Trip Report: April 5-6, 2008
This weekend I did my first section hike of the spring on a section of the Appalachian Trail just south of the Massachusetts turnpike. The total distance of my hike was 29 miles. It was really a hard hike and a solo. Kind of like backpacking boot camp. I hiked 16 miles in 10 hours on day one and 13 miles in 8 hours on day two: straight-thru each day except for frequent map checks or a very brief snack.
I was carrying about a 30 pound pack including food and water. Because it was early spring, I brought along a zero degree sleeping bag, a warmer tent, and a thick Exped down-filled air mattress to insulate my body from the ground. I also brought along my new Sawyer inline water purifier to try, coupled with a Nalgene canteen and hoser system.
I left the house Saturday morning at 6:30 and drove 126 miles west across the state on the Mass Pike to Lee, and then south to Sheffield MA, just outside of Great Barrington. I parked my car at the AT parking lot on the banks of the Housatonic River off of Kellog Rd. The river was running a little high and I wondered if the car would still be there when I returned. I then met a taxi and we drove north to the trail head in Lee, a distance of 20 miles. I planned to walk south back to my car.
The section that I hiked starts in Lee, MA and crosses a pedestrian bridge over the Mass Pike. I’ve driven under it hundred of times and always wanted to hike over it. As soon as I crossed the bridge, I was faced with an ice and snow-covered ascent of about 400 feet. The snow was only about 2 inches deep and relatively easy to walk on. It was quite coarse and highly saturated with water from heavy rainfall the previous night, but I was wearing high gaiters which kept my socks and upper boots dry. Someone had hiked up in snow shoes some time ago and I followed their tracks when the blazes were hard to find. This became a theme on day two when the blazing got pretty bad.
After the initial ascent, the first 4 miles was relatively flat, starting at an elevation of 1400 ft, but never exceeding 2000 ft. It took me about 2 hours to rid my mind of wandering worldly thoughts and soon haiku fragments filled my head as my attention focused on the present world around me.
Swollen tree buds gorge
On rivulets of snow melt
The geese have returned
I digress. More about Haiku in another post.
Unfortunately all of the north faces on day one were covered with snow, while the south faces were snow free. After 6 miles, I summited Baldy Mountain at 1900 ft. and then began a 1000 ft. descent in just under two miles to the outskirts of the town of Tyringham. The next mile or so was a beautifully maintained wetland with an elevated boardwalk running through it. I have to hand it to the Berkshire AMC. The trail from Lee to Mt. Wilcox is exceptionally well maintained with fresh blazes and bridges exactly where you want them.
After this wetland, the trail crosses over some barbed wire enclosed cow pastures, sans the cows, until it comes to the Cobble Hill Trail which circles and then climbs the Tyringham Cobble, a grassy hill rising above the town about 250 feet. It’s really beautiful in a Victorian sort of way and great day trip or picnic destination for the spouse. I met lots of townsfolk and their children climbing up and down this hill and got a lot of attention before I disappeared behind the summit ,as the AT continued on.
About then I realized that I hadn’t left my car where I had wanted to. I frequently check my map to “stay found,” and I realized that I had parked my car 9 miles farther along the AT where I had intended on stopping. What a dufus move! Anyway, I thought about it for a while and decided to try hike the extra 9 miles, instead of bailing at Rt 23 and trying to hitch back to my car. It was chilly, around 40 degrees with wind and cold air flowing off the snow, and I didn’t want to be standing by a rural road for a few hours trying to hitch a ride. I had enough food and shelter, if necessary, to last an extra night and I had brought a cell phone and could get pretty decent reception in an emergency.
I had originally planned to spend the night at the Shaker Campsite at mile 11 of my trip. But with my “new” destination, that would have meant an 18 mile walk on day 2 which was pushing it with the current trail conditions. So when I reached the Shaker campsite at 5pm, I had a quick snack and decided to go for the northern shelter on Mt. Wilcox, a 4.5 mile hike. I had been making pretty good time the past few miles and thought I could get there around sundown which was due around 7:20pm. Worst comes to worse, I was mentally prepared to pitch a stealth camp if I fell short of this goal.
