Christmas AT Backpacking Trip – The Preparation
January 4, 2020 § 2 Comments
After returning from a three day weekend backpacking trip in Pennsylvania Furnace State Park, also known as Michaux State Forest where the Appalachian Trail halfway point between Springer Mountain Georgia, and Mt Katahdin Maine lies, I had all my gear still out and ready to put away when I thought “What if I took some time before the end of the year and tried to knock out the AT in Connecticut?” Though not the shortest sections of the trail in any state, it is pretty low. Maybe even number 2 to West Virginia, but maybe even number 3 to Maryland. I knew that the total length in CT was just over 50 miles, and I was already familiar with the Southern terminus; I just didn’t know much about the Northern end.
Fortunately, in today’s electronic age, we have the internet, and there are a lot of resources you can pull up and research before you have to spend any money on paper maps and a guide book. For example, the National Park Service maintains, thank you taxpayers, an interactive map where, using layers you can turn on parking access sites, shelter location sites, and other resources. Using this tool with shelters, and parking enabled, I found there was an access trail just south of the state line, and one a little further north.
The next thing to consider was where to stay. If I could stick to shelters only, then I could avoid bringing a tent, and that would be both the end of the day, and the beginning a little easier, as I wouldn’t have to deal with setting up and taking it down. So, the question was, could I plan four days and find 3 shelters that I can reach and cover the distance? I needed another resource. This site contains a full list of all the shelters along the AT and their distances along the trail, all Nobo (Northbound), as well as capacity, how far off the trail the shelter lies, and it’s elevation. That last part tells you how much descent you have to hike before you reach it, or rather, it tells you how much elevation you have to gain in the morning to get back on the trail. Scrolling down the page, shelters are in order from south to north, you reach Wiley (last shelter in NY) and soon after Brassie Brook (last shelter in CT). It soon becomes apparent that there is a challenge, because there are two back to back separations: Limestone Spring to Pine Swamp, and Pine Swamp to Stewart Hollow that are 11.1 and 10 miles respectively. On both sides of that are 7.5 and 7.3 miles. Ideally then, Pine Swamp should have been a designated shelter, but then I’d have to figure out what and when my start would be to know whether I could lay it out that way. On the North side that would have meant Riga or Brassie Brook, and in retrospect, Riga, would have been a descent entrance distance from Rt. 41 and the Race Brook Trail Head. That would have had me stay at Mt. Algo shelter after Pine Swamp, which is where I ended up any, however, my goal at the time was not just NY state line, but it was the Metro North Harlem Line AT Stop, and that was another 8 miles, and so, I set my goals as follows:
- Limestone Spring Shelter – 18 ish
- Stewart Hollow Shelter – 21 ish
- Wiley Shelter (NY) – 19 ish
Leaving an easy 6 miles on the fourth day to the train stop. Having direct access to the maps electronically is also a nice have on the trail. From the USGS I can choose 1:24,000 and download geo-pdfs for anywhere in the country. The last major update was 2018. Avenza has an app for Android and iPhone which, with a subscription fee, allows you to upload as many geo-pdf files as you wish (Only 3 for free). Once you get used to the app, then you group those into a collection, and then upload KML files with the AT track, Shelter, and Parking information, and now you have pretty decent electronic means of identifying your location. I still like paper backup, so I ordered the Massachusetts-Connecticut trail guide and maps as well.
The next consideration was how to get there. Driving was an obvious first choice, but it means leaving your vehicle for an extended amount of time in a trail head parking area. Some of those are remote, and though reports of vandalism are rare, there was also the task of getting back to the car. Uber was a thought there, but I hadn’t found resources about availability in that area. There were some Taxi companies within 10-15 miles as well. With driving, I can control when I get on the trail. If I wanted to be on the trail at daybreak, then I could leave my house at 3:30 in the am, and be at the TH at 6:30. The thing about driving was the return trip home I would have been tired, and that would have been a long drive.
The next option was public transit. I could take the Ferry to NYC on Christmas Eve, and then catch a Metro North train the next morning all depending on the schedules. I checked Seastreak out of Highlands, and they had a 3:45, which was the last NYC bound ferry that day. Going to the Metro North page I found the Harlem 125th st line to Wassaic, NY had a 7:10 in the am arriving Wassaic 9:55. Wassaic was still 15-20 miles from the trail head, so I called a couple of Taxi services in the area to check on Christmas availability, and was told either no drivers, so no service, or if any driver expressed an interest he would get back to me. I did some more googling and found Whiteblaze.net where there was a link to a PDF file for shuttles along the AT. This is a very long table of 11 columns, for large swaths of the trail, and ordered from Georgia to Maine with an indication of how much of the trail that shuttle would cover, and whether the shuttle would do airport runs etc. So I first found Bearded Woods Shuttles based in Falls Village, a small hamlet I would actually walk through, and I texted the number to check on availability, and immediately received a reply of “Sorry”. The next on the list was Ms. Treat, who was also pretty quick with the “Sorry”, however, she texted me again and suggested I try Joe Sokol, and gave me his number. Joe replied immediately and asked the details, and then texted he would let me know later in the day, which eventually turned into a “Yes”. So I told him I was putting my plans together, and watching the 10 day weather, but I would let him know by Sunday the 22nd whether it was a go or not.
The 10 day at that point wasn’t really all that bad. What would bad have been? Four solid days of rain would have been pretty bad, and as December was wrapping up as one of the wettest ones in quite a few years, I was glad to see that the 10 didn’t show that. A Polar Vortex would have also been bad. One of the draws of Winter Backpacking is the cold weather, but Polar Vortex cold, without the okay to have campfires just would not have been all that fun. So no Polar Vortex in the 10 day either. What was in the 10 day was lows in the 20s, and highs in the 30s with snow starting sometime on Friday and on and off again into Saturday. What’s the difference between snow and rain? A lot, when it comes to backpacking. Snow falls off you, rain does not. A snow base is sometimes easier on your walk than a wet one, though snow hides many hazards. Snow is the preferred form of precipitation. So far the 10 day said some snow.
The next item to check off the list was food. I went through my stores and had what appeared to be four dinners: A Pad Thai (GoodTo-Go), A Penne Marinara (GoodTo-Go), Peachy Chicken and Rice (Mountain House), and a Chana Masala (Mountain House). With dinner covered for 4 nights (1 emergency), I had mini Pay Day bars leftover from Halloween and that was about it, so I needed food to fill out breakfast and lunches. Lunch on the trail is usually in the form of Gorp, some kind of jerky, and an energy bar. You just need to take the edge off the hunger and continue on. Breakfast has traditionally always been oatmeal with extras. For the trail, quick oats, because no “cooking”, just hot water, and dried cranberries, brown sugar, and some granola to add texture to texture-less soggy quick oats.
I needed food, and I needed fuel, and the last local place to buy ISO-Propane backpacking canisters closed its doors more than a year ago, so I needed to plan a trip to REI. I did notice, while I was looking at some L.L. Bean stuff that they had a store in The Freehold Mall, and I had been to one of their stores on Wolf Rd outside Albany, and it was a very decent well equipped outfitter. I decided to give them a go after work one day and drove out there the Friday before XMas. I knew what I needed:
- A new woolen cap
- A pair of medium weight gloves with sensitive touch fingers
- ISO P fuel
- Bear Canister (?)
- anything I might need
Though busy, I found a quick parking space and was soon in the store. I could tell immediately this wasn’t like the store in Albany. It was much smaller. I found some gloves pretty quickly, and a cap, but when I went in search of fuel, there was none. They weren’t out, they just didn’t stock it. I was very disappointed. I did find they sold some stoves that needed Iso P fuel, but why would you sell the stove if you didn’t have the fuel to sell with it? Disgusted, I returned the gloves and cap to their racks, and walked out regretting that I hadn’t driven to Princeton and the REI. I gave that store a poor review. It was too late to drive to Princeton so I decided that on Sunday I would drive to Wayne to see my Dad and May, and on the way I would stop in East Hanover and hit the REI there on RT 10. I got there early, and quickly found a pair of gloves, and a cap, and I found the fuel I needed. I bought two, so that I would have a reserve for another time. In addition I went to look at food, and and decided on a breakfast hash, and an add-cold-water granola pack. I wanted to try something different for breakfast. I picked up some Cliff Protein Builder bars, and a collapsible cup.
After my visit with Kent and May, I checked the 10 day one more time, and all looked like a go. I texted Joe to confirm the Xmas morning shuttle, and Susan that I would come into the city Xmas Eve afternoon and spend the night at her place. I just needed to wrap up some incidentals, and everything was a go.
Everyday that brought the journey closer also brought a warming to over all adventure. Coldest day would be Christmas day, and that night would fall below freezing, but after that, once it warmed past freezing, it would never dip below that again. That meant the possibility of rain, but it also meant my selection of clothing wouldn’t have to endure anything mind numbingly cold. One of the great things about cold weather hiking is how the body heats itself during physical exertion. When you are indoors working out, you feel that as sweat, a condition by which the body attempts to cool itself by releasing moisture to the skin which can evaporate. An effect that cools the body. If it is cold outside, then that evaporative cycle requires clothing to “wick” the moisture off your skin. What this does is it keeps you from overheating, and sweating more, as well as it keeps the layers close to your skin dry. I bought a few pairs of really ugly snow camouflage compression long sleeved undershirts (Skins) which I wear as a base layer. These are the ultimate in base layers upon which I need only add an additional technical fiber layered shirt that allows me to hike down into the mid 20’s. If the wind picks up all I need is a shell layer, or something fights the extra induced cold from the wind. In my case I chose to bring my 40 year old Norwegian Sweater that I bought my first year in college from L.L. Bean. 100% wool, it isn’t much of a wind break, but the warmth you feel when it goes over your head is to die for.
A rain shell, then, was all that was missing for actual hiking. The rest I had to decide what was needed once I was done for the day. I have a medium weight fleece shirt which is still going strong, and a thin pair of long johns to add comfort to my lower extremities. It could be argued that going to bed so early would mitigate the need for the long johns, but I brought them anyway. Two pairs of medium to heavy hiking socks, my already purchased new cap and gloves, and one extra upper body layer just in case.
For footwear, I decided on my La Sportiva GTX Extra-lite shoes (Closest Equivalent) as they are half the weight of my Zamberlans, and when you are reaching out for extra distance, lifting twice the weight with each foot has its costs. I went with low cut OR gaiters, and I remembered my Kahtoola micro-spikes, which was a damn good remember.
It was time to go.