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.

Scan 1

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.

Night at Featherfin

I had my druthers and took the rare opportunity this weekend to camp and explore someplace new, take a break, try some fly fishing, be in the woods, etc, etc. I mapped out my radius of travel, an imaginary string pinned to Portsmouth and fanning out some 200 miles by land, where all viable paths run west and south. I’d been dreaming of cold mountain streams and native trout, but transit time at rush hour squashed any hopes of getting to National Forest land before dark. So after some erratic web searching and mulling over my notes from previous trips, I quickly planned an excursion into the Featherfin Wildlife Management Area for the freedom of dispersed camping (with a valid fishing, hunting license, etc.) and its inclusion of several miles of the Appomattox river, near which I could set up a central camp of sorts and hit several sections of water on foot.

The day was extremely hot and the night all but promised to be as oppressive. After a bit of trial an error and many a wary look at overgrown service roads, I found my spot not far from my pull-off, just near the river bank. I strung up the hammock, unpacked the fly rod, and set at it in the failing light. When it was too dark to see the tippet in my hands, I set the gear on the bank, poured some Ramen in the pot and helped myself to the salted broth and thin pasta. The heat was on, the stickiness, and in the dark with the slight breeze and gurgle of the river, shallow enough for only a pair of boots in most places. I hooked a few green sunfish, most with mouths no bigger than the flies they’d tried to swallow, turquoise and gold iridescent stripes narrowed just in front of the gills. They stared back at me resigned and wide-eyed.

The week prior had been especially difficult, mostly for reasons I won’t expand on here, but I’d thought that a night out on my own may have been just the thing, and in some ways it was. I tried to stop and listen, take in the night, then the day, sit beside myself and watch the river flow down along the gouged tree and tall grass, strip of sky above not quite cut by the sun’s rays. I waded up and down, never quite finding the section I was hoping for, someplace with cover in the water and none overhead. In the heat and undergrowth it felt more of a jungle-scape than hill-country river basin, but such things are what they are. I was less than thirty miles from Sailor’s Creek battlefield and of course, not far from Lee’s surrender at that fateful courthouse just over 150 years ago. I couldn’t help but think of the soldiers out, uniformed, traipsing and camping in this same Virginia heat. What might their thoughts have been, their gripes? Would they have had the time or the notion to appreciate the landscape they’d found themselves to occupy? I imagined that nearly every field and forest and river on which they’d marched, camped, died looked like the places I now seek out for my own escape, far cries from the urban sprawl and industrial rivet of Hampton Roads.

Sometime late in the morning I set out to Farmville for a coffee and a second breakfast (the stove-heated can of kidney beans lasted only so long), before shooting up to Richmond for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) rally and subsequent march on the governor’s mansion. The day heralded other events in other places, but I’ll be sure to remember Featherfin as sure as I’ll be to return.




Bannock in the Backyard

We thought we’d practice making the traditional wilderness trip staple – bannock, which is essentially unleavened bread cooked by an open fire. The variations in recipe are legion, but we kept it pretty simple. Simplicity is good and, as this was a decidedly impulsive midday activity begun while my youngest napped upstairs, it needed accomplishment with only the ingredients on hand. I’d found an American-made, 8-inch cast-iron skillet at the thrift store the previous day with intentions on use of this very nature. A hasty seasoning earlier that morning did the trick, cleaned, greased, and ready to go. We mixed about 2 cups of flour  (more was added later) with roughly 2.5 tablespoons of baking powder, a few shakes of salt, 1 cup of water, and a handful of raisins. Mixed, rolled, and patted into a ball. I quickly discovered the need to grease my hands and powder the table with flour or the dough will stick like hell. Knowing cooks refrain from grimacing – this was a freshman attempt.

While H putzed, I got the fire going and set all other accouterments, ingredients, and whatnot on the plicker table, fumbled with a tarp in anticipation of the rain, and then gave up as soon as the clouds parted and C woke from her nap. I’d had a two salmon steaks thawed and a couple handfuls of raw spinach thrown in a steel skillet with some water and olive oil. When the wood had burned down to coals, I propped the cast iron skillet with the doughball against a stick about a foot from the coal bed and watched as the hunk of bread mix slid down to the bottom of the pan. There’s no such thing as greased too well but this would never do. I’d already had a grate set aside, intended for the salmon and spinach, and set it straddling the stones in the fire ring with the skillet on top.

After five minutes I rotated the pan 180 degrees. After ten I flipped the bannock and looked with satisfaction at the crisp, cooked surface, brown and gold, steaming. The salmon steaks went straight on the grate and I shoved one more hunk of wood underneath for good measure. No flames but the coalbed was already cooling. The bannock came off after another ten, hard on the outside soft within, boiling hot but slid right off the pan without a trace. On went the spinach skillet, also on the grate. Both spinach and salmon finished at about the same time. All portioned out on plates for three, two-and-a-half more accurately. Coupled with some pine needle tea and all’s served for a lovely meal on summer’s afternoon.

