Thursday, January 27, 2011

Early Morning Snowshoeing

The snow hole that the DC area has been in all season finally closed.  We got about 6 inches of really wet, heavy snow last night.  I got up before dawn this morning for a quick snowshoe through Rock Creek Park.  I was out before most people had begun to shovel their walks, so I was able to snowshoe right on the sidewalks all the way down to the park.  The park was nearly silent except for the occasional call of a pileated woodpecker and, as it warmed up, water dripping off the trees.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Rock Creek as the sun was coming up.

Mallards feeding in the creek. 

The Valley Spring Bridge over the creek

An oak leaf covered in snow.

 Snow "flowers" on a cherry tree.

Fresh tracks on the Valley Trail.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Frozen Hike - The Virginia Appalachian Trail from Manassas Gap to Ashby Gap

Saturday was cold.  When we left home, it was 15 degrees and the high was only forecast to be 24 in the city, so the mountains would be colder than that.  We met a friend at Ashby Gap, northeast of Front Royal and set up a car shuttle so we could hike nearly 12 miles of the Virginia Appalachian Trail (AT). We had hiked a very small portion of the AT in G. R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area, but the rest of the hike was new to us.

We started at Manassas Gap, just north of I-66 outside of Linden, Virginia.  The trail climbs moderately away from the noise of the interstate towards G. R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area.  It was very cold, but fortunately, there was little wind.  We paused at Manassas Gap Shelter and contemplated having lunch there.  There was a guy there gathering wood for a fire.  We called out hello, but he only responded with a glare that made us feel rather unwelcome, so we continued on.  Along the way, we passed some nice stone fences.  Unlike the ones in Shenandoah, I don't have a sense of how old these were.  They were in good shape, though. We also saw a number of woodpeckers on this stretch.

The Wildlife Management Area is home to spectacular wildflowers in the spring.  It can get rather crowded, but this time of year it is pretty deserted.  The area is also popular with hunters, but the large game seasons have ended for this winter.  There aren't really any views on the AT through the Wildlife Management Area, but it is a pretty, relatively easy stroll through the woods.  It never really warmed up.  By early afternoon, we had to break ice in the mouths of our water bottles before drinking from them. 

Just after leaving the Wildlife Management Area, we found a small, nearly completely frozen creek.  The ice was thick enough to stand on, although we could hear water running underneath it.  The small waterfalls were completely frozen over, making a nice contrast with the moss-covered rocks.  From there, the trail climbed back up towards Sky Meadows State Park.  The only views of the hike were in two of the balds in the state park.  From the top of the park, it was a quick three miles to the car at Ashby Gap.  The last quarter of a mile was along U.S. Highway 50.  That section was not the most endearing section of trail I have ever hiked.  The most dangerous part of the hike was probably crossing the highway to get to the car.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

A stone fence in G. R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area.

A twisted tree near Manassas Gap.

A small, frozen waterfall.

A leaf frozen into the stream.

Bootshot on the frozen stream.

One of the meadows at Sky Meadows State Park.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Snowshoe Backpacking at Canaan Mountain, Take 2

Since we had another long weekend, we decided to give snowshoe backpacking another try so we could apply the lessons we learned from the New Year's trip. We returned to Canaan Mountain, although we snowshoed different trails this time.  We met the fourth person in our group in the Blackwater Falls State Park lodge parking lot.  Since there were four of us this time, we had two sleds for gear.  The brutal cold wind  while we were packing up made us question our wisdom at this adventure, but we decided that it would be better once we were in the trees. 

By the time we packed both sleds and registered with the lodge, it was  2 p.m. when we set off on the Yellow Birch Trail.  In spite of the fact that the trailhead is across the road from the lodge, there were no tracks on the trail.  There was about 18 inches of snow and drifts over two feet in places.  We had little trouble following the trail since it is blazed and the sleds worked really well.  We quickly reached a challenge, though.  There is a spot on the Yellow Birch Trail that is a short scramble about 5 feet down some rocks.  We had to unhook the sleds and pass them over the rocks and down, and then carefully descend through it on the snowshoes. It took us about an hour to go the first mile, which really is not too bad on snowshoes.

At the end of that mile, we reached the Allegheny Trail, where we turned south.  The trail climbs slowly for nearly two miles towards the Plantation Trail.  There was one set of faint ski tracks on the Allegheny Trail.  Although it is not blazed as frequently, it is a wide trail, which was easy to follow.  It follows Engine Run for about half the distance to the Plantation Trail.  In spite of the cold, the creek was running where it wasn't entirely covered in snow.  There was one hill along the way that we probably wouldn't have noticed if we had been hiking on dry ground, but on snowshoes, towing the sled, it was a bit of a beast.  I was surprised at how out of breath that short, steep little hill left me.

We arrived at the shelter at the junction of the Allegheny and Plantation Trails about half an hour before dark.  SSW Spouse gathered firewood while the rest of started boiling water for hot drinks and dinner.  We were pretty happy to see that the small creek near the shelter wasn't frozen.  Boiling very cold water requires much, much less fuel than melting snow for water.  I had the chance to try out the new pants that night in camp.  It was very windy and in the low 20s before we went to bed, but SSW Spouse secured tarps across the front of the shelter to keep out the blowing wind and snow.  They kept me nice and warm.  The shelter is in such a nice place that, before going to bed, we decided to dayhike on Sunday and camp at the shelter again on Sunday night. 

