Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Link in the Chain on Breakneck Ridge (Part 3 of 5)

When tromping around outdoors I know it’s best to always be prepared, as the Boy Scouts say, but over-preparation can make a backpack pretty heavy, which becomes an issue for a guy in his 50s. That’s one of the ironies of backpacking. You are more likely to get into trouble (broken bones, hypothermia, exhaustion) when you are old – the very stage at which it’s impossible to carry equipment to cover those emergencies. Of course, one way to resolve this dilemma is to hike with young guys – preferably former Boy Scouts – who are still willing and able to carry all the extra stuff. It’s sort of like life insurance. Travelling in groups spreads the risk – or, in backpacking, the weight – to manageable proportions, and if you can free ride on someone else’s equipment without their realizing it, so much the better.

For example, I have been known to suggest to some of my younger friends that one should never backpack without a first aid kit. If they see the wisdom in that and stuff one in their backpack, then I won’t have to carry one. The same ploy works for water filters, tarps, rope, knives, can openers, magazines, maps, even extra food. Of course, this strategy isn’t always successful because my “younger” friends are in their 40s, so they aren’t exactly wet behind the ears. But some of them are still conscientious enough to carry stuff that we might need but probably won’t, thus making my load lighter.

So that evening at McGee Springs campsite we hung our food bags on the bear-proof, steel cables and retired to our tents. It was a quiet, uneventful night, as most nights in camp are – no bears, no deer, no skunks, no noise; at least none that we noticed. We slept pretty well under the spruce, buckeye, and birch trees. I enjoy sleeping outdoors, but the real purpose of this trip would come tomorrow: Raven Fork – the long, beautiful river that flows from the slopes of Hyatt Ridge, Hughes Ridge, and the main ridgecrest between Pecks Corner and Tricorner Knob – the large, wild watershed that forms the heart of the southeastern quarter of the Smokies.

The old Raven Fork Trail begins high on Hyatt Ridge near McGee Springs. Its first mile weaves along the crest of Breakneck Ridge, which Greg insisted on calling Brokeback a few times, just to aggravate me. (I’m sure he was joking, but it was good to be sleeping in separate tents.) Breakneck sounds intimidating, and I suppose there might be an interesting and perhaps tragic story about its origin, but the hike itself wasn’t too formidable. Greg and I lost the faint trail a few times in tangles of briers, rhododendron, witch hobble, and dog hobble resulting in a few scratches and bumps, but for the most part the old trail was still recognizable.

There was even an occasional piece of old, brittle, blue tape tied to a branch to help us stay on course. Greg and I are both typical guys who like to be self-sufficient and to figure things out for ourselves, but these small, plastic clues are perfectly fine. They are fragile reminders that others have been here before and were kind enough to share their knowledge with those who would come later – namely, us. Those little, blue messages from the past let us know that we are the latest incarnation of “wilderness enthusiasts,” as some of the books say. Sometimes you can derive a lot of satisfaction not by being the first to do something, or the best. Occasionally just being a link in a chain is enough. People have done this before us, and people will do this after we are gone. The fact that we don’t even know these people adds a bit of intrigue to the story. If we continue these off-trail and old-trail treks, I’m going to start bringing a roll of surveyor’s tape with me, so I can add a few pieces along the way so that a few years from now another hiker – the next link in the chain – can find his way. He won’t know who put the tape along the path, which is not a problem because it’s the where and why, not the who, that’s important. [To be continued.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Raven Fork: Cook Less, Sleep More (Part 2 of 5)

The equipment that Greg Harrell and I carried on our two-nighter to Raven Fork in the Smoky Mountains was pretty sparse, but not sparse enough to weigh less than 35 pounds. As the years have gone by, I’ve shifted my backpacking philosophy from “How much can I stuff in my backpack?” to “How few things can I get by with?” (I think that would make a good philosophy of life, but for now let’s just stick to backpacking.) This has resulted in a change in priorities from cooking and clothing to sleeping. I’m willing to commit a few extra pounds in my pack to a comfortable tent, a good sleeping pad, and a small pillow but am less inclined to carry the poundage of clothes that I used to carry. On this trip my wardrobe consisted of the clothes I was wearing, plus one extra T shirt, one extra pair of socks, and a light rain jacket. No warm clothes because it was the middle of July, and if the evening got chilly (we were camped above 5,000 feet), I’d dance around while I ate and then crawl in my sleeping bag.

According to one expert (my wife), by the end of these trips I smell like a wet goat and have occasionally just thrown some of my clothes in the garbage. Not a glorious end for hiking clothes, but sometimes the only realistic option. So on these trips it’s important to wear clothes that have no sentimental value, such as the NASCAR T shirt you were wearing when you proposed to your wife or the Vol T shirt with the mustard stains from the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. On the other hand, after you complete a trip like this with lots of sweat and dirt and fond memories, your clothes may gain some sentimental value.

The closest I’ve ever come to having a special backpacking T shirt was when I ran out of toilet paper near Mt. LeConte and had to tear strips off the bottom of my T shirt for two days. I wore the surviving 50% of that T shirt whenever I’d backpack as a memorial to that trip. Of course, any guy who saves a memento like that had better have several keepsakes and cards from his wife or girlfriend (one or the other, not both) publicly displayed in prominent spots around home. Otherwise, trying to explain your choice of priorities is a lost cause. “Yes, Dear, I did throw away your anniversary card – which, by the way, really warmed the cockles of my heart – but I kept that ratty, backpacking T shirt, and here’s why….” Yeah, definitely a lost cause.

On this trip I carried a roomy one-person tent that weighs more than it should, but it’s a pleasure to sleep in at the end of the day. I have an inflatable sleeping pad that is entirely too bulky, but makes a world of difference in blotting out those inevitable rocks and roots that are nonexistent until you lie down for the night. I also brought a small pillow. A few years ago a pillow would have been an extravagance worthy of ridicule and shame, such as: “Don’t forget your night light, little fella.” Or, “Hey, where’s the remote?” Yes, what were once luxuries are now essentials.

Of course, if you’re going to carry a pillow, pad, and tent then something significant has to go. What were once essentials are now expendable. My ultimate solution has been to stop cooking, thus eliminating pots and pans, stove, and fuel. That’s probably 2 or 3 pounds of stuff, which may not sound like much, but keep in mind that this is a sport in which guys have been known to cut the tags off clothes and tea bags to save weight. Instead of rice, macaroni, and stew, I now rely on granola bars, crackers, and beef jerky, which can get a bit monotonous after a day or two, so I include an occasional can of tuna or bag of chips to spice up the menu. If eating were important to me, I don’t know what I’d do on these trips. Fortunately, eating on a backpacking trip is just something I do to stay alive and keep moving, so I don’t need cooked veggies, smores, hot chocolate, and a hot breakfast. And of course, with no cooking, there’s no clean-up, which is important to a guy who scores above average on the laziness scale.  [To be continued.]