Logjams Not Traffic Jams: My Wild Kayak Commute (Part 2: Alewife Brook)

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My kayak commute had started well. I’d carried my folded-up kayak across the street and a block to the river, then timed myself with my phone as I set it up, 10 minutes 26 seconds… Not bad since it was just second time I’d put it together! I paddled up the Mystic River and into Alewife brook in a world of green trees, herons, and birdsong… It was easy to forget the ‘urban’ part of this urban wilderness even though the highway was never more than 500 feet away from me… The trees blocked the sight of it, and the birds blocked the sound of it.

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So when I ran into a logjam underneath the Boston Ave bridge it didn’t just jar my boat, it also jarred my mind out of the world of backcountry daydreams and back into my urban reality… The obstacle in front of me wreaked of civilization; a three-foot wide swath of trash: beach balls, soda cans, beer bottles, empty bags of Cheetos, Dunkin’ Donuts styrofoam cups, and other things that I couldn’t discern in the darkness under the bridge. Something was blocking the way and causing all of the urban detritus to collect here… yuck!

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I picked a spot that looked passable and went for it, but instead of making forward progress, my kayak lurched and wobbled in an unsettling way… My movements were too quick, too erratic. “OMG, I really don’t want to end up swimming in this water!” I thought frantically.

“Don’t Panic!” I scolded myself… I knew exactly where panic would lead me. It would lead me to the place I didn’t want to be… into the drink, where I would be immersed in the cold, dark, trash-filled water. Though up until now, the surface the water had seemed clean enough, the truth was that the water beneath me was city drainage water and definitely not clean… I didn’t have any idea what might have settled into its depths, and I really, really, really did not want to find out by accidentally swimming in it.

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I took a deep breath, and stilled my body and my kayak. I had my towel with me (in my dry bag with my work clothes), and as long as I followed Douglas Adams’s advice and didn’t panic, everything was under control… I maneuvered my kayak so that I was parallel to my mystery snag instead of perpendicular to it, and investigated the obstacle before me. It was passable… there was a log submerged near the surface, but over by the bridge’s pilings to the right, there was about 2 ft of clearance between it and the surface of the water… plenty of room for me and my kayak to pass over it! There was just one problem… the passable section was so close to the piling that I wouldn’t be able to paddle…

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Suddenly I longed for a simple pole to use to propel myself through narrow waterway… The romantic notion of Venetian gondoliers immediately came to mind with their narrow profiles and single oars, but I immediately revised it to the image that I actually wanted, that of a punt and a punt pole… If I had a punt pole I could propel myself forward by pushing the pole off of the bottom of the river… Instead, I was going to have to put my hands into that dirty water to try to propel myself forward!

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For some reason paddling through the water hadn’t bothered me at all, but reaching my hand down into it? That was a completely different story! I had to laugh at myself… My hands were already covered in Alewife Brook water, intentionally submerging my hands in it shouldn’t be a problem… and yet…

“There’s nothing to do, but do it!” I grumbled and reached in… within moments I was free of the first logjam and headed upstream again. This section of the brook wasn’t bucolic at all… Cement walls rose up on both sides of me, creating a cave-like feeling… the only thing breaking the monotony of cement were that occasional rusted iron ladders that allowed escape from the canal… To the right, the walls of the canal were lower… Affording a clear view of the cemetery…

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It was eerily silent as I paddled through, carefully avoiding occasional downed trees and rusting motorcycle engines… I was paying so much attention to the upcoming obstacles that somehow I didn’t see the…

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“SNAPPPP!!!!!!!” The sound was terrifyingly loud as it echoed between the water and cement overhang. It scared the living sh** out of me! Startled (ok, maybe slightly terrified), I turned my head towards the sound… It was a giant snapping turtle… In the water… under my kayak… I was already gliding over it… and it was biiiiiig…

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“Don’t Panic!” I reminded myself… The turtle was at least 3 feet in diameter… So big… so old… and so well camouflaged with the rocks just below the surface… Would it snap my kayak paddle in half? I lifted my paddle out of the water just in case, and tried to keep my calm… The snapping turtle was so close… This would be an even worse time to accidentally dump the kayak and go for a swim… Here, in this canal, the snapping turtle was obviously the boss… I was the intruder… and I quite happily left it where it was and got the heck out of there!

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The cement channel continued for ¼ mile with the cement overhang on one side and the cemetery on the other before it finally released me back into the trees… No more overhangs, graves, no more rusty ladders… just trees and brush and birdsong again… I was back in my happy place…

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Kayaking up alewife brook was definitely an adventure. It reminded me of one of my favorite childhood adventures/games, which I called “Combat Canoeing”… As a kid I wasn’t allowed to canoe on the river, but I was allowed to explore as far up the smaller waterways as I wanted… the waterways had been narrow, with overhanging braches tried to scratch us, underwater logjams that tried to dump us, and we were never sure if the waterways would passable, but we kept going because it was an adventure and that was part of the excitement (there was also a 2-canoe variant where my brothers, our friends, and I would throw river weeds and concord grapes at each other in epic canoe battles).

One of my favorite obstacles in “combat canoeing” as a kid was the “limbo tree”, a downed tree that spanned the width of the waterway, with just enough clearance for the canoe to pass under it… As I approached Alewife I was excited to encounter a limbo tree here as well… I took my feet off of the footrest in the kayak, scooted into the kayak as low as I could go, and launched myself under the tree… My face, with a huge smile on it, passed under the tree with about an inch of clearance… it would be really tight if the water levels went up any higher!

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In total, I crossed under 5 bridges, encountered 4 logjams (I had to portage over one of them), saw 1 heron, 1 snapping turtle, 3 families of ducks, 1 raccoon, and 1 deer as I paddled up Alewife Brook. After crossing under one final bridge, that felt more like a long, dark tunnel, I made it to the access road for the Alewife train station: my final destination. I pulled my kayak up to the granite steps, got out of it, and hauled it up onto the bank beside the bike path and the road.

I quickly folded the kayak back up while watching the streams of commuters heading for Alewife station either by car, by bike, or on foot… There were just so many of them! I’d been so busy having my kayak adventures that I’d once again forgotten that I was in the middle of the hustle-and-bustle of the city during rush hour!

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Within moments I entered the stream of commuters headed for the station, my kayak folded up and over my shoulder… I was about a block away from my office building… Once I got to my office I headed straight for the showers, kayak in tow. I showered, rinsed the boat off, pulled my work clothes out of their dry bag, and got ready to go… All-in-all it took about an hour door-to-door for my first morning’s kayak commute.

I’m was glowing with happiness, smiles and energy bubbling out of me as I tucked my kayak into my cubicle and sat down to work… This kayak commute was definitely something that I could get used to… And I was guaranteed to get to repeat it all over again to get home at the end of the day :)

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What price sanity? What price happiness? Discovering a way to start my day full of happiness and excitement instead of frustration and defeat was absolutely priceless! I would take logjams over traffic jams any day, everyday (except in thunderstorms)… As long as I had my trusty towel by my side!

