Wednesday, November 6, 2013

High Point to Delaware Water Gap on the AT

It's a surprisingly difficult task to organize a group of friends to hike and camp for a weekend trip. Firstly, there is the debate about where to go, then where to camp, the need for water and food, how many cars are required for seven guys, where to park, who shuttles with who and so on.  I was in Los Angeles when the gang met at Mauro's to decide a location and I phoned in to suggest High Point  to Stokes along the AT. I was honest and said it was on my hit list of hikes, but moreover there are shelters, some water and parking at various locations. Next meeting was over breakfast at the "cave" and we called the parks and learned that no ground fires were permitted on the AT in NJ and one of our parking options was also not available overnight.  We decided to camp night one at Mashipacong shelter near rt 650 and the next night use one of Stokes camp areas called Steam Mill campground so we could build a fire and warm up and have a proper steak dinner in camp. We had a plan where five would be hiking from High Point and the other two meet up the next day. Unfortunately later that day my friend Roman, who is an avid cyclist, was popped by a car on a ride and was banged up pretty bad and was out completely for the hiking.  Later in the week, another two guys dropped out of the first day's activities but would still meet up to hike and camp on day two and provide team one a shuttle back on day 3.  Whew, like I said, it's complicated anytime more than two people are involved.

What started as six or seven whittled down to three, so Mauro, Frankie and I drove to the AT parking area at High Point on  Rt 23 and briskly walked northbound, stopping at the scenic high point viewing pavillion and monument before looping back to the car to put the packs on. This little loop both warmed our legs up and covered a small section I needed before heading south. I bought a new Osprey Volt 60 internal frame pack and while I hoped to travel lighter, I found water food and cool weather gear weighed in much heavier than desired. The day was bright and cold, but warmed as we walked. The wind was gusting and the sky clear and blue.  We dropped packs here and there and enjoyed a non hurried day. We dropped off trail to check out the Rutherford shelter and to eat lunch there. We were humored to see a fake satellite dish, tv remote control and dummy electrical outlet affixed to the shelter. I guess it is a fun joke to tease those away from such luxuries for many weeks on end.


We later arrived at the Mashipacong shelter to find another hiker setting up camp in the shelter with a new 5gallon water bottle sitting beside him on the picnic table.  His name was Joe and he said his buddy dropped off the water as a gift for him and others like us. He had previously thru hiked the AT ( I think he said in the 90's) and his trail name back then was SWEAT, which besides the literal meaning, was an acrynym for Slowly Walking the Entire Appalachian Trail. We also learn it was his 53 birthday. We celebrated by sharing good food, stories, drinks and cigars.  It was quite cold and windy and I retired to my hammock and bag to curl in and warm  up. I was protected by a tarp but was chilled and slept little. I learned I needed to add Velcro straps to close the hammock over my face area to keep in more heat on windy nights. That's a modification I'll do soon.

We woke and had a simple breakfast of coffee, oatmeal and hard oiled eggs.  We said goodbye to Joe and hiked southbound on the AT. We soon met up with friends Vinny, Jim, Rich and Jerry, who drove up today.  They parked one car at sunrise mt and another at the steam mill campsite. We hiked to Sunrise mountain and ate snacks at the parking area as we changed over to day packs.  The rest of the day was a fast hike to the next shelter for lunch and then a loop back to Steam Mill Camp area.  We made a fire, Frankie cooked awesome rib eye steaks and potatoes, and we tasted fine wine (and scotch) until Jerry and Jim left to go home and then a brisk downpour ended the evening festivities for good. We were so surprised at the sudden heavy rain that we just darted to our respective shelters for the night.   It was a cold rain, but I stayed warm and dry in my hammock as I set the tarp just above me to keep in the warmth.  I did get a little wet in the early morning from condensate falling back down on me, but overall it was decent nights. We dodged a bullet because we stupidly left some food stuff out and were lucky no bear entered the camp during the night. I put my former boy scout skills to the test and found some hot embers under the wet cinders and quickly restarted a smokey fire to begin warding off the morning chill. It was about 35F just after dawn.  Frankie rose to the occasion and cooked a great breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausages, along with juice and hot coffee.  This is the only hiking trip I know of where you can walk for two days and still gain considerable weight!
November 8 - 9
I decided to go hiking and camp for one night to cover a stretch on the NJ - AT from Gren Anderson shelter in Stokes forest to Blue Mt Lakes Rd in the Delaware Gap National Park.  This was to be my first solo overnight trip and it was intended to test my skills in the colder November weather. The temperature would hit the low 30’s , it would be windy and the moon at only a crescent. I began to physically and mentally prepare for it and decided to travel as light as possible.  I left my tent and hammock home, electing instead to stay in the Brink Road shelter regardless of who shows up there.  I brought a therma-rest sleeping pad, space blanket to cover the pad, a cheap old down sleeping bag, a nylon bag liner and my sil-nylon tarp.  My night time clothing was polyester base layers, polyester hiking pants, two poly shirts, a fleece hoodie outer (my luxury item) and down jacket.  I had glove liners and a hat. I had more than enough to survive and stay warm.  I figured I’d just wear anything I needed, jump in the bag and curl up with the tarp as my wind block. 

