Tag Archives: nature

Day 1. Awesome Desert Scenery and the Storm.

Day 1 

12/15/16

Distance Hiked: About 22 miles

We woke up at Coughee’s house at 5 am and had a quick breakfast and then hit the road. Coughee’s buddy Shane drove us down towards the Salton Sea and we cached water about 15 miles from the trail starts that way we don’t have to carry water the whole 38 miles to Borrego Springs. After hiding 4 gallons in the bushes we drove back to the main road and to the “beach” of the Salton Sea. 

We thanked Shane and said bye as we walked down to the Salton Sea’s shore. This “sea” stinks like ass and fish. It used to be fresh water after humans accidentally let a river pour into the valley, filling it and making an inland sea. It became salty because no new water flowed into it and no water ever left it, so as it evaporates in the burning desert sun it concentrates all the salt in the water that’s left. The shore is lined with piles of old barnacles and petrified fish. Some pelicans and seagulls and a heron were in the water. There was a coyote and a dog running around the shore line as well. 

The morning drive to the Salton Sea
Hiding our water in bushes

Fish everywhere

The salty shore

Glasswort grows all around the Salton sea. It’s a salt loving plant.

There actually was some water in the wash but it looked really salty and gross

We walked until we hit the wash we’re supposed to take and hit the trail. The morning was chilly and cloudy and the walking was easy. We walked under the highway and ate some snacks when 4 dune buggies went flying up the wash. The scenery got interesting as there were cuts in the sides of the wash. Crazy rock formations were sticking out someone carved one into a dick. 

A petrified tree?

Ancient shells coming out of the walls

There is a “PP” in the wash

When we cross countried from wash to wash the area was absolutely desolate. Just rocks on the ground everywhere as far as you could see. Eventually we made it to our water cache and ate some lunch as we filled up all our water. Then we walked towards some badlands and snakes our way through the crumbling, painted hillsides. I didn’t even know there were badlands out here! It was beautiful. 

Magnificent desolation 

Mud balls?

Wash through the badlands

The badlands

We hopped out of the badlands and walked towards a mountain we knew was in the direction we wanted and crossed more rocky areas where we came across a bomb that had been dropped out of a plane! It was just an empty shell so I’m assuming it’s some kind of practice bomb. Looked like it had been there a long time. As the sun started to set the lighting and the clouds became unbelievable. Lenticular clouds formed over the mountains and the sun began to shine. We walked until it was dark. 5 pm. Set up a cowboy camp and ate dinner. We had some service and looked at the weather forecast. Probably no rain but we had a high wind warning. 30 mph winds with 60 mph gusts on the desert floor starting tonight until tomorrow evening. As we got in our sleeping bags the wind began to pick up. Let’s see how this goes. 

We found an old bomb!

Lenticular clouds!

Some of the coolest clouds I’ve ever seen

There is life out here! 

We wake back up around 9:30 pm to the wind blasting us with sand and dust so we try to tuck ourselves in our sleeping bags and just hunker down. After about 20 minutes of this we both agreed it was hard to breathe because sand and dust was just pouring into all the cracks and crevices of of our bags. We got up to pee and the winds picked up to probably around 50 or 60 mph. My pee blasted away into just a mist. The full moon was out so we could see that the entire desert floor was just cast in a sandstorm. If you faced the wind, sand and dust pelted your eyes and got in your mouth and nose. It’s still about 15 miles to Borrego Springs, and 10 miles to the nearest road. Unfortunately the trail to Borrego Springs takes to head on into the blowing sand and wind. We came to the conclusion we couldn’t stay where we were. It was just too exposed and if this was supposed to last until 8pm the next night, we’d choke on all the sand. If you’ve never been in a sand storm before, I think you can imagine how shitty and scary it really is. We had some cell service and got a call out to a Borrego Springs deputy, letting them know we were out there but not in grave danger, but in trouble. 

We threw all our gear into our packs haphazardly and started walking west with our heads down into the sandstorm. The sand stings when it hits you and our eyes got full of sand and you could feel it all stuck under your eyelids and scraping your eyes at the same time you’re eating and breathing the sand and dust. Shitty. If only we had goggles and a respirator, we’d have be okay. Finally after about a mile and a half of walking, the winds calmed a little and we could walk without our eyes being pelted. We found a big bush in a wash that blocked the wind almost perfectly and decided that we were safe there and could camp out until morning. We tried calling the deputy back to say we’ve found shelter for the night but we couldn’t get through. Finally he called us and said he was near us, and that he still wanted to talk to us and make sure we’re okay. He drove up the wash in his 4 wheel drive Ford Expedition and told us he recommends we leave with him because it’s about to pour down rain in the mountains and even the desert. Our bush in the wash would be flooded and then we’d be stuck in the blasting wind and rain with no trail to follow, as the trail is this wash almost all the way to Borrego Springs. We take him up on the offer. 

He goes flying through the washes in his car at crazy speeds, clearly enjoying cruising around the sandy bends. As soon as we reach a paved road it starts raining. He says he can drop us off at the campground near Borrego Springs but doesn’t recommend it because it’s going to flood everywhere and be windy. He says, “Sure you don’t want to go to a hotel?” We agree, let’s go to the hotel. He drives through town and then out to a dirt lot and stops the car. He asks us if we need to use the bathroom. There is a pit toilet there and he opens the door and says here you go. Uhhh is the hotel around here? He says nope this is Hellhole Canyon. Then he asks us for our IDs and spends about 10 minutes typing stuff into his computer while we stand in the stinking pit toilet to get out of the cold, windy rain. Finally he comes back and says we’re good to go. “I thought you were taking us to a hotel?” He says, “Oh yea, I can do that.” Ummm okay. I guess he forgot where he was taking us. Anyway we hop back in and head back through town. He’s a nice guy and we chat him up about how often he gets called to pick people up out of the desert. Says he gets lots of Europeans who want to experience the desert in the summer and end up roasting out there. Finally we get dropped off at the hotel and we check in to a room. The lady is very talkative and we chat about what just happened to us. 

In the room we scrape sand out of our ears and the corner of our eyes. Boogers that are mostly stone are mined out we hack crap out of our lungs. We take quick showers and hit the hay. What an insane night it has been. A whole new terrifying natural disaster to experience. Still happy though! 


Thanks for the save!

San Diego Trans-County Trail Gear List.

I’m starting my thru hike of the San Diego Trans-County Trail on Tuesday!

This trail is about 155 miles long and goes from the the Salton Sea in Southern California, through the Anza-Borrego Desert, into the actual city of San Diego and ends at the Pacific Ocean near Torrey Pines. The trail is really more of a route, meaning there is no trail at all for much of it but rather you use a compass and map to follow the route through washes and towards landmarks.My gear list for this hike contains much of the same items as the Colorado Trail hike I did earlier this year, with a new few bits of gear like the Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket that I’ll mostly be using as a wind breaker. I’ll also be carrying all this in a new backpack from Pa’lante Packs, made by my friends Handy Andy and John Zahorian. Together they make and just started selling ultralight, minimalist backpacks. These guys are monster hikers. Handy Andy holds the fastest known time (unsupported) on the John Muir Trail, hiking all 211 miles of it in just 3 days 10 hours 59 minutes! John Z just set the Colorado Trail fastest known time (unsupported) this summer while I was actually on the CT. He managed to hike the entire 485 miles of the trail in 9 days 12 hours and 32 minutes! He carried all his food from start to finish with zero resupplies. These dudes know what they’re doing. So I’m trying out one of their packs to see how it works!

Here’s what I’m bringing.