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PS: Right now I cannot recommend the kayak trip up Alewife Brook to other people… Though I enjoy it, it requires experience with navigating narrow waterways, constant monitoring of both the water depth and quality, familiarity with the submerged obstacles, a willingness to get wet and portage as necessary, and immediate access to showers after any/all boating activities.

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Although Alewife is usually considered safe for boating, it rarely meets Massachusetts water quality standard for swimming, and for at least 48 hours following heavy rains neither Alewife Brook nor the Mystic River are safe for boating. This is largely because of combined sewer outflows (CSOs), which empty runoff and raw sewage directly into Alewife brook after heavy rains. “There are eight permitted CSOs on the Alewife Brook: one owned by the MWRA, one owned by the City of Somerville, and six owned by the City of Cambridge.”

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In an area full of people that pride themselves on their environmental awareness and activism, it is truly heartbreaking to see how easily our waterways can be left behind… I prefer to focus on the positives; the beauty, the wildlife, and the amazing steps we’ve taken to clean our waterways, but we still have a long way to go.

Click here for more information about the Mystic River’s water quality and boating safety

Log Jams Not Traffic Jams: My Wild Kayak Commute (Part 1: The Mystic River)

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“No more traffic jams for me!” I thought jubilantly as I took my Oru Kayak (a life-sized, foldable, 26 lb. origami kayak) out of the trunk of my car and prepared for my first kayak commute to work. I threw the folded-up kayak over my shoulder and headed for the river… It was less than one city block away.

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Since it was only the second time I’d set the kayak up, I was curious about how long it would take me, so I set a timer. A mere 10 minutes and 26 seconds later it was set up and ready to go, “Not bad!” I thought as I donned my life jacket, grabbed my paddle, and lowered the kayak into the river.

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I pushed off from the bank and slowly paddled up the river towards work as the people commuting by car zoomed over the bridge beside me. They were stuck in a race that no-one wins, lurching forward and braking fast as they raced from traffic light to traffic light.

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On the other hand, I hadn’t even gone 200 feet upriver when I spotted a great blue heron fishing amongst the lily pads… It was amazing how quickly I felt like I’d left the bustle of the city behind and entered a different world; a world of trees, water, and wildlife… It wasn’t the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, but this world… this world felt like home to me…

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I took a deep breath and felt the tensions of the city melt away… I’d discovered a new kind of trail to follow: a river! It would lead me to woods and to the wild places that I loved… even at times like this when my ankle was busted and walking wasn’t an option!

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“This is a commute I could get used to,” I thought as I lazily paddled upstream… Sure, the river didn’t smell great, but neither did the city roads… Before I knew it I’d finished the first leg of my commute and reached the point where Alewife Brook merged into the Mystic River…

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Alewife brook was going to be the most questionable part of my commute– it was shallower and narrower than the river… I’d been walking along the Alewife Greenway by the brook for months though, and I was fairly sure it would be passable by kayak… almost certain… Either way, I was about to find out!

Stay tuned for “Log Jams Not Traffic Jams: My Wild Kayak Commute (Part 2: Alewife Brook)”

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What price sanity?

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“I hate this commute,” was all I could think as I sat in a river of stopped cars on my way home from work last week. “Why would anybody CHOOSE to do this?” I whined as the traffic jutted ahead 2 feet before stopping again. “I want to be hiking!” I screamed from inside my prison. I hated being confined to my metal box, but I’d sprained my ankle halfway up Old Speck on the Appalachian Trail in Southern Maine, and not just a little sprain, a severe sprain.

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Icing my freshly sprained ankle in a waterfall near Pinkham Notch, NH

“Go big or go home,” is our family motto, and certainly a thru-hiker motto, and my ankle had gone big… to about the size of a grapefruit… and I’d had to go home… It happened on Memorial Day weekend and was a heartbreaking start to my summer… I wanted to hike… I NEEDED to hike… hiking wasn’t just a hobby for me anymore, hiking was a part of my daily meditation… The two-mile walk to- and from- work had been keeping me sane while I attempted to re-acclimate to civilization, but I’d gone to the ER and they’d booted me… like I booted car, I wasn’t going to be using that ankle to get very far, very fast…

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Booted!

I looked longingly out the window of the car… The sky was a gorgeous blue, and trees were finally, beautifully, green… I knew exactly where I was supposed to… out there! This car commute was driving me mad… It didn’t help that my right ankle was the one I sprained, so every time I had to step on the gas, or hit the brakes I was flooded with physical pain as well as psychological pain.

“Hmmm… Maybe I could buy a bicycle, and bike to work while I wait for my ankle to heal…” It had been a couple of weeks and my ankle was getting a little better… It would get me out of my daily traffic jam, but biking on a sprained ankle seemed like it might be pretty painful.

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“Or… I could get a kayak, and paddle to work everyday…” There’s a river near my apartment, and it connects to a brook that leads right to my office… There are even showers in the bathrooms at work, so I could shower when I got in! …”That would be perfect!” I’d wistfully thought about this before as I hiked along the river, but I couldn’t think of any good places to park my kayak at work.

“Aaargh,” I moaned as the traffic moved forward another couple of inches… It had been 15 minutes and I’d barely moved 15 feet. “That does it! I cant do this ‘car’ thing anymore!” For my sanity I need to figure out another options… “What I need is a collapsible kayak,” I thought and vowed to look into it.

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Eventually when I got  home I did just that! It looked like I had three options: an inflatable kayak, a skin-on-frame kayak (Folbot Kayak), or an origami kayak (Oru Kayak). Yes, you read that right, a human-sized origami kayak… I was excited that there were actually options! So I sat down and tried to figure out what I wanted out of my ideal kayak:

What price sanity? All of the options would be breaking the bank… but if I could actually commute in it? Priceless! After a lot of hemming and hawing, I ended up getting the Oru Kayak (The Bay). It seemed like the right balance of ease of setup, space, and weight for me… It also helped that I could get it from REI, which allowed me to go and check it out in person, and gave me greater confidence that if I had a problem with it, I could just return it.

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Coming soon: “Log Jams Not Traffic Jams: My Week 1 Review of the ORU Kayak”

Ticks & Lyme Disease at home and on the trail…

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2012 Master’s Project by Victoria Shelus

When a fellow 2013 thru-hiker was hospitalized with severe Lyme meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain) earlier this month, I decided to do some research and try to help raise awareness about Lyme.

“How many of my friends have had Lyme disease?” I wondered… I assumed that most of my friends with Lyme experience were hikers since I’d estimated that almost 30% of the northbound 2013 thru-hikers I met in New England had had it,  but I wasn’t really sure… so I turned to my Facebook friends looking for answers…

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What I discovered came as a surprise! 5% of my friends (22 of the people that viewed the post, n=440) have had confirmed cases of Lyme! And most of them, (68%, n=15) weren’t hikers at all! They’d gotten Lyme in their yards or in nearby parks… The youngest had been bitten before she even turned a year old! I guess with 5,665 reported cases of Lyme in Massachusetts in 2013 (a 12% increase from 2012) I shouldn’t have been surprised… but I definitely was! (Also, check out this link: How did 2014-2015s harsh winter effect tick populations?)

