Monday, March 6, 2017

Gear Got Good

Gear got good. Really good. Whether it's something you wear, ultra light backpacking supplies, or a gadget to help you find your way, it works better and weighs less than the products did just ten or twenty years ago. Hats off to Science and Capitalism.

Back in the 70's when my hiking consisted of bushwhacking through endless paper company forests of northern Wisconsin, I had no map, no compass, no hiking boots, and certainly no cell phone or gps. Mostly I just memorized the terrain, as people have done for eons.  One time I got completely turned around. To get back to camp, I resorted to a trick I had read about in a novel that helped the main character walk in a straight line: I looked straight ahead to a feature and began walking towards it. Before I arrived at the feature, I looked for a second feature directly behind it, and walked towards that. I repeated the process for an hour or two and eventually came out onto a sandy road. I turned right onto the road, then kept taking rights until I came out onto the sand road I knew. No cars passed because this was in the middle of absolutely nowhere and there may have been more bears than cars. Eventually got back to camp and no one really thought anything of it. It's just the way things were back then. Today we have gps, nicely blazed trails, cell phones, and maps. And people ask me if I'm afraid of getting lost on the NET. Are you kidding? No, I'm not. No one can get truly lost in such a populated area. You can get turned around and you can certainly lose the trail, but that's not the same as being lost in the wilderness.

I lost the trail in a big meadow. GPS showed me where I went wrong.
(GPX of the NET in blue; my breadcrumb trail in red)
Gear to find your way:

1. GPS:
For longer hikes, I have a basic, no frills Garmin gps unit attached to my pack. Always check the weight before buying one, because some gps units are a lot heavier than others. It automatically records a "bread crumb" trail of my hike, so that if I get turned around, I can see where I've been.  It's important to have a good map installed on the gps unit. Heads Up: You generally have to buy the maps separately, and that might be another $100.  It may be possible to also find a gpx file of the trail you're hiking to load onto the gps unit. I did that for the Massachusett's section of the NET, and you can see that as a blue line on the gps in photo above.  I was hot and tired and could not find the trail. Checking the gps gave me a pretty good idea where I went wrong, and I was able to find the trail quickly.  GPS serves as a back-up to the paper maps. (See the Logistics Page for a link to the gpx track).

Cell Phone Screenshot, Google MyMaps
My "current location" is the blue dot
2. Smart phones can now be used as a gps unit for both driving and hiking, although it will wear down your battery faster. Google's MyMaps is my best friend while driving. Back at home, I use the PC to research the exact parking locations and add those to a custom "MyMap", in which I also add the approximate trail route. When it's time to leave home, all I have to do is pull up the map on my phone, select the destination I want to go to, and the Droid Lady gives me verbal driving directions. I also use Google maps to check my progress on a long trail, or to text my location to my family. The screenshot above is one I texted to my husband to let him know where I was (the blue dot).

There are also a variety of apps such as BackCountry which allow your phone to function exactly like a hand-held gps unit, with topo maps and it records a breadcrumb trail.

Tip: Carry an extra cell phone battery. They're cheap, and you never know when you'll accidentally activate some app that starts draining your battery. Another tip: If you are going somewhere that may not have cell phone coverage, cache the map onto your phone. Cell phones can still access satellites for gps locations even when they can't access the cell phone towers, but it only works if you've downloaded the map while you had cell phone service.

Ultralight Gear for Long Hikes and Backpacking: 
I never thought I could backpack because there was no way I'd be able to carry a 40 or 50 pound pack due to back and neck problems. Nor would I want to - it doesn't sound like much fun. Then I stumbled upon the world of ultralight gear, where every single ounce in a pack is carefully scrutinized. An entire cottage industry of ultralight products is thriving on the Internet, with some of the best products not available at the major retail outlets. After extensive research and shelling out some good money, I finally got to experience backpacking.   My total pack weight for a two-day hike, including 2 liters of water, was 22 pounds.