Backpack and Water Treatment and Storage:
Pa’lante Packs 40 liter backpack 13 oz
Sawyer squeeze mini 1.7 oz
4 1 liter smart water bottles 8 oz
Subtotal 22.7 oz

Sleep system
Six Moon Designs Wild Oasis tarp tent with insect netting 13 oz
6 Aluminum tent stakes 3 oz
Enlightened Equipment Enigma 20 degree down quilt 19.4 oz
Z Lite sleeping pad 10 oz
Subtotal 45.4 oz

Clothing in Backpack
Undershirt 7.2 oz
Long johns 6.9 oz
Go lite down jacket 7.5 oz
Spare socks 3 oz
Enlightened Equipment Sidekick booties 1.5 oz
Outdoor Research Helium II ultralight rain jacket 6.4 oz
Subtotal 32.5 oz

Miscellaneous Items
Head light with batteries 2.8 oz
Sunglasses .7 oz
Toothbrush and toothpaste 1 oz
Compass .8 oz
Tiny Swiss Army knife .5 oz
Sunscreen 2 oz
Tenacious tape, sewing needle and dental floss .2 oz
Subtotal 8 oz

Electronics
Chargers 2 oz
Anker battery 15000 mwh 11 oz
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS Camera, Raynox DCR 250 Macro lens, case, battery and charger 30 oz
Subtotal 43 oz

Total Base Weight 151.6 oz or 9.48 lbs

All the gear out of the pack!

Everything in the pack!

I’m very excited to get back into the desert and see all the different plants and animals. Also want to get out of the freezing cold and wet days here. I’ll be doing another daily blog for this trail so stay tuned!

Day 21. Great Sand Dunes National Park.

7/20/16

Ate some breakfast and then walked to the airport where the rental car service is. Luckily the airport is only about a mile walk from the hostel. I wait there until they open and then drive back to the hostel in my fancy car. I pick up M&M and drive him back to the trail, which just so happens to be on the way to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, somewhere I’ve always wanted to see. Along the way I pick up a hitch hiker just out of Gunnison and turns out he’s a hiker I met weeks earlier who’s also heading to the same trailhead! We talk about all the animals and other things we’ve seen along the trail. Once we get to the trailhead I say farewell to M&M and the other hiker (who’s name now escapes me). 

Once I’m back in the car and heading to the dunes I listen to all my favorite songs and get pumped up for the dunes. I can see them in the distance, almost 50 miles away, as a pile of tan mountains just below a huge mountain range. 

At the park I fill up on water and check out visitors center. I have to get to the highest dune, Star Dune. A pile of sand 750 feet tall! From the visitors center you have to cross a river to get to the dunes. At this time of year it’s just several disconnected small streams that occasionally disappear below the sand. Dozens of people are playing in the creek and at the base of the dune field, but only a handful of people are up on the higher peaks. 

This little grasshopper has adapted well to the dunes! Unique places almost always have unique plants and animals inhabiting them.

Other insects were just dead in the dunes. Likely blown there and roasted. I’ve seen a similar situation on glaciers and snowfields. 
The walk up the dunes is extremely exhausting, way more so than I would have thought. Every step you slide back, the ground is uneven and it just drains your energy. But once I got up high and away from everyone I had the dunes and the view all to myself. The environment was surreal. I could have been on any terrestrial world. Just rock and sky. 

If you ever get a chance to visit this place I highly recommend it. What a great place to think about our place in the world and the universe. 

Once my fun in the dunes was over I went back to Golden, CO and hung out with Guthrie and stayed at his house for the night (Thanks again Guth!) My Colorado adventure ends here. Until next time! 

Sheriff Woody

Day 19. Wanderlust Hostel.

7/18/16

Miles: 0

We wake up at the same time we always do and crawl out of our tents to find pooping spots. We are right next to a road and in an open field. I walk at least a quarter miles to trees and do my thang. When I walk back Rapunzle says, “Oh there you are! Perfect timing!” Grover’s wife just dropped him off at the trail and she’s willing to take us to Gunnison! Kyle was going to take some of us but 5 hikers and 5 backpacks won’t fit into his Mini Cooper so we had planned to hitch. How perfect it all works out sometimes. 

The 40 mile drive is beautiful. Open expanses of grassland with distant mountains gives way to a red rocked canyon system that we drive through. I see a whole group of about 15 big horned sheep on the cliffs at one point! Grover’s wife drops Rapunzle, M&M and I at the Wanderlust Hostel. Leah, Sara and Kyle are still in their way here. It’s only 8 am when we get to the hostel. We meet some other hikers inside and hang out until our friend show up. Then we borrow some bicycles and go to a breakfast place in town. It’s cheap and delicious. When we get back we meet Amy, the owner and take turns taking showers. We all throw in some loaner clothes while we wash our hiking stuff. The clothes are amazing. I grab a flowery shirt and some super hippy pants. M&M wears a shirt covered in fake bloodstains. Sara, Leah and Rapunzle wear hippy dresses. 

Wanderlust Hostel

I can’t play any instrument

Next stop is the Safeway where we buy all the food we’ve been fantasizing about the past week. People stare at M&M’s bloody shirt and my creepy resemblance of to Charles Manson. I get a bunch of fried chicken, cheesecake, orange juice and Leah and I get two Ben and Jerry’s pints to share. EmpowerMint and half baked. Ohhh yes. We walk home and all of us eat until we’re sick. Then we put on Forrest Gump. After that we watch Bridesmaids. We meet a guy named Strider and a couple other hikers and talk about past thru hikes. Hostels are such a fun part of a thru hike. 

The Manson family goes shopping

Around dinner time we went to Anejos Mexican restaurant and got some huge cheap margaritas. Leah and me were still to full to eat any food but happy to have some drinks. M&M, Strider and Rapunzle feast again. Sara isn’t feeling too well after eating so much so she stays back at the hostel. By the time we finish one margarita we head back to the hostel but hit up Safeway on the way back. Turns out grocery stores only sells 3.2 beer unfortunately so we had to make a second trip to the liquor store and get a 6 pack of shock top. 

Back at the hostel we all laugh and talk until 10 pm when a lady comes out and says it’s quiet hours. We tipsily eat some cheesecake before bed. I am pleased. But tomorrow the girls and M&M will keep on hiking without me ūüė≠ I only have off until the 21st and need to rent a car and drive back to Denver to catch my flight. We’re a trail family! I don’t want to leave. 

You know, just ordering food. M&M’s bloody shirt catches some glances.

Margarita night!

The Pitz.

Day 18. Last Day on Trail.

7/17/16

Miles 14.0

Total: 302.4

The wind died down in the night so we knew the morning as going to be a mosquito hell. We all take our morning poops and tell our horror stories of how we all had dozens of mosquitoes on our ass cheeks. They suck all the joy out of life. I think we need to make it our goal to annihilate all mosquitos from the face of the earth at any cost. I think this and they aren’t even giving me a debilitating or lethal disease like they do elsewhere in the world. Mosquitos = humanity’s number one enemy. 
The morning sun lights the lake and mountainside. We walk out for our lazy hike to highway 114 where we will camp. It’s only 14 miles and we have all day. The mosquitoes seem to intensify during the first mile of our hike until we make it to an open meadow where the wind sends them far away. Hopefully straight to hell. 

The morning light on the hillside

We leapfrogged this guy and his puppy all morning. It’s nice to see backpacking puppies! Always brings a smile to your face.

The day consisted mostly of medium sized ups and downs, rather steep at times but over quickly. Lots of pretty wildflowers were blooming on the hillsides. As we climbed the last steep hill of the day we charged up it, huffing and puffing. Sara went to the side of the trail and started hyperventilating and gasping and it was very startling. Turns out she has asthma and had an attack. We grabbed her inhaler and Leah breathed with her to calm her down. After a few minutes she was all better. We took a nice long lunch break to recover. 

Rapunzle’s bone collection is growing!

Fireweed!

Some kind of gentian?

Cool blue larkspur

The last few miles of the section was on a dirt road which made for easy group walking. To make things even sweeter, wild strawberries were fruiting all along the roadside. We took a couple stops to collect the delicious little morsels. We crossed the 300 mile mark today as well. It was marked by “300” written out by pine cones in the trail. We decided to one up this by writing out 300 with our bodies. 

