Do Know Where, Don’t Know When

Brooktrout Lake, West Canada Lake Wilderness, Adirondack Park, NY

Morning on Brooktrout Lake, West Canada Lake Wilderness, Adirondacks

Usually, when I plan a backpacking trip, one of the first things I decide is the dates. There are good reasons for this. My trips must fit in with family commitments and, though I do not have an employer, my work projects. Backpacking can even require reservations (backcountry campsites in the Great Smoky Mountains and “huts” in the White Mountains, for example).

Fixed dates, though, have one big drawback – you are stuck with whatever the weather gods decide to serve up. On longer trips, weather risk cannot be avoided, but bad-weather days are also likely to be compensated by periods of fine weather. On shorter outings, the elements can set the tone for the whole adventure.

So, I am trying something new.

I have decided that my next backpack will be in Silver Lake Wilderness in the Adirondacks. I will hike up the Northville-Placid Trail for 16 miles and return by the same route. I’ll be out for three days. (A few years ago, my youngest and I hiked in nearby West Canada Lake Wilderness. The pictures in this post are from that trip.) I am making all my preparations as usual – studying maps and guides, getting the necessary gear together. But, this time, the goal is to be ready to go at the drop of a hat, whenever my diary is clear and the weather forecast is good. Everything will be packed and ready, except for items which really must be packed last-minute (perishable food mainly, and gear I will need for day-hikes in the meantime).

So, off to the Dacks in August, or September, or maybe October.


Backpacking West Canada Lake Wilderness

Heading Back to Baxter

Sunset on Katahdin Range from Sandy Stream Pond

Sunset on Katahdin Range from Sandy Stream Pond

I don’t like packing for hiking trips. I don’t care much for putting my gear away afterward either. What I do enjoy is the planning – the reading up on trails and landscape; the thinking ahead about weather, amount of daylight, challenges and risks. I am happily in that phase now.

Last weekend I completed camping reservations for Maine’s Baxter State Park, so, barring force majeure, I will be heading there in late September for a full week of day-hiking.

For anyone unfamiliar with Baxter, it sits bang in the middle of the hump of Maine, the bulge that sticks up into Canada. At 327 square miles, it is larger than Singapore, and one third the size of Rhode Island. It has no paved roads, and no permanent human inhabitants (just, to quote the park’s website, “moose, deer, bear, otter, mink, marten, fisher, weasel, coyote, bobcat, beaver, muskrat, raccoon, woodchucks, snowshoe hare, squirrels, chipmunks, flying squirrels, mice, and voles”).

Stream crossing on the Wassataquoik Stream Trail

Stream crossing on the Wassataquoik Stream Trail

I have been to Baxter twice before, once with two of my daughters long enough ago that they were then seven and five years old. Even the second time – quite fresh in my memory – is now nine years back. Both times I did not stray from the southern half of the park, around the base of Katahdin, the park’s emblematic mountain that is also the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The photos in this post are from that second trip (the first predated my digital camera).

This time, I will spend three days in the north of Baxter, based at South Branch Pond. The idea is to explore the Traveler Range and the “splendid U-shaped valley running north to south from the Travelers to South Turner” (park website’s words again). The Google Earth image below shows that topography rather nicely – the foreground mountains are Center Ridge and The Traveler, the ponds are South Branch (upper and lower).

Midweek, I will drive south on the Park Tote Road to Katahdin Stream campground, and likely meet A.T. thru-hikers facing the last, steep leg of their hike. I hope to climb Katahdin again too, as well find other trails to explore in the southern half.

More Baxter posts to follow for sure.

The Traveler Range -- Google Earth

The Traveler Range — Google Earth

Radio Arts & Leisure, June 5th

HAN RadioI took part in Radio Arts & Leisure on HAN Radio for the second time on Friday (the first time was a month ago). Thanks to Sally and Rob for having me on the show again.

Click here to access the podcast. (If HAN Radio is broadcasting, better to pause the broadcast before starting the podcast unless you are good at listening to two soundtracks at once.) I start at minute 29:30.

Topics covered included:

Hope you are enjoying a trail right now!

Spring view from the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide Trail -- trailhead in Woodland Valley

Spring view from the Wittenberg-Cornell-Slide Trail — trailhead in Woodland Valley

Radio Arts & Leisure, May 1st

HAN RadioOn Friday, I took part in a radio show for the first time, nattering for a while about hiking. The show was Radio Arts & Leisure, on HAN Radio, a local (southwest Connecticut) online station. It is part of Hersam Acorn Newspapers which, along with The Hour of Norwalk, publishes my Taking a Hike column each month.

