Sunday, June 28, 2009

My New Tent

I went to REI yesterday and bought myself a new tent and a bear canister. Unfortunately, my old tent is pretty much useless, I broke one of the poles and the fabric is covered with mildew. I bought the Quarter Dome one person tent by REI. It's an interesting shelter, and it's definitely made for only one person. It's also very light weight and affordable which is the reason I bought it.

I practiced setting it up today in my living room. I'm going to need a little more practice before hitting the trail, since it took me a while to figure it out. I was debating today whether to go ultra light and just bring the rain fly, poles, and footprint. After setting it up that way, it seemed to provide adequate shelter. After talking to my friend Pete on the phone, he suggested that I probably would want the tent body to keep out insects. After surviving a year and a half in N.C. with open shelters I didn't think it would be a big deal. On second thought, however, the weight I would save without the tent body seemed minimal. As of now, I intend to use all the tent parts.

I went for a short hike in Griffith Park again this evening. It seems there is always something interesting to see. Today I happened to walk past this very colorful bird. At first I thought it must be some sort of rare species. Then I realized the bird was not at all scared of me and allowed me to get very close to take a picture. I think it was someone's parakeet that either escaped or was let free.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Point Vicente

I drove down to Point Vicente today to hike a trail along the coast. It was more like a leisurely stroll. The maintained dirt path parallels the coast for a mile or so. Several people I have talked to recently have mentioned "June Gloom." Basically it's the thick marine cloud layer that has enveloped the city for the past month with a few breaks here and there. Today was overcast, but warm.

The hike was non-eventful for the most part. Before getting out of my car, I heard the news that Michael Jackson died today. That was reaffirmed by a couple of teenagers I walked past who were walking their dog. One kid was singing, "ABC, easy as 123, doh rey me, abc, 123 Michael Jackson's dead," making sure he emphasized the last phrase in the song as he walked past me.

Anyways, the trail wandered past a resort, where there were people walking around in white robes, sitting next to there outdoor brick fire rings, and eating fancy dinners on patios overlooking the ocean. Once upon a time I used to envision myself visiting a place such as this. Not so much anymore. I did sit on a nice beach chair for a few minutes however, and look out over the gray ocean. I bet it's real nice when the sun is out.

The highlight of the hike came towards the end. I was able to escape the comforts of the path and fences and walk along the rocky beach. After walking about 15 minutes I happened to look between a couple of rocks and experienced my first live encounter with starfish. It soon became apparent that they were all over the place. They looked real squishy and soft, but when I touched them, they were surprisingly stiff and solid.

Once I finished the hike, I drove up the 110 for the first time. It was a much nicer highway than I anticipated.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Throop Peak 9,138ft

As the John Muir Trail is a little more than a month away, I find it necessary to get out and hike as much as I can to stay in somewhat decent shape. Yesterday, I decided to hike up to Throop Peak off the Pacific Crest Highway in the Los Angeles National Forest. It was actually a very easy hike because after a 45 mile drive, the trail starts at Dawson Saddle at 7,901ft.

I woke up to cloudy skies in Glendale, but it wasn't long after driving the PCH, that the road rose above the clouds, fog, and smog of the LA basin. I was a little worried how my body would handle the elevation gain, since it's been a long time since I've hiked above 6,000 feet. Fortunately, I didn't even notice. The incline of the trail was gradual enough not to punish my lungs. The sky was an unbelievable blue. It felt real good to be breathing such fresh air as well. Visibility was outstanding. What I failed to take into account, however, was the intensity of the sun. The temperature was absolutely perfect but my face and arms were fried by the sun's beams. It was a good lesson to learn before hitting the Sierra's next month. A hat and suntan lotion are going to be essential.

What was also invigorating was the health and vitality of the pine trees. Unfortunately in the Pisgah National Forest in N.C., the mighty hemlock is under attack by a fungus that is destroying the trees. It was sad to see every hemlock covered with a white fungus and the needles falling off while living in N.C. Here's a little more info about it.

It was also exciting to discover a small grove of Sequoia trees nearby. They were younger, my guess a 100 years old or so, but I did not expect to see any in the area. I'm still not completely positive they were in fact Sequoias, but their bark and shape led to me to believe they were. Hopefully I can verify that with someone soon.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Omen of the Snake

I went for an afternoon hike in Griffith Park this afternoon and was really hoping I would cross paths with a snake. Thankfully, this guy was making his way across the path as I was heading down the mountain.

