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.)

Lessons Learned…

This was our second long-distance adventure on the Appalachian Trail. We quickly remembered many lessons learned last fall: neither of us like hiking on hot sweaty days, bear poles really are human torture devices (read about that HERE), and we always enjoy meeting other hikers and hearing their stories.

This hike was in spring (rather than fall) which meant we had new lessons to learn. When we started, there were few leaves on the trees. This gave us good views…but also meant there were no leaves large enough to use as tp or kleenex. (We bought toilet paper at our first resupply, and used our extra bandanas for nose-blowing.) Spring hiking, few leaves

Tiny spring leaves also meant we had no shady protection from the sun. (Until it started raining every day for the second half of our trip…) Sun burns, ouch!

We had decided to try to carry less water and filter refills along the way. Mastering this skill saves weight to be carried. (It adds up fast since each pint of water weighs a pound.) April had unusually low precipitation  which left us rationing drinks when water sources were dry so we quickly went back to carrying plenty of water. Of course, heavy rains in May took care of that problem.

Those heavy rains also gave us the added challenge of crossing flooded streams. The usual dry rocks to hop across were often underwater, adding to the adventures of each day! Flooded creeks, challenging crossings

More moisture also meant more bugs. The biting clouds of no-see-’ems were particularly bad. They especially loved Andowen, poor girl! Full of bug bites

We saw some of the same critters as in the fall (deer, squirrels, chipmunks, black snakes, and reports of bears). But we also saw hundreds of lovely butterflies and these really cool orange efts (baby salamanders). Orange eft, baby salamander

We learned that views at overlooks were entirely dependent on the weather. Beautiful layers of mountains if it was clear: Beautiful views, clear day

Or walking in an invisible world when the clouds touched the ground: No views, hiking in clouds

Finally, we missed the brilliant colors of fall leaves. But that loss was balanced by the hidden beauty of spring flowers, such as this lady slipper.  Spring flowers, lady slipper

We learned new lessons…now we are ready for future hikes in both spring and fall!

 

(please don’t) Kick the Tires

Envision the stereotypical scene in the movies: gullible buyer steps onto a used-car lot, looking for a bargain. He haggles with the sleazy salesman and kicks the tires of the cars he is considering. What? Why kick the tires? Kick the tires

Theoretically, this was a way to figure out if the salesman’s story was true and the little old lady who only drove to church on Sundays really did take good care of the car. Checking the tires could show if they were properly inflated, had even wear (indicating good alignment and regular tire-rotation), and were replaced before the tread was totally bald.

Why talk about this on a blog about adventures? In the same way that taking proper care of tires hints at a well-cared-for vehicle, taking proper care of one’s feet increases the probability of completing a successful long-distance hike.

At home, I rarely ever think about my feet. On the trail, they are often in my thoughts…

At the first hint of a “hot spot” it is important to stop and cover that area. (A “hot spot” is any bit of skin that feels irritated, tingly, or “on fire.”) Many things can be used to lessen friction: moleskin, bandaids, cloth tape, duct tape. This simple step is the most effective way to prevent blisters. Tape the hotspots

Next, get the right socks for YOUR boots and YOUR feet. Most hikers have a favorite combination they swear by. For many, a thin liner sock and thicker outer sock work well to lessen friction on skin. I usually carry a second set of dry socks to switch into if needed on wet days. My little toes normally curl under the next toes, which caused huge blisters last fall. Using injinji toe sock liners this trip have solved that problem. Socks and liners

Of course, it is important to choose boots that fit comfortably. Getting input from others is fine…but you MUST have the right fit for YOU! With wide feet and a need to wiggle my toes, plus a desire for strong ankle support, I love my Salomons. Hiking boots

As a hiker, I won’t get far if my feet are uncomfortable or injured. Good foot care is critically important to success. When buying a used car, go ahead and kick the tires if you want to. But when backpacking, protect those feet and please don’t kick the tires…or anything else!

Are we THERE yet?!

Those dreaded words intrude on every family vacation: are we theeeerrre yet? But this whine is not limited to cross-country car trips. Nor is it limited to kids. Some days these seemingly innocent words sneak into a hiker’s brain, then play on repeat.

The day starts off brilliantly: blue sky, strong legs, happy thoughts. The trail goes up (and up and up), but there are glorious views and sun-dappled forest glades to enjoy along the way. Every hiking day should be like this one! Happy blaze

Eventually, the clouds descend, the misty drizzle begins, and the murmurs sneak in. (Shhh! are we there yet? Hmmm?) Surprise! Even the trail betrays the hiker: getting steeper, and steeper, and steeper! No fair! We are carrying heavy packs…not bounding along like mountain goats!

Surprised blaze

Ahhh! The trail finally relents and heads back down. Surely things will be better now! We should get to the shelter soon (won’t we?) But…the trail is unrelenting. It goes down, down, down…steeper and steeper. Blergh! Hurting knees, aching ankles, fiery feet. This is not the plan… Blah blaze

ARE WE THEEEERRRE YET? When will we get there? Will this day never end? I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! (please stop soon…)

(PS: I know these faces scratched into the painted blazes on the trail are graffiti…but they made us smile on a very long hiking day!)

ouch…Ouch…OWWWCH!

