Change In Plans

So this has been a huge radio silence. I basically dropped off the face of the blogosphere. But with good reason, which I will cover later.

First things first, looking back over the last several months, my goals to hike all of the Cohutta as well as do a trip once per month failed back in May. So I missed the last three months of hiking, which are probably considered the best of the year by most people. Why did both of these goals just collapse? Because I foolishly set backpacking goals that conflicted with my professional goals.

In what I feel is the best professional move I could make, I took a transfer with my company to a small start up we acquired in Silicone Valley, to a position much more aligned with my career goals as a software developer. That means however that for the first quarter of the year I was busy interviewing with other companies (wanted to keep my options open). Not too busy to hike, but definitely too busy to post about the trips. Then I moved across the country at the end of May. I’m now starting to feel settled into the new area and the new job and am looking forward to my first California hike.

I’ll be hitting the trail for a four day trip with a new hiking partner over Labor Day weekend. My hope is that this trip will help me get back on schedule for hiking regularly, as well as check off one backpacking goal of hiking in a new area.

Sometimes our plans do not really pan out the way you hoped at the beginning of the year. But I’m considering this a “successful failure” and looking forward to new experiences. Hopefully maybe even making some new gear.

MYOG and Bike Commuting

To start, I haven’t been dependent on a car to get me to my necessary daily activity for 6 years. In school, I lived close enough to campus that a long walk or quick bike ride was enough to get me to all of my classes. In school though hours are flexible and shorter, and everything is easier. Since I took a real job, I have lived in two locations. The first of these was within a mile of my office, so I generally just walked to work, riding my bike sometimes when I felt like it. You could almost say this was easier than school, except that I worked longer hours. Over the last 9 months though, I have lived a few miles from the office, making it just a bit too far to walk and still have free time left in my day. And so I have been bike commuting nearly every day since then.
bike

The most important part of bike commuting, to me, is the ability to no longer rely on my car to get me to the single most common task in my life – work. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that bike commuting decreases my carbon footprint in many ways, but that is not the reason I started doing it. If my car starts making a weird noise, I have two choices: ignore it or take it to the shop. If my bike makes a weird noise, I have three options: ignore it, take it to the shop, or just fix it myself. The ability to fix my bike myself is so freeing in our world of job specialization based on increased technology. For most of the maintenance on a bike, I don’t have to be a bike mechanic to do it. I just need to look up a couple of youtube videos and read a forum. I could of course do the same thing on my car, but then I am risking an object that cost me over $10k to purchase on me understanding what I am doing. And anyone into MYOG knows, we normally don’t really know what we are doing.

With all this in mind, bike commuting goes hand in hand with backpacking and MYOG. I am self-powered in my capability to get to work, and I am self-reliant in making sure everything works properly. This is exactly what I do when I make gear and go into the backcountry.

Recently, I decided I wanted to kick my bike use up a notch and start doing more errands, such as grocery shopping, using a bike. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan of leaving my Salsa Fargo locked up outside of stores. Most of my neighborhood is wealthier than I am, so my bike anxiety is mostly based around the misguided kid who decides to come by and screw with my bike just for fun more than I fear it being stolen. This led to the decision to rebuild my old bike from college. It was a Sekai 400 that I got (very) used for about $100, and so after a few years of riding it, the derailleur was a bit off, both wheels were starting to taco, and the fit in general wasn’t amazing for me. There was a lot of work to do, and I just finished it.

