Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hiking Along

I am no longer used to falling asleep to the sound of owls & coyotes and waking to chirping birds and the odd woodpecker prospecting for a meal, though I am sure it won’t take me long.

I am back on the Appalachian Trail, having started hiking again on a cool, rainy day. Actually, of the five days I have hiked on this northern portion of the trail so far, four of them provided me with some rain. The rain though wasn’t my real concern. I focused more on how changeable the temperature can be as I will be at varying levels of elevation and the temperature can be a crap shoot this time of year in any case. I had agonized over the decision as to whether I should take my sleeping bag rated down to 32 degrees or add some further heft to my pack and take the sleeping bag I had on the kayak trip, rated to 20 degrees. On hikes in the past if I woke up in the middle of the night shivering I would pack up my gear and start hiking. Perhaps I am getting soft, but I wasn’t interested in doing that for the remainder of the Appalachian Trail. Not only that, but on top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, it can snow any month of the year. The 20 degree bag has found its way into my pack.

Most nights have been cool to the point where I am wearing all of my clothes (short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, rain jacket, shorts and wind pants). While it isn’t nearly as chilly as it was on many of the nights of the kayak trip I did decide to have a fire one night. I didn’t necessarily need the fire as on the kayak trip, but I wanted to see if I still had what it takes to start a fire when everything is wet. I guess it’s like riding a bike as I was warm by my fire.

Along with the creatures that either lull me to sleep or wake me in the morning there is an abundance of wildlife. There are numerous birds, chipmunks, squirrels, ducks, herons, beaver, deer, porcupine, turkey and bear. It took less than 24 hours being back out on the trail for my first bear sighting and in my opinion was the perfect meeting. There bear and I noticed one another at about the same time from 50 yards away. I began slowly walking backwards and made some noise that the bear seemed to be disgruntled by, so he turned tail and ran off into the brush. It was a great reminder that there is an active bear population in the area and I need to be especially mindful of hanging my food each night.

On the animal front, there is one that I haven’t seen and would like it to remain so, but also one I haven’t seen and hope to spot. I have been pleasantly surprised that there has been no evidence of mice; no droppings, no nests and no pitter-patter of tiny feet in the shelter when I am trying to sleep at night. What I do hope to see though is a moose. I have yet to see a moose while out hiking and hope that changes on this trip. I have already seen plenty in the way of moose droppings on the trail even as far south as central Massachusetts, but other than a plastic moose gracing the front of a business in town, no moose as of yet. I will have to keep my eyes open.

As I hike along there is certainly no shortage of wildflowers either. With every step I notice violets, forget me nots, trout lilies, trillium, the odd dual blooms of the hobble bush and all manner of other colorful flowers that were I a botanist would be glad to name for you.

I may romanticize the journey somewhat in its sylvan solace, but there is always the down side. If the mosquitos have been persistent, the black flies have been absolutely ravenous. Whenever I stop on the trail for more than a few seconds a swarm of black flies zero in on me and begin biting away. They are relentless and just in hiking along I inadvertently eat about a half dozen a day simply due to their overabundance and my heavy breathing as I ascend a mountain. One of the upsides of the rain is that is does mitigate the black fly activity to some degree. Another insect incident involved a spider that decided to set up camp under my shirt while I was sleeping in it. In the morning I evicted the spider, but only after my chest looked as if I had a case of chickenpox. It has been those brief moments of sun and the quiet of the forest that reminds me of why I am spending this time walking in the woods.

While I am on par with the number of biting insects and amount of mud I expected, I have seen far more people on the trial than I had anticipated. I estimated that there would be nary a soul on the trail this time of year other than perhaps the occasional weekend hiker, but I have seen at least one person each day. I have still had the few shelters that I have slept in to myself, but I have seen people.

A major issue along the trail has been with downed trees. Early in the year a massive ice storm caused a record number of trees and/or branches to fall to the ground. I have met a couple of volunteer trail crews with their chainsaws clearing the path, but they have a lot of work ahead of them. The forest was just destroyed. There was a two mile stretch where I couldn’t walk on the actual Appalachian Trail for more than 50 feet at a time as it was completely blocked by downed trees. I spent more time looking for which direction the trail went than the time I spent on the trail. Having to navigate or clamber over the downed trees slows me down quite a bit, but in the grand scheme of things my goal remains the same. It may just take me a little longer to reach it. I am just thankful that those volunteer trail crews are our there to restore the trail.

The section of trail I am currently hiking runs in the vicinity of civilization. I wouldn’t say they are urban areas, but I have walked through the middle of three small towns in a span of two days. One of those towns was Dalton, MA, which happens to be home to Crane Paper Company. Why would Kevin care about a paper company you ask? Crane Paper fabricates the paper for those U.S. Dollars that you have in your wallet and has done so since 1879. For my international visitors, fear not, Crane Paper also produces the paper for several other world currencies. I have seen some rather poor as well as really good counterfeit banknotes and with the low cost, high quality printing technology readily available, it is all about the paper. Not too surprisingly, the plant is off limits to visitors.

The kindness of people extended on the kayak trip continues on my hike. First up was a gentleman by the name of Tom. Tom has been associated with the Appalachian Trail for the last 25 years when he first offered a lone camper permission to set up a tent in his back yard. The following day, word of mouth brought three other campers seeking permission to stay for the night. Since then Tom has been part and parcel with the trail in the northern Massachusetts area, taking in and shuttling hikers to and from various parts of the trail. Tom picked me up and dropped me off in the town of Cheshire, MA, a ten mile hike for me, a ten minute drive for Tom. I was even afforded the comfort of the guest room. Thanks Tom!

I pushed across the border to Vermont and in the town of Bennington stopped to pick up some food. While looking for a motel for the night I stopped at the info center where John, the gent working there, offered to drive me around to have a look at several motels in the area. I quickly settled on the Knotty Pine Motel in a more developed part of town where I could run my errands, but the laundromat was a distance away. The woman running the motel offered me her car so that I could drive down to do my laundry and then go have dinner. When I had mentioned this later to someone I was asked if I thought it was odd being offered a car by a complete stranger. It's nearing double digits the number of times it has happened, but with the level of helpfulness, kindness and selflessness that I had the pleasure of experiencing in my travels I honestly had to say "no".

I made the right call on staying in a motel for the night as when I turned on the TV there was an emergency broadcast coming across the screen that mentioned something along the lines that “hail, damaging wind, frequent lightning and torrential rain” will be moving in to the area and that people should “move to a sturdy shelter until it passes”. If you are watching a TV wouldn’t you think that people are already in a sturdy shelter? Then again they do put warning labels on collapsible baby strollers to not fold the stroller with the infant in it.

As I head further north in the Green Mountains of Vermont and into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the mountains themselves, (some still snow covered) will get taller and steeper. I have been taking it fairly easy so far, but will slowly start ramping up my efforts.

Also, the computer I am using at the motel is unable to read the memory card from my camera, so I will have to add the pictures from the first section of the trip next weekend when I know I will have some solid computing power. Until then…

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