Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Backpacking Overnight - June 19/20, 2010

I spent Father's Day Weekend attending a Leave No Trace Trainer Course sponsored by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  My thanks go to my wife and son for letting me get away to attend!  Although I have often hiked with the Charlottesville Chapter of the PATC dating back to 1993 and have occasionally volunteered to help maintain trails with the subgroup, I have never before attended an activity put on by the Washington DC-based main group.

Alex and Hal instruct the group at the start of the trip.
As part of the training, we backpacked in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park and practiced the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.  Leave No Trace is a program designed to assist people using the outdoors "with their decisions about how to reduce their impacts when they hike, camp, picnic, snowshoe, run, bike, hunt, paddle, ride horses, fish, ski or climb." It is focused on teaching the user the ethical framework and skills to determine the appropriate activities and the consequences of one's actions on the land.  The program I attended seeks to help us train others about the nature of recreational impacts as well as techniques to prevent and minimize such impacts. 

Finding room in our packs for the group gear.

LNT consists of 7 principles:
  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
There were 10 of us including two instructors, which is the maximum group number for the Shenandoah NP backcountry. We started at Skyland on the northern edge of Shenandoah National Park's Central District, at 8AM on Saturday.  

Lee presents on "Dispose of Waste Properly" on the hike.
After presentations by the leaders and by Lisa on "Plan Ahead and Prepare" that I helped assess (she did a great job and I'm not just saying that because she gave us all Jolly Rancher candies!), we drove a few miles south to the trailhead at the Meadow Spring Overlook. Our leaders, Alex and Hal, made sure that we knew to stop at every concrete marker announcing a trail intersection before letting us descend off of the Skyline Drive into the backcountry.

Over the next two days, each of the eight participants presented on one of the seven LNT principles.  We had two presentations addressing durable surfaces by the mother/daughter pair of Mary and Margo, with Margo presenting on travel on durable surfaces and Mary presenting later on camping on durable surfaces.  Some of these presentations were along the trail, and some were at our camp for the night.

Indy tells folks not to take stuff, even if it looks cool.
I was charged with explaining "Leave What You Find," and used the opportunity to make use of my son's Indiana Jones Hat and Sound Effect Whip while engaging the group (playacting as Cub Scouts) why it isn't good practice to take artifacts to put in your drawer at home.  

Hal and Alex brought a ton of LNT experience and history to the table and I feel lucky to have been guided by two people who have been practicing and teaching these principles for such a long time.

Our elevation profile of both days' hikes.
The hike to the campsite was 3.7 miles long the first day, and 4.4 miles the second day as we returned by a less direct route.  The steepest incline was near the start of the second day's hike and it was a 16% grade for 1/5 of a mile as we ascended near the summit of Catlett Mountain.  The climb at the end of the hike (back up to the Skyline Drive) was longer at .6 mile, but was only a 7% grade.  Nonetheless we all felt that climb, as it was at the end of the event and I really felt the heat and humidity for the first time on this climb.  The highest point on our hike was the trailhead on the Skyline Drive north of Stony Man.

I have been on a brief section of the Hazel Mountain Trail near our campsite once before, back in 2004 when I climbed up from a trailhead off of Route 231.  But since there are no real landmarks along the way in this part of the park, I didn't realize at the time that I had passed through before.  This is actually a pretty confusing area of the park.  You have the Hazel Mountain Trail and the Hazel River Trail.  And you have the Catlett Spur Trail and the Catlett Mountain Trail.  You pass by the Buck Hollow Trail and the Buck Ridge Trail.  We seemed to be passing by those concrete posts every ten minutes announcing new trail name variations!

But the area has some good backcountry camping spots, and that was the real reason we were back there.  (I think that was probably the reason the eight or so others we came across were also in this part of the park.)  We camped on a relatively level spot near the intersection of the Hazel Mountain Trail and the Catlett Mountain Trail.  It was out of sight of the trails, as is recommended to leave no trace of your activity - camping in a spot visible from the trail encourages others to camp in the same spot, which quickly degrades the area.  
Lisa borrowed my camera and took the greatest photo.  Here is Lee showing how to not harass wildlife.
Note he has his LNT card in his hand in case he forgets anything!
In my BSA Scouter training sessions, I've learned that some of the best takeaways are the tidbits you learn from other outdoors lovers that may have little to do with the course content.  Here is a collection of tidbits I took home with me: 

I learned what a Hennessy Hammock is like and how to get in one from Bruce.  I have always been curious about what these are like and would love to try one overnight. 

I learned about the PATC Trail Patrol from Murry.  It sounds like a great way to volunteer!

I learned from Alex that real strict LNT would mean that everyone leaves their packs next to the kitchen area so they walk back to their tents less frequently, though thankfully our group did not practice this.

Margo checks her feet for insect bites.
In back, Alex, Murry and Lisa
assesses a recent presentation.

Lee taught me that cigarette butts degrade relatively more quickly than many trash items careless hikers toss away.

Did you know there is a KOA on the Vegas Strip next to Circus Circus? Neither did I! Margo related her camping experience there.  (The map on the website indicates they even have special "player's sites" that are close to the bathrooms.  Do you suppose Nora would be willing to trade out our 2 night room reservation at the Treasure Island Casino?)

Jay told us about the history of Philmont Scout Reservation which he first visited in 1961, and Lee was once a ranger there.

Alex reminded me that my decision in high school not to join my Explorer post on its journey to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior might not have been the best one I have made in my life. 

I learned that I should quit wearing my day glow green perforated wicking tee shirt from Target in the backcountry if I really want to be serious about LNT, but am not sure I am that serious yet because it is darn comfortable on a hot hike and I don't seriously believe the animals really care.  (Fortunately I got a couple of sharp new wicking tees for Father's Day when I returned home!)
Dayglow hiker with son (in hat) and friend on a May PATC hike to South River Falls.
Note the absence of any wildlife in the photo!

Mary taught me that some kinds of sleep aids really do help in the backcountry, even if Margo thinks her mom is a "pusher."  And Mary also taught me that Ambien is best taken just before going to bed and not if you plan to stay up in your tent giggling with Margo and Lisa (as she did).
And because Ambien has been linked to bizzare sleepwalking behavior, if anybody needs to talk to me about late night incoherent tent visits or wildlife harassment, I am blaming Mary!

Jay discusses
I learned that the Steripen water purifier with included batteries that I bought on special at Amazon before Christmas and used for the first time this weekend must be a real battery hog, because it worked exactly once before telling me there was insufficient battery power. I need to get that working before hiking up Half Dome later this summer and stock up on the Double A's.

Lisa taught me about the subject of her master's pursuit: Eco-Psychology, which seems like a pretty interesting profession.

From Hal I learned that digging a cathole too deep means that there will be no organic matter and what you leave in the hole will stay there forever.  Ugh!

Our water hunting
and Croc finding run.
From unknown hikers I learned that sometimes people leave perfectly good Crocs by the side of a stream, to the delight of someone camping in the backcountry who has been wanting a new pair and whose mother found them on a water run.  (Lee needs to get back to us on how long Crocs take to break down in the wild.)

Hal informed us that the Boy Scouts hated the official leave no trace logo so much that they only agreed to be a part of the system if they could design their own logo, because "boys wouldn't want that patch."  I like the official logo better even though it reminds me of the logo for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team.  

All on my own I learned what chiggers feel like, as I have their handiwork all around both ankles right at the sock level.  Itchy and scratchy.

I learned that a backpacking stool might be worth the added ounces on your back.

I learned it can be very comfortable in the Shenandoah backcountry in the summer even though temperatures back home are in the mid-90's with high humidity.

And I learned that I can have a blast backpacking with a group of people I had never met before!

Our group.  Thanks to all for a great weekend!


  1. Great write up about your LNT weekend! Hal and Alex were involved with the Backpacking 101 course we did. I wonder if that deer in the background is the same one that hung out near our campsite.

    P.S. One of my wicking shirts is bright purple. :-)

  2. Thanks for the comment! I mentioned your Backpacking 101 posting, and Alex had heard about it. From the description on your blog, it appears your class camped further west than our location, but you never know!


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