Bridge(s) Over Troubled Water

The Appalachian Trail wanders beside many beautiful creeks.  I could sit for hours in the cool air near a fast-flowing stream and relax to the sound of water splish-splash-burbling as it hurries down the mountainside.

The AT, however, rarely stays sedately beside the waterway. For some reason, the trail-builders move the trail from one side to the other of far too many streams. If shallow, the hiker just splashes through the water, hoping to keep boots dry. No stress…just one more trail experience. fording, stream crossingWhen the stream is deep, there may be stepping stones. It can be challenging to hop from rock to rock or to carefully navigate teetery, tippy stones. This adds an element of uncertainty to a hike. (Will I fall in? Will I get wet today?!) However, after days of heavy rain, those wobbly rocks are submerged. With rushing, roaring water, fording a flooded stream can be a dangerous adventure. ford, flooded streamIn my opinion, it doesn’t happen often enough, but it’s a relief to find a sturdy bridge over tumbling water. bridge over rapids, mountain streamWhile hiking this spring, with 23 straight days of rain in May, we often had to slog our way through swampy, boot-sucking mud. Sometimes this was on the trail itself. Other times the trail crossed areas that collect  run-off without becoming flowing streams. In locations that frequently have muck, the trail-builders sometimes erect a simple bridge which is greatly appreciated. bridge over swampThe volunteer trail-maintainers do amazing work. However, some structures are low priority and gradually fall apart. In this particular swampy area, it was hard to choose between getting wet, muddy boots, balancing across a big log or risking a rickety bridge. (I tried the bridge, daughter braved the muck. It all ended well…) obstacles_rickety bridge_log_swampFortunately, wonderful sturdy bridges have been built to safely take hikers across major streams and rivers. (I loved the irony of this: the James River Foot Bridge, designed only for foot traffic, was actually named in honor of long-time AT hiker/maintainer Bill Foot.) James River Foot BridgeEven the sickening sway of a suspension bridge is better than swimming with the fish while juggling a heavy pack overhead. (And let’s not talk about the probably poisonous snake we saw in this river when we walked to the banks to refill our water reservoirs, okay?!) suspension bridge_river crossingMountain streams are beautiful to walk beside…but it certainly eases a hiker’s mind when there is a bridge over any troubled water! ford_flooded stream

Yikes! Beware the Creepy Critters!

Oh sure, some reptiles found along the trail are harmless. It might be startling to almost step on slow-moving, bright orange eft, but it probably won’t hurt you. critters_orange eft

Seeing a huge snake in the trail is another matter. First, it makes one’s heart stop! Then there are mind-racing decisions to be made: what kind of snake is this? Is it poisonous? Will it be aggressive? What should I do? EEEEK! (We saw a number of harmless black snakes and racing-striped garter snakes crossing the trail this spring. Other hikers found rattlesnakes in the path.) critters_black snake

But the scariest critter of all? Be very, very careful if you head for the resupply town of Glasgow, VA. There is a giant dinosaur in a field in the middle of town! critters_apatosaurus_dinosaur guard

Fortunately, I hike with a elven warrior. She usually carries her (stick and string) bow. But she’s had plenty of practice fighting with her staff. Whew! critters_dino attack_elven warrior

(Check out a news story about the Dino April Fool’s prank HERE.)

Walk in the Woods?

Of course, “everyone” knows that hiking the Appalachian Trail is a Walk in the Woods. Mention backpacking on the AT and folks can picture the dirt path wandering through forest glades. path in woodsSometimes the dirt path climbs up (or down) a steep hill. dirt path up the hillOther times it leads to an overlook with beautiful views of valleys below or mountain ranges to the horizon. dirt path to overlookBut the Appalachian Trail is much more than a mere walk in the woods. Finding a section of path with (relatively) smooth dirt is a relief. Far more often, footing is precarious, filled with tree roots, root filled pathpropped up with logs or rock retaining walls on steep hillsides, path with log supportszigzagging with switchbacks or climbing man-made steps. (Thanks, trail maintenance crews!) steps on the pathNow you might point out all of the above are still variations of a dirt path wandering in the woods, which is true. However, sometimes the path is hardly visible. Underlying dirt is covered with dead leaves or with fallen pine needles. pine needle pathAt times the path continues through woods, but is a difficult clamber through jumbled boulders and tippy loose rocks. (Keep an eye out for blazes to stay on the path!) path through rock jumbleThere are many miles of the Appalachian Trail that are not in the woods at all. The path may be a steep walk over tilted bedrock. (I can’t imagine crossing this when it’s wet and slippery…) path over tilted bedrockOr the path may cross meadows–on top of mountains or across farmers’ fields. (There were cows on the other side of this hill, laying in the shade and chewing their cud.) meadow walkIt would be boring to wander a dirt trail under trees for mile after mile after mile. We are happy that backpacking the Appalachian Trail is much more than merely a walk in the woods!

