Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Occasional Definitions: Cat Stove

(1) A small, homemade double-wall stove made from empty cat food cans. Invented by Roy L. “TrailDad” Robinson, father of “Flyin” Brian Robinson, first person to hike the Calendar Triple Crown. (Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail in 12 months.)

(2) Any stove made by cats, or used to cook cats, or to cook food for cats, or used by cats to cook or burn food. (Very few cats are good cooks.)

From: Fire In Your Hand

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No Pack Is Made For Me

Part 1.

I never thought I'd do this. Making my own packs, that is. It's pretty dumb.
In a way, you can blame Glen Van Peski, or some other people. The other people are the ones who proved to me that you can actually cook over an alcohol stove and live, even if there are two of you. There were two of them.
I don't remember their names now. One was a local elementary school teacher and the other was from Australia, a guy here on a business contract. They fell in love and backpacked happily ever after. Moved to Australia. After I went on a trip or two with them. Not like being one of the honeymoon party or anything, just one of the group, a random person in a group of random persons who happened to be on the same short backpacking trips.
But I saw what they could do. All the traditional backpacking books, including Colin Fletcher's "The Complete Walker" dismissed alcohol stoves as being environmentally sensitive, compact, light, clean, quiet, and useless, because they took too long to heat anything.
Then I saw one actually being used. And it worked.
After that I started looking for one, and found lots of other things, all this ultralight stuff, and light packs too. Glen Van Peski at the time was making and selling G4 packs. I bought one. In one swell foop I went from a four pound, 10 ounce frame pack to a 12 ounce frameless pack (2 to 0.3 kg). This was a drop of 84%. I felt it.

There was no point in ever making a pack, or even thinking about it. Packs are complex and fussy, and hard to make. They have a lot of details. Everyone makes them, as in real companies with mass production techniques. Why bother?
So I didn't.
For a while.
Maybe it was the pain that convinced me. It has a way of getting through after a while, and I think it did. That must be it. The pain.
I never really liked the G4 pack. As in really, really, really, really, really liking it. It was designed by a particular person for his own needs, and then sold to others who didn't want to bother making their own. The man who designed the G4 is tall (compared to me). He's big (compared to me). And he does things differently (compared to me).
All fine, except when compared to me. In my world, I count. That's one of the nice things about living in my own little world. I am the emperor and make all the decrees. Everyone else has to run for cover. So when I found myself in pain, the whole empire trembled, and sought a solution. And so I eventually started making my own packs.
Even though it's dumb. Even though it's hard. Even though it's taken just about forever (I'm a slow worker). I've been dinking around for about five years now. Most of my packs worked. A couple didn't. One or two of them I had to throw right into the scrap box before they were even finished. A couple more got used once and never again.
The most famous of these single-use packs (in my world) went on my longest trip ever. It wasn't that long. I know people who have been out for months and have gone thousands of miles. That sounds like fun, but I'll never do it. Not up to it. Couldn't find the money or work out the details even if I was fit enough. But what I have done wasn't too shabby.
I went two weeks and covered 200 miles, in Olympic National Park in western Washington. In its own way it's a tough place. All up and down. Can be tiring. It was. But I learned a lot.
The pack worked fine, and then afterward I cut it up and used the fabric for other things. On about the second day one of the shoulder straps began to pull loose, but a safety pin fixed that. No more trouble. Now I sew better.
The shoulder straps weren't placed right, and cut into the back of my neck, but I know how to design around that now.

The pack wasn't stiff enough, and the way it loaded and compressed the load wasn't the best. I don't try doing things that way any more. It hurt more than it should have, but considering a food load alone of around 21 pounds (9.5 kg) and a total weight (without any water at all) of 33 pounds (15 kg), hey. It should have hurt.
This was a frameless pack. Empty, it weighed about 20 ounces (0.6 kg). Not bad. It worked.
I wouldn't have to be so loony if I'd just cooperate. Be like everyone else. Do things the right way. Be less spooky, disorganized, disagreeable, and ornery. Right. I know that. I know some people too.
I've met and talked to Glen Van Peski, Ron Moak, Brian Frankle, and looked at their goods. Learned a lot about how they make packs. I admire their work. None of them actually sew their own goods any more, but they know how to design, and how to get things done, and have access to materials, at wholesale prices, that ordinary mortals can't even find. I like their packs.
But they aren't for me.
I have a problem.
I use a hammock.
This is not a problem. This is an opportunity. A challenge. A personal characteristic. An idiosyncrasy.
OK, fine, but it gives you a nudge and shoves you over the foul line. If you use a hammock you basically have two choices. One is to buy a stiff pack that is bigger and heavier and more expensive than you need and the other is to buy a not-stiff pack that is more expensive than you need and also wiggly and too light and not durable enough and doesn't carry well.
So I chose what was behind Door Number Three.
Which was a hollow empty space with a note in it, and the note said "Make something up." So I did.
Yeah. I'm dumb. I'm a butthead. It's OK. I'm like that but I want to take control at some point, not just pull whatever off the shelf and repeat and repeat. So instead I've spent years dinking around making my own packs and getting only a little better. Half step forward, etc.

Things are different when you sleep in a hammock. This is a backpacking hammock. There are such things. Kind of a fringe development. I mostly don't mention it until someone else does, and it's funny how often someone I meet on the trail, never seen them before, says they use a hammock. Then we talk for a while but it isn't kinky any more. Sort of like an option that's there if you look for it but most people would not consider even if they'd heard of it.
The "traditional" ultralighter (I guess there is such a thing now) sleeps on the ground. Most people do, obviously. Used to be it was under a tarp of some kind, or in a bivy sack, but single wall tents are catching on too. Anyway, those who sleep on the ground need some kind of pad, for cushioning and for warmth. Ultralight pack makers depend on these to provide a pack with stiffness. Some now use a bit of a framesheet or carbon fiber stays, or maybe a hoop inside the pack to substitute for an internal frame, and the packs are getting out of the ultralight range, but the idea is that a pack, a backpack, needs some stiffness to it.
Sleeping pads come in a 20 inch width (51 cm). If you travel light you limit the length to at most 48 inches (122 cm). It takes almost no brains to fold one of these pads down to a 12 by 20 inch package, and this, in the pack, against your back, provides fair rigidity for light to medium loads. Inflatable mattresses work too. I've used them, and you can adjust the stiffness by controlling how much air they hold.
Alternately, a closed cell sleeping pad can be formed into a hollow tube, inserted into the pack, and then this can be stuffed and cinched to form a rigid cylinder.
No sleeping pad works well in a hammock. They just don't.
They are too narrow, slide around, trap body moisture next to your skin, crumple and lump up, and abrade the inside of the hammock. But mostly they are too narrow, as you'll find out if you ever use one. The big downside of a backpacking hammock is that it can be unforgivingly cold. You need adequate insulation under you, and the only decent way to get this is with an "under-quilt", a layer of soft, flexibly compliant, breathable insulation hung under the hammock and snugged up against its bottom. It doesn't take much at all, but it has to be there.
So my problem is that no pack made is made for hammock camping. A big, heavy pack works, but that's what I want to get away from. A small, light pack works, but not well, and can't carry a real load without stiffening.
How do I solve this?
Part 2.
My problem is that no pack made is made for hammock camping. A big, heavy pack works, but that's what I want to get away from. A standard small, light, frameless pack works, but not well, and can't carry a real load without the stiffening that a frame provides.

