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.


The Next 6.3 Miles

Mentally embracing the rain, we started down the trail, determined to make it the next 6.3 miles to a place called “Hobbs Cabin.”  We couldn’t help but hope the cabin (a rustic, first-come, first-serve arrangement) was available.

After about 10 minutes of hiking in the downpour, we realized hiking in the rain on a hot day was quite pleasant.  Instead of feeling stinky and sticky with sweat, we felt cool and refreshed and there were no bugs while it was raining.

Tisen, on the other hand, was not so enamored with the feeling of cool rain. He did his best to walk underneath the overhang of our packs to try to avoid being rained on directly.  He ended up just as wet as the rest of us, but there must have been something comforting about feeling like he had a roof over his head.

When we got to the first overlook of the “gulf”  (apparently that’s what a gulch is called in Tennessee), the rain had taken a break.  The sky was overcast and it was hard to tell it was noon.  The break in the rain was nice, as was the breeze blowing up from the valley below.  But, alas, we were trying to cover 6.3 miles before it got too late in the afternoon, so we couldn’t stop long to enjoy it.

As the trail veered away from the edge of the gulch, we re-entered the woods, and perhaps a time from the past.  It was easy to imagine the first settlers finding their way through woods like these when such woods covered much of the Eastern US. Of course, they would have all be old-growth forests back then.  But, these woods, mostly free of invasive plants, made me feel like we’d been transported in time. Thankfully, our gear wasn’t transported back to historical equipment–I think we would have needed a wagon.

At long last, we arrived at Hobbs Cabin and were relieved to find it unoccupied.  A tiny, dark, uninviting shelter, it was equipped with 6 bunks and a table fastened to the wall.  The bunks were wood planks that would require sleeping pads and bags to make comfortable.  The small windows on the back wall let in so little light that even with our flashlights, we had trouble seeing inside the cabin.  I had a hard time imagining spending the night in there.

I proposed we pitch the tent on the front porch, screening out all insects, putting us where we were sure to get a breeze, and under a great big roof to keep up out of the rain.  We hung the rain fly in position just in case we started to get wet, but planned to sleep under just the screen for the night.  Tisen was more excited than a child to crawl into the tent with us, even though we decided to call it a night around 7:30PM.  It was the earliest we’ve ever gone to bed.

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.

Savage Falls

One of the things I love the most about hiking is the solitude.  There is nothing like hearing only the wind whistling quietly through the trees.  It’s like the secrets of the universe being spoken quietly in your ear.

When we did the Stone Door hike, we were surprised at the solitude we found.  In spite of it being a short, easy trail that started out with a paved segment, we only saw people going the opposite direction.  At the top of Stone Door, a breeze blew through the pines and we enjoyed that hard-to-find solitude that usually only less accessible wilderness offers.

For me, this sense of solitude somehow always generates a wondrous feeling of connectedness in what might be one of life’s great paradoxes.  It was so palpable at the top of Stone Door that I had to set my camera aside for 10 minutes and just sit and listen to the wind and feel part of life.

When we decided to walk at least part of the Savage Gulch Day Loop trail, we thought we might see even fewer people–it’s more remote.

When we arrived at the parking lot, another couple was getting ready to head down the trail.  I overheard the man ask the woman, “Got what’cha need?  Need what’cha got?” What a profound question.  One of the greatest mistakes I’ve made in my lifetime is not asking the second question.  But I digress.

Tisen has been limping and so have we, so we didn’t expect to make it all the way around the 5 mile loop trail.  We also got a bit confused because there are about 5 trails that converge with the loop trail.  So, we didn’t start out with the intention of going to Savage Falls, but that’s where we ended up.  But we were OK with having gotten slightly lost–who can resist a waterfall?

When we arrived at Savage falls, we were a little jealous of the people swimming in the water.  We contemplated getting in, but we didn’t see a good path for Tisen to get down to the water and Tisen has put on a few too many pounds to be carried easily.  So, we sat in the shade and watched.

I attempted to shoot with my 100-400mm lens since there was enough of a crowd that my 24-70mm wasn’t giving me tight enough compositions.  Plus, I was shooting for a lot of depth of field, so I figured my faster lens wasn’t doing me that much good anyway.

There were two wrong assumptions about this.  First, the faster lens has an easier time focusing no matter what aperture I have it set on.  Second, the shorter focal length is easier to hold still even though that lens lacks Image Stabilization.

But, I did my best to steady the lens.  If only my subjects would have held still–I had to refrain from yelling “freeze!” at the couple under the water fall.