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RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue= low (Link Risk of tick encounters in Rhode Island by year)

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RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue=low.

Where were my non-hiker friends getting Lyme? Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut and is endemic in New England so I wasn’t surprised that 93% (14/15) of my non-hiking friends with Lyme live in New England… but they weren’t getting it from backpacking trips to the wildnerness; they were getting it from ticks lurking in their yards and suburban parks. Since there are more white-footed mice and deer (the two biggest vectors for ticks and Lyme disease in New England) in the suburban areas of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island than in the wild areas it makes sense that those are the places where people are getting infected with Lyme… Clearly I need to start eying the tall grass, brush, and leaf litter in suburban parks and backyards with much more suspicion…

QDMA data from 2001-2006

It seemed strange, however, that  0% (0/7) of my hiking friends with Lyme were from New England… Another surprise was that 100% of my hiker friends that got Lyme got it during their during their thru-hikes (revision: 1 was on a 500 mile section-hike)! Maybe it’s partly because thru-hikers from other parts of the country don’t have the same level of tick awareness that people in the Northeast have? I remember being absolutely horrified the first time I saw someone drop their pack and lie down in the middle of a field of tall grass while I was hiking through North Carolina… Why? Ticks!!!! I had the same trouble on the PCT, even though people assured me that the PCT doesn’t have the same issues with Lyme… It was just engrained behavior for me…

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

Though a part of me loved the bucolic moments when deer wandered towards me on the trail… a bigger part of me was hungry and wished that I was going to be having have a nice venison steak for dinner instead of a boring dehydrated meal (Note: the CDC has this assurance, “You will not get Lyme disease from eating venison or squirrel meat”)… the biggest part of me, however, would start to feel imaginary ticks crawling on my arms and legs, so I would stop and do a tick check… “Is that a speck of dirt, or a deer tick?” I would wonder again, and again, and again…. On the trail I couldn’t shower as often as the CDC recommends for tick prevention, but I carried wet wipes with me and wiped down my legs with them every night as part of my tick check (~50% of tick bites in adults are on their legs).

It wasn’t until I hiked into Virginia on the AT in June that I really started seeing tons and tons of deer… I swear they were waiting around every corner of the trail. In the Shenendoah’s I saw tourists intentionally feeding the deer! I was horrified… Almost as horrified as I’d been watching people inside the AT shelters pick dozens of ticks off of their dogs and drop them just outside where they could re-attach to the dog or the next unsuspecting hiker that went by! Since dogs carry ticks, and can get sick from Lyme, tick checks are important, but disposing of the ticks appropriately is too!

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Later on in Virgina, I watched a fellow thru-hiker, Fingers, count as he plucked 48 ticks from his arms and legs after finishing a night hike… I hadn’t ever thought about it, but ticks don’t just quest (hunt for food) during the day, they also quest at night! In cool, humid climates adult ticks quest both day and night… When it’s hot during the day, the young ticks that cause 98% of Lyme cases quest at night (when their local humidity drops below 80% they dry out, dessicate, and die)... I had no idea that ticks came out at night… (I blindly asked 5 of the 7 thrus that had had Lyme if they’d done any night-hiking… all 5 had gone nighthiking in Virginia (or further north) prior to coming down with Lyme symptoms!)

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On the AT in Virginia with my parents .

It was July when I first discovered a tick on my person, “Ewwww, a tick!” I exclaimed looking at the lyme carrying Ixodes scapularis tick crawling on my hand! I was at a campground in the in the Shenendoah’s of Northern Virginia with my parents, “what kind is it?” my mom asked from the camper. I looked down at it, “A deer tick… it looks like a tiny poppyseed, but it has legs and is moving….”

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“Wait, don’t brush it off, I want to see it!” cried my mom from the camper. “Really MOM!!” I replied incredulously! I have to admit that I was eying it curiously, but I was also in a hurry to get the damn thing off of me before it decided to bite. I watched it very carefully for the 3 seconds it took for my mom to come over and check it out (here are some tick pictures just for you mom!) As soon as she looked at it, I breathed a sigh of relief, flicked it into the fire, and headed for the showers. Mom was right to insist that we, the filthy stinky hikers, shower as often as possible… (Ticks usually take a couple of hours to attach so showering is recommended by the CDC as effective prevention). reportedcasesoflymedisease_2013

It wasn’t until I got to Pennsylvania that the first thru-hikers I knew started having symptoms of Lyme… I was sitting around hanging out with my friend Sir Stooge in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania when I noticed that he had a rash on the back of his calf (50% adult bites on legs, 22% on torso, 18% arms, 6% genitalia, 4%head/neck whereas 49% of bites on children were on head & neck). It was 4 or 5 inches across, with a partially cleared center… Bull’s eye (the classic erythema migrans rash)… A tick had found it’s target (a picture of his rash from his blog is below)…

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Sir Stooge’s rash from a picture on his blog

“I’m not sure if it’s Lyme,” he told me. “I think I’m going to wait until we get to the next town to get it checked out,” he continued (One study suggests that only 54% of thru-hikers know how to identify the erythema migrans rash of Lyme Disease). “Why?” I asked with disbelief.  “Well, it’s only 3 or 4 days to the next town… I’ll go then,” he said still procrastinating… I looked at him skeptically. Lots of thru-hikers don’t get prompt medical treatment because they don’t have health insurance and transportation to hospitals and clinics can be a challenge, but he was insured and his parents lived nearby, “You have health insurance, you’ve got a ride, go! The speed at which you treat Lyme matters,” I insisted!

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He ended up going to the ER, being diagnosed with Lyme, and was put on antibiotics (Lyme is usually treated with b-lactam or tetracycline antibiotics: penicillin or doxycycline). While he was at the hospital they tested him for Lyme, but he said on his blog, “I called the hospital to get the results of my blood titer (to see if I had antibodies against the Lyme). And much to my surprise, I tested negative for any Lyme.” Luckily for him, he took the antibiotics and his flu-like symptoms and rash went away… Unfortunately Lyme tests done when the rash first appears are rarely diagnostic because it takes the body a few weeks to generate Lyme antibodies, which is why the CDC recommends a 2-tiered approach to testing for Lyme: begin with Lyme ELISA tests (false negatives are common in the 1st 2 weeks of infection and positive results just suggest that you’ve been infected sometime within the last 5 yrs), and follow up with IgG and IgM Western blots only if ELISA is positive (Positve ELISA + Positive Western Blot ~100% certainty of Lyme Diagnosis).

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CDC report on the number of Lyme cases per month

As I continued to hike North I ran into my friend Bud, who’d left me in the dust as blazed ahead of me during the southern part of the trail… He was standing dazed and confused in the middle of the trail, clearly struggling… “Well well well, look who it is,” he said with a weak smile. “You don’t look so good,” I said, “Are you ok?” I asked, split between shear joy at seeing a hiker I knew, and concern over his obvious ill health…. “Well, I was hoping to hike, but I just can’t right now,” he confessed before continuing, “I ummmmm, well… I got Lyme… real bad, it really messed up my head…. my memory…. I started repeating myself all the time… and… I don’t think I’m going to be able to get to town today… I can’t hike that far,” he lamented.