So how did I solve this? I began making my own packs. My guiding principles are that my pack should be:
  • Small.
  • Stealthy.
  • Light.
  • Simple.
  • Convenient.
  • Comfortable.
  • Durable.
  • Adaptable.
  • Frameless.
  • Hammock-friendly.
Size. I want a pack that is small. I keep trying to go smaller, but keep making them too big. The right size for me is 25 to 30 L. Also smaller at times, and bigger at other times. Hmmm.
Stealth. Color isn't too important, but I prefer a medium gray because it blends in the best. I once had a gray cat and could find it during the day if I looked, had to hunt for it at twilight, and never saw it after dark. It blended in. Green and brown are good too, as is blue-green (jade, cyan). This last color fades into the haze of those days we have at times. But overall, gray feels best for me.
Weight. Should be low, but isn't hugely critical. I've seen commercial packs at under eight ounces (227 g) but I can handle double or triple that without noticing. (My very first pack weighed 9.8 ounces or 278 g. It wasn't very good but it worked.) My upper limit is unofficially 24 ounces (680 g). Lighter is better. Heavier is not.
Simplicity. The pack has to be simple. I don't either need or want a lot of pouches and pockets and zippers and doodads but what is there should work.
Convenience. With simplicity goes convenience. What is convenient for me is probably not right for you, but I bet you could live with it. Then again, I don't care. This is my fantasy world after all, but convenience is easier to achieve through simplicity, and inconvenient simplicity is pointless.

Comfort. The pack should fit me well. I've designed packs that could be adjusted for various torsos and that's easy enough, though more bother than I want, so I no longer worry about it. The pack does need two shoulder straps and a hip belt. Some people say that hip belts are optional, or are frills, for sissies, but I suspect that they never go backpacking. A hip belt is mandatory for me. Not a waist belt or a simple strap either, but something padded that can support weight.
Durability. Also important, but not at the level of a commercial pack. I don't have to worry about returns, reputation, or lawsuits. If my pack fails I'm screwed but that isn't a legal issue, it's purely a private one. Anyway, I carry needle, thread, safety pins, extra line, and an extra webbing strap or two, plus duct tape. Mostly I'm OK. Always, in fact. My packs don't have to endure 15 years of idiot abuse. Only a season or two. Some packs I've used only once, ripping the fabric apart and folding it into the next project after I'd learned what I needed to. So.
Adaptable. A big issue for me is adaptability. This brings us back to size, and links to convenience. I need a pack that expands and shrinks as needed. It should accommodate all the food, fuel, water, and extra clothing I need, and should shrink down again as I use things up. The pack should also serve as a day pack, for carrying only a bit of food, some water, and a jacket. Luckily I have a plan.
Once upon a time I bought a Gearskin from Moonbowgear. It is a folded flap of fabric like a taco with shoulder straps and a hip belt on one side. You put your things on the first side, fold up the other side, and cinch it all down tight into a solid wad. My packs are kind of like that but not too much.
I liked the Gearskin idea but the Gearskin is hard to load (the mound of stuff keeps sliding off), and the sides and top are open. And it doesn't compress down small enough to use as a day pack. I came up with a similar idea. My packs are front loaders. The Gearskin has two sets of compression straps, one on each side. My packs have one row down the front (the side away from my back), and aside from that they are closed bags. They don't unfold at all. Formerly I had a top with an expansion collar, but abandoned that. (More simplicity.) Now the pack interior is accessible only through the front.
What I have now is a bag that's shapeless when empty but forms a rigid, light, and comfortable pack when full. There is one huge pocket on each side and that's it. To load it I put my sleeping bag in first, against the back, then lay in the folded hammock, in a U-shape around the perimeter, then add food, clothes, and whatever else. When I'm done I cinch the straps along the pack's front and pull the two sides toward each other. I keep doing that until I can't any more. The compressed pack resembles a thick vertical log with a rectangular cross section, but it's soft on my back. Soft but rigid.

The things I'll need during the day go into the side pockets. Each pocket is large enough to hold a full Platypus two-liter bladder, plus whatever else I can squeeze in. Sometimes I use a detachable pocket to carry the cook set and the day's food hanging on the front of the pack. I normally carry mass quantities of water only when seeking out a camp site.
The pack is goofy, no doubt.
It has a lot of dangly compression straps on the front, and their loose ends all have to be tucked in. The front is two overlapping flaps that part just enough to let me load and unload the pack. The side pockets are huge, and sloppy looking, but have lifters to keep them tighter than they look (though they always look loose and sloppy).
The pack expands so much (side to side) that I can get a lot in, and it shrinks down to almost nothing after my food, fuel, and water are gone.
This works for me. No one else that I know of makes anything quite like it. As long as I pack it carefully, and cinch it tight, it carries extremely well.
Frameless. The only real problem I've had, other than endangering my life at home every time I'm near the sewing machine, is that, with enough food (even a moderate load like a week's worth), the pack slumps a little, kind of creasing right above the hip belt, and bulges out away from me, a little off to one side. No matter how tight I squeeze it, it wants to do this. The Gearskin does this too. But I didn't want to get into the world of frames. It's probably a matter of less than perfect loading, but I can't fuss too much or I'd never get it loaded at all.
So I'm still working on things.
Right now I'm trying two wooden dowels as stays, one sitting vertically in each of the pack's back corners, just behind my arms. The dowels add only two ounces (57 g), and seem to be worth it. They keep the pack standing straight and tall. My latest pack is made of much heavier fabric than I've used before, and, with the stays, weighs 22 ounces (624 g). This is acceptable. I also found some really stiff foam for the shoulder straps and hip belt. It doesn't permanently deform like the stuff I was using before, so that's good too.

Durability is important but isn't a huge issue. I decided several years back that no piece of ultralight equipment should be expected to last more than one or two seasons, especially a pack. I use my gear but take care of it too, and usually overshoot my guidelines. My latest pack is made from such heavy fabric that it ought to last for several seasons, without much weight penalty at all.
Hammock-friendly. This means being able to go without a sleeping pad. My basic problem is that I can't use the standard ultralight tricks. This pack design allows me to fudge.
There are two standard ultralight tricks.
  1. Fold a sleeping pad and lay that into the pack, to fake a frame, or
  2. Roll the sleeping pad into a hollow tube, put that into the pack, and then stuff gear into the center.
Sleeping pads don't work with hammocks. That's what you try at first, but right away you realize you need something better. And then you're left with a pack problem, which is, either to use a frameless pack that hangs on your back like a large, misplaced scrotum, or to use a frame pack and forget ultralightness. So the compression idea works. Not perfectly, since you can't get a perfectly rigid pack, which is why I'm experimenting with two dowels. Better though.
Not at perfection yet but I'm getting close to a final design. I'd want tiedowns on top of and under the pack, to attach overflow bags for food and gear during long trips. For a summer week or less I can fit all my food inside the pack, but for a longer trip it would be hard. My latest pack expands from roughly 25L to 40L. Another 10L or so outside the pack would give more capacity than I could really handle, so I should be good with this size.
I might also make the top and bottom of the pack into flat flaps. Not go back to the top expansion collar idea, but build in a flap that closes tightly. Then I could stow or remove rain wear, a jacket, camera batteries, and so on. Another flap at the pack's bottom would give easy access to wading shoes and other seldom used odds and ends. Straps would keep the two flaps closed and the pack would stay rigid, tight, and taut. Right now it's miserably awkward at best to try to reach into the front of the pack, up, and get to the top (or do the opposite at the bottom).
So, to sum up, here's what I can do with my pack:
  • Easily carry small, light loads on short trips.
  • Easily carry medium-sized, medium-heavy loads on long trips.
  • Carry as much water as I need (I make dry camps).
  • Have easy access to everything I need during the day.
  • Travel comfortably, securely, and stably.
  • Use both hip belt and shoulder straps.
  • Easily load and unload it.
  • Scrunch it down to nothing when empty.
  • Afford it (cost of fabric and thread, plus minor amounts of blood).
  • Repair it.
  • Empty, roll, and stuff it under my knees for insulation at night.
  • Use it either totally frameless or stiffen it with light, cheap, removable stays.
The downside is that it takes me several days to make a new pack, and I haven't drawn up any formal plans, so every time I make a pack I have to re-invent a lot of things like exact dimensions. (OK, I'm not that bright.) Also, even though I'm lousy with a sewing machine my sewing is getting better. Seams don't disintegrate any more. And I haven't needed an ambulance during any recent sewing sessions.
Fabric is relatively cheap. I don't pay for labor, or shipping, or markup, or liability insurance. I can use scraps. I can redesign on the fly. Aside from a few hours wasted, I can make a pack, use it, figure out what's wrong, remake it, and still be ahead.
Some day, when I have plans, I might publish them, or sell kits.
Could be worse.
Glen Van Peski
Moonbowgear Gearskin
Rodney Liwanag's LAB Pack
Rodney Liwanag's LAB Pack
Rodney Liwanag's LAB Pack
sleeping pad pack frame
Fanatic Fringe
Gossamer Gear
Lynne Wheldon Gear
Mountain Laurel Designs
Six Moon Designs
Ultralight Adventure (ULA) Equipment
Ultralight Outfitters

