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….”

Sizes of Ticks

“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.
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      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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Mount Lafayette, NH: A Solo Winter Ascent

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Looking back at the summit of Mt. Lafayette from Franconia Ridge.

What is your favorite day-hike in the White Mountains? For me, the answer is Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge, which is why I set my alarm for 6 am and headed for the Lafayette trailhead early last week.

Franconia Ridge Loop (White Mountains, NH):

  • Date: January 22, 2014
  • Activity: Winter Hiking/Day Hike
  • Total Mileage: 8.9 miles
    • Old Bridle Path – 2.9 miles
    • Greenleaf Trail – 1.1 miles
    • Appalachian Trail – 1.7 miles
    • Falling Waters Trail – 3.2 miles
  • Duration: 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, 6 hours 30 minutes
  • Parking: Lafayette Place Trailhead Parking (just off of I-93), 2 privies available at trailhead, open year-round.

Although I’ve hiked the Franconia Loop dozens of times, most of those times have been during the summer or fall when the days are longer and the temperatures warmer. Of the handful of times I’ve hiked it during the winter, the day it was -20F at the base really stands out in my memory… that was the day I decided that there really was such a thing as too cold!!! By comparison, the 14F temperatures that greeted me at the trailhead parking lot last week seemed downright balmy!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path... If that's not motivation I don't know what is!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path… If that’s not motivation I don’t know what is!

The Old Bridle Path (Lafayette Place Parking to Greenleaf Hut) – 2.9 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. The trail gains 2,450 ft in 2.9 miles… anything approaching 1000 ft of elevation gain per mile qualifies as strenuous in my book.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons, snowshoes (optional)…
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, soft-packed powder. Occasional icy spots, easily avoidable.
  • Vistas (8/10): After 1.5 to 2 miles, amazing views of Franconia Ridge ahead and the valley behind are common.
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Greenleaf Hut and the Franconia Ridge as viewed from the Old Bridle Path.

I donned my microspikes and set off, alone, into the quiet, snowy, New Hampshire morning. After two solo thru-hikes it felt both strange and incredibly normal to be heading off into the snow-covered mountains by myself, but mostly it just felt great to be moving in the mountains I loved with beautiful blue skies above and sparkling white snow below. The only thing that dampened my spirit was that I couldn’t find my ‘good’ camera when I stopped to take pictures at the first overlook. I assumed I must have forgotten it back at the car in my excitement to get out on the trail… My iPhone 5 would have to serve as my camera for the day!

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

The trail all the way up to Greenleaf hut was beautifully snow-covered. Even though extra gear and precautions are necessary for winter hiking, one of my favorite things about the snow is that it covers and smooths out the normal rocky backbone of the trail and creates a strangely uniform hiking surface… The nice, stumble-free, snow-covered terrain reminded me of the PCT, but the grade of the Old Bridle Path was way too steep for that! I gained 2,450 ft in the 2.9 miles it took me to get up to Greenleaf Hut (closed & boarded up in the winter), and I still had a mile to go to get the the summit of Lafayette!

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Greenleaf Trail and the summit of Mt. Lafayette as viewed from the trail. How many cairns can you count in frame?

Greenleaf Trail (Greanleaf Hut to Mt. Lafayette Summit) – 1.1 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous, the trail gains ~1000 ft in 1.1 miles
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons recommended. Snow shoes optional
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): partially-tracked, lightly-packed wind-swept snow, some possibility for postholing. Windy!
  • Vistas (9/10): Primarily above treeline with sweeping vistas.

Near Greenleaf Hut I ran into a couple of people on their way down. They assured me that the trail conditions at the summit, along the ridge, and on Falling waters were great… Our excitement about the unusually warm, clear White Mountain weather was almost palpable… and it was certainly visible on all of our smiling faces.

Not long after leaving the hut I left the scrubby treeline entirely behind me, and embraced the blinding sun and whipping winds characteristic of Greenleaf trail in the wintertime.

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The sandy snow made that final mile to the summit of Mt. Lafayette seem to go on forever… I wasn’t postholing, but I could feel myself backsliding a little bit with each step… It didn’t help that I was almost 5000 ft above the elevation I’d slept at the previous night!

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Either way, I didn’t hesitate to take a break when I encountered a rare site on Mt. Lafayette… a group of 5 skiers struggling up the slope. Sure they were struggling on the uphill, but they were going to have it made on the way down!

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

After a few more photo breaks than were probably absolutely necessary, I made it to the windy summit of Lafayette! As I looked around I couldn’t help but smile… There’s nothing better than a beautiful clear day on the summit of Mt. Lafayette. I was kind of curious though, where exactly were those skiers going to go from the summit?

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

Appalachian Trail (AT/Franconia Ridge Trail – Mt. Lafayette Summit to Little Haystack) – 1.7 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Moderate, some ups and downs with drifting snow.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons
  • Trail conditions (9/10): well-tracked, windswept powder. Windy!
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely above treeline. Amazing views of the ridge you’re on (Franconia Ridge) and of the Presidential range… Absolutely phenomenal!

It felt good to be back on the Appalachian Trail (AT)… The last time I’d stood on the summit of Mt. Lafayette looking out at Mt. Washington was on my 2013 AT thru-hike… The sense of accomplishment I felt standing at the summit was for more than just climbing the mountain that day, but for the incredibly journeys of the last two years… It was a beautiful moment full of memories of the past and excitement about the new memories that I was creating right then and there.

