Christmas AT Backpacking Trip – MA to NY via CT Day 1

January 5, 2020 § 3 Comments

I stayed in the city Christmas Eve with Susan, filling our belly’s with Tenho ramen, and getting to bed long before midnight. My plan was to arrive at Grand Central with plenty of time to find my platform, and possibly find an open food establishment. Susan packed me a nice breakfast of granola, yogurt, and some Clementines, but with a long hike ahead, I thought some coffee, and a pastry of some sort would supplement well.

I was out of bed at 6:05 pointy sharp, and set about getting dressed. I would not be carrying non-hiking clothing with me, so I dressed in my hiking layers, fitted my boots, packed all my clean and non-hiking clothing into a bag to leave there, grabbed my breakfast, said my “goodbyes”, accepted the “good luck”s and the “have fun”s, hoisted my pack, and was out the door.

The streets of Manhattan, on Christmas morning, were deserted. It was like an episode of “On The Road” where they walk through a nearly empty city. I encountered few people, certainly no one a threat of any sort, and soon arrived at Pershing Square where I entered Grand Central. On the way in I found my departure information, Track 19. I entered the grand foyer to get my bearings, and saw “The Big Board” where my track information was blank for the Harlem 125th St train. Confused, I retreated to the previous source of information to confirm, and confirmed, I headed to Track 19 where I found the train sitting with all its doors closed. As it so happened, there was a Zarros open, right at the track entrance, and a handful of people in line, with some nice ladies of the Muslim faith waiting on people. Picked up a coffee, and an everything bagel with butter, and descended upon the platform where I followed someone who looked like they knew what they were doing until we were most of the way down the platform, and I thought maybe it would be perceived as creepy by the person I was following when the place was so empty, and so I stopped. In time the doors opened, and I found a seat.

The way the Harlem Line runs is there two different runs along the tracks. Local stops out to White Plains, and express to White Plains, with local stops after that. Departure was 7:10, and arrival in Wassaic was 9:55. Do the math. That is a long time on the train. Because of the limits of electrification, we changed trains in Southeast to a diesel which pulled in shortly after we discharged.

In Wassaic, Joe Sokol was in the parking lot awaiting my arrival. It was pretty obvious to him, who he was looking for, and I could tell by the way he looked at me, that he was my guy. With my pack in the trunk we set off. Joe was from Great Barrington, Mass, retired and happened into the AT shuttle business. This was his fourth year, and I was his 719th shuttle this year. Clearly he has high and low months, and when it comes to December, he hadn’t had anyone require a shuttle this late in the year. So, being a person of numbers, that was one of the reasons for shuttling me. He collected other kinds of information as well, and maintained a log book of the results. Hiker origin by state, and by country for those beyond the US of A borders. He still hasn’t had anyone from North or South Dakota. When it came to equipment, nearly half of everyone he shuttled was hauling an Osprey Backpack of some sort. Mountain Hardware and Big Agnes were at the top of the tent list, though ultra-light options like a tarp, and hammock weren’t far behind. Nobos outranked Sobos 2 to 1.

Driving along Joe pointed out the couple of places where the AT crossed the road we were on, and soon we pulled into the trail head parking at Race Brook. As I was dressed already, there wasn’t anything to do except get a couple of pictures, give Joe his money, say our goodbyes, and get started. As it so happened there was a day hiker prepping to start up the trail as well. Joe left to return home for the holidays, and I simply tried to get to the information sign, which was only 20 feet away, but I nearly fell three times. Clearly, just to get out of the parking area, I was going to have to put on the micro-spikes. I bought these a couple of years ago, after some other kind of snow traction contraptions pissed me off to no end with how they just wouldn’t stay fixed upon my boots, and that was simply to shovel snow. I bought these Kahtoolas, but had yet to try them. These went on fine, both of them had giant “L” on the rear tab, but they were neither right nor left, however the difference in traction was immediate and gratifying. These were the real deal, and hopefully they could take the rigors of four days on the trail. I had no idea how much I would need them, but as it turned out I wore them 90% of the time.