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Ticks are everyone's favorite creepy.

This is true because ticks are creepier than most things. You can find a tick crawling up your leg days after you've been anywhere. And if you find it, it's most likely because you accidentally see the tick, not because you feel anything. That's pretty creepy.

Or maybe you just brush your hand along your neck or scratch a spot on your scalp, and come back with a tick caught under a fingernail. That's pretty creepy too.

Resolved: Ticks are creepy.

You can be extra cautious around lush streams and ponds, but that might not help. Sometimes they lurk even in hot, dry shrubbery, and ticks have several life stages too. During the larval or nymph stages ticks can be so small they're hardly visible, but a tick bite from any disease-carrying individual can still put you down for decades.

Recently I came across two tools that might help. One is the "Tick Twister" and the other is the "Trix TickLasso". I haven't used either but they both look good.

Normally I've used the blade of a knife, slowly slid sideways from the tick's head toward its tail. Push down hard enough and the fluid pressure in the skin pops the tick out without any chance of killing or dismembering it. I do the killing after it's out.

This can be a little awkward to do alone, like the time I came home and found one at waist level, at the back of my pelvis. Had to sit on the bathroom counter with two mirrors and try this. Ended up digging out a chunk of hide in the process.

Either of these tools look like they'd do a much better job.

Tick Twister

The Tick Twister is a plastic hook shaped a little like a nail puller. In fact, the first prototype was made from a nail bent and cut into this shape. It comes in two sizes, and there is a new model that hangs on a key chain.

You slide it around the tick's head and then twist (after lodging the head into the tool's V notch). That sort of unscrews the tick without damaging it. It works on bare skin or in fur. (In case you have fur, or are close to someone who does.)

Trix TickLasso

The Trix TickLasso looks a little more complicated. At first I thought maybe this was more solution than the problem needed, but maybe it's better. I say this without even having seen either one of these.

The Trix TickLasso is shaped like a thick pen, but with a lasso at the bottom end. You loop this around any size of tick, tighten gently, and then twirl the tick around until it comes out, the same as with the other tool.

Either one would probably work pretty well, but this second one will handle any tick you find.

The Tick Twister is French and the Trix TickLasso is Swedish. Apparently they've thought about this enough to make special tools for it. A quick check indicates that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends using a tweezers, which is (based on my limited experience) probably the worst way to try this.

Something else not to do is to try a hot match, a cigarette, hand lotion, petroleum jelly, or other things. I went through all those back in my (short) Scouting days, and they all kill the tick without doing anything else. A dead tick still stuck in your skin can regurgitate back into your bloodstream, and the tick's mouthparts are barbed, which makes it hard to pull straight out, as the CDC recommends.

Twisting seems better.

Luckily, I'm now living in western Washington, and we don't have many ticks here, which is really nice.

The CDC method
Tick Twister
Trix TickLasso
Ticks on Dartmoor

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Occasional Definitions: Baking

Gingerbread castle.

Baking oven: On the trail, a pot with a lid (nonstick coating optional) that can be used to simulate baking. The pot should be out of immediate contact with a flame to prevent overheating. This is the kind of thing used by urban pansies in drive-in campgrounds. Backpackers and thru-hikers don’t have the time or patience to play with this sort of toy.

Baking: What you can do at home but not on the trail. No really.

Squeez bacon.

From: Fire In Your Hand

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mighteous Lightfulness

Spirit Lake.

Just back from a five day backpacking trip I have a renewed sense of how hard this sport can be.

I'm not a cross-country walker. The idea is appealing, but I don't have the chops. I'm old enough that I can't just take off half a year, do some stuff, and crash with my parents. They aren't around any more.

Not only that, my body wouldn't stand a multi-month trip, much as I'd like to do one. I've reached the point where I can do what I can do and have to let go of the rest. Then again, this isn't so bad. Everyone is only temporarily able-bodied. At least I can get out every now and then and live close to a lot of interesting country.

But given that, I have a fair amount of experience. I've paid attention, practiced, and thought things through. I know the drill, so when I do make a trip I can do it pretty efficiently and safely. If I pay attention.

That helps, but it doesn't cover all the bases. Walking with a full pack is still hard work. Walking with a full pack piled extra full of water in the hot sun, going up one side of a mountain and down the other while being eaten by flies is much harder.

I just got back from tramping across the north side of the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

About a month ago I hiked around the mountain, and don't recommend that until two intense seasons of trail maintenance go by. It's just too torn up.

But north of the mountain things are better.

There is an area called the "Mt. Margaret Backcountry", which got the full force of the blast in 1980 but differs from the land closer to the cinder cone in that it is not flat. It's a series of ridges, peaks, and deep holes. Still, though, everything that was there at the time was blown away or incinerated.

Now, 29 years later, trees are returning. There are shrubs, flowers, grasses, and many small blue lakes quietly nestle in the deep holes among the peaks. And even farther north there is old growth forest (thick, tall, impressive western red cedar, douglas fir, hemlock and other species) and flat, smooth trails.

I wanted to hike across the Mt. Margaret Backcountry, skipping the required camping permit by traversing the whole thing in one day, and then hit the northernmost part of the Monument for a couple of days, and then backtrack out.

It seemed feasible. The first and last days would be about 17 miles. The map showed some up and down but it didn't look too bad. At least there were no deep, crumbling, dangerous collapsing canyons roiling with boulders and clouds of dust as there are all along the Loowit Trail, which circles the mountain. I had enough of those a month ago.

Back side of Mt Margaret.

This is where some principles of backpacking in general, and lightweight backpacking come together to make things:

  • Possible
  • Safe
  • Enjoyable

First, and probably most important, is the reality check. You need to have enough experience behind you (especially if you're going solo) to know what your limits are, what the weather can do, and how to prepare.

You also need to keep current.

