Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail: The Lessons Learned

I was very fortunate on this journey in that I had experienced hikers give me advice about what to bring, and a son that is my size and likes to buy very good gear. So, I was able to borrow some great stuff and mostly buy the right things for the trip...but still I made some mistakes and here is what I learned:

1) I used a Kelty 4500 Shadow backpack...borrowed from my son and that piece of gear was great. No complaints at all, except that I wished it could hold more food, and had an anti-gravity function.

2) Slumberjack sleeping bag...borrowed from my son. This kept me warm on the cold nights. When I buy one, I will make sure that I get the longer version so I can stretch all the way out at night....that part of the night when I still have hopes of falling asleep. I will also bring some kind of sleeping aid...either tea or Advil Nighttime.

3) Eureka! Solitaire Tent: This was a great idea. It doesn't weigh much, and it doesn't cost too much. Unfortunately, It needs stakes everywhere to stand up, and most of the time there were roots and rocks in the way. Next time I go shopping, I will look for a tent that I can sit up in and read, instead of lying there like I'm trapped in a coffin while trying not to freeze to death. By the way, any short people in the market for a almost new backpacking bivvy (mummy) tent...see me!

4) Suunto Traverse Alpha...smart hiking watch. This gadet is way cool, and once I understood that all it takes is a drop in barometric pressure for it to go into alarm mode, I was much more relaxed. Before that, I thought it was somehow hooked into NORAD and knew when doom was impending for us. This watch can easily go for a number of days without needing a charge, plus it looks VERY cool.

5) UnderArmour Compression shirt...this was the best idea that didn't work. This very tight shortsleeve t-shirt had me sweating in 40 degrees. Next time I'm packing a normal workout shirt just in case the temp rises above freezing during the trip!

6) Pam's homemade trail mix. This stuff was packed in small baggies for each day of the trip, and it became like Crack for me. I was told that the ingredients were so expensive that nobody could afford to sell it in a store, and this food is what kept me going. When I was feeling really generous, I let Paul and Chase have a little taste of it. Near the end of the trip, we were adding the crumbs to our oatmeal...best oatmeal ever...

7) Junkfood treats. Bad idea. Somehow, I was told that we would be burning so many calories that we could eat Snickers bars all day long and lose weight. Instead, I gained weight on the trip...still trying to figure that out.

8) Ramen Noodles....believe it or not, I've never had them before. These things are great with a pack of soup mix added. We mostly ate Mountain House freeze-dried food, which is apparently too expensive for true hikers to eat, so we looked like city-slickers, while REAL men ate Ramen.

9) UnderArmour Cold Gear Storm Beanie....the best friend a bald head ever had in the cold hiking weather!

10) Jackery Mini Premium portable charger...a little bit larger than a lipstick and kept my watch charged when I needed it. This would be great for charging up a cell phone as well.

11) Petzl Tikka XP Headlamp. I already had a good headlamp at home, but this thing was super lightweight and as we found out later, was as bright as a car headlight in the woods. I had a little bit of trouble figuring how to get the functions to work with only the one button, but once I did...I was very happy to have this item on the trail!

12) Silicone Collapsible cups...we loved these. You can buy them just about anywhere in the camping section. they fold up almost flat, weight very little and we used them for coffee, food, everything. The price for larger bowl-sized containers were a lot more expensive, but we may invest in that for the next trip.

12) Toilet paper....all I can say is bring more than you think you need. Somehow my brother convinced me all I needed a little pack of tissues that you give to kids in elementary school, just one for each day....maybe that would have worked if I skipped all of the junk food on the trail....just remember, when you run out of this, you get to use leaves....

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 10: Smokey Mountain Time

Probably the biggest surprise to me about backpacking was the emphasis on time. I'm the kind of guy that loves watches. I have many and am always looking for one more. I can't say exactly why, but it must be like women and shoes, or at least my wife and shoes. She has shoes she has never worn, but we have yet to pass by a single shoe sale without a 45 minute stop to see what she needs. I'm not quite that bad, but I could be..

My brother Paul on the other hand, disdains watches. Always has. They are a sign that you are beholden to the man, that somebody can make you be somewhere at a certain time. He gets there when he gets there..that is until we went hiking together. Suddenly, all day long we needed to know what time it was. I mean, we are out in the woods, everything we need is on our backs, nobody is expecting us, we either get where we are going, or we die trying, and the time isn't going to make much difference. We are told there will be one cellphone between all of us, and it won't get reception anyway. I knew enough to leave mine behind, my battery is good to about lunchtime on any given day, and without data, I wouldn't even be able to look at pictures of cats.

It turns out that my newest addition to my watch collection: the Sunnoto Traverse Alpha, was not to be an object of ridicule like my survival knife, but something that came in quite handy. #1..this baby held a charge for 2 days before I used the GPS hiking feature, and then I was able to quickly charge it using an inexpensive battery charger. We always knew what kind of progress we were making, which was very important when you were trying to make 13 miles a day. We knew when to step up the pace, when we could take longer breaks, our changes in altitude and temperature and more.

Unfortunately, the feature that I was the most excited about let me down. I pride myself on how many steps I can record in a day on various exercise bands I've owned and once even hit 30,000 steps in a day while on a camping trip with the boys, in which we walked all day long to stay warm and there was nothing else to do. On this trip, I was getting a lousy 16,000-17,000 steps after walking from dawn to dusk. No allowances made for the pack, climbing over trees, rocks, steep ascents, nothing.

Chase must take after his father. He brought a watch which never worked the whole trip, in fact I think he left it as a trail magic gift for somebody that would be willing to buy a battery for it. Paul, on the other hand is now thinking about what kind of watch he can buy that is MUCH superior to the Sunnoto Traverse Alpha.

Note: Timing is everything. Our original plan to hike in Maine was doused by Hurricane Matthew cancelling our flight. That was our last good weather opportunity to hit Maine this year. If we had waited 3-4 weeks before changing our plans to North Carolina, all we would be seeing would be burned out forests...if we got to go at all. Even when you don't have to punch a clock, the time matters....

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 9: The Cult Of Leaves

If you drive to North Carolina in the fall, the origin of any person you meet is most likely Florida. It means that millions of old folks from the sunshine state make an annual pilgrimage to the closest mountains to see what a season change looks like.

