Monday, July 27, 2020

Grizzly Bear Attack: A Breakdown

This post details a bear attack I was involved in during the summer of 2020. It's very light on the pictures and heavy on the words. I hope you'll stick with it, as I think it's an instructive incident even for those who never venture outdoors.

“But what about bears?” It’s probably the second most-common question that hikers get, trailing only “do you carry a gun?” While bears are certainly a real danger in the outdoors, they’re not even close to the top of the list. Lightning strikes, drowning, getting lost, or getting hit by a car on a roadwalk are all far more likely to happen than a bear attack.

Reliable bear attack statistics are really hard to come by. One study I found noted about 14 brown bear attacks per year in North America. Brown bears (of which grizzlies are the primary subspecies) are distributed throughout the northern Rocky Mountains and Cascades, large swaths of Canada, and most of Alaska. While I couldn’t find any good black bear statistics, black bears tend to be more timid than their bad-tempered grizzly cousins. Though their habitats are more extensive, they pose less of a threat to humans than grizzlies do.

When you consider the number of recreation-hours spent in bear habitat each year in North America, and the tiny number of actual bear attacks, it becomes clear that bears hardly ever attack humans. But on July 21, 2020, I was attacked by a grizzly bear.

The Attack

The attack happened at about the midpoint of a self-supported 800-mile loop hike I was doing through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I had staged food and supplies beforehand at various road crossings so I wouldn’t have to go into town and risk contracting covid-19. This was a remote hike, full of off-trail mountain ridges, scrambling, bushwhacking, and all sorts of high adventure.

As I descended an off-trail pass in Wyoming’s Absaroka Range, I picked up a nifty elk trail that wound through a cliffy area. I was singing, as I often do while in the backcountry, especially in grizzly bear territory. I ended one verse and paused to recollect the words to the next verse just as I rounded a corner.

“Instantaneous” doesn’t do it justice. The grizzly, camouflaged behind a scrubby pine, immediately charged from about 7-8 feet away. He swiped at me, spinning me around as he passed me, slammed on the brakes, and charged again from about 4 feet away. I jabbed with my trekking pole, catching him square in the eye as he came toward me.

At this point my memory is a little hazy, but somehow he knocked me down, and I rolled under a tree. Recognizing it as a defensive attack, I played dead, covering my neck with one hand while deploying my bear spray with the other. I aimed it behind me, ready to give him a face full of spice, but by that time he had huffed over me twice and took off. The whole incident took no more than five seconds.

Boonie hat is no match for a grizzly claw

The Aftermath

I laid there, remaining motionless, bear spray at the ready. But as the sounds of bear faded away, I could hear him whimpering, presumably from the eye injury. I looked at my watch: 9:46AM. I resolved to lie there for a full ten minutes to make sure he wasn’t waiting for me to get up. I also took stock. I could move all my limbs. I was bleeding from the chest. Disgustingly, I could see flesh hanging out of my shirt. The wounds were deep, but I didn’t think I was in any danger of bleeding out. As I laid there waiting for my ten-minute probation to expire, I contemplated three options:

1. Activate my Personal Locator Beacon, aka my “Helicopter Button”. I figured this wasn’t necessary. My walking ability wasn’t compromised, I wasn’t going to bleed out, and I felt confident I could improvise a bandage. Still, it was an option for later on – at any sign of trouble, I wasn’t going to be shy about hitting it. I’ve been crystal-clear with my emergency contacts that I will not hit activate it unless it’s a matter of life-and-death and I need an actual, literal helicopter sent.

2. Clean out the wound, stitch myself up, and keep going. I was only about 40 trail miles from my next resupply point – a remote guest ranch along a major paved road. I considered this option for a moment – until I dared take a second look at my chest and saw how deep the wound was. I felt confident that I could stitch myself up, but wanted the wound properly sanitized by medical people with medical knowledge. If you think I’m crazy for even considering this possibility, I agree with you. More on that later.

3. Bail out a side trail and get to a hospital ASAP. After thinking for a minute, this became the obvious right answer. Not only did I have maps for the entire area on my phone, I had actually gone down a nearby trail a couple of years ago when Yogi tried to steal my pic-a-nic basket and ended up ruining all my food. I knew the trail was obvious, well-trod, and popular with horsepackers – who frequently carry satellite phones. And I had downloaded cell coverage maps before my trip, which showed I’d have cell service as I approached the trailhead.

