Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tenth anniversary of a life-changing hike - Bob's Hill

Unremarkable little Bob's Hill as seen from the east - a summit that launched a trek of 12,000+ miles (and counting).

Ten years ago on this date, January 24, 2007, I gave up twenty five years of life as a couch potato.  I went out and found a trail, and I hiked it.

It was just a mile and a half up a hill and back, an effort that seems woefully insignificant in retrospect.  But the point is that I did it.  I had decided to get myself into shape, and this was the first step.

The 'getting into shape' actually started back in August, 2006 when I decided I was sick of feeling puffed up and bloated.  I went on a severe calorie-restricted diet and dropped 33 pounds in 100 days.  I did not consult a doctor and I did not do one whit of exercise.  I couldn't recommend that approach to anybody else, but it worked for me.

The next step in the transformation from couch potato to long distance hiker came in December, when I watched a Discovery Channel series about an expedition to Mt. Everest led by Russell Brice. It was a six-episode series and the installments became the highlight of my week.  One of the participants was 62 and had just had surgery to remove a cancerous kidney.  I was 58 and generally in good health, if out of shape, so I reasoned that if he could get out and tackle something that tough, so could I.

In the back of my mind was a 'Bucket List' goal that I had set for myself back in high school.  It had lain dormant all that time but not forgotten.  Before I died I wanted to climb a 20,000 foot mountain in South America.

After the TV series ended I sent an email to Russell Brice, and he promptly and personally replied.

From that moment on I knew I was going to give it my best shot.  As I dreamt of Everest I began researching Russell's expeditions and I studied brochures of companies offering climbing excursions in South America.

I spent a month gathering information and building up inspiration and excitement, all from the comfort of that soft, cushiony couch.  A full month.

Why it took me so long to pick a trail and actually set foot on it I do not know.  But I can guess.  Inertia.  Newton's First Law.  For twenty-five years I had been 'A body at rest ...'

Well, when I finally did manage to stir that body into motion, a few of the wheels and gears naturally complained.  My personal journal entry from that fateful day seems almost comical, particularly the part highlighted in bold type.  Here is an extended excerpt.

* * *

WEDNESDAY 24 JANUARY 2007: I fell asleep instantly and slept like a log until 5AM sharp. At that time I got up because I wanted to look at maps of the Catoctin Mtn. Park/Cunningham Falls Park area west of Thurmont, MD.

Early yesterday morning I had hatched the idea of using that as a nearby training ground for mountain hiking. I am hoping to find a good place to hike uphill carrying weight and then down without it, either using the hand truck, or using water jugs that will fill and empty easily.

I couldn’t identify a good stretch of trail I could hike near road access, such that I could possibly ride a bike or trundle the hand truck down asphalt and hike up a steeper foot trail. But the Bob’s Hill trail from the Manor Area parking lot of Cunningham Falls park, right off highway 15, provides an excellent rise of 1100 feet in less than a mile and a half. So I was really eager to check out that trail – so much so that it was hard to resist jumping in the car immediately and going there, and so much so that I was willing to give up my book writing time. That’s the way it is when I get a “hot” idea, and I guess that it’s a healthy sign that I can get do excited about something that I happily break my entrenched routine – probably helps keep me young at heart.

Anyhow, instead of leaping into my car, I got up out of bed where I was looking at the various maps and trail guides (the Bob’s Hill trail is part of the Catoctin Trail that is documented in the Appalachian Trail guide book and maps that I have for Maryland). I did some usual chores and spent some time on the book.

But yes, I was too excited to go see the Bob’s Hill trail. So I got off the computer at 9:10 and dressed and packed up and left for Thurmont at 9:20, arriving at the parking lot at the trail head at 10AM sharp. I headed up the trail to the top of Bob’s Hill – an 1100 foot climb in 1.5 miles.

The uphill trek was nowhere near as difficult as I had expected and hoped. The slope was only really taxing in one short stretch right before the top where there is a side trail to the overlook. The view from the overlook was nice – a pretty picturesque rock outcrop was great for having someone stand on as a photo op with the scenery in the background.

