Friday, September 13, 2013

Into the Georgia Woods, Part 4

I feel like my new writing genre is disclaimers. Readers, please don’t think that in putting my backpacking adventure on the page I am being critical of anyone or anything connected to it. I have intended for this particular series of posts to be about my unique experience. This trip was a wonderful learning experience for me, and I would recommend it to anyone considering an investment of time and money in backpacking. I have chosen what to write, and any misinformation or misrepresentation, however inadvertent, is solely my doing. Now, let’s see what happened after the stars came out in Georgia.

When bedtime came, it came for all of us. We gathered our toothbrushes, went into the woods to brush en masse, and then retired to our tents. Camping can be said to reduce your entertainment options, especially after dark, but to me that’s the idea of being in the woods.

I wondered if I’d be able to sleep with my brain working overtime and my senses on the alert for anything from a centipede to a bull moose. However, as soon as I removed my two hearing aids, the sounds of the forest receded. Tired from the day’s events, I soon fell asleep. The next day my tent-mate would tell me that she thought she heard a bear during the night, but it turned out to be someone in the next tent snoring.

I did wake up in the dark, and I could have used a “nature break,” but there was no way I was leaving our tent. I wasn’t just jumpy; I was also 67, and not as agile as I might have wished. The previous evening I had lost my balance trying to exit the tent in a low crouch. Though I wasn’t hurt, I’d hit the dirt in front of everyone. It was another lesson learned: If I bought a tent, I’d need to pay attention to its construction and door placement. And my limitations.

I was the oldest hiker in our group, and part of my purpose in being there was to evaluate my physical ability to endure the trail. In 1955, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail at age 67 with a pair of high-top sneakers on her feet. It has been said and proven that even those with physical handicaps can complete a long hike, but it is also true that 70 percent of people who attempt a thru-hike drop out.

We broke camp after breakfast and began our hike back to the trailhead. We were following the same path we had taken before--the downhill one, if you recall—and so this time it was straight uphill. I didn’t weigh my pack, but I felt the strain of climbing the slippery trail wearing the pack and trying to grab onto tree trunks while holding a trekking pole in each hand. I wanted to keep up, but I also wanted to throw my gear over the nearest cliff and perhaps have someone serve me a tall glass of iced tea under a ceiling fan.

I was not the only one being challenged. One of the men fell and another smacked into a tree limb that hung at eye level in our path. In addition to navigating the natural vagaries of the trail, one of the women was nursing blisters. We crossed a paved road at one point, and it was there that our guide offered to let her shed her pack. We could hide the pack, he explained, and come back for it later in a car. That sounded good to me, and here is where I have to tell you that I wimped out. Two backpacks were hidden in the foliage, hers and mine.

It wasn’t a perfect trip and shouldn’t have been; it was a test. They all are. Mother Nature is unpredictable, gear is unpredictable, and we’re unpredictable. A thousand things can happen even to the well prepared. I’m glad I spent a night in the Georgia woods. Maybe I’ll give backpacking another whirl, now that I can boast that I’ve been four miles. All right, three.

After we returned to the shelter to empty our packs, return the gear we had used, and say good-bye I walked to the visitor center. Using the restroom there was a thrill. I also bought a T-shirt to remember my hike in Black Rock Mountain State Park. Back at my son’s house, I immediately took a hot shower, put on clean clothes, and assumed a catatonic position on the couch.

Oh--don’t be disappointed that we didn’t see any wild animals. I’m not.

Thanks to all of the outdoor experts who have helped me to understand what hiking and camping are about. You might even see me out there again. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Into the Georgia Woods, Part 3