My affinity towards snakes began to grow while working at SUWS. It was quite common to cross paths with rattlesnakes, and it always added excitement to somewhat uneventful hikes. When I saw this snake on the path today, it reminded me of an episode that occurred during my second summer (first full summer) in North Carolina. I was the head instructor for group L, which was a group of kids I grew a particular liking for. Even though they could still be a huge pain in the ass at times, they were a lot of fun to work with. Anyways, it was SUWS protocol to kill any snakes that were found in the campsites. Most instructors were reluctant to do so, not out of fear, but out of respect for the snakes. Those instructors that could successfully identify the snakes knew only to kill the poisonous ones found in campsites. Unfortunately, I still was unsure most of the time and chose to err on the side of caution.
One afternoon, as group L and I were arriving at our campsite for the evening called "Rattlesnake," one of the kids found a snake while setting up his shelter. I was summoned to inspect the serpent, and was unsure whether or not it was poisonous. I consulted with my other instructor and tried contacting other instructors in the area on the radio to see if they could help me identify what kind of snake it was. Unfortunately, radio contact was unsuccessful so I made the decision to go ahead and kill the snake. Of course, all the kids wanted to see the operation go down. Once I directed the kids to observe from a safe distance, I pinned the snake with my "snake stick" and quickly severed the head off the snake with a shovel. I felt horrible about it, but didn't want to take any chances. The kids all seemed to enjoy the execution, but soon realized something terrible had transpired. A couple of minutes after I buried the snake away from camp, huge storm clouds gathered above us. Within, minutes, we were having the worst thunderstorm of the summer. I ordered all the kids to their shelters and had them undertake the "lightning drill." Meanwhile, hail started pummeling the camp and rivers of water were washing through from up the mountain trail. The kids were screaming, and our group tarps were blowing away. After about 20 minutes, the storm let up, and our camp was devastated. One of the kids yelled, "The snake has cursed us!!"
Later that evening we attempted to hang bear bags. While pulling the rope to lift the food off the ground, the entire tree fell over and almost crushed us. Someone exclaimed, "It's the curse of the snake!" A couple of days later, as group L and I were hiking to our next destination, one of the kids accidentally trampled a hornets nest. We found ourselves running for our lives as all of us were getting stung by wild bees in the forest. "The snake!!!" Someone screamed. Finally, as the week was coming to a close, we found ourselves camping out at "Rattlesnake" one more time for resupply. My shift was getting ready to come to a close. The kids were half joking about what the next curse would be. When I woke up Wednesday morning (my shift ended around noon on Wednesdays after 8 days in the woods,) one of my kids woke up with a terrible stomach ache. This particular kid was pretty tough so it seemed clear he was not faking it. He even refused to eat which was definitely a sign something was wrong. The kids never missed meals. I called in his symptoms to the field medic that morning and was told the medic would come out to visit later in the day. After resupply and staff change, I said goodbye to group L and was excited about my 6 days of time off and forgot about the "omen of the snake." Once my time off ended and I was reunited with group L the kids told me the terrible news. The "omen of the snake" had struck again when I was gone. The boy whose stomach was hurting the morning I left, had his appendix explode later in the day! Thankfully, he was evacuated in time and later rejoined the group a couple of weeks later when he was recovered, and later graduated from the program.

A Night to Remember

I came across this post a couple of days ago while doing some research for the John Muir Trail. I have not heard of SPOT before, but I do understand why she used the 911 button. Her story reminded me of one particular night during my first week working at SUWS of the Carolinas:

During my first week, I still considered myself somewhat of an experienced camper. I realized quickly that I had a lot to learn. While at SUWS, the instructors as well as the kids were required to make A-frame shelters to protect ourselves from the elements. Basically, we used blue plastic Wal-Mart tarps (I believe 8x10) and some P-cord to construct shelters in between a couple of trees. Ideal shelters were tight, about waist high, and securely fastened to the ground with stakes that were either made from branches, or just random sticks laying on the ground. (I later made my stakes from rhododendron branches which worked really well.) The shelters usually provided just enough protection to stay dry, or keep out the wind, but keep in mind that both ends were still open lengthwise.

