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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Backcountry Lemmings: 'Into the Wild' Pilgrimage Blunders Continue

Since publication of the bestselling account of the travels and death of Chris McCandless, "Into the Wild," by Jon Krakauer and the release of the film by the same name directed by Sean Penn, a previously little-known corner of the Alaska wilderness has seen a boom in its backcountry traffic.

"Into the Wild" chronicles the inner conflicts, Kerouac-ian travels and ultimate demise of a well-to-do recent college graduate who abandons his worldly possessions to roam free and ultimately try his hand at survival in the Alaska wilderness near Denali National Park. His final destination was an old, abandoned, 1940's era bus that had been scrapped along the Stampede Trail near the borders of Denali NP. The bus had been converted over time by hunters and hikers into a makeshift shelter with a pipe stove and bunk and it was here, 22 miles from the road that McCandless lived for a short while before dying of starvation related to poisoning form foraged vegetation.

The "Magic Bus" Photo by Associated Press

The "Magic Bus" as McCandless dubbed it, has become a destination for fans of the book and movie who are curious to see the location or wish to pay homage to the story's protagonist, but many, like McCandless are woefully unprepared for the trip.

The most recent lemmings to demonstrate their backcountry ignorance on a national stage were 19-year-old Donald Carroll from Illinois and 21-year-old Jia Long He from China. They set out on the 22-mile trek in cotton street clothes with only minimal food and no equipment. According to a report by the Anchorage Daily News the pair set out on Friday and were last seen by hikers along the trail. On Monday, after being several days overdue, the pair were rescued via helicopter and were reported to be cold, wet and hungry, but otherwise fine. While the trip itself is not particularly arduous, it does require a level of preparation and skill beyond the typical looky-loo tourist. The crux of the trip is the Teklanika River which swells considerably in warmer months with snowmelt from the surrounding mountains and presents a significant challenge to hikers seeking to cross. In fact, it was this river that ultimately sealed the fate of McCandless who crossed initially when the Teklanika was only a small stream before the melt. When he fell ill and attempted to find egress from the wilderness the river had swelled considerably and presented as impassible.

Lessons to be learned?

  • First of all, know your ability level. Carroll and his companion clearly had no backcountry skill at all. These types don't belong beyond a car-camping tent-site until they gain some knowledge and experience, let alone in the Alaska Backcountry.

  • Second, dress for conditions. Cotton = Death. While synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and lycra and natural fibers such as wool continue to insulate when wet, cotton actually pulls warmth from your body when wet. This can occur even from perspiration. Hypothermia results from a drop in body temperature of only 3 degrees which can occur in even relatively mild conditions. Don't wear cotton (jeans, t-shirts, socks), even on a dayhike. The best bet is to dress in layers and add or remove layers as needed to prevent chill or sweating. Base-layer + insulating layer + outer shell (weatherproof) is the best formula for success (hey, its what the Navy Seals use!)

  • Protect your feet. According to reports, Carroll was wearing tennis shoes with plastic bags covering them for the 22-mile trek in wet conditions. During my 7-month AT thru-hike I learned repeatedly that there are times that there's nothing you can do about wet feet - it happens. Even Gore-Tex footwear gets wet. The key is to dry your feet out when you can and don't let them stay wet. Bring at least one change of socks and let your feet dry out in camp at the very least. Wet feet can draw heat from your core quickly, not to mention how quickly wet skin gets damaged while supporting a load over miles of rough trail.

  • Put gas in your tank. Bring adequate food and make sure that it includes carbs for instant energy, fat for stored fuel and protein for building and repairing muscle. One great ultralight and effective diet plan is one developed by Epic Adventurer Andrew Skurka for his 6,875 mile Great Western Loop (click for details).