300 miles!

We had to reenact it

Lots of little strawberry patches along the roads! Super sweet little treats.

Right before the dirt road meets the highway we run into a group of people who we had crisscrossed with during the day. Their parents were there with a car and setting up a car camp. They offered us some twinkies and little Debbie fruit pies which we very happily accepted. I was completely out of food and hungry so these really hit the spot. 

When we hit the highway it’s a .4 mile walk to the trailhead which is a large parking lot. Storm clouds rolled in and we raced to set up our tents before the wind and the rain. I found a little underpass where water flows under the highway. I ran to it and hid in there during the brief storm. I wasn’t alone though, dozens of swallows had built their nests in there and were flying out and around me while I took shelter. It was a bit smelly. The rain let up a bit and I joined everyone else by their shelters. I went in Rapunzle’s shelter and we hung out and talked to the rest of the family as the rain finally stopped. 

The little tunnel I waited out the storm in.

Cool swallow nests.

Our little shelters in the storm

After the storm I walked around with my macro clip on my iPhone and took lots of pictures of cool little insects in the shrubby landscape.

Cool little beetle

Tephritidae

Dirty hiker hands. Still gotta eat with them!

Weather turned nice!

Sara’s friend Kyle is coming to camp with us and is also rumored to be bringing trail magic at around 6 pm tonight and it’s only 4. We kill time by playing a game that M&M teaches us. At about 7 pm a white mini cooper shows up and out comes Kyle with two pizzas, a 6 pack, bottle of whisky and sour patch kids. We are starving so we this is some major trail magic. The pizza is crushed by us in minutes and we pass around the bottle of whisky. We happily feast on sour patch kids and then I pull out my MP3 player and start playing Disney songs. Kyle fits in immediately when he starts singing “Prince Ali” from Aladdin with me. Time flies by as we take goofy videos of us howling and cramming into Leah and Sara’s Big Agnes. We pass out easily. 

Gunna miss my hiker family!
My last night on trail went out with a bang as we enjoy the trail magic and sing Disney songs!

Day 17. Wildflowers!

7/16/16

Silver creek trail junction to baldy lake.

18.4 miles

We slowly got up and ate food. The morning was sunny and we got hot quickly. We made it to tank seven creek, one of the only water sources today, and met a thru biker there. He’s from Columbus, Ohio and studied American Chestnut trees at Ohio University. This is crazy because I also work in a lab that specializes on American chestnuts, or more specifically the pathogenic fungus that killed all of them, Cryphonectria parasitica which causes chestnut blight. We nerded out for a bit talking about what we did in each of our studies. He researched how the tannins in chestnuts leaves will affect forest soil when we recover the tree. 

Fantastic view in the morning. 

After the creek the trail slowly ascended, going through beautiful meadows for hours. Tons of wildflowers were blooming here. Many with whimsical names such as monskhood, pussytoes, shooting stars and elephant’s head. I stayed in the back of our group, taking time to look at and photograph these beauties. 

Elephant’s head! How freaking cool!?

Monkshood

Shooting Stars
Fleabane

Beautiful meadows much of the day.

Western Bistort. Their smell is… Uh like turds.

Rapunzle has been collecting animal bones along the trail and today we found the bone jackpot, an entire cow skeleton. It had been pretty rotted away and was very exposed. Although she’s been looking for a skull, a cow skull was very heavy and even one side of the jaw weighed more than a pound. A tooth would be cool we say! As we play with the bones I decided to reenact the 2001 scene where the protohumans learn to use tools. I grabbed a femur which still had the tibia attached with a tough ligament and in monkey fashion tried breaking the jaw open with the femur to get a tooth. After a few unsuccessful hits, the femur and tibia swung shut and crushed my hand on a final blow and chopped a nice bit of skin off. My pointer and middle finger on my right hand started bleeding pretty good. Fuck. I just cut my fingers open using a rotting cow leg. I got to have some nasty bacteria in that wound. I pull off a piece of skin that is dangling and the rest of the crew get out their first aid gear. I wash it with water and hand sanitizer. Then Leah used a syringe to blast away the blood and dirt. Then we dried it and I put on some neosporin and band aids that Tyler had. Oh well, that was stupid. 

You win.

We eat lunch at Sergeants Mesa which is a beautiful meadow with views of mountains all around. The meadow has lots of flowers and cows in it. We relax in the sun and I try to catch a butterfly I’ve never seen before. There are so many flies on this trail it is driving us all mad. No matter where you are on the trail there are flies all over you. All they do is fly around your face and land on you over and over. Never biting, just being very annoying to the point where each kill is rejoiced. Yesterday I breathed one in while hiking and had to swallow it with a gulp of water. Nasty little shits. 

Sergeant’s Meadow

Death camas flower

After lunch we walk the trail together playing a game of “would you rather.” We just think of nasty things you’d rather do and laugh for a good hour at this game. We reach the side trail for Baldy Lake which is half a mile off trail and down a steep hill. It sounds like it’s going to be a swampy mosquito infested campsite, but when we reach the lake it is a beautiful blue green snowmelt lake with steep rocky scree all around it. The water is clear and filled with little arthropods. We eat dinner and then sit by the lake as the sun sets behind the mountain. I try fishing for trout with some fishing line and a hook I found the other day, tied to my trekking pole and a bobber of carved wood. There are lots of big leeches in the lake and I try using one as bait. I have no luck so Leah takes over. Unfortunately we have no luck but all hang out and converse anyway. As the sun sets we head to our shelters and kill all the flies and mosquitoes that got in during setup. There are even more mosquitos here than the last campsite. Each person has a personal swarm of about 20 mosquitos when the wind isn’t blowing. 

Getting water at our lake

Family dinner!

Big old clump of Colorado Columbine!

Nice Penstemon

Rapunzle and the sunset

Soaking in the beauty

Day 16. Best Day Yet.

7/15/16

19.4 miles Cree creek to silver creek trail junction 

Another morning of us all waking up and packing at the same time. We hit the trail at 7 and start a steep descent to highway 50. This causes my knee hurt fairly bad. At the bottom we begin a large climb which starts as a 2 mile roadwalk before becoming single track. We pass a lake filled with trout and I find some loose fishing line and a small hook for the possibility of future fishing. We also take turns at a vault toilet here. 

Smokey got swoll

Once the single track starts the trail is rather lush and moist. We hike together singing 90s songs. Backstreet Boys, Brittany Spears, Arron Carter and the like. The trail climbs to just shy of 12,000 feet but it’s a gentle climb until the top where it gets very steep. Once you get over the pass you reconnect with the CDT and the west collegiate route. There is also a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains. 

I think this is a Lewisia species!

I slow way down in this area while listening to my favorite songs. Tyler cruises ahead to a shelter that’s on trail a mile and a half away. I wait for the girls to catch up and take tons of photos of the views, flowers and insects in this alpine environment. 

One of the most beautiful spots on the trail.

Such a fantastic area

The best

Check out that valley

The flowers are on point

I love the lichens up here!

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This is a Hemipteran that’s mimicking an ant! 

Bluebell buds!

Miss campion

Lichen macro

Alpine Stichwort

We reach the cabin and eat lunch. I walk down the hill and find a spring where water is gushing out of the ground. Because we’re high up water has been pretty scare and looks to be the next few days. Leah and I talk about how bad we want some Ben and Jerry’s and how we’re all going to have a hiker family movie night in Gunnison at our hostel. We also look to see if there is a karaoke bar in town. We break next to a spring and all five of us have good conversations. We’ve had some deep talks today. We also decide to give our hiker family a surname of Pitz. For our delicate hairy armpit scent of course. 