The trail rises almost 1000 feet in 1.5 miles immediately south of Shaker campsite and I had to first deal with lots of mud, followed by snow, to make it to the top of the Mt. Wilcox ridge. That was a tough climb and I was drenched with sweat by the time I made it to the top. Along the way, I met two scoutmasters and about 15 cub scouts who planned on camping at Shaker campsite, affirming my decision to hike more and camp in peace and quiet.
All that was left now was a 3 mile walk to the lean-to. I topped off my water in case I had to dry camp and I set forth at a fast pace, with one eye open for a good stealth site. I used a Nalgene soft canteen and hose system on this trip with an inline water purifier. Filling up the 96 oz. water container was really fast and simple, just dip and go, with no pumping required. It made water refills a lot less time-consuming. That’s for sure.
As the light faded, I kept hiking, trying to cover as much distance as possible. When the sun set at 7:30, I could see a spectacular cherry glow between the trees to the west. Even then I was able to continue hiking in the last remaining light until about 7:40 when I finally came to a sign on the trail. But when I stood right in front of it, I couldn’t read it; it had just become too dark. So I unclipped a solar-powered LED that I carry on the back of my pack and shined it on the sign. It told me the southern Mt. Wilcox shelter was 1.8 miles farther south. I was crushed for a moment, when I turned around and saw another sign 180 degrees behind me. It read that the northern Mt. Wilcox shelter was 0.3 miles down a blue blazed trail. I had just made it! I let out a woop.
I was pretty exhausted at the point and I’m not completely sure how I managed to get down this trail to the shelter area. The blue blazes were virtually non-existent and my LED didn’t have a very wide beam. Luckily the snow on the path was melted, forming a natural drainage, that I just followed until I ended up in front of the lean-to. I scouted around and quickly found a great tent site behind the shelter in the woods and proceeded to pitch camp and cook dinner.
The first thing I did was get out my Brunton LED Lantern, turned it on and hung it from a tree. This little 2.9 oz. flashlight/lantern combo pumps out the light and it made my lonely campsite on top of a windy mountain a lot friendlier. It started to get a bit chilly and put on a windproof Polartec balaclava and Polarguard vest under my shell. Next, I set up my Snow Peak stove and set up a gravity system to filter some water for making dinner. This took forever. I couldn’t believe it. I guess there are advantages to pumping after all.
I finally boiled some water and rehydrated a Katmandu Curry from Backpacker’s Pantry. This took about 20 minutes total and while I was waiting, I set up my Black Diamond Firstlight tent, unpacked my sleeping bag, inflated my Exped sleeping pad, and got my house it order. The Katmandu curry was unremarkable and I finished about two-thirds of it, or about 500 calories of food. The rest I packed away for a future meal. I ate the second half of an extra-large Hershey bar and proceeded to the next entertainment of the evening, hanging my bear bag.
I hate hanging bear bags in the dark because you can’t see the rock boomerang back at you after a missed throw. It took me about 10 minutes to find a rock and another 5 to get it over a good tree limb. I had seen a lot of bear sign all day and wanted to play it safe. This included bear claw prints in the snow, lots of bear scat on the trail, and lots of bark stripped from trees where the bears had been after bugs.
I got into my tent, hung up my lantern, and closed the front door and back window to reduce ventilation and evaporative cooling. The Black Diamond Firstlight is a single walled, self standing tent made with EPIC fabric and is supposed to be able to breathe, reducing the amount of moisture that would otherwise build up in a tent made from silnylon. I changed into my sleeping clothes, a pair of Patagonia Capilene 3 long underwear and a new pair of wool socks. I unscrewed my hose and inline water purifier from my Nalgene canteen and put them into a separate Ziploc that I put between my legs in my sleeping bag to prevent them from freezing at night. Then I crashed.
I woke up around 2:30am, had a pee, and felt the side of the tent to see if I had any condensation. The inner wall of the tent was damp, but not dripping so I cracked open the front door a wee bit and went back to sleep. When I woke up at 7:15am, the tent walls were dry. I guess that answers that question.