 

 

Finding Food in the Woods

Before we left on our most recent backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail, a friend asked if we ever forage for wild foods. I admitted that I was nervous to do so, afraid of mis-identifying plants and eating something poisonous.

Last fall, we happily enjoyed windfall apples and pawpaws. Mmmm…sweet and juicy. What a treat while hiking! And we hear rumors that early summer offers plenty of opportunity for picking wild strawberries and wild blueberries while walking. Fresh fruit

This spring we tried a few delicacies from the woods. Daughter asked why it smelled like home-cooking while hiking one day. I realized we were walking past huge amounts of wild onions. She picked some to try. wild onions

After pulling off the outer layer/leaves, she tore them up and added them to our dehydrated rice meal. They added a lovely bit of spice and we were excited to find them many other nights to add to our dinners. dinner with wild onions

One long hiking day, I was tired of eating trail mix and sweet candies. I really wanted some fresh veggies or fruits to crunch. Then I remembered that violets are edible flowers. And I happened to be surrounded by those wildflowers at that moment. wood violets

Pick one from each plant and pop a handful into your mouth. Voila! Tiny bits of tangy, moist refreshment! wood violet snacks

I’m certain it will be a very long time (if ever) before I pick fungi or mushrooms on my own for us to eat. These are the most risky to identify correctly. Another hiker described her family’s tradition of picking morel mushrooms each spring to feast on. She explained where they were most often found and which plants usually grew nearby. I THOUGHT this was a morel mushroom when I saw it, but chose not to risk picking it. Besides, we had no frying pan nor butter to saute it properly! A few hours later another hiker came walking into camp, carrying a few of these same mushrooms to eat for his dinner. morel mushroom

At another shelter, a fellow hiker arrived with a big clump of bright colored, hard shelled fungi. He called it Sulfur Shelf Fungus, sometimes called “Chicken of the Forest” because of its texture. sulfur shelf fungi

This hiker was confident of his identification so after he chopped it up, soaked it in boiling water, rinsed it, then cooked it with his pasta, we tasted a tiny bite. It was still a little bitter but the texture was definitely like chicken. (He soaked it longer and rinsed it more times the next day and said it was sweeter.) chicken of the forest with pasta

I found more of the fungus the next morning on a nearby stump. I wasn’t interested in carrying it to add to our supper, but hiker-dude was excited to put it in his food bag. sulfur shelf fungus on a stump

Our usual hiking-food gets boring after eating the same thing for weeks at a time. It was certainly nice finding extra flavor to add occasionally to our meals.  I think we will do some research this summer and see what other things we can add to our hiker-pantry on our next backpacking trip.

NOTE: when picking wild foods, please remember to only take a small amount from any given plant. That way there is plenty left for other humans and for wildlife! This limited foraging also allows the plants to thrive and produce more food throughout the remaining season.

 

Hide and Seek

Everyone expects the beautiful views enjoyed while traveling in the mountains. But how many of us discipline ourselves to focus on the tiny details along the trail? Daughter and I were challenged to search for Nature’s Hearts on our recent backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail. (You can see a blog post with photos of our finds HERE.) In that quest for small treasures, we discovered many other camouflaged creatures. Here are a few of our best tips for playing hide and seek with nature:

Look for Movement. The shapes and colors of critters often blend in with the background. Flutters and flickers are an invitation to look closer. More than once we found groups of butterflies gathered in a heap on the ground. butterfliesSometimes there will be a burst of movement, then the creature freezes. Patience will pay off when the critter eventually moves again. Or perhaps you will notice the tiny quiver of a lizard breathing. lizard

Listen for Sounds. Trills and songs might help you find a bird in the underbrush or in the treetops. (These are usually hard to photograph…unless you are carrying a heavy telephoto lens.) Dry leaves crackling or rustling might eventually reveal a snake, or a chipmunk, or a BUG! centipede

Look for the Wrong Shape or a Different Color. Snails are the same color as the leaves or rocks they hide among. However, their rounded shells stand out against angular backgrounds.  snailsThere were many times we noticed bright colored fungus or lichen on trees and rocks. Often, if we looked closer, we would find drab slugs. lichen, fungi, slugThis is one of my favorite photos from the entire trip. We actually saw a group of deer wandering across the campsite, nibbling at bits of grass. When I walked closer to get a better photo, this young deer put the trees between us, and then froze, hoping I wouldn’t notice him… deer in trees

Walk in Silence.  I’m sure some of you wonder if we encountered bears. Not this time, although other hikers had problems with Yogi trying to steal food sacks at some of the shelters we had stayed at earlier in our trip. We tend to make noise when we hike: laughing, singing, talking, telling stories. Most animals, including bears, will move away if they realize a human is nearby. So, if you WANT to encounter more critters, move silently through the woods.

I’m curious. What’s your favorite critter sighting? We would love to hear your hints for finding more tiny treasures in Nature’s game of Hide and Seek.

Moving to Our Summer Palace

After finishing our spring adventure on the Appalachian Trail, daughter and I are in the process of moving to our summer palace. It’s located in hilly country at a family-oriented campgrounds an hour and a half from our home. We will have plenty of scope for outdoor adventures with walking trails, a creek to play in, a swimming lake, and plenty of time to socialize with other campers. We will live there full time, with a trip back to town midweek for appointments, friends, and shopping. Dog and Guinea Pig will live there as well. Hubby will join us on the weekends. rv camping

What? You don’t consider an RV to be a palace?! After backpacking for 5 weeks, it certainly feels like one to us…

Unlike a shelter along the AT, our RV has four walls, windows, and a door that closes. Plus, the RV has 3 rooms and 400sf of living space compared to one “room” of approx 100 sf. RV palaceAT shelter

We have soft beds (rather than throwing our sleeping bags on a hard wood platform). RV comfy beds AT shelter sleeping space

We have a comfy couch and a full kitchen (much fancier than sitting at a picnic table to boil water to rehydrate a meal). RV couch and kitchenAT backpacker kitchen

There is running water, including a flushable toilet and a shower! (Almost double the size of an AT privy, and much nicer than peeing in the woods!) RV bathroomAT privy

And our patio has chairs with backs on them (see post about this comfort HERE) which facilitate conversation, reading or lounging. Plus these comfy chairs are easily moved to sit around our fire pit. RV patioPicnic table

Now you understand: we really WILL be living in a “palace” this summer!

(PS–don’t worry, I will soon return to posting stories about our backpacking adventures…)

The M&M Test

There is a story frequently told among AT hikers. It explains how to identify the type of hiker (day hiker, section hiker, long distance/thru hiker) using the simple M&M test: When three M&Ms are scattered along the trail, what does the hiker do? M&M Test_the settingThe day hiker walks right past the candy, never noticing it. M&M test 1_day hikerThe short section hiker stops and picks up the candy. Following “Leave No Trace” principles, this hiker puts the M&Ms in her trash sack to carry out of the woods. M&M test 2_section hikerThe long distance hiker, always starving, throws off her pack, grabs the M&Ms and pops them into her mouth. M&M test 3_thru hikerThen that long distance hikers scrambles to find any other candies that might have been dropped! M&M test 4_thru hiker

(Are you wondering which type of hikers we are? If we drop our own candy or trail mix, we pick it up and eat it. After all, we need every calorie we can get! But no, we don’t eat trash candy left by others. Perhaps that is the difference between long-distance section hikers and thru-hikers?!)

(Thanks to daughter Nettie for taking the photos and daughter Andowen for being the model.)