My plan has always been to avoid that situation, because who wants to hang around a bunch of old Floridians? I finally realized why I have been avoiding this time in the past...about half the men I ran into looked very much like me, and not all of them were older. However, if you have to be old and in North Carolina looking at the change of color in the leaves, there is no better way to do it than on the trail. The best parts of my days where just looking around in wonder at all of the color in front of me. I have been in the  mountains when there were no leaves in the winter and when everything was green in the summer, but I finally saw the reason so many people make this trip.

Being around all of this puts you in a different mindset, and I noticed that everyone on the trail was friendly. If you pass anyone, you stop for a few moments and swap stories, or if you are my brother,  you regale them with your exploits. These stories are about surviving blizzards, avalanches, bears, etc. Then you compare how many places you have seen and miles you have put in on the trail. I kept very quiet during these times, so as to seem a introverted through-hiker extraordinaire, but my brother made sure to point at me on every occasion, and say, yeah this is his first hike...at least nobody opened my backpack to see what extra junk I brought along that I didn't need..except for my huge survival knife.

It came to me, something that isn't so obvious now that I'm sitting in a civilized place, that the people on that trail are a very small subset of humanity that placed themselves there on purpose. I became convinced that some of the people I met would rather be on the trail than anywhere else in the world. People are nice, world politics is only something outsiders worry about...the weather is WAY more important. I started thinking that some of the hikers actually lived on the trail. I think it could be done. There is no rent, no police, little drama, at least when I wasn't getting storm warnings from my watch. After a few days I definitely saw that this was not just "backpacking", this was "doing the AT". I had joined the cult without knowing it.

One of first things you learn about the cult is "Trail Magic". This refers to items left at strategic locations on the trail as presents for hikers. I saw bags of kidney beans in front of a trail sign and one shelter had ramen noodles and cans of cooking gas. One shelter actually had a bottle of whiskey, but it had been opened and I wasn't feeling too sure of myself, concerning getting drunk out in the middle of nowhere in the dark. Life was exciting enough already.

I need to see those leaves again. My wife promises me that it will happen and we will join that pilgrimage on I-75 to the log cabins with the fantastic views, and walk the streets of Gatlinburg with crowds of suntanned Floridians, always knowing that there always be a flushable toilet somewhere nearby....

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 8: Eating Right..Sort of

One thing I learned way before we left on this trip, and that was it required a lot of preparation. Just the thought of walking off into the wilderness, bringing everything you could possibly need, in a area where the weather predictions were notoriously incorrect, was a little daunting. How much clothing would I need to stay warm? How much water did I need to carry? And most importantly, how do I make sure that I won't starve to death?

The good news was I had seasoned veteran hikers to help me figure all of this out, and for the most part, those two guys were right on. The exception was the food part which was actually a little sketchy for my liking. I'm bigger than either Paul or Chase and normally have a larger appetite, so when Paul told me I only needed 2lbs of food per day and gave me the list of food to bring, I was already thinking about doubling that list. Paul also smokes, and I remember from my old days of smoking, if you offer a smoker a candy bar or a cigarette, they will take the cigarette every single time. Paul was making sure he had enough smokes while I was making sure I had enough food.

Paul and Chase own a vending machine business, so I was a little suspicious when I noticed that the food shopping list had things like Pop Tarts, Snickers bars, Oreos, and Cheezits. I questioned this and was told that through research they had found that these foods provided the proper nutrition while being easy to pack and weighed little. We were going to have a whole menu of food that basically was stuff that I never eat at home. It didn't sound awful, eat junk food and lose weight? Who would turn that down?
On my side, I had my wife, the Whole Food lover and one that knows how to make healthy stuff taste good. She made up a big supply of trail mix that would have cost over $20 a lb just for the ingredients. That trail mix ended up tasting better than any bag of cheezits ever eaten. Unfortunately, I ended up having to share it with my other two companions.

Another mainstay of our diet was Mountain House freeze-dried dinners, which by the way, were excellent, although an expensive way to go. For about $7 a bag (you can get them in the camping section of Walmart), I had expected to add hot water to a bag of powder, and then eat some kind of soupy mixture that tasted like lasagna. The real experience was that it totally WAS lasagna, just a little bit less than I wanted, but at $7 a bag, one was all I was going to get. Of course the best part of Mountain House food, was the form of entertainment I offered to Paul and Chase the second night when they sat giggling after I found that I had eaten my whole bag of "Chinese Stir Fry" without removing the little silicon bag that is supposed to preserve freshness. I did think that the stir fry tasted a little funny.

The first day, we had been joined on the trail by a band of young folks from Tampa. Some of them were very experienced and some seemed like they were on their first trip like me, so I was very interested in seeing how we all did. We took some different side trails and somehow ended up at the same place to camp that night. When we arrived, they had tables, chairs, a fire and what smelled like T-Bone steaks cooking on the fire.

We set up our little camp on the other side of the stream and warmed up our little bags of freeze-dried foods like real backpackers, scoffing at these city-slickers, bringing chairs on the AT! They did not seem too unhappy about having carried all of that stuff up the trail and actually seemed much happier than we were. Truthfully, at that point I was wondering about going over to their team and seeing if they were planning on s'mores later.

That, did not happen. What did happen was Paul took about two bites of his food and ran off to find a nice place to puke everything up. Yes, the leader of our group, the one who knew where we were going, how to find water, how to find the truck...he was getting violently ill, and I suddenly realized that in my role as team-worrier, I was getting ready to peak....we certainly were not going to make it out of this...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Note From The Applachian Trail Part 7: Scared Of The Dark

There was something special about hiking the AT on Halloween.  I don't know if it was all the books I've read or perhaps just the feeling that I couldn't lock my door and sit guarding my tent with a shotgun, but at night, I'm pretty sure I just laid there in my coffin-like tent, waiting for a bear or whatever to just maul me to death.

I did bring along a large survival knife, which was immediately mocked by any hiker I met on the trail. This mocking did not include the mocking from Paul and Chase BEFORE we left on the hike. The second day, the knife remained inside my pack, where I was safe from being made fun of, but totally vunerable to attack from rabid hikers, bears, mountain lions, etc. I made up for this by constantly joking about creepy clowns hiding around every corner. Although my guys were rolling their eyes, the clown bit came into good use later on. You must admit, no Halloween trip could be complete without some scary story telling and I made sure that I did plenty of it.