I chose Door #3. My ten minutes expired and I got up, bear spray at the ready, hollering the whole time so my grizzly adversary would maintain proper social distancing. He was nowhere to be found thankfully, and I backtracked along the elk trail, back up to the off-trail pass, and downhill to the maintained trail I intended to bail on.

Once I reached the trail, I finally allowed myself to sit down and do some first aid. I figured that if I was going to pass out, it’d be better that I pass out on a well-used trail rather than off-trail where I’d never, ever be found. I stopped the bleeding, cleaned the wounds as best as I could, and squirted most of a tube of Neosporin into them. I changed from my completely-saturated orange shirt into my long-sleeve “bug shirt”, just so I wasn’t quite so bloody. As I climbed over Deer Creek Pass, I made sure to walk slowly, keeping my heart rate under control so I wouldn’t bleed too badly.

I descended the other side of the pass, still on excellent trail, and met a group of horsepackers after about an hour. They looked at me in sheer horror, suddenly reconsidering their stance on the reality of zombies. I asked them to borrow their satellite phone, but owing to the narrow canyon, it had no reception. I assured them that I was fine-ish and kept hiking, meeting another group of horsepackers about 2 hours later.

Finally, a few miles before the trailhead, I ran into day hiker named Dave. Like the others, he looked at me wide-eyed and asked what happened. When I briefly shared the story, he decided that it was probably turnaround time for him anyway and offered me a ride from the trailhead to Cody, where I knew there were medical facilities. I gladly accepted and we hiked together back to his car.

While we were en route to the hospital, we were pulled over by a Wyoming Game & Fish officer, who’d been paged after one of the horsepacker groups got out of the canyon, got sat phone service, and called 911. He took one look at me and told us he’d follow us to the hospital. So we all caravanned to Cody where Dave, my good Samaritan, dropped me off. Thanks Dave!

Five hours, a blizzard of tests, and 37 stitches later, I was released from the hospital, very grateful to God for sparing my life, to Dave for the ride, and to the wonderful hospital staff for their hard work in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The Recovery

Almost immediately, I received a huge outpouring of support from the hospital staff, long-time friends, and people I had literally never met before. By hook or by crook, people pulled strings to make sure I had places to stay while I mended up, and one incredible person – former stranger and now treasured friend – even drove me 5 hours round-trip back to my car when it became clear that my injuries would be incompatible with wearing a backpack for a few weeks. Thanks Barb! I can’t possibly credit everyone here – either because I never caught their name, don’t want them to get in trouble with their bosses, or whatever, but you know who you are. I thank God daily for his wonderful providence and you were key parts of that. Thanks, more than I can even express.

What’s Next?

Only time will tell. I’m healing nicely, and the risk of infection has subsided (something the doctors were very concerned about, given that grizzlies dig around in rotting stuff all day). I still can’t carry a backpack quite yet, so I’m taking some time off and just letting my body heal.

Somebody must be watching out for you.

Indeed. There aren’t too many people who are able to literally walk away from a grizzly bear attack. I believe all things come to us not by chance, but as a result of God’s providence – and this is no exception. I am very grateful for him sparing my life and further injury – and for all the wonderful people he put in my path when I needed help. God is good!

So, why did the bear attack you?

Simply put: wrong place, wrong time. “Personal space” is a big thing for grizzlies, and I was in his. He was just surprised and cornered on the edge of a narrow ledge, so he attacked. When I played dead, demonstrating that I was no longer a threat, he got out of Dodge in a hurry. Other than not forgetting the words to my song at that one very precise moment in time, I don’t think I could have done anything differently to prevent the attack.

And you got him in the eye.

Well, yes. That certainly didn’t hurt my cause, as he didn’t press the attack after the exchange where I got him in the eye and he knocked me down, but it’s tough to say if that helped discourage him from harming me further. The Game & Fish guy didn’t have a clear answer for me on the question either. I have a sneaking suspicion that it did help in the very specific circumstance that I found myself. It seemed like he was more interested in licking his wound than inflicting more wounds on me. But I certainly wouldn’t advocate, in general, fighting back during a defensive attack. I think this is the point at which general principles start to break down and the details start to get murky.

You should have had a gun.

