlook on life, their family, humor, goals for the future all play an important role in surviving illness, as well as surviving in the outdoors.

How we cope with our fears, phobias and stressors in life definitely plays a direct role as we continue on our life’s path.

Becoming lost in a wilderness setting has made various people depressed, angry, stressed and often frightened. Experts say that acceptance is the best frame of mind to develop when hopelessly lost. If one can accept the fact that they are lost and resolve themselves to the fact that they will be found and reach some terms of agreement within themselves about their unfortunate predicament, they can then begin to make progress. Subsequently, acceptance is a very good place in which to be. However most people usually go through all or a few of the other feelings before they start making progress in their unfortunate situation.

The first thing you should do when finding yourself lost (does that make sense?) is to sit down, take a deep breath, look around, study the terrain and figure directions. Plan your path and work your plan. Don’t wander hopelessly in circles. If you have water or access to it, stay hydrated. You will think more clearly if you stay hydrated.

You don’t even have to admit to yourself that you are lost. When Daniel Boone was asked if he had ever been lost he said, "I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks."
When I hiked the CDT and the GDT I was lost a lot. But it was all part of the adventure. Eventually you figure it out and move on. It would be pretty hard to get lost in the lower 48. You are always just miles from some outpost of man.
Backpacking Tip:
Investing in a food dehydrator can save you hundreds of dollars if you take freeze dried meals on hiking trips. An average 20 ounce meal can cost over six dollars. A good dehydrator runs just over a hundred bucks and makes it simple to dry your own outdoor meals.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Backpacking in Bear Country


The fear of hiking in bear country is good. Fear is healthy for those who travel in bear country. It is also good for population control in bear country. For example, if not for bears, Glacier National Park would be overrun with backpackers. It's hard enough already to get a backcountry permit, when and where you want one.

Those who do find the urge to hike, stronger than the fear to not hike, still need to tread cautiously. Using bear canisters or stringing food up properly is one smart move. Food can be a bear magnet. Store it a good distance from where you sleep. I have heard a hundred yards. I have never put my food a hundred yards from my tent. That's a hike in itself. You could be eaten by a bear just looking for your food.

I never eat where I sleep. I always have a meal late afternoon and hike a few more hours. They say not to sleep with the clothes you cook in. I only carry a limited amount of clothing. After a couple days it smells so bad a bear would not find it appetizing.

Just so I don't masked my body odor with anything rosy that might attract a bear looking for a new fragrance, I also stash my toothpaste, wipes and deodorant in my food bag.

Bears have noses that are many times more sensitive than a bloodhound's. That is a sense that is in your favor or flavor. If they can hear, see or smell you coming, in most cases they will make themselves scarce.

Leave the bear bells at home. Canadian biologist have completed studies that show bears recognize the sound but equate it with a birdcall. You don't want to attract a birdwatching bruin.
I whistle, recite Robert Service poetry (Bessies Boil is my favorite), clang my hiking poles together and on trail rock outcropping, and did I mention I smell real bad.

I ran into two black bear in Glacier last year that would not get off the trail. I tried all my bag of tricks and every time I moved forward they were still sitting in the trail eating berries and looking at me curiously. Finally I back down the trail one last time and yelled, "Come on Joe, Charlie, Carl, Phil, Mike, Susan, Bobby, lets get going." That did it, when those two furballs heard I was with a bunch of people they moved just far enough off the trail that I could scamper past.

Don't laugh at my word games. Bears are smart. Another time I had a large male griz outside my tent, walking back and forth in front of the door snorting and grunting, shaking his head. I was camped at Dutch Creek on the Canadian Great Divide Trail. The hair was up on the back of the bears neck, which was contagious because mine went up to. I don't think it had anything to do with barometric pressure.
First, I coughed so he would know I was in the tent. That changed nothing. Then I cleared my throat. Still no change. I took a whole roll of film in the low morning light through my bug screen and he was still pacing. Finally, I had enough. I started singing, "I'm in the Mood for Love" as loud as I could and that bear took off up the trail faster than a rocket leaving the Cape. He thought, "This guy not only smells bad, he's horny!"

There is no guarantee what a bear will do. They are no different than a dog. They all come with different personalities. I have had many close encounters and all with good outcome. You never know when you are going to surprise a female with cubs (not a good thing) or a bear on a food cache (even worse).

The majority of those who have been charged by a bear have little time, if any to react. Bears are quick as a bunny, but bigger. They may be just bluff charging. If that is the case you walk away unharmed except for a major urine stain on your pants.

