Sunday, March 24, 2013

New boots!

The Danner Talus hiking boots I bought last year just aren't working for me. They keep giving me blisters. So I finally decided it was time to replace them. I bought a pair of Merrell Moab Ventilator shoes and tried them out on the trail this weekend.

Before I talk about my hike: I really like the shoes. They aren't waterproof like the Danners, but I can always wear my Danners if I know I'm going to be on a really wet trail. They don't have as much ankle support, but they're much lighter and I think will do well this summer.

We had cool and rainy weather this weekend. Saturday I hiked the River Bluff trail above the dam, which I posted about last spring; today I hiked about three miles in the watershed. Both days it was around 45-50 degrees. I decided to not bother with a jacket and instead just hiked faster. I stayed reasonably warm, even today when it was drizzling the whole time (I did wear my awesome rain hat).

The undergrowth is getting green, and wildflowers are blooming. The bloodroot is still blooming (one of my favorite flowers, and one of the earliest to bloom), and I saw Dutchman's breeches, a few early trout lilies, and lots more. The trilliums are coming up and some are starting to develop buds, and I even saw the first mayapples coming up. They remind me of newly hatched butterflies at this stage, their pair of umbrella leaves crumpled and wet-looking.

Since it was raining today, I didn't bring my camera. Well, I did, but after attempting to take one picture through the plastic bag I'd put it in, I decided to leave it in the car after all. I wished I had it before I'd gone very far, since the rain slacked to a drizzle and I could have taken the camera out of the bag long enough to take pix safely. I almost went back to get it but didn't, and I kicked myself for not doing so the entire hike. The rainy light brought out all the warm browns and golds of the woods, and the mosses and ferns and underbrush and weeds and wildflowers all practically glowed green. Mist hung between the trees.

The boots did great for me on Saturday. I wore wool hiking socks with them, but today in the spirit of inquiry I wore regular cotton socks instead. The boots still did well, but I did end up with two sore spots on the insides of my heels where a blister might have developed if I'd gone much farther. So from now on I'll wear hiking socks, which are more comfortable anyway.

Here's the picture I took today that convinced me I should leave my camera behind. It looks like I used some kind of Photoshop filter on it, but that was just the camera focusing on the plastic instead of the view.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bird Mountain, Frozen Head State Park

The weather turned so warm and sunny yesterday, and the rain held off, that I decided to go hiking. At first I'd intended to hike River Bluff, a 2.7 mile loop that's pretty close to where I live. But I decided to go somewhere I hadn't been before, and a quick online search turned up Frozen Head State Park. I hadn't been there since I was a kid. I decided on the Bird Mountain loop, except that it's not actually a loop. Here's a good page about Frozen Head--it's for birders, but it's got better directions to the park than other sites. If you do visit, though, keep in mind that Flat Fork Road is NOT marked. There's a sign for the park but it's easy to miss. If you're me. You'll know you're on the right road when you pass a huge prison complex.

It took me about an hour to reach the park (okay, an hour and a half but that's because I missed the turn and drove on and on to Sunbright, where I finally turned around with a heavy sigh and went back). I reached the park office around 1:30pm and stopped to pick up a map. There weren't any outside, but the office was open so I went in. Unfortunately they didn't have any trail maps, although it's possible I just didn't see them. I picked up a brochure with a very simple map, mostly of the camping/picnic areas. There are bathrooms in the office--real ones that you can flush!
above: a nice trail seat, polished smooth from hundreds of tired bottoms

The directions I'd found online said to park at the office and walk up to the trailhead, but I went on to a trailhead parking lot about a quarter mile along the road. There are a bunch of trails that start from there, and more bathrooms, but I walked up the road and into the camping area, then up to the gate that leads to a fire tower. Turns out there's a tiny parking lot next to the gate just for hikers--only three spaces, but they were empty when I got there and still empty when I left. I wish I'd known.

Anyway, it was a glorious day, over 70 degrees, and this was the first weekend the park was open for camping. It was packed, with little kids running around and adults grilling out, and groups of hikers returning from various directions. I passed several bunches of hikers before I actually reached the trailhead and figured Bird Mountain Trail would be busy. But I only saw one group on the trail, about half a dozen guys who were returning from the summit when I was just starting up. I noticed they gave me "oh man, you poor thing" looks but it wasn't until I was well up the trail that I understood why.
left: Big Cove Branch creek, just before you reach the trailhead

The internet tells me there are 14 switchbacks going up Bird Mountain. I started out trying to count but lost track, so I'll just have to trust that 14 is correct even though it felt more like 30. The day before, I'd taken a short hike up Ridgecrest Trail in the Norris Watershed, which is the steepest trail I habitually hike. Well, Bird Mountain is like 14 Ridgecrest Trails one after the other. (Actually I hiked Ridgecrest again today and I do think it's steeper, but the steep part is only about a third of a mile long and Bird Mountain is about two miles to the top.)

I didn't hurry myself. It's not like I'm in training for anything; my goal in hiking is just to have fun, get some exercise and fresh air, and appreciate nature. I kept having to rest more and more often. That was good in a way, though, since that gave me plenty of time to look around. There was also a near-constant breeze, sometimes very strong, that kept me from getting too warm, and I could listen to the wind in the treetops and the screek of tree branches rubbing together. I heard birdsong in the mountain laurels but didn't actually see any birds or animals.

There's a lot of trail that comprises Bird Mountain. I only took one small section of it, the two-mile climb up to Castle Rock. I could have continued another half mile to a camp site but I didn't see the point. It meets the Cumberland Trail at the top of the ridge, so I can tell people I've hiked part of the Cumberland Trail even though "part of" in this case means about 20 yards.