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Franconia Ridge is one of my favorite stretches of trail. It is incredibly beautiful, but it is also incredibly exposed… definitely not to undertaken lightly when hiking solo in the wintertime. I scrutinized the distant clouds… the weather was still miraculously clear, which was good, and I did a time check. It wasn’t even 1pm yet, but since it was the middle of the winter sunset would be come early, ~5pm… did I have enough time to do the ridge and descend to my car before dark? Yes. Plenty. If I got caught out after dark was I prepared? Yes. Were there any suggestions of iffy weather? No. Since I was winter-hiking solo, I did a quadruple check… Would another hiker with my level of skill and preparation think that this was a risky decision? No. Phew… Safety checks passed, I texted my parents, “heading across Franconia Ridge now, will descend via Falling Waters.” I’d given them an itinerary before I left, but sending them time-stamped updates seemed prudent.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Every fiber of my being rejoiced at the opportunity to prolong my time on Franconia Ridge. It was such a gorgeous day, and as winter weather goes, it was as good as it gets! The winds weren’t too strong, the temperatures (in the teens) were moderate, and I had plenty of gear to keep me warm. I also discovered that as soon as I wasn’t going uphill anymore my toes completely warmed up!!! I was definitely excited about that!

The Appalachian Trail's familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge

The Appalachian Trail’s familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge.

About halfway across the ridge I encountered a northbound hiker, “How’s the trail ahead?” I queried. “Well, the ridge isn’t bad, but Falling Waters Trail is Icy… It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it! It was so bad I had to use my ice axe to get up it!” he replied sounding slightly rattled… “Hmmm…” This was directly at odds with the trail report I’d gotten from the last person I talked to!

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I'd come.

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I’d come.

After some contemplation, I continued hiking South along the AT.  I remembered the sweeping vistas from my Northbound AT thru-hike, but somehow the snow made it all feel more magical!

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The windswept rocks of Franconia Ridge iced with snow! (On the AT, looking South).

As I neared the end of the ridge and headed up Little Haystack I ran into one final group of people (total number of people encountered: 9). I asked the group of 3 guys how the trail had been. “It was great,” said one guy. “No Problem,” smiled one of the other guys.

“That’s good to hear,” I said feeling relieved, “there have been conflicting reports about Falling Waters trail.”

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

“Oh?” replied the third guy, curiously. “Well… the last guy I talked to said it was the worst he’d ever seen it and that he’d had to use his ice axe.” Almost immediately they chimed in and admitted that they’d used their ice axes too, but assured me, “it’s not that bad, you won’t have any problems with it.” I looked at them kind of skeptically before quizzing them a bit more about where they’d used their axes… I tried to picture the trail ahead and the spot that they were talking about..but I had trouble imagining a spot where I’d need my ice axe… Well, I’d find out when I got there!

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

Falling Waters Trail (Little Haystack to Lafayette Place Parking) – 3.2 miles

  • Difficultly Level: Strenuous, steep downhill descending 2800 ft in 3.2 miles. Snow-cover decreases impact on knees compared to summertime conditions.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons. 3/4 people ascending cited use of ice axe on one section. I did not use an ice axe nor did I feel the need to.
  • Trail Conditions (6/10): mostly well-tracked powder, however, some extremely icy sections are present on the lower 1/3 of the trail… Confidence traversing ice flows a must on this section.
  • Vistas (7/10): The majority of the trail is below treeline. However, the views from Shining Rock are worthwhile and the ice formations and flows of the ‘falling waters’ make up for the lack of more sweeping views.

Sometimes the trail seems even steeper when you are going down than when you are going up, and this definitely felt true as I headed down the Falling Waters Trail. It was steep, well-tracked powder, and it would have been a lot of fun to do some glissading… Unfortunately, I was below treeline and would have to navigate around a lot of trees in order to safely glissade… I was also afraid that I would end up going faster than I wanted to, so I decided to play it safe and stay on my feet.

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When I reached the falling waters section of the Falling Waters Trail I was fascinated by all the different ice formations in and around the stream. They were absolutely beautiful!

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

The ice formations were so beautiful that I couldn’t help but stop and take pictures of all of the the different kinds of ice… The feathery plumes were something that didn’t remember ever seeing before!

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Despite discovering lots of beautiful ice and water as I descended, the trail had remained nicely packed powder…

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

… until all the powder disappeared and was replaced with a wall of ice. There was no doubt… the wall of ice below me was where everyone had used their ice axes. I stood at the top of the steep ice flows contemplating my options for a couple of minutes.

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

It was clear that most people had used the ~5-6 ft long ice chute (pictured above) to my right instead of following the main trail with it’s steep 20-30 ft long ice flow (pictured below)… I continued contemplating my options… I didn’t like either of them, but eventually decided on the ice chute/glissade… once I was sitting down with my legs extended I’d be most of the way to the soft powdery snow below.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes... though I'm not sure how.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes… though I’m not sure how. Check out that blue blaze up there? The trail is somewhere underneath the beautiful blue ice.

Sure enough, the powder cushioned my short slide, no problem. Despite the icy trail conditions, the thing that was really slowing me down wasn’t my footing… it was all the time I was taking to admire and take pictures of the cool ice formations along the way!

A different kind of icicle… ice sheets maybe? near Falling Waters trail

Luckily for me, the icy section of the trail… the section where the trail held more ice than snow, was relatively short… about 1/4 mile, but I treated that section with extreme caution!