If it's the real deal, are you ready? I did my own little survey a couple years ago in Glacier. I asked many of the day hikers and backpackers I encountered if they had ever had the safety off their bear spray. So far, no one has said, "yes" to that question.

When you have 400-800 pounds of muscle, blood and bone charging you like a freight train of fright, it is not the time to read the instruction booklet or figure out how the little, hunter orange, do-hickey comes off your pepper spray. If you can draw and fire quicker than Doc Holliday, it might not be soon enough.

You would be better off just dropping into the fatal position, I mean fetal.

I am not trying to scare you into staying in the front country at the lodge. I am just making some observations and suggestions that are important if you plan to use a site that I want, when and where I want it. Good luck to you. Life is an adventure and sleeping with grizzly bears is all part of the fun.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Yellowstone Country


As we left David Jackson’s Hole and John Colter’s Bay and moved north into the Yellowstone Country. We felt the same awe that must have struck Jackson, Colter, Bill Sublette, Jed Smith, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and so many other early explorers who stood in the shadows of the Tetons not so long ago. This valley completely surrounded by mountains is perhaps the most beautiful in the West. Yellowstone has been described in so many ways I think it is enough to say it offers a sense of identity with America. It is a wilderness showcase where people from all over the world come to experience the out-of-doors. The pressure of so many visitors on such a fragile ecosystem has taken its toll over the years, but Yellowstone is still a well-managed tribute to the Park Service.



Bill and Diana Plyley, who we met up with in the Tetons, like to sleep late and drive fast. We like to get up with the sun and travel with the turtles. So we never caravaned together. We would just pick a camping area and meet up with them when it happened. We would always leave long before them and get in long after them. Bill and I wanted to do some backcountry canoeing, so we met up in Grant Village campground and left the next day early for Shoshone Lake.

Bill was camped two sites behind me. When I arrived at his trailer at 5 A.M. he was still sleeping. So I sat on his picnic table very quietly, drinking my coffee and listening to the birds. Someone had let a black lab out to run the field which was against park rules, but this is just one example of the pressure on the parks I was referring to earlier. As I sat there the park was coming alive. A lady who had come in during the night climbed out of her station wagon and walked back to her canvas-covered utility trailer. She stuck her head under the canvas and began rooting around for cooking gear. About the same time, the black lab came up from behind and goosed her. She dove right under the canvas and into the trailer. When she peeked out she saw a black lab wagging his whole hind quarters and wanting to play and me rolling on the ground trying to control my laughter. She said to the dog, "Boy, am I glad to see you! " Her first thought was bear—which is much more uncommon now than it once was.

Bill finally rolled out and we packed our gear and drove to Lewis Lake where we put in. It was a short paddle across the lake and then a power portage up the spillway into Shoshone Lake. I call it a power portage because we found it easier to leave our gear in the canoe and pull it upstream which often meant we were in the ice cold water right up to the threshold of stream scream.

Shoshone Lake is about 6 miles long and can become very dangerous very fast. The wind had created too much of a chop to cross the lake so we started along the shoreline. We set up camp between the river and the first point of land. We thought this area would create a windbreak and allow us to do a little fishing. As we set up camp a group of seven kayaks came out of the river and started across the lake for the point. It was obvious the last kayak was in trouble. Through the binoculars it looked as though his craft were built from duct tape. He was taking on water and sinking. The wind was so bad we kept hoping his group would be going back for him—not only for his sake but also for ours—we knew if they didn’t we would.

We watched in horror as he finally came out of his kayak which was being blown across the lake with just the front end exposed, bobbing straight up out of the water. We knew he would not make it in the cold water very long so out we went with no plan of how to get him in the canoe in this chop.

Luckily, at the same time another canoe had come up the river and had been watching the kayak struggle. We all reached him at the same time and were able to get him aboard. He was in the first stages of hypothermia and it took a good fire before he was even able to say thank you.

I never thought too much about this incident until many years later in Reader’s Digest I read the story of a group of scouts who had drowned in this same area under very similar circumstances just one year after our little excursion. Respect is probably the most valuable thing you can take with you into the wilderness—not only for the sake of the wilderness, but also for your own.

While we were still in the park we heard about a French couple trying to have their picture taken with the bison. She stood near the animals as her husband recorded the event. Then they switched. But he was not satisfied with la bison lounging. He thought it would make a much more impressive picture if la bison would stand. So he kicked the animal in the hind end and his wife recorded his goring. I say respect is valuable but that does not mean you leave intelligence at home.
Park Service records are full of reports describing irresponsible behavior acted out by people who are under the misconception they are at a theme park.
--Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird