Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Dobie Mountain Plane Wreck Hike with the PATC: January 19, 2013

Gracie the hiking dog and I joined the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Charlottesville Chapter for their Saturday hike on January 19th.  The Chapter's own blog reports on the hike and includes several very nice photos from the experience.  PATC - Charlottesville Chapter Blog.  There is something nice and peaceful about hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway or Skyline Drive when one of these parkways is closed to traffic.  It was a very enjoyable hike!

I have hiked with the PATC's local chapter for 20 years now, including a period of about 15 years where I merely read their trip reports but didn't actually attend.  When I first moved to Charlottesville, the local chapter provided a great introduction to the area's trails and I was hiking with them nearly every week, but I quickly found myself wanting to explore further and longer than a hiking group tends to go.  I stayed a member of the PATC, but it was mostly to have access to their members-only cabins.

About three years ago, my then college-aged niece was staying with us for the summer and expressed an interest in hiking.  I showed her how to get started back at school by taking her on a hike with the group; it was my first hike with them in over a decade.  Although there were a couple of familiar faces, it was a vastly different group, and the folks I met that day on the trail remain my friends and hound me when I take too long between group hikes.  (Saturdays are often taken up by other events...)

Since my return, I have become more active in the PATC, volunteering on the Maps Committee, maintaining a section of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, and taking courses through the PATC in trail maintenance and Leave No Trace.  I have also hiked and performed trail maintenance with the PATC's Southern Shenandoah Chapter.  And most recently, I have joined the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, as my exploration of the Appalachian Trail has taken me close to the sections of trail they oversee.  I hope to hike with members of that group in the near future.

I highly recommend membership in your local trail club, as it can provide you with opportunities for hikes that you would not otherwise know about.  If you live on the east coast, there are trail clubs maintaining the Appalachian Trail in nearly every state, and most offer regular opportunities for group hikes of every level.  Here is a list of Appalachian Trail Maintaining Clubs.  I wish I had joined the Maine ATC when I lived up there - I regret not having completed more of the trail when I lived up that way.

Each A.T. Trail Maintaining Club is overseen by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which has a conference every other summer in a community (usually on a college campus) that includes nearby trail hikes, music, and other activities.  This summer, the ATC's conference will be at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC, near Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  And in 2015, it will be held on the campus of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.

Another resource in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic is the Appalachian Mountain Club, which offers hikes from Maine to Virginia through its local affilliates.  Pennsylvania alone must have 25 different hiking clubs.  And many metropolitan areas have hiking clubs.  Examples include the Northern Virginia Hiking Club, Chicago's Forest Trails Hiking Club,   And national organizations like the Sierra Club offer hikes in many localities.

No matter where you live, another option is to find a local Meetup group that hikes, through  I have joined several, and there are many hikes for beginners and a few for those looking for more of a challenge.  Some of the trail groups described above schedule their activities through Meetup.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hiking With a Canine Companion

Water break on the Wild Oak Trail,
5 miles into a 27 mile day hike.
Nobody hikes with me more than one of my two dogs.  I firmly believe (not unlike virtually every other dog owning hiker I have talked to) that I have the best hiking dog in creation!  Mine is half boxer (a breed known for being very attached to its owner) and most likely half Walker Hound (a breed known for being absolutely tireless on the trail and having long legs).  As a result, I have a dog that has gone as long as 27 trail miles with me in one day, and who stays with me when I hike.

But even though this dog lives to hike with me, I don't always take her.  If hiking with a group, I first check to see if anyone has any objections to having a dog along.  People could have a fear of dogs, or they might feel that their ability to view wildlife along the trail is compromised by a dog.  Or possibly the hike requires a car shuttle, and the driver doesn't want the dog in the car.  Some groups simply do not allow dogs because they are afraid that everyone will suddenly want to bring their dog.

Do you really want to bring a dog up Old Rag?
And sometimes, I hike on a trail that specifically does not allow dogs.  Shenandoah National Park's Old Rag loop is one such trail near me, and I respect the rule, because the hike is often crowded, and there are some serious rock climbs on the way up.  I was surprised recently to see on Facebook photos that the former President of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club posted of a hike up Old Rag he took with his dog.  I don't think this sets a good example.