The first backpacking trip of the year tends to be a shakedown cruise. You take too much, or not enough. You forget that you really need to be in really good shape. Sometimes you think you can go farther than you really can. Things like that.

A trip or two (even a handful of day hikes) brings you back to reality, keeps you from going nuts and getting hurt. They also get you back into practice. A person needs to stay on top of the game. Given a decade or two of experience the first one or two trips every year bring back enough memories to pull up the focus. This is good.

Ideally, for the sake of sanity, you'd go out and do a trip, wait two weeks, and repeat the same trip. You would be sure to get everything right the second time around. But who would do that?

So you try to remember what you already learned the hard way, and prime yourself afresh with the year's first trip.

Or so you hope.

I kind of blew it. Not terribly, but I wasn't tuned in yet. The trip was too ambitious and the route was harder than I thought. I put on a lot of miles in five days but went only three fourths as far as I'd planned.

But here's where the other stuff comes in. I didn't get hurt, go hungry, get cold, get heat stroke, or get lost. The trip I did wasn't the one I planned but after some mid-course mental adjustments it turned into a shorter trip that was just hard enough and just long enough.

This is where ultralight principles kicked in. They saved my butt.

There wasn't much to do about the weather, the water supply, or the terrain. The weather was warm and sunny but not hot. The terrain was rugged, either going up or down (some of the trail seemed intentionally designed to be infuriating). Most important, water was nonexistent in some areas.

I couldn't control these, but could control the rest.

The first day I began hiking at 8 a.m. and didn't get to bed until 10 p.m., partly because I had to carry a full day's load of water. This was about six quarts or 12 pounds (6 l at 5.5 kg). Ascending a couple thousand feet (610 m) in the sun with that water weight added onto a five-day supply of food and all your gear makes it a completely different kind of party.

Although the air was cool, there were long stretches in full sun and dead air, which made it seem 20 degrees hotter.

The Dome

Fine. Enough whining. Here's the rest of the story.

By practicing light hiking you can prune the stress level back and do more with less, which is what I had to do. The categories are:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Thoughtfulness
  3. Efficiency


Simplicity means taking only what's needed, and only enough of it to get the job done. Take the smallest, simplest, lightest items that can possibly do the job.

For example, I carry an LED light instead of a traditional flashlight with incandescent bulb. In fact I take two. They're only a quarter ounce (7 g) each, so the redundancy doesn't hurt. Since there is no substitute for light, taking two adds a nice safety margin. In a pinch I can use a piece of duct tape instead of medical adhesive tape (or vice versa), but can't replace light with anything else.

With everything else, though, I either take the lightest, simplest thing I can find, or leave it out altogether.


Thoughtfulness is the key.

Thoughtfulness is based partly on smarts and partly on experience. To get really simple and really light takes thought. And good ideas are just that. Most good ideas fail on the first try, since they're really bad ideas, so experience is necessary as a filter. Once you get a handle on what works, what doesn't, and what's best your your very own self, you can break your gear and processes into categories and continue to think through them.

I have ten categories:

  • Shelter. No need for a tent, most of the time. Drop it and save two to four pounds (1 - 2 kg). Small tarps are the lightest way to go, but I can't sleep on the ground any more. My hammock is heavier than a tarp but intensely comfy and still lighter than a tent.
  • Bedding. A down bag works, preferably one that is too light. Wear all your clothing to bed and also stay out of the wind. A two-ounce (60 g) Mylar emergency blanket, folded and kept against the chest adds a lot of warmth without weight. Or use it as a bag liner.
  • Pack. Some are barely there. I make my own and although they aren't the lightest available, mine are less than half the weight of mainstream packs, and do exactly and only what I need. My packs are also getting smaller as the seasons go by as my philosophy moves toward using external stuff sacks for temporary overflow rather than having a big pack.
  • Food. Keep it as dry as possible, with as much fat as possible. I'm experimenting with two cold meals a day, for speed and simplicity though this might not be the lightest way to go. We'll see.
  • Water. For mass loads of water I use the 2.5 l Platypus bladders, which fold flat and weigh nothing when empty. Mostly I use an Aquamira filter + bottle for on-the-go drinking.
  • Cookset. My rig weighs around six ounces (170 g): stove, on-ground reflector, pot stand, wind screen, pot, lid, lighter and matches. It's about the size of my two fists put together. Tiny and light.
  • Clothing. Never take more than you can wear at once but always have dry clothes to sleep in, or come as close as you can. Overnight, clothes fill in as half of my insulation.
  • Protection: Rainwear and a wind shell. My full-coverage wind shell weighs six ounces (170 g). I wear it to bed, in the morning and evening, and during stops (if cool enough, to keep off bugs). If the weather is guaranteed dry I'll leave rainwear at home, or escalate by taking any of several outfits depending on what might come along.
  • Sundries. These are things like rubber bands, safety pins, a tiny blade, some bandages, emergency water treatment backup, extra line, needle and thread, and so on. Also a bottle of liquid soap, a square of fleece to wash with, maps, nail clippers. All things you can do without unless you need them or don't want to be dangerously filthy. Rubber bands, safety pins, and duct tape can be real life savers.
  • Footwear. I haven't worn boots for nine years, and shudder to think of going back to them. Trail running shoes work for everything I've come up against, and save huge amounts of walking energy while being much easier on the feet.

Mt Adams from Coldwater Peak.


Efficiency kicks in when I've got all the above sorted out and remember how to do everything right. I try to focus on speed without sacrificing fun.

Going light means that on the trail you can go fast. Climbing is easier, descending is not so hard on the knees and ankles, and on level ground you can really howl with a light pack.

Efficiency means quick and organized setup at a campsite in the evening, and quick packing in the morning. With my hammock I simply pull a sleeve over the whole thing (hammockers call this a "snake skin") and the fly, the hammock, the under-quilt, and the supporting lines are all converted to one long sausage for easy stuffing into a pack.

Eating a cold breakfast and supper (pre-baked at home) means no need for cooking or any cleanup at all for those two meals, and less fuel carried.

Washing is efficient because I carry a bottle with a water filter in it. Pull out the filter and the bottle becomes a handy scoop for pouring water over myself. A small square of fleece fills in for sponge baths on cold days or when there's no opportunity to disrobe and splash.

So what's my conclusion? I did screw up on the last trip.

My plan was too ambitious and I wasn't fully prepared. I had to carry huge loads of water uphill for miles. This was hot, tedious, and slow.

The up side was that if this had been the old days when I thought a 40 pound (18 kg) pack was light, I wouldn't have made it past the first day.

By honing my technique and doing some thinking over the past several years I haven't achieved any miracles. While I'm getting tuned in and smarter I'm also getting older and weaker, but the advantages of traveling light, simply, and efficiently mean that I can still do better than at least 90% of backpackers out there, with less, and still have fun.

So it's OK for now.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Occasional Trails: Florida National Scenic Trail

  • Name : Florida National Scenic Trail
  • Location : Florida
  • Length (miles) : Trail system: 1800, thru trail: 1562, roadwalk: 360.
  • Best season : All: October through April. Thru-hikers: January through May.
  • Features : Diverse ecosystems. Marl mud and deep water sections. Dike hiking. Sand and scrub areas. Winter temperature ranges of 20 to 80 degrees F, with short days. Panthers, black bears, alligators, pit vipers, coral snakes, mosquitoes, raccoons, squirrels, armadillos, fire ants, ticks. Squatter camps, meth labs, and various armed loonies in the Ocala National Forest
  • Permits : Required. Membership in the Florida Trail Association is a legal requirement for private, reservation, and military areas.
  • Info at : Florida Trail Association Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Trail sign.