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

Even though I wanted to linger on the icy sections of the trail taking pictures and enjoying my hike for as long as possible, the magical low-angle light that was making everything extremely photogenic also signaled the fast approaching sunset.

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I reluctantly put my phone camera away and continued towards my car.

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Back at the car I searched for my ‘good’ camera, which I’d assumed I’d forgotten in the car during the hub-bub that morning… It wasn’t there… Doh! Was it possible that it was somewhere in my pack and I’d just missed it? I frantically emptied all of the contents of my pack out into my car… Still no camera… Oh sh**! My camera really was lost… My beautiful Sony Nex was somewhere between the car and the first overlook where I’d first noticed that it was missing.

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I took a deep breath… at least 5 people had descended that trail, maybe one of them found it and left it or a note about it for me somewhere… I circled the parking lot looking for clues… Nothing… My heart sank as I contemplated retracing my steps from that morning to look for it… Somewhat exasperated I decided a bathroom break, a snack, and some more water were in order before making any decisions…

As I rounded the corner to the women’s privy I saw it, right in front of the privy, lying on the snow… my camera!!! It must have fallen out when I stopped there before my hike. Since I was the only woman on the trail that day, nobody else had ventured over to the women’s privy, and nobody else had seen it! Phew!

With my camera in hand, and the sun beginning to set, I returned to my car and headed home… I was definitely a happy hiker! It had been an amazing day and the hike up Mt. Lafayette and across Franconia ridge kept its place as one of my favorite hikes of all time.

Note:

  • Consider checking out trip reports and forecasts here before heading up Lafayette.
  • The weather in the White Mountains is notoriously bad (even in the summer), so when planning a winter hike in the Whites finding a good weather window is my primary concern… If I’m considering a climb of Mt. Lafayetter (5250 ft) I check the Mt. Washington summit forecast and look for a day with high temperatures > 5-10 degrees F, wind speeds < 30 mph, and no measurable precipitation predicted for that day or the next… Even with appropriate gear, low temperatures and high windchills significantly reduce the fun factor of the hike for me… been there, done that (like the day it was -20 degrees F at the base… brrrrrrrr!!!).
Up next, Mt. Washington?!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

Thru-hike Trekking Pole Review: Leki Carbon Titaniums

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Trekking poles have been an indispensable part of my hiking and backpacking gear for over a decade, so when I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail (2013), and then the Pacific Crest Trail (2014) there was never a question… I was going to bring trekking poles with me. I chose the Leki Carbon Titaniums for my adventures:

  • Purchased: Fall 2012
  • Weight: 16.6 oz/pair
  • Length: 62-135 cm
  • MSR: $199.95

I started using the Leki Carbon Ti trekking poles in the fall of 2012 and I am still using them today (two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles later).

  • Functionality (10/10): I use my trekking poles for additional stability (I have a history of spraining my ankles without them) and to reduce the stress on my knees (especially going downhill). During the last 2 years (and ~5000 miles of backpacking through some of the most rugged terrain in the United States) my knees and ankles have remained sprain free! I love my trekking poles and found them to be incredibly useful during both of my thru-hikes… especially in rocky, sandy, and snowy terrain.
  • Fitness (9/10): Most people lose upper body strength during their thru-hikes, but I rely so heavily on my trekking poles that I actually gained upper body strength! I use my trekking poles for more than just passive stabilization, I use them to actively propel myself forward (similar to the way cross-country skiers use their poles), which engages the muscles of my upper body and turns hiking/backpacking into a full-body workout.
  • Comfort (8/10): The grips are comfortable and the adjustable height allows me to set my poles to the length that works best for me (I’m 5’10, have a 35 inch inseam, and have had trouble finding fixed length poles that were long enough for me in the past). During thru-hikes I build up callouses on my palms from heavy trekking pole use, but the poles remain comfortable even in hot, sweaty weather.
    • Note: I get rashes on my hands when I use poles with cork handles, so I stay away from the cork handles!
  • Locking Mechanism (8/10): The clip locks are much easier to deal with, and more convenient than the older twist-style locking mechanisms. I usually use my poles at a fixed length and only collapse them to their minimum size for transportation in cars or when I’m in town (even fully collapsed I wish they were shorter and more stowable than they are). The only time I intentionally adjusted the length of my poles was on the steep, snowy slopes of the High Sierra when I wasn’t using my ice axe. For the most part I didn’t have any trouble with the locks loosening as I hiked, but during the the last ~500 miles of the PCT (after ~4000 miles of use) the lower locks seemed to loosen occasionally. Even then I only needed to re-tighten them once or twice.
    • Pro-tip: Carry a quarter or a dime in your repair/emergency kit so that you can tighten the locks if they loosen over time. It’s much easier/better to mechanically tighten them with a coin than to do it by hand.
    • Pro-tip: When traversing steep snowfields you can shorten the up-slope pole and use both poles in the snow if you don’t have an ice axe or for some reason don’t think an ice axe is necessary.
    • Pro-tip: Your ice axe is only useful if you have it out! When in doubt, take it out!!! Trekking poles are not good ice axe replacements… Having attempted to self-arrest with a trekking pole I can strongly recommend against it (1/10)… Know when to use your ice axe, know how to use it, and take it out of your pack before you need it. Repeat after me, “When in doubt, take it out!!!”

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  • Durability (8/10): I am not gentle with my gear, and that is certainly true when it comes to my trekking poles. I have used my Leki Crabon Ti trekking poles on every hike and backpacking trip that I’ve been on since I purchased them in the fall of 2012 and have been impressed with their overall ruggedness and durability.