He’d gone to the hospital and tested positive for Lyme and had already been on antibiotics for a week, but it was taking longer to recover than he’d hoped. It was a story that I would hear over and over and over again that August and September as I continued towards Katahdin… People without the characteristic rash, but with flu-like symptoms and a brain fog that just wouldn’t lift… Everything causes flu-like symptoms… With the rash, or a known tick-bite followed by flu-like symptoms Lyme is obvious, but without those two things? I wasn’t sure… actually, I’m still not… Thinking back on it, I had an awful lot of the symptoms while I was on the trail…

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Light-sensitive headaches… well, it’s probably just a migraine… fatigue and muscle aches, well, I’m a thru-hiker! Swollen knees… once again, thru-hiker… Nausea, double vision, trouble standing? Must be heat exhaustion… Having trouble breathing and exhausted? Must be my asthma… Would I even know if I had Lyme? I never thought that I had Lyme on the trail and I was never diagnosed with it… but I was treated with Doxycycline (for 10+ days, the preferred treatment for Lyme) during my thru-hike, and at least once afterwards… If I ever did have Lyme, I am relatively confident that it’s gone now!

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A dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) I found attached to my leg on the AT in Pennsylvania. Dog tick’s don’t carry Lyme!

Lyme is certainly a scary thing, but a  life without playing outside is an even scarier thing for me. The fact that mice are also carriers for Lyme, that ticks hang out in the leaf litter, that most people get Lyme from nymphs in June and July, and that the nymphs are at least as likely to bite at night as during the day were some of the things that were new information for me. Check out my previous post: “Deer are the scariest things in the woods…” for more information about prevention, and stay tuned for one more post where I’ll go into the tick’s life cycle and what that means for Lyme disease transmission and prevention.

Have you been bitten by a tick? Did you get Lyme? Do you know someone that has? Did you get the rash (I’m curious about how similiar most people’s rashes are to the text book rashes)? Do you know where you got it? I’d be interested to hear you Lyme stories… either in comments below, or email me: patchesthru at gmail dot com.

 

Finally som tick advice for backpackers/thru-hikers based on my experience:

  • Shower as often as you can!
    • carry wet wipes to clean off and check target areas
  • Ticks bite at night!
    • Don’t hike thru tick-prone areas at night especially if the days have been really hot and humid!!! The ticks are out, and it’ll take you longer to see them and remove them
    • Don’t camp (especially if you are using a tarp without and bug prevention) in areas with dense brush, high grass, or leaf litter… Ticks quest at night!!! They don’t jump, or fly, but they do crawl.
  • Be especially attentive at lower elevations!
    • If you’re hiking at elelevations lower than 2000 feet to extra tick checks… Ticks are less common above 2000
  • Check dogs regularly for ticks (and use preventative measures)
    • Don’t forget to dispose of the ticks appropriately
    • Consider keeping your dogs out of the AT shelters when people are sleeping in them… The only way ticks have been shown to enter the shelters is if we bring them there!
  • Check your pack for ticks!!! If you set your pack down in the tall grass or leaf litter, ticks can grab a free ride directly back to you… besides, you don’t want to carry anything extra :-P
  • Walk in the center of trails where possible… It’s better for you and its better for the trail!
  • Use repellents: permethrin kills ticks on contact or 20% Deet
    • Permethrin comes in a wash or spray that you can apply to your favorite clothing and is good for dozens of washes
    • 20% Deet is just as effective as 100% deet for prevention…
  • Know the symptoms of Lyme and seek medical attention as soon as possible if you experience any of them

The beautiful balds in TN.

Deer are the scariest things in the woods… Here’s why!

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What’s the scariest thing that I’ve encountered in the woods? Most people guess that it’s the bears, or the rattlesnakes, or the people. It’s not. It’s the deer

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Bambi (deer), Thumper (rabbit), and his fellow terrorists (skunks, squirrels, birds etc.) are loveable and cute, but they’re also masters of biological warfare! While we fawn all over them, they deliver their payloads of disease-laden ticks to our backyards, parks, trails, and campgrounds.

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Corkscrew shaped Lyme bacteria.

Ticks have been roaming the earth since the time of the dinosaurs, and infecting humans with the corkscrew-shaped bacteria (spirochetes) responsible for Lyme disease for the last 5300 years…

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Autopsy of the 5300 year old mummy “Otzi-the iceman” revealed borrelia spirochete DNA!

In the US alone, ticks infect an estimated 300,000 people with the bacteria that cause Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) each year. Lyme disease is currently on the rise (up 12% between 2012 and 2013 in Massachusetts)… and the worst thing about it? It’s targeting our poor, defenseless children!

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Distribution of Lyme cases by age: 5-15 year olds (playing in their yard), followed by 40-60 year olds (gardening) are the most likely to get Lyme disease.

Since June and July are the months that most people get infected with Lyme disease we need to learn how to protect ourselves, and our children, from this menace right now!

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Number of cases of Lyme disease in the US per month.

Let’s start with some simple guidelines from the CDC:

  • Wear Repellent!

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  • Check for ticks daily!
    • A tick typically is attached for 36-48 hrs before it transmits Lyme to it’s host… get them off before they infect you!!
    • Although ticks can bite anywhere, their favorite spots are: the head and neck (~50% of bites in children and 4% in adults), legs (50% in adults), torso (22% in adults), arms (18% in adults), and genitalia (6% in adults, but even higher in men… check your junk for the funk!).

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    The size of the Lyme carrying deer tick at different stages of development.

  • Shower after outdoor activities!
    • Shower within 2 hrs of outdoor activities: ticks usually roam around for a couple of hours before settling in and attaching to a tasty bit of thin skin… Wash them off before they even attach!
    • Wash & tumble dry clothes on high for ~1hr when you get home to kill remaining ticks.
    • medical illustration of Erythema migrans

      Bull’s eye rash (Erythema migrans)

  • Call your doctor if you get a fever or rash!
    • ~3-30 days after being bitten by infected ticks 80% of adults and 60% of children develop a rash. The Lyme rash (erythema migrans) is typically red and expands to >2 inches in diameter (5 cm), frequently clearing in the center giving it the Bull’s eye appearance.
    • Arthritic knee

      Lyme Arthritis

    • ~4-60 days later: the Lyme spirochetes invade systemically and cause flu-like symptoms. They may also cause: multiple bull’s eye rashes in remote locations, arthritis in the large joints (Lyme arthritis), cardiac issues (Lyme carditis, which is 3x more likely in men than women), and brain issues (Neuroborreliosis, Lyme meningitis, Lyme encephalitis, and Lyme palsy).
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CDC’s report of Lyme disease symptoms in US patient

Remember that Bambi and his terrorist friends don’t just hang out in the woods, they also hang out in your backyard! Ticks love moist areas, leaf litter, tall grasses, and brush…