Sunday morning was cold and about an inch of snow fell overnight.  I think the coldest parts of the trip for me were the mornings: making breakfast and packing up gear without a fire.  Although I was up moving around, it wasn't enough to get my heart rate going enough to really warm up.  Coffee and hot oatmeal helped, but could not keep my feet from going numb (not frostbitten) by the time we left camp. 

We were the first group to lay tracks on the Plantation Trail.  We snowshoed west to the #6 Fire Trail, where we took a break for lunch.  The small zipper pull thermometer of questionable accuracy on my backpack said that it was 20 degrees at lunch.  We crossed several small streams along the way, including one with an interesting little dam on it (picture below).  The trail was easy to follow, but occasionally required fighting through rhododendrons.  They normally would not impede the trail, but with all of the snow weighing them down, they sort of fell across the trail.  After lunch, we continued on the Plantation Trail to the junction of the Lindy Run Trail.  At that point, we had been snowshoeing for 2 1/2 hours, including our lunch break.  We decided it was time to head back so that we would have time to gather firewood again before dark.  On our way back, the sun actually came out for a while and we made better time since we weren't breaking trail.

Back at the shelter, we built another fire and began the camp chores associated with getting dinner together and heating water for tea.  Since it was clear, it got cold fast after the sun went down.  The moon was out for a while, making the snow sparkle in the moonlight.  It was 15 degrees around 8 pm and it definitely got colder than that as the night went on. 

We were nearly ready to call it a night when a group of five cross country skiers showed up.  I think they were as surprised to find us at the shelter as we were to see them roll in at 8:30 p.m.  We offered to make room, but after much debate, they decided to continue on to another shelter.  I pointed out some spots on their map where they could pitch tents if they got tired and they mentioned they had not brought any tents.  Seriously.  Hopefully, they made it to the next shelter without incident. In the morning, we packed up camp and returned to the lodge parking lot.  Our return was much faster than the hike in since we did not have to break trail and we were generally hiking downhill.

Overall, it was a fantastic trip and much easier than the last one.  We were able to use the lessons learned from the last one to make this one better.  The weather, although much colder, was actually better in the sense that it was easier to stay dry since none of the snow was melting.  I also got new boots, so my feet stayed dry.  We were also more realistic about our mileage, too, and planned our route in a way that let us be flexible about how much we wanted to do.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Towing the sled across the bridge over Engine Run.

Snow on Engine Run.

The shelter.

Snowflakes on SSW Spouse's jacket.

Snowshoes and sled poles against the shelter.


Untracked snow on the Plantation Trail.

SSW Spouse breaking trail.

Rhododendrons block the trail.

The interesting little dam on one of the creeks on the Plantation Trail.

The Plantation Trail on our way back.  The sun had actually come out for a while.

A different kind of bootshot.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Making Gear: Insulated Pants

The last trip made me realize that I need insulated pants to stay warm when we are winter camping.  I looked around at various options online, but didn't find what I wanted (at least not for what I wanted to pay).  A lot of what was available was heavy gear aimed at skiers and snowboarders - good for what it is intended, but more than I want to carry. I finally decided to make a pair myself.

After some research, I decided to go with synthetic insulation, 4 oz Primaloft Sport.  Down is lighter and more compressible, but it is also a lot harder to work with and with our next trip coming up, I wanted to be able to finish them quickly.  I finally settled on black 1.1 oz nylon (that means that it weighs 1.1 oz per square yard).  Primaloft requires downproof shell fabric, since its fibers tend to leak out of fabric that is more loosely woven.  The nylon met that requirement and it was the lightest fabric I could find without spending three times as much.

I used the Healey Pass Pant pattern from Storm Mountain Designs.  I omitted the patches, pockets, and leg zippers since I wanted these to be as light and simple as possible.  The pattern is not designed to be insulated or lined pants, but it is simple enough to add those things to it.  After further research, I decided to quilt the insulation to the inner shell and leave the outer shell free of them except at the waist and ankle.

I started with the outer shell.  When I cut the pieces out of the nylon, I marked the front pieces with chalk since it would be easy to mix up the front and back pieces.  I did French seams, which are stronger than regular seams, but also require ironing.  Ironing nylon is not something to be taken lightly.  I set the iron on the coolest setting and used a press cloth just to be safe. Once the legs were together, I did a fitting and decided to grade the waist, making it lower in front than in back.  This will allow me to sit down without the back dropping too low or the front bunching up from extra fabric.

For the insulation and inner shell, I cut out the pieces from the nylon again and then pinned them to the insulation.  I then put a line of quilting down the length of each piece and zig-zag stitched around the edges.  Primaloft does not require close quilting, so that should be sufficient to stabilize it.  Once all four pieces were quilted, I assembled them in the same way as I did the outer shell, except I used flat seams instead of French seams.  There was just too much bulk to do French seams.  I put the inner shell into the outer shell and graded the waist.  Then I attached an elastic waistband and used lycra from an old pair of cycling shorts to hem the cuffs.