Click here if you would like to listen to the podcast of the show (my segment starts at minute 29:00). If HAN Radio is on air, better to pause the broadcast before starting the podcast unless you are good at listening to two soundtracks at once.

I talked a little about hike preparation and trail etiquette, before suggesting three hikes in western Connecticut. If you are interested in the hikes, there are articles for each as follows:

EASY – Aspetuck Valley Trail, September 2014
MODERATE – Devil’s Den Great Ledge, December 2012
TOUGH – Bear Mountain and Lions Head, April 2013

My thanks to Sally and Steve for having me on the show. I’m looking forward to the next time!

Spam, Boots and an Excuse for a Good Photo

Last night someone commented on an old post of this blog. It was an enthusiastic comment – “Great information. I love all the posts” etc. Too bad it wasn’t for real. The post in question was The Perfect Hiking Boot – Part 1, and the commenter wanted to plug a website selling hiking boots (legitimate or knock-offs, I have no idea). The comment came from an IP address in Bangladesh. I consigned it to trash. But this little online marketing trick served a purpose; it reminded me that I never properly wrapped up the story of my search for the Perfect Hiking Boot.

Beinn Eighe mountain trail, Wester Ross, Scotland, July 2011 -- the kind of place hiking boots come in handy

Beinn Eighe mountain trail, Wester Ross, Scotland, July 2011 — the kind of place hiking boots come in handy

Of course, none of us will ever find the PHB, except perhaps the pair we’re buried in, the ones that cushion our feet on the great hike to the afterlife. In the meantime, this is what happened to my search.

I mentioned in Preparing for the Pemi last September that my old Garmonts were on their way to Seattle to be resoled by Dave Page, Cobbler. Well, Dave got back to say they were “too greasy and too soft” to resole. He asked if I wanted them returned. I said to discard them. He said “We will say a few kind words over them”, and warned me against Sno-Seal on dry-tanned leather.

I had been planning to buy new boots anyway, fabric ones to complement the resoled Garmonts. Even if Dave had been able to fix the Garmonts, I couldn’t count on them being back in my hands in time for the Pemi. Somehow five months had evaporated since I started my search for the PHB. So I was in my usual situation, dashing out to make a last-minute purchase. My plan to be a discerning, educated consumer of boots didn’t go the distance.

But the boots I bought – Salomon Quests – did, so far at least. They took me 41 miles around the Pemi; kept me comfortable on many an autumn day-hike; and kept my feet dry on snowy trails this winter. Maybe their imperfections will show this year.

Preparing for the Pemi – Part 2

wrote last week about my plans to hike through and around New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness. In the full knowledge that hikes never run precisely to plan, I have nonetheless sketched out a 40-mile anticlockwise circuit from Franconia Notch. Its lowest elevation (near my first night’s camp) is 1,300 feet, and the highest (on the last day) 5,260 feet — Mt Lafayette. I have reserved a bunk in Zealand Falls Hut for my second night out (see falls last autumn to right).By Zealand Falls Hut

I firmly believe that the greatest risk I face will be on the 290-mile drive to the trailhead. Nevertheless, I am geared up for rain, cold or sun; to navigate (map & compass, no GPS); to filter water from streams; and to keep my food from bears. A careful reading of the White Mountain Guide reminded me that I may face bridgeless brook crossings, and that I should take extra care on wet ledges. It reminded me also that, in the officially-designated wilderness (in contrast, for example, with the AT sections), trail marking may be less reliable. I still think I-90 is the riskiest bit. For the record, my wife says she worries less about this sort of adventure than when I ride my bike around town. I took the picture below on the edge of the official wilderness, also last fall.

   Ethan Pond Trail

So, I am now equipped with new boots – Salomons – that are working out fine on local test walks. And, for what it is worth at this range, the weather forecast is not bad, at least for the valley-floor town nearby. Next up: a food plan.

Preparing for the Pemi

Walking towards "a rather miserable night camped on Zealand Mountain".

Walking towards “a rather miserable night camped on Zealand Mountain”.

I have started serious planning (the stage of a trip after “thinking about it”) for a four-day backpack in the White Mountains. It is shaping up to be a hike through and around the Pemigewasset Wilderness. I touched the edge of the “Pemi” at the same time last year. My main memory is of a rather miserable night camped on Zealand Mountain, and then a glorious dawn that made it worthwhile.

