Sunday, May 13, 2012

Return to Ramsey's Draft: May 10, 2012

Negotiating a stream crossing.
Back at Ramsey's Draft Wilderness Area (topo map) for the 4th time in the past several weeks this week, as the PATC's Southern Shenandoah Valley Chapter scheduled another trail maintenance trip - this time mid-week.  We all had seen a photo from a few weeks ago indicating a part of the trail to be in really tough shape due to blown down trees, though that part was so far from the trailhead that we pretty much knew we wouldn't make it there.  (Here is an account of one of those work trips:

No matter!  The trip allowed me to give back a little more to the maintenance of an area devastated by an invasive insect species.  The trip also provided me with the opportunity to hike a portion of trail I'd never experienced before - the Ramsey's Draft Trail between the Jerry's Run Trail intersection and the point where the Left Prong and Right Prong of the Draft meet.  This is the same place as the topo shows the road ends.  But there hasn't been a road here since around 1985 when a big storm washed it all away.  (Part of the fun of walking this trail is figuring out where the road must have been, which is not always an easy thing to do.)
Some stiff obstructions on the trail.

It was a beautiful day to be out on the trail - a cold front had come through the night before, replacing seeming days of constant rain with blue skies.  But it made each stream crossing a treacherous adventure.  I have to face the truth - this time of year, it is just about impossible to make it too deep into this wilderness without experiencing wet feet.  I got them on the way out.

We opened up several areas to the original trail, each of which had grown a separate trail around the obstruction.
The end of the road - literally!
This campsite is at the point where the original road ended and trail began.
It was a 9.1 mile round trip to get to this point,
and there were at least 7 stream crossings each way.

The biggest disappointment of the day was seeing trash remaining in nearly every campsite fire pit along the trail.  This wilderness is such a beautiful and fragile place, but apparently many backpackers using the area don't care enough to clean up after themselves.  Shame on them!  Next time you are hiking back here, don't forget the plastic garbage bag to clean up after the jerks who camp here.

Thoughtless hikers leave tin cans in the fire pit.
Even more unbelievable is the half burned box
for a mosquito coil.  Ignorant hikers didn't even know
that mosquitos aren't out yet this time of year.

A pair of half melted cooking tongs left at this fire pit.

A plastic soda bottle, partially melted, adorns this fire pit.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Andrew Skurka Talk on Ultimate Hiking

Back in April I drove down to Lexington with my son and another adult scouter to see a talk by Andrew Skurka sponsored by Washington and Lee's Outing Club.

We have been working hard to encourage the Scouts to pack lighter on backpacking trips, believing that a lighter backpack creates a happier scout and increases the potential that a scout will take to the adventure.  (It doesn't always work - that hike in Ramsey's Draft a couple of weeks ago had one kid bring a stainless steel stock pot and frozen dumplings on a 3 day backpacking trip!)

Our bible as we have worked with the boys has been Andrew's book, called "The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide."  This book published only a few months ago, so the product recommendations he makes are current.  I bought it through Amazon, then gave away my Amazon copy when I paid for an autographed copy from Skurka.

I think this is the best backpacking equipment guide I have ever come across.    I love that he factors in price when considering things like warmth.  You won't see him recommending $27 titanium mugs because they are a few grams lighter.    I am not interested in swapping out my entire collection of camping gear; it would cost too much.  But knowing where to make surgical cuts is made easier by this book.

I also like the fact that Skurka has done some pretty spectacular stuff, like hiking this route in Alaska and the Yukon.

So many other outdoor writers especially A.T. authors, seem enamored by their own fame or out there to promote their own careers as motivational speakers.  I don't think that Skurka falls into this group.

There are a lot of book reviews out there, so I won't go into too many details.  But you can check out backpaking light's review. and this blog review.   Or this one, which is a good distillation of the book.

