Sunday, September 11, 2016

Backpacking Women

(Denise, Gretchen, Sue, Martha, and Kendra ready to set out!)

Whenever something changes in my hiking life, I rethink my future in the outdoors.  Last year, when my daughter, Meredith, and I finished hiking the 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks, I thought about what we might do next.  Meredith and I definitely planned to keep hiking, but it would not be the priority that it had been, and so many things make demands on our time.

I knew that I wanted to continue to backpack into the wilderness, if for no other reason than to wake up to a sunrise by a remote pond.  I couldn't think of anyone who would want to do this with me, if Meredith were not available.  Then I remembered what I always remember: clubs exist just for this reason.  As a long-time hiking leader for the Albany Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), I decided to offer a women's backpacking overnight trip.

(Setting up the campsite)

The trip would be short but beautiful, with just 6/10ths of a mile of backpacking our gear from our cars to Round Pond.  Included would be a hike up nearby Noonmark Mountain from the same trail that we would take to the pond.  I also offered a second-day hike up Baxter Mountain, for those who wanted to fit in a little more before making the trek back home.

I limited the group size to six, including myself, and ended up with the most congenial, interesting, enjoyable, adventurous group of women I could imagine.  Each of them had a reason for choosing to do this trip.  A couple of women had never backpacked before, and wanted to try it out.  One of them was planning to hike the high peaks, and was considering backpacking in to some of them, as Meredith and I had.  Two others had backpacked in the past, and were contemplating getting back into it. They thought that my trip would be the perfect refresher.  Another wanted to sign up for an adventure travel outing in the West, that entailed hiking over mountains with full packs. She hoped to be able to gauge her abilities by joining this trip.

(Round Pond with Noonmark in the distance, upon our arrival at our campsite)

During the weeks preceding the trip, I sent emails with details regarding gear, food, and specifics.  With six people, we would need three two-person tents and three bear canisters (required in the eastern high peaks area). It happened that we broke easily into pairs. What an absolutely no-stress beginning!  And what's more, our couple of days defied the trend of this hot humid summer with a forecast of dry cool air!  Emails circulated expressing excited anticipation.

We were not all coming from the Capital Region, so we met at the trailhead, where we combined our shared gear and finished loading our packs...and then we heaved our packs onto our shoulders.  There is nothing quite so surprising as the heavy-weight feeling of loading a pack onto your back, or the weightless feeling of taking a big pack off.

(Kendra, Virginia, Denise, Sue, Gretchen, and Martha on Noonmark's windy summit)

The trail to Round Pond ascends moderately right away.  A few people made slight adjustments to their pack straps and became comfortable with the change in balance that an additional 25 or more pounds on the back creates.

Round Pond has a few designated wilderness tent spots, and we checked out all of them.  The first one was big enough for our three tents.  Not only that, it was closest to the pond.  Round Pond did not disappoint.  Despite its short distance from the road, it felt very remote and quiet, surrounded by mountains.

(A panoramic view of high peaks from Noonmark)

Setting up camp didn't take much time.  Besides being light, backpacking gear has to be simple!  We had lunch at the pond's edge, and then set off on the trail again.  This time, we carried little, just water and snacks, as we headed up Noonmark.

Noonmark Mountain is a mid-level hike at 6 miles round-trip with 2000 feet of elevation gain.  The trail is a typical Adirondack trail, built in a continuous incline, in order to reach the top in the shortest amount of distance.  There are a few rock scrambles, and we stopped regularly to take a breath.

Perfect weather and a spectacular view allowed us to see far and wide.  A stiff wind blew across the summit, just enough to cool us after our ascent, but not enough to make us take cover.

(Giant Mountain from the summit of Noonmark)

We returned to the campsite in time for dinner.  Now, late August, darkness would come by 7:30, and even earlier when the sun set behind a mountain.

I didn't ask each person what she brought for dinner, although I was a little curious. I had emailed them many non-perishable, energizing, food suggestions, but I know that my choices would not be the choices of others.  Still, I saw very little peanut butter.  I did see some chocolate, however.  Some things are worth a little extra weight!

(Denise and Gretchen share wine at the campsite)

Bears were a chief concern for the group.  I helped each pair determine where the bear canisters should be placed -- a distance away from the tents, but not so far that we wouldn't find them in the morning, and between rocks or logs, where they would be less likely to roll away if a bear pawed them.  The news had reported that bears were marauding more this summer, due to the drought. Being extra careful with our food was necessary.