The rest of the hike is gentle ups and downs to Silver Creek trail junction where water and campsite are. We get there just as the sky looks like it may rain on us. It’s very breezy for a bit but as soon as it dies down, a hoard of mosquitos descends on us. Definitely the worst yet. They seem completely inescapable on a thru hike. Even Arizona had buggy spots. We meet two other hikers already set up there. Aslan and Wise Guy. Two 20ish hikers that hiked with Gordon and Christian for a bit after I got off for the wedding and knee healing. Rapunzle and I talk about the pros and cons of the Appalachian trail and how it compares with the Colorado Trail with Aslan who has been looking into the AT, PCT and the Pacific Northwest Trail. To escape the scourge of flying syringes we all head into our tents around 7:30.  

Mountain pine beetle damage in the forest 

Day 15. Hiker Huddle.

7/14/16

Chalk creek to Cree creek 19.5 miles

Woke up in the middle of the night to pee and saw one of the clearest starry nights I can recall. No moon and you could see all around you from pure starlight. The Milky Way was spread all across the sky and I saw a shooting star within a few second of looking up. 

We got up and hit the trail a little earlier today around 7. The hike started with a fairly large hill and we met several other hikers on the way up. At the top an impromptu hiker huddle formed. Leah, Sara, Rapunzle, Grover, Tyler, Miss Popular, her brother and I all stood around taking in the view and chatting for about 20 minutes or so as we got to know our new friends. Miss Popular is bagging some 14ers today as well as thru hiking. Grover is an older man who got his trail name from Rapunzle weeks earlier when she found him sleeping in an aspen grove. Tyler, who we’re now calling M&M for his Michigan hat and his spare Michigan hat in case he loses the other one. Soon we all travel down the trail together, talking and laughing about trail stories.

View from our hiker huddle

The hiker train!
Cows are everywhere today

We take a lunch break and we all casually inspect each other’s food as we eat. I get crap because I just have all my food in a trash bag and pick out whatever sounds good at that moment. Others have each meal separated into bags for certain days. I trade Tyler a cheese stick for tortilla. I’m making a red bell pepper, cheese and mayo tortilla. It is delicious. 

The inevitable chocolate meltdown and refreeze. I found that chewing up the paper extracts most of the deliciousness.

We keep leapfrogging with Grover and Tyler tells him how he is going to do the Israeli National Trail when he moves to Israel for graduate school. Grover did the trail years ago and is excited to share information about the trail. He says you can buy a map from a man who has buried bottles of water in the desert for those who pay for his map. Otherwise you have to cache lots of water yourself which is time consuming. The trail sounds amazing. 

I love the old, charred and weathered wood that stands for decades and even centuries in the parched landscape.

A lush meadow

The aspen groves are everyone’s favorite

The rest of the day consists of medium sized ups and downs. Leah is not feeling well and is sad to see her uncomfortable. She’s been so cheerful and happy since I met her. Our trail family is still growing and now Tyler is hiking with us as well. We all set up camp near Cree Creek and I take an ice cold bath in a nearby stream to try and wash off all the dust and pine sap on me. We make a fire and eat dinner. Tyler tells us stories about his life and what he wants to do after the trail. He passes a bottle of whisky around and we listen to Taylor Swift on Leah’s phone. It’s another great day to be on the trail. 

A typical hiker family setup 

Colorado Trail Thru Hike Gear List

It’s almost time for my next thru hike and I’m getting so antsy and excited I have to post something, so I’ll do a rundown of my gear list for this trail. The Colorado Trail is a 485 mile long trail from Denver to Durango, CO and has an average elevation of over 10,000 feet. This makes the trail unique among the long trails in America in that it is almost always in high mountains where environmental conditions change quickly and thunderstorms roll in like clockwork in the afternoon. The temperatures on this trail will obviously be much colder than a lower elevation hike. Even though it will be July for most of my trip, freezing temps can still occur and chilling wind and rain are always a threat. The high elevations also means there is less oxygen to breathe and I’ll need to adapt in the first few days to this difference. I also only have 21 days to hike it so I need to have a light load and walk at a fast pace to get to Durango in time get back to Denver and fly home!

Much of the gear I’m using is the same as my Arizona Trail thru hike and some of the gear is the same as my Pacific Crest Trail thru, but I also like to try out new gear to see how I like it and if it can become part of my backpacking staples. Some of the new items I’m using include a down quilt, a new air mattress, and a chrome dome umbrella.
Here is my gear list. I’ll go into detail about some items below.

Backpack and Water Treatment and Storage:
Gossamer Gear Gorilla Ultralight Backpack 28 oz
Sawyer squeeze mini 1.7 oz
2 1 liter smart water bottles 4 oz
Subtotal 33.7 oz

Sleep system
Six Moon Designs Wild Oasis tarp tent with insect netting 13 oz
6 Aluminum tent stakes 3 oz
Gossamer gear airbeam air mattress 10 oz
Gossamer Gear 1/8 inch thin lite foam pad 2.5 oz
Polycryo ground sheet 1.6 oz
Enlightened Equipment Enigma 20 degree down quilt 19.4 oz

Subtotal 49.5 oz

Clothing in Backpack
Undershirt 7.2 oz
Long johns 6.9 oz
Go lite down jacket 7.5 oz
Spare socks 3 oz

Subtotal 24.6 oz

Miscellaneous Items
Head light with batteries 2.8 oz
Sunglasses .7 oz
Small bic lighter .4 oz
Mosquito head net .7 oz
Toothbrush and toothpaste 1 oz
Emergency Poncho .5 0z
Swing Liteflex Silver Trekking Umbrella 8 oz

Subtotal 14.1 oz 

Electronics
Chargers 2 oz
Anker battery 15000 mwh 11 oz
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS Camera, Raynox DCR 250 Macro lens, case, battery and charger 30 oz

Subtotal 43 oz

Total Base Weight
164.9 oz or 10.3 lbs

Pack with all the gear laid out!

It all comfortably fits in the pack with plenty of room to spare for food.

This time around I decided to switch to using a down quilt after I have seen many of my friends use them and be very happy with their performance. It weighs significantly less and is much more compressible than my 15 degree sleeping bag I used on the Arizona Trail.

I’ve also swapped out a rain jacket for an umbrella mostly to see if it will really work. I have back up poncho in case it turns out to be a miserable failure. Why an umbrella? Well it weighs in at just under 8 oz, so it weighs less than my current rain jacket and does the same job. It also has many other benefits such as protection from the sun, being able to use a smartphone or camera in the rain, and being dry while at the same time ventilated, meaning not sweating to death while hiking in the rain as you would in a rain jacket.

I’m also moving back to an inflatable air mattress after using a z lite foam pad on the Arizona Trail. I found it to be much less comfortable and it did eventually get smashed down and lose some insulating power. I also will be around a lot less cacti and other spiny plants which pose a threat to the air mattress. I plan on using a plastic groundsheet when the ground is moist in concert with the 1/8 inch foam pad and gossamer gear air beam to keep warm in any condition.

I’m also once again hiking in Brooks Cascadia trail runners. This time its the model 11. We will see if they can live up to their 8 predecessor after the 10s fell apart in days.

JUST 13 MORE DAYS!!!! 

Winter Road Trip to Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Congaree National Park, Pisgah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For $325.

We have about a 4 week winter break here as grad students at West Virginia University so my girlfriend Kristen and I decided we would take a trip to somewhere warm for the winter! Our ideas were Big Bend National Park, somewhere in Arizona or Florida. Well we decided to take the easy route for us and drive Kristen’s green, racing stripe Mini Cooper because it gets good gas mileage and has a surprising amount of trunk space, plus we pack light. We wanted to drive so we had the freedom to go anywhere we wanted to on a whim and I have to say that this was the right choice. We ended up going to all kinds of places that we hadn’t planned.

December 29th, 2015

We left early in the morning from Morgantown, WV with a goal to get to Kristen’s sister’s house in Jacksonville, Fl that night. It’s about an 11 hour drive there and then about 8 more hours the next day to Key West where we wanted to hang around for New Years celebration in a few days. When we got to Kristen’s sister’s we thought about going to Big Cypress National Preserve before going to the Keys because we couldn’t find a place to camp or stay.