I found a version of his talk on backpacking gear on the web, and it even includes a brief face shot of my son, at 9:10, as Skurka used a photo I sent him of an early troop backpacking trip.  (A photo I use to motivate myself to keep trying to get through!)   If you have an hour to spare, there is a lot of good information here.

talk at Google.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

High Bridge Trail State Park

Our family recently drove down to the little town of Farmville, Virginia to do some biking.  Farmville is currently well known for two things - Longwood University, and Green Front Furniture, which takes over much of downtown.  It will soon be known for the newly completed High Bridge Trail State Park.  High Bridge Trail is a bike, pedestrian and horse trail that uses an old railroad bed.  Virginia does not have a lot of rails-to-trails resources, unlike nearby West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

There are a couple of great trails in Southwest Virginia, and the W&OD in the Washington suburbs.  But the central part of the state is pretty empty of this type of trail.  Downtown Lynchburg has a really great urban system.  And there is a trail in Nelson County.  The High Bridge Trail is a great addition, and well worth the hour drive south from Charlottesville.

We have not biked the entire 30 mile trail, cherry picking the most spectacular portion.  We started out in downtown Farmville, then rode out to the bridge, which spans the Appomattox River.  Check out the attached Youtube video we made of the bike ride, then head down there to check it out for yourself!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hiking Boots

For the past few months I have been hiking in a pair of pretty strange looking boots made by a manufacturer in France in a model that doesn't appear to be sold currently in the U.S.

I began wearing these boots after nearly a year of pain in my right foot, which I diagnosed as metatarsalgia.  Previously, I had purchased an expensive pair of Solomon hiking boots, 

but they didn't do the job.  I probably should have returned these to REI and tried out their unconditional guarantee, but I never felt right doing that after hiking many miles in them.

Before that, I had been wearing some Keen Targhees while training for and eventually scaling Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, but I think they might have been the cause of my foot problems.

The Hokas I now wear came from an online outlet called The Clymb.  The thick soles and light weight of these boots appealed to me, as I figured a soft sole might help me where the more rigid Solomons could not.   (I have also found them online from an outdooors store in Boulder, Colorado.)

These Hoka One Ones make me look like I am a short man trying to look taller.  But they are very lightweight and the thick sole absorbs shocks and cushions the feet.  And the major reason for recommending them is that my metatarsalis has gone away since I started hiking in these shoes.  It will be interesting to see how long they last, given the soft sole.  I have purchased 3 pairs, so I am hoping they will last me a couple of years.  And I seldom wear them except when hiking.  That thick sole takes some getting used to when hitting the accelerator pedal on the car's floor, however.

So, yeah, they look kind of ridiculous on me.  But I'll take the tradeoff if my feet feel better!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Virginia Topographic Maps

When I first moved to Virginia 20 years ago, I would head over to the Virginia Department of Forestry's building at the Fontaine Research Park by UVA to look at their collection of paper topo maps. Those maps would give me great information about trails I wanted to take, and I ended up buying a bunch of those maps, usually at the local camping store for $5 a pop.

It has gotten a lot easier in recent years to get good maps of the Virginia mountains.  The PATC maps have improved, the National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps have expanded their scope, and U.S.G.S. topo maps are available free online.

I still like to look at those topo maps, though now I go to a web page developed by one of the staff at UVA, who has scanned all the maps (and the index map) and put it all online. Check it out here.

The first listing,, is the index map of all the topo maps. From there, you can choose the map you want.

I use a Windows based computer.  So I hit "control" and "Print Screen" to take a photo of my computer screen when I have the map section I want. Then I open up the "Paint" Program, crop the part of the map I am using, and print it out for the trail. Beats spending $9 to $12 for a map of an area I am only hiking once.

I know that the feds are developing a new mapping system called The National Map.  But I don't like it as much as the old school topos. I find the aerial photography to be distracting and the maps don't seem to have trails that are found on older versions.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ramsey's Draft Wilderness

Just like earlier this year when I ended up hiking the Chimney Hollow Trail several times in the space of a couple of months, I have been on the Ramsey's Draft Trail three times in the past several weeks.  The Ramsey's Draft Trail is the primary trail within Ramsey's Draft Wilderness, the closest wilderness to the D.C. area and to Charlottesville.

I help clear a section of the Ramsey's Draft Trail.
Expand this photo to see how bad the debris is
behind me on the trail!
Ramsey's Draft is located about 25 miles west of Staunton, just north of U.S. 250. (Topo Map.) The area has a wonderfully complex history, both natural and man-made.  The U.S. Forest Service first purchased land in this area in 1913 for Shenandoah National Forest, the precursor to the present day George Washington National Forest. The Forest Service has managed the Ramsey’s Draft area essentially as a wilderness since 1935 as much of it had never been logged.  A road more than three miles upstream from U.S. 250 constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s lasted until 1969, when rainwater from Hurricane Camille wiped out much of the road at the stream crossings. Another flood in November 1985 further eliminated the original road and changed the course of the stream in multiple areas, shortly after the area was officially designated a wilderness under the Virginia Wilderness Act of 1984.

Hiking that same section, several weeks later.

I have hiked this wilderness for many years, dating back to when I first moved to Charlottesville twenty years ago.  It was a vastly different place back then, as it was famous for its old growth hemlock trees that gave the draft valley a primeval, dark feeling.  An evil little bug called the woolly adelgid has killed off many of these magnificent trees, opening up much of the forest floor to sunlight, probably for the first time in hundreds of years.  For those of us who remember the way it was, it is still a bittersweet place to visit these days.  

Second trip for trail work on the Ramsey's Draft Trail,
this time with Dan and Iva of the Charlottesville
PATC Chapter.
It also requires a lot of work to keep the trails clear, as dead trees tend to fall down, blocking pathways. My first two (recent) hikes in the wilderness area were with the incredibly dedicated folks in the Southern Shenandoah Chapter of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  Whenever I need to know something about the woods west of Staunton, these folks know the answer.  

Signing in at the trail register at Mountain House trailhead
before a 3 day backpacking trip.

Case in point: a friend told me he saw miles of string on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail in Ramsey's Draft, and told me one of his group had taken a photo of a bird that had died when it became tangled in the string and placed this photo on Facebook.  I emailed one of the SSVC members.  Not only did she know about the string, but she told me why it was there, that her group had already picked up miles of the stuff, complained to the Forest Service, and seen the same photo and emailed it as evidence that such string should never be used to determine trail mileage.  Wow.

Both work trips concentrated on the Ramsey's Draft Trail, which generally follows the path of the old road mentioned above, and crosses the stream known as Ramsey's Draft multiple times over the first 2.5 miles.  These trips went a long way towards making the trip on this trail much easier.  So much easier, in fact, that we met a mountain biker illegally using the trail.  Mountain bikes are not permitted in wilderness areas, and as a result the local mountain bike community has fought expansion of wilderness in Virginia.  This guy, though he claimed to be a Richmond environmental consultant, claimed ignorance of the wilderness boundaries, and even that bikes were prohibited in the wilderness.  

The true test of trail conditions, however, was in my third trip up the trail when I led a group of Boy Scouts on a 3 day backpacking trip in the wilderness.  We had been working for several weeks on obtaining lightweight backpacking skills, and this would be our test.  The boys had come to an earlier meeting with fully loaded packs, which we analyzed for further weight savings.  When we collected in Charlottesville to carpool to the trailhead, we weighed packs but did not dump each pack's contents.  Given the fact that the boys' packs weighed anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds, we probably should have checked a few loads.

We started out on Friday evening, and hiked as far up the Ramsey's Draft Trail as possible before total darkness forced us into a small campsite next to the stream.  I am pretty sure I ended up camping in a bit of poison ivy, but have suffered no effects.  There is quite a bit of poison ivy on this trail, which is seeing much more sunlight than it has in many years, thanks to the deaths of the hemlocks.  

The first of several stream crossings Saturday morning.
Saturday morning we were up at 7, fed and on the trail by 9:20.  It was slow going!  Stream crossings stopped us in our tracks, as boys carefully hopped from rock to rock, passed hiking poles back to those without, and switched from hiking boots to water shoes and back again.

We eventually made it to the intersection of our trail with the Jerry's Run Trail by 11:10, taking 1 hour, 50 minutes to travel about 1.5 miles.  We then took Jerry's Run uphill to our Saturday campsite, at the site of an old PATC cabin called the Sexton Cabin. Surprisingly, that distance was about the same, as was the time it took the group.  There were no major stream crossings here, but the hike climbed from about 2250 feet up to about 2720 feet.  

