Take A Hike Day

I was all set to go out and slog through an easy 5 mile run last Friday morning when I discovered it was Take A Hike Day. Well, any excuse to hike will do, of course, so I gathered up my Airlite 22 and trekking poles and headed to the Appalachian Trail. I usually plan my hikes before I take them, but given that this was a spur-of-the-moment thing I decided to revisit an earlier hike southbound across the James River Foot Bridge to (and beyond) Matts Creek Shelter.

Along The River

‘Twas a beautiful morning along the James River, with bright sunny skies and a rich carpet of leaves that measured six inches deep in some places. Kicking leaves like a joyful five year-old made my day!

Once I turned away from the river to follow the creek to the shelter, I was pleased to discover that, unlike on my previous visit during the summer drought, Matts Creek had blossomed from a pitiful trickle into an actual creek:

Matts Creek

The giggling, bubbling water chortled off to my right for the mile trip to the shelter, and really added a level of ambience that I didn’t realize had been missing from my late August trip along the same path.

As I approached the shelter I discovered, much to my surprise given the time of year, gear piled on the picnic table and a fire burning in the pit. I passed a hiker in the lean-to putting on some outer layers to battle the 35 degree morning, threw a “Good morning!” his way and jumped over the creek to begin the climb that awaited me across the water.

Now, I’ve often lamented how I’ve seen more wildlife in town than out in the wilderness, and that’s still true, as you’re about to see. Because while I did see an animal in the woods on this trip, it was far from wild.

A half-mile after crossing the creek I was daydreaming when I heard a bell. Not the church variety, mind you. The jingle variety. I thought I was imagining things until I rounded a slight curve and saw a goat, horns, bell and all, chomping on grass in the center of the trail. In the middle of nowhere! When I recovered from my shock and gathered my wits, I grabbed my phone to try and take a shot (Seriously. Who would believe I saw a flippin’ GOAT out there?), but he bolted when he saw me. I continued on a bit further, fully expecting to encounter his human owner, but saw no one. Bizarre!

Laughing like a crazy person, I turned and headed back to the shelter. By this time, the hiker was out and about, so I stopped to chat with Tyler, trail name “Chicken Hawk” (named for the excitable little hawk in the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons) who was yo-yoing to finish up his thru hike at Daleville, 54 miles to the south. He was energetic and enthused but seemed relieved to be on the home stretch of his journey. A family emergency had taken him off-trail earlier in his quest, resulting in his late-season unorthodox completion of the AT. After a nice fifteen minute conversation, he gratefully accepted my gifts of a Gatorade and Clif bar, which pleased me as much as it did him. My first presentation of trail magic to a thru hiker! See, I always carry extra supplies for the purpose of giving them away, but have never had the opportunity to do so. I was thrilled! During the course of our conversation The Hawk did ask me the name of my blog, so if you’re reading this Tyler, thanks for accepting. It made my day, brother. And congratulations on finishing your hike!

He was a guy on a mission, so I left him to finish breaking camp and headed back towards the trailhead. I stopped to grab a shot of the Foot Bridge between the bare trees:

JR Foot Bridge

And a photo of two fallen trail sentinels that were just high enough off the ground for my diminutive 5’7″ (okay, 5′ 6.5″) frame to pass under without crouching:

Low Bridges

As I approached the bridge from the south I noticed something that made me smile and practically REQUIRED a photo. In all the journals and books I’ve read, I had heard lots about thru hiker mail. The electronic age (translation: ability to text, etc.) has done away with some of the creativity of leaving it, so I was excited to come upon this gem:

Thru Hiker Mail

I hope Swamp Donkey saw the note…

A successful, completely enjoyable Take A Hike Day trip came to its conclusion with one more trek across the bridge. By the time I got unlimbered and settled into the car for the ride home, I was already wanting to be back in the woods. I need to settle on and purchase a multi-day pack so I can do an overnight!

Next up? A northbound out-and-back on the AT to the Fullhardt Knob shelter from Daleville the day after tomorrow. My son-in-law/hiking partner has a new Gregory Zulu 40 pack to break in…

 

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I’m Becoming Too Weight Conscious

Not my body weight, mind you, though I’ve managed to get a head start on winter weight gain by virtue of some questionable food choices. I’m talking about gear weight. I’ll never be a gram counter (at least I don’t think so), but weight is beginning to influence my potential future gear choices to a strong degree.

Take, for example, my seemingly endless quest for the “right” multi-day pack. My initial list of wants did mention weight, but very near the bottom, just before “integrated sternum strap whistle.” Seriously, it was a consideration, but other things, like an integrated rain cover interested me more.

But with reading comes education, and as I continued to pore over every site backpacking related, I discovered that carrying more than 20% of my body weight on my back while schlepping along wooded trails didn’t really appeal to me. Granted, the stuff I’ve already bought can’t be changed (for now), but I’m still in a position to save weight on a bear-proof food container, stove and backpack. Those are the three main items left on my “expedition” gear list. The first one is easy. Ursack. No way I’m carrying a canister unless the area in which I find myself requires one. Stove? Well, for hikes of three days or less, I’ll probably not carry one. As one of the world’s least picky eaters, I can survive a few days without a hot meal. When I do carry a stove, I’m leaning towards the Solo Lite. As a primarily AT-bound hiker, fuel for that will be pretty much everywhere. Of course, I may hate it when I try it, but hey…I’m a total newbie, which practically requires mistakes to be made in the interest of gaining knowledge.

Then the pack. *Sigh* Anyone who has graced this site has read my back-and-forth battle with choosing a pack. I’m getting closer, and one of the key considerations for me now is weight (after capacity, of course). Being more weight-conscious has eliminated several great packs from my list. The other day I was in REI with my son-in-law looking at bags, and we fitted him for an Osprey Atmos AG 50. He pranced around the store with about fifteen extra pounds of sand on board, and just loved it. I did too, until I saw visions of Gossamer Gear Mariposas and Granite Gear Crown2s dancing in my head. Then it felt like steel in the hand. At four pounds, it’s not a heavyweight by any stretch, especially when compared to one of my other considered options, the Deuter Futura Vario Pro 50+10, which weighs ten ounces more than the Osprey. But when stacked against the two pound, five ounce Crown2, it’s flat-out heavy…er. I’m learning that two extra pounds (give or take) is a whole lot of weight on my back. Especially if my back is going to be dealing with PUDs in Virginia for days and days on end.

So while he, thirty years younger and much bigger than I, may ultimately choose an Atmos, I’m still wrestling with the lighter weight choices.

Oh, did I mention the ULA Circuit?

Blackwater Creek Trail

A few miles from where I live there’s a cancer awareness garden that occupies the area surrounding one of the entrances to the Blackwater Creek Trail. I’ve been to the garden on a handful of occasions but had never checked out the trail, an asphalt path that, from this particular spot, runs a touch over two miles down to the James River and the city proper. So I decided to check it out one afternoon when I happened to be nearby.

After a stop in the Awareness Garden to remember my dear friend Erik who died of brain cancer in March of last year, I set off.

Awareness Sign

It was lightly trafficked as I made my way into the woods. I felt odd taking a brisk walk in jeans, a polo shirt and half-laced running shoes, but spur of the moment activities require sacrifices. I did want to limit my miles to three, so I downloaded the RunKeeper app onto my phone (in lieu of my trusty Garmin) before hitting the trail. I needn’t have worried about tracking it myself; as it turns out, the trail is populated with distance markers:

Mile Marker

It was a stunning fall day, with bright sun, mid-60s temps and a nice breeze. I was glad for that breeze, wearing jeans and all! I was intrigued to see this sign along the route:

Trail Sign

Seriously, anything with a backpacker logo is a magnet to my attention now. I vowed both to research this when I got home, and to come back another time and see where it goes. (Later, I found that it simply follows the actual creek for a short distance before rejoining the asphalt trail. I will hike it soon, as I’m fond of any excuse to leave tar and tread upon dirt!)

I hit the 1.5 mile mark at a point sandwiched between two small cliffs (a perfect choke point for an ambush, my study of military history reminded me) and made the turn for home. It was nice to be alone in the woods on a pleasant walk without the aforementioned Garmin and running shoes, or my backpack and trekking poles:

Nice Trail Day

A technical trail for running or hiking it isn’t, but it is a great place within city limits to get that away-from-it-all feel. I saw both kids and seniors availing themselves of its charm, so it’s very family friendly. In addition, when snow and ice require abandoning the higher elevations in the area, this would be a good spot for weighted practice hikes to keep my hips and shoulders ready for attacking sections of the AT in the spring…