A gun likely would have resulted in a claw gash to my chest and a bullet wound in my foot. He slashed me near where my holster would have been, and if he had gotten me while I was drawing a gun, I almost certainly would have shot myself. More generally, study after study has shown to bear spray to be a far more effective deterrent against bear attacks than a firearm.

My driver Dave was carrying a rifle for protection on his hike. On the way back to his car, he asked me if he would have been able to stop the attack with his gun. I told him that if he had coincidentally pointing it in the exact right direction, and if he had been hiking with the safety off and his finger already on the trigger, then maybe he could have stopped it. Maybe. But nobody does that, because it’s incredibly dangerous.

What did you do right?

I’m generally pretty pleased with how I reacted to the attack. I attribute my responsibility in a good outcome to three key factors:

1. Get the right equipment. I had bear spray. And although I couldn’t have possibly deployed in time to stop the initial attack, I had it out and ready in case he followed up once he had knocked me down. There’s a good chance that, if he had continued to maul me, I would have been able to dissuade him with some good old-fashioned capsaicin. More generally, I bear bag assiduously. I had my Personal Locator Beacon. These things didn’t necessarily help in this particular situation, but had circumstances been slightly different, they would have been key.

2. Get the information. This is often more important than equipment. In this case, I knew how to diagnose a defensive versus predatory attack, and knew what to do in each situation. I had a huge swath of maps downloaded on my phone, so when I had to bail down a side trail, I knew which way to go. I knew that Cody was a town with medical facilities. I knew that I’d have cell service as I approached the trailhead. All of this helped me make a good decision and execute on my plan relatively quickly.

3. Practice. It’s incredible how fast the whole thing happened. There’s no time to fumble with bear spray, try to figure out how to remove the safety, which way it squirts, etc. I’ve practiced drawing, arming, and aiming it hundreds of times over the years. Similarly, I’ve visualized defensive bear attacks many times over the years, and visualized myself getting on the ground and playing dead. When the real thing happened, my reactions had to be instantaneous - and they were.

So basically, you survived because you did a lot of things right.

Not at all. I survived because I did a lot of things right – and because God saw fit for me to keep living. The grizzly slashed my chest/shoulder and my hat. If he had split the difference and slashed my neck, I would have done a lot of things right and still bled out within minutes. Doing things right increased my odds of a good outcome, but they didn’t guarantee my safety.

What did you do wrong?

Like I said, I’m generally happy with my actions and attitudes throughout. But this incident definitely showed me one of my blind spots: I slightly downplayed the severity of a bad situation.

I know exactly why I did this: it’s a survival mechanism. In order to buckle down and focus on what I need to do, I can’t focus on how bad it hurts, how deep the wound is, or how much medical care will be required to fix me up. I just need to focus on the important thing – bandaging myself up, getting out of here, and getting help. But sometimes, not dwelling on the severity of the situation has its downsides. I offer three examples:

1. When I was playing dead and considering my options, I seriously thought about just stitching myself up and continuing on as planned. A stupid, ludicrous idea, but one that I didn’t dismiss as quickly as I should have. I made the right decision, but shouldn’t have even considered this option.

2. While hiking out, I was debating whether, once I got into cell range, I should call 911 or just call a local rafting company or outfitter to see if they could pick me up. I reasoned that I could walk; this was not a true emergency, even though it was urgent. I didn’t want to cause trouble, didn’t want to waste the time of emergency responders, typical Midwestern diffidence, blah blah blah. DUDE. YOU WERE ATTACKED BY A BEAR. It’s okay to call 911.

3. When I got to Cody, Dave wanted to take me straight to the hospital, but I insisted that he take me to Urgent Care – cheaper, quicker, and less Covid-y. He thought I was crazy, and I was. Urgent care took one look at me and told me to go down the street to the ER immediately.

I told myself I was fine so I could do what I needed to do. But in the future, I need to watch out that my “I’m fine” line doesn’t interfere with me actually getting the help I need to be fine.

I bet you’re emotionally scarred from this

Time will tell, but I really don’t think so. I’ve always known that it was possible (albeit extremely unlikely) that something like this can happen. And I’ve visualized it happening, visualized my reactions, just as basic preparedness that comes with being a backcountry user. I think an honest acceptance of catastrophe as a remote possibility makes us better able to deal with such catastrophes when they arise. And frankly, a firm faith in the providence of God really helps as well. Whatever happens to me – whether I live or die, I belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). That gives me great comfort in a time of great uncertainty.

