Through the Woods

Stepping silently is impossible, especially in the woods.  But under the refuge of a heavy rain, each step disappears, blunted and blended into the sounds of the rain.  If ever I needed to escape or evade, I would hope for a downpour to hide my sound, my scent, my very presence, truly allowing me to leave no trace.

Perhaps it is the feeling of being encapsulated in a rain shower that causes an illusion of privacy.  As we put one foot solidly in front of the other, I forget my companions.  I look around in a panic realizing I haven’t heard Tisen’s familiar jingle for quite a few yards.  He is close at my husband’s heels, still trying to keep his head dry by hanging out under the over hang of Pat’s pack.  He hasn’t yet learned rain is its own kind of shelter.

Stepping through the rain becomes a meditation.  I cannot hear my own breath nor even my thoughts.  My mind has gone still and I focus on planting a trekking pole, placing a foot, planting the other trekking pole, placing the other foot.  I feel the muscles in my arms flex as I push off the poles.  I feel the twinge in my knee that threatens to turn into a sharp stab should I push it too hard.  My shoulders are already screaming.  I shift my focus back to my steps.  I don’t think about the distance left or the distance behind.  For those moments, I am my feet, my arms, my shoulders, my legs.  My boots and the ground move together as if the earth moves with me and all of me has melted; I am the rain.

Then, it stops raining.  My metaphysical moment evaporates even before the sun dares to break in through the clouds.

Returned to my more mundane reality, we find a spot to stop for a snack.  I slide out of my pack and dump it, rain cover down, onto a log.  It looks like an overturned turtle who has given up and stopped waving its legs.

I can’t remember ever enjoying trail mix so much as I enjoy it standing on the trail with a grumbling stomach, wondering if we will make it back without stopping for lunch.  Tisen stretches out and opts for a quick nap while we finish eating our apples before strapping our packs back on.

Now, the wet forest demands my photographer’s eye.  Every stretch of the trail reveals even more beautiful mushrooms.  I do my best to capture some of them with my 24-70mm lens, but I wish there were such a thing as a weightless macro lens and tripod so I could get up close and not worry about camera shake.

We hike faster as we get near the end.  My mind is no longer in the moment.  I’m longing for when I can set down my pack and know I don’t have to pick it up again for a very long time.

 

Overlooked

Something I always seem to forget when I haven’t been backpacking in a while is just how badly I sleep.  At first, I thought it was about equipment.  I gave up on the ultra-light sleeping pad and invested in a Big Agnes inflatable mat.  That was a nice upgrade.  A big, thick, insulated, cushy air mattress that really didn’t weigh a whole lot more.  I still didn’t sleep well.  There are several factors involved:

  1. Noises.  These range from bears to my husband snoring (he claims it’s me), but there always seem to be noises I can’t ignore.
  2. Fluids.  I drink a lot of water when we’re hiking.  Unfortunately, particularly in cold weather, this leads to having to get up many times in the middle of the night.  The whole process of managing getting out of the tent and then wandering out into the cold and/or rain has a pretty significant impact on sleep.
  3. Discomfort.  Backpacking uses muscles that don’t get used while sitting at a desk all day.  They don’t even get used in yoga class, rowing, biking, or the gym.  These muscles start screaming as I struggle to find a good position for my head.  At home, I sleep with two pillows to keep my neck and lower back comfortable.  Perhaps I need to find light-weight pillows for backpacking.
  4. Time Shift.  When one backpacks, there is little to do at the campsite after dinner if there’s no fire.  We rarely have a fire.  In many places, it’s not allowed.  In places where it is allowed, it’s often a lot of work.  Sometimes, it’s just impossible.  For example, when it’s pouring down rain.  So, once dinner is over, the dishes are washed, teeth are brushed, the supplies are appropriately stowed, and fatigue from the many miles of hiking sets in, it’s bedtime.  When bedtime is very early, this contributes to waking up throughout the night.

Rain suddenly pounding on the metal roof above our tent caused noise issues.  No pillow and sharing a tent with both a man and a dog created discomfort issues.  Going to bed at 7:30PM contributed to time shift issues.  The only thing I did well was taper off on water consumption.  None-the-less, I felt like I’d gotten no more than 15 consecutive minutes of sleep all night.

I think Tisen felt the same way–he wouldn’t get out of the tent in the morning.

But, we made it back on the trail eventually.  On the way back, we discovered Tommy Overlook, a highlight of the trail we’d missed in the heavy rain the day before.  We were making good time on the trail–all of us walking double-time in some unspoken agreement that we wanted to get home as fast as possible.  We stopped for a good 15 minutes to enjoy the view of the 3 gulches converging.  I couldn’t help but imagine what it would look like in a few weeks when the trees are in color.