(Sue passes the time with a little evening Sudoku)

As darkness descended, we watched for stars.  Little had we known that we had an astronomy afficionado among us!  She pointed out the early bright stars and told us where the Milky Way would appear as the evening progressed.  I brought my sleeping pad down to the rocks by the pond and lay on my back, watching the sky.  Others brought something to sit on, and two women chose, instead, to relax in their tent and read by head lamp.

(Gretchen and Kendra filter water)

What a night for stargazing! The day's clear atmosphere extended into the moonless night.  Stars filled our entire range of vision.  Every few minutes the lights of an airplane crossed the sky. We were surprised to see so many.  Where might they be coming from or going to? 

The night was quiet, except for the occasional croak of a bull frog or splash of a fish.  And we had nothing better to do than to be here under a canopy of stars, "away from it all."

(Evening at Round Pond)

In the morning, most of the women professed to having slept fairly well, and to having been fairly comfortable, an accomplishment for sure!

I was really pleased that, even though the trip had been short, each person felt that she had learned something.  Two determined that, yes, they could backpack a few miles and camp on their way to climbing peaks.  Others had definite  new insights into how they would tweak their gear.  Perhaps less clothing, a different piece of clothing, a change in food choice, or whether they would prefer carrying a water filter or purification tablets.  The woman who was contemplating a western backpacking trip decided that her days for such strenuous hikes were behind her, but have no doubt -- this lady is out there and everywhere taking on new adventures!

(Sue and Martha ready to hike out)

We had our breakfast by the pond, as the mist rose, and the sun promised another perfect day.  This time I saw that we all had meals of yogurt, granola, fruit, or a hard boiled egg, a roll....  Heated food was not missed, but coffee was. No one had chosen to bring a stove. By the same token, no one admitted to a strong desire for hot water being one of the things they learned on this trip. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of people would add a stove to their list, should they decide to backpack again.

(Morning mist on Round Pond)

After breakfast, we packed up, folding tents and sleeping bags. Once again, we shoved and squeezed to fit everything into the small space of our packs.  Then we left the quiet of our pond, and set off for the parking area.

Two of the women headed back to the Capital Region, while the other four of us visited SubAlpine Coffee in Keene Valley.  This cafe just opened in 2015 and what a treat!  We all managed to bypass the delectable pastries in the case, having just had our cold camp breakfast. Coffee was the priority.  So was the comfy furniture.  We would have fallen asleep, if we hadn't left when we did. SubAlpine is a place to keep in mind.

(Gretchen and Kendra have snacks on the summit of Baxter)

In the end, three of us chose to hike Baxter Mountain.  Unlike the previous day's Noonmark Mountain, Baxter is easy and has numerous switchbacks, with just 1.1 miles one-way and 770 feet of elevation gain. We reached the summit in about 40 minutes.  Baxter's many ledges offer an astounding view for the amount of time and effort.  We relaxed on the summit through the mid-morning, bringing our overnight getaway to a pleasing closure.

(Views from Baxter are beautiful)

This outings was certainly one of the highlights of my summer.  Offering an overnight trip in the woods to a group of ADK participants had been a little out of my comfort zone, yet everything had gone wonderfully. I learned that it's not hard to find women who want to backpack, or who at least want to give it a try.  I am already mulling over ideas to offer next year, but, for now, I am very happy with my memories of this year's adventure.

(Mount Marcy and other peaks in the distance from Baxter)

Friday, July 22, 2016


I had spent days obsessing over the weather, in anticipation of leading a challenging Adirondack Mountain Club hike. I was thrilled when my three weather websites all predicted a perfect day, until the forecast changed to 65% chance of thunderstorms.  I could not take people to treeless summits, if lightning might come up, and was forced to cancel the outing.

Not only had I planned to lead the hike, but I had also arranged to camp overnight, and head south the following morning to spend the day with my 90-year-old parents in Saratoga. This had been a tri-fold plan, and I wasn't ready to give it up entirely.

The forecast for the Lake George area was considerably better than farther north. I tossed my tent in the car, packed some clothes, and made a quick decision.  I would hike part of the Tongue Mountain Range, overlooking Lake George, stay at nearby Hearthstone campground, and drive the 45 minutes to Saratoga the following morning, keeping to that portion of my previous plan.

