Monday, January 23, 2012

Step 1 to a lighter pack; understand what you are, and what you want to be.

     This past week I had several non-hikers ask me questions about what I actually do in the woods. When I tell stories about trips they actually stare at me with a complete lack of understanding. It seems as if they are enthralled by the idea of heading deep into the more beautiful spaces on our planet, but have no idea how to get there. The stories hikers tell begin with the sublime and end bordering on insanity. There is both solace and glamour. And there are many who would love to see what we see. They just don't know how. So this post is a return to the beginning for me as a blogger. I wanted to pass on knowledge to aspiring outdoorsman. And to preach about the virtues of doing it with less weight on their backs.
     Some think that being "lightweight" is the goal. But it's just not that simple for most. My brother, for instance thinks in terms of dollars spent and the functionality of his gear. Another buddy seems to believe that he simply "can't" get away with carrying less. I contend that the opposite approach may be the simplest. Suppose you started by writing down exactly what you would need to go for a walk in a park. Then you added what you would need if that were an all day walk in the woods. Hmmm.... then you added what you would need if you decided to sleep in the woods that night. For survival, that is. Maybe THEN you consider a trip lasting multiple nights in the woods. My guess is that only then would you begin adding what an ultralighter would consider luxury items. This is supposed to be each person's journey. They should decide what is mandatory and what can be dispensed with.
     Here's an example; when you decide that your daily walk in the park is going to become a day hike into the backcountry. All of a sudden, you need water. And shed those tennis shoes, too. But do you need full on mountaineering boots? Not really. Just something with better rigidity and grip. Also, you may need a snack or lunch. Maybe a jacket(or raincoat) if the weather is going to change at all before you get back. You'll be hiking further away from safety after all. That being said, you would be wise to carry along a compass and a map. So, in review, you now have different shoes, a jacket, some food and water, and navigation materials. Oh, and a pack to carry them in. That doesn't have to be all conclusive. It's just an example of thinking only in terms of what you NEED. 
     The same idea can be applied when you decide to camp overnight in the course of your hike. Now you need more water(or water treatment), more food(and something to cook with-if you choose to cook), a shelter, and a sleeping system(bag and mattress). A knife, a light source, and a firestarter too. That's just for survival. In practicality, you would likely want to brush teeth, take vitamins, use toilet paper, etc. These weren't requirements, they were desires. I'm all for these types of concessions. 
     It's just that I firmly believe that we should be adding to our packs from empty as we find new needs. Not subtracting from them as we dare. This is the key to shedding pack weight. It's a mindset that most don't have. I didn't when I began this journey. It's a skill that one picks up when creating their own packing list. Shoot, I'm an Eagle Scout trained in being prepared for anything. The packing lists found in my old Boy Scout Handbook were filled with more redundancy than I could physically carry. Recognizing the liability that the Boy Scouts of America have is the only way to view their training. I get it. But it doesn't eliminate the opportunity to search for new approaches. 
     The mainstream outdoor press and manufacturers don't really help the situation. Sure, they can get new people into the outdoors with some degree of safety. Again, I say it's not just about that. Having the latest North Face or Patagonia gear doesn't qualify one to be in the backcountry. Common sense, research, and skill development do. So the various outdoor education organizations are doing a service, if not fully divulging the secrets. It seems their approach is to let the rookie outdoorsman learn the hard way. You know,"carry this 40 lb. pack just in case you need 40 lbs. of gear." I mean there's no fashion police in the woods to inform you that you can't wear the same pair of pants twice. Or that your tent HAS to be a dome. Even that your pack needs to have a frame. 
     By all means mimic the people you see going before you. Just don't give in to the concept that they possess the only "right" way. Read gear reviews and trip reports. Find the outdoor site that grabs your attention and figure out what books they read. Soak it all in. Take some dayhikes. Talk your buddies into camping trips. experiment with clothing in different weather conditions. Even if you're just going to a football game. 
     Borrow gear and practice camping in your backyard. Every time you need another piece of gear go inside and get it. You'll determine that you don't absolutely have to carry everything you'd imagined. It's a lot like going to visit family out of town. You could check in at a hotel if you wanted, but you might settle instead on a couch. Those are the same types of concessions you make when you attempt to reduce the amount of gear on your back. I don't carry a huge air mattress to sleep on. It's just a piece of closed cell foam(CCF). But every step I take all day long is easier for it. Others choose to carry a heavier mattress and eliminate gear elsewhere.
      The key advice I have for a new backpacker(or one attempting to get lighter) is to understand their own needs, desires, and abilities. Learn more, and take things slowly. Don't go shopping until you're sure of what you want. Don't copy without asking around if something doesn't seem right. Ask questions about everything. "Why do I need that kind of water storage device?" Begin weighing your gear. Knowing what is weighing your pack down is the key to staying light and fast. Write down everything, and you will be amazed at your progression within months. Mostly, just try new things at the edge of your capabilities. That's where real adventure is. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