Every part of this bike is new except the frame, brake calipers and bottom bracket. To be honest, the brakes are so much less smooth than the disc brakes on the Fargo, that I may need to upgrade them to some new calipers just to get a bit smoother action from them. I went with an On One Midge to test out a new off road dropbar, since the Woodchipper has been a great success. I also bought a threaded to threadless adaptor so I could use the original 15 degree stem from the Fargo, putting me in a much higher, more comfortable riding position for commuting. The major cost on this endeavor was the levers, where I decided to go with some Microshift STI levers from Nashbar instead of bar end shifters. I found that running the cable along the bottom of the drops really hurt/bothered my hands when I would pull on them climbing big hills. Plus, I didn’t like having to move my hands to reach the bar ends while shifting on a hill. The hand movement I think could have been alleviate by the shorter length of the drops on the the Midge bars, but it this has been beautifully resolved regardless using the STI levers instead. For drivetrain, I have moved to a 1×10 system, with a 44t Surly chainring made specifically to work on its on up front and an 11-27 in the back. The final major touch I made was adding a rear rack and panniers. I’m excited about the opportunity to take everything off my back and still carry more.

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I’ve done a half a week of work commutes and a trip to the store so far, and I am loving the capabilities of the bike. It rides smoothly and accomplishes the goals set before it. All told, the bike cost about $600, which is about half the cost of the Fargo. I’m sure I could have found a pre-made bike that fit the bill pretty well at the same or lower cost, but just going cheap really wasn’t the point of the project. It never is. Selecting the parts and building this bike has all been a learning experience for me. Much like the first backpack I built, I’m sure I did several things flat out wrong. Still, I know this bike. I know all of the parts and how they went together, and that is a great feeling to have.

First Hike of 2014

A few weeks back, I posted my backpacking related goals for the year. These involved backpacking at least once each month and writing a guide to backpacking in the Cohutta Wilderness. I decided I wanted to start these resolutions strong with my first trip of the year, so I came up with a three day, 45 mile trip that would cover all of the high points of the Cohutta Wilderness and many of the trails I had not already completed. It turns out, a month and a half without going to a yoga class though means that my knees are in no great position to be out backpacking. I did get out to do what I am calling the Cohutta’s Ups and Downs Lite though, which is a 2 day, approximately 25 mile trip, which still incorporates most of the great places in the area. Based on my experience this weekend, I would say this route should be hiked by everyone in Georgia with a weekend to spare. Because of the number of times you will have to cross rivers or streams, most people would probably prefer to hike it in the late Spring or Summer, to help stay warm. And don’t worry, I will be going on, and writing about, the longer trip later this season too.

The route is pretty straight forward, starting from Hickory Creek TH, hike over to Rice Camp Parking and keep taking Rice Camp to Jacks River. Head east on Jacks River and camp somewhere between Rice Camp and Hickory Ridge Trail. The next day, take Hickory Ridge and Cowpen, finishing out the day with a great view at Panther Creek and taking Conasauga River back to Hickory Creek. All of the trails are well enough marked in this direction. The only real challenge is at the crossing over Jacks River to get to Hickory Ridge. There is really just an arrow pointing randomly across the river. My advice: blindly follow that arrow. The trail is over there if you cross and keep walking back along the same direction on Jacks River you came from that morning.

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For my trip, I was expecting lows in the mid 20’s with highs getting all the way up to the mid 50’s Monday. However, when I got into my car Saturday morning at 5:30 in Atlanta and saw the thermometer at 25, I figured mid 20’s wasn’t going to happen in north Georgia. By the time I arrived at the Hickory Creek TH, the temperature had dropped to a balmy 18 degrees. I wasn’t going to let that stop me though. I had, fortunately, brought along some slightly warmer clothes than I thought I would need just in case, and made a quick wardrobe change at the TH. By the time I reached the first ankle deep stream crossing, the temperature had not increased, but I decided to just roll up the running tights and pants and push through with socks and shoes on. It was cold, but I didn’t regret my decisions. Over the next couple of miles, my feet got warm again, just in time for the second crossing of the day, which was knee deep. I stuck with my plan and went on across. This time, it was wider, and deeper, and it took me longer to make it, so I knew I would need to get moving quickly to keep my feet warm. However, after 10 minutes of walking they still felt surprisingly cold, so I look down and realized my shoes had frozen solid, with my feet in them. I had never experienced this before in the Southeast.