My core gear:
Tent 1 lb 12 oz
Backpack 2 lb 4 oz
Sleeping bag 1 lb 2 oz
Sleeping pad 1 lb 1 oz
TOTAL = 6 lbs 3 oz

Backpack:  I chose the ultralight favorite Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack.  The first pack didn't fit, so I sent it back and got the next size up. And I love it. Weighs 2 lb 4 oz. This is one of those items you can't get at the chain stores.

Tent: The options are endless. I settled on the Big Agnes Fly Creek tent for one, which weighs 1 lb 12 oz. The tent has a string of LED lights in the ceiling that made the tent a bit less lonely at night. I wish I went for the larger model though, due to my lanky dog, but maybe it was just the long October nights.

Sleeping Bag: Again, the options are endless and bewildering. A popular strategy is to use a sleeping bag that opens on the bottom to save weight. Normally you don't zip it up, but let it drape over the sleeping pad, which insulates you from below. Pricey! I was able to find a bag at with the dimensions I needed in the Bargain Bin, but it was still a lot of money. Weighs 1 lb 2 oz

Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neo-Air Xtherm. I didn't expect much for such a thin pad, but wow. It really works great. 1 lb 1 oz.  Later I purchased a gizmo that turns the pad into a chair. Haven't had it out on the trail yet.

Other Gear:  It doesn't stop there. With ultralight backpacking, every item is scrutinized. Is it necessary? Is it as light as possible?  After hours of research, reading reviews, and trying on rain coats in brick and mortar stores, I settled on a coat that weighs just 6.4 ounces and folds up into a nice little square. It's bulkier predecessor weighed 18.7 ounces.

Old rain coat 18.69 oz

New rain coat 6.38 oz

Cooking:  Some people just forego hot food, but if it's cold out, a hot meal is really something to look forward to. I settled on the traditional alcohol soda can stove. There are a lot of different instructions on the web for making a stove. The type I made took too long to get started, but eventually it burned hot and boiled a cup of water for a Cup o' Soup. The boiling cup is a super light-weight titanium alloy. Every ounce adds up.

Boiling water

The Dog: I think it's only fair that he carries his own food and water, don't you? My problem has been finding a pack that fits. The gear companies really let me down on this one. Quinn is a lean and lanky 25 lb terrier with an endless power supply. A few packs were advertised to fit a dog of his girth. Yes, the girth fits, but everything else was ridiculously big. The company I purchased the pack from was going to charge me shipping plus a return fee, and they were really snotty about it. I ended up just keeping the pack, and a few days ago I finally spend the better part of a Saturday resizing it by hand. Behold the before and afters. Can't wait to start using it.

Pack before alterations

Better fit for a small dog now

Trekking Poles: After I broke an ankle out on the trail, I bring a trekking pole. If you shop around online, you can find poles that are a lot lighter than the ones conveniently available at Walmart or wherever. I got mine on Amazon, and they've lasted incredibly well and are feather light.

It pays to shop around. There are some incredible supplies out there for hiking.

Friday, March 3, 2017

New England Trail Poster

I fell in love with a poster of the New England Trail which can be found online HERE. I was looking for a picture to decorate the letterbox logbook I've been carrying with me on the Massachusetts section of the trail, and the design fit perfectly.

I liked it so much my husband ordered a print and had it framed as a Christmas present. Love it! 

The poster reminds me most of Section 6 of the M-M trail, heading up Mt. Holyoke after crossing the Connecticut River and making my way around the big cornfield. It was such a joy to climb up the trap rock and look out over the fields and river.  It was a peaceful weekday in early fall and no one was around. 

Can't seem to find this beer, though....

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

MA NET Section 15b Ruggles Pond to Millers River

Bridge at Millers River, constructed 1889
Welcome to Day Four of our Massachusetts vacation, and what a beautiful place to spot a car! This is a bridge built in 1889 over Millers River at Farley Road. More on that when I finish the hike, but it was beautiful in the morning sunlight and early autumn foliage.