At the Sexton Cabin site we met a group of younger scouts from our troop, who hiked in on Shenandoah Mountain from the Confederate Breastworks Historic Site, on U.S. 250.  The Sexton Cabin site has its own interesting history, which I read that night to the scouts.  The history of this site comes from an article printed in October, 1937 in a newsletter printed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  It was written when the trail club was constructing the cabin on this site, and was based on a story by a man who had lived here 56 years before that, which takes us back to 1881.  That man’s name was George Armstrong.

He said that the original clearing here had been made probably about a hundred years before that.  Jerry Hodges had lived here, and his house was at the upper clearing, near some Lombardy Poplars that were dying back in 1937.  This is the Jerry that gave the name to the stream: Jerry’s Run.  Jerry planted the poplars, and also planted some apple trees around here.  He cleared land so that he could graze stock animals. 

The remains of Sexton Cabin in the foreground,
with the troop tents in the background.
Armstrong’s family had lived here for three years when he was young.  They built an old house and a barn in this area.  It must have been much less wooded then than it is now.  He said that back then, bears would take the family’s sheep right out of the field.  To protect the sheep, they would build a pen that would trap the bear if he went after the sheep.  Then the family could shoot the bear before it killed their sheep.

Armstrong’s father moved the family to this site because a lumber company owned all this land, but men would come up the mountain to steal the wood.  They would turn the White Pine into shingles, which they could easily take off of the mountain.  The family living here was enough to keep these “shingle men” off the mountain.  Eventually they gave up and the family moved back to the valley. 

Photo of Sexton Shelter from 1940's era PATC Newsletter.
The story of the cabin built here is almost as complicated.  In 1930, the PATC built a cabin in Shenandoah National Park using money donated by a Dr. Sexton.  It was the first cabin built for A.T. hikers south of New York.  In 1937, the Park Service decided to tear the cabin down.  The PATC wanted to rebuild the Sexton Cabin somewhere else and eventually decided to place it here. 

The cabin was built of chestnut logs.  That cabin burned down in 1967 from a fire that probably started by lightning.  The next year Ray Kisamore, who owned a lumber company in Churchville, hauled in materials the PATC used to build Sexton # 3 on the same spot on a sledge using Percheron draft horses.  More than nine tons of material had to be hauled in, and each sledge load weighed between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds. Hauling about 800 to 1,000 pounds at a time, it took a month to six weeks to bring everything here. 

Sunday morning: hiking up the Jerry's Run trail toward
the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.

Ray Kisamore had to build a special sledge to haul the logs on. He came in along the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  When Ramsey’s Draft was declared a federal wilderness area in 1984, the Forest Service believed the law required tearing down any structures in federal wilderness areas.  They tore down the cabin here, though it was later determined that existing structures in wilderness areas could stay. Ray Kisamore was hired to haul out the logs, and reportedly at least one of the horses that hauled out the timbers had been used to haul the logs in here 17 years earlier.  Those timbers are used today, on the Mutton Top Cabin, which is over by Shenandoah National Park.

Hugging a tree and the trail along the Road Hollow Trail.

On Sunday morning, we were back on the trail beginning at 9:50, heading uphill on the Jerry's Run Trail to the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  We took the SMT south out of the wilderness (where a wilderness boundary marker featured scratchings over the word "bicycles" - no doubt by some biker who illegally used the trails in the wilderness).  At the junction of the SMT and the Road Hollow Trail, the groups split, with the younger boys continuing back to their cars via the SMT and the older boys taking the Road Hollow Trail back to their trailhead.  It is interesting to me, and probably only to me, that we went from one of the oldest trails in this part of the National Forest, the SMT which was built in the 1930's by the CCC, to one of the newest, the Road Hollow Trail.  The Road Hollow Trail was built around 1990, 60 years later.

I was hiking "sweep," making sure that all boys stayed in front of me, when some mountain bikers came swiftly (and legally) down the Road Hollow Trail.  We slowed them down and warned them of boys ahead around the bend.  And the boys learned about sharing "single track" trail with other types of users.  

In all, we hiked 4.1 miles on Sunday, taking 2 hours and 40 minutes.  Hopefully, the boys learned some lessons that they will use when we take them on a longer trip through the Mt. Rogers area in June.  And I hope they developed an appreciation of this wonderful part of the mountains, only about an hour from Charlottesville.