Let’s talk Covid-19.

Uh, okay. There are a lot of similarities between what I’ve gone through and what we are going through as a species right now. Allow me to share a couple parallels:

1. We need to trust the experts, even though they’re fallible. I listened to expert advice (play dead in a defensive attack, fight like a hellbeast in a predatory attack) and it likely saved my life. But bears are individuals with their own proclivities, and expert advice may in some cases be the exact wrong advice. Nonetheless, the advice that they’re giving out is a lot more informed than your opinion or mine, and is certainly more informed than the drivel that Great Aunt Edna reposts on Facebook. Trust the experts, because they might be wrong, but you and I are almost certainly wrong.

2. We should ignore those opinions that need to be ignored. There are going to be people who read this post and still tell me that I need a gun. Or I need two guns, or bigger guns. Or that I shouldn’t hike alone. These people are not worth listening to – the wise-in-their-own-eyes types. The same thing applies to the coronavirus – whether it’s people saying that “mask requirements infringe upon my liberty” on parts the political Right, or the parts of the Left that demand we abstain from having fun because This Moment That We’re Living In necessitates that we be somber and morose.

3. Habits are important. I always make sure my bear spray is oriented the same way within its holster so it’s easy to pull blindly. I always sing when going through narrow defiles, thick brush, or other places where bears might be chillaxing. Do we keep our mask laying on the dashboard so we never forget it? Is there a bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it? Have we trained ourselves to just skip the busy aisle at the grocery store and come back to it later? Perhaps these little tiny habits will never change a dang thing. I don’t even know another human who’s been attacked by a bear. But it’s an easy change to make, costs nothing, and could save your life – like it saved mine.

Any final thoughts?

I want to reiterate my gratitude to Dave, Dan from WY Game & Fish, each member of the hospital staff, each person who picked up (or offered to pick up) part of my various tabs, those who gave me a place to stay, and most of all to Barb, who went above and beyond to help me when I needed it most. I thank each person who’s written a note of encouragement or prayed for me. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:16). Without a doubt, I was spared by the grace of God.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

In Memoriam: Abandoned Cars

Surrounded a loving phalanx of jackrabbits and tumbleweeds, Rusty the Janky Jalopy has slipped peacefully into eternal retirement.

Rusty was born in the Dearborn Assembly Plant just outside Detroit, Michigan in 1951. His parents are unknown, but were said to be of hardy, almost steely disposition.

During the Korean War, Rusty served with honor and distinction as a maintenance vehicle at the Pinyon Ridge Mine #3 near Panamint Springs, California. He was active in several community organizations including the Panamint Springs Fire Department. Colleagues at the VFD remember him fondly for his machine-like work ethic and outspoken horn.

In 1967, Rusty joined the household of Stan and Loretta Hendricks, who survive him. Asked to pay her last respects to the venerable truck, the aging, green-haired Loretta exclaimed, "Oh, that crappy old clunker? Maaaaaaaaaaan we had fun with that thing. Drove it to a Jefferson Airplane concert on two flat tires. I don't really remember what happened - I'm sure you understand - but somehow we ended up cruising through Santa Monica with ten shirtless hunks riding in the back handing out acid samples. Groovy, dude."

We had to cut Loretta off right there, as the rest of the anecdote is not fit to print, but suffice it to say that Rusty was well-loved by everyone who knew him.

In 1978, Rusty suffered a great indignity when his transmission failed in the middle of the desert during what sources describe as a "mind-bending rager, dude". The gearbox having seized up, Rusty was simply abandoned and left to rot in Death Valley. Stan and Loretta left their vehicle and their wild lives in the desert. Stan became the manager of accounts receivable for General Electric and Loretta began a nationally syndicated column on parlor etiquette, which is just as dead nowadays as the newspapers it's printed in.

It is a fitting tribute to Rusty that he ended up in the middle of nowhere, far from any road. It is unclear how he got there in the first place, as you'd have to be really, really off your rocker to try and drive him there in the first place. Then again, Stan and Loretta fit the bill.

Aside from Stan and Loretta, Rusty is survived by his brother Lincoln and his snotty cousin from the big city, Bentley.