Disappointed from having had to cancel the group hike, I set out on my own without my usual sense of excitement. Still, I knew the woods would work their magic once I got on the trail.  I would park at the Clay Meadow trail head, part-way along the Tongue Range, and hike to French Point Mountain, about 8 miles round-trip.

A car was on my tail as soon as I left the Northway.  I watched for DEC's brown and yellow signs, looking for Clay Meadow, but I was more focused on the car behind me.  I should have pulled over to let the tailgater go by, but I didn't have far to go, I thought, and continued on.

The first trail head parking I saw was not Clay Meadow, but the northernmost end of the Range, five miles beyond my intended destination.  That car behind me had made me miss my spot!  Not a great beginning, but, oh well, I could enjoy hiking a different section of the trail.

Even with temperatures in the low 70s, the humidity ran high.  I struck out at a good pace and broke into a sweat almost immediately.  Still, the path was lovely with lush green grasses at either side.  I saw two people coming from the opposite direction. We commented on the nice, though humid, day.

(Lean-to at Five Mile Mountain)

At the Five Mile Mountain lean-to, I took a big swig of water, peered at the western view through the trees, and had a snack. I stood on sunny rocks, checking first to make sure no rattle snakes lounged there.  The Tongue Range is a known timber rattler habitat, but people rarely see them. I knew enough to check sunny rocks, before wandering out on them though.

(view to the west from lean-to)
 A breeze came up and the air seemed to change.  So did my mood.  It felt great to be out here in the woods.  The humidity, now slightly dispelled by the breeze, brought out the aromas of the earth, and woodland plants.  I felt spry and set out on the gradual descent from the lean-to at a quick pace, as the lush green trail turned to stony rubble and last-year's fallen brown leaves. I still felt secure in my footing and skipped along.

In quick succession, just a moment really, I heard the noisy scramble of a grouse scared into flight by my approach, a startling clap of thunder, and the unmistakable, very nearby, loud rattle of a rattle snake. I catapulted about 15 feet down the trail, having taken a split-second glimpse of the snake just off the trail in the leaves.

Then I stopped, and looked back.  Mind you, I did not go back, not even one step, but I did take my phone out of my pocket to get a picture of the distant ground where I knew the snake must be.  My heart pounded.

I would have liked to have turned around and called the hike quits.  My parked car seemed like a distant oasis, but I couldn't go back.  No way would I go around that snake now, not even in a huge arc.  Besides, maybe he had a friend nearby.  I could only go forward.  In my new state of fear, I slowed my pace, so that I could see about eight feet ahead on both sides of the trail.  I would not be taken by surprise again.

(I stood a ways off for this picture, for sure!)

Even though the snake had been just inches off the trail (thank heavens, not ON the trail), I figured he must have felt the vibrations of my footfalls for quite a while, coming ever closer.  And, when I passed by, he shook loud and clear.  The more I thought about it, and pictured it in my mind, the more freaked out I was. An uphill climb to Fifth Peak dispelled some of my adrenaline, and I became more relaxed, still watching every step, however.

The lean-to at Fifth Peak has two beautiful views.  I walked out to the rocky summit (no snakes there) and saw heavy rain falling on the mountains to the southwest.  The sky above me remained blue with a few fluffy clouds.

(beautiful view and rain falling to the southwest from Fifth Peak lean-to)

As much as I loved that view, I could not stay in the strong sun. I moved to the other viewpoint, overlooking Lake George and the mountains on the lake's east side.  I sat on a rock (checking for snakes, of course), and enjoyed my lunch, the breeze, and the view.  My pulse had returned to almost normal. I texted Bill, including the photo below in my message.  All good.

(Lake George from Fifth Peak lean-to)

Since I had begun the hike at the more northern location, I ended up choosing a 12-mile round-trip outing, a bit more than I had originally bargained for.  Fifth Peak was my turn-around point, and I began my return.  With a tedious stride, I scoured the woods and trail at every step.  Spending the next two hours on high alert was not fun.

When I came to the place where the snake had been, I walked more quickly, still scrutinizing my surroundings. Once I reached the Five Mile Mountain lean-to, I convinced myself that the threat had  passed.

