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October 2014 Trail Bytes: Hike Your Own Hike - Together
October 31, 2014
I had a lot riding on our recent backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park. This was Dominique’s first backpacking trip and I wanted her to enjoy it so she would want to come again. Prior to this trip, I have been "hiking my own hikes," solo. My usual backpacking style is to carry only the essentials in a lightweight pack. I made a few adjustments as we learned to hike our own hikes – together.
My tarp and backpack weigh only a pound each – both homemade kits from Ray Jardine’s website. Dominique wanted more privacy and separation from the elements than a tarp provides, so we purchased a three-person tent from Hilleberg, the Swedish tent maker which added five more pounds for shelter. I used the homemade Jardine backpack again, but with my load now over twenty-seven pounds, not counting water, the shoulder straps tugged uncomfortably at my shoulders, especially after packing up the tent wet. However, we both love the tent. Dominique wore a German-made Deuter backpack which she had owned for many years but had only used for car camping. I made an unfortunate face when I pulled it out of our storage space and felt how heavy it seemed for its small size. I knew we would be carrying more gear than in the past and I doubted our two packs could hold it all. I was wrong. The Deuter pack expanded amazingly well and its weight was justified by its excellent construction and weight-supporting design. Dominque started out with twenty-two pounds, not counting water, but during our hike she took some of my load.
Dominique’s top priorities related to gear were to keep warm and dry. She gets cold easily, so we invested in a TerraLite down sleeping bag from Western Mountaineering for her and I continued to use my Zpack down sleeping bag. We purchased a second Klymit inflatable sleeping pad for Dominique that was a little wider than mine. Our other purchase for warmth was two Hole in the Wall DownTek Jackets from Big Agnes. We were careful to keep these items and our sleeping clothes segregated and dry in our backpacks.
My usual approach to moisture management changed for this trip. Being mostly a fair weather backpacker, I have been hiking for several years in trail running shoes and shorts. They get wet, but dry fast. Dominique, on the other hand, believes in wearing sturdy, waterproof boots, influenced by the Swiss culture of mountain climbing. We purchased her boots in Switzerland and even though I tried to steer her to a light-weight pair, she held her ground and purchased a pair of leather boots with Gore-Tex lining from Lowa, a German boot maker known for quality construction. She was blister-free and happy with her boots on the trail.
A few days before our backpacking trip, I checked the weather forecast and learned that rain was expected every day of our hike. Since it would also be cool and I didn’t want to hike for six days with wet feet, I made a last-minute decision and purchased a pair of Merrell Moab Rover Mid Waterproof boots from Dick’s Sporting Goods. While I was there I also purchased a pair of rain pants made by Columbia. The rain pants worked fine, although I liked Dominique’s PreCip rain pants by Marmot better because they had pockets. The boots were comfortable and supple right out of the box, so I didn’t worry about breaking them in. Dominique brought a good quality rain jacket from Switzerland and I invested in a Marmot PreCip rain jacket with pit zips. Rounding out our rain gear, we each carried an umbrella. The umbrellas were also useful one night at Loft Mountain Campground when I cooked dinner in the rain and wind.
As for personal care items, mine fit into two 4 X 6 inch plastic bags. One held a travel toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, and a piece of unscented soap. The other bag contained first-aid supplies. Dominique carried a larger supply of personal care items, most of which she kept hidden from me for fear I might criticize the necessity of this or that. I can understand her feelings since she was aware of my minimalistic ways and the confidence that I had in my own way of doing things. However, I decided early on that what she carried for personal care and comfort was her business and I did not criticize. In fact, I benefited from several items she brought along and was cleaner and better sanitized than I had ever been on a hike.
We drove to Waynesboro, Virginia the day before the hike and spent the night at the Holiday Inn Express. In the morning, Kurt Suttell, a friend I met through BackpackingChef.com, picked us up and dropped us off inside Shenandoah National Park near Lewis Mountain Campground. Thank you Kurt! We headed south in light rain with the goal of hiking a little over 50 miles in six days to Rockfish Gap at the southern end of the park.
Highlights of the Hike:Weather
It rained every day and the fog was thick. The view from overlooks that could have awed us with fall-colored mountain vistas was solid grey. Occasionally, when it stopped raining and the fog lifted to treetop level, Dominique would let out a, “jupi” and I would answer with, “who-who.” The forest was peaceful and subdued in the fog. Dominique even called it romantic. It might have seemed dark in the green season, and some of the deeper coves still felt “spooky,” but the path of leaves under our feet was mostly yellow, red and orange in all the splendid fall shades. Fall bloomed exquisitely in our near view of smaller trees and woody plants that had not yet given up their leaves, some holding late-season berries for migrating birds. Dominique was jubilant. I knew the positive effects that being in nature had on her, but this environment took her to a new level of happiness.We did have one moment of perfect timing, which we called a blessing, on the fourth day of the hike when we arrived at Blackrock Summit early evening. Blackrock Summit is a rock-strewn mountaintop and the Appalachian Trail circles all the way around the tip with 360° views of the adjacent mountains. Just as we arrived, the fog lifted and we got a rare view of the fall-colored mountains. The sun was still shrouded behind grey clouds but between the mountain tops and the clouds to the west was a thin strip of blue sky and rays of sunlight fanned out from the edge of the clouds where the sun was hiding. The only time we saw the round sun in full shining glory on this trip was on the last day about an hour before finishing at Rockfish Gap.
We wore our rain pants and jackets every day, taking them off from time to time when it warmed up. But it was mostly cool, even cold around breakfast and suppertime, and sometimes we encountered strong wind-driven fog. Our outerwear kept us comfortable. It rained hard several nights and my nylon food bag got wet hanging from the bear poles. I thought it was more water resistant, but it didn’t hold up to the challenge. Fortunately, I vacuum sealed all of our food, so a wet food bag was not a problem.
All of our meals were delicious. I doubled the large portions from Recipes for Adventure. As it turned out, we only ate breakfast, our snacks, and one main meal per day. Although I had packed meals for both lunch and dinner, the weather conditions were less than favorable for midday cooking. Dominique enjoyed all the meals, but her favorite was the saffron mushroom risotto.
If you missed the menu in the last newsletter, you can view the menu in the archives.
I packed a generous assortment of snacks including dried fruit, nuts, M&Ms, pretzels, and nut bars. Next time I may add beef jerky to the snack assortment for protein.This was the kit I took on the Shenandoah trip. From left to right: Anti-Gravity Gear Pot cozy, 227 gram Isopro fuel canister with Optimus Crux burner, 1300 ml and 900 ml Evernew titanium pots with fry pan lids, tea light candle cup and hardware cloth pot stand, denatured alcohol, aluminum windscreen. Not shown: two short Ikea stainless steel spoons and one insulated plastic coffee mug smuggled in by Dominique. All the components except the alcohol bottle and the coffee mug nested into the small pot which nested into the larger pot with the cozy enclosing it all. A unique feature about the Optimus Crux burner is that it folds at the stem for storage under the fuel canister. It's not a perfect fit, but it rides there well.
I used the smaller pot and alcohol fuel to boil water for coffee while breakfast was cooking in the larger pot and I used it in the evening to simmer fruits for our dessert while dinner was cooking in the larger pot. I also used the tea light alcohol set up a few times to preheat the main meal during the soak phase. Water required for our two person meals ranged between 3 and 3.5 cups.
My intention was to use the larger fry pan lid for Dominique's portion, but we ended up eating out of the same pot. Nevertheless, the extra head room created by the fry pan lids allows all the components to nest together.Shelters
We got started later than I thought we would on the first day, so we hiked the last mile to Hightop Hut in the dark with our headlamps on. I could tell that Dominique was a little stressed about getting to the shelter because she wasn’t as interested as I was in chatting with a couple of deer we encountered shortly before the sun went down. Since it was dark, we elected to stay in the shelter with four other men. Two of the men were Marine veterans and they had challenged themselves to hike the entire 100 miles through the park in five days. This being the end of their third day, they had the blisters to prove it. They had a nice fire going in front of the shelter which provided light for me to cook a pot of rice pudding. We were not overly hungry because we had stopped late afternoon and cooked a pot of tuna mac casserole. We enjoyed conversing with the men, but we were all ready for sleep early.
Although we purchased a fine tent, we slept in the shelters four out of five nights. I did not expect Dominique to like the shelters, but since we usually arrived with less than an hour of daylight left, it was faster to roll out our sleeping gear, filter fresh water, and cook dinner at the shelter than to fiddle with the tent. I was also conscious of the fact that once we used the tent, it would weigh a lot more packed up wet. On one evening, the heavy rain pouring out the roof gutter at the corner of the shelter provided an easy source of water to filter for our evening and morning needs. The shelters were damp from all the rain and fog. We carried a sheet of Tyvek as a ground cloth for under the tent, so we spread that under our sleeping pads in the shelters. Because the rain and fog continued through the night, whatever dampness our clothes and socks held when we went to bed was still present in the morning. But, we managed to keep our sleeping clothes and socks dry for the whole trip.
The second evening at Pinefield Hut we enjoyed the company of one man from Australia and after that we had the shelters to ourselves. I only recall a mouse battle taking place on our last night at Calf Mountain Shelter. I’m used to hearing mice scurrying, but these mice squeaked loudly as they wrestled. Calf Mountain Shelter was the least desirable of the shelters we stayed at. It sits at a low elevation and it seems the frequent dampness there is expediting its decomposition. However, we fought off the clammy feeling that was about our skin with a good scrubbing, compliments of Dominique’s stash of soap, wash cloth, and a plastic ice cream bucket "bath tub" we carried for just such an occasion.
We set up our tent on the third night at Loft Mountain Campground. Arriving late in the day in a soup of cold fog and drizzle, we picked up our resupply box that I had dropped off at the camp store on the way in, and then walked to the check-in station, and finally to our campsite. With daylight waning, we got the tent up in about ten minutes. The vestibule portion of our Hilleberg Nallo 3GT tent extended past the provided camping pad, but the area was flat so it wasn’t a problem. We liked that we could enter the vestibule while it was raining and zip it closed before entering the sleeping quarters of the tent. The campsite was equipped with a picnic table and a bear box for food storage. Our resupply box held our vacuum sealed food for the last three days of the hike plus a couple single-serving bottles of wine and two tea light candles to complete the romantic setting. Anticipating the wind, I packed two disposable white cups to place the candles in. They glowed like little lanterns to augment our headlamps. We blocked some of the rain and wind with strategic placement of our umbrellas over the table while I cooked mashed potatoes with beef and vegetables and strawberry shortcake for dessert. When it came time to eat, Dominique held an umbrella over us while we ate out of the one pot. Two comfort items that Dominique contributed to our trip were thin insulated foam fanny pads. They were light as a feather and warm to sit on. We packed up the tent wet in the morning and it was indeed a much heavier load on my back. Dominique took some of our food in her pack to shift some of the weight to her. What a partner! I’m very proud of her.
We saw deer every day. They were not scared of us. I walked right past a buck with impressive antlers standing just off the trail and did not even see him until Dominique pointed him out when she came up on him. There was bear scat all along the trail, but we did not see any bears. The shelters were equipped with bear poles for hanging food. We saw one baby snake with a light brown body and dark brown head and one long black snake who looked well fed. While standing on a fog shrouded ridge, hundreds of black birds flew in and filled the trees above us and then they flew off along the ridge. Songbirds and the occasional squirrel or chipmunk rounded out the wildlife for this trip.
The only sad encounter we had with a human was when we were on the trail skirting the edge of Loft Mountain Campground. I heard a small engine and looked up to see a man approaching with a chainsaw. When he saw us he turned it off and walked back to his campsite. After we passed, I heard him fire it up again. We saw perhaps a dozen hikers per day. We could see that most of them were experiencing the same happiness that we felt from the brightness of their eyes and the smiles on their faces despite the wet conditions. One young man by the name of Roadrunner stands out in our memory. He was thru-hiking southbound, having started at Katahdin in July two weeks after getting the idea. He was all lit up with joy. A solo female hiker, also with that happy glow, made an impression on Dominique because she told us how she was section hiking the trail during two-week vacations from work. I can tell you now that Dominique is smitten with the trail and is ready to return next year.
We got lucky when we walked out of the woods at Rockfish Gap in Waynesboro. A couple of recently retired men from Minnesota who were on a road trip stopped where we were standing to check their map. I was on the phone with a taxi service that turned out not to be local and the fare would have been over $100 and at the same time I was talking a little with the men in the car. They pulled away and I regretted a lost opportunity, but they returned a few minutes later and offered us a ride to our hotel. The following day, we stopped at Woods Hole Hostel near Pearisburg, VA on the way home and spent the night at Neville and Michael’s lovely log cabin. I stayed at Woods Hole on my Virginia hike back in 2010 and it was there that I spoke to Dominique on the telephone for the first time when she called me from Switzerland. We’ll leave the rest of that story for another time, but one thing is for sure, I have a solid hiking partner for the trails ahead.
Chef Glenn & Dominique
P.S. If you have any questions or comments about this issue of Trail Bytes, please reply to this email or use the contact form at BackpackingChef.com.
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