Millers River
Our intention was to just spot my car here, but it was such a gorgeous spot, and so interesting, we lingered for over half an hour. We had fun checking out the old bridge as well as a streamgage nearby. But eventually we drove over to Wendell State Forest near Ruggles Pond so I could do the second half of Section 15.

Section 15b
I knew I might not be able to get back to the NET before winter, so I wanted a natural stopping point, and Millers River seemed a good choice. It runs through a deep valley and the terrain north of it seems markedly different than the easy stuff I've been walking across.  If I can make it back, great. If not, that's OK, too.

Ruggles Pond again
My husband dropped me off at the Park Ranger Station near Ruggles Pond, and it was a very quick walk to the pond.

M-M Trail enters woods at picnic area

The day before, I hiked part of the section of the M-M trail north of here, so I had the choice of walking the easy park roads back to my stopping point (about 1/2 hour) or walking the M-M Trail again (about an hour). The M-M Trail here had been so nice, I decided to take the long way and savor it.

Walking this section a second time because it's worth it.
The section immediately north of Ruggles Pond shows years of loving improvements by trail volunteers: A shelter, bridges, and stones placed just so.  The light was different in the morning and it made for better photos with my pathetic cell phone camera (so sorry).

Witch Hazel in bloom
The trail passed the shelter as it went down deep into the ravine with the sound of water gurgling nearby.

There was Trail Magic here. It's a feeling when you slow down and everything feels special.

Conversation with a Barred Owl. 
A Barred Owl flew up into the trees. I pulled out my phone and downloaded a Barred Owl call (this is amazing that you can feel so isolated and yet download bird calls). As soon as I played the call, the owl snapped his head around and regarded this intruder into his domain. I got pretty close - the photo is with a cell phone, remember. We did this for about five minutes before he flew off.
"Orange Peel" mushroom
The trail climbed up out of the hole and onto the old woods roads again, until it came alongside a big rock ledge. Normally this kind of rock formation is no big deal along the NET, but it's been many miles since I've seen more than a few boulders or a low ledge. I think the last real ledge was along the Holyoke Range. This marks a change in the terrain.

The first major rock since the Holyoke Range
Here's where I finally got to hike a new section of trail. The white blazes head steeply up to the top of the cliffs, and before long there's the first of two look outs. 

A vista!! We've got a vista!! The first one since Long Mountain, I think, and the Holyoke Range. I saw a tower in on a nearby ridgetop and figured that explained the great cell phone reception. 

First lookout
OK, now it's time to start that descent to Millers River. The ridgetop hike was quite enjoyable and the trail was well-blazed. As the trail began to drop, however, I had to slow down due to the dreaded trail marbles.

Try walking down a trail on THIS.
The trail is variable once it starts downhill, alternating between a single-track path, old road, and pavement.
Wolf tree along an old road
The only time I had any difficulty following the blazes was after a footbridge where the next blaze is a left turn blaze right after the bridge. The sun was glaring on the tree making the white blazes hard to see (I do think CFPA's sky blue blazes are superior for visibility).

Don't drink untreated water!
The trail then followed the stream and went right through the ruins of some old mill. I liked the steps.

What was this?
And then the trail sadly comes out onto pavement and it's a roadwalk all the way to Millers River. A pretty walk, though, especially in fall, with very little traffic. Worryingly, my foot started to really hurt. This is the foot that has kept me from hiking for several years. I limped down the road.

I'll check my pack. 

Fall maple leaves along the road
Approaching the river, there was a freight train parked alongside the road making all kinds of noise like it was getting ready to go. I picked up the pace and was able to cross the tracks in front of it before it took off.

