Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Run For the Harrison Hills! (Harrison Hills II, Part A)

Memorial Day 2015, the southern half of the Harrison Hills segment of the Ice Age Trail proved to be a grueling beast of a journey. Beautiful country, rolling terrain, and a practically biblical plague of wood ticks would test the patience, endurance and sanity of myself and my father who joined me on the hike. DEET Proved entirely ineffective at dissuading the little devils, and even our most thorough delousing had us picking surprise hitchhikers off our selves and our gear for weeks. Would not recommend. Didn't even wind up camping as we had originally planned.

So, of course, we had to go back. Masochism and refusal to let the segment win over us. But, this time we would approach Lookout Mountain from the North end. And we would bring with us reinforcements.  Joining Bob and I, this time, were Kevin and Nick. Kevin I've known for years, and lives in the area. Nick lives just over the border in Minnesota, and is part of an online community where I was discussing the hike, and managed to entice him into joining us. 

Preparations would begin far in advance, outfitting Kevin and Nick with the supplies that would help them on our journey. Kevin obtained a REI Traverse 70 backpack after test-driving several in the store, while Nick would wind up borrowing a spare external frame backpack we had. Both tried the Vasque Breeze boots whose praises I just cannot stop singing, and purchased a pair of their own. Same with the Snow Peak 900 Titanium Pot and my beloved $6 Cannister Stove. Kevin and I did a shakedown and hike cooking test at High Cliff State Park, and we really do need to get out there and hike more, get in better shape for our next outings. Nick too, got out more often, braving the early spring weather to make sure he was ready for the trek.

Day of the hike, Kevin drove up to Appleton to join Bob and I, and then Bob drove us to Merrill WI, where we linked up with Nick. From Merrill, we proceeded to County Highway B, to drop off extra water at our lunch site, and then from there, to the trailhead where we would begin. Nick packed up his borrowed pack, we sprayed on some permethrin to discourage the ticks, adjusted our packs, and we were off!

In the days approaching our hike, Northern Wisconsin DID see a few inches of snow, and some of it remained on the shadowy sides of hills, or on the trails, and I believe this was a boon to us, suppressing many of the ticks we may have otherwise encountered. I think the Permethrin also helped, because the gorgeous weather we had that day would drive temperatures above 60 degrees. The first leg of our trip was a rather simple one, navigationally there were simply a few turns at which other roads, or ATV trails, or alternate hiking routes converged with the Ice Age, and you just had to make sure you followed the yellow blazes. There were no sections of trail without an obvious path, and there were no connecting roads. The atmosphere was nearly one of fall, the ground still blanketed with fallen leaves, and the trees still bare of leaf due to how early in the spring it was. In motion, I had absolutely no need for my fleece, and soon had the sleeves of my shirt rolled above my elbows. The only obstacles we faced were minor hills, a few fallen trees across the path, and a picturesque stream swollen with spring meltwater, that obscured the blocks meant to be used in it's crossing. Bob and Kevin chose a wiser route than Nick and I did, but all four of us navigated, dry, across that obstacle and to the other shore.

It was not long before we reached camp, and we would take a short break there, at Chain Lake. Then, we searched the hills nearby for suitable locations to place our tents. The terrain was nice for the firepit, which sits beside the lake, but it was difficult to find sufficiently flat ground on which to pitch tents. Kevin made what seemed one of the smarter moves, and utilized my Xada hammock for his lodgings, while I pitched my REI Passage 2 nearby. Nick and Bob also had tents. I think, if I go back, I'm more likely to spend the night in my ENO Singlenest Hammock, which will be far more comfortable than the lumpy patch of ground that I fit my tent into. Lighter to carry as well. Once camp was established and we were refreshed, we hit the trail once more. 

From camp, we proceeded down the Ice Age Trail, maps of the area indicated that we would pass what was, or possibly still is, some manner of ski hill. As we rounded the other end of Chain Lake, we would cross a feed stream twice, pausing in between crossings to ponder some scat (we decided it was likely bobcat or coyote, we could have made a case for either) and scale a hill, at the top of which we found an unusual asphalt slab and stop because I forgot to take my Aleve. Pondering the purpose of the slab, we decided that it must have been related to the ski hill. The course of the trail took us around the hill and we never really saw where exactly the skiing occurred. At least I couldn't tell. I would be interested in going back just to explore that area in greater detail, but we had miles to conquer, and so we moved onwards. 

Beyond the Ski Hill was an area that I can really only refer to as the Logging Blight. I don't think we took many photos of it, it wasn't that picturesque. This was a zone of both old and new logging, which bared the hills upon which most of our course took us, and below us, in the valleys, lay marshes and bogs. We could see some watery attempts to either drain or navigate these valleys, some manner of road or shallow ditch, but the terrain was very reluctant to relinquish any part of itsself to man's design. It was around now, that the away team began to concoct stories of the local bog witch, who would surely crack our bones for marrow and sink us within the moist fens of her turf.  We were still encountering snow at this stage of the trip, though less of it where the canopy was stripped away. 