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After 15 minutes without shoes on and hugging my toes in my hands, my feet felt good enough to continue on, and the rest of the morning went by smoothly. The temperatures got warmer, but I am not positive it ever got much above freezing on Saturday. I spent the day walking in a Cap3 zip top, R1 hoodie and rain jacket and never had any issues with sweat, even moving at about 2 mph walking pace. I completed the whole of Hickory Creek Trail without having to get my feet wet again, and started up Rice Camp, where numerous small creeks forced me to dabbled the toes back in water here and there. This trail was well worth it though. At only about 4 miles, it seems to cover more than that because of the different types of areas you get to see. Everything from tight tunnels of trees, to nice open trail, you feel like you are covering more distance than you actually are. This of course ended with my last river crossing for the day – Jacks River.

This one got me cold. The water is about mid-thigh deep, and the crossing is pretty wide. I got to hit it around 3:00 in the afternoon, at the warmest part of my day, so that helped a good bit. The crossing was smooth, and the Jacks River Trail itself is really nice, with a great view at the waterfall. My only qualm with this area is that in the mile or so around the falls, camping is restricted to the winter months, and no camp fires are allowed at all. I can understand trying to restrict the impact that large numbers of people will have on the area, but after a riving crossing like that, I really just want to be able to get a fire going and warm my feet back up. Hopefully the Forestry Service will rethink this ban on fires, even in the winter months. Obviously, if you really want a fire, there is camping just on either side of the restricted areas that you could pick instead.

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After enjoying the falls for a while, I decided to hunker down in camp, have some food, and do some reading. It really was a magnificent evening. Oddly, I wasn’t very hungry so a bit after dark, I ended up having some hot chocolate and Peanut Butter M&Ms before curling up in my bivy to finish out the night with my book. If you check out the gear list, I brought a lot of insulation, and I did it because I knew I would lack a fire, have a long night ahead of me, and want to still be comfortable enough to sit out of the bivy and read a while. And all of that was accomplished, so the little bit of extra weight the insulation added up to was well worth it.

I decided that night that my right knee wasn’t feeling capable of two more days, so I took the next morning slowly, eating some hot oatmeal, packing up camp, and I even took time to destroy a fire ring that was at my campsite. The hike that day would include crossing the Jacks River again, hiking up Hickory Ridge, and getting to the second/third high point of the day at Panther Creek Falls. I mostly took my time all day, trying to regulate my heat so I didn’t sweat too much hiking up Hickory Ridge, but after the crossing of Jacks River first thing in the morning, the trail was pretty straightforward.

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After taking a half our or so to have some shortbread, almond butter and good ole hot chocolate (I just have never liked coffee that much), on top of Panther Creek, I casually made my way back over and up Hickory Creek trail to my car, right around 4:00 Sunday.

This trip was focused on being peaceful and finding some great views. Altogether, I count one Up and two Downs: the view from the top of Panther Creek Falls, and the views from below both Panther Creek Falls and Jacks River Falls. I’ve already got some thoughts on making it back up to the area in a few weeks to hike a bit more and hopefully bring along some friends this time, but they may hold out until at least March to let the air temperatures warm up some.

2014 Goals

So far, I have been able to decide on a few goals that I want to achieve in this new year.

First, I want to go on a hike in a new area. The Georgia and North Carolina areas can present some great hiking, but I have spent the last 6 years hiking in these areas and rarely had a chance to branch out. To remedy this, I hope to do some serious traveling at some point in this year to go on a multi-day trip. Whether that be out west, or possibly farther up the Atlantic coast, I have yet decided, but I will be sure to post an update here as I finalize plans.

Secondly, I want to get out and go on a multi-day trip at least once a month, every month. My goal here isn’t so much to go out 12 times in the year, but to get out throughout the entire year. I’m trying to lose the down time that I often face between December and mid March.The winters here in Georgia just aren’t harsh enough that I should stay huddled up inside.