The Florida National Scenic Trail is only part of the Florida Trail System which includes various loops and side trails in state parks and forests, wildlife management areas, water management areas, and other public and private lands.

Think of it as a trail kit.

So permitting for thru-hikes is unique. You must be an FTA member. They arrange permissions for you, in writing, which you absolutely need. The Seminole Indian Reservation has a monthly hiker quota. Eglin Air Force Base requires an FTA letter verifying your thru-hiker status (and they are not easily humored).

You also need to cross private land. Routes and permissions change constantly. The FTA maps, guidebook, and cooperation are essential.

The northern terminus of this trail is in the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola and the southern terminus is in Big Cypress National Preserve east of Naples, but if you decide against a long trip there are dozens of trailheads and day hikes to choose from.

Panther on trail.

Most thru-hikers start in the south, in January, and go north. They avoid hunting seasons and the worst bugs. This is important because mosquitoes are top predators and winter hikers can skip "full-coverage bug suits".

Hunting seasons. Some areas prohibit camping then, and, well, one recommended clothing item is a safety orange poncho (or orange pack cover). Hint: both rain and bullets can be annoying.

One reassuring feature is that the entire route is marked, though most Floridians, even those living along the trail, do not know that it exists, so if you do need directions you might get only a blank stare.

Resupply isn't generally a problem though the Apalachicola National Forest has an 83-mile stretch where you are on your own.

Hiker on flooded trail.

Compared to other trails: No mountains or huge vistas but you will be ankle deep in spots, even deeper in wet years. "Folks who get bitten by gators are generally swimming near dawn or dusk when the gator can't distinguish that the foot it is biting is attached to something much bigger." OK then!

Drought years may leave you panting for anything wet enough to swallow.

So winter is hiking season, and though generally pleasant, temperatures can quickly zip below freezing, on the coattails of raging rains. And all winter hiking days are short.

Fun parts: Big Cypress has an abundant supply of marl mud and deep water. Bradwell Bay: miles of swamp forest. South Florida dikes are lumpy to walk on. Parts of the Ocala National Forest have unhealthy quantities of soft sand and meth labs.

For footwear you can try running shoes, or light boots, or sandals, but should avoid anything that can be sucked off your feet. Toe protection is good too.

But even a six inch elevation change can move you from one ecosystem to another, so there's always something to see. Like many, many kinds of flowers and trees not found elsewhere. And lots of fascinating and mostly well behaved critters.

You could (if you are very lucky) get a glimpse of a vanishingly rare Florida panther, or an (even rarer) hiking alligator. Or, rarest of all, another thru-hiker.

Field of atamasco lilies.


Clyde Butcher Photo Journal

Clyde Butcher photography

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fire, Can It Be Fitted Nasally?

Wretched excess.

Fire making is a complex process, as you know if you've ever tried to start one.

Harry Houdini said "That fire could be produced through friction finally came into the knowledge of man, but the early methods entailed much labor." No kidding.

This man had been around. If anyone knew, he did. If you don't think so then try rubbing things together and see what happens. Not much.

You will get bored, and tired, and blistered. To break the tedium try rubbing a balloon and sticking it onto the cat. You'll get excitement, heat without light, and some scratches. But no fire.

When you finally get fire it's because you did everything right. You need the atoms of one thing (fuel) excited enough to go and fight with atoms of another thing (oxygen). They get all mixed up, give each other lots of black eyes, and produce lots of heat and light. You want this. This is fire.

You need three things for fire: oxygen, fuel, and heat. This is true. Ask any firefighter. They know.

Luckily for us the atmosphere is 21% oxygen, and available worldwide, but things weren't always this convenient.

Portable fire starter.

It took billion of years for disturbingly odd nameless blobs mucking around blindly to come up with the idea of oxygen at all. Then more millions and millions of years until they produced enough of it to matter, and it turned out to be toxic, killing most of them, but they kept at it, all so you could cook lunch.

So next time you see a wad of pulsing slime working away, churning out oxygen, how about a kind word? Maybe a kind word and a handful of granola? You can spare it.

OK, item two: fuel.

Fuel is what burns. Look around and you'll see plenty of it. For example, if you've ever set your pants on fire you've discovered fuel. Fuel is often the limiting resource in the fire equation, especially if you're wearing shorts.

Finally, the magical third ingredient, the hot stuff, heat. It starts things going and keeps them going.

So you have a fire, but the ideal, if you want a good, hot cup of coffee, is a controlled but self-sustaining fire. For this you need to be good at math, but not all that good. No adding or long division needed, just balancing this simple, three-element equation: heat plus oxygen plus fuel equals fire.

Or, if your higher faculties are more limited than that (possibly due to hunger, or because you're a backpacker) just remember that when you see wood and air and a flame you get a yummy cooked treat. Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf!

Don't let these be yours.

The theory of fire (there is such a thing), calls this "ignition continuity".

Here's how it works. Heat from the fire (the bright, wiggly, hot part that burns your paws) cycles back into the fuel and oxygen mix and keeps them hot enough to continue doing that thing that they do. Adults may know this as an "uninhibited chain reaction", but a full description is not available here.

Another interesting fact: solid fuel does not burn, and neither does liquid fuel. Only the whiffy, stinky, smelly stuff does. The whiffy, stinky, smelly stuff may be visible (smoke, from vaporized wood) or invisible (vaporized white gas, naptha, alcohol, benzin, kerosene, butane, or whatever you call it where you live).

Now, time for a quick review.

If you want a hot lunch you need oxygen, and fuel, and some kind of energy to kickstart things. Then when burning begins it throws off more heat, which keeps the process going. And this process continues until something runs out. Run out of fuel, or oxygen, or heat, and you're done. You need all three. So it pays to be quick with the weenies or you'll have to eat them cold.

Now you know why you can put out a fire by throwing water or sand on it (cuts off oxygen and cools it) or by pulling sticks out (removes the fuel). Or by taking off your pants (if you made a terrible mistake).

Of course there is more to it than this, and if you promise to be very, very good we may continue our story later some time.

Based on Fire In Your Hand

Fire triangle.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Feet In Up To My Knees

KMart sandals.

The problem.

I have a problem. I hike. I also backpack, which is more of a problem. You know if you've done it. With backpacking you're out there, on your own, for a good while, and what you have along is what you have to use. Don't have it, can't use it. Simple as that.

One of my special problems, one I'm sure I share with everyone who backpacks, is what to do when I come to a stream. Do I:

  1. Chicken out and go home, or
  2. Flap my little arms and fly across, or
  3. Stomp on through, or
  4. Tediously take off my shoes, put on something else, wade across, find a spot on the other side to sit and dry out, and then go ahead and do that, and get back into my shoes and stow my wading footwear, and continue, sometimes for only five minutes before I have to repeat the whole process?

Hint. Pick the long, boring, tedious answer.

I'm not brave enough to do the easy, obvious thing. Maybe it's something about Australians, or maybe it was only this one guy, but I was on a trip with one of them, and the guy just tromped right through the streams, high top leather boots and all, and kept going. I guess he was used to drying out in under a fortnight. I'd lived in Washington long enough to experience the joy of finding mold inside my boots, after trying to dry them for a week.

Cheap Foamies zorries.

And I have an issue that can't be unique. I can't go far with wet feet. Skin gets soft, socks rub on skin, feet rub inside shoes, skin comes off in sheets. Then this hiker experiences unhappiness.

Part two.