  • Have you done your yard-work? Reduce your chances of Lyme infection by 50-90% by removing leaf litter, tall grasses, and brush from around the edges of your lawn! Create a tick-free zone around your yard and suburban parks:
    • Mow your lawn regularly and remove tall weeds… I hate the idea, but another option is to apply pesticides to your yard 2x a year, which reduces Lyme infection by 68-100%
    • Lay down a three foot wide barrier of wood chips/gravel between your lawn and the woods to restrict tick migration. Consider fencing in your yard to keep out deer, raccoons, and other Lyme disease carriers.
    • Keep activities away from lawn edges and overhanging trees
  • Is your garbage covered and inaccessible? The critters that get into your gargbage (Mice, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, and raccoons) carry Lyme disease! Mice are an especially big problem: the white-footed mouse is one of the biggest carriers of Lyme disease (common in small patches of woods, 5 acres or less) !
  • Do you have pets? Dogs love to romp in the woods and tall grasses where they fetch ticks and bring them right back to you! Check your dogs for ticks before letting them into your house, your tent, or the shelters on the AT… Talk to your vet about tick prevention treatments like Frontline. Note: Dispose of ticks properly! If you toss them onto the ground they’ll just grab onto you the next time you walk by… I see this all of the time and it makes me very grumpy!
  • Are you hiking in the middle of the trail? Hike in the middle of the trail and avoid tall grass, leaf litter, and brushy areas whenever possible… No matter how beautiful the wild meadow looks, don’t drop yourself, your pack, or your tent in the middle of it… Ticks love wild meadows and will happily catch a free ride from your pack to you! Know before you go: the Appalachian Trail goes through 12 of the 14 states responsible for 96% of all Lyme cases in the US!
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CDC Map of reported Lyme cases in the US in 2013

Please join me in raising awareness about ticks and Lyme disease by sharing this post and your comments about Lyme disease below. Stay tuned for my next post, which will also be about ticks and Lyme disease!

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~90 Million year old tick fossil from New Jersey

Disclaimer: I am not an MD or public health official. I am a scientist and an outdoor enthusiast with a passion for research… After discovering that ~5% of my friends (see my upcoming post) have had Lyme, I decided to do some research about it and share my findings here. Talk to your doctor if you have health related questions!

Choosing the Right Outdoor Adventure…

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Spring is here! It’s time to go outside, explore new places, and find new adventures… but how do you decide which adventure is right for you? Here are some things to consider before you go:

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  • Timing: How much time can you spend out on your adventure? Don’t forget to factor in the transit time to- and from- your destination! Usually I plan to spend at least as much time adventuring as I spend in transit. Another thing I’ve learned the hard way? Double-check what time the sun rises and sets before you go… the number of daylight hours varies seasonally and has taken me by surprise more than once (now I always take a headlamp along just in case!).

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  • People: How many people are likely to join you on your adventure? Some destinations are better for groups, others for solitude… Remember that popular destinations frequently get crowded, especially during peak-season and on weekends! Often when I got to popular places at popular times, I avoid the throngs by choosing one of the less common, less crowded trails.

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  • Background: What is your level of experience, and that of your group? If you jump in too far over your head the fun factor suddenly plummets. Also, take into consideration the health constraints and current level of fitness of each member of your group (including yourself) before choosing your adventure… I find that when things are too physically strenuous the complaining goes up, and the fun goes down.

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Join me this summer as I introduce new people to the outdoor trails and adventures that I love… Whether I’m going out for a day hike with my 4-year old niece, going camping with friends, or heading off on another solo backpacking adventure, I’ll be sharing my favorite tips, trips, trails, and tales here on this blog!

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Oh, and I almost forgot… pictures… I love taking pictures! I post to Instagram and Facebook between blog posts!

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P.S. Do you have questions about hiking? Camping? Backpacking? Gear? Getting outside? New England trails? Thru-hikes? Leave a comment below!

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Ode to Insomnia

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There are rumors and even scientific studies that say that backpacking cures insomnia… It’s true that when I’m on the trail I go to bed earlier, and get up earlier, but my sleep issues persist… I still have trouble falling asleep, and I still have trouble staying asleep, but I hold onto the hope that someday sweet sleep will come to visit me and stay for a while…

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Close my eyes now
All dark skies now
Count the lambs
as they fly by now

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it!

But my Thoughts
They keep on coming
And my mind
It keeps on humming…

Go to Sleep now!
You can do it,
You can sleep,
There’s nothing to it!

But you see
There is this question
And then there
Is this hankering…

But, I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

At lest that’s what
they tell me…
So why won’t sleep
Bespell me?

I should be sleeping
Yes there’s sleeping
But ’round here
There’s only bleeping

Bleep you sleep!!!
Where are you hiding
With my pillow
I am colliding

But your mystery
Still evades me
Surely my textbooks
They shall save me…

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Wide awake I
Lay here thinking
As my eyes
Continue bliking

Everyone else
They seem to do it
Close their eyes
There’s nothing to it

But I lay here
In dismay here
I fear there is
No sleep here…

Meditation,
My Salvation?
Mind and body
Join one nation

There’s one goal now
Body ‘n soul now
Surely this’ll
Take control now…

We can do it,
We can do it!
We can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Close our eyes,
We are united!
No, we will not
Be excited

In the calmness
In the stillness
In the darkness
In the chillness

My mind it keeps
Reflecting
On these things I’m not
Expecting

I still have hope
that we can do it,
That We can sleep,
And that we’ll do it…

But the secret
It alludes me
Why must it
Thus exclude me?

Everyone else that is
Around me…
I hear them
sleeping soundly…

I can do it?
I can do it!
I can sleep…
There’s nothing to it…

Close my eyes now
With a sigh now
I’ll feign hope and say
Good-bye now…

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Only Fools…

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Suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks… April 1… Tomorrow… is… April… First… “IshouldbehikingIshouldbehikingIshouldbehiking… I need to go hiking!”

I forced myself to take a deep breath… Yes, I should be hiking, and I should go hiking, but not tomorrow…. Tomorrow I should go to my job, pay my rent, and visit my friends… Returning to society after two thru-hikes isn’t easy… I’m still struggling with returning to the city and integrating back into ‘normal’ life…

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But… my mind was still racing… Last year… last year on April first I was just beginning my PCT thru-hike… last year on April first I was setting off on a long, amazing, incredible hike… a journey of a lifetime… That’s what I should be doing this year too!!!

Well… maybe I could sneak in a hike either before or after work tomorrow? Surely a small mountain before breakfast would be enough, right? Just a little hike to keep the trail from slipping away from me forever… just a little hike to keep me from completely rebelling against the bonds of civilization!