Visitation will be whenever you feel like it. Bring a good pair of shoes, your backpacking gear, and eight liters of water.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Five Pretty Pictures

Many of us are sick of talking, thinking, and worrying about the elephant in the room. So let's distract ourselves briefly with five blasts from the past - five vignettes of trail life.

1. Red White and Blue Castle (Uinta Mountains, July 2015)

The Uinta Mountains are known for their high, sweeping alpine terrain and long ridgelines thousands of feet above treeline. Technical or jagged terrain? Not so much. But Red Castle is an exception to this. Though it sits in the shadow of higher peaks, some soaring to more than 13,000 feet, Red Castle's distinctive shape makes it a popular backpacking destination.

I first visited Red Castle over the 4th of July a few years ago. I crossed several high passes, caught a fish or two in a few alpine lakes, and got really sunburned. And I climbed up a nearby peak to have a look at the area.

By the way, am I the only one who thinks that Upper Red Castle Lake looks like a toilet seat?

2. Brief Botanical Beauty (Beartooth Range, August 2016)

Names sometimes say it all. In this neck of the woods, one could visit Iceberg Lake, the Snowball Lakes, Cold Lake, Avalanche Lake, and my personal favorite, Froze-to-Death Lake. The Beartooth Range isn't exactly the most hospitable of places. Snow hangs around until at least the end of July, and just days after this photo was taken in late August, a snowstorm moved through, dropping several feet of snow and closing Beartooth Highway for the winter.

Wildflowers in the Beartooths really need to make their summers count. In July and August, whole meadows bloom all at once in a tremendous display of color, as if a tornado ripped through a craft store. For those few weeks of glorious summer, there's no place I'd rather be.

3. What Offseason? (Lake Michigan, December 2018)

There aren't too many stretches of Lake Michigan shoreline that remain truly wild. This is one of them. We walked the beach for miles and saw nary a person. No passing speedboats, no overpriced houses perched on the dunes, not even a footprint. Visit here in the middle of winter and we're almost guaranteed to have the place to ourselves.

Except for this little piece of a driftwood. A drift-tree, really. It's a temporary visitor, deposited by the fabled gales of November. The next time the wind builds and the waves swell (tomorrow probably), our drift-tree friend will resume its journey to wherever-it's-going. Perhaps to Chicago or Milwaukee, or north to Traverse City. Summoning up ambition, perchance it can sail through the Straits of Mackinac, through Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and out into the North Atlantic. Someday. Maybe.

In the meantime though, we're glad it's honored us with its presence. We must admit - it looks rather dashing in its stylish ice skirt.

4. Lock Screen Magic (Canyonlands National Park, November 2015)

I've undoubtedly glanced at this photo more often than any other. That's because it serves as the lock screen on my phone. Every time I see it, I smile a little inside.

I snapped it a few years ago on a trip to Canyonlands with my sister. We did a three-day backpacking loop in in a popular and spectacular part of the park. I'd done a very similar loop a few years before and knew of a place where a series of overhung rocks provide excellent natural shelter - which came in handy when the weather started to deteriorate on day 2. We hiked quick, racing the incoming storm, and made it to the rock garden right as it started to rain. And good thing, too! It rained for hours and hours. We sat in our tents underneath the rocks, dry and cozy. Boredom gave way to word games, which gave way to more boredom. But it was sure better than walking all afternoon in the pouring rain.

Before the weather moved in though, I snapped a photo in the Chesler Park area between two of the famous "Needles" - tightly spaced hoodoos of striped sandstone. I will never tire of this view.

5. Heartache (Glacier National Park, September 2018)

The end of a thru-hike is a funny thing. What was once months and thousands of miles away is now only weeks and hundreds of miles away. All of the sudden, you need to book your bus or plane ticket, and that means you need to figure out your finish date. For months, people have been asking you when you plan to finish, but you've always been vague about it. "Early September" has always been sufficient. But now you need a date. September 4. Take the miles remaining and divide it by your daily mileage. How many days is that? You check and double-check your math, making sure you're not being too aggressive with your itinerary. You add a couple of days, just to be safe. September 4. You're going to finish this trail on September 4.

You're in the best shape of your life, but your body is beat up. Uphills are effortless, yet you hobble around each morning, wincing with every step. You do 30 miles in less than 12 hours, crossing three alpine passes and gaining thousands of feet of elevation. For months, you've kept your daily mileage steady, never doing too much, always keeping a little in the tank for tomorrow. But your number of tomorrows on-trail is quickly dwindling. Time to let it all hang out.

The last few weeks seem like a dream. You develop tunnel vision: if it's not related to forward progress, to getting to that goal, it's just irrelevant. You sleep in weird places. You decide you really don't need to do laundry in this town. Your momentum gathers as you roll "downhill" toward your goal. Three hundred miles left. Three days later, it's two hundred. You start passing lasts: last resupply point, last developed campground. Last road crossing. Last full day on trail. Last night on trail.

None of it seems quite real. You can't comprehend not walking, not continuing forward. What do you mean, there is no forward to continue on? You're quickly approaching the edge of your world. Will you fall off?

The last day is a blur. You maintain three miles per hour on easy trail, and as you sense the end getting closer, three turns into three and a half. Three and a half probably turns to four, though you're certainly not clocking yourself.

Finally you see it. Flags flying. A clearcut in the woods. French on the border crossing sign. You're here. And you're not sure what you feel, or what you should feel. Mostly, you just want to continue north - north on a trail that doesn't exist.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Briefly Enchanted

Following the conclusion of my Ouachita Trail adventure, I headed out to Arizona to begin the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET). Starting just outside Phoenix, the GET meanders nearly 800 miles through the highlands of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico to its terminus in Albuquerque. The GET is definitely a route rather than an official trail, much like the Hayduke Trail, Deseret Hiking Route, or Lowest to Highest.

The route begins by winding its way through the Superstition Mountains. After about 25 miles, it joins up with the Arizona Trail (AZT), following it south past the towns of Superior and Kearny before departing to the west, New Mexico-bound.

From the very beginning it was clear that this was not a typical Arizona backpacking trip. The Phoenix area had been soaked by several inches of rain over the past week, and as the sun set and the temperature dropped, dew collected heavily. I set up my shelter each night on trail. Water is ordinarily a scarce commodity in the deserts of the Southwest but was flowing in the bottom of each little gully and drainage. I certainly didn't expect to spend most of the time hiking with wet feet, but then again, it's been a strange, wet, cold spring.

Near the trailhead, the trail underfoot was wide and smooth. As I got deeper into the wilderness, trails gradually deteriorated, becoming increasingly faint and brushy. I hiked through several areas that had burned in the 2019 Woodbury Fire. In such areas, the trail was next to non-existant. Catclaw tore at my legs, leaving me with classic "desert pinstripes" - lines of scrapes and scratches.

But my oh my, the Superstitions were lovely. I'd hiked through the Supes before as part of my AZT hike in 2019. I'd been a little disappointed in the Supes my first time around, as the trail stays largely in the eastern, higher part of the range, in pinyon forests. They were alright, but not quite as pretty as I was expecting. By contrast, the GET passes through the lower, western part of the range before joining up with the AZT. Despite being lower, I found the western Superstitions to be more dramatic and scenic than their eastern counterparts. I hiked over a few high passes, up tight box canyons, past fields of wild poppies, and within eyeshot of the iconic Weavers Needle and Four Peaks. All in all? A wonderful stretch of not-quite-trail.

When I joined up with the AZT, trail tread immediately and dramatically improved. The AZT is probably the easiest (aside from the completely-flat Florida Trail) long-distance hike I've ever done. The trail is built to modern standards and is mountain bike-friendly. In the wake of the Woodbury Fire, volunteers have already cut back the burnt and fallen trees and kept the encroaching post-fire brush at bay. It was a true joy to walk on and a testament to the strong community support that many of our most beloved long trails enjoy. I saw quite a few AZT thru-hikers hiking toward me on their own long-distance journeys. They were headed north toward the Utah border while I was heading (temporarily) south, eventually toward Albuquerque.

As I met these AZT hikers, I was surprised and not a little dismayed by the flippant attitude that many showed toward the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Certainly, some of it was due to being disconnected from larger society, where the situation was rapidly evolving. Some of it was due to selection bias - the large majority of people who were taking things seriously weren't out here - because they were taking seriously the guidelines about non-essential travel that health departments were just starting to issue. Still, I was a bit distressed by some people's sneering attitude of invincibility, even as I pondered what to do about my own hike.