Is having footwear for in camp. I usually haven't needed this since I stopped wearing boots almost nine years ago, but.

There are times when your feet are tired, or you have a blister, or only a couple of sore spots that could use a break. Then it's nice to have a second pair.

Or say you went ankle deep in muck. You want to wash your shoes and then they need to dry. It doesn't help dry shoes to wear them wet, and it isn't fun either. It's nice to have something else.

If it's a dewy morning in camp, or raining, and you leave your hiking shoes off then they stay dry. But you need more than bare feet to make it work.

Sometimes it simply feels better to wear a second pair of shoes for a while. You can't do it with only one pair.

Modified throwaway insoles.

Tried this, tried that.

  • A second pair of hiking shoes is a possible solution but not for me. Too big, too bulky, too heavy. Anything much lighter, smaller or cheaper would be hard to find.
  • There are specialized water shoes. Which reminds me of the next big trend: sleeping shoes. Bleh. That was a good joke the first time I heard it, but watch -- someone will make them yet. Anyway this is once again too specialized, too big, heavy, expensive and so on. Simply more of the same.
  • Sandals. I've never had a real pair, but do have some cheap ones from KMart. They are great, if I wear them with socks. They strap on tight, the socks keep the scratchy straps at bay and protect my toes, the soles are thick and the grip is good. The problem is that they are big (about an inch thick) and stiff, and heavy, and the two-layer soles began to separate early on, so I'd never want to really rely on them. Some glue fixed the soles problem but you never know. They did cost only a few bucks though. Good for stream walking.
  • Zorries. (Flip-flops, jandals, chappal, Hawaii chappals, Qainchi chappals, thongs, slip-slops, slippers, pluggers, go-aheads, ojotas, or chancletas.) I used these for years. Once upon a time they were dirt cheap and feather light. Now not. There is only one point of contact, between the first two toes, so they are iffy in fast or deep water. The light pseudo-rubber sort-of-plastic material they're made of has little strength, ages quickly, and disintegrates if the going gets tough. They are comfy, easy-on, easy-off, quick drying, and rinse clean though. To my last pair I added some elastic shock cord to make a loop that went around the heel. This improved them a lot. I didn't worry so much about loss in fast water but they still slid around when the going got tough. Really handy in camp.
  • Booties. Neoprene booties for cycling and other purposes are available but are probably all too expensive to fool with, and easily abraded, so I won't bother trying. I have used a leaky old pair of Rocky Socks Gore-Tex booties though. Sometimes I take these as sort-of-OK protection for semi-wet days, but I have used them for wading too. Wear these with socks inside shoes and you are just about unstoppable at wading, but if you're in up to your knees everything below gets soaked anyway. Wear then without shoes for stream crossings and they're good, but should be worn with socks, to fend off pointy stones. But you wouldn't want to pay $50 for a new set and then ruin them by wading. Better to try...
  • Socks. Plain socks work well as anything. They fit. They stay on. They cushion. They are cheap (no need to use a new pair). They are handy. They are light. OK, now the down side. Socks don't dry fast at all. Sometimes it takes a full day to dry them, even in warm weather. And they get gunky with sand, mud, stickers, and thorns. So not great.
  • Barefoot is the ultimate in light weight. I've done this too. Some times it's delightful, usually not. You have no protection, and can easily peel off a toenail, or worse. And unless you go barefoot a lot the soles of your feet will be uselessly tender. But feet are quick to dry, always enjoy being rinsed, and can simply be brushed off to remove grit after they dry.

The rest.

I haven't tried anything else except for a pair of throwaway insoles from new shoes. I got this idea from Carol "Brawny" Wellman. They're like zorries, but there is less there.

Homemade wading shoes.

Thread some shock cord through the insoles to give your toes a grip, then run another loop around the back, to grab your heel. Add a cord lock in the right place and you can tighten them.

These work around camp, and in calmer streams, but they don't stay centered under the soles of your feet, so they're goofy to use. In fast water they move around so much that they're like going half barefoot. Even around camp they move around, and they're too narrow and short to serve well. Your toes hang off the front, and the sides of your feet get into the dirt. Or you're only half walking on them.

But they are light, and free.

Homemade wading shoes.

So, what, then?

What I want is something that will:

  • Give me protection from pointy stones, and the occasional piece of glass or metal (or nails).
  • Keep my wet feet out of the sand and dirt.
  • Be convenient.
  • Be compact enough to tuck away in a pack pocket.
  • Dry fast.
  • Be durable.
  • Will let me stay nimble but sure-footed.
  • Be light.
  • Be as cheap as possible.

Not there yet.

I have more work to do but I'm getting closer. I made a pair of booties that look promising. Loopy but promising. I used some mesh left over from a sewing project. For soles I put in a couple of those throwaway insoles that come with running shoes.

I'm hoping that the mesh will give a good grip and will dry fast.

These aren't made that well, but they are small and light.

Mesh with any strength at all is heavy. Heavier than solid fabric. So after I play with these for a while I'm going to try solid fabric. It should dry fast enough, and since it's solid and not mesh it will keep out stones, grit, sticks, and other annoying things.

Homemade wading shoes.

Wait, wait! Weights.
Footwear                             Ounces       Grams
Barefoot:                              0.0            0
Insole zorries:                        1.9           54
Gore-Tex booties (approximate):        3.0           85
Socks (approximate):                   3.0           85
Home made wading booties:              4.5          128
Commercial zorries:                    4.7          133
KMart sandals:                         9.0          255



Carol "Brawny" Wellman gram weenie sandals.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Occasional Definitions: Beer

Hoist one.

Hoist one.

An alcoholic beverage made from barley, water, yeast and hops. Most hikers crave it, but since there is no dehydrated form, few hikers carry it. Beer cannot be burned in backpacking stoves and must be metabolized by the body. Though useless for cooking, it often causes joy. Beer can lead to mental and physiological changes that range from pleasant and fuzzy emotions to complete and even catastrophic muscle relaxation. Should be taken orally.

From: Fire In Your Hand

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Now Demonic, Formerly Saintly Helens

Map with waypoints.

Map with waypoints.

  • Name: Loowit Trail.
  • Location: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in southwest Washington State.
  • Length: About 33 miles, but longer with detours.
  • Attractions: One active volcano, old and young forests, deserts, waterfalls, big views.
  • Best seasons: Mid July through mid October.
  • Permits: Fee required for trailhead parking but wide open otherwise.
  • Info: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Mount St. Helens VolcanoCams

I just finished a more or less annual pilgrimage to Mt. St. Helens, barely.

I like to hike around it. The distance is short but there is a lot to see, and the terrain is varied. There are places where you can go from cool forest to desert in 50 feet. My kind of desert. Shade and water on demand.

After getting inspired in 2000 by seeing two guys running around the mountain in one day I came back the following June and hiked it in one day, with a repeat in October. It was tough as a day hike. You can't do that any more.

Early morning, approaching the mountain.

Early morning, approaching the mountain.

Then came the following winter. Slightly less rain, but only slightly. More flooding, more washing out, more washing away.

Blast zone from Windy Pass.

Blast zone from Windy Pass.

The Loowit Trail around St. Helens hasn't seen maintenance for at least two years now. There are canyons that used to be ravines, ravines that used to be shallow gullies, gullies where there used to be flat ground. Hiking around St. Helens today is a death trip. For a competent, experienced, strong, and resourceful backpacker, I'd recommend allowing a week for the trip. If you live, and if you also finish in less time, OK, but give yourself time. The big problem is the staying alive part.