Hiking helps… I’ve been hiking/walking a 2-mile trail through the ‘urban wilderness’ on my way to and from work each day… It isn’t enough, but it helps… The birdsong in the air, the wind on my face, the crunch of snow beneath my feet, the squish of mud oozing into my boots, and the occasional wildlife… they remind me of the trail… they remind me of home…

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I try to remind myself that the trail isn’t my only home… I’m enjoying my new job as a science writer… It’s feels great to exercise my brain again… To fill my head with math, science, engineering, and experiments… the ideas in the air, the proofs in the equations, the beauty in the logic, the joy of the research, and the overwhelming moments of clarity… the trail isn’t my only home, this is home too… Remembering this world helps… So does spending time with my friends and family and the people that reach out to me… trying to lure me back into civilization or offering to learn more about my other world out there in the woods… they remind me that there are things tethering me here to this life and not just to my life on the trail…

I check the forecast again… tomorrow is going to be a beautiful sunny day… Sunrise at 6:28 am and sunset is at 7:08 pm… Perhaps I can find a way to exist in both worlds… Hmmm… How do I maximize the number of daylight hours I spend hiking in the mountains tomorrow while still being in my cubicle and ready to work for 8 hrs starting sometime between 8 am and 10 am?? Gotta run… I need to do some research and then some math and then get ready to  go hiking tomorrow!

Blizzard of 2015: A Vignette

“Noooo… Please, no,” I plead as I watch the people around me hack and cough and imagine the aerosolized particles of disease permeating the air… As an asthmatic, there is nothing I loathe more than a respiratory track infection…

I try to reassure myself. I’m much better now… I’m strong, my lungs are strong! Heck, I’ve hiked 5000 miles in the last 2 years… But I take extra precautions anyway… I take vitamins, I wash my hands, I get plenty of sleep…

My lungs… They try… They try really hard… I exercise them, I treat them right, and they allow me to do amazing things… Most of the time…

But the Creeping Crud of 2015 went straight for my lungs as the blizzard of 2015 and subsequent storm dumped ~4 feet of fresh powder… I desperately want to go outside and play in the fluffy, beautiful, glittery white snow… but my lungs… They doth protest…

Part 2 – A Solo Winter Mount Washington Ascent

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Was I really going to set off to climb Mt. Washington (the mountain with the worst weather in the world) when the temperature in the parking lot was -16F? No, I was not! (See Part 1- To Hike or Not to Hike). I was going to wait… at least for a little while… It was -4F when I left Carter Notch and that had seemed like a perfectly reasonable temperature for a hike, but -16F? No way!… That settled it, I was going to wait until the temperatures got up to at least -5F before I left the warmth and safety of my car…

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Temperature in the valley the morning of Feb. 28

How cold is too cold? I have trouble conceptualizing subzero temperatures, so -5F was an arbitrary threshold. However, if -5F was too cold I had no problem with turning around and hiking right back to my car (a big advantage of day hikes relative to thru-hikes). As I waited for the temperature to rise I double-checked my gear and re-packed everything… I was over-packed for this hike, but in light of the recent tragedy (the death of a solo hiker from exposure in the Whites), it seemed like a small price to pay to know that I could be warm if I needed to be.

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Looking out at the valley from the steep section of the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail.

“ALERT: Wind Chill Advisory in Effect,” I read from the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast as I sat in the parking lot waiting, “wind chills -25F to -35F.” Brrrrrr… Just thinking about it made me cold!

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Mt. Washington via the Ammonoosuk Trail plotted using the tracking function of my SPOT locator.

Mount Washington via the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail (White Mountains, NH)

  • Date: February 28, 2014
  • Total Mileage (out and back): 9 miles, 3,800 ft of elevation gain
    • Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail ~ 3 miles each way
    • Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path) ~1.5 miles each way
  • Mount Washington forecast the morning of  Feb. 28, 2015:
    • Sunny, highs near 0F, westerly winds 25-40 mph, wind chills of -25F to -35F.
  • Total Duration: 8 am – 4:30 pm, 8 hrs 30 minutes
  • Trailhead Parking: Cog Railway Base Station. Base Station Road and hiker area were plowed.
  • Base Pack Weight: 21 lbs, 28 lbs with food and 3L of water. Pack contents include: ice axe, snow shoes, crampons, expedition parka, zero degree sleeping bag, emergency bivy, SPOT etc.

By 8 am my car registered the requisite (and oh so balmy) -4F degrees, so I hefted my pack onto my back and headed towards the trail… Loaded up with all of my winter gear my pack was heavy! The base weight of this day-pack was heavier than the base weight for my PCT thru-hike!

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“Hmmmmm…” Just out of the gate and I was already feeling like a noob… Where exactly did the trail start? Why was everyone leaving the parking lot and hiking up the road? I’d hiked this trail in the summer and had scouted out the winter trailhead last night, but as far as I knew, the trail left from the backside of the parking lot… That trail, however, was largely untracked and I really didn’t want to start my Mt. Washington ascent by breaking trail if I didn’t have to… The next time I saw someone pull into the parking lot and start gearing up I wandered over and asked, “Is there a second trailhead up by the station? Everyone seems to be heading up there, but then some of them turn around and then veer off to the left… Are those the folks going up the Jewell trail?”

“Yeah,” he replied as he strapped his snowshoes to his pack, “if you veer to the left on the road before the station that’ll bring you to the Jewell trail, but if you keep going passed the station, veering to the right through the cabins, that’ll take you to the Ammo.” I hesitated, but he continued reassuringly, “Don’t worry, it’ll be obvious.”

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Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail: 3.1 miles, 2,500′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty level: Strenuous. Trails in New England are famous for their steep grades, and the Ammonoosuk (Ammo), despite it’s gentle start, is no different with an average grade of 15%.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/traction. Most hikers were using snowshoes, but some, like me, started in boots and used full crampons as necessary. (I brought my snowshoes with me, but didn’t use them).
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, mostly hard-packed powder, small section of ice flows immediately below Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
  • Vistas (9/10): The views of the Northern Presidentials from the parking lot and as you head into the ravine are stunning… and before long you start getting views of Washington that are spectacular.
  • Duration: 8:00 am – 10:40 am (2:40); Summertime ‘Book’ estimate (2:50)

I headed up the road in awe of the mountain that I was about to climb, but the closer I got to the base station, the more tracks I saw… there were ski and snowshoe tracks veering off in almost every imaginable direction. Eventually, however, I saw the well-tracked path the guy in the parking lot was talking about… It wove between the cabins and headed off into the woods right where I would imagine it to be from the map… I was shocked to discover that there were even some trail signs perched there at the edge of my winter wonderland!

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Because of the subzero temperatures I started off wearing more layers than I usually do, figuring that I would peel them off as I warmed up, but the outside temperatures dropped as I tucked into the ravine by the water… I didn’t need to add any layers but I certainly wasn’t going to take any off! About 10 minutes into the hike, however, my eyes started feeling a little bit gummy… my eyelids were sticking together and it was getting harder and harder to open them… I took off my gloves and reached up to touch them and discovered that my eyelashes were glued together with ice! The heat from my fingers quickly melted the ice from my eyes and I continued hiking…

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Within minutes my eyes started to freeze shut again… I took out my camera so that I could see what they looked like (and have a better sense of what I was dealing with), and was entertained to find that my eyelashes were crusted with a beautiful frosty mascara! Despite the ease of application of this ‘mascara’ (the first make-up I’ve applied in years), and my fondness for my new “Frozen” look, I decided that I needed to add another layer to my ensemble afterall… it was time to put my ski goggles on and eliminate every last bit of exposed skin!

