Solo Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner Weekend #1, Kent to Cornwall, CT

Last weekend was my first solo ridgerunner weekend of the season.  It was full of wildflowers and wildlife. This includes bald eagles, deer, frogs, mean-looking spiders (including one IN my tent!), hummingbirds, scarlet tanagers, robins (and robins’ eggs), fleabane, bamboo, violets, thistle, clover, the rare pink lady slipper, and buttercups. These are just a small fraction of what’s out there to see on the trail in June. I met lots of day, section and thru-hikers, boy scouts, paddlers on the river, and enjoyed a warm, beautiful weekend one of my favorite sections and favorite campsites on the Connecticut section. I was feeling a little under the weather from a cold, so I took it easy and picked this mostly easy section so I wouldn’t over exert myself when slightly compromised. But the fresh air and exercise did it’s magic.

I saw a few of the thru-hikers we’re following on YouTube in the trail register at one of the shelters which was cool, too bad I missed them. I cleared a fire ring and cut a blowdown with my new saw, the Silky Big Boy 2000, which made quick work of it.

I did a sketch at the campsite, and wrote two nature poems. I’m no Thoreau but I think they’re decent and it was fun. I composed them while walking and wrote them down in my journal when I took a break. I want to try and do at least one sketch and one poem each time I’m out there, besides just my usual trail reports and personal journals.

It was supposed to rain but other than a drop, it never came, which I can’t complain about. One of these days I’ll get to wear my rain kilt so I can do my best Outlander impression! I sat at a rock bench in front of an old Indian marker tree, which filled my heart and mind with history and reflection.

I heard owls chatter all night at the campsite, including one moment when I could swear they were laughing! As always, a great weekend. I will be out again in 6 days for weekend #2, as the thru-hiker bubble is moving in now, and I am eager to see the mountain laurels reaching full bloom — probably my favorite sight on the trail. Photos below.

Miles day 1: 6.2

Miles day 2: 6.2

— Linus

Misty morning along Liner's Farm-no filter

Misty morning along Liner’s Farm-no filter

Frog on the trail

Frog on the trail

The deck and porch swing at Pine Swamp Brook Shelter

The deck and porch swing at Silver Hill

Pink Lady Slipper

Pink Lady Slipper

Paddlers on the Housatonic

Paddlers on the Housatonic

Name that flower

Name that flower

Brook emptying into the Housatonic

Brook emptying into the Housatonic

Fleabane

Fleabane

Robins Egg

Robin Egg

Trail maintenance and a little Appalachian Trail history

Housatonic River

Housatonic River

If you’re reading my blog regularly you know by now I am a volunteer for my local Connecticut Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, who are responsible for maintaining the section of the Appalachian Trail in our state. For those of you who don’t, I do a job very similar to the seasonal ridge runners employed by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and state maintaining clubs.

I believe it is the Berkshire AMC chapter in southern Massachusetts that hires the ridge runners for these two states. You can apply online to do this role in your region each year at the ATC website. If you get the gig, you are paid to be out there for around 5 days at a time, and off a few days for the duration of the season, something like April to October. You go back and forth along assigned sections of trail, interacting with and assisting hikers along the way. The only main difference in my role is I am out there when I can be or when occasionally asked to be at a peak time, and I’m not usually paid for it unless I am called up for these specific times. I’m pretty new on the job so this summer is when that will likely be the case for me for the first time. And pay or no pay that’s ok by me. I’m just happy to be out there giving back and taking care of the trail while doing something I love.

Fun Scrambles

Fun Scrambles

And as much as getting paid to do this all season long sounds like a dream to me, as a parent and full time employee of a marketing company, this is what works for me at the moment. Maybe one day I can work full time for the ATC. In the meantime, this role and my hikes with my family keep me happy on the trails. (See what I did there?)  The job also includes some manageable trail cleanup, campsite cleanup (including official sites and stealth sites), leave no trace education, and reporting any larger issues to the organization that are out of the scope of my responsibilities or abilities. You may also know from reading this blog that I also join the AMC for work parties on other state trails besides the A.T. when I am able.