Parked train getting read to take off
And I was back at the bridge! Even though my car was spotted there, my husband had driven back and was waiting. We had fun checking out the bridge again. He's a civil engineer and was making some strained faces while looking closely at the steel members. Later I Googled the bridge and stumbled upon this entry on It's listed as "functionally obsolete" and the structure is in "fair" condition, but it is also eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Well, whatever, we liked the bridge.

"Functionally obsolete"

There was a guy fishing the river and when he came out we asked how the fishing was. He said he got three trout. Nice. 

Will we get back again this fall? Who knows if the foot and our schedule will allow, but I sure hope so. Had a blast.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

M-M Section 15a Lake Wyola to Ruggles Pond

Right turn where? There are two strong possibilities ahead. More blazes please!!
After a great 9-hour (!) sleep at the French King Motel, my husband dropped me off at Lake Wyola and headed off to play an 18-hole round of golf. After the blazing confusion at Wyola the previous day, I read the M-M update printout and that was just as confusing. It did say that there was a loop at the state park that was also blazed white, but with larger blazes. So I knew it might be hard to find the trail. 

The tree on the right could have a blaze, as well as the tall trees across the pavement. 

From the main parking area at the state park, I headed east back toward the BBQ area where we had seen blazes, and then turned around and tried finding my way northbound. There was a right turn blaze and then nothing. There were two possible right turns ahead: A sharp right onto a big wide trail, and the park road. I first tried the wide trail, but after a bit of walking there were no blazes. So I headed back to the park road. No blazes there, either. I knew the trail headed north, so I rambled on over to the north end of the parking lot and found the trail there. Lucky. Why are there no blazes in between? There are trees. One or two blazes would make all the difference.

Heading north up a narrow road
The trail here was as easy as it was at Quabbin, fairly level and for a time on a narrow gravel road called Old Egypt Road on the map. There were a few isolated dwellings off the road but I was still surprised when a car came down the road. I don't know how two cars can pass each other.

Possibly the "Fried Chicken Mushroom"  (Lyophyllum decastes)
The trail takes a jog to the west and then a hard turn to the north, and as the trail goes right, there's a sign to the left announcing W.D. Cowls, Inc. Land Company "Respectful Visits Welcome." There was something weird about that sign, like it's a bit defensive. It wasn't until about 20 minutes later that it dawned on me that the sign probably marks the location where the old M-M had to be abandoned. I later Googled 'Cowls' and the New England Trail and discovered that in fact this was the company that killed over 20 miles of the old M-M Trail. Cindy Jones, a staunch libertarian, wears the tin foil hat there apparently, calling the status a "federal takeover" of the trail and claiming the feds would control their land. It's all completely nuts, because the  "National Scenic Trail" status is mostly just an honorific title that allows an extra box to be checked off on a grant application. That's how the status helps preserve the trail - by making it easier to get funding. No one "owns" the trail. Also, no United Nations black helicopters will be spying on hikers to report back to the One World Overlords.

Well, that's interesting.
I feel really bad for all the volunteers who worked their butts off creating and maintaining the 20+ miles of trail for decades. It's a lot of work. People spend their weekends and evenings after work clearing blowdowns, building bridges, clipping back overgrowth, painting blazes, and so forth, and they have a sense of pride in keeping that section of trail open for hikers. And then for the trail to be shut down with so little regard.  It's just very sad. 

Ninja Blazing!
Speaking of volunteers, some Ninja Blazer has been working on extremely perfect blazes further up the trail. The black line around the blaze appears to reflect the Sharpie technique, which I first encountered along the NET in Guilford, CT.  A Sharpie or some other type of marker is used to trace a 2" x 6" blaze outline, and then that's filled in with trail paint. The Sharpie fades after a bit. It's takes longer to make these perfect blazes, but they look pretty sharp and can be easier to spot.
Entering Wendell State Forest
The trail enters Wendell State Forest and then joins a wide road covered with pine needles that's called Swamp Road on my map (closed to vehicles).