The finished pants fit well and weigh 11 ounces.  They cost about $60 to make, which is quite a bit less that what I would have spent to buy a pair.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

Cutting out the shell fabric.

 French seams.

Using the inner shell fabric to cut out the insulation.  I discovered after quilting the first piece that I needed to use a lot more pins to keep the nylon from walking all over the place.

A lot more pins.

The insulation after having been quilted.

One of the quilted inner shell pieces.  After quilting, I trimmed away the excess insulation.

Tearing away the scrim.  The scrim is a light fabric that is attached to one side of the Primaloft to make it easier to sew (so it won't get caught in the feed dogs of the sewing machine).  Once it is sewn, it can be removed to make the garment lighter.

The graded waistline.  The front is four inches lower than the back.

The finished product.  They won't win any fashion awards (doesn't everyone need extra padding around their hips?), but they will be warm in camp. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Eve at Canaan Mountain

Several of us have been talking about doing a winter snowshoe backpacking trip and this weekend it finally worked out, although we learned quite a bit in the process.  We met The Wandering Virginian in Front Royal and piled into his car for the long drive to Canaan Mountain.  As we approached the high country in West Virginia, there appeared to be no more snow on the ground than in Shenandoah, so we weren't sure we were actually going to get to use the snowshoes.  When we left Harman, WV and climbed into Canaan Valley, all of a sudden, snow appeared. 

We registered with the lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park around 11:30 on Friday and packed up the sled that SSW Spouse modified for snowshoeing.  We planned to go seven miles and camp near Table Rock.  Given how fast we normally hike, we thought we were being conservative about what we could do.  It was after 12:30 by the time we left the lodge and headed for the trailheaad.  Once on trail, the sled worked like a charm.  The trail was pretty well packed, so we made reasonably good time for being on snowshoes.  We passed the cross country ski area and hiked up the un-plowed Public Road 13 towards Table Rock.  We met a few skiers along the way.  Snowshoeing on the road was easy since the snow was well packed. After a mile on the road, we encountered our first stream crossing.  Fortunately, we were able to rock hop and carry the sled across.

We were looking for the Lindy Run Trail.  We didn't find it and after looking for a while and consulting the map, we decided to stay on the road since it wrapped around the ridge and would lead us to the Table Rock trailhead.  Staying on the road would also mean a slightly shorter hike on a wider path.  After the stream, only one set of cross country ski tracks remained ahead of us that were several days old.  The hike along the road was beautiful, with green rhododendrons contrasting with the white snow.  The weather was pleasantly warm and overcast.  The snow was very wet and heavy.  With each step, it would stick to my hiking poles unless I shook them as I pulled them out of the snow.  At some point, I realized my right boot was leaking a little bit. 

Around 4 pm, we realized that we would not be able to make Table Rock before nightfall.  The Wandering Virginian noticed a nice flat spot.  After considering how much daylight was left and how far we had to go, we decided to make camp.  A small stream flowed nearby, so we could get water without melting snow.  After setting up camp, we cooked dinner in the dark, glad that we had decided to stop hiking when we did.  We relaxed around the campfire for a long time, but none of us were able to stay up to ring in the New Year.

The forecast for Saturday was a bit dicier and included rain, so we planned to camp in one of the shelters in the Canaan Mountain area.  Another navigation mistake took us up the wrong trail.  We realized what happened, but not before hiking a mile in the wrong direction.  We stopped at a meadow to consider our options and it started to rain.  SSW Spouse pitched a tarp so we could eat lunch out of the rain.  We collectively decided to hike out.  Given our pace, we were not going to be able to make it to a shelter, and camping in cold rain did not appeal to anyone.  We backtracked to the road and made our way back to the car.  It was amazing how much snow had melted in 24 hours.  All in all, it took us six hours to hike about that many miles.

Backpacking in the winter and snow was a first for all of us on this trip (I have car camped in the winter before).  We learned a number of things:
1.  We are SLOW on snowshoes, even slower than I thought we would be.  

2.  The sled take a while to pack up.  It isn't a big problem, but it meant a later start each day, which further reduced the distance we were able to cover.

3.  Navigation is more challenging and requires much more constant attention in the snow.  Everything looks different when it is covered in snow.  Our very slow pace contributed to the challenge of navigation because we weren't where we expected to be and then spent time trying to work out the navigation challenges, which further contributed to our slow pace.

4.  We are pretty good at adapting and making good decisions as a team when it becomes clear that the original plan isn't going to work. 

5.  I need new boots (they are ordered).

6.  A fire is really nice at the end of a cold day of hiking.

7.  We can backpack in the winter, stay warm, and have fun.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

SSW Spouse packing up the sled.

Snowshoeing on Public Road 13.

Looking back at the crossing of Lindy Run.

Mounds of snow on rocks in Lindy Run.

Sunset near our campsite.

Rhododendrons along the road on Saturday.

A pond in the meadow where we turned around.

A small waterfall along the road.

An ice formation along the road.

The Wandering Virginian and SSW Spouse (towing the sled) on the way out.