Monday, October 6, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 5

I put up my one-person tent unaided, then unrolled and inflated my sleeping pad and laid my sleeping bag on top of it. All I needed to complete that theme was sleep. Next, with a friend’s help, I hung my backpack using the park’s cable system. I was learning the routines necessary for survival and comfort in the backcountry.

What do eight Women in the Wilderness do for fun? After supper we all walked to a nearby beaver dam. It had grown dark, so we wore our headlamps. The idea was to see the beavers, but they were not active. We then gathered firewood for a marshmallow roast. During that process, with our lights pointed at the ground, we were surprised by a black rat snake that slithered by and disappeared under a log. (Okay, maybe that last part should not be in a paragraph on “fun.”)

We sat around the campfire until bedtime, which was roughly 10:00 p.m. I mentioned that I had not slept well the previous night, and members of our group suggested a Benadryl tablet would be calming. I took one, lay down in my tent, listened to the creek a few minutes, and fell asleep for the next eight hours. When I woke up, it was light out, a great relief. I always dread being awake in the middle of the night, freaked out by forest sounds or needing to leave the tent in the dark to answer nature’s call.

TIP: Information about Benadryl products can be found at The company does not recommend its Allergy product as a sleep aid.

My sleeping bag was damp in the morning, as were parts of my tent. It hadn’t rained; I had failed to stake the rain fly away from one of the tent walls, letting condensation accumulate. I had to pack those items wet, which would have been more of a pain had I been on a longer trip. As it was, I’d be in the car in a few hours, heading home.

TIP: Stake your tent fly away from the tent walls on all sides.

Once again, resting had made all the difference in my attitude and my ability to hike. After a leisurely breakfast, our group formed a circle and did stretching exercises before packing up for the hike out. Our guide promised that our last few miles would be easy, even boring, as the trail flattened out to return us to the paved campground where we had left our cars.

That four-mile walk was a good time to reflect on my weekend: what worked, what didn’t, and what I would do differently next time. Yes, there would be a next time; I already had a two-night hike planned with friends for mid-October.

What Worked
I knew before this trip that most of my gear was just fine. I was testing my new, mostly self-inflating sleeping pad, the odor-proof bags I bought for my food, Fresh Bath Travel Wipes, and my new Darn Tough socks. I liked the Mountain House backpacker meals provided by A Walk in the Woods, though they are expensive to purchase. I took a few Clif bars among my snacks—always yummy.

What Didn’t
I had no mirror, which you might think was a good thing since I didn’t wear makeup or brush my hair for three days. I took a hairbrush, but forgot I had it with me.

TIP: Know your pack and what you put in it.

It took only a weekend to get sick of my favorite hiking pants, which I wore night and day. The camp shoes I got for half price are not good on uneven terrain; the soles are too thin. As for food, I took items I don’t normally eat. The smoked cheddar cheese and hard salami went untouched, as I didn’t feel like making a sandwich when we stopped on the trail.

I’m always conscious of pack weight. This time I misjudged my need for Kleenex and toilet paper. I ran out of both and had to be creative with paper napkins.

TIP: Take enough paper and consider adding unscented baby wipes for those tender areas.

Next Time…
I’ll take more paper products and buy a metal trowel (aptly named the U-DIG-IT Pro); exchange my tiny stove for a JetBoil, since my “cooking” will be limited to boiling water for instant meals; and replace my set of trekking poles.

It’s funny about hiking: from a distance, it seems attractive and doable. When I'm in the woods, putting one foot in front of the other with a pack on my back, reality steps in. Our guide told us we would remember the best parts of our weekend. The challenges would fade, and the camaraderie and beauty would stay in our minds. She was right.

We were almost back to the parking lot when the talk turned to animals. Our guide said, “You didn’t see a bear on this trip, but I will guarantee that a bear saw you.”

I can live with that. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 4

Do bears “go” in the woods? Of course they do (and may I never witness it). Only the bears in the Charmin commercials use the toilet. When we humans are in the woods, we adapt to our surroundings and “go” in a way that will leave no trace. Unlike the forest animals, we must bury our waste and pack out the paper we have used. One finds all kinds of uses for zip-style plastic bags on a hiking trip.

I didn’t want to do this. However, stuffing oneself at dinner with two helpings of reconstituted Chili Mac doesn’t leave much choice in the morning. Our backpacking meals were packaged for two, and we were encouraged to eat both helpings; otherwise, Mr. or Ms. Bear might want to finish our dinner.