Perhaps the most pathetic detail about this story is that this is not the first rescue for Mr. Carroll in Alaska....THIS SUMMER! In June he texted Rangers (yes, hes wa that close to civilization) for rescue after getting soaked while hiking near Mt Healy in blue Jeans and a Sweatshirt. The Stampede Trail requires no permit nor special arrangements for Backcountry Travel, so this will likely not be the last rescue story from the "Magic Bus." I personally think these people should be charged for the Search and Rescue effort including use of the helicopter. People who are reckless in the backcountry endanger not only themselves, but the professionals and volunteers that have to save them. Carroll has been warned by Alaska Rangers that if he's spotted hiking in Alaska again that he will be arrested. Sounds fair to me. Hike safe and happy trails.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Gettin' Loopy in Shenandoah: Rocky Top to Big Run

In the Southwestern section of Shenandoah National Park is a seldom-travelled loop hike that offers an incredible sampling of what the park has to offer (wildlife, rocky ridges, trout steams, lush forested valleys) without the crowds and traffic that can take the "wild" out of the Shenandoah wilderness.
This 14-mile loop begins and ends at the Brown's Gap Parking at Mile 82 on Skyline Drive. From there it follows the yellow-blazed Big Run Loop Trail for 1/2 mile to its intersection with the blue-blazed Rocky Top Trail (left). From here its approximately 5 1/2 miles of ridgeline before dropping steeply into the lush valley created by Big Run and a righthand turn onto the yellow-blazed Big Run Trail. Along this ridgeline section keep your eyes peeled for the numerous inhabitants of the park. We saw lizards (fence swifts), whitetail deer, black bear and timber rattlesnakes in this section, the latter of which can be a VERY unpleasant surprise if you're not paying attention.

Pack plenty of water as this ridgewalk offers none, but we did find a veritable bounty of ripe blueberries and blackberries (mid-August). Some of the terrain here is rugged and rocky due to an intense fire that burned this ridge in 1986 and apparently damage topsoil to such a degree that parts of this forest have yet to begin to recover. Other sections of the ridge have fully recovered and host a mature canopy with ample shade while still others have slowly begun to re-establish vegetation with low-shrubs and young trees. The result is an ever-changing canvas complete with fern-carpeted tree-tunnels as well as open rocky vistas. The descent to Big Run is a long, rocky traverse (1400 vertical feet) that is exposed to afternoon sun and gets hot in the warmer months and can make for sore feet by the time you reach the water.

Approximately 1/2 mile after turning right onto the yellow-blazed Big Run Trail is the only bridge on the trip and the intersection with the blue-blazed Brown Mountain Trail. Primitive campsites of varying sizes can be found up and down the streambank here with the larger spots located downstream from the intersection.

The next day is as dark, cool, and wet as the previous day was exposed, hot, and dry. Build time into your itinerary to fish (VA fishing license required - Creel limit is 6 trout over 9 inches), swim, and explore this area. At one point I bushwhacked up a ridge and sat quietly on a rock to observe the forest away from the trail. Within 45 minutes I was treated to a yearling male black bear who passed less than 50 feet in front of me while foraging on insects under rocks, hickory nuts, acorns and pecans. There is so much wildlife in Shenandoah that on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike I saw 5 bears in one 2-hour period one morning. Taking some time to sit quietly, watch and listen can yield some huge payoffs.

The trail crosses Big run a total of 8 times on its gentle climb to the intersection with the Big Run Loop Trail. Ample primitive camping opportunities exist within 1/2 mile of this intersection and an epic fishing hole (approximately 50 brook and rainbow trout with about 1/3 over the keeper size) at the second ford after Patterson Ridge Trail splits left from the main trail.

The final two miles is a steep climb on the Big Run Loop Trail (Yellow Blazed to the right) back to the original intersection with the Rocky Top Trail (straight) and back to the parking lot via Big Run Loop.

Entrance to Shenandoah National Park requires a $15 dollar per-vehicle entrance fee and is valid for 7 days. Backcountry camping requires a free backcountry permit that can be obtained at entrance stations and various other sites along the Skyline Drive.

