From the Archives: Jefferson National Forest, Fall 2006

It was a late autumn Saturday and the football team was away. As things settled into the weekend forays of a typical college town, I set out alone on the Blue Ridge Parkway, an hour or more on that endlessly winding road into the reaches of Jefferson National Forest somewhere west of Roanoke.

I’d woken up that morning feeling unsatisfied and itching to get out of the apartment, another strange little instance where inspiration struck only as the opposite force to boredom. And I was again victim to my own last minute planning. But the weekend and fair weather were at stake, and an opportunity to get out into the mountains, companions be damned, was not to be squandered. I unfolded the plastic topo map across my bed and picked a section of the AT with a shelter – I didn’t yet own a tent – that I had passed through a year before.

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It was cold, the sky cloudless, autumn blue and gray forest and green pine. I parked at one of the many pull-offs and disappeared down the tangent trail, walking below the road’s embankment, eyeing the saplings cut short to maintain the view from the road. The AT shelter was only a few miles away, mostly downhill.

I had worn my synthetic down jacket and jeans, and cheap hiking boots I would later jettison after purchasing a pair of Vasques using Christmas money from my grandfather, which was fitting as he had always extolled the virtues of quality footwear in his own unpolished way. I had’t acquired much in the way of kit then, an external frame Janson, a cooking pot from the thrift store, a cheap sleeping bag, but for single-nighters in less than extreme conditions, it was usually enough.

The trail followed an easy, downtick grade, and I quickened my pace in the failing light. I had gotten my start late in the day and wanted to reach the site early enough to prep dinner and make a fire before nightfall, the azure darkness already creeping over the hollow like a blanket.

I sat on the edge of the shelter after posing for the camera some feet away, perched on the rock pile surrounding the fire pit. It was something I had always done, selfie before the selfie. Analog camera, decent little Canon, beat to hell from sand and dirt, balanced on some rough surface and aim askew. I wanted it to paint my own portrait alongside those in my head, Jack London at a makeshift desk below the trees, Nessmuk sketched in 19th century garb, Chris McCandless leaning against that bus. I’d read Into the Wild sometime the previous spring and it had struck an identifiable chord. I bought it on a whim at the campus bookstore – the cover caught my eye – in a section where some professor had assigned it to a class, though I don’t remember who or which one.

I still had the book, earmarked and torn, stuffed down in the violet nylon next to Robert Service and a ziplock with my toothbrush, bandaids, deck of cards, and iodine tabs. I read by the firelight, the smell of Ramen still in the air. I couldn’t seem to get comfortable and the evening breeze was pushing up the valley in cold wisps. I cursed out loud and stomped out the dull glow of the remaining coals, rolled out my thin, foam sleeping pad on the floor of the shelter and lay flat with my balled sweatshirt under my head. It was marginally more comfortable, but at least I was out of the wind. The room smelled of must, as they all did, and was sparsely ornamented with epithets scratched or written into the walls about the smell, the cold, the rain, the trail.

With my LED headlamp on, I caught the iridescence of a spider’s web in the corner. He sat prone surveying the room. Like a landlord, I thought, waiting to collect rent.

I drifted back to my book and soon fell into fitful sleep.

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Winter Camping with H

The addition of our second child to the family had certainly slowed the pace of my getting out into the woods, even for an overnight. Fall and winter have always been my favorite seasons to camp, each bringing their own special pleasures, their own challenges. The beauty of the mountains during autumn goes without saying (though I just did) and there’s always been something restorative about the crisp air in winter. But the extra gear and clothing needed to deal with the elements when camping becomes a serious consideration, more so when adding a child to the equation.

Some might call it irresponsible. Taking my three year old son out into the national forest in sub-freezing temperatures is not something I take lightly. Preparation is everything, as is expectation management. But the key is always balancing our collective enjoyment of the experience with the probability of discomfort or hardship at the hands of the elements. We stand on the precipice of Type II fun.

Anyone who knows my son should also know that, even at his age, he’d self-identify as an “outside kid” who nearly always jumps at the chance to go camping and understands the difference between pitching a tent in the living room and sleeping in the woods. His favorite YouTube channel is Ray Mears and, as a result, his preferred campfire fare are a gutted fish, pine needle tea, and “marsh-mars” (marsh mellows).

The plan was simple but subject to change. I wanted to return to the National Forest (George Washington) perched just on the eastern edge of the Appalachians, camp off-trail, practice a few bushcraft skills, gauge my son’s enjoyment of any or all of these things. Some light snow was in the forecast for the following morning, an added bonus for both of us. We hiked in from a spot just off the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles south of I-64 and stumbled on what I later learned was Humpback Rocks trail. The pace was slow, our gait increasing slightly when I obliged to carry H on my shoulders.

I chose a campsite in the fading light some 200 yards off-trail, having crossed a stone wall and the parallel Appalachian Trail, on the windward side of flat-faced boulder perfect for reflecting the heat of a small campfire. With the tent erected I set about splitting the driest wood available, starting the fire, and heating our dinner. I’d elected to forego the camping stove and its associated accoutrements for this specific trip, choosing instead the simplicity and admittedly more difficult method of “cooking” over an open fire.