Last year there was a widely distributed news account of a 100+ pound German Shepard that was rescued off of a 14,000 foot mountain in Colorado, a week after her owner had left her for dead.  The account of this rescue is amazing.  The owner was eventually located, claimed that he couldn't bring the dog back, but now that it had been rescued, he wanted his dog again.  Video.  He was charged with animal cruelty and, as a part of the plea bargain, gave the dog up to one of the rescuers for adoption.  The dog is doing great now, and the rescuers have started a search and rescue group for dogs in the Rocky Mountains.  They have a Facebook page with information and current photos of the dog.

Crossing Ramsey's Draft in Ramsey's Draft Wilderness.
This story struck a chord with many people (including my hiking friends, who burned up the emails for a couple of days on this subject), who unanimously could not understand how anyone could leave their dog in such a situation.  I will refrain from making judgments, but the story presents a good opportunity to reflect on what should come with a dog when hiking.

The American Hiking Society has come up with a "10 Essentials" list for hiking with dogs.  The list is as follows:

1.       Collar or Harness
2.       Leash
3.       Identification Tag or Microchip (I cannot imagine not having both!)
4.       Water
5.       Food
6.       Collapsible Bowl
7.       Plastic Bags or Small Spade (for waste)
8.       Canine First Aid Kit
9.       Reflective Jacket, Collar, Leash, or a Small Light
10.   Clothing

I will bring a blaze orange vest that I tie to the dog's pack during the winter.  Even if it isn't hunting season, she stands out in the winter woods.  And I bring a towel if it is cold and I anticipate stream crossings.

I have often thought about booties for longer hikes, as I once had a dog that I had to carry for the last couple of miles over Shenandoah National Park's Austin Mountain Trail (if you have hiked this trail, you know where I mean!) after her paws were rubbed raw on a hike.

I also struggle with whether to buy some kind of coat for the dog.  No dog I have owned ever had a coat, but this dog's fur is pretty short, so I imagine it must get cold on some of our winter hikes.

Is there anything else I should consider?  Let me know in the comments section below!  

Be sure to check out other posts at Wandering Virginia.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rab MeCo 120 Tee Review

I was recently perusing several "top gear of 2012" lists and it got me thinking about my favorite piece of gear from last year.  No question, it is the Rab MeCo 120 tee.

The Rab MeCo 120 is a base layer made with about 65% "ethically sourced Australian Merino wool" and 25% polyester treated with Cocona® technology.  Cocona® technology uses activated carbon grains derived from discarded coconut shells and other natural porous particles. One description I found says that Cocona® is a "coconut/nylon blend designed to increase drying time."  (I think they actually mean that it decreases the drying time.)  There is also some discussion that the blend increases the durability of the shirt, which can be an issue for merino wool products.

I found out about this product after returning this summer from a week-long hike in the White Mountains where it failed to rain hard only on the first and last days.  Link.  Nothing I brought on the trek stayed dry, and after a couple of days, everything I wore had a funky smell that would not go away!  My base layer was polyester wicking shirts, that did not perform to my satisfaction.  

Shortly after returning home, I came across a blog posting about the Rab MeCo on  Entitled "Stink Test: Never-Washed T-shirt Worn for Months," the report claimed that the shirt was used on bike rides, skiing, and even a half marathon without being washed.  The idea that I could purchase something that might dry quickly and not smell was very appealing after a week in the Whites.  I think I can still smell that funk in my head!  I was interested enough to email Rab and ask them for options, since no store within a several hour drive of my home appeared to carry the product.  I eventually found a store near New Haven, Connecticut, and when I called them, they even had it on sale!  I should have bought two.

I received the shirt in time to take it on a 5 day bike trip on the C&O Canal, and on the first day's ride veered off course in the Paw Paw Tunnel, hitting the wall and putting a quarter sized hole in my sleeve.  Damn!  But I still wore it most of the rest of the week, and wore it on a 20 mile hike of the Appalachian Trail south of Harper's Ferry on our down day in the middle of the trip.  It wasn't pristine at the end of the week, but was much better than any of my other shirts would have been after all that activity.

Celebrating the end of our 5 day bike trip.  The Rab is the blue shirt on the right,
shown after 3 days of biking and a 20 mile Appalachian Trail hike.
Despite the hole, I loved the feel of the shirt and have kept wearing it as a baselayer.  Someday, I am going to patch that hole, when I figure out what is best to use.  But in the meantime, the more I wear it, the more I like the shirt.  I even wear it to work sometimes, though I make sure to wash it first!  And the shirt is not itchy at all.  I always thought that wool was itchy, but I guess that does not apply to merino wool.  Great stuff.

The shirt is very lightweight, weighing in at about 4 ounces.  It works great in warm conditions and is equally good in cold conditions.  Combined before the first frost with a outer shirt that provides tick protection, I have a system that is both cool on the uphills and warm and dry heading back downhill.  I wear one of two models of tick protection shirts from Railriders, along with tick protection pants from the same company, and have never found a tick on my body when wearing this clothing.  It is an ideal situation for hiking in Virginia.

The only place I will not wear the shirt is to the gym, as I can't wear a shirt with a big hole in the sleeve!

The shirt is sold by a number of online retailers, and retails for $65.  I have looked regularly for these shirts on sale, finally finding it on sale at Prolite after Christmas, where I bought a replacement.   Prolite also has the following review of the shirt:  Prolite Review.

The Rab Meco also comes in a long sleeve version and in heavier weights.  The 120 I bought is the lightest weight, and there is a 165 weight and a 250 weight.  The number refers to the fabric's weight in grams per square meters.  The shirts are form fitting, and I have been happy with mine in size Large, even though I usually wear a Medium tee.

I am looking forward to this summer's backpacking trip with the scouts and using the shirt to help lower my pack weight.  I figure a week long trip can easily be done with two shirts, and I may not even need the second one.

Disclosure: Jeff Monroe (Wandering Virginia) purchased his Rab MeCo 120 with his own funds and was not provided with a sample for review.

Be sure to check out other posts at Wandering Virginia.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Yaktrax: My Winter Hiking Insurance

I noticed on Facebook today that "Shenandoah National Park" posted the following:  "Awesome hike to Marys Rock this morning. BUT!!! Couldn't have done it without traction coils on my boots!!"  (Link.)

I have come to learn the hard way that winter hiking in Virginia is best done with a pair of lightweight traction coils in my backpack.  I must admit that when I first received a pair of Yaktrax Pros as a gift from my wife a couple of years ago, I was skeptical of their usefulness.  What do non-hikers know about the needs of obsessive hikers?  But I would bring them along (still in the box they came in) when hiking in the winter, and after several times using them, they found their way into my winter hiking pack on a permanent basis. 

I used them again on a New Years Eve hike in Shenandoah when, about as far away from the car as this hike would take me, the Hannah Run Trail descended steeply through a sheet of crusted snow/ice to its namesake stream.  There are many trails in the Virginia mountains that receive snow when there is none on the ground in Charlottesville, and these trails often get only an hour or two of sun during the day.  This is enough to melt the top half inch of snow, which then refreezes as ice after sundown and seems to stay as ice for days afterwards.
The Hannah Run Trail descends steeply through ice covered snow, December 31, 2012.
Yaktrax contacted me a couple of months ago asking me if I would be interested in reviewing their product.  I didn't tell them that I already had a pair and and am happy to add my comments to others out there on the web.  The pair they sent me is exactly the same as the pair I already own.

The Yaktrax Pros are perfect for hiking in Virginia.  Because we aren't in the north, even the mountains in Virginia are subject to winter cycles of freezes and thaws, and the snow does not really accumulate.  Therefore, heavier spikes that one might consider for hiking in northern mountains like New Hampshire's Whites don't make sense here (here is an example of the spikes I am talking about).  Further, the Yaktrax are lighter in my pack (weighing 4 ounces) and don't cost as much (they retail for under $30 at REI) as the bigger spikes. Because they aren't spikes, I don't worry about having them on my shoes when rock-hopping a stream crossing like I would with the alternative.  I feel I have more control using coils on wet rocks than I would in real spikes.  I almost never need to wear Yaktrax for an entire hike, and make it a point to take them off when I drop elevation so I am out of the snow.  They hang outside my pack and dry off.  

You put them on like a big rubber band, first covering the front of the boot, then expanding them to cover the back.  You have to be careful putting them on - let go at the wrong time and you have a big rubber band zipping down the mountain.  After they've been attached to the boot sole, there is a velcro strap that helps further adhere the Yaktrax to the boot.

When descending the Hannah Run Trail, the difference after attaching the Yaktrax to my boots was immediate and dramatic.  Combined with the spikes on my hiking poles, I was able to negotiate the 30% grade drop relatively easily, and never once fell during my descent.  I left the Yaktrax on for two stream crossings and an ascent then descent on the ridge on the other side of Hannah Run (shown towards the back of the photo above) without incident.  Without these coils, I would have been sliding down the mountain on my rear, and would have really struggled with the ascent on the other side of the stream.

I made this descent having not seen another person since I left the road connecting the Nicholson Hollow Trail to the Old Rag parking lot, on a day when snow had closed the Skyline Drive.  My only alternative was to hike back 6.6 miles the way I had come, and it was getting late in the afternoon.  I was glad to have my Yaktrax to get me back to the car without problems.

Yaktrax asked me to comment on how I would improve their product.  I can come up with one thing.  I would recommend they produce a plastic container that is custom made for the coils.  That way, I wouldn't worry about having them in my pack next to my emergency rain gear and the coils wouldn't be adding dirt to the inside of my pack.  I am going to search through our kitchen to see if I can find a plastic container that will do this task, but a custom fitted one would be preferable.

Disclosure: Jeff Monroe (Wandering Virginia) owns one pair of Yaktrax Pros received as a gift from his wife, and received a complimentary pair of Yaktrax Pros from Yaktrax for review. 

What is Shenandoah's Steepest Trail?

A couple of Springs ago I hiked the Doubletop Mountain Trail with several other hikers.  This trail is in the Rivanna Wildlife Management Area just east of SNP's Central District and has some sections that are insanely steep.  Climbing the first of Doubletop's peaks requires ascending a grade of 37% for 2/10ths of a mile.  And the second peak is even steeper, with a 51% grade!  But this is only a couple of hundred feet long. (Of course, at 51%, even this short distance is a grind...)  In between deep breaths from the climb, I asked others if they knew of any steeper trails in Shenandoah, and was told that the Leading Ridge Trail is the steepest climb in the park.  Onto the "bucket list" went the Leading Ridge Trail.
After dropping off a family member at Dulles last month I had a few extra hours driving back to Charlottesville, and decided to finally check out the Leading Ridge Trail.  It descends the western slopes of Shenandoah National Park, and is near the northern end of Shenandoah's Central District.  So it is south of the Skyline Drive tunnel and Mary's Rock, but north of Hawksbill and the Pinnacle Picnic Grounds.  I parked at the Jewell Hollow parking area and headed north on the Appalachian Trail to check it out.  I had done this section of the A.T. a couple of years back with the PATC's Charlottesville Group.  Link.
Leading Ridge is the tree lined ridge in this photo,
taken at the Jewell Hollow Parking Area.

From the parking lot, a short connector trail takes you to the A.T., then you head north 0.3 miles to the post announcing the Leading Ridge Trail.  From there, the Leading Ridge Trail climbs, sometimes steeply, for 0.2 mile to the highest point on the hike, which my GPS measured at 3509 feet.  Over the next mile, the trail dropped to 1861 feet in elevation, a drop of 1648 feet over almost exactly one mile.  This calculates to an average grade of 31%.

That number probably doesn't mean a lot unless you can put it into perspective.  Climbing Mary's Rock from Panorama (U.S. 211), for example, is 1.8 miles and ascends 1028 feet, at a grade of about 12%.  So the Leading Ridge Trail is over 2 1/2 times as steep as the popular Mary's Rock climb.

This is what it looks like at the trail's end.
There are two hunting tree stands in the photo.
I am not going to test the limits of Shenandoah's boundaries!
Where the Leading Ridge Trail meets the western boundary of Shenandoah National Park is a concrete trail post, but there is no sign telling you to turn around due to private property.  The PATC Map for this area states that there is "no public access."  The Trails Illustrated map has the trail ending at the park boundaries.  The concrete post at the trails start on the Skyline Drive (posted above) lists the distance to Virginia Route 669, which would indicate that it is OK to hike to the road.  After looking around and seeing several hunting blinds, however, I decided not to test the limits of the trail.

Trip Data:
PATC Difficulty Factor104.6
Total Altitude Gain1911 feet
Total Distance2.86 miles
Low Point   1861 feet
High Point3509 feet
Time of Hike2:04 hours