A spiny orb weaver spider in Jacksonville.

December 30th

The next morning we made our way down to Big Cypress and asked where we could backcountry camp and were told we could walk north from the Oasis Visitor Center but that finding dry ground to tent on could be difficult. Turns out the visitor center is also the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. We got a backcountry permit which was $4 a person and we decided to head out on the trail and see if we could find somewhere to camp for the night then walk back in the morning. Near the visitor center there was a deeper canal that was full of alligators in the 5-8 foot range and the trees on the edge of the water were full of water birds like Anhingas, Cormerants and Herons of all kinds. The trail was just how I had seen it from pictures of friends who had walked this section of the FT. It was very warm out, probably mid 70s to low 80s in the evening when we started walking. After half a mile of walking through thick grasses along an airstrip or something like that we met the swamp as the trail went into the water. Now when most people think of swamp water it is brown and stinky but this water is crystal clear and warm. Little minnows dart away from your feet and little plants like bladderwort bloom on floating rafts of greenery. In all directions it’s a sea of sawgrass with scattered Cypress domes and islands of pine trees and palmetto. We walked until it got dark and made it to a pine island where we put up our tent frantically as the mosquitoes emerges in full force as soon as the sun set. We got into the tent and so did about 20 skeeters in the 10 seconds it took us to crawl in and zip it up. All night there was the evil buzz of mosquitoes swarming the tent. That and the hot humid air made sleeping a challenge.

12512826_10154849663549572_7998219080844260281_nA nice big gator!

  1. IMG_4986Green Heron waiting to strike IMG_4977Great Egret with a feather in its mouth.IMG_4974White IbisIMG_4980Wood StorkIMG_4971Snowy EgretIMG_4963Double Crested CormorantIMG_4964 Anhinga


  Kristen on the trail!

Cypress dome in the distance. Cypress trees are in the same family as redwoods and sequoias and grow in domes on the swamp because the water in the center of the dome is deeper than the edges, allowing the trees in the middle to grow taller and be more vigorous.


December 31st

We woke up before sunrise and I really wanted to get out of the pine forest and back to the open sawgrass prairie to see the sun come over the horizon. We were able to just in time.

Morning is my favorite time of day to hike. Watching the sunrise, all the animals switching from night shift to day shift and the joy of experiencing a whole day from sun up to sun down.



We also weren’t in a rush to get anywhere so we wandered around the swamp checking out the cypress domes and the wildflowers that were around.¬† Purple bladderwort
 Passiflora species

  Warming up for the morning hunt!
 An airplant on a bald cypress.

We walked the few miles out back to the Oasis Visitor Center and packed up for out next location. We decided to hit up Everglades West, which is mostly mangroves and salt water, compared to the freshwater plains and swamps at Everglades East. Our plan was to rent a canoe from the park and paddle out to a chickee, which is a raised platform with a roof in the water for people to camp on. Think AT shelter in the mangroves. Well when we got to the park most of the campsites and chickees were full but by good luck there was a campsite still available called Lopez only 7 miles by paddling. Though we were warned it is mosquito and no-see-um central. We booked it anyway! About $14 for the site and backcountry permit and we had a place to stay in the Everglades! Also this area is very easy to get lost or turned around because there are little mangrove islands and keys all over the landscape and they look the same at a distance so we made sure out map was safe and our phones were charged. We got our canoe for 2 days for $80 and then went to buy supplies before we launched. I went to the the library in Everglades City and bought a fishing license and then got some bait at a bait shop. I wanted to feesh. We drove the few miles back, loaded up our boat and took to the water! There was a Roseate Spoonbill around the launch site as we started out trip! What a cool bird!

 Roseate Spoonbill

As we got to paddling I started trolling a lure behind the canoe and it didn’t take long to start catching a bunch of little fish!

¬†I caught lots of these small Crevalle Jacks (I think that’s what they are) trolling a rooster tail behind the canoe. I tossed them all back as they were too small to become dinner.

About halfway to our destination we stopped on an oyster bar to rest and walk around in the shallow water near Chokoloskee Island. ¬†We picked up the oysters and found lots of neat crabs and other critters among them. Some whelks were also cruising along the ground. I love finding animals I’ve never been around!

¬†12509171_10154849663084572_3754307758069239499_nYou can stand almost anywhere in the bay, the water is very shallow but also very muddy when you’re not on an oyster bar.

We continued paddling towards our campsite but the wind started to pick up and it was blowing our canoe in the opposite direction we were trying to go, making for some very tiring and frustrating hours. Eventually the wind started making the waves on the water large enough that they were almost splashing into the canoe and it made travel sketchy. We had to keep trying to point the nose of the canoe into the waves and around this same time we realized we started going up the wrong river mouth and our campsite was still very far away in into the wind. I got worried our canoe was going to get swamped and it and all our gear would sink and even though the water was probably only 4-5 feet deep, the soft mud would prevent us from flipping the canoe upside down to get the water out like you would in a river. So we started paddling back towards Chololoskee Island to get to less turbulent, shallower water. It was also getting late in the evening and we only had a few hours of sun left. We didn’t want to keep trying in vain to get to our far away campsite in the dark against the wind on a mosquito island. With this in mind we decided to head back to the canoe livery, put up our canoe and then camp somewhere. We’d come back in the morning and grab our canoe and go the opposite direction we went today to check out some little islands.

Once we got back around Chokoloskee the wind was hitting us sideways which was far less exhausting and we made it to the livery before dark. We got in the Mini Cooper and headed to a bridge where I fished for a little bit as the sun set. I caught a few hardhead catfish and tossed them back. Kristen got a really cool photo of the sunset in the meantime.

¬†We had been told that there was a place to camp at Bear Lake if we took a gravel road 839 for 20 miles through Big Cypress. I was also excited for this because I always wanted to night cruise backwoods roads in the Everglades to look for snakes. So we took off down the road and it didn’t take long to find lots of frogs. Then after a few false snakes in the form of shadows, sticks or garbage Kristen said she saw a snake moving so we stopped quickly and I jumped out to see what it was! Sure enough it was a snake! And not just any snake, one of the coolest snakes in the states! A Scarlet Snake!!! First one I’ve ever seen! This beautiful little guy is a mimic of the venomous Coral Snake that also lives in Florida, but it’s not a perfect mimic. Coral Snakes and Scarlet Snakes both have alternating rings of red, yellow and black but only the Coral Snake has yellow stripes touching the red stripes. A Coral Snake’s rings also go all the way around its belly but Scarlet Snakes have a white belly. Though you should probably just not touch any snake you can’t identify.

IMG_5013IMG_5017

  Notice the white belly

  I was pretty excited. Croc Hunter wannabe.

As we were stopped holding the snake a car drove up and asked if we needed any help, and I said nope just looking for snakes and showed him the critter. The man said, “Ohhh!” In a slightly disgusted tone and quickly drove off. After some glamour shots I moved the little guy out of the road so it won’t be run over by another car.

We continued looking for snakes and other critters on our drive but just kept seeing frogs and about a dozen opposums. That was until we saw some large green eyes reflect just up the road. At the same time we said whoa did you see that?! That looked different from the opposums so we raced up to try and see it closer. As we did we see the occasional eye shine again! Holy shit. It’s a Florida Panther we both say. We’d been seeing panther crossing signs all over Big Cypress and now we were behind one of the endangered Eastern Mountain Lions. We sped up to try and get a good look but it matched our speed. We were so amped up about seeing one but somehow after 5 minutes of going 40 mph it was still ahead of us occasionally seeing the eye shine! It was like trying to catch a legendary Pokemon but in real life. Eventually we got closer to the shine and our excitement turned to disbelief. The eyes shine was just lights from a distant elevated highway… Allowing brief views of two headlights that looked to us like a cats eyes. We had a real good laugh at ourselves. We were so sure we were afternoon a panther. I’ll tell you what though, the adrenaline and excitement of the chase was so real. We had a blast anyway.

Just before we made it to the campsite we saw some orange eyes reflecting on the road that also didn’t look like an opossum. As we got closer we saw a big 8 foot or so alligator crossing the road!! I hopped out to get a closer look and to see what it would do. He stayed still until I was about 15 feet away and then he let out a big loud hiss to warn me. I took a couple pictures of him and then he was done and launched himself into the brush creating a loud thrashing noise so we ran back to the car with adrenaline pumping. I love alligators!!! They’re so cool!¬†IMG_5024Hissy face

We made it to our campsite and drank one of our homemade Nut Brown Ales to celebrate New Years and hit the hay as the rednecks in their RV fought the next campsite over. What a long and eventful day.
January 1st

We woke up at sunrise and got back to our canoe in the early morning. The bay this time was dead calm. It made for some beautiful and quiet paddling. IMG_5040Our first destination was a small group of keys a mile or two away. Once we arrived we tied the canoe to a mangrove tree and explored the small jagged patch of land. Many pelicans inhabited the trees on the island and big fish were jumping all around it so I started to fish, but to no avail.

  

Next we went to check out a neighboring key that was completely covered in mangrove trees. When we arrived the whole island was made of oyster and whelk shells and it was a tangle of mangrove roots but still open enough to walk around. However after about 1 minute an absolute swarm of mosquitos descended on us. How are they even alive on this saltwater, windy island?! We didn’t stay long.¬†IMG_5055
After we had our fill of canoeing we paddled back to the livery and prepared to go to Fakahatchee strand, a bald cypress and Royal Palm swamp that a ranger told us to check out. As we were leaving Everglades City we saw an Osprey on it’s nest and I had to get a picture of it. Then as I was taking pictures the male swooped down and landed on the female! They weren’t mating, he just stood on her!

 Screaming into the air

  Jeeze!
 Their facial expressions are great.

 This is the guy about to fly off of her. She so pissed looking.

The Fakahatchee strand natural preserve has a 2000 foot long boardwalk through the swamp and allows some good looks at Royal Palm trees in their natural habitat, air plants, and some big cypress. Saw some turtles and a gator as well!

Royal Palm   One hell of a big, flat spiderIMG_5082Brown Anoles are everywhere in Florida. They were introduced from Cuba and are now out competing our native Green Anole.

We then made our way to Everglades East with the plan to backcountry camp there. On the way to the visitor center we drove through lots of farmland and plant nurseries. There were many dragonfruit plantations which were cool to see. The dragon fruit grows on a vining cactus. A strange plant indeed. When we arrived at the park entrance we talked to the ranger there and told him we still had our back country permit and that it was good for another six days. For $2 each we were allowed to camp in a backcountry campground that was down an abandon road about 6 miles of walking. The man told us, “You know it’s SIX miles, it’s a pretty tough hike.” Yea like 6 miles on an old road with no elevation gain will be hard we joked together. We’re no soft city tourists! We started driving the Mini, which is now a dirty hiker mobile, down the decrepit roads in the backcountry of the Everglades and accidentally slammed into a big pothole. After checking for leaking fluids revealed no injuries we kept on until we reached a gate and double checked that it was the right spot to park the car.

 Action couple Mini Cooper

We began our 6 mile walk to our campsite in the late afternoon and found lots of cool invertebrates and vertebrae along the trail. Lots of vertebrae from larges snake skeletons which I’d guess are the invasive Burmese Pythons that the park is trying to eradicate. Deer flies started to become a nuisance as we walked along the 20 foot wide strip of old, crumbling pavement with the infinite swamp to our left and a deep pool and then Everglades to our right where alligator slides were everywhere in the grasses. The ever present fire anthills towered up out of cracks in the pavement as well. Surprisingly the bugs weren’t too bad yet as we could see lots of dragonflies and damselflies literally snatching up the deer flies before our very eyes and devouring them on nearby leaves within seconds. We have our own little Air Force!

 Snake bones

  Real cool snails on the trees!  The Bella Moth.
 Huge hairy orb weaver

The views with the sun getting low were amazing. There’s just something about being able to see to the horizon, unobstructed by and trees or buildings that makes me happy. I daydream about walking across flat deserts to the distant mountain ranges at the horizon. As we were walking along we passed right by a cute little 3-4 foot gator just laying in the grass on the roadside and I took some pictures before he slowly crawled into the deeper water and swam into the reeds.¬†img_1680Killer viewsIMG_5091

 Gator friend!

We walked to where we thought our campsite was supposed to be and all we noticed was a small patch of grass on the left side of the road just large enough for maybe two tents and thought no way is this a campsite. Just as we walked up to it I saw a HUGE cottonmouth on this little path of grass! It opened its mouth wide and hisses really loud and before I could even get my camera in my hands it launched into the thick grass. How cool was that?! That’s the first one I’d ever seen in the wild. Well I guess we’re camping at cottonmouth campsite? We convinced ourselves that this could not possibly be the right spot so we walked on just until it started getting dark and then we ended up walking through water and muck in a dark forest of some sort and decided to head back towards the grass patch or to just set up wherever it was flat. As we were walking back the mosquitoes came out in full force since the dragonflies and friends went to sleep. Kristen was bitten so much that her body had a reaction to all the mosquito saliva in her and her arm swelled up and she felt ill. Each bite was leaving lemon sized raised area. We set up our tent right in the middle of the road and climbed in quickly. Once again the mosquitoes poured in after us. Once we killed all of them we went to sleep to the sounds of gators splashing a few feet away in the deep water and the buzz of the skeets. A few times during the night we woke up to the sound of something sloshing up out of the water and then walking in the grass around us. Hard not to think about gators all night! But of course they left us alone.¬†IMG_5095Swamp sunset

January 2nd

We woke up to some crazy chattering noises in the nearby shrubs and finally it was revealed that a flock of birds were the culprit. We got out of the tent expecting to be swarmed by the mosquitos but they weren’t too bad. Maybe they know the dragonflies will wipe them out in the daytime. This time however the deer flies were not stopped by the dragonflies. We saw some getting snatched up and eaten but there were just too many and we were swarmed. Deer flies really like hair, I assume since humans aren’t their usual food source they are just tuned into locating and burrowing into any hairy animal to get at some blood. They rarely try other parts of your body, but I found out if I put out my hand they’d occasionally land on it and I sent them straight to hell with a smack from my other hand. They are fast but are pretty easy to kill once they’ve landed. But with four or five of these little bastards orbiting your head and burrowing through your hair you just end up smacking yourself in the head a lot and pulling out little pieces of flies. After about an hour of suffering through this we decided their quick deaths were too good for them and I devised a plan to deal with two pests at once. I smacked the flies with not enough force to kill them but for me to be able to grab one and then I kicked open a fire ant nest and threw the tribute on to the boiling pile of ants that emerged. They blamed the fly for the nest break in and punished it accordingly. I’m not a mad man I swear! You’d do the same if you knew what it was like!

 Swamp sunrise

When we finally made it back to the Mini we threw our stuff in and got in as fast as we could but some deer flies followed us in. We drove away from there with haste and went towards a hiking trail through some pines and prairies we saw on a map yesterday. We got out to see how bad the bugs were there and after a few minutes of no attacks we decided the hike was worthwhile. It was a beautiful place and there was nobody else around. Just us, birds and lots of wildflowers.

  No idea what this cool flower is

A yellow flax!

Sabatia  A nightshade

After we had our fill of flowers and fields we got in the car and headed for the Florida Keys! Key Largo in particular as we knew camping was available at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. When we arrived there a big green iguana walked past the car and greeted us. These huge lizards were also brought in from South America and have established populations in south Florida. IMG_5098

Once we were in the park we went straight to the beach that we had been fantasizing about after our mosquito attacks. I remember visiting here as a kid with my family and being disappointed that there were no waves to ride and the beaches were all coral covered and hurt to walk on. This memory was just about spot on. We were still going to have fun anyway!