The problem Paul forgot to warn me about was sleeping at night. I think I have spent about 7 days of my whole life with insommnia, and 3 of those days were on our hike. I can usually sleep standing up...or even in the dentist's chair BEFORE they sedate me. This trip was something else. There seemed to be over 12 hours of darkness each night and it was cold. All I had room to do in my tent was schooch in feet first into my mummy bag and try to generate warmth. Most of the time that worked well, until I heard a monster with claws scratching around my tent, or a leaf falling from a tree. Yeah, there were a lot of leaves falling from trees that trip. My brother remarked on this, oh, that's a well known issue for hikers, Chase and I take Advil PM, but we only have enough for the two of us. Meanwhile, I was looking at Paul's pills, thinking I was pretty sure I could take those pills from him, if it got to that.

The second day of the trip both excited me and scared me at the same time. We met a seasoned hiker named Glen that lived to hike at night. A total opposite of anything I knew, he was my age and carried an MP3 player, listening to audiobooks while walking the AT in the dark. At first, I couldn't even imagine someone doing this unless it was survival, but the more I thought about it, the more I was warming to the idea. It sounded crazy, but I found that I could take a nap during the day and I had a great headlamp to wear at night. The days were short, nights long, and we struggled to make the miles we wanted. What if we hiked until 8pm and then got up at 4am? That would mean only 8 hours a night just laying there wondering what time it was, plus I could get some more sleep at lunchtime. The only problem was nighttime is when the monsters and creepy clowns are out in force.

It actually worked for us, we hiked in the dark, Chase running up ahead, looking for the white blaze on a tree that would tell us that we were still on the right trail instead of being totally lost. There were only a few times I worried that between Paul and Chase we might go the wrong way and my jokes about there only being enough food for TWO of us, might stop being jokes. A couple of time there were missteps where you'd put your foot down on the leaves and there was nothing underneath and you'd almost go tumbling down the side of the mountain, and then we'd laugh. Yup, that trail crazy feeling was in full effect during the night hiking.

On the last day of the trip, we were hiking out in the dark when we stopped for a minute and took our packs off. I looked in dismay at the back of my pack when I saw that one of my brand new $175 trail shoes was missing. I had decided to wear my $35 crocs that morning and now realized that somewhere back within the last 45 minutes of walking in total darkness, lay my shoe that I had neglected to tie into the pack. Chase took a look at the two of us old guys and volunteered to jog back and see if he could spot my shoe on the ground back at camp. He borrowed my new $50 Petzl headlamp, which is freaking awesome in the woods, and took off. We waited a long, long time. Long enough that I began to wonder what would you do in that situation in a horror film, certainly not split up, the monsters are just waiting for that. Then I saw a bright light off in the woods, moving like a car down a highway. It was Chase with my shoe. I thought he was running with joy, to be on the trail, young and powerful, no pack, and full of testosterone, but he said it was because he thought the Manson family was right behind him.....I guess my clown stories did some good after all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 6: What To Wear

There is no place else that I can think of where a group of people would stand in admiration of a smelly homeless person with a pack on their back, all of them wishing they could be that guy. Yet, on the trail, that smelly homeless guy is actually the king of hikers: the AT Through-hiker. This is the guy that is on a quest to do the whole thing from Maine to Georgia in one year. We stand in awe, because with our measly backbreaking 3-4 day excursions, we are merely tourists pretending to be hikers, he is the real deal...but get him down to McDonalds or at your local park, you'd just think he was another bum.

I only saw one such hiker, and he took a look at the size of our group eating lunch at a shelter, and hurried on to complete his journey while we quietly watched with respect. There are actually quite a few people each year that try to do the whole trail and now it has gotten to the point that just doing the trail itself is not enough. The trail is full of rumors about people that are legend along the trail. We heard about "Stumbles", a guy that many people have met that seems to be constantly inebriated, and three sisters that were attempting the whole trail while barefoot. There was also Pat, who was doing the whole trail in his Scottish uniform with kilt, spats and all. Then there was the guy we ran into in the dark, that looked like a large girl in a dress, but had a Johnny Cash voice.

Me? I was happy to have made my part of the journey and get back home in one piece. I did learn a lot about what to wear and what to not forget. The major piece of clothing I forgot was a regular jogging t-shirt. Just a short-sleeve wicking shirt. I probably have 20 of them at home, but never thought something like that would be useful when the temperature was supposed to range from 40 to 60 degrees. I did bring something I thought was better, a compression shirt. This shirt was awesome, if you wanted to sweat when your fingers were still cold.

Another great item was my zip-off fishing pants. Paul suggested that I bring these along. They are lightweight and the legs zip off at the knees so you can convert the pants to shorts. They seemed like they would not be any protection from the cold at all, but they were perfect, and I used the zip feature every day.

It turned out that my best friend in the whole world was a $20 fleece hoodie I bought at Gander Mountain just a few days before the trip. It kept me warm when I got cold and made a nice cushion on top of my pillow. (I had a special hiking pillow I borrowed from my son's collection of hiking gear, essentially it was a bag of acorns).

Bottom line, hiking is all about layers. Paul showed me how 4 layers of light clothing can do the job. You start off a little cold and by the time you've hiked 30 minutes, you've peeled down to your t-shirt, or like me, if all you had was a compression shirt...you go shirtless.

Come to think of it, I'm probably some kind of legend on the trail by now...the old shirtless, homeless guy hiking around with a Gopro on his head....