This trip is no longer an adventure. It is an ordeal.

But some things haven't changed.

There is dust. Lots of dust. Everywhere. Soon after rain, or early in the year, the soil has moisture. This cuts some of the dust, but is more like a safety margin. A bit of damp in the soil holds it together. Once dry this stuff becomes like talc. Talc with boulders.

If there is soil moisture you can ease up or down the side wall of a ravine or canyon, but not when things go dry. Just look at one of these places and things let go, dumping hundreds of pounds of powder and rock.

A step up from dust is sand. There is sand everywhere. Nice to walk on when damp, but it gets into everything. Dust and sand coat your whole body and everything you carry. It's in the water, in your socks, in your food, under your eyelids. Everywhere.

Cinder cone from the blast zone.

Cinder cone from the blast zone.

There is little shade, little protection from either sun or wind. It is a windy place. At times it can knock you down. It chokes you with dust.

Water is rare. Strangely, the best watered piece of the mountain is the north, the place that got blasted the hardest, where everything got wiped away. There is nothing there, even after 29 years, other than sand, dust, rocks, the odd shrub, and a few stems of grass. But several springs feed willow thickets, and Loowit Creek, tumbling out of the crater over Loowit Falls, is a permanent stream. The rest of the mountain dries as the season advances, except for an almost hidden spring on the southeast side, and the South Fork of the Toutle River on the northwest side. Both of them are dependable but hard to reach.

At the right time, especially if you are quiet and unobtrusive, you can see elk, sometimes hundreds. Other large critters are scarce. You might see a coyotes out in the open, but probably not. They never stay to talk.

The wind brushes away most bugs, and the land is barren and open and mostly shut of them anyway.

Canyon crossing, sans trail.

Canyon crossing, sans trail.

On a clear day you can see the massive Mt. Rainier hulking to the north, the blunt Mt. Adams squatting to the east, and the poking, vertical needle of Mt. Hood to the southeast.

This has always been a tough place to hike, but now I'm afraid I'm going to stop going there. No hiking around the mountain any more. The Loowit Trail needs two seasons of serious trail work to bring it back. It's too dangerous to bother any more.

Today I'm glad for two things. First, that I decided to hike clockwise this year. I usually go the other way, but wouldn't have made it through the toughest parts. Second, I'm glad to be alive. I should have slid off the mountain at Toutle River, and died. I left skin and blood there but kept my life. More than fair.

Johnston Ridge Observatory on the north side was my start and finish. On the map I've included, point 1 is the Muddy River canyon. It isn't a hazard yet, but might be one some day. You can walk upslope of the waterfall and get around it.

Point 2 though, nearby, is the canyon of Shoestring Creek.

Shoestring always was large, and hard, and dirty, but now it's all but impassable. It is roughly 100 feet deep and 300 across. There was a trail once, difficult and dirty, but it vanished long ago. I must have needed at least an hour to get through, and felt lucky. The only way in was a slump in the canyon wall where loose soil and stones reclined at a less than vertical pitch. I fell only once, got a couple bruises. On the far side snow and shallow tributary gullies made an exit easier. This canyon runs from the top of the mountain to nearly its bottom like a blockade, and there is no detour route.

You see another ravine or two after that, and then go into large rocks, and then into forest. The forest is nice. Quiet, sheltered, secluded.

Heather? Dunno, but it's purdy.

Heather? Dunno, but it's purdy.

There are three major boulder fields, but right in the middle you get a break. Swift Creek spills down the mountain and there are trees, and it's a good place to camp.

The south side of the mountain is dry open forest on the east, thinning to grass on the west. There are several small ravines, where there never used to be much in the way of obstacles, but it isn't bad going. Early in the season there is snow wherever there are trees, and in the bottom of every gully, ravine, and canyon. A good thing. I don't know how a person could negotiate some of these later in the season, not any more, when their bottoms aren't filled in and smoothed out by snow.

For some reason the Monument's web site warns of the ravine near Butte Camp trail (point 4), but it isn't bad. Nuisance level. Point 5 is worse, but not by much, at least with snow in it.

Point 6 (all these areas, even if they contain streams, seem to lack names) is a real booger. See the photo. See the trail. See the trail shooting off into empty space. In 2001 when I first day hiked this trail the ravine had been freshly deepened by winter rain, and the bottom 20 or so feet was nearly vertical (OK, only about a 60 degree slope), but I was able to kick steps into the soil both going in and coming out. Now this has eroded into a huge canyon a couple hundred feet deep and requires a long detour down slope, at least a half mile each way, maybe more, off trail. But the forest down there is nice, and good for camping, if you bring water. Overall, a time-eating but almost pleasant detour.

Plain below crater.

Plain below crater.

Point 7 is a wide but shallow canyon. By the time you get here you are sick of dust and climbing through holes, let alone wondering if you can finish. But it's too late to turn around, so you slog.

Right into the killer. Point 8 is the South Fork of the Toutle River. Once upon a time this was a refuge, a little paradise. You looked forward to it. The river is pleasant, eight to 10 feet across, and clean. Its south side is forested, cool, and clean. The north side used to be a long switchback trail, ankle deep with fine dust, that wound its way up several hundred feet to a wide plain.

Not now.

Coming from the south you leave canyon 7 and see rich grass dotted with white snags, still standing since they died in 1980. Then comes forest, but below, toward the bottom, the trail is overgrown with alder, vine maple, and thorn shrubs. The trail used to end with a dusty ramp trail leading to Toutle River. You tiptoed across and continued on the far side. Simple, easy, clean. Lovely.

Now it's different.

Those heavy winter rains scoured out the river bed by about 50 feet. Straight down. Like a professional trenching job with straight, precise, vertical walls. No way down except by gravity. No way out. You come to the end of the trail, go down that old ramp, and where the river bed used to be is air and a ribbon of foam at the bottom of the drop.

Coming from the south it's easy to begin a detour. You hike down stream until the walls of rubble along the river subside enough to allow crossing. But on the north side there is no way out. There is a bench, almost flat, with easy walking, but it dead ends at a landslide chute. I decided to go over that, but it looked too spooky to try once I got to it.

And this is where I failed the intelligence test.

Loowit Falls.

Loowit Falls.

Option A (the right choice) was to ease up, backtrack, hike farther down stream, and walk up the mountainside through brush and forest.

Option B (the death option) was to continue a vertical scramble up the barren earth wall of the canyon (another 200 to 300 vertical feet) and burrow into the forest up there. So I picked option B. Right. This is where I should have died.

The slope began loose, sandy and gravelly, possible to stand in. Like soft snow. I kicked steps into it. Then it turned hard -- bare mineral soil with a 45 degree slant. I used my trekking poles for balance, but could barely kick toeholds. It was exhausting. I made missteps. I should have fallen but somehow I didn't.

Up above I reached a field of small boulders stuck in the slope and tried scrambling from one to another. Until one after another gave way and rolled to their deaths. I should have too.

That was too scary so I went back to standing up and using trekking poles, making about two steps a minute, each one sure to be my last, but somehow that didn't happen. At the top a bull-sized boulder let me crawl onto its back, and stayed put. A lunge took me over the edge onto grass.

Another hour threading through conifers, shrubs, fallen trees, thorns, and willow thickets took me to the plain above the canyon. Stupid but safe, alive for now.

Points 9 through 12 on the map are all passable ravines or canyons, but not at all pleasant. Not a fun challenge by this point. Point 12 is the valley of Studebaker Creek. It's deep and broad, and is one of the largest canyons on the mountain but is relatively easy. For now. No telling about next year.