We set up under a palm tree and hopped into the water. It was just the right temperature. It didn’t take long to notice that the ground had lots of upside down jellyfish pulsing away. I remembered seeing these as a kid too and thought that they couldn’t sting you but I tried not stepping in them anyway just in case. As it turns out we stepped on plenty by accident and they didn’t no harm but felt rather squishy as you’d imagine.

We swam a couple hundred feet to where coral rocks come up out of the water and some people were standing around and they said they saw an octopus! Sure enough two octopuses not much bigger than your hand were creeping around the coral and plants catching little fish! I remembered my GoPro was in the car and I jumped back in the water and swam as fast as I could to go get it and swim back before they left! When I got back the little critters were still poking around and I was able to get some real nice video of them! You could get very close to them before they moved away from you. Although you can’t see real well in the videos the octopus would turn this bright blue color when they stretched out into an umbrella shape! What a cool experience! Other than the octopuses there were some small barracuda and little colorful fish around. At one point we even saw one of the barracuda catch and eat one of these poor fellas!

We decided to go on some little hiking trails in the state park as well and learned quite a bit about the local native plants here thanks to some signs explaining what trees were what. I wanted to find some scorpions or other cool things so I flipped over a bunch of rocks and logs but only found snails and a bunch of these really cool millipedes.

 Apparently this species has recently invaded the keys and south Florida from other islands in the Bahamas, but they do little harm and only eat rotting vegetation.

Once we had our fill we packed up and left because there was no place to stay in the keys that didn’t cost a fortune. We booked a hotel online in Lantana, Fl as we began heading up north. We figured we’d seen lots of southern Florida’s wilds and we’re ready to escape the evil bugs. We promised ourselves another beach day tomorrow but it was too cold up in Jacksonville where we were going to stay the next night at Kristen’s sisters place again but they’d be home this time. When we got to Lantana we hit up an Outback Steakhouse and gorged on a bloomin onion and other goodies. Then we went to the store to buy more food. Then we finally made it to our Motel 6. It was in a pretty sketchy area. A dude loitering at a decrepit gas station in the area earlier was shouting at us that,”He had good weed!!!” Didn’t need any. The motel room had a smoky smell and we laughed at the deep cigarette burns in both of our beds even though this was supposedly a no smoking room. We showered our stank off, drank some alcoholic root beers and watched cops. Felt great.

January 3rd

We woke up, packed up and headed to the nearest public beach. Luckily for us it was just a few miles away and had ample parking. The area was really nice, a beautiful pale blue ocean with soft white sand. Now this is what I think of when I think of Florida beaches! We swarm around for a little while and picked up seashells. I went fishing in the surf for a bit and caught some pretty cool looking fish! I’ve always loved surf fishing. It’s what we always did on vacation in Hilton Head, SC or the outer banks, NC. Usually we’d just catch stingrays and sharks but here it was snapper!

  
While we tanned on the beach the tide was coming in and I warned that we should move our stuff before a wave soaks us unexpectedly. Of course we didn’t and 15 minutes later a big wave snuck up on us and swept all of our things up into a mixture of water and sand… Including Kristen’s poor new iPhone 6. After we found it under some sand and towels it miraculously had no apparent damage other than all of its ports being filled with sand which was easily removed.

In the afternoon we started our several hour drive north to Jacksonville. When we arrived we met Kristen’s sister and husband as well as their little 1 year old. The kid can’t talk yet but knows sign language to let you know when she’s thirsty or hungry or finished! Smart kid! I want to teach that to my kids someday! We eat a delicious meal and talk until it’s bedtime. We looked at what cool natural areas are on our way back to West Virginia and see that Congaree National Park is right on the way! I’d never even heard of the place but after reading about it, it didn’t take long to convince us was going to be cool. In the morning, to Congaree!

January 4th

We woke up and began our 5 hour drive to Congaree National Park.

Congaree is a huge floodplain forest with some of the largest trees in the Eastern U.S. This park also holds the largest known individual trees of about a dozen different species. Trees in the east don’t get nearly as tall as those in the west but these are still mighty too look at. Among the huge trees are the tallest known¬†sweetgum (157 feet), a cherrybark oak (154), an American elm (135), a swamp chestnut oak (133), an overcup oak (131), a common persimmon (127), and a laurel oak (125) and the tallest known loblolly pine at 169 feet! Also fun fact, loblolly pine has genome size of 20.15 billion base pairs, that means this pine tree has 7 times as much genetic information in it than a human does!

We got to Congaree in the afternoon and walked around in the pine forest that was near the visitor center for a few hours looking for critters under logs. I figured there would be lots of cool salamanders in this area because of the swampy areas near the boardwalk and the vernal pools of water randomly in the forest. Too small and isolated for any kind of fish which may eat their young. So these sort of habitats are just what salamanders need to breed in! First log I flipped over and low and behold a real nice Slimy Salamander! These guys don’t actually lay their eggs in water but still appreciate the moisture in this damp forest. We found a couple more slimy salamanders as we walked around and I said I bet that there are marbled salamanders here from what I know about what they like but I’ve yet to ever see one. So I really wanted to find one.img_1391

Slimy Salamander

Under a dead pine tree Kristen found what at first she thought was a weird looking salamander but after further inspection she had found a ground skink all curled up for the cold weather. After a few photo-shoots of this little guy we put it back right up against the bark it was laying on.img_1414

Ground Skink
I did manage to find a critter I’ve always wanted to see under the bark of a downed log, in fact I found two bombardier beetles! These beetles are extremely special. They have a unique defensive mechanism where they spray a mixture of hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide into a chamber in their abdomen, which react with each other to create a boiling hot gas that they can aim at an attacker and burn them to death or seriously change their mind about trying to eat another bombardier beetle! I poked around at this little guy go see if it would spray and it sure did! It let out several blasts with a very audible, “pshhht!” How freaking cool?!
Soon it started getting dark and pretty cold as well! We saw on the forecast it was going to get to about 27 degrees tonight. A big switch from the 80 degree nights in the Everglades just a few days ago! We was on our rudimentary map that there was a campsite we could teach in a few minutes so we walked that way. On the way we came across a Carolina jasmine plant still blooming from the warm spell we’ve had! The smell of the flower was intoxicating. Everything was brown and dead and here is this deliciously smelling yellow flower blooming. We made it to the campsite just as the sun set and put up our tent. Once we were settled in we decided to play the Appalachian Trail board game that Kristen got for Christmas.¬†It seems to be geared towards younger crowds or at least people unfamiliar with hiking culture but it was still¬†fun to play!¬†We had some good laughs over the game. It also had lots of¬†cards where¬†you had to identify a plant or animal¬†you could encounter along the trail which was a good exercise for those unfamiliar with the animals.¬†I also was able to get in touch with my friend Nicole who lives in Asheville and she said we could come visit and stay with her a night a couple days from now! Kristen has never been there and always hears people talking about it so we decided that we would go there on the way back north. We also called the Great Smoky Mountains park and reserved¬†Ice water Spring¬†shelter on the AT for the night of the 7th for a few dollars.
January 5th
It sure did get cold last night. Since we didn’t plan for any nights in the cold we didn’t have that many warm layers but we still managed just fine. We walked on the trail back to the visitor center as it opened. In there we watched a movie about how the park came to be and checked out the displays. It looks like it will be a killer place to kayak or canoe in the spring or summer time although mosquitoes can apparently become a major problem.img_1385
We then we went outside to walk on the nearby boardwalk to see a bunch of the big trees that it passes but we were also warned that since it had been raining a lot recently the whole floodplain was under water and some of the boardwalk was as well. After a few minutes walk we found the end of one of the boardwalk paths disappear into the water! All the tree species here are used to this happening several times a year and I was amazed that their roots can survive that long saturated. These flooding event are the reason why these trees can get so large because fresh nutrient rich sediment is left behind with each receding flood.img_1447
Once the boardwalk ended we walked around on a dirt road that after about a quarter of a mile also ended into the water. Around here I flipped a cut log and there was a beautiful fat Marbled Salamander! These cool amphibians need to breed in water and are also pretty tolerant of colder temperatures compared to other cold blooded animals. Their coloration is also something to marvel at. It always amazes me how normally drab colors look so beautiful when they are in certain patterns on a thing.img_1497
img_1450
Marbled Salamander
While looking for more salamanders we came across a Bess Beetle colony in a rotten log. Bess Beetles are large, tough looking beetles with a gentle nature. They live in family units where the adults dig tunnels and chew up wood for their young to eat. Bacteria decompose the chewed wood into a food that the larva can consume. They also are capable of making a dozen different squeaking noises which use to communicate with each other! So if you ever see some of these guys, check them out! If you pick up they will make squeaks at you. Just make sure to put them back on the log the came from, their babies depend on them!img_1503
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Bess beetles!