Hunger began to set in as we trooped through the blight, and we began to wonder when we would reach our designated lunch spot. I was about to say that we should just stop at the next clearing that looked suitable, and make our meals there, but a quick consultation with the app Nick was using to map our journey indicated that we were less than a quarter mile from the appointed lunch site. Mustering our reserves, we pushed on ahead and were soon rewarded with sight of County Highway B, and the ATV shelter at which we would cook our lunch.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Gear Up Heads Up! Kelty Cosmic Down, Jansport Katahdin, Hammocks

We're still mired in the snow and cold of winter here in Wisconsin, but now is an excellent time to gear up for the coming season. Clearing out old stock, has a bunch of things on sale. Catching my eye are:

- Kelty Cosmic Down 41 Degree: Sibling to my 21 degree bag, Kelty's Cosmic Down bags are a solid entry-level down bag, and I'm so warm in mine that I often find myself using it partially fastened to vent heat. If you're a three-season camper like me, the 41 degree bag is probably more than sufficient. Down Bags are Up in price, so $99 is a good deal on this.

- Jansport Katahdin 50: If you're still looking to try one of these inexpensive packs, this is one of the better prices I've found lately. $79 isn't as good as previous deals on it, but it's still a fair deal cheaper than a lot of other packs.

- Grand Trunk Roatan Hammock: It'll need straps (and the ENO SlapStraps are on sale) and Carabiners (I recommend the Black Diamond Neutrino Wiregate carabiners) but $41 is a decent starter price on a hammock. it's a bit bulky, apparently, so if space is a concern, maybe pass on this one. This Hammock Bliss Single looks interesting too, and it's only $42.

Stop the presses!!! Right after I saw those, I found this "Cutequeen Nylon Hammock". $15 for the base hammock. You'll still need the straps and carabiners, and I know nothing of the maker, but for $15, it's not a terribly big gamble. Apparently there's big "Cute Queen" branding on it though, so... well, that's up to you.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Made a trip to REI again

So, solo hiking is fun and all, but I'd rather go hiking with friends. So, I've been working on getting some of them to join me. My friend Kevin seems the most eager to get out on the trail with me, so we've been preparing him to go hiking with me this summer. His job schedule hasn't been matching up well with when our REI runs it's garage sales, so we decided that we'd go to REI and get a look at gear he might want and then I could go and hunt the garage sales for him. We wanted to get him fitted for a pack and boots at the very least, and look over what some of the tents were like.

Now, I've got a method for this. If you've been reading here, you know that I'd never buy a pack without a chance to put some weight in it and wear it for a halfhour or more. This is why I really love REI as a store, because they're well-equipped for this. They're happy to help you pick out packs and load them up with ~30lb of rice. So that's exactly what we did. First thing when we got to the store, we went over to the backpack area, and I grabbed a Gregory Baltoro 65 (in Medium) and a Osprey Aether 70 Figuring that 65-70 liters is about the sweet spot for multi-night backpacking trips. Too much more, and you overpack, too much less and you don't have enough room. We tried the Baltoro first, because I'm biased. My own pack that I am super fond of is a Gregory Baltoro 65 Large. We loaded him up and wandered through the store to scope out some of the other stuff we might want to get. But, after a halfhour wandering and browsing, Kevin complained of a knot near his shoulder blade just like I had experienced with the Osprey Aether when I tried it.

Switching packs, we equipped Kevin with a weighted Osprey Aether. Immediately he could tell that this wasn't the pack for him. We wandered around a little bit, including over to the climbing rocks in the shoe section, but he just felt like the tall and skinny build of the pack was too unbalancing for him. Interesting to me, was that Osprey changed the way that the back of the Aether is built. in 2014 when I tried one, there was a more distinct trampoline support between the pack and the person, while the 2015 (or 2016?) Aether has a somewhat different build there. By this point, I was glad that we'd come down to try them on, definitely wouldn't have wanted to order him either pack sight-unseen.

Our third candidate turned out to be the REI Traverse 70. This was an interesting combination of the Baltoro's more clingy build, with a trampoline back mesh like the 2014 Aethers had. Whatever the case, Kevin swiftly became sure that this was his new pack. Continued time wearing it only confirmed his suspicions. I was relieved, because we didn't have too many options after that, perhaps a larger REI XT or Deuter.

Conversely, picking out boots, our next task went rather swiftly. We had an excellent starting point, readers will know just how over the moon I am for the Vasque Breeze hiking boot. Well, it didn't take any more than that. Kevin tried them on, and felt an extreme and immediate sense of liberation. He'd been wearing the heavy duty work boots that he wears to his job, and switching from a heavy boot with a safety toe, to the relatively light and airy weight of the hiking boot put a real spring in his step. He didn't need to wear them long at all, he was sold. The salesperson assisting us said that he wasn't surprised about 70% of the people he's seen try the boot opted for it.

Anticipating filling up from my Gravity Camp 6L Kevin nabbed a 100oz Camelbak as well. Since we were looking at a relatively new, I believe new for this year, backpack our original "try and find it at a garage sale" plan wasn't going to work for his pack. However, since he signed up to be a REI Member, come spring he'll be getting 20% off, and we'll just wait till then to get the pack. Turns out though, that Kevin WILL be able to make the Garage Sale on March 12th.