Thunder came and went in the distance; the sky was still mostly blue.  At another overlook, I saw rain falling on mountains in the southeast.  Thunderstorms had not been a worry for me on this day, and the occasional shower had cooled me off.

(rain falling to the east from a rocky opening from the trail)

Back at the car, I realized that, overall, I had hiked at a quicker-than-usual pace, despite my intense inspection of the trail. And I had had some good views. In retrospect, I considered my snake experience extremely "rattling" but unique.

Driving south along the lake, I picked up a sandwich at a deli in Bolton Landing, and got a campsite at Hearthstone.  Although just a few days before the 4th of July, I felt fortunate to procure a site quite close to the beach.  On the other hand, I was surprised that my site was the tiniest I had ever seen. It would just fit my Prius and little pup-tent.  Large family sites with multiple tents, huge amounts of gear, chairs, bicycles, and children, surrounded me with no trees between.

(Picnics were a regular Sunday afternoon outing -- my mother, my big sister, my father, and me)

My parents used to bring my sister and me to Hearthstone in the fall, when the campground and beach were deserted.  We would park on the road and walk down the pine-needled park driveway, carrying a picnic to the lake.  In my memory, I could smell the pine, and see the pretty lake. My sister and I waded at the edge of the water, in the quiet of Lake George's off-season.

Now, I looked around for affirmation of my childhood impressions.  Parents yelled, and children shrieked.

I read my newspaper from a bench overlooking the lake. Every now and then one of the big cruise boats went by -- the Minne-ha-ha with its paddle wheel, and the Lac du Saint Sacrement playing music. This, too, was Lake George, Queen of America's Lakes.

Evening came with a quick shower. Everyone, including me, left the beach, but returned within the hour. As if by magic, everything had changed. Rainbows seemed to be all around -- part of an arc to the north, two arcs to the south.  Four families appeared.  Fathers left quickly to get cameras from their campsites.  Children ran through the sand, making friends with one another.  Mothers got acquainted, as they oohed and aahed over the changing sky.  The rainbows became smaller, but more brilliant.  One to the south seemed to be almost on fire, and the clouds changed from gold to deep pink.

(rainbow just coming out before my phone battery died)

I didn't have my camera on this trip, and the battery on my phone died.  I didn't mind.  I waded into the water and watched the rainbows with everyone else, until the sky got dark and they disappeared.  I went back to my tiny campsite to settle in and read for a while, while the families built camp fires and put little children to bed.

In the morning, I got up early and headed for the shower at the campground bathhouse.  A custodian said, "You should go to the campsites across the road.  The showers are really nice there.  It's like paradise!"  Since I was walking, I used the shower closest to my campsite, but now I was curious.

When I packed up and got in the car to leave, I drove across the road to the campsites on the other side.  The sites had space, and plenty of trees between.  Granted, they were quite a ways from the lake, and I didn't get out of the car to check the paradisiacal showers, but many of these sites had a much more remote feel than those on the lake side.  Back on the main road, I reached my parents' house right on schedule, as originally planned.

Eventually, I returned to my own house. Just before going to bed, I transferred the previous day's pictures from my phone to my computer.  I studied the picture of the brown leafy trail, looking for the snake. When I expanded the photo, my heart leapt to my throat.  There he was, huge and coiled as if to strike.  I was freaked out all over again! 

(I added an outline so you could see him.  YIKES!!)

How would I ever get to sleep with these images keeping me wide awake?  Loud rattles filled my mind. I tried to think about the beautiful rainbows, but I wondered if I would ever dare to hike on the Tongue Mountain Range again.  And then I remembered winter.  Cold-blooded reptiles are inactive in the winter.  Okay, if I ever go back, it will be on snowshoes.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Snippets of Iceland

Bill and I had a fabulous trip to Iceland in early June.  Here are a few excerpts from my journal.

Our bus drove along gorgeous scenic roads. Fields of lupine grew up the mountainsides.

Eventually, we came to our first waterfall of the day, Gullfoss. The saving of Gullfoss represents early conservationism in 1907, when a fourteen year-old girl, Sigridur Tomasdottir raised public awareness by walking all the way to Reykjavik to protest plans for a power plant which would destroy the falls.