One challenge I face with this goal is finding hiking partners who want to be outdoors with this frequency. With college over, most of my old hiking partners have spread out and started working full time jobs, which makes getting them together much more difficult, and I realize this will lead to some of the hikes being solo trips. However, I’ve noted that I have more trouble getting motivated for solo trips, especially during these cold months or during really bad weather. This leads me to my final goal: create a backpacker’s guide to the Cohutta Wilderness area.

This goal is to give me extra motivation on goal #2. This basically boils down to me doing a “hike every trail in _____” list, except I want to use that time on the trail to create a single place to find details on the area specifically for those hoping to do overnight trips. I think this area is pretty unique for Georgia, but is generally overshadowed by the AT. Linking trails together in Cohutta is a bit more challenging then just following the AT, but that can present all new options for those people out solo hiking and not wanting to grab a shuttle or looking for something besides a straight line highway type trail. From some of my hikes last year, I have started a rough outline with trail overviews for the trails I have completed. To this I plan to add some details about hike times for certain sections of trail, water sources, and campsite locations, which I am still hashing out how to present. Also, I want to try out some different routes through the area, mostly loops, to see what out-of-the-box thinking can create as far as varied trips. I’ve got time planned for a first trip to the area for 2014 over MLK weekend, and I am going to try to knock out a couple of new trails at that point as well.

Cohutta Backpacking page

Please feel free to check out the page and give any feedback there.

Group Trip on the AT

It has been a very long time since I went on a hike with a group. I spent the summer on mostly 24-hour, solo trips. It was always nice to get out to the woods and have some time to explore on my own schedule, but it is hard to beat the enjoyment of spending time with old, and new, friends in the woods.

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The trip started out pretty late from Woody Gap, hiking south along the Appalachian. We had our headlamps ready, already expecting a bit of night hiking to make it to Gooch Gap Shelter that night. We made it to the shelter in pretty good time and bundled up for a surprisingly chilly October night for north Georgia. In no time, there was a fire raging and we munched on dinner while talking to the two SOBO hikers who were finishing their trips in the next couple of days. Talking to a hiker that close to the end of their hike can be a great experience, hearing about everything they’ve come across over the last several month, and these two had some really great stories.

We left the shelter the next morning with a pretty aggressive hiking schedule, but as the day dragged on, one of our group members starting feeling under the weather. We decided to change our overall plans for the trip, and found ourselves turning up on the BMT/DRT, to camp about a mile or so from the intersection with the AT. I had actually hiked this trail only a couple of weeks before and found a field with chest high “grass” that made hiking a bit difficult, so warned the other two of the possibility. When we made it to the spot though – nothing. It seems someone had come out in the month a half between my two trips and cleared it. I mean, seriously cleared it.

BMT waterfall

We decided that with the trail here cleared so nicely, and a campsite tucked just into the trees, we would go ahead and start building up a real comfortable fire and camp.

The next morning was a late start, and with sickness still lingering, we decided we would turn back to the car. The hike back out was pretty uneventful, but ended with a couple of hours of night hiking, and a pretty fantastic night view out over Dahlonega.

All in all, we didn’t end up hiking the trip I had planned, but then again I don’t care. For the first time, the goal of the trip wasn’t to accomplish a distance or test a new trail, but to spend some time with friends out in the woods. So I give the trip a solid A in that sense.

Western Cohutta Exploration

  • Location: Cohutta Wilderness
  • Time: 2 days, 1 night, June
  • Temperatures: Low’s in the low 60’s, High’s in the high 80’s, clear weather

Finished up my second short trip in the Cohutta Wilderness this past weekend after not being able to get out for a while. I’m really liking the remote feel (for Georgia) of this Wilderness area. I haven’t seen more than a few people during either of my trips. The scenery has been primarily green tunnels around rivers, but the overlook from Panther Creek falls, which I visited on my first trip is pretty worthwhile, and the tranquil sound of a river is pretty hard to complain about.

conasauga

I started out from the southern terminus of the Conasauga River Trail late Friday night, hiking down the trail about 2 miles to the intersection of the trail with Chestnut Lead trail, and I camped there just as dark settled in.

I started the next morning with some exceptionally tasty doughnut holes and some Nido before starting my pretty damp day. The Conasauga River Trail crosses the Conasauga River a multitude of times during the length of it. Up to the intersection of Hickory Creek Trail, none of the crossings really go above knee height, making them pretty easy. However, having some sort of low cut gaiters could be helpful to help keep out debris. I’ve put in an order for some Dirty Girl Gaiters to see if those will work for the purpose.

Early in the day, I had the fairly rare (down here in GA at least) of running into a black bear. He was ambling down toward the trail across the river from me, right where I needed to cross, so decided to wait until he reached the trail to decide what to do. Luckily, he was a giant baby. He saw me, and I distinctly remember his eyes bulging to cartoon size before running away down the trail in fright. Unfortunately, he ran down the trail in the direction I needed to go, so I could be seen walking down the trail singing loudly to myself for the next half hour or so.

butterfly

I was hoping to hike nearly the entirely length of the Conasauga, but was turned back some pretty high river levels about a mile after the intersection of Hickory Creek Trail. So instead, I hooked a sharp right and did a little bushwhacking along Thomas Creek to meet up with Hickory Creek Trail farther west and north. The overgrown nature of the woods around here make bushwhacking an especially tiresome and fun time, so need a good break by the end of it, stopping to read for a while and cook an early dinner around 5.

From here I went north up towards Rice Camp, where I once again stopped for some snackage and some quality time with the Kindle. At this point, my plan was to hike south along East Cowpen down to FS-64, and then do a bit of road hiking to the car. I had thought about camping out another night for this portion as well, but I really have come to not enjoy East Cowpen as an environment covered in ticks, so preferred not to camp there. That, along with a lot of excitement that my legs still felt great lead me to finishing out the hike that night.

I’m still trying to grasp my current level of fitness and the health of my knees, so keep planning my trips on the short side.  I’m looking into a longer trip soon though to explore some of the areas I haven’t gotten to yet in the wilderness and will hopefully pull some sort of document together will trail descriptions specific to backpacking, as I had some trouble finding that sort of thing on Cohutta.

Middle Prong – Shining Rock Wilderness Loop

  • Location: Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wilderness
  • Time: 2 days, 1 night,March
  • Temperatures: Low’s in the low 40’s, High’s in the 70’s, clear weather

The first trip back out since I called it quits for a while back in October. I started the trip by telling my hiking partner, K, that my goal was to finish our trip without any knee pain. The plans of the trip changed, we got lost a couple of times, and I got a bit car sick on the drive back down the mountain, but I am excited the say the trip was still a success, as my knee felt great the whole time. I enjoy being a bit long winded, so if you want a quick summary of how the trip was and my thoughts on the route, just skip to the end and save some time.

The trip itself started at the Mountain to Sea Trail parking area, heading west on the trail. After a bit, we turned north on the Green Mountain Trail, which met up with Fork Mountain Trail at 215. The trip ended when we met back up with the Art Loeb Trail around Tennet Mountain and took the Mountain to Sea Trail back to the car.

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The trip started around 11:30, and I was hoping to reach Fork Mountain trail and camp somewhere just past 215. The first half of Green Mountain trail was pretty great. Unlike many other trails in this area, it wasn’t blazed at all, and it made for some difficult trail finding at times. I could see the trail being very difficult to see if there were snow on the ground at times. There were some great views off to the west throughout the trail. There were even a few solid camp spots along the trail in the section.

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From there, the trail took a turn for the worse. Down. I should have seen this coming from the contour map, but the next 2 – 3 miles consisted of nothing but constant, unrelenting downhill. Rather than following leaving the ridge and hiking down the side of the mountain using switchbacks, the trail makers decided to follow the ridge all the way down, forcing us to hike what seemed like a rappel at times. Down and down we went, slipping on the build of of leaves and clinging to trees beside the trail. I assumed we would eventually strike oil or water if we kept going down, and our pace slowed to a crawl. When we finally reached the 215 at the bottom of the descent, it was about 5:30, and K and I happily made some dinner and soaked our throbbing feet in the cold river. A week later, I am sitting and writing this article with multiple purple toe nails from this intense descent, and can promise, it isn’t a down climb I would like to make ever again.

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The green tunnel can be a relentless hiking location at times.

After dinner, we had to find the trail again. I knew it crossed the river, but I couldn’t see the actual trail on the other side. Looking at the map, I saw the the trail followed the river for a bit, so we decided to simply pick a good spot to cross, and then bushwhack up the hillside until we found a trail. Well it turns out this was our best option anyways. As I scrambled onto Fork Mountain trail and looked behind me, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the 20 or so feet of trail covered by a massive blow down. Even if we had found the actual start of the trail, the blow down would have forced us down into the river again anyways.

With plenty of light left, we passed over the campsite just across the river and decided to keep walking. However, as dark came on around 8, we decided to don our headlamps and hope that at the top of the climb, we would find another spot to camp. Well, we didn’t. At around 9 PM, my body was hurting from this forgotten phenomenon called hiking, and we came to a point in the trail not on the map. The trail split, and widened. Rather than seeing a navigational difficulty, I saw a camping site, which I wasn’t terribly proud of, in the middle of the trail. So we posted up and started fighting a losing battle against gravity as we slid down the trail all night. I woke up at one point with my head somewhere around the middle of the mid and my legs thrown out the corner, but I still slept great.

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The next morning, we started hiking in what I thought was the correct direction, and promptly came to a dead end half a mile down the trail. So we logically turned the other way, and ended on top of High Top, which was definitely the wrong direction. Regardless, the fantastic view and perfect breakfast spot gave me a chance to practice taking bearings with a compass and snap some photos before we started back on our actual trip. The turn we missed was a very sharp, unmarked left from a double wide section of trail, and we made sure to mark it with a cairn to help others find their way more easily. However, if you are looking for a campsite, there is a pretty nice one up there just past this turn (if you keep going straight) that can be used, and you don’t even have to sleep on the trail.

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The rest of this morning was ridge walking, with great views and not too difficult of terrain. There were plenty of blow downs along the way, especially this particularly challenging one. A tree came done running along the length of the trail, with maze like branches jutting in every direction. I saw no option but to ditch the pack about halfway through and push it ahead of me as I army-crawled my way to the other side. It was some pretty exciting hiking in my opinion.

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Once we reached the intersection of several trails, including Fork Mountain and Art Loeb, we had the option of heading north and doing a loop in Shining Rock, but I still lack confidence in my knee, and convinced K to go ahead and move south toward Tennent Mountain. The two of use have both worked at a camp in these mountains for a few years and have had a lot of experience leading trips to Tennent and Black Balsam, and this happens to be one of our favorite adventure napping places every. We found a nice cozy spot between the two peaks and took a solid hour adventure nap without any trouble.

ridgeline

When we got up, the wind had picked up even more and clouds had rolled in, so we decided to get moving quickly to keep warm and I forgot all about taking some pictures. The remainder of the trip stayed pretty uneventful. We were thinking we would camp along the MTS trail between the Black Balsam parkng area and 215, but each site we got to was disgustingly close to unburied TP, which was very disappointing. With what seemed like early incoming rain, and being near the car, we decided to call the trip a night early.

I really enjoyed this trip and was very happy to finish without an injured knee. The trail was a challenging hike and had some great views. We hit it in mid March, when this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was still closed, so the entire area was pretty empty. If I were going to do this trip again, and I think I will, I would go in the opposite direction, starting out east on the Mountain to Sea trail to avoid the intense down hill on Green Mountain. I think it would be more pleasant as a very difficult up hill instead.