What do you do when you realize you have a badly infected tooth while you are in the back of beyond, miles from any town? Whine a little, moan a little, panic a lot, and try not to bawl or cuss. (Don’t want to scare daughter…or other hikers…or woodland creatures!) Infected tooth

1. Assess your options. Miles of walking and a hundred dollars or more for shuttles to and from a town with medical care seems prohibitive. (Plus, odds are good there will be little help available on a weekend.)

2. Make a plan: call family dentist to request antibiotics be called in to local pharmacy back home. (Explain more than once where you are and why you are wandering in the woods!) Call hubby to ask him to pick up meds and mail them asap to the next town you will reach. (No extra explanations needed for him…)

3. PANIC when there is poor cell coverage, even at an overlook. Whew! Say a thank-you prayer when both calls get through and help is on the way (“only” a few days down the trail). Overlook, still no cell coverage

4. Try to distract from pain while hiking. Look for beauty, hum, kick a few rocks, etc. Soak bandana in cold stream and hold to swollen cheek. Cold stream

Not cold enough

5. Throw balled up bandana across the shelter when it isn’t cold enough to help. Try holding water bottle to cheek. (Better, but still not much help… waaaaa!) Cold water 2

6. Try using tea bags as a compress. Isn’t that a folk remedy? At least it’s DOING something…and the tea is soothing. Hot tea, cold compress

7. Nighttime are worst: laying down increases swelling which increases pain and crying isn’t an option. Gotta let the other hikers get their sleep.

8. At least there are other hikers smart enough to carry both Tylenol and ibuprofen…and generous enough to share their stash of Tylenol. By alternating, one can safely get some level of pain relief every two hours. (Is it terrible to confess a wish that someone had some percocet to share?!) Pain meds for hikers

9. Finally reach town three days later. Go to post office, saying lots of prayers that meds are already waiting for you…do a happy dance, hug the package, and hum the hallelujah chorus when the clerk brings out the little envelope. (Would have jumped the counter and given her a hug…but didn’t want to cause an incident!) Happy for meds

10. Hopefully by tomorrow, antibiotics will be working, swelling and pain will disappear, and we can get back to ENJOYING our walk in these lovely woods!

 

It’s Raining! It’s Pouring!

What’s a gal to do when the forecast calls for rain while hiking in the woods? Whine a little, moan a little, and reassess one’s plans, of course!

Others happily camp in the rain. But I am horribly afraid of my sleeping bag getting wet. So whenever possible, we make sure to be at a shelter early in the afternoon to make sure we have a dry space on rainy nights. Everyone piles in

for the evening, at least until they head to their tents to sleep. Rainy evenings, at shelter

And if it’s still raining in the morning, we often choose to take a “zero” day (2 nights in the same place, no hiking). There’s something delightfully cozy about watching the storm through the open side of the shelter.  We sit propped up against our backpacks, legs in our sleeping bags, listening to rain on the sturdy roof, happy to be warm and dry!Rainy day, AT shelter

Somehow, I never mind getting caught in a shower in the middle of the day. After all, my sleeping bag will stay dry, wrapped in multiple layers of protection from the elements. (It’s in a dry bag, inside a large trash bag, inside my pack, inside the rain cover…yes, I’m paranoid!) The trail might turn into a stream, but I’ll be fine… Trail or stream

I choose not to put on rain gear, which just makes me soaked with sweat. As long as I keep walking I don’t get chilled. Sometimes I laugh at myself, as I’m bouncing down the trail, singing in the rain. Yes, hikers ARE a crazy breed, why do you ask?!Singing in the rain, hiker style

Time to head back on the trail. The weatherman is calling for sun. But if he’s

wrong, and we see a storm headed toward us across the valley, I guess we’ll just pick out our favorite silly songs and keep on walking… Storms across the valley

It’s raining! It’s pouring! …

Exploding Packs!

BEWARE…backpacks may explode!

Too many wanna-be hikers are unfamiliar with the true dangers of backpacking. They imagine injuries or encounters with bears. They worry about stranger-danger or about getting lost in the woods. They eventually purchase a pack and fill it with everything needed to walk in the woods for weeks at a time. It seems so simple while still at home: find a pocket or place for everything, then bring order to the chaos of the piles of supplies. first explosion_at home

They are quite proud of how neatly everything is finally stowed in that oh-so-innocent bag.

But then…that newbie hiker gets to camp, tired and weary after a long day of hiking. The backpack is dropped into the tent, or onto the floor of the shelter…and…BOOM! The pack explodes! Belongings are thrown everywhere… Backpacks_in tent

Oh sure…some folks try to explain away the dangers. They claim organization and patience are all that are needed to maintain order. And sometimes their pack plays along. For a few days, belongings are neatly stowed and retrieved by the complacent hiker.

Even with the best of intentions and keeping meticulous habits, the day comes…the trekker is excited to catch up to friends and hurries to grab dinner ingredients…or is cold and just wants to quickly change to dry camp clothes. Then, suddenly…WHAM! The pack explodes! Belongings are thrown everywhere… Backpacks_in shelter

This dangerous situation can occur anywhere: in a tent, in a shelter, in a hostel. Explosions occur in the woods…and happen while in town. Backpacks_in town

Please protect yourself and your hiking companions. Anytime you touch your pack, do so gently. Patiently lift out each bag and stuff-sack. Avoid the dangers of a pack explosion…