New Year's Trip to the Buffalo River

My brother "Will" came up for New Years for a fun weekend. We joined our big brother at a borrowed cabin at the lake for a fun family event. The cabin was gorgeous, had a million square feet of decks, and was completely stifling because my nieces insisted on a fire on a 65 degree day. I'm not kidding you. It was nearly 80 degrees in there at bedtime. Will and I elected to sleep on the deck even though it was gusting 30+ m.p.h. winds. It stayed above 40F all night. Glorious.
    We had decided on driving to Steel Creek on the Buffalo National River on New Year's morn. So we shuttled my truck to Kyle's Landing and doubled back. On the trail by 11:00 A.M. or so. Our plan was the Buffalo River Trail(BRT) to the Slatey Place before turning off down to Horsehoe Bend, where there is a barn we could sleep in if we wanted beside the river. The next morning, hike back up the mountain to rejoin the BRT and finish out at Kyles Landing.
     Both of us have hiked nearly every foot of trail in the Buffalo River valley upstream of Erbie. We spent many summers working at Camp Orr Adventure Base staff. Nine for me and I think six for him. We know and love the area. I hadn't been in this area for two years. For him it was more like eight I think. It's like our second home.
     The first thing we noticed having changed was the road into Steel Creek. It is now paved all the way to the campgrounds. It must have been the first time I have thanked our government for creating the Gi-normous slush fund that was the "Stimulus Bill". First or second, I have no idea. But needless to say, I doubt I'll complain about them cutting funds to the National Park system. Now I'll complain about how they spend their funding. Enough about that. I may even scratch it later. I don't endeavor to wax politic on this blog. I like talking about wonderful things. The paved road was wonderful. Especially for my brother's BMW.
     The BRT climbs out of Steel Creek campsite at about 1000 ft. elevation. It is a steep wall to the valley for much of the duration of the river. This river is a fantastic float, too. The stuff postcards are made of.  The trail jumps up to 1250 ft. within about a mile before crossing Steel Creek. Steel Creek is a beautiful, shallow and clear running stream that flows into the Buffalo. We crossed it feet-dry by rock jumping. Rock jumping is one of my weak spots as a hiker. I nearly always get an ankle wet somehow. Trekking poles help me balance though.
Steel Creek Campground, Bee Bluff
     We continued back up the next mountain, which is steep in some places. The trail is notoriously rocky around there. But it yielded a splendid view of the river and the campground and Roark Bluff within another mile. I was huffing and puffing by the overlook. We were on the top of Bee Bluff at this point. I stopped for pictures and a breather. Will gets impatient with my camera stops. Oh well, he sure likes when I upload the pics.

     We felt a bit of a time squeeze due to our late start. So we kept moving at a pretty good clip, as we still had about 6 miles to go. Due to the leaf-off there were more overlook areas than even marked on the map. All facing some version of North and spotlighting the valley. The next marked overlook was at mile 3 of our journey. This one views downstream to the next bend or upstream to Big Bluff which stands 500 feet tall! It really is impressive, in an area with elevations only ranging from 1000-2600 feet.

     We crossed water again at Beech Creek, which is mostly a rocky ravine, with big drops off below us.  There was a couple hiking the other direction around there. They were looking at a map, but didn't ask us anything as we went through. The day had cooled a bit requiring a jacket for stops. Lunch was late for us, maybe 2:00 P.M. or so. Will made ramen, while I chewed on GORP and a granola bar. I knew it was going to kill my appetite for dinner. The first night of a hike usually does that anyway. I have no explanation for it.

Big Bluff in the background. Posers in the foreground.

     We peaked out at about 1750 ft. near the Slatey Place, which has a murky looking pond and multiple trails to choose from. They are signed if you pay attention. Here we turned off the BRT and headed down to Horseshoe Bend. This is a steep descent of about 800 ft. in 1.5 miles. All I could think about was having to hike back up the next day. I'd never hiked it that direction before, and wasn't looking forward to it. Last time, we elected to wade about 7 river crossings on the Old River Trail (ORT) in order to avoid it.

Lockhead Barn

     Time moves quickly downhill. We hit the ORT in about 20 minutes, taking a right to Lockhead Barn, which is mis-marked on the map. From a distance, it looks exactly the same as it did 20 years ago when I slept in the loft with a group of staff members. Up close, the roof is sagging, as is the loft. It was still sturdy, but slopes a bit much for my liking. We were trying to decide where to set up camp when Will stopped for a cat-hole break. He came back and said,"follow me".  On the other side of the barn there was actually a cabin, without door or window glass. It had a river gravel floor. Our guess is that it was a well house. There was a small concrete slab in one corner with "1973" written in. In the center was a metal piece of pipe, cut off flush with the slab. The chinking was done with concrete as well.
***Edit: (The well house I described was actually a "bath house".)***

     About 100 yards from that cabin were the ruins of another one, much bigger. This one was complete with a large rock chimney and an adjoining cellar with a concrete roof. Our guess is that this one was built in the last 50 years. ***Edit: (This cabin was built in 1968 and burned in 1974.)*** But the stone foundations gave us an idea to it's purpose. Someone actually lived here. This was much too big for an individual. Maybe 20 feet by 40 feet. The chimney had metal inserts for heat dissipation and/or blowers. Behind the chimney about 30 feet a drain pipe led to a low area. And it was surrounded by cedar trees. Heaven.
Lockhead Homestead

     We made a fire against that hearth and did our cooking on a raised slab that appeared to have been the front porch. Then we sat around trying to keep warm. It was below freezing by bedtime. By early morning it was in the low 20's F. Cold. I was very uncomfortable that night in my 32 degree bag with a liner. Heck, in the morning, I refused to stir from my bag until my brother handed me my coffee.
...with coffee in reach...
     While eating breakfast, I talked Will out of hiking out of the valley the way we came in. That way we had only about 4 miles to get to my truck. But, if we took the Old River Trail, we'd get there in 2 miles. The only downside to the ORT is that we'd have 4 river crossings. With COLD water. Like usual, he gave me my way. We decided on 4 feet-wet crossings, with our shoes on. That would get us back to biscuits and gravy by 10:00 A.M.! I know, I'm a weenie. But I have a soft spot for real breakfast.
     Our first crossing was right below the barn, so we were wet immediately. As soon as we crossed I saw a group of 5+ backpackers by the barn. We yelled and waved, but they didn't even acknowledge us. Oh well, we were just juiced by the crotch deep cold water anyway. We set to task right out of the gate. The sights are better by the river anyway. The trail is much sandier, but there was little mud or underbrush this time of year. It's like walking in a huge riverbed. It's almost amazing that there is any vegetation in that valley for all the rocks you see.
     After our third crossing, we came to the Arbaugh House, which is a sturdily built 2-room cabin. It has a roofed front porch and 2 doors side by side. We looked around a bit and beat it out of there. Our feet were cold and our hearts were set on hot food. We encountered a group of three dayhikers at Kyles. They were headed to Indian Creek with what appeared to be an octogenarian clad in coveralls. But they were friendly and let us show them the map.
     It needs to be said that even though this was an in-and-out trip for us, there is plenty of oppportunities for exploring. The Slatey Place was an old homestead. The wellhouse at Lockhead farmsite is only one mile from Hemmed-In-Hollow, where resides the highest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians. Indian Creek is only a couple miles back(and off of) the BRT. But those are different trips for me to tell you about another time. But this one was salve for the soul as far as we were concerned. A homecoming of sorts.

Map Used: Trails Illustrated: Buffalo National River West #232