Monday, November 7, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 5: Finding that Mountain Water

As the newbie on the trip, my brother had to explain many things to me beforehand. One thing that he did not quite explain well enough was the water situation. He did talk a lot about getting water, dumping it before a climb and making sure you had enough all the time. He showed me a map that said, there is water here, in certain places. I guess my thinking was that those locations were spigots that were strategically placed to enhance the hiking experience. The real life experience was something quite different. Sometimes the water source was a mud puddle. Sometimes it was a beautiful mountain stream, and sometimes it was a little drip coming out of a rock. It quickly became apparent that I was going to get all of the water I could get whenever it was available. The water tasted great, but there were signs in all of the shelters warning that you could get sick from the water and that it needed to be filtered. I wasn't too worried about the water since Paul had purchased the best filter system money could buy. It used a special light that killed all bacteria and viruses within seconds. We took turns running the Therapin device on our water and everything was great. That is, until we came to the mud puddle day. My brother neglected to tell me that there is one thing the Therapin doesn't do, and that is remove sediment from water, something that any ordinary filter does do. In other words, we had a day with the most pristine mud water to drink that you could ask for. I'm not sure that I will ever ask for that again. Not long after realizing that it was drink mud water or die of thirst on the dusky trail, we came across a large mountain stream that I could have bathed in...and probably the people I encountered at McDonalds after the hike wished that I had..

Friday, November 4, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 4: The Storm Warning

It seems like that a big part of backpacking is preparing for the trip. It's a little spooky, thinking that every single little thing you are going to need has to fit on your back. I heard many stories of people throwing stuff out on the AT because the pack was too heavy....I never really felt that way. My feelings were different, there were some things I wish I had brought along and didn't. I could really have used that weather app on my phone.
My brother and I see life differently. He told me that cellphones don't work on the trail and mostly folks look down on you for bringing electronics along into the wilderness. I took him at face value, but I'm starting to think that just perhaps he wanted four days of no support calls for his business...I write this because it seems that everybody else had phones that worked, and many were listening to music while they walked. One guy my age that was doing a 400 mile section, played us some of his favorite music on a bluetooth speaker while he cooked supper at a shelter.
I could have used that phone....because, the single piece of high tech electronics I brought along was my watch. This gleaming techno marvel could do just about everything. It knew where we were, the time, our pace, when the sun was setting and tons of other stuff that I have yet to figure out, but it did one thing that scared me more than the thought of a creepy clown hiding up in the mountains..

I found on the second day of our trip that I could record our hiking experience and find out how we were doing towards making it to the next camping place. Believe it or not, that is a big deal, making sure you are making the proper progress if you want to camp before dark. So, while we were in a little valley, picking crabapples and reading signs that said "Flash Flood Area", my watch suddenly emitted a siren sound and started flashing "STORM WARNING!" across the screen. It did this about five times before I could start running for higher ground. Paul and Chase looked at me blankly as the sky was clear and blue.
No storm ever came...maybe I need to read that instruction manual after all.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Notes From the Appalachian Trail Part 3: Wearing the world's smartest watch for pooping in the woods

My brother marveled that I was "afraid of the woods". By that he meant that if you left me alone in the dark on top of a mountain there was a reasonable chance that I would scream like a little girl. But, in truth, it was much more specific than that. I was afraid of two things really: 1) A bear getting me and 2) pooping in the woods...I suppose 3) would be a bear getting me WHILE I was pooping in the woods.

The bear thing I got over quick, because while hiking I became certain there are no animals left on the AT. I think I saw a couple of bugs, and maybe one little bird. This is less than I see on any given day in my back yard in suburbia.
Pooping in the woods, well that wasn't any better than I thought it was going to be. In fact, if you asked most men I know that even wanted to do this with their female significant other, the big obstacle would be the lack of nice flushable toilets here and there, with faucets, paper towels and mirrors. There is none of that and when you do find you have something better than a tree, it is a "Privy", which is something that makes a Portalet look positively fancy.
Try to imagine a large pile of poop on the ground, with the occasional leaf, and over that, an outhouse with no door and part of a backside. You sit inside and wave your legs to let anybody walking by know that the place is currently occupied. You bring your own toilet paper and a large sign says that you are to carry it out with you....leave nothing but footsteps. One of these facilities had two large buckets of leaves on the seat and I'm not sure if that was in case you ran out of toilet paper or what. Actually, the way your digestive system works while hiking.....next time I'm bringing twice as much toilet paper.

On the third day of this trip, I was contemplating the juxtiposition of the latest titanium things in our backpacks, the sleeping bag that weighed several ounces and could keep you warm at 0 degrees, my new watch that could give you your exact location, temperature, altitude, barometric pressure....and I was carrying around a large load of used toilet paper....this discovery seemed to elicit a new round of Trail Crazy in my companions and when they finally stopped laughing for a few minutes, I found that I might be the only person in the world that ever obeyed that sign.....

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 2...It Sounded Like A Good Idea...

My brother Paul has over 700 miles on the Appalachian Trail and this trip he wanted to add a new wrinkle. He had tried using his sandals for hiking before and really liked it, but could he get by using only sandals for the whole time? If you ever put on a pair of good hiking boots, you could easily understand why someone might want to use sandals instead. I was new, had no idea of what I was getting into, so I brought a good pair of hiking shoes and a pair of Croc Swiftwaters that I love walking around in at home.

Paul's son Chase, was along and decided to wear a cheap pair of hiking shoes that he used for work...basically so we could all complain about our feet at night. Paul's sandals went about half the first day before the straps started cutting into the side of his foot and by dinner time he was limping badly. I was going to offer him the use of my emergency duct tape, but he had made fun of me earlier for bringing it, so I forgot to offer it....I believe that the first evening was the beginning stages of what they refer to as "Trail Crazy". Mainly, you laugh at other people's misfortunes, and then your own...laughing about people caught in the rain, running out of toilet paper, just about anything that isn't really that funny.

So, while Paul was looking like death warmed over, sitting at the campsite, Chase and I were laughing. I was still laughing while my feet informed me that they were never going back in those shoes again. Thus, I spent the rest of the trip in sandals. I loved it! Until my heels got rubbed raw, as did Paul's.  Paul described the feeling "as if somebody stuck pieces of glass in my heel".  My heel felt the same way, so I wasn't laughing quite as much as Chase. I will use the Crocs again on my next trip. One thing I found to be totally awesome, was wearing toe socks, with synthetic wool socks over them in my Crocs....I didn't do too well with the ladies, but my feet were happy. The video below shows how excited we were about a stream crossing where we didn't have to worry about getting our feet wet. Paul just did not quite count on how cold that water was going to be....