Swamp Road
Swamp Road comes out at Montague Road (paved, open to traffic), and crossed to descend towards the popular Ruggles Pond area. Here there are a lot of other trails, and I explored a few of these.

Heading down to Ruggles Pond
Getting near the shore, I spotted some additional Northern New England plants for the first time on this trail: Bunchberry Dogwood and Northern Wood Sorrel. People reading this from Southern New England might think the sorrel in the photo is that stuff that grows in the lawn. It's related, but Northern Wood Sorrel has larger leaves and grows in deep forests of the north. It looks like a shamrock. I haven't seen this plant in years. Bunchberry Dogwood is a plant I associate with Acadia National Park. I've never seen either one of these plants growing in Connecticut.

Northern Wood Sorrel & a fading fern
Even though it was a weekday, there were a few groups of people hiking around Ruggles Pond. It must get really busy on a summer weekend.

Low area near Ruggles Pond

Beaver lodge at Ruggles Pond

Approaching the beach
There was a CCC camp here in the 1930s located right near the parking lot. There are vestiges of the old camp throughout the area if you know where to look, along with the stone walls and other park improvements that the camp laborers built. 

Plaque at the parking area

CCC stone work
The parking area was closed for the season, and my car was spotted a short walk to nearby at the Park Headquarters on Wendell Road.  I had expected to make an early day of it so we could go do some sight seeing, but my husband was still playing 18 holes, so I meandered on up the trail a bit further.

Shelter within sound of the babbling brook
Hiking the trail north of Ruggles Pond was like stepping into a different world. The terrain, which has been pretty level since leaving the trap rock ridges, dropped down into a rugged ravine with a babbling brook flowing through the bottom. It was gorgeous. The footing was rocky and for the first time in many miles, I had to slow down and take care not to trip and fall.

Fire pit at the shelter
Having spent a couple of long cold October nights in a tiny tent, I could see how nice it would be to have a fire pit and hang out with friends. It's dark for maybe 13 hours now.
Seen enough mushrooms yet?
The trail goes down, down, down into the rocky ravine before heading sharply up some stone steps beside what was a completely dry waterfall, then climbs gradually up out of the ravine to rejoin old gravel roads once again. A plaque commemorated a gift of land donated by Mrs. Mabel Cronquist in honor of Arthur Cronquist, who was best known for inventing a taxonomic system for organizing flowering plants.

"Time spent here refreshes my soul."
On the webpage about Cronquist's former research camp, it states that some of the land appears "lumpy" and that it's due to the 1938 hurricane, when many of the trees were uprooted, leaving holes and humps. That might explain the terrain over at Quabbin. Interesting.

That's it for today, time to head back.
Eventually the trail circles back and connects with the park road system (gravel roads closed to traffic).  I had good cell phone reception and my husband reported that he was on the "19th hole." Time to head back to the car, so I took the gravel park roads back to Ruggles Pond. It was much easier walking and I was back at the pond within half an hour. 

Everyone was gone for the day it seems, and I had the beach to myself. Gorgeous!

I arrived back at the motel before my husband and walked over to the French King Bridge over the Connecticut River. The motel is right next to it. The bridge seems to be a popular attraction and people were pulling over and walking out across the bridge for photos. One guy expressed disbelief in the lack of fall color. It's true, there is a lot of green on those trees for mid-October.

Looking north towards New Hampshire. Notice the bridge's shadow.
The bridge is a big, beautiful steel arch bridge, although you really can see that from up above. I would love to be on a boat down below. It was built in 1932 and received an award for most beautiful steel bridge. I could see the shadow of the bridge arch on the river bluff, and could climb down a bit to see some of the steel from below, but the only way to really see the arch was by looking at pictures. 

In driving around the past few days, we noticed an abrupt change in the terrain at about Route 2, which is where the bridge is located. The gentle, mostly flat terrain is suddenly replaced with what feels like the foot hills to New Hampshire. The view north felt like a trail preview.

The terrain to the north looks more rugged