It was the downhill part that was hard. I was using my ski poles religiously and taking my time. As a result, my left knee never had a twinge, but there were a few twinges in my right knee and more surprisingly, almost every other joint in my body started complaining! My hip joints seem to have had the most enduring complaints – I think I was walking stiff legged enough that the hips were doing a lot of the work that the knees might normally have done. Also, my arms complained. Even my hands got pretty exhausted from holding the ski poles and using so much arm power to help support the weight on descent.

But almost all the complaints went away instantly when I sat down in the car. The climb to the top took 40 minutes and it took me the same amount of time to descend in full knee preservation mode.

Bottom line: I feel as though I passed this test – 1100 feet climbed without added weight and descended with only minor temporary joint problems. Next step will be to repeat the climb with the 5 gallons of water on my back. But before I do that I need to get a good sturdy container or containers for the water, so I can easily empty it at the top, and so I don’t have to worry about babying the containers.

It’s clear that because I rely on the walking sticks so much, I don’t want to use the hand truck on the way down – even though the trail is probably smooth enough to allow me to use it.

I was back down at my car at 11:35. That is definitely the closest mountain trail to my apartment, so it’s a real serendipity that it is also one with a good vertical ascent in a fairly short distance. I drove back home, arriving at 12:15. I didn’t even notice any difference from normal as I climbed the steps to the apartment! I started warming up lunch, looked over the maps and trail info as sort of a post-mortem then took a shower before eating lunch. At 1:30 I lay down and napped – mostly rested my body. But the body didn’t really feel as much need for rest as I had thought.

* * *

It took almost a week before I went back.  After that climb I stopped at the Trail House in nearby Frederick where I spent a couple hours with an experienced hiker/climber named Jeremy, and I bought my first gear, including my first pair of Crocs.

Since then I've climbed Bob's Hill more than 115 times by my best count.  It's a nice climb with that great view as a reward at the top.  And in May, along the middle part of the climb, you're sure to see loads of the wild pink orchids called 'Lady Slippers' right beside the trail.

Back in May 2015 I took a nostalgic trip back there with my GPS and recorded the track and the elevation profile.

What happened next?  Well, in March I took a mountaineering training course in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  The climax of that trip was a winter climb to the summit of Mount Washington.

I did Bob's hill about thirty times with ten pound weights on my ankles and fifty pounds of water on my back before heading to South America in late May.  I had hoped to join a later excursion, set for July, when I'd be in better shape, but nobody else was signing up for that one.  I was so eager to go that I gave it a shot.  But I wasn't in good enough shape to get to 20,000 feet.  I made it to over 19,000 feet but a combination of lack of training time and 'Montezuma's Revenge' kept me from my goal.

After at least fifty more ascents of Bob's Hill carrying 50 pounds of water, and months of grueling interval training (a method that simulates the oxygen deficit of high altitude) on a tread mill set at maximum incline with the same burden on my back, I finally achieved my Bucket List goal in Argentina in early 2010 (see this series of blog posts with the label 'South America').  Since then I've hiked the Appalachian Trail twice in a calendar year (they call it a yo-yo), and many other long distance trails.

I write this blog in hopes of sharing the joy I get from hiking.  This particular post goes a long way toward describing the origin of that joy.  It wasn't an earth-moving experience that set me on this adventure, just a simple decision to take that first step.  As it says in the header to this blog:

"Step out.  Discover your path."

Friday, January 20, 2017

Lake Waccamaw, NC - a hike from the MST to South Carolina

Taking a winter break in coastal North Carolina does not mean taking a break from hiking.  I've hiked most of the trails in the area that I can find, but there was one, about eighty miles from my home, that I wanted to do - The Lakeside Trail in Lake Waccamaw State Park.

At about five miles long, three miles wide, and fourteen miles around, Lake Waccamaw is the largest of North Carolina's mysterious and seductive "bays", a geologically unique elliptical to ovate formation found in the sandy coastal plain.  There are thousands of them.  Here is the blog post on the subject from my hike along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which passes four other large Bay lakes.

Consistent with my hiking style, I needed to connect this hike with all my previous footprints; so I started on North Carolina's state-wide trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, near its southern-most point in rural Bladen County.

I crossed the Cape Fear River into Columbus County on a highway bridge that was closed, having just been replaced but not yet torn down,

and then on down via wonderfully quiet country to the little town of Bolton.