It’s two miles to the AT, and from what can be seen and the knowledge that the intersection is in a saddle between Everett and Race Mountains, the general terrain of the trail was one that gained elevation. Not a lot at first, but eventually there were walls of gain that had to be attained, and the trail steepened in those sections. The nice thing about gaining elevation, is you get some peeks into what the overall views are going to be once it opens up. First, though was to get around Race Brook just below the large falls. Crossing the brook low was easy, but the trail crossed again just below the cascades, and it was ice from one side to the other with running water beneath. It looked pretty strong, and it many places it was, but we are wary of the one place where it isn’t so strong. The spikes made the difference, and soon I was moving along again. I had caught an earlier glimpse of the day hiker, but my stops for pictures, soon had him well ahead of me.

My electronic data did not include designated camp sites along the AT. One of those was soon beneath my feet when I came upon the camp site at Race Brook. This was a very nice level piece of ground located just after I gained the saddle. Race Brook was in its early development, and the surrounding Rhodo gave the place a snug feel. There was a trail register there, so I stopped and entered my data. “Started Race Brook Trail head, Southbound (Sobo), planning on shelters, Eric H. aka Bird” entered, and two tenths later I made a right and headed for Connecticut. More Rhodo, and very quickly the trail narrowed, and a rock scramble began, and before long I emerged onto the summit of Race Mountain, where I found the day hiker engaged in some photographic moments. We exchanged the holiday greetings, some short words, and I was on my way, because I had miles to go before I would sleep.

Once upon Race Mountain, the trail hugs the East side of an open ridge offering wide open vistas, and a plunging drop. The sure-footed feel of the spikes made this section less treacherous, and soon I was back into the trees descending towards Sage Ravine. I was moving quickly, both from a sense of need to move quickly, and I was fresh. By this time, I had already realized my error in forgetting Ibuprofen, and that meant sorer-than-need-be legs the next day. One thing I learned from some oral surgery. If you take a large dosage of anti-inflammatory BEFORE the inflammation, then there is a lot less inflammation. That was not to be the case for me though. So move along I did. Sages Ravine had three main points of interest. I would pass into Connecticut, there would be a campsite, and the one I didn’t expect was just what does “ravine” mean? Steep walls, where anything that loosens from high up, finds its way into the ravine. The snow was deeper here, and there were a lot more rocks, and the trail tended to stay close to the brook. Though deeper, the snow was structurally very sound, and itself did not impede movement. Soon I was gaining elevation again on my way to the peak of Bear Mountain.

Bear Mountain in NY I am very familiar with, and once I even saw a bear upon its lands, but like NY, the CT Bear was a bear to climb. The trail gained steeply, with many hand holds required to lift myself over some good-sized steps. At the summit were two groups of Christmas day hikers getting their selfies and admiring the view. We exchanged pleasantries, they snapped a picture of me for me, and with haste in my feet I continued on. I didn’t want to stop long, because I could feel the length of my day already dipping into nightfall. I was heading for Lime Spring Shelter, which I knew was off the trail, but there were two closely located shelters still ahead of me: Brassie Brook, and Riga. I zoomed past Brassie Brook, and reached Riga around 2 in the afternoon. With only two and half hours of decent daylight left, I ate a quick meal, and set off. From here I would need to descend all the way to the edge of Salisbury, but not before Lions Head let me know my way would not be without work. There is a Lions Head in Dolly Sods, and just as much a challenge it was. The way was rocky, and my pace ebbed until I was free of the rocks and came upon some open fields. A couple of miles of field and road, and I was past Salisbury with 1.8 miles left to go. There was a problem though. That was it for daylight, and dusk.

I had a choice to make. I could look for the first flat piece of land, and simply use my tarp to wrap around myself and spend the night there, or I could press on using my headlamp, my eye for the blazes, and the gps device in my phone to orient me on my map. Recall I have the topos with AT tracks, so I could always check to see what my position was. I pressed on until a creek crossing, because if I was going to stop, I would need water, but navigating by headlamp had already proved doable, and where there was snow, the trail was obvious. So on I pressed.

There is a nice thing about a well worn footpath in the woods. When you are on it, you know you are on it, and when you wander off it, it doesn’t take very long to realize that either. The danger at night isn’t wandering off the trail willy nilly, it’s when the trail intersects a game trail, or an old woods road, where it’s easy and not so obvious you have left the trail behind. That did not happen to me, but there were a few times, looking for the best route through some rocks, I found myself 6 to 10 feet off the trail. There are also places along the trail where the general rule of being able to see the next blaze from an existing one doesn’t always occur. Some blazes are old and cracked; Others are painted on trees that have fallen; Still others may be on rocks beneath the snow. When in doubt, I pulled out my phone and centered myself, and I was always square on the trail. The compass feature told me what direction to head, and usually within 10-15 yards the next blaze would appear in the distance. The reassurance that seeing those little blazes has on the mind can not be understated. To see them is to love them.

I moved along like this for more than an hour, both gaining and losing elevation, and crossing many creeks along the way. Always my position was getting closer to the way points I had in my phone for the shelter. Through this point on the trail I observed that everything I had seen so far along the way meant that the AT in Connecticut was well marked. So though I knew my shelter to be off the trail, all I had to do was make sure I didn’t miss the marker for the side trail. I doubted I would, but at some point my GPS position froze, and though I was making physical progress along the trail, my dot on the phone map, make no progress. This made staying on the trail all the more important.

I walked into a small open area where the sign indicating the Blue Blazed side trail to Lime Spring would take me the half mile further I needed to go. I took the opportunity to put fresh batteries in my head lamp, as Blue seemed like it would be harder to follow than white, and set off down the trail I went. Down the trail also meant I was losing elevation, and soon, I was losing it quickly, and then very quickly. All this I would have to re-climb the next morning. The sound of the cascades was music, but I was ready to be done. I had been hiking at night for 90 minutes, and I was tired of it. I finally reached a brook crossing where there was a bear box, a clear indicator I had reached the shelter area. I could see the privy, and when I looked harder, my lovely shelter was there as well. I quickly unpacked and got everything setup to go. While I ate, loft would return to my sleeping bag, but it did not look very warm when I first laid it out.

I filled two Nalgene bottles with creek water, and returned to the shelter. I started my stove and soon had half a bottle boiling. In the meantime I Steri-Pen‘d my other bottle so I had something to drink. That first night I went with the curry garbanzo beans, and though I followed directions they were still a little crunchy when I was too hungry to wait any longer. That’s one of two issues with dehydrated meals in a pouch. The price of their convenience is that you do have to pay attention to details, and once you add the water, no matter how much you think you stirred to combine everything, there is a small, and sometimes quite large globule of spice mixture which surrounds itself with a protective coating, thus rendering its contribution to the meal, null and void, and leading to a bite that is so over-spiced its almost sickening. A long spoon is needed, and you have to dig that spoon in the two corners of the pouch, and you need to be on the lookout for that globule. The second issue is that of time. Most of them require at least 15 minutes, but some require more, and for every 5000’ of elevation, not a problem for me this time, you have to double the time. The best bet is to simply let it set longer, but on this day, I neither stirred it enough, nor did I let it set long enough, and crunchy at the core of the Garbanzo, is what I dealt with. When I reached the globule, I simply ignored it and ate around it. As soon as I touched it, its protective membrane peeled back exposing a fair amount of spice mixture that was missing from the rest of the dish. Did it bother me? Meh. A little, but I ate it all, and swallowed some healthy amounts of water.

After that was all over, there was nothing to do except make sure my pack was hung from a peg, with all pockets open, and everything else that needed hanging to be hung. I brushed my teeth, and then took all the stinky smelly stuff, which includes all food, and put it into my food bag, and brought the food bag to the Bear Box for the night. Those are a nice feature, because now I didn’t have to throw a line over a branch and secure my food that way. I usually do that when it is light out, but you know the story behind that already.

Secure at camp, I retired to my sleeping bag. I brought a very warm bag, and realistically I could have slept naked inside it and still been warm, but my naked days are behind me. In those days, I didn’t have to pee every goddamned two hours, so once you were in the bag, you were usually good for the night, but I get up a lot now, and standing naked in the cold air does not hold any appeal to me. With that said, I strip down to my compression top, and I elected to wear my long johns to bed, if only to act as compression therapy for my sore legs. It makes it warmer, but warmer legs cramp less than colder legs.

This night I was in my bag by 7PM. Only 12 hours till the next day.

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