I parked at Culvers Gap, left my gear in the car and hitched a ride on sunrise rd up to the trail near Gren Anderson shelter to start at 10AM. The wind was gusting about 30 knots and when I came close to the fire tower on the next hill, I heard voices up above.  There were several utility workers on the upper portion of the high cell tower busy working and shouting to each other over the cold wind.  
Highpoint in distance

I climbed the fire tower, but it was so windy, I came down fast because it wasn’t worth losing all my heat over the view since I only had on a base layer shirt. It started snowing a bit and I kept moving fast to stay warm.  As I approached Culvers Gap, I started thinking about my plan to keep the car there overnight, pick up my pack, walk to Brink Road shelter for the night and then go a bit forward in the morning before turning around and retrace all my steps back to Culvers Gap. That was the problem of not having someone to shuttle with, you could only go so far before having to turn around.  I suddenly thought to call the Stokes forest park office and I requested a favor shuttling my car to the southern end of Stokes (near Buttermilk falls) before dropping me back at Culvers gap.  The park office lady seemed eager to help so I finished the section and zipped over to the park office.  I was warmly greeted and followed a maintenance truck to the Buttermilk Falls overnight parking area (Possibly in Delaware Gap forest).  I ditched the car, chucked my gear in the PU bed and hopped in with a guy named Bob. He informed me he just helped in building the new Brink rd shelter and said it was real nice and had benches inside for sleeping and sitting.  He said it had a porch and was built from blow-downs produced after Sandy and Irene.  When I got back to Culvers gap, I thanked him for the ride, held out a tip and he waved it off saying it was his pleasure to help a hiker. Thank you Stokes!
Culvers lake
Kittatiny Ridge
I climbed the next ridge and looked over Culvers lake and the community.  There are several taverns; a pizza joint and Dales market (for resupply) about a mile or two off the trail in the town for those interested. The hike to Brinks Rd was quick and easy.  I ended up at the shelter at about 3PM.  Sunset was at 4:45 so I had plenty of time to set up camp.  On the last downhill, I was hoping the wind would die down so it wouldn’t be as chilly later.  I passed the old shelter and immediately made a bee line to the new one on the opposite side of the trail.  The shelter was very well built and the front elevated on the hill.  It felt like a little cottage with an open front. I was the only one there and claimed the back corner bench.  I began to pull things out of my pack and was disheartened to realize my 2L water bladder had leaked over half its contents into my down sleeping bag. Ugh.   A soaked down sleeping bag is useless on a cold night.  Luckily, my light down jacket was on top and dry so I quickly layered into my dry clothes and began addressing my problems.  I hung the bag over the railing on the shelter into the wind and now was seriously hoping the wind would stay brisk for the next few hours and dry out the down.  I squeezed out the excess water and fluffed the bag over every ten minutes in by shaking it.  I found the nearby water source and restocked the lost water, using my emergency water tabs to purify.  An area behind the new shelter had an existing small fire ring, logs for sitting and ample wood (a bit wet), so I elected to make a very small cooking fire and warm my hands.  My original plan was not to make a fire at all and respect the forest rules but that plan required me being wrapped in my dry sleeping bag for the duration.  I cooked dinner and cleaned up and relaxed for a few hours before stashing my food rations in the nearby bear box.  At about 7pm, four headlamps came streaming down the trail and a group of southbound through hikers came into the shelter zone in a happy singsong fashion. They said hi and they elected to use the older shelter on the other side of the trail. They likewise made a fire to ward off the cold.  A few more hours passed and before going to bed, I stopped over and said hello and we shared some treats.  They just resupplied at Dales market and ate a pizza buffet and the mood was good and we all had a sugar high from M&Ms and sugar wafers.  I admire them for attempting the AT in soon-to-be winter conditions.  I retreated to my shelter and was happy to find my sleeping bag dry enough for a comfortable sleep. I guess a cold brisk wind has many positive uses.  I need to keep that in mind before I rush to foolishly curse it next time.  It dried a completely soaked bag in about 5 hours.  I was actually warm enough to not wear the hoodie to bed and instead use it as my pillow (i.e my luxury item). 

The morning was just above freezing and I found some embers and restarted the fire just enough to warm my hands and boil some instant coffee.  I only had one small pot, so I added my oatmeal and walnuts directly into my hot coffee and enjoyed my mocha mash gruel. I was really relaxed then but something abruptly changed my mood.  At exactly 8am to the second, it sounded like a war zone. I heard what sounded like celebratory gunfire of hundreds of rapid fire shots from all over.  I booted up my phone and read that at 8am (11/9/13) begin the start of small game season began in NJ.   I pictured all those frigging yahoo’s waiting in the woods and valley’s for the exact second to hit eight am so they could open fire at anything that moved or cause the birds to take flight due to the gunshots.  I read NJ released 24,000 stocked pheasants that morning.  It sounded like a slaughter nearby and I wanted out of the area.

Merry Band of Thru-hikers
 I said goodbye to the merry band of through-hikers across the way who woke up later than me and gave them my nylon sleeping bag liner for extra warmth.  I knew I had extra fabric at home and will just sew up another to replace it.  They were really cool folks and I wish them good luck making it to Georgia this winter.

Looking into PA over Delaware Valley
- Interesting Rock placement

I hiked the AT southbound all morning and into the afternoon until I got to Blue Mountain Lake Road.  I was happy to make the road and turned around and walked on a park road called Skyline rd than ran back towards scenic Crater Lake.  I eventually crossed over the AT and headed a bit out of the way to check out Hemlock Lake. I saw fresh bear signs and moved on fast.  I crossed the ridge on a woods road and headed down Buttermilk Falls trail to the waiting car.  The falls were almost dry, but it appeared to be a great location in the wet season.  By this time, I was very hungry and craving a cheese steak sandwich for some reason. I stopped by the pizza place the other hikers mentioned in Culvers Lake and gobbled one up.  Being on the trail is pure freedom, but it is also the freedom to do without many things we take for granted. I plan on getting a cold weather sleeping back so I can do without several layers of clothes at night and will also make a light weight water proof stuff sack in case another water vessel leaks on me again.    

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