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.

The Trail Less Traveled

The last installment (for now) from our backpacking trip to Yosemite . . .

Waking up that morning, we were the kind of tired you get from hiking a 1500 foot rise in elevation twice carrying close to 40 pounds on your back combined with not sleeping well.  One of my bad decisions to reduce the weight of my pack was to use an ultra-thin thermal sleeping pad that was 3/4 long.  That was a decision I would regret every night of our trip.  If there’s one thing a body needs when you’re pushing it hard is good rest and an ultralight, 3/4 length sleeping pad is not the way to get it.

So, there we were, still with no appetite although the nausea had subsided some, super tired, and in the middle of a mosquito festival.  We moved extraordinarily quickly getting out of camp that morning.  That’s one thing about through hiking–if you hate where you camp the first night, it’s only one night.

We were headed up the final ascent to El Capitan.  Although our tired bodies could feel the climb, it was a relatively gradual ascent.  Given we were already suffering from some altitude sickness, going up was not the best direction, but it wasn’t like we were climbing Everest and potentially going to die from altitude sickness.  We did not, however, move very quickly as we made our way up those last couple of miles to the top of El Capitan.

Fortunately for us, we weren’t far from the top.  We made it before lunch even at our snail’s pace.  Even more fortunately, our appetites started to return and we managed to snack and feel a little more energized before we got there.

As we walked out onto the top of El Capitan, any aches or pains were forgotten.  It was the first time we stood together looking at the panoramic view of Yosemite valley.  It was Pat’s first time in Yosemite, and I was relieved that he felt the same amazement I felt when I saw a similar view from the top of Half Dome a couple years earlier.

After the nausea, fatigue, poor night’s sleep, and mosquitos, I felt giddy with relief that Pat thought it was worth it to stand there with me.

We spent an hour there.  We had our lunch on top of El Capitan, enjoying the view and the sense of achievement.  While we didn’t climb up the face like the rock climbers who come every year, we had pushed ourselves enough to still feel that rush of “I really did something.”

Although we were there during peak tourist season, we didn’t see anyone until after we got past El Capitan.  Up until that point, we’d had the trail completely to ourselves.  Of the tens of thousands of people in the park at the same time we were there, not one of them crossed paths with us for that day and a half. We truly felt like wilderness explorers.

P.S.  In case you’re wondering, the photo with the “Outdoor Source” bandanna is because they offered a discount if you brought them a picture with their logo on the trail.

The Long Hike

Continuing from my last post, I’ll skip the other backpacking practice trips we went on between Wildcat Hollow and Yosemite–let’s just say that I experimented with “ultra-light backpacking” methods and decided having rain covers for the backpacks, a dry change of clothes, and a waterproof tarp was really worth the extra weight.

That said, we arrived in Yosemite fully prepared.  However, having spent the day flying across the country and driving to the park, we weren’t up for hitting the trail as soon as we got there.  Instead, we stayed in the Tent Cabins where we got to watch a video of a black bear peeling open a car door to get to a forgotten cookie.

We were very careful about using approved bear containers.

Our first day on the trail was a bit more complicated than we thought.  First of all, by the time we ate breakfast, got our gear packed, got our backcountry permit and bear canisters, and figured out where to safely store stuff we weren’t taking with us, it was nearly noon.

We also had a complication to deal with.  The trail we were going to take was closed.  We were going to have to take a different, longer route with more elevation ups and downs.  We hitchhiked for the first time (this is really not like hitchhiking on the freeway–even the park rangers suggested hitching to the trailhead).

It seemed quite a coincidence that a German picked us up given that my husband is German.  They chatted in their native tongue until our driver almost ran into oncoming traffic.  Then my husband decided maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to talk while the guy was driving.

We made it safely to our trailhead.  We started the long climb from the valley floor toward or goal, the top of El Capitan.  There are only two ways to get to the top of El Capitan:  hike the slow climb up the back or climb the steep face with ropes.  We picked the long, slow route.

The start of the trail was through what seemed like miles through a burned out area of the forest.  With no shade, we felt like we were being cooked like ants under a magnifying glass.  We were both relieved when we made it into the woods.

From then on, the scenery improved, water sources were plentiful, and Pat stopped complaining.  However, we both started suffering from mild altitude sickness.  Not something we expected at those elevation.

We ended up stopping short of our distance goal for the night.  We had trouble forcing ourselves to eat, feeling slightly nauseous.  We happened to pick a mosquito resort area, so we quickly retreated to our tent and went to bed early.  I realized as I fell asleep that the one thing I’d forgotten was gatorade–it’s awesome when altitude sickness is an issue and you need calories that don’t make you nauseous.