So last Sunday I was back up on the A.T. to do some of my trail volunteer work. Despite being early February, El Nino has made for an unseasonably warm winter with little snow to date save for one blizzard (though it is currently snowing as I post this). It was in the high 30s by 9am and warming up quickly to the high 40s on this clear, beautiful day. Though I didn’t end up running into any hikers on this section of trail, just folks walking their dog or going for a walk/run on the flat river portion which begins just south of my starting point. I did my training on that section and another day walking the section from the state line to Bull’s Bridge recently, so I thought I’d pick a different area, and one with a camp site I haven’t visited recently.

Arriving at the camp site

Arriving at the camp site

I made note of blowdowns (fallen trees obstructing the trail) as I ascended up to Silver Hill campsite. This also happens to be the campsite Fielden Stream and I spent our first night on the trail together. And t’s a great one, about 800 feet up the side of the mountain, and complete with covered pavilion, deck, porch swing, water pump, and a new mouldering privy. There used to be a cabin where the deck and swing are, but that was burned down accidentally by some careless campers in the late 90s. The deck is all that remains and at some point the swing was added. I don’t know if the covered pavilion was there at the same time but it would make sense.  The campsite is only about a mile in either direction from a road and is easily accessible other than a bit of uphill hiking.

The deck & swing

The deck & swing

I enjoyed doing this section of trail again, even though it was short, and didn’t recall it being as much uphill as it was. There were a few spots where minor scrambling were required and I was proud of us for having done that on our first backpacking trip together, fully loaded up with heavy gear.

I stopped in to the campsite and cleaned up a fire ring, or should I say a fire site, because they didn’t even bother to put rocks around it! The ATC and AMC crews had recently downed a large evergreen that was a hiker risk, and the remnants were still there as the cleanup process was not yet complete. So unfortunately it made for easy firewood.

Silver Hill Pavillion

Silver Hill Pavillion

I also swept the privy and then checked for other campfire spots before sitting down to sign the register and try out my new MSR Micro Rocket stove and Toaks titanium cook kit — finally. I forgot the little peizo lighter the stove came with, but I had a mini Bic and matches along, and I was thrilled to be using it for the first time. It’s an even more compact version of the Pocket Rocket and fits perfectly in my new cook kit, allowing the lid to close fully. Ahhh, OCD. My original Pocket Rocket stove still works great and will be a great backup or loaner for friends hitting the trail with us that don’t want to make the investment for a one-time outing or the rare trip.

Coffee Break with the new stove

Coffee Break with the new stove

I had my Starbucks Via coffee and Tic-Tac container of powdered creamer and sugar (the backpackers spice and condiment hack!) and really enjoyed having the time to make a hot beverage. My only oversight was I forgot my homemade windscreen and since it was windy, efficiency on the stove fuel was compromised and I will need a new canister soon. Not to worry, as I was just out for the morning and any chance to use my backpacking gear is a good time. The stove performed exactly as its big brother, so it was familiar while being new and more streamlined. What a great product, in both cases. I then enjoyed my coffee on the swing before heading up the trail for one more ascent.

My down jacket being overkill, I wore my Patagonia Houdini wind shirt this time with a synthetic long sleeved base layer and an REI safari tech shirt (my ‘uniform’ shirt) and was plenty warm, even to the point of shedding the Houdini early on the climb. It is probably my favorite piece of gear I own. While not entirely waterproof it has a good DWR coating and I haven’t soaked through in it yet, either from rain or perspiration. It breathes despite not being ventilated so it keeps warmth in but doesn’t boil you from the inside out. And at 5oz, you can’t go wrong bringing it even if you never use it.

Camp fire cleanup

Camp fire cleanup

Besides I did some research over the last few days and almost everyone says you shouldn’t long distance hike in down (especially with a pack on that prevents room for air to travel between) but instead use it for a layer in camp after you’ve shed your pack and are not moving and generating excess heat and perspiration which can then cause moisture and freeze. I can certainly attest to this moisture accumulation on the last few hikes. It’s just too warm and wets with sweat too easy. I suppose your mileage may vary but I’m pretty warm-blooded. And over long periods of time this could become a safety risk as cold + wet = hypothermia danger. Synthetic is a better choice for this application. You could probably get away with skiing and snowboarding in a down coat as long as its got a waterproof coating and you’re not carrying a backpack. So that question has been answered for the time being. And I can layer either my Houdini or fully waterproof raincoat with my fleece and wool or synthetic base layers to achieve the warmth I need and shed them accordingly to avoid overheating.

Exped Trekking Poles

Exped Trekking Poles

I also got to try my new Exped trekking poles. These things are super light, and highly collapsible, which is great when every ounce counts. I guess my only negative feedback was they popped into the unlocked position a few times during use, and particularly when I was bearing weight down on them. This makes me think either I’m not using them right or they’re not strong enough to handle the weight of my body when using them to support it without disengaging, While it was only inconvenient on this hike, it could become downright dangerous. I’m going to reach out to the company to make sure that this isn’t a defective pair. Light and compact is great, if they do as good a job for me as my current REI Traverse poles or other more stout models.

The ridges of the Mohawk Trail to the East

The ridges of the Mohawk Trail to the East

On the hike I enjoyed extended views we did not have on that first overnight due to there being no leaf cover this time except for evergreens and the occasional Beech. I had great vistas almost 360 degrees around from the ridges.

The descent down to the road was on the steeper side, and with the heavy leaf cover I opted to walk back on the roads rather than reverse and retrace my steps when I reached the trailhead. While I prefer trail over blacktop any day, I had done what I came here to do, had a time restraint, and I felt there was no need to re-traverse rock scrambles on slippery leaves when I had an alternate, safer option. Though one could argue which is worse, slippery leaves and slick rocks or a mile walk on Rt 4, where cars heading to and from New York seem to maintain a 75mph average speed! Fortunately the second mile was alongside the Housatonic on the portion of River Road that is still paved, yet only used by residents. Along this road walk I could see part of the old town of Cornwall — it’s old church, historic homes and train stations — across the river, now nearly invisible from the modern bridge above which connects Rt 4 and Rt 7.

The rocky descent North to Rt 4

The rocky descent North to Rt 4

I passed many gorgeous country homes I would happily retire in, and disturbed a large family of blue jays along the walk back to my car. I made a detour to the stunning Kent Falls State Park on the drive back, to take in the beauty of the frozen cascade, and without having to pay the park entrance fee as it was the off-season. The A.T. in Connecticut at it’s earliest route passed behind the falls on its way north.

I got the 1968 Connecticut trail guide I ordered from a rare book store in the mail the other day, and while it didn’t have this 1930’s original route behind the falls (a massive hurricane in the 30s washed out the bridge once near my starting point and forced a reroute over Silver Hill),  it did have the later original route east of the river from Rt 4 in Cornwall over Mohawk, Red and Barrack Mountains. This route is now known as the Mohawk Trail. In a similar turn of events, a serious case of bad weather — this time tornadoes —felled the famous Cathedral Pines on this section in 1988. And at that time, with local residents also worried about the implications of what a now federally-protected trail would mean for their land ownership, the trail was re-routed west of the River from Route 4 to the Great Falls in Falls Village.

An icy Kent Falls

An icy Kent Falls

The book also includes the original trail route through Macedonia Brook State Park (see my last post) in Kent which took a large circular swing out of the way for the epic views I showed in that post all the way to the Taconics and Catskills. Apparently there was also a lean-to on Pine Hill. What a spot for it. I wish I had this book a week earlier — I would have looked for the location of the old lean-to. Oh, and that first southern section over Ten Mile Hill in Sherman to Bulls Bridge in Kent? Not on the original trail. I am still trying to find out when they re-routed that amazing section.

For a map geek like me, seeing this old map was like finding dinosaur bones on an archaeological dig or a pirate’s treasure map. It’s my favorite new book. I am hoping to find an even older guide or at least a map from that very first route from the mid-1930s.

Total Miles: 4.5

— Linus

Pine Knob Loop Family Hike and Camping

Jiffy pop! (the original)

Jiffy pop! (the original)

For the fourth of July my younger brother and his 2 boys flew in from California and my older brother joined us as well. We had a great hike and 2 days of car-camping by the Housatonic River at a favorite campground, Housatonic Meadows S.P.   My daughter also came along which made her dad very happy! We’ve been there a few times now and knowing the layout we picked two great sites right by the water. The forecast (except for the first hour or so) was looking great all along, so with a good deal of planning logistics, meals, and a stop or two at REI to pick up some last minute needs we were ready (this was our first outing with such a large group).

Crossing Hatch Brook

Crossing Hatch Brook

Speaking of planning… while airing out and checking the tents for all parts, I discovered my one-man tent I intended my older brother to use had suffered some pretty serious mildew buildup on the rainfly over the winter (fortunately the tent and footprint were not affected as they are made of different materials). This happened because like an idiot I didn’t properly dry it out before packing it up after a rainy solo overnight last October. Lesson learned.

Hatch Brook Cascade

Hatch Brook Cascade

So, like any good gear-addict, I used the opportunity to upgrade to a new Big Agnes 3-person Mountain-glo Rattlesnake tent and let him use our trusty REI Passage 2 which was roomier anyway! We both benefitted from this mistake I guess! And, the good folks at Easton Outfitters were very generous when I told them about my amateur mistake and asked if I could buy just the fly, and are sending me a free one they had on hand for just the cost of shipping. That right there is great customer service!

We are taking my son “Jiffy Pop” backpacking for the first time next weekend, and the idea of two tents, and someone having to sleep alone didn’t appeal much either so the three-person ultralight tent was a good buy for this reason as well. And REI was having a July 4th sale, so I got that $400 tent for $278! It has built-in lights so we don’t need to bring our lamp, and it weighs less than our Passage 2.

Baconator, Linus, and Caboose

Baconator, Linus, and Caboose

I am fine with making a wise investment like that with so many reasons to have, and knowing that I bought a more budget-friendly tent to start out with 2 years ago to make sure this was a hobby that would stick. It will mean more room and hence more comfortable trips for my wife and i going forward, and a spare tent for when friends or family who don’t own one want to join us on the trail.

Despite arriving at the campground in a bit of a steady rain, it stopped once ponchos were donned to set up the tents. From then on out it was beautiful weather. We had some great meals made over the fire, ghost stories, an exciting incident at the next campsite between the park rangers and some campers lighting off illegal fireworks, and met a thru-hiker (trail name “Airborne”)  who’s a 65-year-old Vietnam vet. Despite having a laundry list of ailments, none have stopped him from making the 2,100+ mile trek.

View from Pine Knob

View from Pine Knob

I have utter admiration for this man and we treated him to a steak and potato dinner and fresh cobbler made by my wife and daughter who opted for the you-pick-it farm instead of the hike Sunday. He showed us some photos from his hike so far and we shared our A.T. stories. I gave him the rest of our water too when we left Monday morning and wished him well on his adventure.  I’m not gonna lie, I was jealous too. He started Feb 27. We had wanted to return trail magic for quite some time and I can’t think of anyone more deserving.

We had a great hike on Pine Knob Loop on Sunday. Pine Knob loop is a 3-mile blue-blazed trail managed by the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association and shares just under a mile with the A.T.  It starts with a beautiful 800ft climb along Hatch Brook then heads north on the A.T. to one of the better views on the CT section before parting with the white blazes for Pine Knob Itself, which has equally breathtaking views. Though this is my second time on this loop, I forgot that it is quite steep at the top and as you descend.

Coming down Pine Knob

Coming down Pine Knob

We had a nice snack at the first viewpoint, and took a pause at the second as well.  You can also see the campsite from up there which was fun for the kids to try and spot. While there were steep spots on this hike, even the smallest of the children had no problem with it and loved it. I gave them all their first trail names: Baconator (breakfast at the campsite earned my brother this one), Bino-saur, Mr. shroom, and Caboose. I also gave them a water filtering demo in the brook with my sawyer mini.

Hiker tired!

Hiker tired!

Half of us had to go home after dinner Sunday but I took a vacation day so I could stay one more night with my son, my younger brother and his sons for one more night of campfires and the sounds of the rushing river as we dozed off in the tent. On the way home Monday we drove over the historic covered Bull’s Bridge where George Washington himself crossed and lost a horse on one journey. We also spotted the A.T. crossing at the base of Schaghticoke Mtn as we turned around to finish our journey home. All in all the weekend was a great success! I think I put the hiking bug in a few of them.

— Linus

Mohawk Trail / A.T Loop over Breadloaf with “Jiffy Pop”

FIelden Stream and Jiffy Pop

Fielden Stream and Jiffy Pop on Breadloaf Peak

This weekend we went to do a little car camping with my son at one of our favorite campgrounds along the Connecticut A.T. corridor, Housatonic Meadows State Park. The park is located along the river just north of the crossing of Rt. 4 in Cornwall Bridge, and just north of the Mohawk Trail crossing and the very popular Pine Knob Loop. It was National Trails Day on Saturday, but really the whole weekend it is celebrated. While I’ve been out on hikes on the actual day, it gets crowded, and this was proven by the full lot at our trailhead which we passed on the way to the campsite. We were happy to wait one more day as the forecast was grand for both days. Before we arrived at the campground, we stopped at the very hiker-friendly Cornwall country market for lunch from their deli and to get our A.T. passport stamped. We didn’t have one last year when we backpacked through town on a section hike and stuffed our faces with greasy sandwiches here, got some additional food and headed up this very mountain for an unplanned night further up the trail at Caesar Brook campsite. While no Silver Hill, it was fun just saying the hell with it let’s get more food and keep going!

We’ve been to this campground a few times and enjoyed a hike up Pine Knob loop already with my son. That loop also takes you up to and includes part of the A.T., great views and skirts the lovely Hatch Brook along the way. I had visited the top of Breadloaf mountain for the first time since Boy Scouts when we did that section through here last summer, and again this past January to test my microspikes and get in any hike at all when my trip to Alander was cut short due to dangerous road conditions.

Mohawk Mtn North View

Breadloaf Mtn North View

Back when I was a kid, if I am remembering correctly, this was still the A.T, but it was rerouted west of the river since and so I remember this steep climb as part of the A.T.  If memory serves, several tornadoes whipped through the area in the late 80’s ( about 5 years after my scout hike here) and did a lot of damage to the beautiful Cathedral Pines part of the trail which we day-hiked over to Mohawk Mountain last summer. This former portion of the A.T had several other famous views including from the top of Mohawk Mountain Ski resort, Music Mountain, Dean Ravine, and Barrack Mountain before it dropped you in Falls Village. Since the re-route, it’s called the Mohawk Trail, and many people still do the loop from Cornwall Bridge to Falls Village and back via the old and new routes. Many of the shelters from the old days are still on the Mohawk Trail, but hardly used.

Mini-cave on the A.T

Mini-cave on the A.T

I took my daughter last fall to hike the section between Breadloaf and Cathedral Pines which takes you over Coltsfoot Mountain and the remains of the famously haunted Dudleytown. (Google it!)

While today’s was a short hike, It starts with a 650′ rise in .6 miles from the Mohawk trail head with a quite steep climb at the very end to the summit. Though you have rewarding views from there to both the north and the Housatonic river, and south to Silver Hill and beyond.  After a snack break at the top we headed down to the A.T south and then took the blue-blaze on Old Sharon Road, for those not wishing to cross Guinea Brook. While I crossed it coming northbound on the section last year, the crossing can be treacherous as the stones continually get washed asunder or covered with the fast current, and walking down Rt. 4 is a dangerous game – people drive way too fast coming in from N.Y.  We looked down at the brook when we got to the crossing, but as usual, it was quite fast and full, and I wanted to avoid the road, for all but the last .1 mile, so this gravel road was the way back from the A.T. for us.

