Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

I just finished listening to Divergent by Veronica Roth, and for the most part, I enjoyed it. The story, for those not in the know, is awfully similar to The Hunger Games in that it's a Sci-Fi novel taking place in a distopia, with a coming-of-age female character as the heroine. All distopian novels are at their core a quest for problem solving, so I definitely have an affinity to them. How can the character become aware of, and ultimately overcome their bleak surroundings when the system is so rigged against them.

In the Divergent universe, the world is divided into five separate factions. Each faction represents a pure lifestyle, that on the surface seems admirable. The Abnegation focus on being completely selfless, while the Dauntless focus solely on bravery, and so on. But of course, living a one dimensional life doesn't really work. Not to mention, how the virtues of a faction are actually executed are up for debate: is it brave to jump from a moving train, or just stupid? Still, the intellectual exercise of considering the factions is appreciated and it's all just plausible enough that I was willing to accept the premise.

So yeah, it was a pleasant read and on more than one occasion I found myself rooting for the main character.

When the book finally finished I found that I had three criticism to offer, but on further analysis, I realized that really only one was valid.

Here's the valid one: the ending was weak. I mean, the whole thing felt forced and overly simplistic. Much of credibility the book had worked up in terms of a careful storytelling was lost with what seemed like an "oh-oh, I better end this book soon" type idea.

The next issue I had was that I felt that at times the main female character was drifting off into a world of naive brattiness. This is a direct, and unfair result, of me comparing the book to the Hunger Games. Without dwelling on this too much, I felt like the Hunger Game series had the main character devolve throughout the books. In book 1 she's mainly the hero we want her to be, in book 2 she's blah and by book 3 she's downright awful (the same could be said about the general plots of book). As you can tell, it left a bad taste in my mouth. So every time the Divergent hero started down that path of whining or being self-unaware, I got concerned I was headed down the Hunger Games path. In the end, the character's of Divergent are solid enough and any concerns I had were for naught.

Finally, about a third of the book is spent dealing with our main character's, well, crush, on a boy. There's just something about juxtaposing life and death situations with getting all flushed when a boy touches your leg. What can I say, I'm a married 40 year old man, it's been a while since I was dealing with the trials and tribulations of first love. But this critique, too, is totally unfair. For the book's target audience, crushes may as well be a life and death situation. And thinking about it, I realized that the the book's portrayal of love is nearly Victorian. There's a lot of strange feelings, and blushing, and the occasional touch to the small of the back, and such. It's hard to believe that in a distopian novel with excessive blood and death, there's a puppy dog love story. But it is what it is. And given that teens are surrounded by sexting, unlimited access to pornography, and magazine covers telling them how to have Better Sex Now, it's actually a good thing to see a book portray young love in such a wholesome way. Props to Roth for pulling this off.

It's not the most edgy and deep Sci-Fi novel you can read, but it got me thinking about the world around me, so that makes it a winner in my book.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Harpers Ferry Rafting, v2.0

A little over a year ago, we had a chilly and wild ride rafting down the Shenandoah and Potomac. This year, our intrepid group returned to do the same section of river near Harpers Ferry, though instead of battling 8 feet of water, we had a much tamer 2 feet to deal with. This made for a far chiller ride. Because the water level was so low and the temperatures was so hot, the guide had us spend a fair bit of time floating in the water. Man, was that a huge treat.

As we approached Harpers Ferry I was surprised to see so many folks hanging out on the near the river, wading in and basically treating it like a beach destination. The water temperature was downright spa like, so this was a solid idea. Perhaps on our next feels-like-100°F day, we'll trek out to the river to dip our toes in.

You'd think that experience of going down the river once before would have prepared us to be a cohesive unit. You'd be wrong. Our guide basically pleaded with us the entire trip: paddle *together*. We just didn't have it in us. The fact that the water level was so low didn't help, as it means that the river is far less forgiving about getting hung up. So yeah, we're not going to be forming a rowing team any time soon.

What's that saying about never stepping in the same river, twice? That definitely applied here. While different, both adventures were a blast.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Don't Buy: Coghlan's Battery Powered Air Pump. But if you do, this may be helpful.