2 Miles

There is a fine and delicate line when it comes to backpacking between having what you need to survive and having too much weight on your back to have any fun.

Once a backpack reaches a third of your body weight, or even a quarter, when you get a few miles into the hike, you start to question the wisdom of backpacking vs day hiking.  This has been a battle played out over years for me.  The first time I went backpacking, I barely made the ascent up a 4 mile trail that climbed almost 1 mile in elevation.  I didn’t even know how much weight I was carrying at the time, but I had packed things like an 11-cup percolating coffee pot, so I’m pretty sure it was a lot of weight.

When my husband and I were in official “backpacking training,” we went on a 3-day trip to Otter Creek Wilderness in Monangahela.  This was right after I’d read a book called “The Ultra-Light Backpacker.”  I took no spare clothes except socks and underwear, no tarp, no extra anything.  If I thought I could live without it for 3 days, I left it at home.  My pack was a lot lighter, but it rained the entire time, except when it snowed, and we came pretty close to hypothermia by the time we hiked out the 3rd day with no dry clothes to change into.

Ever since then, we’ve erred on the side of too much weight.  As we headed down the trail on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we not only were carrying too much stuff for us, but also too much stuff for our dog:  His new special diet frozen and packed so it would stay cool long enough to be fresh for his dinner and breakfast; his bedroll strapped to the outside of Pat’s pack; extra towels packed just for drying the dog; and, of course, Tisen’s special water bowl and his own water bottle.  Spoil our dog?  What are you talking about?

It’s not surprising that after about 2 miles, we were ready for our first snack break.  We stopped right on the trail as there was no where else to go.  We opened up our packs, broke out our snacks, and started munching.

As we stood there with our stuff strewn about, we heard a sound.  It wasn’t just the sound of the wind whistling through the trees.  It was the sound of an enormous sheet of rain blowing through.  Pat went for the tarp while I went for the rain cover for my pack.  I got my pack closed and covered while Pat built us a little shelter.

We felt a little foolish when three backpackers came through soaking wet and had to duck under our shelter to continue on the trail.  We started packing up our stuff and accepting that this rain wasn’t going to just blow over.  It was time to get wet.

Dogs and Tents

We have decided to take two days to go backpacking.  It’s been a long time since we spent the night in backcountry.  We have chosen a pretty easy place to re-introduce ourselves and expose Tisen for the first time.  At least, we think it will be easy.  What’s 7 miles with 35 pounds on your back?

We have a checklist of things to pack for our dog:

  • Medications (the only one with no insurance is the only one on medication!)
  • Vitamins
  • Special food (because he has allergies, which led to the medication in the first place)
  • Insulated and padded sleeping roll for dogs
  • Collapsible water bowl
  • Water bottle
  • Wipes to remove poison ivy from his fur (for my protection, not his)
  • Super glue (in case he cuts a paw pad)

Given the list, it seemed logical to me that Tisen would carry some of his own stuff.  At least his own food and first aid items.  So, I had him fitted for his own backpack.  Pat vetoed the backpack idea.  He thinks Tisen will be sore from walking so much and doesn’t need to carry any extra weight.  He has a point.

Of course, once we agreed no backpack for Tisen, it was like he knew he wasn’t going to be carrying anything so he started adding to the pile of gear.  First Blue Dog appeared on the pile.  When I moved Blue Dog, Lion showed up.  Most recently, it was Duck.  I haven’t broken it to him that he’s not going to be able to bring any of them on the trail with him.

We have, however, had pre-camping lessons in the living room.  We wanted to see if Tisen would fit in the tent with us.  It’s going to be a tight fit, but if he lays parallel to us, we can put his sleeping mat under our mats (which are narrow at the feet) and he can lay between our sleeping bags.  As long as no one moves, it should be super comfortable.

We also practiced entering and exiting the tent.  We wanted to make sure Tisen would get in and out quickly so we don’t end up with a swarm of mosquitos cuddling up with us.  After a couple of practices, he was coming in and out like a trooper.

Next, I practiced getting up to heed the call of nature (which happens about 8x a night when I am camping just because it’s so inconvenient, I think) and leaving Tisen in the tent.  He did pretty well lying still while I got out and back in again.

I think we’re ready.  Now we just have to figure out how to stuff it all into our backpacks.

On a photography note, what’s really amazing about the shots in the gallery is that all but the first one were shot at 25,600 ISO.  The darker images have some grain, but they look better than the Canon 40D did at 800 ISO.  That’s pretty impressive.