Even though I love my trekking poles, over the course of ~5000 miles of use they’ve accumulated some damage…

  • Repairs:
    • Carbon Fiber Shaft (8/10): I didn’t have any trouble with the poles during the ~2200 miles of my 2013 AT thru-hike. However, crossing through the High Sierras (PCT 2014) the middle section of one of my trekking poles sheered in half! I was able to remove that section and fully extend and lock together the remaining sections for a mostly functional pole until Leki sent me a replacement section (no questions asked) in my next mail drop.
      • Leki offers a 1 year warranty on carbon fiber pole segments.
      • Pro tip: Call Leki directly… I had hoped that the folks at Mammoth Mountaineering (4/10) in Mammoth Lakes would help me out, but they don’t help thru-hikers with warranty issues of any kind (I was hoping for Leki and Big Agnes help at the time).pole
    • Carbide Tips (6/10): They are reasonably durable, but replacing them is a challenge. It is hard (as in nearly impossible) to remove the old, overused tips to install the new tips.
      • The original pair of carbide tips saw me through the entire AT (~2200 miles) and the first section of the PCT (from Campo to Idyllwild, CA).
      • I purchased a new pair of tips at Nomad Ventures (10/10), but the old tips were so impacted that I couldn’t remove them. I ended up enlisting the aid of the store owner, a table vice, and some pliers before we finally managed to get them off…
      • The second pair was worn out by the time I got to Ashland, OR. Once again, I needed to enlist a store employee to remove the old tips, which he wasn’t able to do successfully (even using the appropriate tools), so he just fitted the new tips over them.
      • Carbide tips are not covered by Leki’s warranty and they told me on the phone that they expect each pair of tips to last about 500 miles though they were reluctant to give an exact mileage or duration.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would put a thin silicone or rubber coating over the carbide tips to reduce the noise of the poles on rocky surfaces… Wildlife and other hikers can hear you coming from a mile away as you click across the rocks with your trekking poles.
      • Pro-tip: If you want to see more bears, put your trekking poles away :-P
    • Wrist Strap (8/10): After more than 3000 miles of use, one of the wrist straps broke. The people at the Ashland Outdoor Store (10/10) replaced the wrist strap for me with one they had lying around.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would add a quick release to the wrist straps. I like hiking with the straps, and it helps make sure I don’t accidentally lose them down steep slopes, but the physics involved in some falls (especially on slippery, muddy down-slopes) mean having your wrists locked into the straps in a way that may contribute to severe wrist injuries or stress fractures (see below).20140507-223445.jpg
  • Injuries:

Despite the damages, I would give the Leki Carbon Titanium trekking polls a very good overall rating (8/10) and would recommend them to other hikers, backpackers, and thru-hikers. If I were to purchase new trekking poles I would get these unless I found something just as rugged and durable, but lighter weight, and with a more packable profile. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts, questions, and/or trekking pole experiences!

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Even after two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles of heavy use my leki carbon ti trekking poles are my constant companions! (McAffee Knob, VA – AT section hike fall 2014).

 

 

2014 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike Photos

On my 2014 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail I was amazed by how dramatically and how beautifully the land (and everything on it) changed as I hiked from Mexico to Canada! Though I posted some of the photos I took with my iPhone to Instagram (patchesthru) along the way, I also took thousands of photos with my ‘good’ camera (a Sony Nex 5N with two lenses:16 mm f/2.8 and 55-210mm, f/4.5-6.3). Now that I’m home, I’ve started going through my pictures and am falling in love with the trail all over again! The photos below (and those on this 2015 calender) are amongst my favorites so far:

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Wild about Wild? A Thru-Hiker’s Book Review and More.

If the shoe fits?

“I am a solo female long-distance hiker, but I’m not Cheryl Strayed! Wild is not a book about me! It’s not even a book about backpacking!” was what I wanted to scream from the mountaintops every time someone on the PCT asked me if I’d read Wild.

  • Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Author: Cheryl Strayed
  • Publication Date: March 20, 2012
  • Print list price: $15.95
  • Weight: 5.6 oz, 315 pages
  • Kindle edition: $3.99

“Have you read Wild?”  It was always asked with the best of intentions. It was an attempt to start a conversation with the wild creature known as a thru-hiker (someone that had spent months on the trail, away from the world of small talk). Surely, as a solo female hiker on the PCT, I must have thoughts and opinions about Wild, right? There were just two problems: 1) I’d been asked that question hundreds of times before, and 2) I wanted to have a meaningful conversation about it, it’s impact on the trail, it’s impact on me, or it’s impact on the person asking,  but there were a lot of assumptions that we needed to sort out before we could get started…

Biography/Memoir Rating (9/10):

  • Wild is a book about grief, loss, addiction, and self-discovery. Wild is a memoir about Cheryl Strayed.
  • As I read Wild, I was amazed by the brutal honesty with which Cheryl Strayed described the low points in her life: her grieving process, her depression, her addiction, her marriage, and her incredibly flawed coping mechanisms. I both admired that brutal honesty and found it alienating. I didn’t want to be dragged through the ugly parts of her life, forced to watch helplessly as she self-destructed. That brutal honesty, however, is what made Cheryl Strayed’s character incredibly human, and made her story incredibly powerful. As the story transitioned from self-destruction to recovery, I found myself beginning to really care about her character. I winced at her blisters, her grief, and her inexperience. I shook my head and cringed at her bad decisions and incompetence. I understood her fearlessness and her solitude. I smiled at her bravery, her stubbornness, and her friendships. By the time the book ended, I was glad that I’d read it. Wild felt like a very honest story about one woman’s battle with grief and growing up, and I both enjoyed and respected it for what it was.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read this book if you like memoirs and stories about personal growth and recovery.
    • Don’t: read this book if consistently poor decision making bothers you.
    • Don’t: assume that your backpacking friends will automatically love this memoir.