Once we entered the backcountry of Black Rock Mountain State Park—moments after leaving a paved parking lot--sounds of the outside world were muffled by forest. We walked in silence until our guide stopped us to point out a few more dangers we might face. That would be in the event we survived stepping on a snake.
Do you know what a widow-maker is? To hikers, it’s a tree or large branch that suddenly falls to the ground. Happens all the time in the woods, and you don’t want to be under one. Not only should we keep our eyes on the trail for snakes and now branches in our path; it wouldn’t hurt to look up once in a while as well.
Tip: An alert hiker stays alive.
Our hike to the campsite was about two miles, largely downhill. As we descended the mountain, our guide made sure we could recognize poison ivy growing along the trail, and there were discussions of mushroom types, water purification, and large animals.
“Make yourself big” during a bear encounter, he said. “Hold your jacket open and put both arms up so you’ll appear larger than you are. And make noise.” Don’t worry; if I come face to face with a 300-pound black bear, my screams will be heard in Cincinnati.
Did you know that an orange plastic buckle on the sternum strap of a backpack indicates a built-in whistle? The patented Whistleloc is easy to reach if an animal is a bit too interested in you. Unaware of its existence, I carried my own whistle on a cord, hoping not to have to mimic Cheryl Strayed, who had averted disaster by blasting hers at a charging bull in Wild. A whistle also comes in handy if you need to be rescued. Just saying.
The trail isn’t for sissies, particularly after a rain, but it’s a good test of boots. If your toes don’t jam up against the insides on a sharp downhill slope and you keep your footing while navigating wet rocks, slimy roots, and mud, that’s a good thing. I do love my boots.
Halfway down the mountain we took a snack break, removing our packs on a wooden bridge over a quiet little creek. The back of my synthetic shirt was soaked with sweat. I grabbed a hunk of my hair, and it was the same story. I was surprised; we’d walked only a mile. At least I had followed one rule: “No cotton!” The fabric of our lives is a deterrent on the trail, being too absorbent and slow to dry.
Wardrobe tips: Light-colored clothing will make it easier for you to spot ticks. Brightly colored outer garments will make it easy for hunters or rescuers to spot you.
Thunderstorms can be another danger to backpackers, as we found out minutes after pitching our tents. “Get in your tents,” our leader said. “If lightning strikes, crouch on your sleeping pad, touching it with only the balls of your feet.” My tent-mate and I sat side by side and listened to the distant thunder. We were not forced into the survival position; however, rain pelted our campsite. “Do you feel that?” I asked. “Our sleeping pads are moving.” The floor of the tent was undulating beneath our legs.
“It’s like a waterbed,” she said. “We’re floating!” Outside the rain flap, my trekking poles lay in a growing puddle. I pulled my pack into the tent, but that wouldn’t save it. We had to move.
Here’s a tip: Pitch your tent on level ground.
The storm put off dinner for a while, and by then the sun was gone. Our guide said, “Everybody put on your headlamps. We might be cleaning up in the dark.” When you camp, you don’t leave anything for scavengers. Solid leftovers go into a trash bag to be hung from a tree. If you have dishwater, as we did, you dump it away from your sleeping area. Fortunately, the men took over most of the duties that required going into the woods.
Later we gathered around a fire pit minus the fire, with a few dimmed headlamps our only light. Not only are campfires ill-advised in many wooded areas; it was the end of August and no one needed heat. We were a circle of shadows, and behind us the darkness was complete. Critters started making their night noises. I thought about those tigers in India that slip into remote villages to snatch people from their huts and drag them away.
Tip: The wilderness is a good place to try positive thinking.
To be continued…

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Into the Georgia Woods, Part 2

The car aired out quickly after I dumped my badly wrapped trail snacks in Kentucky. By the time I swung back onto I-75 South, the sky was turning blue. Traffic was light, letting me enjoy the morning at a productive speed.
I do like nature. Even after the sun rose, the fog warnings were accurate. When I crossed the Kentucky River near Georgetown, I was the only one on the bridge. Fog hung above the water on both sides, and it was like driving into a make-believe land. In Tennessee the fog lay against the ground in sections of solid white, striping the grass like a flag.
I played satellite radio all the way to Atlanta, and during the last few miles I again heard the song that seemed to follow me to these hikes: “The Reverend Mr. Black.” Yes, I know I “got” to walk that lonesome valley, but at least this time I won’t be walking it by myself.
The class limit was 12 hikers. I knew that I would be teamed with another single female and that we would be tent-mates. REI would supply our tents, sleeping bags and pads, backpacks, cooking gear, and food for dinner the first night and breakfast the next day.
“Don’t let me forget my lunch,” I said to my son as I stuck my peanut-butter sandwich and power bar in his refrigerator. I even had a cloth bag with one of those built-in freezer blocks to put my food in, but there is so much to remember when you backpack. After all, I had to take my second suitcase with me to unload once the packs were distributed. Even at the end of summer, REI had required us to bring long johns, a fleece, a warm hat, and gloves in addition to a clean shirt, undies, and rainwear. My stuff bags, hiking boots, wool socks, and silk sock liners were loose in the trunk.
I had a two-hour drive north to Black Rock Mountain State Park—yes, Rev. Mr. Black, alone—which was plenty of time to imagine what was in store. What if I woke up in the wee hours having to pee? There are no toilets in the woods. You pick your way away from camp with a headlamp to guide you. I pictured our group hiking single file with me at the back. That was one picture I’d have to change; I’d seen enough animal shows on PBS to know it’s always the last ones that get picked off.
Anxiety would color my thoughts until I got where I was going and possibly after that; but, despite my fears, I knew I had made the right decision to test my mettle in the woods. I had a mini-library of hiking books, but you can’t learn it all by reading.
Black Rock Mountain State Park is located near Clayton, GA, a few miles south of the North Carolina border. Our group was to meet at the visitor center at 10:00 a.m. About halfway there, I realized I’d forgotten my lunch for the next day, so I stopped in Clayton to fill the gas tank and buy a couple packs of crackers to tide me over. Then, in spite of the clerk’s simple directions to the park, I missed the turn and had to go back.
The road to the visitor center made the two-lanes I knew in West Virginia seem downright roomy. Meet a car coming on the Black Rock Mountain Parkway and you had better be sticking to your lane and the speed limit. I was glad for my training on Gauley Mountain as I drove up the steep, twisting grade. The visitor center sat at the very top, in a spot that could have defined the term scenic view.