I had to stop after a mile and a half or so and put moleskin on my right heel. I hadn't tied my right boot tightly enough and it had rubbed blisters on my heel in two spots. The reason I hadn't tied it very tightly was a failed attempt to avoid reopening a different blister that same boot had given me on my ankle. It always gives me a blister on that ankle. When I got back to my car I discovered that I'd also gotten a blister on my big toe knuckle, whatever it's called. So I definitely need new boots sooner rather than later, unfortunately.

But despite my blisters, I enjoyed the hike. There wasn't a whole lot to see until I reached the top, though: no points of interest like creeks or sinkholes, abandoned buildings, things like that. Just 42 switchbacks going up and up and up. I took three pictures of a huge fallen tree that looked like it had caught fire too--the branches were all blackened--because really there wasn't a whole lot else to hold my attention.

Of course, castle rock was worth the climb. It's magnificent. I climbed around on it for a few minutes, taking pictures and enjoying the view of the ridgetops all around, then sat down and ate a peanut granola bar (which was so sweet I might as well have packed a Snickers) and drank a lot of water. It felt good just to sit and let the wind dry the sweat on my face. I thought I'd at least see someone at the top of the ridge, but not a soul. Not even a bird.

While I rested, I took out my phone to check the time. It was 3:20, so it took me almost two hours to climb two miles. But the trip down was a lot easier. In fact, it went so fast that I was kind of disappointed. For one thing, I hate to backtrack. For another, the trail is steep enough that most of my attention was on my feet so I wouldn't take a misstep and tumble down all 63 switchbacks.

left: there were a lot of squeezes among the rocks of castle rock. I mostly didn't squeeze through any of them because I have a morbid dislike of bugs falling down the back of my shirt or getting in my hair.

I reached my car around 4:40 and stripped off my boots and socks first thing. Clouds were moving in but the temperature had climbed to almost 80 degrees, so I was definitely glad to get my wool socks and heavy leather boots off.

I will definitely be back to Frozen Head, but I don't think I'll hike Bird Mountain again. There are plenty of other trails to explore, though.

Below: view from my perch on castle rock, where I rested and snacked

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Big Ridge again

I had such a good time on my last hike to Big Ridge State Park that I went again on Sunday. It was just past noon and gloriously sunny, about 60 degrees when I got there and almost 70 when I got back to my car.

This time I decided to find the graveyard on Ghost House Trail that I missed last time. I took Lake Trail from the parking lot, crossed the dam and turned right, then took the eastern loop of Ghost House Trail. From the top of the loop I took the southerly section of Big Valley Trail to the road, then crossed the road and picked up Chestnut Ridge Trail. That brought me to the cabins, and from there I had a surprisingly long walk back to my car. I think it worked out to five miles, or probably a bit under, and it was a lovely, easy to moderate hike.

At first I met a lot of people and dogs on the trail. But by the time I reached Ghost House Trail I might as well have been the only person in the park. I didn't see anyone else until I got back to my car. I didn't see any birds or animals (beyond the very common ones like squirrels), but I sure heard a lot of frogs. A few marshy spots sounded like Frogtown.
Above: Frogtown. Not a lot to see, but everything to hear.

I found the Norton Cemetery, too. If I'd only known last time, I passed within a matter of yards from it before. It's much smaller than I expected, a lot smaller than the Snodderly Cemetery I saw last time.

From the trail brochure I picked up at the park office: "According to locals...eerie and unexplainable events occur along [Ghost House] trail. ...[V]isit the sunken grave of Maston Hutch[e]son, who some think is responsible for these strange occurrences. NO HOUSE REMAINS." I was especially interested in Maston Hutcheson's grave, since Maston is a family name of my mother's family. It would be interesting to know if there's a connection somewhere in the distant past between Hutcheson and my grandfather, who went by his middle name, Maston.

I didn't see any ghosts. I didn't even get any spooky feelings. Some of the graves along the back of the little cemetery have fresh memorial markers although the people died in the 1920s and 1930s, so obviously the family is still in the area and still remember their ancestors.
Above: Why would you even name a little baby Harm unless you knew he would grow up to be an archvillain or a dentist?

I poked around the cemetery for a little while, then continued on my hike. At one point I hiked through a wide, sunny valley that made me feel really good for some reason. I took a picture and there's no real reason why I liked it there so much, but just thinking about it makes me smile. I think it was a combination of the open wood, the plentiful sun, and the low hills on either side of the trail. But really, I don't know. It was just a good place. It was like it was the opposite of haunted.

When I reached the road, I thought Chestnut Ridge trail would be obvious on the other side. But while there's a sign, the trailhead is actually well off the road on the other side of a grassy park area. There's a bridge over a creek; turn left on the other side of the bridge. The trail here got really steep, switchbacking up the ridge. I actually really enjoyed the challenge after what had been a fairly easy hike so far.

At the top there were a couple of old concrete structures that looked like some kind of silo, although silos aren't common around here, and a new structure that is probably a water tower for the nearby cabins.

The trail ended at a drive that loops around for people to get to the cabins. I'd never seen the cabins before that I remember, but they're quite nice. I was on pavement the rest of the way back to my car, which was hard on my feet after hiking all that way. I like my boots but they don't have a lot of padding. I think I'm going to have to invest in a really good pair pretty soon.

I had a good time, and there are still a few trails that I haven't seen yet at Big Ridge. I really appreciate that the trails are so well marked, too. I may go back in another month or so once the trees are green and the wildflowers are in full bloom.

Above: someone spent a lot of time and effort on this.