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Just above Gem Pool (~2.1 miles, elev. 3522′) the trail got significantly steeper, and I stopped to put on my crampons. In the summertime, I love the waterfalls scattered along the Ammo, and I had hoped that I’d get to see them in all of their frozen glory on this winter hike. Unfortunately, the icy cascades were buried under the snow and largely indistinguishable from the rest of the blanket of white.

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There was a lot more snow on Washington now than there had been on Lafayette just a month before… It was beautiful… I just wished that the sun would finally peak around the Presidential summits and make all of the snow in my ravine sparkle!

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Climbing the last mile (1,528′ of elevation gain, 29% grade) from the pool up to the hut, I couldn’t help but contemplate the difference between the designed trails of the PCT with all of their switchbacks and moderate to low grades and the direct (fall-line) trails of New England that I’ve grown up with… None of the PCT was this steep, unless you count the snow-covered sections in the High Sierra where there was no trail (Mather and Pinchot Passes immediately came to mind, though there was a small stretch towards the base of Forester that probably would count to.).

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I stopped to enjoy the view… Not a cloud in the sky… the stark contrast between the snowy mountains and the deep blue sky was breathtaking… or maybe that was just all of the exertion with a side of asthma? It was true that it was time for me to use my inhaler again so I caught my breath, took a puff, and continued onwards and upwards… The views were still breathtaking!

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As I made the final approach to Lakes of the Clouds, I left the last of the trees behind and a starkly beautiful landscape of snow, rock, and ice opened up before me…

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“Wow, just wow!” In all the times I’ve climbed Mt. Washington I’d rarely (if ever) seen it this calm and clear. I could see the evidence of strong winds all around me in the beautifully sculpted sastrugi

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I made a mental note of these areas since the forecast predicted increasing westerly winds throughout the day… These would be the trouble spots when the winds picked up, but for now, they were quiet, calm, and eerily beautiful.

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Just above the first round of sastrugi, the trail opened up into a field of ice that made me glad that I was wearing crampons. I traversed it easily and found myself at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

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I wasn’t hungry (a common problem when winter hiking), but Lakes of the Clouds was a pre-designated break point for eating and for re-evaluating the weather, how I was doing, and for forcing myself to eat my second breakfast! It didn’t matter how unappealing food was, I had to make sure to eat, drink, and adjust my layers before making a decision about whether or not I should push for the summit of Washington! (Note: If you are too cold to eat, you are too cold to go above treeline. If you don’t want to bother with hydrating, you don’t want to bother with going above treeline. If you are too cold to stop and take a break, you are too cold to go above treeline.)

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Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path): 1.5 miles, 1300′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. After finishing the final steep ascent to Lakes of the Clouds, the bid for the summit seems tame , but it is still steep with a lot of exposure and always feels longer to me than I think it will.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/crampons. Most people switched from snowshoes to crampons for this final stretch, though either would work. I used crampons.
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): Hard, wind-swept snow, sastrugi, interspersed with occasional ice flows.
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely exposed and above treeline the whole way… views of the valley and of both the Northern and Southern Presidentials. It was 100% clear, not a cloud in the sky… a 1 in a million day on top of Mt. Washington.
  • Duration: 11:10 am – 12:40 pm (1:30); summertime book estimate (1:25)

The back side of Lakes of the Clouds Hut (Lakes) was glare ice, so I circled around to the front where the snow had drifted up and over the roof. I found a nice, dry, sunny spot on the roof to take a break, eat my second breakfast, and watch my fellow hikers. The majority of them were popping over to Mt. Monroe (a short hike from Lakes), but a few were returning from sumitting Mt. Washington so I asked them about current conditions up there, “Clear, calm, and absolutely beautiful,” was invariable the response. The sun was shining, it was early in the day, my belly was full, and I was nice and warm… Everything was looking good for a summit bid!

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The temperatures were still subzero, but I was confident that my gear was up to the challenge (the warmest of it was still in my pack)… The only thing I was still nervous about was the strengthening westerly wind, which was predicted to top out at ~40 mph, which by Mt. Washington standards that wasn’t too bad (the last time I was on top of Washington they were predicting 80 mph winds!).

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Since it was a westerly wind, I’d be facing into it for the 1.5 mile return trip to the hut, but even if the winds picked up to 65 mph (25 mph above anything predicted in the next two days), I would still be well within my comfort zone. If, for some reason, the conditions changed wildly and unpredictably (the Whites are famous for that) and were so extreme that I couldn’t return to the hut, my back up plan would be to head to Pinkham Notch via the Lions Head Trail with everyone else… After eating my second breakfast and going through all of my checks and double-checks I made the call (literally called my parents to let them know)… I was going to give the summit of Mt. Washington a go!

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On the AT, looking back at Lakes of the Clouds and Mt. Monroe.

As I left the hut, I was once again on my beloved Appalachian trail. I was stuck by the stark beauty of the wind-swept landscape… I’d never been up here in the winter before. The elegant sastrugi pointed out the areas where the winds funneled up from the western ravines… I noted them not only for their beauty, but because I figured these would be the trouble spots if the winds picked up later. For now, however, everything was still quiet and calm (~10-15 mph winds).

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As I continued to ascend the winds started picking up… barely breaking ~20 mph, but a sign of what was to come. Knowing how exciting the tippy-top of Mt. Washington can be, I decided to stop at the intersection between Crawford Path and Davis Path to layer up… fighting high winds to add warm layers at the summit of Mt. Washington is a challenge at best!

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On the AT, looking ahead towards Mt. Washington!

On my last hike up Mt. Washington (AT, September 2013) I was within 10 feet of the towers on top and had no idea that they were there! I had stopped, confused at the edge of the building with absolutely no idea which way to go to get to the summit which was less than 100 ft away…Needless to say, the view was less than stellar…

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The summit of Mt. Washington on my AT thru-hike! (September 2013)

That view, the view of the inside of a cloud, is the view from Mt. Washington that I remember from my childhood. In the 25 years that I’ve been climbing Mt. Washington it is, by far, the most common view I’ve encountered from the summit!

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My first hike to the summit of Mt. Washington (summer 1990) with my family (mom and brothers in photo).

So for me, the crystal clear views were unusual and I was savoring every minute of them! It was so clear that I’d been able to see the towers at the summit from the parking lot! I had had them in sight from the moment that I left Lakes, and now they were finally in reach…

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As I approached the first tower and the snow-covered parking lot it boggled my mind that the last time I was there I hadn’t known how to get to the summit… It was so close!

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I smiled and approached the final heap of rocks that sported the summit sign… Here I was, on top of Mt. Washington, on the Appalachian Trail, in the middle of winter… the temperature was around 0F, and I guessed that the winds were gusting to 35 mph, but hidden beneath my nice warm ski-mask was a great big smile… the same smile I always wear when I’m climbing mountains… the smile that comes with knowing that you are exactly where you are supposed to be!