We met in a shelter. There were not 13, but seven of us: our leader from REI; a married couple; the single woman who would be my tent-mate; and two single men. One of the men arrived early and the other called from the road to ask if he should be in North Carolina. Uh, no.
An hour later, as we received our instructions and re-packed our gear, it began to rain. Hard. Was I prepared? You bet. Luckily I had sprung for a new, lightweight rain shell and still had the rain pants I’d bought for Romania in 2005. Remember: If it rains, you hike. We all suited up for nothing, however; in a few minutes the sun emerged and we left for the trailhead.
We met a ranger before we entered the woods. She held up a snakeskin and reminded us that our slithery friends might be seeking higher ground after the storm and therefore could be on the trail. “If you have to step where you can’t see,” she advised, “poke with your trekking poles and not your feet.”
At least I was wearing long pants, not that they’d stop a snake. I’d treated every article of clothing except my underwear with the tick repellent permethrin, so if I died of a snake bite, at least I wouldn’t be covered with ticks.
We started down the trail and in seconds were surrounded by dense woods; enveloped in green. The path, which I had pictured as wide as a two-lane with trees in the near distance, was no more than eighteen inches wide and all dirt. Wet leaves brushed against us on both sides. Our guide said it all: “We’re in the backcountry now.”
To be continued…

Monday, September 9, 2013

Into the Georgia Woods, Part 1

It was so dark outside that I couldn’t see my own feet, but I knew that smell: it was a skunk. All I needed was to be sprayed before the sun even came up. Not only was a skunk nearby; I could hear the bushes moving ahead of me. Creatures were calling to one another in a language I couldn’t identify. Were they bugs? Frogs? Feral animals? I gave up on stepping past the dim shapes unassisted and turned on the porch light.
If I was uneasy about encountering an animal on the way to my garage, I needed an attitude adjustment; wildlife abounded where I was going. I had signed up to spend a night in the mountains of Georgia, backpacking with a group. I was leaving for Atlanta at 5:45 a.m. to beat the rush-hour traffic, so in order to be efficient I had loaded the car the night before. I’d packed two suitcases, one for the time I would spend in civilization with my son and his family, and the other full of my stuff for the hike. Two of my three new dry bags—waterproof stuff sacks--were packed as well, one with “personal items” and the other with food.
A key to successful backpacking is packing light; after all, you are going to carry those items on your back for miles. Every ounce counts, and my personal dry sack was heavy. I knew in my heart that I should leave out some of the medical supplies, the ones for “just in case.” Would I really need a tube of calamine lotion? How likely was it that I’d get blisters, bug bites, sunburn, an upset stomach, a sore throat, constipation, and nasal congestion in one night? How many bandages could I use in 24 hours?
For snacks, REI, sponsor of the outing, had recommended dried fruits and beef jerky. Both are sold pre-packaged in their retail stores, so I had bought two zip-sealed packs of dried fruit as well as a big package of beef jerky, which ordinarily would not be among my snack choices.
I opened the store packages the night before I left and divided the contents in two, for the two days I’d be eating with my backpacking group. I put the servings in clear storage bags from the grocery and then packed one set in my food bag to eat along the trail. I slid the other set under the front seat of my car so that I could eat it for lunch when we returned to the visitor area of Black Rock Mountain State Park after our hike.
Once I’d lighted my way to the garage—sorry, sleeping neighbors—I opened the back door of my car to an assault of foul odor. What in the world could smell so bad? The same sickening smell wafted from my trunk, where the suitcases lay. It was my snacks! Their strong scents had escaped the cheap baggies I’d used and now mingled to permeate the inside of my car.
I was on a strict schedule with an eight-hour drive ahead of me, so I left in spite of the nauseating odor. A few miles down the road I realized that, by taking my snacks out of their original packages, I had made a potentially fatal mistake. Now not only would I have to endure the stink on the drive; if I hiked with this food, every bear in Georgia would be snuffling after me.
Keeping one’s food supply away from bears is a nightly activity in the forest. Outdoor stores sell bear-resistant food canisters designed to contain scents. Another method of foiling the animals is to tie a rope to a bag of food, throw the bag over a high tree limb, and secure the rope to the tree. My method was to pull into a rest stop in Florence, Kentucky and dump the whole works in the trash.
I knew I would have to buy the same items again once I reached the REI store near my son’s house, but I was all right with that. When one is preparing for a night in the wilderness with hungry animals afoot, seventeen dollars times two is not an expensive lesson.
To be continued…