We walked from a lava field on a narrow path down to the falls, where a continual spray of water made lush vibrant green plants grow on the rocks. What a contrast from the landscape above!

The falls were huge and powerful, pounding through a canyon and tumbling over a wide rock face. I could understand its appeal for water power, but was glad that it had been saved.

Walking up to a higher level, we were rewarded with an expanded view, and a brilliant rainbow, as the sun came out from behind clouds. A fabulous introduction to Iceland's waterfalls.
We drove for miles through the lava field, and then stopped at a place where we could walk on it. People's feet had squashed the lichen that grows on the lava, and made a surprisingly soft mulch-like surface to walk on. Many of us studied the lichen and tiny flowers that grew over the lava.

This field was created in 1783, when the volcano exploded, continuing daily for six months, and nearly destroyed the nation. Fifty percent of the livestock was killed. Many people died from famine. This was the biggest lava flow from a single eruption in world history.

I began my usual practice of going on short walks during auto stops. This time, I took one of the many paths through a field, where sheep ate grass in the shadow of mountains.

I saw a few people, as I progressed to a rock area that was the top of a cluster of basalt columns. A bird, which we later identified as an oyster catcher, hopped in the grasses.


Later, I again slipped off on a trail by an auto stop. This path went up high through a lupine field with views of a glacier. The view from this hill was exceptional, as was the silence. All I could hear were the bees buzzing on the lupine and a few birds.

We arrived at the glacial lagoon at Jokulsarlon, where we went out in the water on a duck boat to see the icebergs. This lagoon has been here since at least the 12th century when it was mentioned in writing.

The icebergs were a deep blue, and we could see that they extended farther under the water than above. A seal rested on one. The boat guide pulled up a piece of ice and had people see how heavy it was. Then he cut pieces off, put them on a tray, and we each had a bite to eat.

He said, “you are eating 1000 year old ice.” All of the icebergs float under the bridge here and then into the ocean. The glacier is creeping back, and may only have icebergs floating from it for another 30 years.


We drove to a different fjord to the town of Siglufjordur. A thriving, decades-long herring business used to support this town which had a population of 30,000. In 1969, the herring died, and the business ended. While many reasons have been given for this, the death of the herring is considered an act of nature. The town's population dropped to 1300.

Siglufjordur is totally charming and part of the expanding tourism economy.

Bill and I walked around. Then he explored the grocery store, while I went up through the cemetery looking for a mountain path. Lupines lined a dirt road that continued up.

I went until I could see wide views in all directions, one beyond the harbor to the end of the fjord and snow-capped mountains, another out to sea, and below to the village and harbor.

As often happens, Bill and I found each other easily upon my return. Bill showed me a little hotel he had seen, which had traditional one-speed bikes on its bike rack. We could imagine vacationing here.

Two other couples joined us at the harbor cafe for lunch. Bill and I both had fish and chips made with cod. It was excellent, as we have found the food to be. Paprika is a popular spice here, and was sprinkled on the chips.

(View out restaurant window)
Everyone looked forward to our visit to a horse farm. We began with a delicious farm lunch in a sun room overlooking the meadow. The weather had cleared, so we could sit outdoors to watch a demonstration of the five gaits that are natural to the Icelandic horse.

Three riders rode the horses around a large track. Amidst rolling hills and low shrub growth, the riders and horses made an idyllic scene.

We could clearly see the difference in each of the gaits. One of the riders carried a glass of beer around the track to demonstrate the smoothness of the horse's fifth gait. Only the foam blew off the top of the beer glass.

The owner took us inside the stables, where we could pet and admire the horses. Besides their long manes and tails, they also have very long bangs, at times covering their eyes.

Some others have blue eyes, another unique feature of this breed. Everyone felt that this visit was a very special experience that the average tourist would not have.

We stopped many times along the way to view and photograph the ocean shoreline. Dramatic cliffs resembled the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. Another had a black sand beach.

I was entranced by the Icelandic sweaters, in all varieties of design, but mostly made in traditional natural colors of grays and browns, or in blue. Sweaters were about $130, less than I can make one for. 

They generally did not have buttons, but had zippers on the cardigans. I spend quite a bit on metal Nordic designed buttons, but, still, these sweaters were reasonable. The headbands and gloves were, comparatively, not as reasonably priced. 

In other stores, I found yarns to knit and wool ready for spinning.