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Photo actually from down by Lakes after summitting :)

I pulled my camera out of its warm inner pocket to document my final steps to the summit and managed to get one picture before the screen said, “power exhausted” and shut down. I tried for a cell phone photo, but the cell phone wouldn’t even bother to turn on… My electronics found the cold weather to be exhausting even if I didn’t!

I took another couple of steps towards the summit. It would be a shame not to have any summit photos, but wow… It was beautiful… I turned to fully appreciate the view and saw two people emerge from behind a building… I pulled my mask down and yelled over the wind, “Hi! Could you take a picture of me and mail it to me? My electronics are rebelling and refusing to work!”

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I spotted a couple of people leaving the summit and convinced them to take a quick photo and email it to me.

“Sure,” they replied quickly snapping a picture of me before I even got the chance to pull my hands out of my pockets where I was placing my cell phone hoping to warm it up. I hurriedly gave them one of my cards saying, “Thanks! This has my contact information on it. It would be awesome if you could email me a copy of that photo.”

“I’ll get the picture to you… You can count on it!” he said determinedly as he and his hiking partner hurried off, leaving me alone on the summit… (he emailed me the photo a couple of days later… Thanks again Andy!)

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The summit of Mt. Washington, all to myself?! How cool is that? -1F with a -30ish wind chill, that’s how cool! I took the last few steps to the summit and plunked my pack down… Wow! I’d made it, and it was absolutely awesome! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and as long as I kept my back to the wind, I was perfectly comfortable relaxing there at the summit sign.

The Summit of Mount Washington!

  • Duration: 12:40pm – 1:20 pm (30 minutes)
  • Official Summit Conditions @ 12:47 pm:
    • Temperature: -0F
    • Winds: W 35 mph
    • Wind chill: -27F
    • Visibility: 100 miles
  • Number of people at the summit between 12:40 and 1:20 pm: ~10-15

I sat at the summit for a while soaking in the view and trying to coax my electronics into working again… It’d be nice to get one or two photos! I had the summit to myself for the first five minutes or so, but before long there was a steady stream of people coming up to summit, snapping quick pictures and heading off in search of some shelter from the wind… It was kind of fun watching them scurry around the summit buildings trying to find windows or door jams to crouch in, desperately hoping to find some shelter from the wind… There was none.

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After snapping a few pictures for other folks I pulled my cell phone out and managed to get another photo or two before it turned itself off… Fivish minutes of warm pocket time meant two pictures… This called for strategic picture taking… If I played my cards right, I might be able to get a picture of me at the summit itself! I set my camera warming in my pants pocket again and waited for the next group… I didn’t have to wait long before the next group of guys came up from the Lions Head (there was a steady stream of guys coming up from the Lions Head Trail) and I was able to get them to take a photo for me!

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I was reluctant to leave the summit because it was so beautiful up there, but what goes up must come down… Besides, I wanted to get back to Lakes of the Clouds before the winds picked up too much!

The Descent

  • Crawford Path to Ammonoosuk ~ 4.6 miles
  • Duration: 1:10 pm – 4:30 pm (3:20) including 30 minute break at Lakes.

With winds gusting to almost 40 mph, I definitely needed to use my goggles and a face mask as I descended down towards Lakes. By the time I got to the lower sections, however, the winds weren’t too bad (~20 mph). I took my time as I descended, enjoying the expansive views of the valley with both the northern and southern presidentials stretching out before me… It was amazing! If my electronics had been happier, I’d have taken hundreds of pictures and gone even slower,  but they continued to rebel against the cold. I only managed to get one or two photos every five minutes or so from the summit until I returned to the car.

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For the last snow field before Lakes of the Clouds I decided to pull out my ice axe… the footing was easy and good, but I I was getting tired and there was enough exposure that if I fell I’d go for more of a slide than I wanted to. Per usual, I crossed it with no problem and didn’t really need the ice axe. I was relaxing at Lakes of the Clouds and eating my next enforced meal before I knew it! I still wasn’t hungry, but on winter hikes I schedule food breaks where I force myself to stop, take a break, and eat because I know that I need the calories!

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Though glissading all the way from Lakes of the Clouds to the parking lot seemed like it was the way to go, I decided to hike it instead. I try to be more cautious when I’m hiking solo, and I know that glissading has a higher risk of injury than hiking…. Having done accidental glissades on similar slopes, and knowing that I was tired, I decided to keep my ice axe out just in case (especially since I still had my crampons on… stopping a glissade with crampons is a great way to break a leg).

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For the most part it was a long, beautiful, snowy, uneventful descent… I postholed once or twice, but not enough to make the snowshoes seem worthwhile, so I stuck with the crampons…

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It wasn’t until I was about 0.5 miles from the parking lot that things suddenly got exciting. I was just traipsing down the relatively flat trail as it followed along the Ammonoosuk River when suddenly my right leg went out from under me, postholing through the snow and then sliding down a steep embankment, my left leg quickly following behind it.

“Holy sh**!” I hadn’t left the trail, but the trail had left me! Before I knew what was happening my ice axe was buried to it’s hilt in the snow and my face was at eye level with the trail. I had reflexively plunged my ice axe into the snowy bank creating an impressively, awesomely stable anchor, and now there was nothing keeping me from tumbling 6-10 ft down into the Ammonoosuk (and getting sopping wet) except for my trusty ice axe… I looked at it, surprised (and very pleased) by its sudden usefulness as I pulled myself back up and onto the trail with its aid.

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The terrain was flat, easy, and had seemed very stable… Normally, I would have long since put my ice axe away in favor of my trekking poles, but I’d been feeling lazy… to lazy to take the time to stop and put it away… I looked back at the river… Though the tumble wouldn’t have killed me, the surprise icy plunge would have been incredibly unpleasant, and the 0.5 miles back to the car would be a really nasty hike if you were sopping wet after a full day out in the cold and with temperatures well below freezing! Yup, I was suddenly very fond of my ice axe indeed!

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When I finally made it back to the car I was both happy and exhausted… The sun was low in the sky, the afternoon was warmish (18F), and the skies were still perfectly clear. My hike up Mt. Washington had been everything I’d hoped for and more… I hesitated, standing there beside my car… I didn’t want the day to be over… I didn’t want my amazing hike to be over… I wanted to stay outside in the sun, enjoying the amazingly clear and beautiful afternoon… I have to admit, I didn’t hesitate for too long though… A nice warm car, a hot meal, and a soft bed sounded awfully nice!

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Official Summit Weather Summary for February 28, 2015

  • Temperature: 4F to -11F, avg. -3F
  • Precipitation: 0.00
  • Summit snow depth: 14 inches
  • Wind: avg. 30.8 mph, 46 mph gusts, 310 NW
  • Total sunshine: 680 minutes, 100% of possible minutes

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P.S. Know before you go!!! Mount Washington is known for having some of the worst weather in the world… Weather in the mountains (especially on Mt. Washington) can change quickly and with deadly consequence… In preparing for my trip I frequently checked weather conditions and trip reports and had an exit strategy (or two or three) at all times. These are some of the online resources that I found most helpful: