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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wish Uwharrie Here


The Range:

Located in the otherwise flat central Piedmont of North Carolina, the Uwharrie Mountains are one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America. Geologists estimate that the Uwharries once topped out around 20,000 feet, but erosion, at work since the volcanic origin of the range over 500 million years ago, has worn it down to a tiny fraction of those heights. Currently, the high point of this ancient range is only 1,119 feet above sea level, with most of the range standing between 300 feet and 900 feet high. At the time of their creation, The Uwharries once defined a portion of the eastern seaboard, but a slow, gradual rise east of the range has moved the Atlantic shore more than 150 miles over time. The smallest of the 4 National Forests in NC at 50,000 acres, the land was originally purchased by the Federal government in 1931 and dubbed the Uwharrie Reservation before being designated a National Forest by JFK 30 years later. The first fame for this range came as early as 1802 when it was discovered that a rock being used as a doorstop was actually as 17lb gold nugget found 3 years earlier in a mine in the Uwharries, Reed’s Mine. The discovery led to the nation’s first gold rush.

The Challenge:

This February 18th marks the 6th anniversary of the start of my Appalachian Trail Thru-hike. While I’ve remained a very active hiker in the years following, I had not done any thru-hike caliber mileage since. My goal for this trip was to see if I still had it in me by attempting to cover 42 miles in under 48 hours.

Day 1: Surprises – Pleasant and unpleasant

I left my car at the Jumping Off Rock trailhead on SR1306 at 3:45pm heading south on the Uwharrie Trail. Immediately I was pleasantly surprised. The terrain was rugged, steep and rocky and through the leafless trees I could see ridgelines extending in all directions. The forest was almost exclusively hardwoods in this northern section, and, apart from the marked absence of Rhododendron closely resembled the Appalachian Blue Ridge to the west. This first day I saw no one. I hiked in complete silence and solitude for an hour and a half, covering around 3.5 miles before setting up camp atop an unnamed wooded dome that would provide open views of both sunset and sunrise.

The sunset was spectacular and seemed to be an omen of good things to come. As I watched the sun go down I built a small fire, cooked some dinner and listened to enthusiastic coyotes celebrate the unusually warm night.


With the sun gone I turned my gaze skyward where the stars were out in force – the coyotes evidently enjoyed this too. Soon though, the coyotes’ song was drowned out by a slow, methodical, heavy crunch of footfall on dry leaves coming from the southeast. There were only two possibilities given the weight and stride: bear or man. I was alone and it was very dark, my only protection a 3.5” blade and a trekking pole. I sincerely hoped it was a bear since any human out this far, with no light, walking directly into my camp could mean no good. If it was a bear though, it was a big bear, and given that I was directly downwind, he may not know I was there at all. Without the benefit of wind, this bear’s primary sense would be returning a subtle blend worth checking into: stroganoff and campfire.

The official Forest Service signage would suggest that it was not a bear. Both at trailheads and online, bears are absent from the list of resident species and nowhere are there cautions regarding safe food storage while camping in the backcountry. I knew that black bears ranged the entirety of North Carolina, even occasionally passing through the cities of the central Piedmont as had happened this past summer with tragic consequences (Click to see Blog Post).

Whatever the source of the crunch, it was getting very close and coming directly at my camp. I turned to face the intruder and simultaneously turned on my headlamp and shouted. Fifteen yards from me was a large black bear standing on his hind legs (presumably to get a better sniff). He dropped quickly to all-fours and retreated a few yards, gave a look back and then continued back in the direction from which he had come. Needless to say, the next thing I did was hang my food.

Day 2: The long haul

The night was uneventful after the departure of my interloping friend and the morning was warm and dry with a sunrise even more spectacular than the sunset the night before. After coffee I set off for my first 20-mile day in 6 years. My load was heavier than I would have liked it for this type of mileage due to some test gear that I was carrying, but the lack of prolonged ascents or descents in Uwharrie made 30 lbs very manageable.

The terrain here is characterized by rolling ups and downs and wide open hardwood forests peppered with worn granite and quartz. While water was scarce along the first 4 northernmost miles, Day 2 brought numerous creek crossings. Occasionally the hardwood forest gave way to tall white pine stands, but common to both was a complete absence of underbrush. The result is a relatively unobstructed view deep into the forest in all directions.


Despite the clear views there was a marked lack of animal presence in the forest. Thanks to a sign at trailhead I did not have to wonder long for the reason: hunting season is November 7th – January 1st. Apart from my visitor last night it would appear that everything else with fur had been either blasted or scared out of these woods in the preceding months. Anyone planning a hike in Uwharrie during hunting season should wear plenty of blaze orange and use extreme caution. The best times to visit is early fall, winter, and spring. Summer temps and humidity are oppressive in this area and bring with them an abundance of parasites, especially mosquitoes and ticks.

I maintained a steady 3mph pace as I crossed over Hwy 109 which bi-sects the Uwharrie Trail. I had the trail largely to myself with the exception of 2 parties of fellow backpackers and a handful of trail-runners. The terrain here lends itself perfectly to trail-running and the forest is the site of an annual 8, 20, and 40 mile race.


Miles 10-14 are very mellow rolling hills while the remaining 6 miles of the Uwharrie Trail offer relatively more dramatic ups and downs (although the biggest elevation change is a modest 400 feet). The southern terminus of the Uwharrie trail is Hwy 24/27 where I crossed the parking area to join the Dutchman’s Creek Trail which would loop me out to the east before returning me to the Uwharrie Trail after 6 miles.


Several miles into the Dutchman’s Creek Trail I came across more evidence of bear activity some 15 miles south of where I’d camped the night before. Here the leaves had been mowed through in a five foot wide swath meandering through the woods. The prevalence of mature oak trees here provide an abundance of acorns for a variety of foraging animals. Sure did seem to be a lot of bears there for a forest with no bears in it.


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I made it 5 miles into the Dutchman’s Creek Trail before settling on a campsite on another hilltop with panoramic views through the trees. One thing that’s great about Uwharrie is that because of the lack of undergrowth, backcountry campsites are practically infinite. You can close your eyes and throw your pack anywhere and chances are that where it lands will be a viable spot for a tent. My weather luck turned at dusk as heavy rain begins to fall so I settled into the tent and brewed up a pot of cheddar noodles with hot sauce and a cup of hot, spiced apple cider. With 17 miles of Uwharrie Trail and 5 miles of Dutchman’s Creek I had covered 22 miles with a 30lb pack on day 2 and feel surprisingly good. On the final day 16.5 miles would return me to the northern terminus.

Day 3: Overflows and blowouts

The rain continued all night, but graciously stopped soon after my coffee was brewed, so I quickly packed up camp and headed north. Immediately the effects of the night’s rain were evident as small streams became rushing torrents and mud holes became flooded valleys. The rain resumed shortly after I started walking and would continue to turn on and off throughout the day. Soon I rejoined the Uwharrie Trail headed north (Note: Dutchman’s Creek continues an additional 5 miles to the west and east from the first junction with the Uwharrie Trail to form a figure 8. I opted not to take the final 5 mile leg, of the DCT this trip.).

Due to a combination of the dampness from steady rains and stream crossings, the 22-mile pounding of the previous day and the relative infrequency with which I get out on the trail, my feet began to fail on me. I treated emerging hot spots with duct tape reinforcements, but it was not enough. By the time I reached the site of my first nights camp monster blisters were already well established on 8 of my toes and both heels and some were starting to break. The final 3 mile push was through seething pain from my right foot where my pinky toe had been mangled beyond recognition. Cresting the gap on the shoulder of Dark Mountain I made the final downhill push to the trailhead to finish the 42-mile trek in just under 47 hours. Not bad in mid-January where days are short and 28 of those hours were dark and spent in camp.

Overall, Uwharrie National Forest was a very pleasant surprise. For years I had put off visiting this area which is practically in my backyard, having written it off for low altitude and proximity to population. What I found though was a very accessible and easily traveled stretch of wilderness with great character and ample opportunity for solitude. Variations on backpacking trips abound with shuttle options from 8-21.5 miles in length, loops from 6-20 miles in length and others such as my 42-mile lollipop trip that could easily be expanded by 4 miles by adding in the rest of Dutchman’s Creek.

I did call the Ranger’s office to report my bear sighting and to recommend addition of bears and the relevant food storage precautions to the signage at the trailheads. Although the staff that I spoke with were all very excited that I’d seen a bear, they seemed to miss the part about it heading straight into my camp where I'd not hung my food due to lack of warning and I didn’t much get the impression it would result in any changes in practice. As for my feet, I limped around for a few days, but a week later I’m all healed although my toes are considerably uglier. Good to know that my 6 years of couch-surfing haven’t completely decimated my long-distance hiking legs.

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The Hike: Starting from the Jumping Off Rock Trailhead at SR1306 hike south on the Uwharrie Recreation Trail (white blazes) to its southern terminus at hwy 24/27. Cross the parking lot and join the Dutchman’s Creek Trail (yellow blazes) for 6 miles (as reported) or 11 miles to intersect with the Uwharrie Recreation Trail (URT and DCT intersect at both intervals). Turn north and backtrack to SR1306.

To the Trailhead: From Interstate 73/74 in North Carolina take exit #51 for Dawson Miller Rd. Head west on Dawson Miller Rd and take the first left onto Hwy 134 south. After 9.5 miles turn right onto Abner Rd. Turn left onto Flint Hill Rd/SR1306 and follow to the trailhead parking on the left.

Ranger Contact: Uwharrie National Forest, 789 Hwy. 24/27 E., Troy, NC 27371-9332; (910) 576-6391

Maps: Gemini Maps' Uwharrie National Forest Map ($3.50) 910-461-5216; the National Forest Ranger’s Office in Troy (above) sells a map of the Uwharrie Trail for $4; or a combination of the Troy, Lovejoy and Morrow Mountain USGS quad maps cover the area.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sleep Tight, Sleep Light: Sleeping Pad Analysis


Few pieces of gear can determine the success of a backcountry trip like a sleeping pad. Sure if its just an overnighter you can endure anything, but being cold, uncomfortable and sleepless will make a big impact on your morale quickly. I've been in search of the right pad for a long time now and I'm sure I'm not alone. The goals? Find a pad that maximizes comfort and insulation while minimizing weight and bulk. Cost is a concern, but if the right pad comes along, the value of good sleep in the woods clearly justifies a one-time investment.

Origins:

Like a lot of people I started my outdoor sleeping on a closed cell foam pad - specifically a RidgeRest by Cascade Designs.

Practically unbeatable in the categories of insulation (R-value is 2.6), price (only $19.95 for a short), and weight (9 oz for a short). The drawback to this system is primarily in the area of bulk. The smallest you're going to get one of these things compressed is 20"x6.5". This means that the pad must either be lashed to the outside of your pack or used as a pack liner if your pack is deep enough and you have the room to spare.

Comfort is another concern as 5/8 inch of foam is not going to offer a cushy sleeping platform, but the difference between the comfort of a closed cell pad and a lightweight self-inflator is negligible. while there are other options in the closed cell category including blue-foam pads (a little cheaper), Z-Lite (a little more expensive) and others, they all share these pros and cons.

Despite the bulk, I have returned again and again to the closed cell pad. Mostly because of the weight savings, but also because of the added insulation and the negligible difference in comfort from self-inflators. If something could match the closed cell foam in weight and insulation but fit nicely in my pack and offer additional cushion I'd be sold - hold that thought.


The Self-Inflator Era:

Next in my gear evolution came the Thermarest. I had an old 3/4 length "lightweight" self-inflator which I used happily for about 3 years until it completely delaminated on the AT and became a giant, purple, oblong balloon. Most recently I've been using the short length Thermarest ProLite3.

This one is a clear winner in the bulk category as it packs down to the size of a standard water bottle (3.4"x11"). It is slightly more comfortable than a closed cell foam pad at a thickness of 1", and gives up a little in warmth (R-value of 2.2).


Weight is the area where the self-inflator slips against the closed cell foam pad. For comparable length pads, the ultralight self-inflator is nearly 50% heavier than its foam counterpart (13oz for the short length (*newest model cuts this by 2 oz to 11oz)). While a few ounces is not all that much on it's own, it adds up. A few ounces here and a few ounces there there and pretty soon you're carrying a 50lb pack for a 2 day trip. There have been other attempts in the self-inflator category, but none have done anything remarkable in terms of saving weight.

Another consideration is that while a self-inflator can puncture, a foam pad cannot. A patch kit weighs about nothing, but when a fellow trail shelter occupant flings a glob of flaming, molten plasticware on your pad and melts a hole the size of a soda can in your pad on a night when the temps drop to single digits, you'll wish you had foam (yes, it happened).

Finally, a self-inflator costs considerably more than a foam pad - like 3-5 times more.

The Air Mattress Revolution:

Big Agnes broke the two-way sleeping pad race open when they introduced the Air-Core and Insulated Air-Core pads. These pads promised comfort on a whole new level with a full 2.5" of thickness!

The Air-Core offers similar compressibility to the ProLite3, and a bunch of comfort for just $44 for the short. The trade-offs come in the insulation (R-value is 1, summer use only) and in weight (16oz for the short).

The Insulated Air-Core adds a layer of Primaloft synthetic insulation to the Air-Core to bump the R-value up to an impressive 4.1 - good enough to fully insulate from temps as low as 15 degrees (F). Compressibility and comfort are still superb, but the wight jumps to 18oz and the price creeps up to the $79 of the Prolite3.

Other companies also have introduced variations on the air mattress including Pacific Outdoor, but weight remains an issue.

Enter the Thermarest NeoAir. At 2.5" thick it's got the comfort of an air mattress. With an R-value of 2.5 it insulates as well as a closed cell foam pad. Compressibility reaches an all-time high with a packed size of only 9"x 3.3" (small). And weight is equal to that of a comparably-sized foam pad at a mere 9oz. With a $119 price tag (small) the investment is significant, but for me the combination of benefits far outweigh the one-time investment. The only other concern is vulnerability to puncture. Patch kits are available and weigh next to nothing, but initial reports on durability seem to indicate that these things aren't as brittle as they might appear. When I'm hiking, I'm totally unaware that my NeoAir is in my pack, but when I lay down for the night it becomes the most fantastic and important piece of gear I own.











Pad Sizing:

You may have noticed that nearly every pad I've mentioned in here is a short pad. I'm 6' 2" tall, so it's not a matter of matching my height. Rather, I have always found that it makes much more sense to me to put my pack under my legs at night to insulate and pad them from the ground rather than add another 30%-50% in weight only to have to shove my pack somewhere else in the tent anyway. This may make more sense for men than women since the concentration of weight for men is at the top (shoulders) whereas most women are heavier in the middle (hips). However, it's simply a matter of preference and an easy way I've found to trim another few ounces off my load.

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Happy hiking and sweet dreams.

Photos 3&4 (c)2008 Steve Howe

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