Another minor canyon appears after a while, on the east side Studebaker Ridge (point 13), and it's hard and awkward but not dangerous. Past several more small gullies and ravines, and you're out onto the rocky, sandy plain of the blast zone, under the mountain's maw. Walking here is only tedious and dirty. Any place not covered by stones (egg size, fist size, grapefruit size, soccer ball size, beach ball size) is deep sand and gravel. More slogging.

There is a flat valley with a nameless stream. It descends from a waterfall on the crater's edge. The stream is normally small but negotiating its banks takes planning. More tedium. Tedium level 14.

Next is Loowit Creek (15). It roars but doesn't bite, though you need to wade it. It's warm.

Greenery on the east side.

Greenery on the east side.

Its banks, though, are tougher. Both the outer and inner banks are awkward and steep. You have to hunt for a route. Sometimes the banks are too soft and crumbly, sometimes too concrete hard. Bad either way. You never know which it'll be.

Once past Loowit Creek you go east, then north, then west and end at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The walking is not easy but not dangerous, only a test of will. Your aching, dirty, beat up body versus fatigue, tedium, and dust-caked sweat. There is a boggy stretch thick with willows and more sand and more dust, but it's only annoying in a sloppy way.

Yeah, so OK, I was stupid enough to go back this year even though last year was ugly. I should have known. And I should have died. But given that this place is a strange beast with features you're unlikely to find elsewhere, parts of it are worthwhile.

Recommended: the Smith Creek valley. I've spent a lot of time there. It's on the northeast side of the mountain, and though chewed up is still fun. Access is easy enough, you get a good view of the cinder cone and the valley as you drop into it, and there are enough streams there to keep you fascinated. No one hikes this valley though a few bicyclists ride through.

Lava Canyon, on the far eastern end of this valley, is an amazing place, like a natural Disneyland, with waterfalls, cliffs, chutes of roaring foam, forest, and a pillar of solid rock standing in the middle of it all, accessible by trail. You can hang your toes over the edge and look straight down at Muddy River (a crystalline stream). The bad news here is more trail damage.

You probably don't want to try the Loowit Trail now. Maybe 2011 or later, if the Forest Service does a bunch of work. Even Lava Canyon is impassable, unless you are very, very bold. So for now it's the north half of the mountain or the Smith Creek valley, rewarding in their own ways.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Bearable Lightness Of Shades

Are you still looking for the ultimate in post-mydriatic and dental procedure protective eyewear?

Or could you use some really light sunglasses? You can now have both.

While having an eye exam several years ago I realized that I'd found the perfect sunglasses. This was when I was redoing my whole approach to backpacking and getting wicked light.

I already had a pair of clip-on sunglasses. Those are great. They're polarized, so they cut reflections and glare, and let me see into pools of water. I like that. I always want to know what's in there, breathing water and watching me back. Can't hurt.

And the polarized lenses interact with sunlight and reflections and make the world a little sparkly and shimmery at times. I'm not sure quite how this happens but it can be fun on a boring day.

Clever, eh? Fit right over glasses.

Clever, eh? Fit right over glasses.

But these sunglasses aren't perfect. The little clipper thingies always end up scratching my expensive lenses where they touch. And the clip-on lenses get scratched too. It's awkward to take them off because they themselves pick up scratches even if I keep them in a soft cloth. And taking them off means that I can lose the suckers, or break them. They break. Breaking isn't good.

OK, done with that subject.

Besides the clip-ons I had a couple pair of giant goggle-like things. These are all plastic, all transparent, all tinted, and will fit over glasses. You can wear them with or without your own glasses underneath. This is good. I think some models come with polarized lenses too, which is a plus. You've probably seen geezers wearing these around. Geezers take to them the way kids go after candy.

But they're big and heavy, they can break, they get scratched, they're relatively expensive, and it isn't harder to lose them than anything else.

I wear glasses all the time. That's another reason I don't own a gun. Without the glasses I couldn't even shoot at anything that moves, because it's all a blur out there, so why bother? I can't wear contact lenses, don't want pre$cription sungla$$es, and am not likely to get my eyeballs carved by laser beams.

So I can't wear a $2 pair of dark glasses unless I want to stick them on over my real glasses and scratch the snot out of them and look enormously entertaining.

Looking goofy isn't too big a problem. I've got that pretty well nailed anyway. The real problem is finding cheap, light sun protection that works, and doesn't destroy my prescription lenses.

So back to paragraph three: While having an eye exam several years ago I realized that I'd found the perfect sunglasses. This was when I was redoing my whole approach to backpacking.

I hate these exams. They are the ones where you get the eye drops that burn like crazy, and then after a few minutes your pupils get so big that people start backing away, if not turning to run for their lives. Well that part is kind of cool, but by the time your eyes are that dilated you can't see what's going on anyway. You have to go over the surveillance tapes after the police arrive.

But it's kind fun except for the burning eyes.

Right, so there I was with these buggy eyes and then my eye doctor handed me a roll of dark plastic in a paper sleeve. Rollens. Damn. I was so much in love, like instantly. Like totally.

Rollens is a single piece of flexible plastic. It's a springy plastic sheet, fairly sturdy, but completely flexible, transparent, and tinted. It's a piece cut out in the shape of my big goggles -- at least the front part. If you unroll it and hold it flat on a table it looks like goggles without the pieces that go around the side of your head and over your ears.

It doesn't look too weird until you put it on.

Then, if you don't wear glasses it still looks pretty much OK, even sexy on some people. At least I think so.

Ditto, and you can appear slightly smug too.

Ditto, and you can appear slightly smug too.

If you do wear glasses, you put this on, and the springiness and curl of the plastic holds it in place on your head, but then you put your glasses on over it and get a second chance to scare the bejeebers out of everyone.

But for an ultralighter everything is fine. We're all about weight and utility, and Rollens is great. I've laid one of these down on a table, all rolled up, and pounded it with my fist to demonstrate how good they are. No problem. A slight crease is all, and it didn't matter.

They get scratched but who cares? They don't contact the lenses of your real glasses, and even if you just wear the Rollens without any glasses, they stay on your face because of the inherent springiness of the material.

Rollens offers 80% ultraviolet protection, the design is full-coverage (almost no light leaks in around the edges), it doesn't break, and you can't tear it, it's small, it's cheap. And of course it's light.

I can't tell you how light one of these is because the postal scale where I live doesn't even twitch when I drop one of these onto it. So that's less than a tenth of an ounce each (3 g). Rollens doesn't register. At all.

The bad part is that you can't really buy these, sort of. I bought a box of 50 at 50 cents each, shipping included, from the maker. That was a good enough deal. But they sell only in bulk. On the other hand this is roughly a lifetime supply. I hardly ever use sunglasses anyway, but it's no problem bringing one of these, and a spare too, just in case.

Highly recommended. By me.

Colors: amber, gray, and clear. Clear won't work for sunglasses (Duh!) but you still have the UV protection. The gray is a good dark shade and makes a huge difference. Don't know about amber.

I have a whole bag full of empty plastic 35mm canisters. I use one of these to carry my Rollens. The canister is a little too short but if I was fussy I could trim the Rollens down with a scissors (you can do that, no problem). I roll them up really tight and fit two into one canister. Small package. Stows easily.

If you want to try Rollens without ordering a bunch, you could check around at offices of nearby optometrists or ophthalmologists. If you already do business at one they might toss you a couple for free.

Check it out.