Adventure/Travel Book Rating (5/10):

  • Wild is not a book about backpackers/backpacking. Wild is not a book about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
  • When I first read Wild, I was under the mistaken impression that I was picking up a book about backpacking and the PCT… As I began reading the book I was immediately disappointed. Despite the hiking boot on the cover, and the mention of the PCT in the title, Wild was shaping up to be drama, and not the adventure I’d hoped for! It wasn’t until Chapter 4 that the stage had (painstakingly) been set, and the hike was on… the story was still about Cheryl Strayed’s character development, but now she had a foil – the PCT… It was her interactions with that foil that made the book engaging and interesting to me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: skip the first three chapters of the book if you are having trouble getting into the back story. She explains enough within the context of the hike that you probably won’t feel like you are missing anything later.
    • Don’t: expect Wild to be about backpacking and/or the PCT.

Backpacking/Wilderness/PCT Guidebook Rating (1/10):

  • Wild is not a book about how one should conduct oneself in the backcountry. Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild is not the image of the responsible outdoorswoman and backpacker that we, as a backpacking community, would like to represent us in popular culture.
  • As I read Wild it seemed like it could be the guide for “what not to do” in the backcountry. For example, the famous scene where Cheryl throws her boot off a cliff… Is it good storytelling? Yes. Is it appropriate backcountry behavior? No. It’s a gross violation of Leave No Trace ethics… No matter how upset and/or frustrated you are with your gear, if you carry it into the Wilderness, you need to carry it back out with you. It irritated me that in the book Cheryl Strayed didn’t just own her bad decisions, she seemed to take pride in them!
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: Check out Yogi’s Guide if you’re looking for a guidebook for the PCT.
    • Do: Check out the PCTAs wilderness tips if you’re looking for some general hiking/backpacking advice.
    • Don’t throw any of your stuff off of a cliff!
    • Don’t wander aimlessly down random jeep roads in the desert! Cheryl Strayed was incredibly lucky that her forays down random jeep roads ended as well as they did… dehydration and getting lost in the desert are huge and potentially fatal issues!

Conversation Starter with the Thru-Hiker You Just Met (0/10):

  • One of the most common questions thru-hikers on the AT and on the PCT get asked is: “Have you read Wild?” This is especially true if you are a solo woman backpacking in the woods. Even though it is a well-intentioned attempt to start a conversation, it often ends up feeling awkward and complicated. After the first dozen or so Wild conversations I had, I gave up any illusion that the conversation I was entering into was going to be about the book… I was probably going to hear a vilification of Cheryl Strayed, an idolization of Cheryl Strayed, or imagined horrors about the throngs of inexperienced people (especially women) Wild was going to inspire to invade the Wilderness.
  • The biggest problem I have with Wild conversations is that they are usually laden with preformed assumptions and biases about backpacking, about the hiking community, about women, and about me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read Wild if you are a thru-hiker. Lots of people are going to ask you about it, and if you’re going to express an opinion about the book, you should read it first.
    • Don’t: ask the thru-hiker that you’ve just met on the trail if they’ve read Wild. Try asking them what they love about the trail instead.
    • Don’t assume that Wild is what inspired my thru-hikes.

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Ask a Solo Female Thru-Hiker!

  • When people say that Wild is inspirational, what do they mean?
    • They mean that Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, or that her character is inspirational.
  • What goes through your head when somebody says, “Wild was so inspirational, is it what inspired your hike?”
    • Why would they assume the Wild inspired me to hike the trail? Even though Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, her hiking/backpacking skills come closer to terrifying me than inspiring me.
  • Why does it bother you when they assume that Wild is what inspired you to hike?
    1. It bothers me because Wild isn’t what inspired me to hike.
    2. It bothers me because I am an experienced backpacker (I’ve been hiking and backpacking for 30 years). When people assume that Wild is what inspired me to hike, they’re assuming that I am relatively inexperienced since the book didn’t come out until 2012.
    3. It bothers me because I am a woman. Even though both men and women on the trail end up having Wild conversations, men typically don’t get asked if they’re just like Cheryl Strayed, and men typically don’t get asked if Wild is what inspired them to hike. Why? Because backpacking is culturally accepted as something that men do, whereas women backpacking and hiking (especially) solo is contrary to traditional gender roles… Both my mom and my dad were my backpacking role models, not Cheryl Strayed.
  • Do people actually say, “You must be just like Cheryl Strayed!”
    • Yes, I’ve had it happen more than once. My immediate thought is, “Not all of the women on the trail are inexperienced, incompetent, heroin addicts, looking for sex and searching for salvation! I’m not any of those things! Why would someone think that I am just like Cheryl Strayed?” But I calm myself down and answer my own question. They think that I’m just like Cheryl Strayed because I’m a woman, I’m a backpacker, and I’m alone. Both Cheryl Strayed and I are much, much more than that… It sells both of us short…
  • Why is Wild controversial in the backpacking community?
    • The backpacking community is concerned that Wild will inspire droves of inexperienced people to explore the backcountry in irresponsible ways. We were all inexperienced once (and should always leave room for learning), and goofing up is part of learning, but we want to encourage people to learn to share our love of the Wilderness and the trail as responsibly as possible… Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild doesn’t always provide the best role model for that.
  • Are there other things that you dislike about Wild conversations?
    • Yes! I love the freedom and independence that backpacking (and doing it solo) affords me… freedom from societies rules about what I should be, what I can do, and how I should act. For many people, reading and discussing Wild allows them to experience some of that freedom. Unfortunately for me, conversations about Wild on the trail are often harsh reminders that I’m not as far away from societies biases as I think I am. Even though Wild consciously contradicts some of those biases (e.g. the idea that women shouldn’t travel alone), it accidentally reinforces others (e.g. women are incompetent and women that have sex are sluts).
  • What is your favorite thing about the Wild conversations that you’ve had?
    • I love it when people tell me stories about Wild and how it inspired and/or empowered them. Watching people grow to the love the outdoors and the sport that I love is an amazing experience. I think that it is great that Cheryl Strayed and Wild are inspiring people to get out and hike. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world to discover that I have inspired someone to get out and hike and I appreciate anything that encourages people to share my passion for the Wilderness and the trail.
  • Did anything in the book really resonate with you as a long-distance hiker?
    • A lot of people ask me what I think about as I hike, assuming that I am thinking about the world’s problems (or at least my own), but in reality a large percentage of the time I’m hiking I have fragments of songs stuck in my head. Cheryl Strayed describes that really well when she says, “I found my mind playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop, as if there were a mix-tape radio station in my head.” Fragments of songs would get stuck in my head and just play over and over again as I hiked… Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose from Janis Joplin, and slight variations on The Ramones, I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my toes. Oh no no no no no were some of the most frequent offenders. Sometimes I would just re-write the lyrics to songs as I hiked, like Eye of the Tiger by Survivor, which became my hiking ballad, Heart of the Mountains or Queen’s Bicycle, which become Calories.
  • Did anything in Wild really resonant with you as a solo hiker?
    • Yes, when Cheryl Strayed wrote about one of her conversations, “You’re not alone, are you?” … “And what on earth does your mother have to say about that?”… “Aren’t you scared all by yourself?”… I found myself nodding vigorously. I’ve had even more conversations about being alone on the trail than I’ve had about Wild. I’ll have to share my thoughts and stories about that in a future post, but I will say this: I didn’t set out to do my thru-hikes alone, I set out to follow my dreams… learning to be comfortable doing that alone has been one of the greatest gifts the trails have given me.

One of my favorite quotes from Wild is, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told…” Not only did Cheryl Strayed tell herself a different story, she shared that story with the rest of the world. The fact that Wild is giving people, especially women, the courage to tell themselves new stories and to live new dreams is inspiring. Some of the backlash against Wild in the backpacking community is from fear – fear that in the aftermath of the movie the trails will be flooded with “Girls gone Wild!”, fear that new hikers/backpackers will hurt themselves, hurt the trail, and hurt the Wilderness… I think we need to stop telling ourselves those stories and start telling ourselves a different story… a story about millions of new people inspired to learn more about the wilderness, a story about people getting outside and walking, a story about renewed interest in the preservation of the PCT and other long distance trails… A story about trails where both men and women, novices and experts, old and young, can come together and explore their dreams!

Check out the Wild book review my friend Invictus (AT 2013) wrote!

Update: For different solo female thru-hikers take on Wild check out this article on Jezebel.com

Thru-Hiker Power! (PCT Days 163-165)

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Little white plumes of moisture puff up into the air in front of me as I hike… It makes me think that I’m like a train, like the little engine that could, as I hike through the mountains of the North Cascades in Washington.

It’s the first hard frost that we’ve had since June, a clear indicator that fall is on its way… Before long, snow will blanket these mountains, but I’ll be gone by then… I’m less than 70 miles away from the Canadian border… I’m almost there!

I take a big sip of water, but the water feels thick as it hits my tongue and it crunches as I roll it around in my mouth… It isn’t until that crunch that I figure it out… The water in my water hose is beginning to freeze! The last time this happened was when I was on top of Mount Whitney!

Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, I feel great. I have always loved the fall… the crisp, cool air… the changing colors of the leaves… the art that Jack Frost leaves behind… every step I take this morning reminds me of how much I love this life!

After hiking 2600 miles, I am in the best shape of my life… The trails from Stehekin to Hart’s Pass are well designed and graded, so I lengthen my stride on the uphills and the downhills and the miles just fly by… I feel powerful, I feel strong, and I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be… Here, in the mountains, on the trail, where my body and my mind are at peace with each other and with the rest of the world. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling…

I remember feeling this same way at the end of my AT thru-hike… A kind of thru-hiker confidence… Knowing that your body can just do it… You look at a trail, you look at a mountain, and there is never a doubt… your body will allow you to do amazing things and to go to amazing places! It has been a miraculous transformation for me… a transformation that was more than I’d dared to imagine when I set out for my first thru-hike in the spring of 2013.

At the beginning of my AT thru-hike I’d been sick for so long that I’d stopped trusting my body, and my body had stopped trusting me… Asthma had slowly, insidiously, crept into my world, and over the course of five years it felt like it had stolen my body and my life away from me. I fought it every step of the way, but my body and my lungs wouldn’t let me do the things that I wanted to do anymore. When I discovered that the job I loved was the source of the problem, that I had occupational asthma, I was heartbroken. I knew that I had to leave my job, but I just couldn’t do it… It had been my dream for so long, and I’d invested so much into it… how could I just leave? Besides, I wasn’t a quitter! Every fiber of my body rebelled against the inevitable truth… I was going to have to walk away from everything if I wanted to get my health back… Was I strong enough to do that?