I aim to hike from September 30th. There will be less than 12 hours between sunrise and sunset, so I am looking carefully at distance and terrain when planning each day. Ten to 12 miles at lower levels, less on the ridges, should be comfortable. I intend to camp twice, and spend the middle night in an AMC “hut” – that is, one with dinner, bunk and breakfast. The second campsite is at 4,000 feet. I think my sleeping bag will do for a chilly mountain night with the additional insulation of tent, sleeping pad and layers of clothing (long johns and wooly hat de rigueur).

Next tasks on the planning list are: (1) carefully read the relevant AMC White Mountain Guide sections, (2) a shopping trip for boots (my Garmonts are on their way to Dave Page, Cobbler for resoling), and (3) update my pack list. If the scenery is anything like on last year’s shorter trip (see photos), all this effort will be worthwhile.

"... a glorious dawn that made it worthwhile".

“… a glorious dawn that made it worthwhile”.

The Perfect Hiking Boot II – Tent & Trails

I said in Part 1 that I’d start my search for the PHB in Backpacker’s Gear Guide. But circumstances led elsewhere. For 3½ years I worked Downtown, near the site of the World Trade Center. A couple of weeks ago I met up with a colleague from that time (Peter Marney – see his great photography here). Pete asked if I’d been to Tent & Trails near our old office. I had not. He described it as a rambling, jam-packed store, and one where the assistants had all done something big like hike the Appalachian Trail.

Tent & Trails, Park Place, New YorkI had to go into the City again last week, and took time out for Tent & Trails. It’s at 21 Park Place, and I can’t believe I never ran into it in years of lunchtime mooching. There was indeed a lot of gear crammed into its three narrow floors. Boots were downstairs, where I met Craig, an assistant. I explained how my Garmonts treated me well on my rain-soaked walk across Scotland, but that my feet did get wet. Should I even expect them to stay dry in all conditions? Craig said – well, more implied – that I should, as long as the water was not coming in over the tongue. I felt sure that in Scotland my feet got wet without that happening.

This conversation also established that I need a backpacking boot, a different animal altogether than for day-hiking on good trails. Craig was patient and knowledgeable. He understood I would not make a purchase today but steered me generally towards fabric and Gore-Tex boots, mentioning brands like Millet, Scarpa and Mammut. This would be a departure from my leather Garmonts. Leather – as I understand it – is water-resistant and durable. It may also offer a better fit after break-in. The trade-off is that it is heavy and not as breathable. I have never been bothered by weight or overheated feet (unless the lack of breathability contributes to the blisters I sometimes suffer). So could leather still be for me?

My Old Garmont BootsAt the entrance to Tents & Trails there was a rack of fact sheets. The pocket for “Basics About Hiking Boots” was empty. I went back in and asked at the desk, where they printed one out. (I think it must have been a draft as the text is a bit disjointed.) But something at the end caught my eye – “Most cemented boots are resoleable…”. Hmmm, I wonder if my Garmonts are cemented. Next stop, back to where I bought them.

The Perfect Hiking Boot – Part 1

It may end up as Part 1 of 50.

My Garmont hiking bootsSometime this spring I need new hiking boots. The pair I own now – Garmonts – are intact, but the tread is worn down. I started wearing them in September 2010. I know that because I took the previous pair on their final trip that month, and was glad I did because we ended up walking through Otter Brook in the Adirondacks with our boots on. It would have been no way to treat a new pair. That is another story, but it tells me I got 2½ years from the Garmonts.

That may not sound much for pricey boots, but I have no complaints. On top of lots of day hiking, some short backpacking trips and yard work, these boots did me the inestimable favor of staying in one piece throughout a 400-mile trek across Scotland. For much of the journey the ground was sodden and puddled, and they kept my feet in OK shape.

This is not to say the Garmonts were perfect. My feet did get wet. I did get blisters. But the thing is I just don’t know if I could have done better. And that ignorance is what I am planning to change. I am going to become an educated consumer, at least of hiking boots. Up to now, whenever I needed a new pair, I have visited my local outdoors store, taken a bit of cursory advice, and walked out with boots that looked about right and cost enough to indicate they were good quality.

Day Ten - A path not a burn, looking back towards KinlocheweSo where do I start a search for the Perfect Hiking Boot, the one that will always keep my feet dry and warm, even in the sodden Highlands and on Isle Royale when summer thunderstorms turn trails into streams? (The wet line in the picture to the right is a Highland trail not a wee burn.) Likely such boots don’t exist, but I’ll start with Backpacker magazine’s 2013 Gear Guide which arrived in the mail recently, and tell you how I got on in Part 2.