Monday, October 31, 2016

Notes From The Appalachian Trail Part 1

I Finally did it! After years of hearing about the travels of my brother and his son, I joined them on a quest to complete sections of the AT. Our original goal was up in Maine, but Hurricane Matthew changed our plans and we ended up at Standing Indian Mountain in North Carolina. That was plenty cold enough for me. The 3 1/2 day trip included 37 miles of hiking and 3 nights camping out in the wild. It was full of adventure.
Paul told me that I would hike hard and climb into my tent and sleep like a baby at night. I didn't realize that he meant I would spend all night crying for my mommy about my feet hurting. I think the first decent night's sleep I've had was the night after I got home from the trip. On the other hand, I loved the hiking, the meals, and meeting people on the trail. The main bonus of this trip was after a life of wishing I could hit the mountains when the leaves were changing color in the fall, I finally did it big time.
One of my first major experiences was staying in a shelter on the trail at night. The second night of the trip we shared a shelter with Pat, a very interesting guy that happened to be hiking in a full Scottish uniform, including kilt. I'm slowly finding that just plain hiking isn't good enough anymore. I was told along the way that someone hiked the whole AT last year in a Batman costume...but that could just be a legend.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

What Hurricane Matthew Took From Cocoa Beach, FL

Last week, Hurricane Matthew came very close to the eastern coast of Florida and the main feeling we had was that it could have been much worse. However, upon close personal inspection of the beach from Canaveral to the middle of Cocoa Beach, I found that the water is now running up into the sand dunes in many places, and the wind and wave action is not finished with the business of eroding the beach. This was not the hardest hit part of the coast, but it was enough to make changes that will be quite expensive to repair, if that is what the government decides to do. They are still experiencing extreme high and low tides and in the northern locations, there seems to be nothing left at high tide at all.
I discovered this Tuesday, 10/19,  making my first extreme hike as preparation for a journey on the Appalachian Trail. I did a 12 mile walk in my new hiking shoes and found that it truly ended up being more like hiking, as I was going up and down in the dunes instead of a smooth walk on a beach. The lesson learned was to always bring water and a snack. My plan called for a stop at Jetty Park in Cape Canaveral, but upon arrival, I found that the park store and the Jetty pier were closed.

Overall, the beach didn't seem doomed except for one thing: It isn't over. Since the previous week the wind had been coming from the east at over 15mph with accompanying large waves. It also appeared that there was no end in sight. The wind was coming from another storm system and all of this was adding up to continued erosion of sand from the coastline. The sand dunes did their job of protecting the buildings right on the beach, but you could easily see how one or two more hurricanes in the near future could finish the job that Matthew started...

It All Changed Overnight..

I almost spent a week at the beach without getting wet...almost. I woke up everyday to the one thing that is absolutely no good for a paddleboarder: giant choppy waves. Instead, I jogged, read, and practiced for hiking. But...Friday was predicted to change all that. I was pretty skeptical, as the surf websites were calling the waves all week as "fun". I don't think they fooled too many people because during my travels I saw less than five people out each day.
Friday was different. I woke up at first light to something that looked like a California surf photo from my balcony. Even at 7 in the morning, before sunup, there were people in the water. I watched them and they sat confidently on the outside of the break only to get clobbered by the huge cleanup sets that were coming in.
As we know in Cocoa Beach, the farther north you go, the smaller the waves are. This doesn't always work, but most of the time, it means if you go all the way to Jetty Park, you will find flat water. Jetty Park is not a state or national park and can charge whatever they want to get in. You might think they would be generous and charge a small fee to get in and then gouge you on the hotdogs and cokes, but you'd be wrong. They charge $15 to get in and THEN gouge you on the hot dogs and coke. I'd never actually knew about this, except that's what I had to do on Friday. The free park, Cherie Down Park (a city park) is nearby and was full to the brim, including cars sitting there with the engines running, hoping somebody might decide to leave....road rage IS possible at the beach too.
I figured that I was the only person in the world, outside a cruise ship passenger just let off the ship, that would be dumb enough to pay $15 to get into that park, but again I was wrong. The park was loaded with surfers and I soon found why. The waves were great and manageable. There was plenty of power and size, but the break was close enough to shore that I was able to bust through the shorebreak on my SUP and join that crowd that was just plain thrilled to have one more SUPer join the group.

I surfed until I had nothing left. I rode the big orange board and I then took out the smaller blue board and had a blast on both of them. The smaller board was the most fun I'd had on it to date. My knees were wobbling the whole time from trying to stay up, but Pam said that you couldn't tell from shore. One thing to know about SUP is that you really don't want to be in a crowd of surfers, falling off your board for no good reason.

We finally headed back to the condo and I spent the rest of the day on the balcony, Pam trying to read while I remarked on the abilities of the surfers in the water below. Mostly I noticed how calm and confident they looked until they fell and their boards went flying in the air. That's how you can tell the power of the waves, when the boards go flying.
Man, never thought I'd be surfing at Jetty Park again...and then to be so tired that all I could do was to sit and watch the waves stay good until dark...

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Fun On The Waves In Cocoa Beach: The New Brusurf 9'6" SUP

I've been riding Brusurf boards for a few years now, and was curious if there would be any changes in the new version of my favorite, the 9'6", and it appears to be a bit thinner and more pointed on the front. I was fortunate to have some decent waves on a trip to Lori Wilson park in Cocoa Beach recently and had a great time on the new board. The board also seems a bit lighter, so my best guess is that they are making small tweaks to the design without giving up any of the parts of the design that make this work so well for me in Florida. The stock center fin is quite a bit larger than on the previous model, which is a change that I made myself on my last board. This gives you quite a bit more stability front to back. No problem catching waves and no problems going fast enough to beat the break. The board also seemed to track well in flat water, although I haven't yet tried any long distance lake paddling.
I highly recommend this board to anyone up to 240 lbs. in flat water or Florida surf. It's light, stable and can get you a load of fun in the surf.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Good Friday And The Lesson In Humility

Friday, the 16th day of September in 2016 was predicted to be a very good surf day on the east coast of Florida. If Florida has anything to boast about, it would be the largest surf shop and the great number of days you can surf without a wetsuit. It would not be about the quality of waves. So, when a tropical storm forms in the Atlantic and passed by the state just the right distance from the coastline, the surf forecasters were in a frenzy.
This year I knew Good Friday was coming almost a week in advance, and had everything ready, or so I thought. GoPro charged, wristband remote charged, extra leash, lotion, first-aid kit, I was really prepared. I packed my board and headed to the beach with Sam, checking the surf cams on my phone. It looked glassy at the pier, so I knew my new, short SUP surfing board would get it's first day to shine. The board is great for everything but one: standing up between waves when it's bumpy. The first two occasions I had to try the board had been semi-choppy and I struggled like a greenhorn just to stand up while paddling in the ocean. Good Friday was going to change all that. The prediction was for head high waves with light wind. Picture Perfect and I was going to capture all of it.
I need to be clear about one thing...to surfers, a day like this is not like a bigger bowl of ice cream, I mean it's not more of something that you like, it's more like the hunter facing a grizzly bear with a pistol, a lot of us aren't sure how we are going to handle it and we don't get many occasions to find out.
As we got our boards ready for this epic day, I found that the mount on my board was missing the nut that holds the camera on....no photos of this day were ever going to exist. Looking back, that may actually have been a good thing.

On this particular day, a few surfers were having the time of their lives, some stayed on the beach and watched, and a great many paddled out and sat there watching the waves go by. Mostly it was older guys that could get off work on a Friday, a few really good paddleboarders getting the stink-eye from the surfers, and the infrequent girl in a bikini, looking like this was just another summer day.
Sam brought the right surfboard and was having fun on a 9' performance longboard. In spite of the surf cams, the ocean had a cross chop on it and the wind was at times holding the waves up, and at others closing them down fast. I paddled out fast, but not fast enough and spent about 15 minutes with my new board in the impact zone before I got things going and got out to join the lineup with my newfound surfer buddies. After assessing their looks at me, I quickly moved north where I couldn't steal all of their waves. It was during this time I began to realize that I had brought the wrong board and could barely stand up at all. After I had fallen in 3 times for no apparent reason, most of the surfers had crossed me off as any kind of threat to their quota of waves they were going to catch that day. It got to the point that one of the paddleboarders headed my way to see what in the world this old guy was doing out here when he was clearly not able.
It was at then I learned something new. I merely sat on my board until I saw a large set coming and stood up and quickly took off on one before I fell off my board. That effort seemed to instill some respect from the other surfers, or at least fear of where my board might go when I fell off.
I was out there for about 3 hours, and it seemed plenty long enough, and for some strange reason, my last few waves were the best ones. The thing you remember about a day like this is not the ride, or the number of good rides, it is the tingling down your neck when you take off on a big wave thinking...what I have just done?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Chance Visit To Saint Augustine On The Best Day Of September

Early on Wednesday morning, my thoughts were on the storm that had passed us, leaving us with big waves and windy conditions. We decided not to pursue surfing because of the wind and instead I drove with my wife to St. Augustine to discuss a future backpacking trip with my brother, the seasoned hiker. We got a late start and got there in time to hit Obi's Filling Station,  usually a great place to get a burger near the beach. Wednesday was not the best day for Obi's. The orders were wrong, and the food wasn't steaming hot either. I'm blaming it on a bad cook that day, and one can hope this was an anomaly.
We soon moved on to taking my backpack apart and seeing what things I am missing and what things I cannot take along. My brother is a minimalist backpacker and among other things, I was told my knife was too big. His idea was something more along the lines of a fingernail clipper, which I assured him, would not present much of a threat to a charging bear, or serial killer seeking a lonely stretch of woods for his next victim. Truthfully, after listening to my brother's exploits, it sounds like the only two things I have to really worry about are freezing to death and starving to death. Apparently there is plenty of water around, so dying of thirst probably won't happen. As my brother reminded me, he has hiked 700 miles and it hasn't killed him yet. There was great comfort in those words...
Before we had even gone to Obi's for lunch, we had stopped at the St. Augustine pier and saw the waves going off. I was surprised because it didn't look that choppy, and there were more surfers than I had seen in the water before at this spot. A weekday in St. Augustine, I expected maybe one or two surfers, but I saw more like 30. We drove back to the spot before leaving for home and I took my board out for a while. I think I was a bit of a surprise there, this old guy in a floppy hat on a paddleboard while most everyone else was on short surfboards. There were some powerful waves in the lineup, but it was a little deep and hard to catch the outside sets, so my board was the perfect weapon and I managed to pull off some good rides and get out of the water before somebody got hurt...after getting bounced off the bottom 3 times, I knew who that was going to be..

St. Augustine Pier, I will be back! Obi's? maybe....

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Florida Storm Season! Or Big Waves and What Is That Brown Crap Floating In the Water?

The surfing gang had been eagerly awaiting the day the winds would die down after the big storm passed us by on the east coast. First it was supposed to be Tuesday, then Wednesday and now, hopefully Friday. We had a split decision on where the waves would be best and Sam and I decided to try the north section of Cocoa Beach. I like Cocoa Beach when there is a concern for me about large closeout storm waves, since you can usually find a spot that is more protected if you need to. The issue was the wind was blowing strong from the south and that pretty much negated the protection. Fortunately, Sam brought his windsurfing gear and he and a friend windsurfed while I shot photos.
After a few hours, the wind seemed to die down enough that surfing was sounding like a good idea. Notice I said that "surfing" sounded like a good idea? I brought my surfing paddleboard, and riding it in the leftovers of what you see in the photos was like standing on a greased log in a fast moving river. I worked the hardest you can imagine for the few waves I rode, but I must say the rides were worth the trouble. At one point I was paddling out and actually got launched and did a total belly whomp...good thing there were no sharks around to witness that event. In addition to the rough water, there were a lot of patches of brown gunk in the whitewater, stuff I usually associate with cruise ships flushing their toilets in the ocean. Now it could just be some toxic algae or something, but I worked extra hard anyway to avoid being in those patches of water.
Then there was the task of walking way back up the beach to the truck carrying a giant board against the wind. Thankfully, Sam drove this time and I snored the whole way home...and then got on the couch at home and snored the rest of the day. I will be good and rested up for when the wind really dies down!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What They Just Discovered In Cherokee, North Carolina Will Blow Your Mind

While driving through the mountains, we decided to take a short stop at a little city park, and noticed a large construction project right next to where we were leaving the car. The missus noticed that one of the construction guys had a gizmo that looked like he was looking for gold in the dirt. She called out to him about it and he explained this was an archeological dig and they were uncovering a village that dated back to about 1300 B.C.! He then brought over to show some pottery shards he had just found. There were little marker flags in the dirt all over the place. He told us these flags pointed out post hole spots and places to look at carefully.

Who would ever had guessed that we had an Indiana Jones working on a dig right next to a busy street? Just thinking about how long the Cherokee tribe had been living in these mountains took me back for a bit. Made me think really hard about how I feel about immigrants coming here. I can only imagine how they felt...

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Getting Away From Madding Crowd

After a month of working like crazy, sitting at a conference table with all eyes on me, wondering if I could actually do what needed doing, I found it a little harder than I first anticipated to slow down and enjoy life in a mountain cabin. Thankfully, my sister let me borrow her place for a bit, while I tried to remember what I was really after in life.
First, I'd wake up at 5:30 am, and by 8am, I had done everything I had planned for the whole week. I wanted to hike the lonely trails of the mountain, but Pam was sleeping, and I kept hearing banjo music in my head. I'm not sure if it was a compound Bow or a shotgun I wish I'd brought with me, but by the 4th day, my need to hike overcame my fear of walking in places where my body might not be found for weeks.

At first, the same thoughts of "work can't live without me" inhabited my brain, but by the time I started the hikes, I was in full retirement mode.

Just the week before, I had been jogging my own local neighborhoods, seeing the young dads in dress pants and long sleeve shirts putting toddlers in car seats before leaving for work. I realized I had become the old guy I used to see out enjoying life while I had been trying to stuff a 2 year old Dusty into a baby car seat, in 90 degree heat while dressed for 65 air conditioning. I had finally got to the place, I just needed my brain to truly understand this.  The big question had always been, just how much is enough?

As I sat on the front porch cabin at lunchtime, seeing the thermometer saying 68 degrees, I knew that I was at the right place at the right time. There is so much bad news on the television that this simple life seems more attractive than ever. I can definitely see why people choose it...

Saturday, July 23, 2016

In Search Of Lower Temperatures...

On the road again....never again will I drive I-75 if there is any way to avoid it. This time, we could have avoided it, but I was feeling adventurous. Two different GPS systems were telling us to turn around and go back home, but I overrode that advice and ended up with a situation just north of Macon where all lanes were blocked and we were sent off on back roads. The 9 hour drive turned into a 13 hour drive. On the other hand, a few years ago, I would not have had a gps that could warn me about traffic problems. That, plus the last time I went I-95 and IT was blocked for hours as well. There must be some good time to travel, but I sure do not know when that is.
This time, we traveled in the Prius, and with the low price of gas, it seemed like I would have spent more a few years ago just driving to work for a week in my Pickup truck than I spent driving to Maggie Valley, NC in the Prius.
We did finally find the lower temperature, but it was not until we hit the mountains. All the way past Atlanta and 6pm, it was still in the mid-90's and felt just like Florida, without the beach...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

I Never Drive Past Sebastian Inlet Without Stopping

In June of this year, I found myself driving down to Deerfield Beach, FL for a client. I realized that I had two different ways of getting there, one the quick way on the Interstate, and the other, the slower drive down the coast which would take me right by Sebastian Inlet State Park. I have never been able to pass up such an opportunity and I gladly added about 2 1/2 hours to my trip in order to spend a few minutes out on the jetties at Sebastian.

What I didn't count on was rain for most of my trip. I fully expected to make my first time pass of Sebastian because of the weather, but somehow the skies parted for a bit and I was able to spend a little time there. It was one of those rare times when there were no breaking waves on the inside of the inlet at all, but there were fishermen hard at work catching nothing but some time with a fishing pole in their hands. The place still had a beauty to it even on a day like this when I had to walk out there in business attire. Next time, I'm going with a rod and surfboard....

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Finding The Hidden Florida: Apalachicola

As we explored the Florida panhandle, I knew that we needed to make a stop at Apalachicola. There had been so many references to it over the years, as being an old timey out of the way spot in Florida. We probably drove several extra hours down back roads, but it was worth the trip. The town has a lot of history and appears to be in the process of being re-made as a tourist stop, a really nice one. Our favorite place was the Apalachicola Chocolate Company, where we were introduced to the "Affogato" drink. The store owner told us about how he made his own gelato and roasted his own coffee. We now make our own version at home.
 We spent a few hours there, on the boat docks, in the local shops and just looking around. The history of the town is mainly about the hard lives of the fishermen. It was known as a place to go to get away from your past. There was a photo gallery in the shops on the main street that had many images of Apalachicola through the years.
It was well worth the stop...

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ready To Get Back Outdoors...When They Turn Down The Heat

Global Warming? It would be hard to argue against it right now...I grew up here and I'm telling you, I don't remember it like this? Damn, I had cars without air conditioning! Now, I can't hardly make it to the street before getting dizzy and seeing mirages. We did get a good day of surfing in yesterday, but the cost was that I'm totally conked out today...it is officially to the point where the only people barefoot on the beach, are those with short memories (it is like walking on hot coals after 11am in the morning).
I really want to get out on the salt water and do some fishing at my favorite spots, but they are all overcome with the blue algae outbreak right now.
Many people have warned us through the years about the damage being done to the environment in Florida, but my guess is that nobody will listen until people are fleeing the state in droves.
I'm just wondering how long it will be before we can't go in the water because of pollution? My thinking now is that it could even happen very soon....

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Inlet, The Birds, And The Surf

If you ever happen to stumble across this place, which is at the western end of Panama City Beach, you will find this really interesting little inlet. If you manage to visit there off-season, you may even find it all to yourself like we did. Of course, the weekends, spring break and summer are nothing like this and more like a party on the water, but we could still pretend we were off in the wilderness, surrounded by a bird sanctuary on both sides. We even met an Audobon Society volunteer who was policing the area for people with dogs that could be bothering the birds. Unfortunately, the number one troublemaker was somebody she could do nothing about.
We already knew from past experience that those large beautiful Herons not only ate little fish, but will also snatch up eggs and little birds. My daughter is still emotionally scarred from the memory of a Great Heron grabbing up a baby duckling that my daughter had been following around for days. From our Audobon person we found out that Herons do not make a distinction about birds that are on the endangered species list. If it looks like food, they're gonna eat it..

This place had just about everything I liked: plenty of good places to eat, beautiful water, nature, kayaking, surfing, and maybe someday I will even catch a fish there. Truthfully, I probably have a better chance of catching a fish next trip than finding surfable waves...I think I was just very lucky on that note.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Finding Saint Andrews State Park: Or When A Map Beats A GPS

Saint Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach seems to be THE surf spot, or at least for swells that come out of the east. This is where I found the most surfers congregated, once I finally found the park. I had stopped at the PCB Pier and found about 3 surfers out and one of them told me to make sure I checked out the park before I went home. I got back in the car, shirtless with a towel wrapped around me (this was important later) and plugged in the information into Googlemaps. About an hour later, I found myself pulling up to the guard gate at Tyndal Air Force base. The guard asked for my ID and I responded by saying, "My guess is that this is not the way to the Inlet?" He then put his hand on his sidearm and took my driver's license. The missus smiled and looked innocent next to me, but he was having none of that. He had me make a U-turn and then gave my license back, and finally took his hand off his gun. Man, I thought the towel had to be wrapped around your head to make those guys nervous!
He was no help in finding St. Andrews, but looking at the map gave us a clue. The state park actually encompasses the inlet and both sides of the pass. Unfortunately, there are no roads on the east side of the pass and the surrounding land belongs to Tyndal Air Force Base. So, the instructions would have worked if we had been in a boat. About 45 minutes later, we found the park and realized that we had somehow managed to spend most of our time in Panama City Rush Hour Traffic for naught, except to say that it still wasn't as bad as Orlando.
We made two trips to St. Andrews State Park and I was happy both times to pay the $8.00 admission fee. There is camping, fishing, and some hiking. Mostly, I was in love with the beautiful water and the way the waves formed there. I'm not so sure about the hiking, but they did have a saltwater marsh and something they called Alligator Lake. The water clarity is better than anything I know, in fact I still had a memory of it from when I was 14 and surfed for the first time at the PCB pier. Ponce Inlet and Sebastian Inlet can have nice blue water sometimes, but this place seems to always have it. It is something that seems magnified when you are standing up on a board out there.
The dunes are made of a whiter sand that looks more like what I remember from Cape Hatteras than from the Florida East Coast.
I've decided that Panama City is a place that I must return to, and this park is on my permanent list of places to see when I come back. I considered getting the missus to go the camping route, but she saw the mosquito spray truck in the park, so I know that is out of the question. I noticed that many of the surfers I sawing getting in and out of cars had camping permits on the windshield.
Great for long walks, birding, surfing, paddleboarding, kiteboarding and something else I've been seeing a lot of: guys with those parachutes and a big fan on their
backs. I'm not sure if I'm seeing the same two guys everywhere I go, or there are many of them and they travel in twos.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Going Minimalist

I finally came up with a rig that works for two of us and gets decent gas mileage. I can carry up to two paddleboards on the locking Thule racks on the Veloster and the Hobie Tandem Mirage Outfitter on the Yakima Rack and Roll trailer. With big paddleboard on top and the cargo box on the trailer loaded with gear, I managed a 24-25 average mpg on the backroads to Panama City Beach. I like traveling light and this rig forces you to do that. The next thing on my list of things to try is an inflatable paddleboard. I'm hoping to try one without buying it first.
I assembled the trailer from a kit that I got from rackwarehouse.com and it really only took a few hours. The parts are of very good quality and it seems a lot of thought went into the engineering of the trailer...I sure hope so because of the high price. There really isn't much else like this for a small car that is not built for pulling a trailer. The only difference I really noticed in my Veloster was that I really needed to prepare for sudden stops. Even with the light weight, it took a bit more time for me to stop.
The Hobie Tandem was a decision we came to when we realized that there were times when Pam didn't have the energy to pedal and I could keep going. It's great, we don't yell too much at each other while out on the water. One cool thing about this kayak is that you can steer from the front OR the back, so I let Pam do the steering and I make sure that the pedaling gets done. The boat is significantly faster with two of us pedaling than me by myself paddling my old Hurricane kayak. We had no problem at all yesterday pedaling against the outgoing tide. The one thing I would have done differently is there is another model called the Adventure that is two feet longer and has a slightly different shape...same price. On ours, there is very little room to bring anything along, even lifejackets. On the other hand, I did want to travel light, and now I have to. The Hobie came from Travel Country and those guys are great for support and tips on fishing from Hobie kayaks.

What We Discovered At Pinnacle Point

Our next adventure was to take us to some old bungalow in Panama City Beach to try to recreate something I remembered from my very first attempt at surfing when I was at kid. Instead we ended up at a high rise condo in a gated community that looked as if it was part of the set for the Truman Show. This is Pinnacle Point at Panama City Beach and here is where I learned more about Ecology than I had ever planned.

Pinnacle Point appears to be a lush planned community built in the last 1970's and is still adding on. The condo portion of the property seems to have been there first and is nestled between the gulf of Mexico on one side and an inland lake on the other. My first guess was that the lake would be something more like an overflow pond, but it turned out to be large enough to make it a good place to paddle. What makes this interesting to us folks interested in Ecology, is that the government here has done something similar to upset the balance of nature that we saw down in south Florida recently: They decided to dredge out the opening where the lake meets the gulf.

Normally in nature, the lake is closed and only when there are storms or a lot of rain, does the lake or gulf breach the sand dunes to meet, but the dredging changed all that. Now it goes with the tides, and even if we think we are smarter than nature, we can see something going on that can't be good. When the tide in incoming, the water is clear and emerald green, when the tide is outgoing, the tannic acid colored fresh water runs out to meet the salt water. You can easily follow the color out into the gulf and down the beach. Even if you are the sort of person that believes that this can't cause any ecological harm, there is the harm to the condo owners who now have a beach water that looks like  the Mississippi  River.

On this small scale, you don't expect to see fish kills. On the other hand, in spite of all of the fishermen around, I did not see one fish caught. They were definitely waiting for the outgoing tide, but I have to wonder what kind of game fish like the brackish water...