Crossing Bridges

I love my dog.  I love him for many reasons, but today, it’s because every day he reminds me that we can learn, we can grow, we can be completely different than we were before.

How many times do we hear people say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?  As someone who strives to learn every day, I know first hand how hard it can be to undo decades of habit to do the thing I will myself to do.  Many days, I feel like it’s an impossibility.  Then, I have days when I do things like fly off a mountain in a hang glider and I know that anything is possible.  But, sometimes I walk away thinking that maybe flying off a mountain in a hang glider doesn’t ultimately change anything at all.

That’s where Tisen comes in.

Tisen has transformed himself from a nearly-dead street dog to a urban-dwelling, middle-class gentleman who likes to hike.  He wants to make me happy.  That’s his bottom line.  While I’m not sure I could handle a person being so into me, in a dog, it’s kind of nice.

When we went to Savage Gulf Natural Area to hike the other day, we encountered something called a suspension bridge.  The dreaded structure was not the kind of suspension bridge you drive over, but rather a flexing, swinging, bouncing rope-and-wood bridge meant for no more than 2 pedestrians at a time.  These bridges make me nervous; I have no idea what they are like for a dog.  For Tisen, it was clearly a gauntlet of terror.

First, he would not step onto the bridge at all.  I walked across first to give him a reason to cross.  Then Pat came behind, encouraging Tisen to come with him.  Tisen considered climbing down a sheer rock cliff to the stream below over walking onto the bridge, but Pat managed to get him up the entrance ramp to the bridge.  But there, he stopped.  It wasn’t until Pat had crossed and Tisen was left standing alone that he decided he’d better cross.

He made it all the way across the gulch (which really wasn’t so far below as to be completely terrifying), got to the top of the exit ramp, stared down at me with his longing eyes, then eye-balled the ramp down to me and decided he’d had enough.  He turned around and went all the way back across the gulch.

We managed to coax him back across and all the way to land on the other side.  We completed our hike to Savage Falls and then wondered what was going to happen on the way back across.  When we got to the suspension bridge, I went across first, Pat coaxed Tisen up to the bridge, and Tisen led the way across looking like he’d been crossing suspension bridges most of his life.

In about an hour, Tisen transformed himself from a ‘fraidy cat to a top dog.  He’s my hero.

Stone Door

Continuing our weekend adventure, having made it from the asphalt to the “unimproved” part of the trail (does anyone actually think asphalt is an improvement?), we continued on our journey to the Stone Door.

I don’t know exactly what image “Stone Door” conjures in your mind, but in my mind, when I read the description that said:

Stone Door, a 10 ft. wide by 100 ft. deep crack, forming from the top of the escarpment into the gorge below. It looks like a giant door left ajar and was once used by Indians as a passageway.

What I envisioned was a giant slab of rock standing straight up in the middle of two cliffs and standing ajar so that one can walk between the “door” part and the cliff part.  I guess I skipped over the “deep crack” part.

When we arrived at Stone Door, the view of the valley was fantastic.  Plus, the top of the cliffs provides some really interesting scenery in and of itself.  The only part I didn’t like was being anywhere near the edge.  The drop off was terrifying.

Pat and Tisen sat patiently while I worked my way around the top of the cliff, shooting everything I dared to shoot.  I really wanted to get a great shot looking down on the crack in the cliff, but it was tough to get a good angle without rock climbing gear.  I always knew I should have become a rock climber.

I have to pause here for a moment to do a mental double take on whether those words actually came out of my fingers.  Me . . . a rock climber?  Well, maybe not.

In any case, I couldn’t get the shot I wanted mainly out of pure fear.  Or perhaps fear in this case was good sense?  I was pretty determined not to fall into the crevasse never to be found again.

We worked our way back down with me stopping to shoot straight on to the crack.  There was a large tree in the opening that created a key hole sort of image for me.  I played with that for a while and contemplated walking down the steps a bit to see what kind of interesting views I could get, but Pat was concerned about time and we needed to drive to the other side of the park to see the next part of our adventure:  Savage Gulf Day Loop.

So, I packed it in without getting a great shot of the crack.  As we walked away, Pat said to me, “I wonder where the Stone door is?”  I wasn’t the only one who didn’t picture a big crack!

Tisen seemed nonplussed by the whole stone door thing.  I imagine there are certain advantages to being a dog.  One of them is probably no expectations.  Don’t get me wrong, Stone Door is really cool and definitely worth the effort to get there.  Just don’t expect something that looks like a door.