Do yourself a favor, and don't buy the Coghlan's 0817 Battery Powered Air Pump. I picked one up because I wanted to save myself the hassle of pumping up our inflatable raft by hand. I had pretty low expectations for the $12.00 pump, but it still didn't meet them.

When the pump arrived I put in fresh batteries and hit on the switch. Nothing. I flipped the batteries over. Nothing. I put in another new set of batteries. Nothing. I flipped those. Nothing. Ugh. I had a dud. Off to Amazon I went, where I requested a return. The Amazon experience was hassle free; they'd send me a new one and pay to ship back the broken one.

The second pump arrives. I put in fresh batteries. And...nothing. What are the odds of getting two dead pumps?!

Normally I would have trudged over the computer and requested a refund and bought a new brand. But for the heck of it, I thought I'd troubleshoot the situation. I didn't really have a plan, but I un-bent a paper clip and touched the battery ends like so:

To my surprise, the pump whirred to life. Interesting. So the problem wasn't actually the motor in the pump. I then fiddled some more. Again, pretty much randomly, I grabbed a bit of aluminum foil from the kitchen and wadded it up. I then put it on one of the ends of the batteries. My thinking was that maybe the plastic that held the battery in place was just a little too long, not allowing it to make contact with the battery. Basically, I did this:

To my absolute shock and amazement, the pump fully came alive when I hit on the on switch. So yeah, if you do buy this pump and it doesn't work, you may want to try a little foil to help the batteries make contact.

I suppose I can't really complain: not only did I get a pump out of the deal, but I got a little boost of electronics-troubleshoot confidence, which is rare for me. Hurray for aluminum foil and paperclips!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Paracord Awesomeness: The Quick Release Lanyard and The Bucket Carrier

I'm loving this recent Knot of the Week by ITS Tactical: Access Paracord Quickly with a Deployment Lanyard. It seems that whenever I attempt to store a hank of cordage, the result is a tangled mess when I go to use it. But not anymore! Check it out:

Using the technique suggested in this video, the above bundle of paracord can be put to use merely by tugging on the large loop. It's so satisfying to use that once I'm done with the wrapping, I have the urge to pull the rip-cord and unspool it. The video suggests melting the end of the paracord to keep in place. While that works and certainly makes for an especially clean arrangement, I've found it isn't necessary.

As long as I'm on a paracord kick, here's another sweet knot I recently picked up: DIY Easy Paracord Bucket Handles. Here it is in action:

Next time we go blueberry picking, I'm so fashioning a handy rope sling. I've got no idea what the name of the above knot is, but here's a related one: the Barrel Hitch. Handy stuff.

Here's both videos, they're definitely worth your time:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Plagiarize This

Seth Meyers says that the Melania Trump's plagiarism oops matters because it undercuts Trump's claim of being a great organizer. Trevor Noah is all for the plagiarism, hoping that Trump's campaign will plagiarize other ideas from Obama. But my favorite response to the controversy is from Mike over at Yep, you read that right:

I’m not going to discuss the specifics of Melania Trump’s plagiarism (other than…Paul Manafort knows about the invention of recordings, correct?).

What I would like to do is take some common words - some of which have been used in My Little Pony, the dictionary, Yosemite Sam and others - and put them here in my post and invite all speakers from the Republican National Convention AND the Democratic National Convention to plagiarize them.

He then goes on to author two speeches, one for Republicans to read and one for Democrats to read, both supporting his issue of choice. Here's me plagiarizing some lines from both speeches:

“Make no mistake about it! The extra time you spend in traffic is an extra tax even though there is no IRS form to fill out. The money you have to spend on gas when your car doesn’t move anywhere comes straight out of your pocket. Something Hillary will never admit to!”
“Since (Name of small town that embraced Vision Zero here) implanted their Complete Streets plan, (Name of working class man/woman here) only needs 18 minutes to get to work instead of 24 minutes to drive. That is extra family time. You won't get that if you vote for Hillary!"
“Since I got my bicycle, I hardly use my Prius at all and it is a lot easier to get to and from Whole Foods and not worry about parking!”
“After my operation that never would have been possible without the Affordable Care Act, I have begun cycling again with my grandchildren.”

Best of all, his offer is truly genuine. Well played, Mike, well played.

Photos On The Run

Here's a few random snapshots from recent runs. One through through Fort CF Smith Park, the other along the C&O Canal.

I call this one: Evening Commute:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

From Laundry Disaster to Preparedness Hack

About two weeks ago I'm transferring a load of laundry from the washing machine to the dryer. Clunk. I look into the dryer and see a crayon. That's odd, I think. I transfer a few more items. Clunk. Another crayon. I poke around, and find another. I then spend the next 20 minutes digging through wet clothes, trying to find as many crayons as possible. When I'm done, I've got my findings splayed out in front of me:

I have two thoughts: (1) Whew. Thank heavens I accounted for all 24 of them. I could just imagine pulling out a dryer full of crayon-streaked clothes. And (2), whoo! It's buddy burner making time!

A buddy burner is an outdoors / preparedness hack, where you turn a can, cardboard and wax into a mini-stove. The stove is basically a large candle, so it's usable indoors; a claim nearly all other improvised stoves can't make. The insructions for making them aren't difficult, but I've never had a source of wax to give it a try. With my collection of crayons, I now had this final ingredient.

Here's some action shots of me putting this project together:

The whole thing went together easily enough: the cardboard from a recent Amazon purchase was easy to cut and shape, and the caryons melted with ease in my improvised double-boiler.

After letting the burner cool for an hour or so, I went ahead and lit it up (see above). Yeah, the results weren't especially astounding. I believe I over-filled the burner, not leaving any cardboard peaking out from the wax. The result is that I've created one heck of a candle, but not much of a stove. I should be able to melt and reshape things to fix this oops. But for now, lesson learned: always leave some cardboard showing at the top of the stove.

How exactly a box of crayons ended up in our laundry basket is still a mystery to me. But I'm glad it happened and this was definitely a fun project worth trying. My suggestion: skip the washing machine step and just salvage an old box of crayons you have lying around.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Review: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

I have this hypothesis that if you want to see the amazing glory of nature you needn't trek off to the rain forest or arctic, you need only look in your backyard. Heck, if you had the right equipment, you could probably get away with looking under your fingernails. David Haskell, in The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature, has done me the favor of spending a year proving this point. The resulting book is far more fascinating than even I had ever imagined.

Haskell's task is to monitor a one by one meter of forest for an entire year, and every chapter represents one particular day's observations. In some respects you can flip open to any chapter, read it, and if you enjoyed that chapter, know you'll enjoy the whole book.

The location in question consists of the flora and fauna you see every day: squirrels, moss, robins and countless other life forms that have blended into the background noise. Haskell's gift is the ability to reveal the natural wonder behind these mostly familiar creatures and thereby elevate them to the most precious of encounters.

For example, consider the Aphid. If you know of these tiny creatures, it's almost certainly as a garden pest. They're known to feed on the sap of plants. What could be less inspiring, right? Consider, however, that these creatures have a remarkable challenge: how to survive on nothing but a sugary stream of liquid. Or as Haskell put succinctly, it would be like humans trying to survive on nothing but soda. Impossible, right? Not if you're the incredible aphid. Here's a recounting of how the Aphid functions (note this is from an additional source; I had to return my copy of The Forest Unseen before I had a chance to write this review):

I think this is the really interesting thing about aphids. They feed on the phloem sap of plants. This liquid is very sugar-rich, (think of maple syrup), has a high water content, but is low in nitrogen and amino acids. So the bug must eat large quantities to get sufficient nutrients.

The gut is modified so that the excess water and sugar can quickly pass from foregut to hindgut then rectum, bypassing the midgut (see above which shows the sap feeding hemipteran digestive tract). The midgut is where the nitrogen and the amino acids are absorbed. This means that the excreted liquid is very sweet, and it is sometimes called honeydew. It tastes quite nice, but soon goes mouldy as you find out if you park your car under an aphid-infested tree. Forest honey and leaf honey are made by honey bees from this honeydew.

Some aphids can excrete as many as seven droplets of this sugar-rich liquid an hour - that can be as much as 133% of the insect's weight! And some hemipterans consume more than 100 times their body weight per day.

Sometimes the honeydew is in quantities large enough to be used by man. In the Old Testament the manna given to the Israelites was probably anal excretions of Trabutina mannipara, which feeds on the tamarisk. The Arabs still collect it today, and call it "man". The Australian aborigines also collect honeydew.

That's amazing, no? And that's from a single example in a book packed with dozens, if not more, of such insights.

There are clearly a number of repeating themes in the book. The first has to be that of the marvel of bio-engineering. Like the aphid above, animals and plants all around us have amazing specialization that humans can only begin to approximate. Consider something as simple as the flow of liquid within a tree. Sure, human engineers have no problem lifting liquids up 190 feet. But imagine that the Tulip Poplar does this same task, minus any pumping equipment or assistance of any kind. To actually stop and consider the mechanics behind creatures we encounter every day, from the blood sucking mosquito to the somehow-does-not-freeze-in-the-winter song bird reveals a world of remarkable building practices that are right under our noses.

Another key theme is that of tightly woven relationships between all creatures. No change in the eco-system, regardless of how small, goes unfelt. Something as trivial as a squirrel nibbling on a leaf can allow a beam of light to impact a plant that had been shaded before, which has repercussions for countless plants and animals in the vicinity. As my Dad is fond of saying, Darwin is always in the room, and Haskell proves this out chapter after chapter. Competition and natural selection are the primary drivers that continually shape the environment. It's remarkable to see this played out at every level, from the shape of seeds pods, to the wiggle of a deer's tail when running away from predator.

Haskell clearly inspires us to hit the outdoors and appreciate nature like never before, but he's not in the business of preaching to us about saving the environment. In fact, if anything, he stresses that we're as much part of nature as any other creature in the forest. His wish appears to be that we understand that we have an impact and to use this impact wisely. As for what polices and procedures we should be following he does not say. I find this approach quite refreshing, and while there's a time and place to be lectured by climatologists, this isn't one of them.

Every once in a while I pick up a book that was seemingly written just for me. That's the case here. I'd gladly get on a soapbox and preach the value of observing your local surroundings. But now I don't need to, I can just hand you The Forest Unseen and get the same effect.

Finally, there's quote in the epilogue of the book that I think captures the essence of my original hypothesis. It goes thusly:

We create wonderful places by giving them our attention, not by finding pristine places that will bring wonder to us.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Unexpected Hero of the Seas: Sauerkraut

What's the first thought that comes to mind when I mention sauerkraut? (For me, it was hot dogs.) Whatever it is, add to it medical breakthrough. Surprising, right? No, I'm not referring to some crazy fad diet. I'm referring to both a medical condition that haunted our sea-ferrying ancestors as well as a scientific process that we continue to this day. The disease was scurvy, and the process was that of scientific trials.

Scurvy, it just sounds like a pirate word. In reality, it was a horrific affliction that by some accounts was responsible for nearly 2 million painful deaths between 1500 and 1700. While the numbers of who died from scurvy are up for debate, it was clearly a horrific disease. We know now that scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C, but at the time, it was a complete mystery.

In 1747, the physician James Lind decided to tackle the challenge of scurvy. He did so using a method familiar to us, but was revolutionary at the time. He ran, by some accounts, the first recorded medical trial. Here's how it went down:

On the 20th May, 1747, I took twelve patients in the scurvy on board the Salisbury at sea. Their cases were as similar as I could have them. They all in general had putrid gums, the spots and lassitude, with weakness of their knees. They lay together in one place, being a proper apartment for the sick in the fore-hold; and had one diet in common to all, viz., water gruel sweetened with sugar in the morning; fresh mutton broth often times for dinner; at other times puddings, boiled biscuit with sugar etc.; and for supper barley, raisins, rice and currants, sago and wine, or the like.

He then clustered the sick sailors into pairs and gave each set a different treatment:

Two of these were ordered each a quart of cyder a day. Two others took twenty five gutts of elixir vitriol three times a day upon an empty stomach, using a gargle strongly acidulated with it for their mouths. Two others took two spoonfuls of vinegar three times a day upon an empty stomach, having their gruels and their other food well acidulated with it, as also the gargle for the mouth. Two of the worst patients, with the tendons in the ham rigid (a symptom none the rest had) were put under a course of sea water. Of this they drank half a pint every day and sometimes more or less as it operated by way of gentle physic. Two others had each two oranges and one lemon given them every day. These they eat with greediness at different times upon an empty stomach. They continued but six days under this course, having consumed the quantity that could be spared. The two remaining patients took the bigness of a nutmeg three times a day of an electuray recommended by an hospital surgeon made of garlic, mustard seed, rad. raphan. , balsam of Peru and gum myrrh, using for common drink narley water well acidulated with tamarinds, by a decoction of wich, with the addition of cremor tartar , they were gently purged three or four times during the course

And, as we know know, the winning treatment would be the citrus fruits because they are in vitamin C:

The consequence was that the most sudden and visible good effects were perceived from the use of the oranges and lemons; one of those who had taken them being at the end of six days fit four duty. The spots were not indeed at that time quite off his body, nor his gums sound; but without any other medicine than a gargarism or elixir of vitriol he became quite healthy before we came into Plymouth, which was on the 16 th June. The other was the best recovered of any in his condition, and being now deemed pretty well was appointed nurse to the rest of the sick.

You can read excerpts of Lind's findings here and here. It needs to be noted that Lind was hardly practicing anything resembling modern medicine. Looking at the conclusions of articles like this one and this one shows plenty of flaws in Lind's reasoning and practice.

By now you should be asking: but what the heck does this have to do with sauerkraut?!

So the "experts" agreed that certain foods could keep from contracting scurvy. But how do you keep oranges and lemons fresh while at sea? As this post curtly points out: you don't. This led to yet anther experiment:

With no real [non-spoiling] cure available, the British crown outfitted four captains during the 1760s with various potential cures in an attempt to find a reliable method to prevent scurvy through trial and error.

Captain James Cook, one of these four captains, was given several different experimental foods to try aboard his ship the HM Bark Endeavor when he left England for the South Pacific in 1768. Among them, as noted in the victualing minutes — the log of provisions put aboard — was 7,860 pounds of sauerkraut.

As luck would have it, sauerkraut has a large quantity of vitamin C. The experiment was a success: Cook embraced the notion of eating sauerkraut, encouraged his men to eat it, and after two years at sea, nobody had died from scurvy. You can read more about the experiment here and here.

Making sauerkraut isn't especially hard. It requires little more than cabbage, salt, water, a container and time. Here's an excellent recipe, which also served as the inspiration to learn about the history of his dish.

Fresh cabbage has both limited shelf life and vitamin C. Yet, let it ferment in salt and water and you end up with a lifesaving super-food. Remarkable. I'll never look at a hot dog and sauerkraut the same way again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Gotcha of the day: Re-launching the Runkeeper Pebble App on Demand

I'm surprisingly attached to Shira's old Pebble Smart Watch (now affectionately termed the 'Pebble Classic'). One of the reasons for this is its no-fuss integration with Runkeeper, the mobile app I use to track my runs, hikes and other outdoor pursuits. The free version of Runkeeper does just what I need it to do: track my progress on a map and give me basic stats. It will announce mileage, time and other stats on a regular basis, if I set it up to. It has no annoying ads or other nuisances designed to get me to upgrade. Instead, it promises cool features if I take the plunge, which I may get around to doing.

The coolest Runkeeper feature, for me, is its seamless integration with the Pebble Classic. When I start Runkeeper, assuming my Pebble is connected, it gives me this icon:

When I hit the Go Running button, Runkeeper kicks off the Pebble App for me, and I get basic stats on my wrist:

I can leave the Runkeeper Pebble App and navigate to another app on the watch (like one to notify Shira of my location when I'm running late). When I go back to the Pebble main menu, I see the Runkeeper app ready for me to re-select:

Normally, this all works great. I appreciate that it's totally seamless and I don't have bother with installing or maintaining the Runkeeper app on my watch. It's handled automatically for me.

Now here's the gotcha: if I leave the Runkeeper app and don't return to it within a few minutes (maybe 5 minutes? maybe 10 minutes?), Pebble must get the idea that I don't want to run the app any longer and it kills it. Now when I return to the main menu, Runkeeper is gone:

Sure, Runkeeper is running fine on the phone and still tracking my progress. But I've lost the quick display on my watch, and I've lost the ability to easily pause and restart the stats. There's simply no obvious way to tell Runkeeper to re-launch the app.

Luckily, Tasker to the Rescue. AutoPebble comes with the ability to open or close an app on the watch. Using this capability, I was trivially able to launch the Pebble app:

Pebble Launch Runkeeper (104)
 A1: AutoPebble App [
  Configuration:Full Screen: false
  Check Pebble Connected: false
  Other Pebble App: Run Keeper 
  Other Pebble App Action: Open
  No Prefix if Command: false
  Do Not Disturb: false
  Clear History: false
  Open Phone App: false
  Save Scren: false
  Don't Send Screen: false
  Go Back: false
  Go Back Multi: false Timeout (Seconds):20 ] 

Once I had an action setup to launch the Pebble App, I wired it into a custom menu on the watch.

If all goes as planned, the next time I'm out running or hiking and I "lose" the Runkeeper app, I should be able to navigate on my watch to the Launch Runkeeper menu item, which will invoke the action above.

The trickiest part of the process was figuring out which of the Pebble apps was the Runkeeper app I needed to invoke. I figured this out by going to: AutoPebble » Manage Other Pebble Apps and removed all the apps shown on that screen. I then kicked off Runkeeper which spawned the watch app. I then went back to the AutoPebble app on my phone to see which UUID has been created. I then renamed that newly registered app as Run Keeper. Once done, you should have something like so:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Shenandoah Backpacking Lessons Learned

Our weekend backpacking trip in Shenandoah is now behind us. Here's a few key lessons learned:

What Worked

  • I'm loving the wrist kit approach for keeping track of essentials while on the trail. This trip I had a knife, lighter, flashlight, whistle, compass and P51 can-opener in the wrist band, and had no discomfort (the items were taken from my keychain). Heck, I was able to sleep with the wrist band on and didn't give it a second thought. That's key, as fumbling for a flashlight in the middle of the night is always such a pain. I was worried that the setup would be uncomfortable to wear in the heat, but it really wasn't too bad. If nothing else, it did it's job as a sweat band. This piece of gear has changed status from experimental to required.
  • I'm still finding the Nitrile Dipped Work Gloves to be a winner. On the trail, they let me explore random flora and fauna, and comfortably grip rocks and other debris. In camp they made chores easier to accomplish without worrying about getting my hands especially nasty. Oh, and they helped expedite the process of digging a cat hole, which I'm quite grateful for. I'm sure they make an odd fashion statement on the trail, but I can live with that. Here's a shot of me wearing the gloves and wrist band. Sexy, right?
  • Before we set out on the trail I showed off our gear to my brother David, and he noted a lightload towel in one of the piles. He sang their praises, but I explained that I wasn't planning to bring one. I was expecting to depend on my Buff, instead. At the last minute, I swapped out the Buff with a new Lightload Towel, and boy am I glad I did. I was reminded just how functional Lightload Towels are, keeping up with Shira's bandanna and being more absorbent. They're dirt cheap, and when completely "used up" (which it wasn't this trip), I can burn it for disposal, guilt free. At about $2.30 each I didn't mind throwing grimy tasks at it; tasks I'd rather not subject a $20 Buff to. Good call David.
  • At the last minute I tossed in one of my 5 minute Tyvek Haversacks into my backpack, and I'm so glad I did. At camp, the shoulder bag acted like a set of extra pockets, allowing me to carry bear bag supplies and such with ease. Later in the evening, it saved my knees as I used it while kneeling down to build a fire. Finally, at the end of the night, I used it as a bucket and hauled a large amount of water from the stream to the fire pit. The seams of the bag leaked, but I was still able to move a heck of a lot of water in short order. One lesson I did learn: when carrying water in the sack, the folded over cover quickly tore. It's not a huge surprise, as I'm sure folding the bag repeatedly had weakened the material. I did some quick repairs and was back in business. Given that the bag weighs next to nothing, I'll definitely be bringing one on our next trip.
  • As I noted in my trip report, we found and ate copious amounts of blueberries. I was definitely glad to have the Wild Edibles App on my phone, as it let me verify the berries before we took the plunge. There are free plant identification apps out there, but I'm glad to pay for Wild Edibles. The content is rock solid and is backed by a real human, rather than just being copy paste from other sources.

What Needs Improvement:

  • We brought along 4 Citronella tea lights to ward off bugs from camp. We lit one the first night, and it appeared to do its job. It even had an unusually long running time for a tea lamp. The problem: I wrapped them in tinfoil and then put them in a plastic bag, and then put them with our other smellables, meaning, our food. Unfortunately, the smell permeated the tinfoil and plastic, and a bunch of our food items ended up tasting like Citronella. I don't mind the smell of Citronella, but Citronella M&M's, yeah, not so much. Next time we'll have to be more careful about separating them from our food. Or maybe, we'll just skip them. What can I say, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.
  • Here's an obvious one: Check the alerts for the park that you're heading off to. Had we done this, we'd have seen that a critical trail in our route was closed.
  • And another obvious one: Google for the trails that you're heading out on. We had our route plan, yet, I never bothered to actually search for specific information on the trails we were going to be on. If I had, I'd have found an entire website dedicated to one of them. This isn't as critical as checking the alerts on the park, but does make for good sense.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Bear Watch 2016 - Backpacking in Shenandoah: Brown Moutain Trail, Rockytop Trail and the AT

Our weekend backpacking plan was simple: Complete the Brown Mountain - Rocktop loop in Shenandoah. The route called for 3 days of hiking: a 5.5 mile hike in, a 10 mile hike on Saturday, and then a quick 3.4 mile hike out on Sunday. The route specifically mentioned fishing and wild blueberries. I had visions of completing the long hike on Saturday and then kicking back to a relaxing afternoon of fishing and foraging.

Of course, outdoor adventures rarely go as planned. In our case, we didn't even have to get on the trail before the plan was significantly altered. No, that happened at the entrance gate to Shenandoah. As we handed the ranger our entrance fee we noticed a sign saying that Big Run Portal Trail was closed, and that there was no off-trail camping allowed from Brown's Gap to Loft Mountain Campground. Both of these closures were due to unusual bear activity.

There are over 500 miles of trail in Shenandoah National Park. On the day we arrived there was exactly one outage in the whole park, and it happened to be an essential 3 miles or so of our route. D'oh.

We didn't panic. Looking at the map, we realized we could re-route and include the AT in our trail. Of course, the second limitation of the park said that there was no camping allowed on the trail that we'd be re-routing through.

Oh well, we'd figure it out when we needed to.

We drove to Brown Mountain Overlook, suited up and took a few before-selfies. As we started to walk down the trail to begin our hike, a woman approached us. She just wanted to share that she'd hiked down the trail we were about to enter, but high-tailed it back to the parking lot when she encountered a momma bear and her cub. Black bears are generally considered quite harmless. But get between a momma and her cub and all bets are off. Still, we decided to go for it and off we hiked. Sure, we were a little more on edge and talking a little louder than usual, but into the wilderness we went.

After about 15 minutes of hiking we pretty much relaxed and started to take in the scenery. And man, was it gorgeous. Here's are excellent descriptions of the trail and area: Brown Mountain Trail, Brown Mountain - Rockytop Loop. In short, the trail takes you through a section of the park which had large fires in both 1986 and last May(!). The result are that many of the large trees were burned out, and the views are spectacular. Furthermore, the smaller plants are thriving with all the sunlight. The contrast between the lush green new growth and the charred remains of the fire is really something to see. It's not quite as dramatic as the lava fields we walked on at Volcano National Park, but it's in the same spirit.

We arrived and camped at the top of Big Run Portal trail. You know, the trail that's closed for unusual bear activity. We camped at a section of the trail that was not closed.

We had not one, but three gorgeous campsites to ourselves. All three were situated next to Big Run, which had a healthy amount of water flowing in it. We used one camp site for our tent, one for our cooking area, and the farthest one away as our bear bag location. Dinner was our traditional hot dogs and marshmallows. I did take some recent inspiration from the historic cooking channel I'd been following, and wrapped my hot dog in some improvised dough. The whole thing cooked up quite well and was a tasty treat.

We awoke Saturday morning to find our bear bag totally undisturbed. All was good. We had a quick no cook breakfast, packed up and headed out. About 200 yards out of camp, Shira who always walks point, came to a quick stop and let out an expletive. What!?, I asked. She'd seen a flash of fur cross the trail up ahead and was naturally a little cautious. After a few moments we continued up the trail. I never saw a thing. Ignorance, in my case, was bliss.

We then merged onto Rockytop Trail and made the 5.7 mile hike down to the start of Big Run Portal. Like the first night, this trail was most excellent. It had wonderful views, and while we gained quite a bit of elevation, much of the steep climb was at the beginning. As promised, we found tons of wild blueberries, and noshed our way along the trail. I'd never eaten blueberries on the trail before, and was thankful I had my Wild Edibles app to verify that we were in fact eating blueberries. We crossed a number of "Talus Rock Formations" which made for impressive views and a fun break in the terrain.

At one point on Rocky Top Trail, Shira noticed what could have been a pile of bear poop (known technically as scat). I agreed that it could indeed be bear scat, but it looked pretty old. About 10 yards later we found a larger and fresher pile of poop and there was no mistaking what animal had deposited it there. Dang. There was nothing to do but keep hiking.

After 5.7 miles of hiking we arrived at the bottom of Big Run Loop Trail. As if we thought we could ignore the warning posted at the gate, the trail had police tape and printed flyers repeating the alert from the previous day: the trail is closed due to bear activity, move along. So we did.

After what seemed like a half mile or so, we arrived at Skyline Drive and joined up with the AT. It's also at this point that we saw our first fellow human being on the trail. It was pretty sweet doing all of Brown Mountain Trail, camping and doing all of Rockytop Trail all without seeing another individual.

Looking at the map, we were about 5 miles of road-walking away from our car. Given that there was no camping allowed, we figured, what the heck, we'll hike the AT till we either find a legal campsite or we hit our car. As we hiked along we met plenty of day-hikers and one even explained to us the cause of the closure. Apparently, on Big Run Portal trail, a bear approached a hiker, and rather than scurrying off when the hiker made noise, continued to approach. The story was that the bear got close enough to the hiker that he could hit and poke the animal with his trekking poles, at which point the bear loped off. When we got home, we checked Shenandoah's alerts page and to our surprise, the incident happened exactly as the hiker reported. Bears are supposed to be skittish animals, so I appreciate the park taking extra precaution when a bear gets a little too comfortable around humans.

The section of the AT we walked was quite nice. It had some wonderful views. It was also way longer than the 5 miles of road-walking the mapped called for. We never did see a suitable campsite. Eventually we popped up at Ivy Creek Overlook. We'd need to do the last half mile on the road to hit our car. We took a few last photos on the trail and headed out on Skyline Drive. At this point, Shira turned around and saw 2 or 3 cars stopped on Skyline Drive and their occupants out of the car. And a few yards away from these on-lookers was a bear. The bear looked like a lost puppy. We weren't close enough to see exactly what was going on (was the bear trying to cross and the people in its way?), but it didn't look Kosher to me. Here we had spent 2 days on the trail, carefully avoiding bears, and here were a group of people practically trying to pet him. With this kind of behavior, it's no wonder that bears are going to get more curious than afraid of humans, and that's bad news.

After 12 hours of hiking and 17 miles, we arrived at our car. Whoo! We changed into fresh clothes, and hung out as the sun began to set. Man, it was perfection.

For nearly the last 30 years, I've hiked and camped in bear country. They've always been a non-issue. I've got to say, showing up and hearing about the bear alert, I did have bit of concern walking in on the trail. I can't tell you how glad I am that I ignored that extra bit of anxiety. What an amazing trail and hike. And, as I told Shira more than once, the statistics are on our side. According to one of the trail signs, there's never been an unprovoked bear attack in Virginia.

We randomly picked Brown Mountain trail and Rockytop Trail, and I've got to say, they're real gems. I'm ready to go back and do this route when we can include Big Portal Run Trail. I'm sure that will bring a fresh set of challenges!