Fastpacking on the AT – Amherst County, VA

Trip Report for my first fastpacking overnight on the Appalachian Trail in beautiful Amherst County, VA. As is usually the case, I could only spare the time for a single overnight and, being as it is that I live at least three hours from the mountains, a six hour minimum drive needed to be factored in. My reasoning was as simple as the plan: try out my new UD Ultra Vest, pack as minimalist as possible, cover as many miles as was reasonable, and bring my cattle-dog mix, Ollie, along for good measure.


Day 1:

I realized within the first two miles or so that Ollie was not going to be able to maintain the pace necessary to do 20 miles each way. He would often lag so far behind as to be out of sight but never “whistle” range. While he was unable to remain tangled in my heels (as would be most comfortable for him under almost any other circumstances), he never completely let himself fall back to some unrecoverable distance. Out of my own sense of caution and so as not to feed his sense of impending abandonment, I stopped every few minutes on that first day, perhaps somewhat begrudgingly, to allow him to catch up.

Within a few hours, it became clear that we were not going to reach the James river before dark. Perhaps that goal had been a bit quixotic, but add the slow pace with the fact that we had started somewhat late in the afternoon and the inevitable became.. well, the inevitable. Moreover, our water was running dangerously low by mile 10.5ish and, according to the topo, the remaining portion of trail was almost entirely ridgeline (ie water scarce). It was about this time that we reached the turnoff for the “Punchbowl” Shelter and, with an air of disappointment, I decided to play it safe and stop for the night. The aptly named cabin actually proved to be a pleasant spot, situated at the bottom of a shallow valley, punctuated by several felled trees, a small pond, and lots of open space.

Day 2:

I had packed up camp and was ready to hike by 6:45. Ollie seemed no worse for the wear, albeit a little sore (as was I). Not quite ready to return to the car and, by extension, admit that our trip was already halfway complete, I decided to continue south for another 1-2 miles to see the peak of Bluff Mountain before finally turning around and heading home. Within the half-hour or so it took to get there, I was certainly glad I did (again, see photos above).

The remainder of the day proved to be extremely pleasant hiking/jogging. It was mostly downhill and Ollie actually performed a little better (it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t stop to wait for him as much and he didn’t let himself fall too far behind).

Post-trip highlights and lessons learned:

  • Sunny, upper-80s both days (a little cooler in the woods)
  • Could’ve gone without gels, but CLIF bars were great
  • Anything put in those belt pockets was felt through the straps – needed to ensure comfortable before running
  • Trekking poles were awesome (knee-savers), but needed to remove straps from top (flop around when carrying poles while running)
  • Holy spider webs, batman – strung across trail any time there were branches 4 ft apart
  • Tent/sleeping recap:
    • with tent/tarp edges off ground – great place for cold wind to blow through
    • trashbag ground cloth didn’t do much except (maybe) reflect heat
    • colder than expected by midnight – had to put on UA rain jacket rather than use as blanket
    • used emergency blanket (foil/reflector) for legs; helped somewhat
    • used backpack rainfly I found in shelter as pillow stuffed with anything else “soft” I had on hand
    • ** overall, did not sleep well
  • Insect repellent was a necessity
  • Enjoyed having calf sleeve/gaiters – may not have been doing a lot of compression but was nice to keep crap off my legs
  • Sunglasses were not necessary (glad I didn’t try to bring them)
  • Ate a lot of semi-mashed potatoes in car before hike – satiating and easy on the stomach
  • Carried only 2x 20 oz water bottles
    • Appreciated trade-off of carrying less water weight but needing to be more conscious of water sources throughout hike

Here is my complete packing list (see first photo):

1x UD/SJ ultra vest
2x UD water bottles, 20 oz
2x newspaper dog bags
2x grocery bags (1 bear, 1 trash)
1x 39G trash bag for ground cloth
4x baby wipes in ziplock
1x iphone 4s
1x “wallet”: cash, license, credit card, insurance card, rubber band
1x small notebook w/pen
8x small zipties
1x small swiss army knife (knife, file, scissors)
1x topo map
1x travel towel, quick-drying
1x parachord for bear bag
1x emergency blanket
1x small roll medical tape
1x Saywer water filter with reservoir bag
1x headlamp
1x contact solution (1/4 full) in ziplock
1x insect repellent (1/4 full) in ziplock
3x paper towels in ziplock
1x plastic spoon
2x 4oz(?) homemade gels
4x clif bars
2x granola bars
2x instant oatmeal packets
1x instant coffee packet
1x homemade granola in ziplock
1x package instant potatoes
1x 1 lb bag dried apricots
1x 4oz bag dried edamame, lightly salted
1x lighter
1x extra ziplock (cell phone?)
1x UA rain jacket/outer shell
2x trekking poles (Goode supermax 7101 ski poles, hastily acquired from local thrift shop for $5) w/ tent cord tied to one
1x tent kit:
1x footprint from Mountain Hardwear tent
4x lengths paracord
6x aluminum stakes

1x dog pack
2x 0.5L bottle water (lighter than nalgene)
2x ziplocks, each w/1 cup food
1x small plastic bowl, cut from chinese fast-food soup container

Total carry weight (loaded pack w/water/food and trekking poles): 11 lb
Total pack weight (w/ water/food): 10.2 lb
Total trekking poles weight (w/ cord): 0.8 lb