This only being my third or fourth night creating such shelters, my construction was less than ideal. Anyone who has spent any time in the mountains of North Carolina understands that it rains all the time out there. I was unprepared to say the least. The first night of rain started off shortly after we all went to bed. "This is nice," I told myself. "I probably don't need to worry about any of the kids running in the middle of the night and the sound of the rain popping off my shelter is very relaxing." I assumed the rain would last a couple of hours, but it kept raining and raining all night. I was having difficulty sleeping because as the rain would splash in the dirt near my head, the water would sprinkle on my face and wake me up. After falling asleep only to awaken to water splashing on my face numerous times, I started to get pissed. Anyone who has ever been an instructor at a wilderness program also understands the importance of a good nights sleep. At this point it was about two in the morning, it was pouring down rain, I was awake, I was angry, and I was starting to stress about not sleeping and the small river of water that was making its way into my shelter. (The other thing that I later found essential to a good shelter was a well constructed "canoe." Basically, instead of a ground tarp, we used a second piece of plastic which one cold roll up the sides and tie off the ends and slightly elevate both ends lengthwise with P-cord to create a type of hammock canoe. Once the sleeping bag is securely placed in the canoe and even though one's body would still be in contact with the ground, if constructed properly, any water that enters the shelter would simply run underneath the "canoe" and one would stay completely dry.) Again, this only being my third or fourth night attempting such construction, my canoe was less than ideal.

As the rain began to increase in intensity, I made my first mistake. I was so fed up with water splashing in my face, I tugged on both corners of my tarp near my head, pulling out the stakes, thus collapsing the head of my shelter to the ground. "OK, this is not so bad." I told myself. "At least the rain won't continue to splash on my face. Even though the tarp is on top of me, the rain should at least roll right off the tarp." What I failed to realize was that there was enough condensation on the inside of the shelter to completely soak the outside of my sleeping bag. Within 5 minutes, I could feel the cold penetrating into the bag, and I started to stress when I felt how wet the outside of the bag was.

It's interesting to understand how your own mind will work in these types of situations. I am, by nature, impatient when it comes to problems, especially when sleep is involved. I wanted fix the problem immediately and began reacting instead of responding. If the problem is mechanical in nature, if I can't fix it (which usually I can't) I prefer to break it trying rather than calm down and think the problem through. Anyways, back to the story.

So I was lying in a wet sleeping bag with the tarp laying on top of me and the rain was still coming down in buckets. "I've got to get this shelter back up." I told myself. So again, without thinking, I got out of my sleeping bag without rain gear and immediately got to work rebuilding my shelter- third mistake. It's absolutely pouring at this point in the night. Within minutes, my clothes are completely soaked and I'm only halfway done putting up my shelter. By the time I'm done, I'm drenched. Since I'm already soaked, I decide to check on the kids and make sure everyone is doing OK. I have to say, it was humiliating to check on these kids and see them sound asleep and completely dry in their shelters. One boy was only 9 years old and was completely dry, protected, and peacefully asleep in his shelter as the rain continued to pour.

4th mistake: I still can't understand why I did this looking back on it, other than I couldn't figure out how to put dry clothes on in these conditions: I crawled into my sleeping back with my wet clothes on. That was the final nail in my coffin. Now, not only was the outside of my bag soaked, but I completely drenched the inside of my bag with my wet clothes. As much as I wanted to sleep, I started shivering so bad that sleep was impossible-and this was August! I was doomed to catch hypothermia in my sleeping bag or spend the rest of the night sitting under the group tarp and attempt to get a fire started with the remaining coals. Fortunately, a fire was still possible, and I spent the rest of the night sitting on a rock amongst puddles of rain and mud and burning every last piece of dry and wet wood that I could find under the group tarp. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper.

Who knows what would have happened had I been alone and had no group tarp to sit under and stay out of the rain. I feel bad for the girl in the blog, I understand she was probably really scared.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

First Post

So tonight I create my first post. "Tales from the Trails" is the title I chose for this blog. It was a quick decision. A title that popped into my head within the first seconds of asking myself the question, "What am I going to name this blog?" I don't know where it came from. In fact, it's probably already been used. However, there are times I don't like to put too much thought into words and titles, and this just happened to be one of those times. "Tales from the Trails" is fitting for what I intend this blog to be: A written record of random events, stories, ideas, poems, and musings that occur on the trail as I continue to discover the wonders of the outdoors in various parts of the country. Happy Trails!

-Mark "Flyboxer" Collins