Eventually, I figured out a way… I would exchange the old dream for a new dream. I’d always wanted to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail… Sure, it was a non-traditional approach for dealing with asthma, but I was confident that I could make it work. Knowing that I was going to live my dream of hiking the AT gave me the strength to do the impossible, to leave my job and my old life behind. My doctors had been skeptical (and so had everyone else), but I had faith… I had faith that I could do it… I had faith that I would get better… I had to!

I had started slowly, but over time my lungs had gotten stronger, and a new relationship was forged between my body and my mind as they learned to operate as one… It was the best feeling in the world! Standing on top of Katahdin last October I was filled with elation, it had worked! I’d let go of the fear that had consumed me for so long, the fear that my body, my lungs, and my asthma would prevent me from living my dreams. I thought that I had vanquished asthma from my life. I was powerful! I was strong! I was a thru-hiker!

Here, on the PCT, I had to come to terms with the fact that my asthma wasn’t completely gone, that I was an asthmatic. It was a rude awakening at first, but I gained a new respect for my body… I learned that I could manage my asthma, and that when I did, I could still trust my body to do amazing things and to take me to amazing places. I could be an asthmatic and still live my dreams!

A cold wind brings me back to the present as I climb the next hill. Thinking about how my thru-hikes have transformed my body and my life brings tears to my eyes. It’s been an incredible journey. Even though I feel great, I don’t want the miles to fly by… I want time to slow down… I want to take it all in, to savor it all, to catalog these happy thoughts, these happy moments… I want to stay here forever… I’m like Peter Pan, I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to leave the tail!

When I get to the top of the hill I stop and look around. It’s beautiful here in the Cascades. I take a deep breath of the cold morning air and smile as I let it out. Even though I’m asthmatic, even though I’ve been hiking uphill all morning and it’s cold, I can still take a full, chest-expanding breath of the fresh air! I can breath! I can hike! I can dream! These are the memories that I’ll keep for the rest of my life… 10 years from now, 30 years from now, 60 years from now, I’ll be able to come back here… to these powerful and happy memories… These happy thoughts, they’re going to help me to fly, and to keep flying, as I head into an uncertain future!

frostymornings

Part 2: I’m Your Huckleberry

huckleberries2

One of the joys of hiking in the late summer and early fall is feasting on wild blueberries and huckleberries. Towards the end of my Appalachian trail thru-hike I feasted on the wild blueberries in Maine, and now that I was nearing the end of my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike I was feasting on the wild huckleberries in Washington. In the Northeast we take pride in our wild blueberries, and often snub the obviously inferior commercial blueberries. In the Northwest people seemed to take pride in their huckleberries, but they categorically snubbed all blueberries… including the wild Maine blueberries that I thought so highly of. “Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not blueberries,” was a constant, condescending refrain that I’d heard over and over again, and it rankled every time. Though I’d learned how to recognize one species of western huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and was confident that I was picking huckleberries and not blueberries, there was another question that I wasn’t so sure about: “What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” None of the people I talked to really seemed to know. If they didn’t know the difference between a blueberry and a huckleberry, how could they assert the superiority of one over the other?

“What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” The question ate at me as I hiked through Washington… I needed the internet… I needed to do some research… I wanted a scientifically rigorous end to the debate of huckleberry versus blueberry… When I finally got wifi, I started by looking up the definitions of the berries in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

That seemed simple enough, right? Huckleberries are from the genus Gaylussacia and blueberries are from the genus Vaccinium… (Let’s ignore that the second definition of huckleberry is blueberry for now). This definition was consistent with the berries I’d seen on the Appalachian trail, and the colloquial definitions of blueberries and huckleberries that I’d grown up with on the east coast. It also provided the key to telling eastern huckleberries from blueberries while hiking on the Appalachian trail: when you break open an eastern huckleberry, it has 10 chambers and 10 big seeds in it, but when you break open a blueberry it only has five chambers and is full of lots and lots of tiny little seeds.

If I was only concerned about the east coast and the AT I’d be done, but what about the berries on the west coast, the berries on the PCT? Do they fit into those same simple definitions? No.  According to the united states forest service there are twelve species of huckleberry in Oregon and Washington and they all belong to the genus Vaccinium! That means that by east coast standards (and according to the dictionary definition), all of the western huckleberries are actually blueberries.

My initial reaction was to laugh. No wonder why people on the west coast were so confused about the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I briefly thought about invoking the classic east coast/west coast rivalry, and dismissing all western huckleberries as blueberries, but that didn’t appease my intellectual curiosity… there was definitely something different about western huckleberries… They weren’t the same berries that I’d grown up calling blueberries on the east coast, I needed to learn more.

I went searching for a better definition huckleberries and was surprised to find that in at least one state there is a legal definition of a huckleberry! In 2013 the Montana state legislature defined a “huckleberry” as: a berry referring to various wild species of the Vaccinium genus, commonly referred to in this state as a huckleberry or Montana huckleberry. Among these species are Vaccinium membranaceum and Vaccinium globulare. The legal definition gave merit to 2 of the 12 huckleberry species that I’d heard of, and listed four species that were not huckleberries, but it didn’t help me understand the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I shouldn’t have been surprised that lawmakers didn’t have the definitive answer I was looking for, the definition of a huckleberry is really a question for scientists, not lawmakers.