Jiffy Pop on the A.T

Jiffy Pop on the A.T

We have done many great day hikes with my son, and have gotten him a great new backpacking set up, and he will be joining us for New York section 4 in July. So we wanted to get his hiking legs back for that hike, as well as warm ours up for our 3 day-2 night section hike to finish CT Section 1 — the last of the Connecticut A.T for us — this Thursday. Looks like we will be greeted with the usual – rain and thunder, but I’ll take it over the office any day.

We also had the chance to give him his trail name, “Jiffy Pop.” He’s a popcorn fanatic, and nothing is more fun when car camping than some Jiffy Pop. We enjoyed some last night at the campsite, and as he hurried up the trail’s steepest segments leaving us in the dust, I thought he sure got there in a jiffy… so, a trail name is born. Can’t wait for his first backpacking adventure. He loved trying on and getting his hands on his new Thermarest Z-foam pad, his REI Passage 38 pack, Lumen sleeping bag, and his new convertible hiking pants.  He brought the whole setup to the campsite so he could get used to the feel and packing it all, even though he didn’t bring it on the trail this time. Though he did impress me with his skateboarding skills while wearing his full backpack set up!

Suunto track

Suunto track

I want to take this last moment to plug my favorite new toy in the world – my Suunto Ambit 3 sports watch. This watch carries a hefty price tag, but I had previously gotten a Garmin Oregon 600 GPS for Christmas and I traded that in towards this so I only paid $150 for a $400 top of the line GPS and activity watch. And to be honest I had no interest in uploading maps or using the Garmin for navigation, I only used it for tracking hikes to save my phone battery from GPS drain and to try a new device. I found it bulky, and more than I needed since I was always going to be on well-blazed eastern trails.

It was also always getting bumped when on my pack and re-setting the screen. If I need to see my location on a GPS map I can use my Alltrails app on my phone briefly. I wanted something where I could have one device, hit a button at the beginning, hit it at the end, and still see my basic essentials like altitude, distance, time, and so on when I needed to without constantly missing the scenery to play with the device. And, download my tracks after. I asked at my REI for something with this capability and while the Garmin Fenix had most of these bells and whistles, you can’t export tracks as GPX files as far as I know.

Suunto's Movescount website

Suunto’s Movescount website

The watch has a learning curve, so thank god for the internet and free training videos. I learned how to program and add the activities I would use it most for, and sync it to their free iphone app, which also syncs with their website. You can sync with the app via Bluetooth or alternately to the website via the computer charging/connector cable. (Apparently you can also have your iphone send the watch any text and call notifications, but this again was not my intent for this tool. I want the data, without the distractions. Same goes for the optional heart rate monitor band… maybe later as I get more to ‘that age.’

Suunot Ambit 3 sport

Suunto Ambit 3 sport

Syncing the watch loaded my activities and data preferences, and I tested it for the first time at the local Memorial Day parade. I plugged it in after tracking and saving the parade route I walked and instantly all my data, including the map, were on their website, and there for me to not only get approval from the community of users on my awesome journey, but I was able to export as GPX and upload to my alltrails profile. Amazing. I believe there’s about 15+ hours of battery in GPS mode, and I’m hoping for more. I’ll test that this weekend on 3 different days of hiking. I have my phone when the battery does die, but I can’t wait to push its limits and see. There’s also a programming language all its own and thousands of users can and do develop their own ‘apps’ for tracking favorite activities which any owner can download to their watch. Brilliant. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever owned. Glad I got it at a steal.

Can’t wait for our adventure Thursday. Finally finishing Connecticut and hiking over the highest single peak in the state and crossing the Massachusetts border will be a thrill. As always I wish we could keep going!

– Linus