Eventually I got cell service and spent a few minutes catching up on what was going on with the world. Even if a hike on the little-used Grand Enchantment Trail is relatively low-risk (it's hard to catch the bug when the nearest person is twenty miles away), resupply in tiny towns at the end of a long and fraying supply chain is bound to be a challenge. What if that small town post office is closed because the one and only postal employee is sick, or if governors issue shelter-in-place orders? In a quickly evolving situation where society is bound to be impacted in unpredictable ways, could I have any confidence that I wouldn't get stuck hitchhiking on a deserted road dozens of miles away from my resupply point? Furthermore, when (not if) my plans got blown to bits and I had to improvise, that would put me in a lot of contact with a lot of people. And getting sick and becoming a burden to a town without any medical facilities is not an option.

I think there's a lot of fear-based decision-making happening right now and frankly, the parochial attitude of some folks is getting a little tiresome. But in evaluating the situation as dispassionately as I could, I concluded that the most prudent parth in an uncertain situation was to hole up in a place with good supply lines and medical facilities. So after three days and 40-something miles on the Grand Enchantment Trail, I quit. I hitched a ride into Superior, AZ with a passing motorist, who happened to know somebody who was headed into Phoenix tomorrow. After staying the night, I caught a ride to Phoenix and got on a plane.

Here I sit in the Midwest in self-imposed exile after having traveled by air. Though I'm bummed not to continue the GET, it's hard to feel too sorry for myself. I've lost the opportunity to take what's essentially a vacation with a fancy title. Others have lost their jobs, their health, or even their lives. I'm going to do my part, stay home, and not make things worse. I'm going to respect both the letter and the spirit of the various public health orders and guidelines that are being put forward. As far as I'm concerned, "only the essentials" means "only the essentials". And I don't really need that much.

Let's not end on that note though. Let's instead end with a pair of mediocre photos of a lovely field of poppy blooms that I found in the Superstitions. And let's keep in mind one of my favorite Dutch hymns which reminds us that God is still in control and still cares for us:
We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.
Yep. That seems about right.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Whiteblazing and Blueblazing in Arkansas

The Appalachian Trail has a unique lingo. Some of this language seeks to describe the ways that people travel on the trail. The main trail from Georgia to Maine is marked by white paint splotches roughly the size and shape of a dollar bill. Naturally, when you're walking on the designated AT, you're said to be "whiteblazing". Side trails are marked with blue blazes, and those who deviate from the main trail in their journey north are said to be "blueblazing". The term "blueblazing" often carries a pejoritive connotation - that somehow it's more holy and righteous to hike the designated AT than to take alternate routes.

In Arkansas two long-distance hiking trails run parallel to each other - the 160-mile Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) and the 220-mile Ouachita Trail (OT). The OHT is blazed white, just like the AT, while the OT is blazed blue, just like the AT's side trails. I hiked the OHT in 2018 but didn't have the chance to hike the OT until 2019. In so doing, I couldn't help but comparing the whiteblazed trail to the blueblazed trail. And at least in Arkansas, the blueblazed trail comes out on top.

This trail also featured a few random green, red and yellow blazes

In many ways, the trails are similar. They're of roughly equal length, run through similar environments, are both well-blazed, seldom-used, and are surrounded almost exclusively by a corridor of public land. The hiking season is roughly the same, elevations are virtually identical, and the forests look a lot alike.

There's just one difference: The Ouachita Trail is infinitely more enjoyable than the Ozark Highlands Trail, at least in my opinion.

It's tough to articulate exactly why I think that. I think part of it has to do with my fascination with maps. The OT takes a really elegant line, staying high on ridgetops whenever possible. It has very few PUDs (pointless ups-and-downs), hits a surprising number of summits with pretty views, and generally just "makes sense". The OHT, by contrast, seemed a lot more arbitrary in nature, constantly climbing or descending into or out of a ravine without any clear purpose. The nature of the trails largely depends on the geography of their respective ranges - the Ouachita Mountains is a range with clearly defined east-west ridgelines, while the Ozark Highlands are a jumbled pile of misshapen hills and gullies running every which way. Sure, the OHT had some decent waterfalls and passed through some wonderfully remote designated Wilderness areas, but the OT had plenty of that too, while also offering my inner map geek a sense of coherence and effective forward progress.