Oh, and the non-toxic mosquito repellant didn’t work.

Practice Hike

Back in 2004 (yes, more stories from my PowerShot G3 era), I talked my not-yet-husband into going backpacking in Yosemite.  He had never been backpacking before and he had never been to Yosemite before, so he was both excited about the prospect and nervous that I, the slightly more experienced backpacker, would mislead him in his preparations.

Since I hadn’t been backpacking for many years, I did the only logical thing.  I bought a stack of books about backpacking.  Then, I began equipping both of us.  The next logical step was to test it all out.

I also got to test my setup for taking pictures.  Instead of a strap, I used an elastic harness that took all the weight of my camera off of my neck, which was such a relief.  It also left my hands completely free.

Well equipped, we headed to Wildcat Hollow in Wayne National Forest.  It was the only place I found within a 2 hour drive that allowed backwoods camping.  The entire trail was about 12 miles–just long enough for a day and a half trip for us.

Although the hike started through a grove of evergreens, most of the trail went through deciduous forest.  In early April, just the beginning of spring growth was starting on the ground–the trees showed no signs of life at all.

As we made our way through the woods, we came to a stream with a beaver lodge.  Something was laying on top of the lodge.  We approached quietly, thinking we were going to get to see a beaver.  But, as we crept forward, I found myself wondering what a beaver would be doing on top of its lodge and how on earth it would get there.  I frantically tried to remember everything I knew about beavers.  I was pretty certain their lodges were supposed to only be accessible from underwater.

I guess when people say “only accessible from underwater,” they aren’t thinking about geese.  That’s what was stretched over the dome of the lodge–a large canada goose.  We watched for a long time trying to decide if it was alive, dead, or dying.  We saw it breathing, but decided it must be dying because it had its head down.  Coming up with no way to help this goose, we hiked on and tried to come up with alternative, more cheerful explanations.

When at last we found the perfect site to camp, we discovered how easy our new tent was to put up–it took 5 minutes.  We heated up instant soup on our tiny burner and hunkered over our hot soup cups as the temperature dropped.

We put on warm, dry long underwear and our warm wool hats before snuggling into our sleeping bags.  We slept pretty well, staying warm and dry all night.  When we woke up, it was snowing.

We hiked out with our bellies full of oatmeal and hot coffee feeling like we were quite the survivors.

Among the Clouds

In 2004, I talked my now-husband into going backpacking in Yosemite.  I carefully planned a 67-mile trek around the top of Yosemite Valley that I figured we’d be able to complete in 7 days.  Pat said no.  I re-planned, reducing our plan to 42 miles in 7 days  Pat was dubious, so I added “escape routes” so that if we decided to retreat to the valley and stay in a hotel, we could.

Pat had never backpacked before, but having been to Hawaii with me for 2 weeks a couple years earlier, he had learned what happened if he allowed me to set an itinerary without supervision.  At the end of our trip, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do that we didn’t get to.  His answer was, “Well, it might have been nice to have one day to just hang out at the beach.”

There are so many stories to tell from this trip to Yosemite, but I will stick to the ones associated with these few photos (taken with my old Powershot G3).  The red flowers are called snow plants.  Because they only grow in California and Nevada at very specific altitudes in conifer forests between May and July, I suppose it’s not a surprise I’d never seen one before.  But it was such a surprise, bursting out of the forest floor in the shadows as we made our way up to the top of El Capitan.

The rest of the photos were taken from Clouds Rest.  We had hiked all day to get to the top of Clouds Rest, the highest point visible from the valley.  Along the way, we saw many yellow-bellied marmots, a wide variety of squirrels and chipmunks, and one very curious mule deer buck who had walked up to us as if he wasn’t sure what we were.

We were also treated to increasingly amazing views of the Sierra Nevada mountains stretching endlessly beyond the horizon.  But, when at long last we made it to the top, we sat mute in a state of awe for a half an hour before we decided to hurry up and get camp setup and get ourselves ready for bed in time to sit and watch the sunset.

We found a spot to pitch the tent below the ridge, made our dinner following strict guidelines to avoid bear invasions, got our accommodations all arranged, and put on some extra warm clothes.  Then, we sat on the ridge and watched the light changing across the valley as the sun sank below the mountains and the mist rose in the valley.  We sat there for over an hour feeling like there was nothing more we needed to be satisfied in life than sitting on that ridge together watching the wonder of mountains.