I did that hike in September, 2015, which explains the flowers and greenery.  Here's that GPS track.

From Bolton I plunged into the network of timber harvest tram roads, including one called Paper County Road which has been closed to traffic for decades - a very pretty walk.

Then I hit the trail along the lake, with more great views like this.

South of the lake I had twelve miles of seldom-used forestry road to hike through Green Swamp.

The land is owned by huge timber companies but the roads I hiked, though remote, are open to the public.  The swamp is bounded by and drained by the Waccamaw River and Juniper Creek, and once I emerged into civilization again, the road took me right by the Waccamaw River.

Here's the GPS Track of that segment.

Finally, via a road walk I did last March, I added another purpose to this hike, by connecting my footprints to the state of South Carolina.

That's the nineteenth state, twentieth federal jurisdiction counting DC, that I've connected entirely on foot.  Here's the track of that final segment.

In all it was a sixty mile excursion from the Mountains-to-Sea Trail's Coastal Crescent Route to the South Carolina State line.  Some day I could extend this route, hiking down into Myrtle Beach, SC and then along the beach down to the start of South Carolina's state-traversing Palmetto Trail.  So many trails to hike, so little time :-)

Monday, January 16, 2017

The C&O Canal, Muddy Branch to Harper's Ferry, and a sampler of Montgomery County trails

What could be better than spending a cold winter day hiking.
Here I explore the Rock Creek Trail in Montgomery County, MD

Winter.  Hiking is better than hibernating.  Before I headed down to the North Carolina beach for a winter break I undertook one last hiking adventure in the Washington DC vicinity.  I laid down footprints making a continuous connection between all the places I've lived in Maryland and the Appalachian Trail at Harper's Ferry, WV.

The centerpiece of this hike was forty miles along the Potomac River via the C&O Canal.

The 180-mile C&O Canal Tow Path is a part of one of just eleven National Scenic Trails.  Known as the Potomac Heritage Trail, the network of continuous trails stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to Pittsburgh, PA.

The C&O Tow Path is also part of the much less official American Discovery Trail.  The ADT takes a route right through the heart of Washington DC following much of Rock Creek Trail and the C&O Canal in the District.

But I'm no lover of urban hiking.  I had to connect to a place I lived in Takoma Park, MD, right on the DC border, so I took advantage of the opportunity to connect my footsteps to the District of Columbia, the 19th 'State' connected as part of my Personal Continuous Footpath project.  But that's as close as I wanted to get to what I fondly refer to as 'Urban Blight'.  So from Takoma Park, I selected a route away from DC and into the sprawling suburbs of Montgomery County, MD. 

Montgomery County has lots of biking and hiking trails, and they're working to connect them.  It wasn't hard to find a route that kept me off roads 99 percent of the way.

The apartment building where I lived in Takoma Park is just blocks from the Sligo Creek Trail, which sports signs advertising it as an officially recognized National Recreational Trail.

I used that trail seven years ago when I made the connecting hike from my other Maryland addresses, so that was my natural first step as I headed west toward the Appalachian Trail.  The outer reaches of the Sligo Creek Trail are surprisingly 'wild'.

From the end of Sligo Creek a very short road walk brought me into the trail system within Wheaton Regional Park.  Some of its trails are quiet footpaths in the deep woods.  Others are bike trails, and still others are primarily horse trails.  From Wheaton Regional Park I walked a half mile of sidewalks up to a brand new bike path in an area of new construction along Tivoli Lake Drive.

Another few blocks of sidewalk brought me to the eastern terminus of a marvel of modern bike path construction, known as the Matthew Henson Trail.  It's barely five miles long but a significant chunk of it is elevated boardwalk through 'sensitive' areas.  No cheap project, this.

The other end of the Matthew Henson Trail connects with Rock Creek Trail, shown in the headline photo, and then I picked up the city of Rockville's extensive urban bike trail system.

Swinging around the north side of Rockville on the wide bike paths beside Gude Drive and Key West Avenue, I picked up the Muddy Branch Trail at its northern terminus.  This is a winding and undulating nine-mile dirt trail that follows a stream by the same name and appears to be very popular with mountain bikers.

Montgomery County describes the Muddy Branch Trail as 'still under construction' and there were several stream crossings without bridges.

But it was well blazed and signed, and as far as I'm concerned as a hiker, the trail was open for business and a pleasure to hike.  This is a trail with a decidedly rural flavor.

Some of nature's special winter touches were on display.

The other end of Muddy Branch Trail ends at Pennyfield Lock, Lock 22, which is an access point for the C&O Canal Tow Path twenty miles from downtown DC.  And here, along the Potomac, I found more dazzling examples of nature's ice sculpture.

For old times sake, I ended this series of hikes by climbing up to Weverton Cliffs on the Appalachian Trail.  After all the icy weather this was an unseasonably warm day and my daughter joined me.  It's less than a mile walk from the parking lot beside the Canal and the views down to the Potomac are killer.

Below I've attached the GPS track maps of the six day hikes included in this report, presented as I hiked them, from Takoma Park westward.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Connecting my old homes in Maryland via trails - Patapsco Valley State Park

Maryland has a good network of (almost) connected long trails.  Other than the 44 miles of Appalachian Trail in the state and a couple of rail trails north and south of Baltimore, the rest of the long trails follow rivers.

Granddaddy of the river trails is the C&O Canal Tow Path, which follows the Potomac for more than 180 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland.  But there's another good connecting corridor of hiking and multi-use trails through the center of the state.  This is a collection of trails -- they don't have a single name -- and there are some short road walks to make connections, but this network connects Annapolis, MD on the Chesapeake Bay with Reisterstown and Eldersburg MD in the center of the state, a trail distance of 50 or 60 miles depending on how you go.

Old Union Dam site and the US 40 bridge over the Patapsco River

At the core of this route is the Patapsco River, much of which is protected as a State Park.  And at the core of Patapsco Valley State Park's 170-mile network of trails of is its white blazed 'Thru Trail'.

I just re-hiked the Thru Trail with my GPS.  After Christmas I decided to head back to my old home turf in Maryland.  I spent a wonderful day with my two kids before one of them flew back to Houston, and then I hiked.

At the north end of Patapsco Park is Liberty Dam.  Its reservoir provides water for the city of Baltimore and there are more than 100 miles of trails encircling that lake.  The report of my 81-mile circuit hike around the reservoir is here.

Liberty Reservoir from the dam site, as it looked a few days ago.

I used to live within easy walking distance of Liberty Dam, so I've visited it many times and have experienced its many moods.  It's been dry here lately so I found no water overflowing the dam.

After a good rain, it's a different story.

In between, the water cascading over the concrete can make some interesting patterns.

Telephoto view from a picnic pavilion high on a ridge in the McKeldin area of Patapsco Valley State Park
Detail of the flow with image inverted (down is at the top)

When there's no flow over the dam, fording the North Branch of the Patapsco River is a piece of cake.  Right below the dam is a gravel bar where the little bit of leakage is a mere trickle.

That's the ford required to make the circuit hike around the lake.  Farther down, just above where the North Branch and the South Branch converge, the Thru Trail fords the river.  The formal site of the ford looks intimidating, because it's mainly used by horses.

But there's an easy rock-hop just a couple hundred yards upstream.

The Thru Trail passes another dam at the historic town of Daniels.  There's always plenty of flow here because the South Branch has no impoundment and water intake.

Although there's a road down to Daniels, most of the rest of the Thru Trail is a quiet remote walk in the woods.  The only sign of civilization is the CSX rail line that uses the river corridor to haul coal from West Virginia to the port of Baltimore where it is shipped abroad to countries with fewer environmental restrictions.

This engineer gave me a 'toot' and is waving.  Can you see his hand?

It was a cold day when I came up this piece of trail and found a well-developed bank covered with ice ribbons.

That's winter in Maryland.  As I write this report we're getting a little snow and I'm headed for another Maryland hiking venue.  I was going to head south to North Carolina but the forecast for there calls for a foot of snow.  From past experience that means days of impassable roads and gridlock.  The bulk of the accumulation from this storm will miss Maryland to the south.  It'll be downright chilly here as it will be down in NC.  We won't see the temperatures above freezing until the middle of next week, but at least here I'll be able to get out and about.

Below are the GPS tracks for the Thru Trail and beyond, along the Oella Mill Race down to Ellicott City in the south and on up to Liberty Dam in the north, divided into five segments, north to south.