Click here for a map and vertical profile from

Monday, August 10, 2009

Repel Mosquitoes Without Repelling Brain Cells

Its summer time and if you’ve been hiking, camping, or outdoors at all this year, chances are you’ve run into some of those bloodsucking wee beasties that are the bane of many an outdoor adventure: mosquitoes. For most people choice of repellant is a no-brainer: you pick up some spray or lotion containing DEET (N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), slather it on and fuhgeddaboudit. However, this no-brainer may actually be pushing you towards actually becoming a “no-brainer” by causing lasting cognitive deficits by damaging neurons in some key areas of the brain.

According to The Duke University Medical Center News Office, studies have shown that use of DEET can result in brain cell loss and significantly impaired performance in tasks involving muscle control, coordination and strength. In addition, research shows evidence of significant neuron degradation in areas of the brain controlling movement, focus, learning, and retaining information. One disputed demonstration of the risks of prolonged DEET use is the so-called “Gulf War Syndrome” suffered by veterans returning from military service in the “Desert Storm” campaign. Standard issue for soldiers in this campaign was a 75% DEET insect repellant. The symptoms reported by some soldiers are consistent with those effects found in studies on long-term exposure to DEET.

Researchers caution that the potential effects of long-term exposure to DEET include breathing problems, sluggishness, pain in the joints and muscles, loss of memory, headache, muscle weakness and shakiness. Risk of these effects seems to be amplified when DEET is paired with some types of medication (including OTC) and other pesticides (such as permethrin). Researchers urge limited exposure for adults and strongly discourage use of DEET on children.
The good news is that there is an extremely effective alternative that is plant-based, natural and carries no risk of melting your brain: Lemon Eucalyptus Oil. Of the three active repellant ingredients approved by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as effective against mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus (DEET, Picaridin, and Lemon Eucalyptus), Lemon Eucalyptus is the only one that is plant-based and natural.

I can hear the skeptics mumbling now, “Great, Tree-Hugger, I’m not going to donate a pint of blood on my next trip just so I can be Earthy and Natural…”, but this stuff really works! Science, Semi-Science, and Not Even Close to Science Personal Anecdotes follow:
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, M.S. Fradin and J.F. Day showed the average time of protection for Lemon-Eucalyptus Oil base repellant to be 120 minutes with a maximum of 317 minutes. This is compared to an average result of 302 minutes for a 23.8% DEET product.

In June 2007, Backpacker Magazine published a repellant comparison using the same “arm-in-cage” technique as the NEJM study (its semi-science because the only used one tester (victim) in the study). In this test, the Lemon Eucalyptus lasted 240 minutes before the first bite, out-performing the 30% DEET product by a full hour! While two concentrations of DEET above 30% (34.4% and 100%) outperformed the Lemon Eucalyptus, it also melts plastic and brains.

Not Even Close to Science Personal Anecdote
In July 2008 Steve Howe and I spent 8 days on a thru-hike of Utah’s Uinta Highline Trail. An excellent repellent testing ground, the High Uintas provided the backdrop for an informal repellent face-off between Steve’s DEET and my Lemon Eucalyptus (which Steve slandered on night one). The results? I win. Seriously though, while the skeeters were ever-present, barring the wind-ripped high passes, I had no problems with bites while fishing alpine lakes or meandering mucky moose marshes. I did, however, out of sheer laziness, borrow Steve’s DEET on our final night out. While I did not suffer any bites, I did wake up with an extremely swollen and painful left eyeball, complete with gory broken blood vessel giving the effect of an ocular stab-wound. (again, it melts plastic and brain cells).

In addition to not making your brain or tent melt, Lemon Eucalyptus Oil actually makes stinky hikers smell better and is derived from a natural, renewable resource (see my blog on the trees in the Smokies for why that’s a good thing). Its also lacks the greasy feeling that other repellants, lotions, and balms can have). Lemon Eucalyptus Oil is currently available in a repellant produced by Repel (who is not reimbursing me in any way (but I’m open to offers)) and comes in a 4oz pump-spray bottle for a MSRP of $7.25. Seems like a no-brainer to me...

Top Picture Public Domain. Fishing Picture (c) Steve Howe, All other (c) Peter Rives including the one of a skeeter biting my leg (dedication!)

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