While we had many inspiring moments on that trip, I think if that would have been the only place we hiked to, we still would have gone home satisfied.

Hiking at Clingman’s Dome

When we arrive at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, we discover a long line of cars in the parking lot waiting for spaces.  Pat does a quick U-turn and we drive a quarter of a mile back down the road and find a space on the side of the road.  The space is tight against a sudden drop-off and long grass hides where the slope disappears.  I step out of the car and take a step that misses the firm shoulder, but catch myself before I slide off the slope into the thick weeds.  More cautiously, I move around to the trunk to start getting out gear.  I strap on my camera with the wide-angle lens, expecting to shoot panoramic views from the lookout point, and screw my long lens into my monopod to carry over my shoulder.  I pull out my day-pack and stuff it with food from the grocery store–enough to keep us energized for a day of hiking.  I pull on my fivefingers trekking shoes, tie on my rain jacket since the clouds don’t seem to be clearing, and stuff my head into my sun hat, which it doesn’t look like I’ll need, but it keeps my hair out of my face.  Dozens of tourist walk by on their way to and from their cars.  They wear shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops–I’m sure they wonder what in the heck we’re doing.  Pat straps on a canister of pepper spray just in case we encounter an angry bear and we lock up the car and head for the look out point looking completely ridiculous.

The walk to the overlook is a half mile from the parking lot.  It’s on a paved path that climbs up several hundred feet.  We pass exhausted tourists who stop to rest along the way.  I wonder how their feet are feeling in their flip-flops.  When we get to the peak, we are surprised by a bizarre structure standing at the top.  It’s a tower with a circular viewing platform with a roof that looks somewhat like a UFO hovering over the landscape except for the long, spiral ramp that leads up to it.  It’s an interesting way to provide a view over the trees, but the ramp occupies so much space that I have to wonder if any trees were actually spared in the construction.  We climb up the ramp in spite of the heavy cloud cover.  We have lost hope that the skies would clear.  At the top, the view is still amazing with the nearest mountains looming like shadows through the clouds.  We don’t linger for long–the lack of visibility makes gazing off into the distance fruitless and we are anxious to get out of the crowd and onto the trail.

The din of hundreds of people gathered at this one point surprises me.  I’m not sure why, but maybe I expect people to be silenced by the awe of nature?  As we enter the trail and head out, we encounter several large groups of people who are clearly enjoying themselves, talking and laughing loudly.  I guess we all enjoy our experiences differently.  Recognizing that I am crabby in the morning, I put on a smile and try not to judge their exuberance.  We walk on for another tenth of a mile or so with the trail getting rockier and steeper.  Suddenly, it’s like someone hit a mute button.  All of the noise has disappeared and we hear only the sound of the wind blowing through the trees.  I sigh audibly.  This is the experience I seek when I go into the woods–the quieting of activity and the internal quieting that comes with it.  For a moment I wonder that we’re so quickly able to leave all the busyness behind–it strikes me as odd that so few people venture no further than this into the woods when they come to a national park, but I am grateful for the solitude.

The trail flattens out as we reach a valley between the first mountain and the next.  The trees open up and we find ourselves surrounded by berry-laden slopes.  Given the lateness of the season, we’re not surprised that the berries here have been picked clean, just as they had been on the Flat Creek trail.  The trail is tight and winding, so it’s probably a good thing that there the main attraction for bears is gone.  We step over bear scat about every 20 feet or so, knowing that a few weeks earlier probably would have guaranteed a bear encounter in tight quarters.  But then we see fresh scat and we perk up our ears, keeping one part of our brains focused on any sounds that might indicate we’re not alone.  We hear a snapping branch and rustling that’s too loud for a squirrel and freeze for a moment on the trail.  Then we hear voices and realize we’re encountering another group of hikers.

Moving on, we find two groups of hikers have stopped to eat lunch on large rocks at the side of the trail.  We greet them as we pass and learn that they thought we were bears–I guess we are not the only ones who noticed fresh scat on the trail.  Moving on, we enter deep woods as the trail moves lower in elevation.  The forest floor is covered in ferns and bright green moss.  The voices of our fellow hikers has died away in the wind and we are once again surrounded by solitude.  As the trail starts it way up again, we come into a slight clearing that hosts a collection of birds that dart back and forth across the trail.  I’m surprised to recognize Juncos given that they are a winter bird in Ohio.  Apparently the mountains make a good summer home for those less interested in travel.  Several other birds flit by, but I left my binoculars in the car, wanting to lighten my load.  They are all moving so fast and hiding so well when they land, that I don’t bother to try to set up for a shot.  We move on, listening to their calls and I wish I had spend more time learning bird songs as I’m only able to recognize a couple of them.

As we continue up the next mountain, climbing over rocky terrain, we encounter another group of hikers.  This time, they are clearly on a trek on the Appalachian trail, carrying full backpacks.  The three young men pass us a we stand aside, the third commenting on the size of the lens I am still carrying over my shoulder, as yet unused.  I notice that he is wearing flip flops and wonder how that is possible, but do not comment out loud.  We continue a little further and encounter two more young guys who have passed other day hikers.  They ask us where the next entry point is on the trail, wondering why there are day hikers headed that direction.  We explain that we’re dong an out-and-back from Clingman’s Dome, which satisfies their curiosity, but it seems as if they’ve never considered re-tracing their steps on a hike.  I like through-hiking when backpacking because it allows us to get to places that can’t be reached in a single day, but Pat prefers hiking without the backpack and I have to admit that my body prefers day hiking as well.  As we continue down the trail, I wonder if we’ve gotten too old to get back in shape for through hiking and long for a multi-day adventure on the trail.  I decide that it’s more of a question of how much discomfort we’re willing to put up with than how old we are–however, tolerance for discomfort seems to have an inverse relationship with aging.

We continue on until we find a breezy spot along the ridge.  Pat is sweating profusely and pauses in the breeze, enjoying the coolness.  We do a time check and decide we need to turn around in ten more minutes.  The clouds have continued moving in all day and thunder rumbles ominously in the distance.  We hike a little further and then come to a log where we decide to pause for lunch.  The salty beef jerky and peanuts make a good snack after sweating for so long.  We carefully hold our peanuts in cupped hands, cautious not to drop any out of concern for the bears.  Bears finding human food leads to bears attacking humans, which leads to bears being euthanized and we have no desire to contribute to the unfair death of a bear.

Having satiated our hunger, we head back the way we came, walking more quickly when the trail allows it and keeping our heads down, having given up on the views from the ridge.  We pause only when we encounter a breezeway in the woods or when we hear a noise that we can’t identify immediately.  We make better time on the return than we did on the way out with me stopping only once to shoot–this always happens on out-and-back hikes.  We slow down as we make our way back up to Clingman’s dome.  The trail is steep and rocky, requiring careful foot placement and a strenuous climb.  At one point, we both freeze when we hear a low, guttural roar seemingly from the brush off the side of the trail.  Then we laugh out loud when we realize the sound of a Harley has reached us from the parking lot still far off on the mountain.  Relieved, we walk on, now racing against the increasing thunder.

As we get closer to the trailhead, occasional raindrops bounce off my hat.  I contemplate stopping to put on my rain jacket, but I’m hot and so far the rain is too intermittent to worry about.  As we approach the fork in the trail and I head in the direction we came from, we encounter two tourists who have ventured into the woods from the other fork and Pat suggests we take the trail they’ve come from.  They tell us it came from the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome and it appears to be downhill while the trail we came in on is uphill back to the peak.  We glance at the sky and feel the increasing rain drops and decide to take the shorter route to the parking lot.  Going downhill over rocks is actually harder than going up, but we make fairly good time on creaky knees.  I’m happy with the stickiness of my shoes that let’s me climb over the rocks with a sure-footness I’ve never had in hiking boots.

As we get closer to the trailhead, the rain starts for real and I decide even though I’m too hot and sweaty to worry about staying dry, I need to at least cover my camera and lens.  Pat helps me tuck my rain jacket around my gear and we continue on at a faster pace.  When we think we’re at the trailhead, it takes a sudden turn uphill and I’m disappointed that we still can’t see the trailhead after we make the turn.  The trail is now smooth and covered in gravel, so the going is easier and we reach the parking lot in just a few more minutes.  It strikes me as funny that I suddenly want to get off the trail quickly when a few hours earlier, I couldn’t wait to get on the trail, but carrying heavy camera equipment is no fun when it’s raining too hard to use it.

We make our way back to our car and get in a quickly as possible in the now pouring rain.  We are soaked and get most of the car wet in the process.  As Pat pulls out into the stream of cars evacuating the mountain, I change into a dry shirt and pull on an extra layer, now chilled from the rain and the accompanying drop in temperature.  As we near the intersection with the main road through the park, we make a quick decision to go South instead of North as we had planned–traffic is backed up to the North and we are not prepared to spend hours sitting in traffic in our wet clothes.  We head back to Cherokee to find a dry hotel room tired but happy.