Our guide told us what to do when it’s time to find a private spot in the trees. Before I tell you, I will advocate for taking along a shovel, which I had to borrow. Many hikers recommend skipping that piece of gear to save weight and using a stick instead to dig the required six-inch “cat hole,” but I’m not one of them.

A toilet area must be 200 feet (about 70 adult paces) away from any fresh water source as well as cooking and sleeping areas. Along with paper and the waste-paper bag, one should carry hand sanitizer to the designated spot.

It is wise to assume the position beforehand while clothed in order to correctly place the cat hole for solid waste. Then dig. Afterward, replace the dirt, making sure the shovel touches only dirt. You may want to mark the spot with a stick in the ground so that other hikers will know to choose a different location.

Now you know.

We left the shelter, hiking upward. This middle day would be our longest on the trail, and I had wondered if I’d have the stamina for it. Fortunately, a night off my feet--even without much sleep—and a Mountain House instant breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon had restored my energy. I was grateful to have gained a second wind.

I’d hit a low point the day before, believing I would never hike the Appalachian Trail or write a book about it. Maybe I’d write a book titled My Year of Hiking instead, and end it with the present trip. But that was yesterday. My perspective was constantly changing. Hiking has its challenges, but hiking in a group of women had replaced many of my fears with fun. I wondered how I would feel when our Smoky Mountain hike was over.

It was another gorgeous day in the woods. The temperature was perfect, and I have always loved the way sunlight dapples the forest floor. In late September the leaves had begun to turn and fall. Every curve, every waterfall, every vista was  a photo waiting to be taken, and the phone cameras were out. Mine was out, too, just not in the same way. The battery had died the night before.

“Did you put your Smartphone in Airplane mode?” our guide asked. No, I hadn’t even thought of it, and I’d left my camera at home after deciding it was too heavy. No pictures for me.

TIP: A phone camera is as good as a standalone if the battery is charged.

We hiked that day until we reached our campground, located in a valley beside a rushing stream. It was time to pitch our tents. Darkness comes quickly beneath a canopy of trees.

As I unpacked the components of my tent, I broke out my little bag of Tylenol to ward off the soreness I had come to expect and quickly popped two tablets into my mouth. Hmmm, they certainly tasted good. I was puzzled for a second before realizing that I had downed one Tylenol and my rogue breath mint from the night before! 

To be concluded…

Friday, October 3, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 3

Though no headlamps were required to light our way, we arrived at the shelter after the sun had set. If this were a Dracula novel, the coming darkness would be key in a whole different way, but to eight hikers coming off  the trail it meant we had to hurry through a short list of tasks before we could rest.

Our guide had thoughtfully arranged for us to spend the first night of our backpacking trip in a shelter and the second night in our tents, giving us both experiences.

Shelters along hiking trails are typically three-sided, open at the front. They are constructed of wood and stone, without electricity. Inside ours, a two-tiered sleeping platform went wall to wall at the back. A fireplace took up one side in front of the sleeping area, and a skylight defined the middle of the tin roof above us.

When we arrived, a group of male hikers had settled in. They kindly gave us room as we made camp, trying to beat the darkness. The process was new and thus chaotic. I found myself becoming disoriented as we scrambled to stake out sleeping spots and hang our packs. All I wanted was to exchange my boots and heavy socks for camp shoes, and then eat.

I felt like my mother in her later years and feared I was acting confused the way she had when we traveled together. In her eighties her mind had lost its sharpness; eventually she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mom would sit on the side of her hotel bed, overwhelmed and lacking the energy—or clarity--to unpack.

To claim my sleeping space, I had to stand outside on uneven ground and dig my sleeping bag and pad out of my pack so I could place them on the wooden platform. In addition, I gathered any other items I could need during the night. My food would be left in the pack and hung until we needed it for supper. There in the dusk of the woods, I was working a system I hadn’t fully learned yet.

I had come to trust our guide’s decisions and felt safe with her. She was emphatic that no food or other aromatic items be brought into the shelter at any time, thus the hanging of the packs. We used a cable system behind the shelter to haul our backpacks high off the ground, keeping our food beyond the reach of animals.

I changed my shoes and dumped my night items in the shelter. The men took the upper sleeping deck, and our group spread out on the lower level. After a hot meal, I was happy to crawl into my sleeping bag and hope to drift off, but I had bears on the brain. I realized that I had inadvertently brought a breath mint into the shelter. Would one mint attract a black bear? I would have swallowed it, but I wasn’t sure where it was. Once the headlamps were extinguished, we were in total darkness.

