Clambering into the Clouds

As Jessica and I walked through the clouds along an exposed rocky tree line, it was easy to imagine we were somewhere in the western US. But, we were actually just a few hours north of our Massachusetts home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It’s early August, and we are celebrating our one-month wedding anniversary with a two-night backpacking trip.

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Our plan is to complete the Pemi loop — a 29 mile traverse of a u-shaped ridge line in New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness. With beautiful weather in the forecast, wedding planning complete, and my mother volunteering to babysit our pup, we couldn’t be more excited for 3-days of backpacking.

Most of our hiking experience has been out west. Last summer we drove cross-country (and back) and we have made lots of trips to various locales in the mountain and western time zones. While I had read that hiking in the whites can be challenging, I was optimistic that we had set a challenging but reasonable itinerary.

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There is that moment on every flight where the plane bursts through the clouds into the upper reaches of the troposphere. The light changes as you climb up and up. Great hikes mimic this experience in slow motion. After climbing about 3000′ on easily-graded wooded trails, we earned our through-the-clouds moment when we climbed out of the trees and onto the summit of Mt. Flume.

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Mt. Flume’s summit marked the beginning of what is essentially a 15 mile ridge line: a u-shaped tour of the the Pemigewasset Wilderness and many of New Hampshire’s 4000 foot peaks. But, most of that tour would need to wait for the next day as we descended off the ridge to our cozy shared platform at the Liberty Springs Tentsite.

Day two was to be our biggest day of the trip. So we got some rest next to a nice father daughter pairing who were thankfully very quiet. We would need that rest on day two when we would learn how much more rugged New England hiking can be than on the trails out west.

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After breakfast and breaking camp, Jessica and I climbed our way back up to the mountain crest and continued along the loop. The beginning of our day took place on what is known as Franconia Ridge. Nearly the entire ridge is above the tree line, and the views are predictably exemplary. We lucked into perfect weather: 60s with a light breeze and moderate cloud cover which rolled up the western sides of the peaks sometimes hiding the trail and the nearby peaks.

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Franconia Ridge was incredible. The light, the views, and the exposure of the trail are all fantastic. As we made our way across the summits of Little Haystack, Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette, we kept finding that we were falling behind our usual pace and schedule. Honestly, months of planning our wedding and then all of the eating and drinking associated with the event had likely taken a toll on our fitness. We just were not in the same kind of shape we had been in the previous summer when we had been hiking every day.

Compounding our less-fit-than-usual issues were the trails. New Hampshire trails are notoriously difficult and for good reason. Unlike trails out west, which are often graded for travel by horseback, the trails in the White Mountains are rocky and steep. Walking down the trail often means hoping from rock to rock or clambering with hands and feet down a steep gully. There were many times where I felt walking the trail more closely resembled scrambling than hiking.
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Going downhill was as slow as going uphill because of the steepness of the trail. And, by the time we reached the midpoint of our second day, it was already late in the afternoon. At that point it was time to consider our options. Knowing we were feeling tired and still had a lot of hard hiking left, we decided to bail on our original route. We left the ridge and headed south on the Franconia Brook Trail with a new destination: Thirteen Falls Campsite.

We were pooped by the time we arrived and claimed a secluded spot at the campsite, and I knew we had made the right decision. We were able to cook dinner, refill our water bladders, and happily climb into our sleeping bags before the sun set. Both Jessica and I can be pretty stubborn, so it was not easy to give up our planned itinerary. Sometimes, though, you have to be realistic about what you can (and want) to do. In this case, choosing to adjust our route ensured we both enjoyed our trip more. And, enjoyment is key when you are trying to convince your new life-partner that this backpacking thing can be fun!

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Trans-Zion Trek

It would be an understatement to say that I haven’t been “on top” of sharing what’s going on. Here is to hoping I can get caught up in the near future. But hey, this blog is free, and our twelve or so readers will just have to deal with it.

In mid-June, six of my buddies and I embarked on what my wife called my “Bachelor Extravaganza!” We hopped on planes and met up in Zion National Park to complete (most) of the Trans-Zion Trek — a hike that traverses much of the park.

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The Trans-Zion trek covers the 47 or so miles from Zion’s northwest corner to its east entrance. We opted to cut it short by 10 miles, stopping when we reached the main canyon. This made the logistics easier by requiring one less night and only one chartered shuttle ride.

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After arriving and stocking up on supplies (read: much too much coffee and oatmeal), we checked into a Springdale campground for the night. Luckily, despite the 95+ heat each day, nighttime temperatures cooled to the 70s and we got some rest. A few hours later, we were up, packed, and loaded for our 7 AM shuttle to the Lee Pass Trailhead.

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Our first day’s itinerary was our easiest. Mostly downhill and shorter than the next two days, it gave us a chance to get used to our packs and build some confidence. The views were spectacular as we descended towards La Verkin Creek. We scoped out the blooming cacti and freaky bugs.

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Our first day was to end with a pretty good climb out of the La Verkin Creek valley to our campsite. We felt pretty good by the time we reached the base of the climb and opted to make two side trips. The first was to see Kolob Arch on of the largest rock arches in the world. The trail to the arch was surprisingly tough: climbing up-and-down steep sandy banks of the small stream. We made poor time but still got to see the arch.

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Honestly, I can’t say that I would recommend the trip to the arch — especially as a day hike from Lee Pass. The view from the trail is pretty far from the arch, and being there in person doesn’t provide a more engaging view than the above photo. In fact, we had more fun exploring the small river (to avoid the steep banks) than viewing the arch.

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Our next…errrrr…stop was the falls in Bear Trap canyon. Alas, we never made it. We either went too far or not far enough and never found the entrance to the canyon. Charles and Bryan forged ahead and reached a narrows in an unidentified canyon, but no one ever found the falls. After exploring for a bit too long, we were feeling tired and a bit grumpy. A trio of younger women passed us in search of the same falls. When they passed us later, none of us had the heart to ask if they had found the falls.

We cooked some dinner along La Verkin creek and prepared for the climb to our first night’s camp. We used a vacant campsite as a base for cooking and filtering water. Of course, as soon as we set up a couple arrived with a permit for the site. They were nice enough to let us finish, and we thanked them with donations of double-stuff Oreos.

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Before starting the last few miles, we split into two groups. One finished filtering water and cleaned up after dinner, while my group forged ahead to set up camp. Climbing in the late afternoon heat — right after eating dinner — was…uncomfortable. But, we made it to our campsite soon enough. The second half of the group arrived just before sunset and we settled in for our first night on the trail.

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Our second day was to be a LONG and exciting one. A few members of the group were optimistically hoping to hold it to for the bathroom at the Hop Valley Trailhead. A choice others mocked as unnecessarily uncomfortable.

Knowing it would only get hotter and with dreams of a real bathroom, we made great time climbing out of beautiful La Verkin Creek and into the high dessert biome. Everyone’s hairs stood on end when we passed some fresh mountain lion tracks. It had stopped raining maybe 10 minutes earlier and you’ll notice that there are no rain marks in this print. It is a little creepy to know that this mountain lion definitely watched saw us. That had us on high alert and further encouraged a quick pace towards the restrooms.

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We rested for about 45 minutes at the bathrooms and then trudged through the open land towards the Northgate Peaks. Getting to Northgate peaks was HOT and exposed. We poured sweat during what was definitely the most brutal part of the hike but we were urged on by the increasingly incredible views and geology.

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After Northgate peaks, we approached what was our first water source since the previous afternoon. The spring was trickling so slowly that it took our group almost an hour to filter enough water to get everyone reloaded. I napped while others played Euchre. We had officially reached the stage of the hike where lying on the rocky trail was comfortable.

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The above photo is of Wildcat Canyon — our intended destination for the second night. Somehow we got poor information about where to find the campsites for the canyon. Researching post-trip, I realized we were supposed to descend into the valley, but at the time we believed the campsites would be labeled just off the trail. No such luck. Instead we trudged on for about another 1.5 miles, ultimately camping at an unmarked site on the West Rim Trail. Sorry NPS…it wasn’t on purpose and we camped on durable surfaces away from the trail!

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Day three was the most spectacular. We quickly reached another spring and loaded up for the rest of the trip. The West Rim Trail was actually pretty view-less for a number of miles, but as we approached the valley the views opened up. We caught glimpses of the maze-like canyon systems both east and west of the trail.

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About 6 miles into the day, the trail split. Bryan, Charles, and I opted for the 0.6 miles with bonus views while the others planned to meet us at the spring when the trails rejoined one another. The views were WORTH it and gave me a chance to scope out some of the epic slot canyons.

IMG_5398 IMG_5400 IMG_5403 IMG_5407We met back up, topped off our water at a nearby spring and set off on the last segment of our hike. At this point we were in day-hiking range of our exit trailhead and we started to see more and more people. At this point, too, the trail got downright ridiculous. Many times the trail was over exposed slick rock and marked with cairns or blasted with TNT out of the side of a cliff by the civilian conservation core.IMG_5477 IMG_5495 IMG_5511 IMG_5518IMG_5570   IMG_5526 IMG_5545 IMG_5568

Finally we reached Angels Landing — the narrow fin with 1500+ feet of exposure. Bryan, Charles, Doug and I opted for this side hike while the others were understandably pooped. I had done Angels Landing alone twice on previous trips to Zion, but Bryan, Charles, and Doug were rookies and welcome company.

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Hiking with friends meant that I now had subjects for dramatic photos. The trail is EXPOSED, but really quite safe. There are chain railings to hold onto in any scary spots, and as long as you take your time and are careful, there should be no risk of falling. Still, I grabbed a chain and took shots of the boys in the most dramatic spots.

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Okay, if looking at those pictures makes you nauseous, look at these two idiots (not us) hanging over the edge for fun.

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Finally we descended through Refrigerator Canyon into Zion Canyon where we rode the park shuttle back into town and got some curious glances from day hikers who had a few questions about where we were headed with such big packs. Always fun to play the hero!

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Pythons, Mangrove Tunnels, Rainstorms, and Sunsets on the Everglades’ Hells Bay Canoe Trail

Between caving in Puerto Ricodriving cross-country with Jessica, and visiting Yosemite with my mother, 2014 was a busy year for adventuring, and I still had one adventure left!

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My mother and step-father live in Florida during the winter, so that means I get to jet south to warmer weather every Thanksgiving. This year, I decided I wanted to use the break as an opportunity to get outside. So, I planned a trip into The Everglades. Let me first clarify what The Everglades is.

The Everglades is an enormous wetlands area that functions like a slow moving river. When Lake Okeechobee overflows, the water enters The Everglades ecosystem and slowly makes its way towards Key West.

Everglades National Park contains a portion of The Everglades along the coast near Florida Bay and Ten Thousand Islands. While I had previously been to The Everglades on a fan boat, I had never beed to Everglades NP.

There isn’t much hiking to be had in The Everglades, so I invested in a guidebook for paddlers. That helped me get some basic info about the area. It also made me realize what I was most interested in seeing and doing. I wanted to paddle through narrow mangrove tunnels and to camp on a chickee. The easiest trail with access to both was the Hells Bay Canoe Trail.

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I arrived in Florida late at night and decided to start early the next morning. I borrowed my step-father’s Ford Explorer and made the twoish hour drive south to Tours in the Glades at the Everglades International Hostel. They rented me a two-person canoe (not sure why I couldn’t get a 1 person canoe or kayak) and helped me figure out how to mount the canoe on the car safely–though I was still nervous.

I definitely recommend Tours in Glades if you are headed towards the Flamingo area of the park. A National Park Service employee recommended them over the outfitter in Flamingo. I did, though, have to put up with a long speech about how the book Into the Wild inspired a ton of young men to head recklessly into the woods alone. I explained that I was only going for 1 night, had plenty of food, a tent, a camping stove, and a waterproof emergency satellite messenger, but in the end I still had to listen to their stump speech.

After getting my canoe, I drove to the Flamingo Visitor Center to pick up my backcountry permit. The above photo of a Burmese Python swallowing an ibis was on display at the desk. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I would later. From there it was off to the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail.

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The road through the southern section of Everglades NP is about 40 miles long and beautiful. It is mostly dead straight and flat, but it provides off-and-on views into grassland. As the wind blows across the wetlands, the brush floats back and forth in waves. It is mesmerizing. It doesn’t though, feel like the sort of place that you can begin a paddling trip. Still, right on cue, there was a small pull off, gravel to park on, and a small dock to launch from.

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Since this was my first solo trip and after the Into the Wild lecture I had received just hours earlier, I felt obliged to take a photo that could grace the cover of my book should something go wrong. The lower photo gives you a view into the mangrove tunnels that occupy the first couple miles of the Hells Bay Canoe Trail.

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This trail is AMAZING! It is about 3.5 miles to the Pearl Bay Chickee, and the first 3 miles of that is spent weaving in and out of a mangrove maze. Hells Bay got its name from the old time hunters who described it as “Hell to get into and hell to get out off.” The route is so confusing that the NPS installed PVC pipe markers to guide the way. Every 100 yards or whenever the trail takes a sharp turn, a short piece of pipe sticks out of the water. I had to pay close attention to avoid missing them (only missed one!).

Below is the Google Maps satellite image of the start of the Hells Bay Canoe Trail. You can see a canoe (for scale) a little ways from the road. You may need to zoom in!

More difficult was trying to navigate the 6 foot wide path and hairpin turns of the mangroves in my 2-person canoe. While the mangroves sheltered me from the wind, they made steering difficult. If I found myself at the wrong angle my bow or stern would wedge into the vegetation forcing me to back up and correct. About 30 yards from the launch, I managed to get both my bow and stern stuck in the mangroves. I had to walk back and forth from front to back pulling and pushing on the roots to wedge myself free. That didn’t instill a lot of confidence, but eventually I got the hang of it and started to make progress.

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After paddling for about an hour and getting the hang of steering, I was feeling confident enough to enjoy a particularly narrow and overgrown section of the trail where the mangroves formed a tunnel. As I came around the corner I saw something move in the water a few yards in front of me. Immediately that image from the visitor center flashed back into my mind as I realized I was staring at a Burmese Python swimming in the middle of the trail. We looked at each other for a few moments while my heart raced and then it slithered its way through the water and into the mangroves. Once it was nearly out of sight, I paddled on feeling thoroughly rattled.

Burmese Pythons are not native to The Everglades (hence Burmese!). They are originally from Southeast Asia but enough have escaped/been let go that they have developed a self-sustained population in Florida. They are such dominant hunters that they are outcompeting many of the indigenous species. The National Park Service has done their best to remove them, but the environment isn’t conducive to tracking them. A few years ago they had a tournament to catch as many Burmese Pythons as possible. They invited snake hunters from all over and offered cash prizes as well as the chance to become a full-time NPS snake hunter. The event lasted a month and 1500 hunters signed up. In that time they caught only 50 snakes. The only hope of limiting the population is for Florida to undergo an extended cold-snap, but even that might not do it.

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Eventually I regained my composure–despite getting a shoulder brushing from a snakeskin dangling from a tree– and continued on. After a few miles, the trail opens up to increasingly larger bays. My ultimate destination was the Pearl Bay chickee. The increased expanse of water was a nice change, but introduced me to a serious issue with paddling a two-person canoe alone.

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My weight at the rear of the canoe lifted the front out of the water. I threw all of my gear up front, but that did little to help the problem. This wasn’t an issue in the mangroves, but in the open water the wind would regularly catch the front of the canoe and spin me in the wrong direction. I tried paddling closer to the shore, paddling from the front, paddling from the middle, and everything else that I could come up with. In the end, I just had to muscle my way through the more open areas. The wind was relatively weak, so I wasn’t too concerned, but I could have had an issue if a storm blew in.

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By the time I reached the Pearl Bay Chickee, I was tired but excited. Chickees are essentially platform docks with roofs that the NPS has built to allow for camping in the Everglades. Except for beaches along the coast, most of the land is too wet camp on, so instead you get to sleep on sweet platforms out over the water.

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Here is a the Google Maps satellite image of the Pearl Bay Chickee. Zoom out to see how remote the location is.

I set up my tent and then cooked dinner as the sun set. The wind died down and the mosquitoes came out. I made the mistake of wearing a shirt that wasn’t mosquito proof, and they annihilated me. I learned my lesson there. It was worth it, though, for the sunset.

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While there had been a gentle breeze all day, the chickee was built in the lee of a small cove. After sunset the wind essentially disappeared and it started to feel really hot! I have a sleeping bag rate for 30 degrees and it was about 85. Even sleeping on top of my bag was too warm. Eventually I fell asleep, but it was not my best night of sleep. I woke before sunrise and made breakfast while the sky tested out some new paint colors.

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After struggling across Pearl Bay with almost no wind, I used my satellite messenger to get a weather update. The forecast was breezy with thunderstorms and the probability of storms increasing throughout the day. With that news, I left the chickee before 7 AM, still struggling to keep the canoe pointing in the right direction. I was worried but thought I would still be able to make it despite the increasing winds. I also knew there were at least two couples behind me who would be able to help if I got stuck. At least the weather helped me to keep my mind off of the pythons!

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I worked my way back from the bays into the mangroves and watched the sky grow grayer and darker. Drizzling rain fell off and on until the wind suddenly picked up and the skies opened. It was like standing in a shower with 4 shower heads. Raindrops thumped the bottom of my canoe forming a pool at my feet and the water danced as the droplets made that overpowering and magical sound of a serious rainstorm. I was soaked by happy.

Ten minutes later the storm was over. I bailed out my canoe and continued following the PVC markers back to the launch. Despite horrible mosquitoes, an 85 degree night, a run in with a snake, a canoe with a broken steering wheel, and a dramatic rain storm, I was had survived my solo trip, and I cannot wait to go back!

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