With our bellies full and warm, we cocooned ourselves in the warmth of my sleeping bag layered on the inside with a surplus, German-Army wool blanket. I read him a few children’s books and we both drifted off to restless sleep sometime before 8pm.

When we awoke just before 7, the condensation inside the tent had frozen, so had most of the water in our bottles. But it hadn’t yet started snowing outside, much to H’s disappointment. I set about rekindling the fire for breakfast and immediately wished I had processed a little extra firewood the previous day (note to self). The snow finally began to fall, lightly at first, just as we started eating sometime between 8 and 9. I hurriedly packed away the tent and sleeping bag already dusted in snow as they hung loosely from nearby branches.

My first steps back toward the trail were met with an unexpected sadness on H’s part. As a few tears streaked down his face he told me that he didn’t want to “leave our good camping spot.” I reasoned as best I could, in the way that parents with toddlers often attempt to straddle that blurry line between adult logic and an unapologetic coloring of the truth. “It’s OK, bud. We’ll find another good spot later [whenever ‘later’ was, it was anybody’s guess]. But that’s part of the fun of going camping  – you get to pick out a new good spot each time.”

After repeating some version of that argument a few times over, he acquiesced and followed me back toward the small cairn I’d stacked on the Appalachian Trail so I’d know where to cross back over to the Humbpack Rocks Trail, toward home.

By the time we’d made it the car, the snow was falling more heavily and, after some careful thought, a few unexpected slides on the road, and a three minutes back out in the cold, we (I) decided to forego the morning hike up to Humpback Mountain we had planned. Another time, maybe in better conditions, maybe with the rest of the family. And with that, we headed home.

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PRACTICAL NOTES BELOW (for the few of you who might be interested.)

Items that didn’t make the cut:

  1. Second sleeping bag – I considered it, but for nearly equal bulk and weight I chose to take my surplus wool blanket instead. Scroll down for that rationale.+
  2. Thermal sleeping pad – I kept this at home mostly because of the added weight and bulk and I wanted to achieve the same effect (warmth and padding) with leaves or pine boughs.
  3. Camp stove with fuel, stand – The stove weighs almost nothing, but the weight of the and bulk of the fuel bottle and aluminum stand are non-trivial. I was planning on cooking over the fire anyway.

Items I’m glad I brought:

  1. Wool blanket – It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s a pain to pack. It’s also extremely warm, durable, and perfect as a makeshift outer shell while sitting near the fire (it won’t melt or burn from stray embers).
  2. Wetterlings Camp Axe – This 19″ small axe/hatchet is becoming one of my favorite all-around woodcraft tools. Those of you familiar with hand-forged Swedish axes already know the Wetterlings brand, but it’s versatility and effectiveness in the field make it well worth the added weight in certain circumstances.

TOTAL PACK WEIGHT: 20ish lb

FULL PACKING LIST:

  1. Tent (2-man, dome, Mountain Hardwear)
  2. Sleeping bag (20-deg, Mountain Hardwear)
  3. Wool blanket (100% wool, German army surplus)
  4. Wetterlings Camp Axe
  5. Mora knife
  6. Swiss Army knife (I needed the can-opener)
  7. Topo map
  8. few paper towels
  9. few baby wipes
  10. grocery bag, trashbag
  11. Water filter (Sawyer)
  12. assorted cordage
  13. Trekking poles
  14. Skillet/pot w/ the following packed inside:
    1. small roll duct tape
    2. first aid kit
    3. contact solution
    4. 2x spoons
    5. backup lighter
    6. detachable handle for pot
  15. 20+ oz aluminum cup
  16. rainfly for backpack
  17. 2x flashlights and one headlamp
  18. 1L water

The dog carried:

  1. 2x 1L bottles of water
  2. 2x bags dogfood

H carried:

  1. Small osprey  backpack with filled water bladder ~1L
  2. small blanket

Photo Album: Camping near Humpback Mountain, VA with H

–A photo recap from a brief overnight in George Washington National Forest with my son, H. But first, a few thoughts on camping with a one-and-a-half year old:

EVERYTHING will go more slowly. He can only walk at a quarter of my speed and that’s when he’s focused enough to walk in one direction, or even walk at all. And when he doesn’t, I should prepare to carry him if I want to cover some distance on the trail.

MANAGE my expectations. It’s not going to be the kind of hiking and camping that I’m probably used to, and that’s OK. Move slowly, take notice of everything around us, use each opportunity to teach him something – about being in the woods, about treading carefully, about remaining conscious of our resources (those that we brought and those around us).

REMEMBER that this is still a foreign experience to him, as different from the comforts of home as dehydrated milk is from the real thing. Be patient, be reassuring, be empathetic. A good snuggle and warm blanket are better comfort than the thin veneer of nylon and a hung bearbag when night finally settles.

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