I got dressed and ventured outside to rig up a better gravity system. It still took forever to filter 3 cups of water. I blame this on the Nalgene system, but still want to do a few more comparative tests before I condemn the Nalgene bite valve forever.
This morning’s breakfast was 3 packs a of low sugar instant maple oatmeal fortified with raisins and dry cherries. It hit the spot.
I quickly broke down camp and by 8:50 I was back on the AT at the head of the blue blaze trail. My first goal of the day was to hike the first 5 miles of a 13 mile day by noon. Trail conditions on day two were greatly improved and I encountered no snow and just a bit of ice. There was a lot of water on the trail, but this was avoidable with a little bushwhacking.
I quickly made it to the Mt Wilcox south shelter after 1.8 miles bypassing a large beaver pond on the way. I still hadn’t felt the carbo kick from breakfast so I ate two hot sausages in order to fuel up on some slower burning calories that would last me for a few hours. Mmmm. Salt, blood, and nitrites.
This area leading up the southern Wilcox shelter had been subject to a fire of some sort and still smelled of burnt leaves and trees. The blazes in this section were terrible and got progressively worse throughout the day. A mile later I came to an area called The Ledges, where the trail skirted sheer rock cliffs with a 250 foot drop to the east. This was followed by a 750 ft descent over the next 2.5 miles ending at the Rt 23 trail head. This was my original intended destination and I arrived ahead of schedule at 11:30am.
I ate a cliff bar and then crossed Rt 23 and continued to the Tom Leonard shelter with the goal of making it by 1pm. This was an easy ascent until Ice Gulch where the trail became covered in ice. This was a very tricky place to walk. To the immediate left of the trail is a talus and snow filled gorge and one slip and you are over the edge. I managed to hop from rock to rock and root to root and eventually made it through to a wonderful little area sheltered by huge boulders where the Tom Leonard lean-to is situated. A pretty mountain stream flows right next to it and it is definitely worth returning to even for just one night.
I stopped here for a few minutes and had a pee and a Probar. My urine was pretty dark, so I made a note to drink more water over the next hour. I just had 5 miles to go. Little did I know that these 5 miles would take 4 hours to walk.
Going southbound, I had to walk a few miles on Wilcox and then climb over the southern shoulder of East Mountain. This only required a few hundred feet of ascent but the trail bordered the edge of a very rocky steep drop off for miles. The blazing in this section was poor and my pace really slowed down. But the views of the Taconic range to the south were fantastic and in the overcast sky the mountains had a blue glow as they towered over the Housatonic river valley below. I had hiked the Taconics almost a year ago to the day, past Bish Bash Falls, Sages Ravine, Mt. Race, and Mt. Everett on the AT.
After summiting the Southwest shoulder of East Mountain, I descended 750 feet in less than a mile to Holmes Rd. This was a painfully steep descent. The trail was very rocky and I had to sit on my butt and slide down a few sections to avoid toppling over some cliffs.
I crossed Holmes Rd. and had about a mile to go before I would come out of the woods at Kellog Rd. The blazes vanished. Well almost. I got through this section by following a nearly invisible trail that was covered with leaves and only slightly disturbed after the thaw. I wasn’t that worried because I could have bushwhacked using a compass but at this point I was eager to end my hike. The area I was crossing was mostly flat with a slight descending grade and felt like it was near houses because I could hear barking dogs. I startled a big owl who must have been feeding on the ground and flew up to a nearby tree. Then I walked past an old water heater that someone had dumped out here and I knew I was close to the end of the trail. You have to wonder why people would carry a water heater a half mile into the woods to get rid of it.
I came out of the woods at the intersection of Kellog Rd. and Boardman St. at exactly 5pm. From there is was a half mile walk across a corn field and over a bridge to get back to my car. I had made it.
I sit here, still filled with the feeling of equanimity as the Buddhists call it, or evenness of mind. This is that same feeling I have after a long period of meditation but after backpacking trips it always lasts for days not hours. This was a great trip, despite the hardships. I amazed myself. And now it’s time to plan my next training hike of the season.
- AT Section Hike: Lee to Dalton, Massachusetts