Once we had our fill of Congaree we decided to head 4 hours¬†to Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina for our next adventure. I was actually there just a few months ago over the summer for Buzz Lightyear’s (Jon)¬†bachelor party. We had an absolute blast. Hiking, swimming in waterfalls,¬†beer games, telling stories of our boy scout shenanigans. We went to the visitor center first in Pisgah to see what trails were around and which ones we could back country camp on. We decided that John Rock would be a nice hike and we’d arrive at the top just as it would get dark. Camping permits were about $4 each I think. Kristen bought a cute raccoon novelty hat from the gift shop to keep her head warm for the forecasted 14 degree night.

As soon as we started walking it was clear it had been much colder here than it was in South Carolina. There was needle ice poking up in cool formations on the side of the trail and little creeks were partly frozen. The trail was quite steep and it didn’t take long to get very sweaty even though it was about freezing out. Once we made it to where there were lookouts the sun had just set and made for some beautiful pictures of icy rock faces. A short distance farther up the hill we found a great campsite with a fire ring already set up. Kristen set up the tent and I gathered fire wood for what we knew was going to be a cold night. We were able to get a real good hot fire going and we heated up our McDonalds burgers and McChickens by the fire while drinking one of our home brewed beers. What a relaxing evening!
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January 6th
Last night was COLD. Kristen woke up at one point worried that she was getting so cold she couldn’t warm back up. But after rearranging all our blankets and sleeping bags we got comfy again and fell back to sleep. In the morning the ground had frozen solid again and fresh ice formations were on the ground and in moist places.img_1517
img_1507Turkey Tail still looking good!
On our hike down my feet were freezing in my Brooks’s cascadias. These shoes are great in hot deserts, not so great in bitter cold. They finally warned up the more we walked. About a mile before we got back to the parking lot we heard a rushing noise and notice a part of the forest that was really white colored in the tree tops. A waterfall! We jogged down a side trail to check out this great big waterfall that had been spraying mist which froze to all the nearby rocks and trees in the area making for a mystical site. We looked at all the cool ice formations and icicles in the area for awhile and then made our way back to the parking lot and car.
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Asheville is a quick drive from Pisgah and we get into the city and head for a coffee shop. Later we kill time eating at a local curry spot and have a beer because Nicole doesn’t get done working until later in the day. We bought more groceries for the last few days of our trip and then made it to Nicole’s. Her house is on a steep hill in the mountains and has a big silver maple growing right through the roof of her porch! I haven’t seen her in a few years and we all catch up over some local beers. Later we go to a real nice restaurant and drink huge margaritas, buy some lotto tickets since the powerball jackpot is enormous and talk about what we’d all do if we ever had that much money. Next we end up playing a game of thrones themes monopoly and drinking some more. It’s a great night of laughing and hanging out.
January 7th
We got up, enjoyed some coffee and then headed to our next destination… the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! A 2 hour drive later¬†and we arrived at Newfound Gap and decided to do some day hiking around the park before¬† the AT to our shelter. We drove down the road a bit to the trail head for Chimney Top. I hiked up it almost exactly a year ago when a bunch of friends and I rented a cabin in Gatlinburg over New years.¬†It is a busy trail with lots of people¬†walking the¬†several mile route up the steep trail. It is also a beautiful day with sun peaking through and mild daytime temperatures. We rocket past people who are huffing and puffing their way up the climb and look for critters under rocks and logs along the way but it seems to be way too cold for anything to be out. Even the ground under logs is icy. At the top of the hike the trail gives way to the “Chimney Tops,” a rocky, steep scramble to the top of a treeless lookout. We eat lunch and talk to a ranger just before the steep climb. Turns out the ranger knows our professor and several graduate students we’ve both worked with! Small world.
Last time I hiked up to this point and decided not to go all the way to the top, the steep rocks were slippery and too sketchy for me, but after sitting for a bit I decided to go for it and made the final scramble to the top where lots of people were eating and taking pictures. A great view for the smokies! IMG_5116
We ran back down most of the way and ate more at the car before we drove back up to Newfound Gap to start our 3 mile hike on the AT to our shelter. Once on the trail it got cloudy and chilly again but the forest was moist and full of cool mosses and ferns. We split up and took our time meandering up the trail. I took a bunch of pictures of the greenery. Once we made it to the shelter we gave ourselves a few hours to gather firewood for the night since our shelter had a fireplace in it and a tarp blocking the wind and rain. there was also a lot of wood already in the shelter from past hikers so we were set for a big fire for another cold night. We got the fire lit and played another round of the Appalachian Trail Game until it got too dark to do so.

The orange “moss”¬†in the last picture is actually an Alga! Trentepohlia spp.
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Just¬†after sunset a couple of hikers walked in to the shelter.¬†A guy about 20 years old and a girl in maybe her late thirties¬†slowly¬†thru hiking the AT this year, about 7 miles a day with big packs in the middle of winter! This didn’t seem unusual to them¬†however as they were very cheerful and having a blast their first few weeks. Props to them!¬†We¬†chatted with the two of them for an hour or two talking about hiking life and happiness.¬†Turns out the guy used to date this¬†lady’s teenage¬†daughter and¬†then they left to thru hike for as long as they want! Rough life for the daughter.¬†Getting dumped for your¬†mom and then they leave together. But hey, I’m not¬†judging, they seem genuinely happy and were a fun group of people to talk to.¬†We fall asleep with a raging fire and actually stay warm all night.
January 8th
We get up as it gets light out and wish our fellow hikers happy trails. We walk our 3 miles back in a wintery mixture of snow, sleet and rain.¬†The trail is slushy and we want to get to the car before the¬†steep road starts to get slippery. Its a nice morning walk. Morning will always be my favorite time of day to hike. Even in this cold snowy wintery place Dark -eyed Juncos are¬†hopping¬†around in the twilight in little groups. “Its a junco party!” Kristen declares. We get back to the car and then drive through the rest of the park and see some big beautiful turkeys on the road. I get a few pictures of them and then we make the long 7 hour drive home to Morgantown, West Virginia. Take me home, country roads.
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Thanks for reading this long post! I figured a broken down road trip might be a fun post and I want to inspire some people to take road trips of their own. The freedom of changing plans at the¬†drop of a hat¬†makes for an exciting trip, and if you’re in to camping the cost¬†to stay anywhere is extremely cheap. The most expensive part of most trips is lodging so if you carry your own home with you, you can make for a long, fun road trip. The night in a¬†Motel 6¬†cost almost twice as much as all of the¬†other nights combined! Always ask if you can back country camp in national parks or forests, its extremely cheap and you’re in nature compared to the packed, dirty established campsites.¬†I’ll be thru hiking the Colorado Trail June 29th-July 21 so I may do a daily blog then! Until next time, Woody out!