The soft snoring above me was a comfort; its rhythm ruled out the possibility of a bear, and I relaxed until a loud crash jolted me off my sleeping pad. It had to be an animal. Could no one else hear the racket? My sleeping companions were still as I inched toward the back wall, hoping to go unnoticed by whatever was invading our space. The men were still snoring. They can sleep through anything.

Two more loud crashes came from close by, and I was sure the killer bear that was banging around outside—if it wasn’t IN the shelter with us--could be reaching for me any minute. That thought was not conducive to sleep. In spite of a dozen other people around me, I felt scared and alone.

How I got through the night is anyone’s guess. If I slept at all, it was moment to moment. 

The next morning I asked our guide if she had heard the noise. Yes, she had heard the three acorns hitting the roof during the night, one at a time.

To be continued…

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Into the Woods: Smoky Mountain Backpacking, Part 2

It was mid-morning. Seven women about to be in the wilderness sat in a circle with our gear as our guide explained the next order of business: “I’m going to show you how I pack a backpack.” The thought of that brought memories of my morning in the hotel room. I had already packed and repacked my own backpack, trying and failing to fit everything I needed in it.

How did people take layers of warm clothing? I couldn’t even cram my lightweight wool sweater in the remaining space. Where did they put enough food for several days? I’d barely found a place for my snacks. I hadn’t even brought my sleeping bag liner, or a stove, or fuel. Even though I’d purchased lightweight gear and clothing, packing it had been such a struggle that I dreaded this next activity. I wanted to sit in the sun and watch. Instead, I emptied my pack.

Our guide distributed huge black trash bags and told us to line our packs with them, and that was the moment the light clicked on for me. Yahoo!

The main cavity of a backpack has an opening with a drawstring at the top. That top section is made of soft material. On my pack it’s squished down under another pouch. I knew it was there, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it because my pack also zips open from the front like a suitcase.

I pulled up the top section, opened the drawstring, and stuffed the deep trash bag down inside to fill with my gear and food. It was going to work! Until that minute, I’d had no idea how to pack a backpack.

TIP: Even the basics must be learned.

When everyone was outfitted and packed, we caravanned to a campground in North Carolina. There we parked and rode a shuttle to Newfound Gap, a popular trailhead on the AT. I already knew that I was fortunate to be in this group. As we entered the woods, I looked around in wonder at the beautiful trees, clear sky, and sun-dappled path. Despite the wording from the Frost poem, I remember thinking I love this.

We were maybe one-fourth of a mile in, hiking single-file, when my left foot slipped on a wet rock, throwing my body off balance and setting my 28-pound backpack in motion. I fell backward from a standing position with both arms outstretched and a trekking pole strapped to each wrist. The fall seemed slow, yet I was helpless to stop myself.

I’d given my age when I had applied for this hike, along with the assurance that I was in shape. At 69, I wasn’t surprised to be the oldest member of our group, but I was determined to keep up. What must our guide be thinking now, to see me topple over like the trunk of a tree?

Luckily, I fell on my fat pack and was not hurt. Perhaps I had screamed a warning; the women behind me were in the clear when I landed. A fall can happen in a second, and it isn’t necessarily age related. We all have to be alert to what’s under our boots. My one casualty was a trekking pole that snapped in two. Our resourceful guide fixed it with duct tape. Awesome!

Note to self: Never be without duct tape on a hike.

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” They also go up and down mountains for miles, as we did on our first day. During the uphill climb I looked ahead to see if or when the trail would level off to give us a break. Our march seemed relentless, and I had to request a few stops. Occasionally our leader paused to point out a plant or creature endemic to the Smokies. With every step of my boots I began to pray that she would discover another flower or mushroom to stop and show us.

I reached a point that day when I asked myself WHAT IN THE WORLD I had been thinking when I told people I was going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Was I crazy? I didn’t even want to be here. My legs were shaking, my shoulders ached from carrying my pack, and all I could see ahead was more trail. Now I knew: My little hikes around the lake at home, and even in the woods, had been nothing compared to this. 

Our destination for the night was a shelter our guide had reserved. Because it was afternoon before we began hiking, we had to cover ground. I was already walking like a zombie, the result of sore muscles in my legs. Could I make it?

Yes. Yes, I could. All I had to hear was the possibility that if we didn't stay on task, we could be breaking out our headlamps and finishing the hike in the dark

To be continued…