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I returned to the literature and to the genus Vaccinium, which includes all of the blueberries, cranberries, and western huckleberries. Since the genus was the same for all of them, I looked to the next level of differentiation, the subgenera. Vaccinium is divided into two subgenera: Oxycoccus (cranberries), and Vaccinium (blueberries and western huckleberries). The subgenera are then further divided into sections. Four of those sections include the berries we call blueberries and western huckleberries: Cyanococcus (blueberries), Myrtillus (bilberries/western huckleberries), Vaccinium, and Pyxothamnus. The majority of western huckleberries are in sec. Myrtillus. I’d finally figured out how to separate the western huckleberries from the blueberry!. I also discovered that in the field (on the PCT) the berry organization can be used to distinguish between the sections: most western huckleberries (sec. Myrtillus) produce single berries on new shoots, the rest of the western huckleberries (sec. Vaccinium and sec. Pyxothamnus) produce small clusters of berries, and the blueberries (sec. Cyanococcus) produce larger clusters of berries on one year old growth.

Based on my new understanding of the differences between blueberries and huckleberries I revised the Merriam-Webster definitions to include the berries from both the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT):

Using these new definitions, could I separate all of the North American huckleberries from the North American blueberries? To figure that out, I investigated the taxonomy of huckleberries and blueberries, focusing on the differences between the species on the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT). The naming and separation of species is constantly changing as our understanding of plant genetics evolves, which means that the species definitions for huckleberries and blueberries are constantly changing. Although I used the initial list of huckleberries of the northwest (1972) as a guide, I used the USDA plants database and/or the GRIN Taxonomy for Plants to determine a more current list of species (click on the links to see maps of their growing regions):

Family Ericaceaethe heath family, includes all of the huckleberries and blueberries
Genus Gaylussacia – Eastern (AT) Huckleberries (10 chambered ovary)

 Genus Vaccinium – Blueberries and Western Huckleberries (5 chambered ovary)

Finally, after spending way too much time online, I’d convinced myself that I knew the difference between blueberries and huckleberries both taxonomically and functionally. On paper it was easy, the eastern (AT) huckleberries were the ones in subgenus Gaylussacia, the blueberries (AT & PCT) were the ones in sec. Cyanococcus, and the western (PCT) huckleberries were still trying to sort themselves out, but were mostly from sec. Myrtillus. On the trail, the eastern huckleberries were the ones with 10 large seeds in them that you find in the eastern part of the country, the blueberries were the ones with big clusters of fruit with lightish colored innards, and western huckleberries were the ones the brothers on the reservation had described to me (with bright purple innards and typically single berries).

One of the interesting things I learned was that blueberries on the PCT are the same species as the blueberries on the AT.  I rarely saw anything resembling an east coast blueberry as I hiked through Washington. Though there are always exceptions, it seemed like all of the know-it-alls that were so adamantly reprimanding people for picking blueberries on the trail were wrong. Up on the mountain hillsides of the PCT, almost everyone was picking huckleberries… they weren’t always picking what Montana legally defines as a huckleberry, but they were picking Washington huckleberries (huckleberries of Washington (2007)).

If you are a professional huckleberry picker getting an estimated $40 a gallon for huckleberries, you should probably restrict your definition of huckleberry to Vaccinium membranaceum. However, if you are out there hiking in the mountains, with the sunshine on your back, why not enjoy all of the edible berries that sec. Myrtillus has to offer?

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Interesting huckleberry links if you are still thirsting for more information:

It’s a Win! (PCT Ditty)

Patches in Northern California

Hiking North through Washington I tried to focus on the here and now, on the beautiful scenery that I was still immersed in, on my love of backpacking, but my thoughts kept on drifting. I started reflecting on the amazing journeys that I’d been on, and on the future awaiting me when I returned to civilization. All of the existential crises that had been put on hold while I dealt with more immediate concerns like water, food, and shelter, were starting to flood back into those quiet spaces between steps. My vacation was coming to an end.

Pop quiz: Do you know the name of the song (and the artist who wrote it) that got stuck in my head and inspired me to write these new hiking-based lyrics?

When I look back upon my hike,
It’s always with a sense of pride.
I’ve always loved to be outside!
For everything I longed to do,
Whether alone or with a crew,
When I’m hiking this is true…

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a win!
It’s a win!
Every mountain I have climbed,
Every river I have crossed,
Every sunset that I’ve seen,
Every trail I’ll ever hike,
It’s a win!

Character building’s what they said,
And through the rain we forged ahead.
I’m a backpacker born and bred!
For everything I longed to do,
Whether alone or with a crew,
When I’m hiking this is true…

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a win!
It’s a win!
Every mountain I have climbed,
Every river I have crossed,
Every sunset that I’ve seen,
Every trail I’ll ever hike,
It’s a win!

Society forgive me,
I tried to slog through it.
I had the career job,
But that just didn’t do it.
The trails they have taught me,
They’ve led me right to it!
Both worlds are the real me!
But I hope you understand…

When I look back upon my hike,
It’s always with a sense of pride,
I’ve always loved to be outside!
For everything I longed to do,
Whether alone or with a crew,
When I’m hiking this is true…

It’s a, it’s a, it’s a win!
It’s a win!
Every mountain I have climbed,
Every river I have crossed,
Every sunset that I’ve seen,
Every trail I’ll ever hike,
It’s a win!