There are two other advantages the OT has: more foot traffic, and shelters along the way. While both trails see little traffic, the OT is better-trod in most places. Normally this wouldn't matter too much, but Arkansas trails are famously rocky underfoot. When there's no traffic on a trail, a thick layer of dead leaves quickly builds up on the trail such that it's impossible to see what you're stepping on until you step on it and twist an ankle. More foot traffic smashes down those leaves. The OT isn't any less rocky than the OHT, but at least you can see what you're stepping on!

On the topic of shelters, the Friends of the Ouachita Trail (lovingly abbreviated "FoOT") recently completed a shelter-building project along the length of the trail. Except for a 30-mile stretch of private land near the west end, there are gorgeous Appalachian Trail-style shelters roughly every ten miles. This came in very, very handy given the weather I faced on the OT.

So anyway, let's get to my 2019 OT hike.

After wrapping up my Florida Trail hike, I caught a flight to Little Rock, Arkansas to start the OT. Given my previous Arkansas hiking experiences on the OHT, I didn't have super high expectations for the OT. I liked the OHT because I'm an excitable little puppydog when it comes to long distance hiking and tend to view any time spent outside as terrific and wonderful. But to be honest, I must admit that the OHT is probably the long-distance hike I enjoyed the least.

But from the get-go, it became clear that the OT was a whole different beast. In true jaded long-distance hiker fashion, I skipped the first mile or two (and the official western terminus) and instead started by climbing Pinnacle Mountain. Pinnacle is a popular little mountain as it's within driving or public transit distance of Little Rock. I got dropped off at the trailhead right before sunset and climbed it in the fading twilight. And by "climbed", I do mean a solid Class III scramble. There are definitely easier routes to the top, but I preferred to freelance my own steep and direct route. The whole mountain is just a giant rock pile so it's scalable from just about any direction. I reached the summit just as the sun was setting. A couple of headlamp miles later, I set up my tent and fell asleep. I had woken up that morning on the Florida Trail and went to bed on the Ouachita Trail. A quick turnaround indeed!

What followed were the Three Glorious Days. I'd checked the weather before I got on trail, and true to Arkansas-in-March form, the forecast was a bit apocalyptic. But before the bad weather was scheduled to move in, I had a window. Three days. Three Glorious Days. They were bright and sunny, with minimal wind and perfect daytime temperatures. I took my time, enjoying long lunches in the sun and detouring to a couple of mountain summits overlooking sweeping valleys already starting to green up.

On Day 2, I got up early and had made a quick 5 or 6 miles when I saw a couple walking toward me. From a distance, I saw silver umbrellas strapped to their packs - a sure-fire sign of a long-distance hiker. As they got closer, I stopped in my tracks.

"Naomi?" I asked.

They were as surprised as I was. I'd met Naomi "The Punisher" last year at a hiker get-together. Most notably from my perspective, she's one of a tiny handful of fellow hikers who's hiked the Idaho Centennial Trail. I'd never met her husband, "Iron Mike", but of course knew of him. I re-introduced myself and we proceeded to geek out on all things trail for a solid half hour, standing right there in the middle of the trail. You know you inhabit a niche community when a hiker from Utah meets a hiking couple from Washington on a trail in Arkansas and they already knew each other!

My phone's front camera is mostly kaput. Sorry!
The fourth day was a complete washout. I spent most of the day hiking in the pouring rain, though I did pop into a local cafe to pick up my resupply package and eat a gigantic burger. And I checked the forecast. Yikes.

One nice day. Then for the next week, rain chances were somewhere in the 80%-100% range every single day. And true to the forecast, I had one more nice day. I hiked hard that day and the next morning, trying to beat a line of severe thunderstorms into town. And I made it! I arrive at a road crossing mid-afternoon and spent an hour and a half hitchhiking to no avail. When it started to rain, I deployed my umbrella and kept my thumb out. As those raindrops turned to dime-sized hail, a kind fellow stopped and picked me up.  So for those of you who think an umbrella is an Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week, think again!

Aptly named.
I got a motel room for the night and made my descision. I was in Mena, AR, at about the two thirds mark. Mena was also the nearest bus stop to the western terminus. Hiking all the way to the western terminus would involve hiking three days in a virtual hurricane, only to try and get a long hitch back east to right where I was right now. I could do all that... or I could not. So I didn't. I quit. I had a terrific time on the Ouachita Trail and had no desire to ruin it with three miserable days.

I've done two thirds of the Ouachita Trail. I loved it. I love mountaintops and waterfalls and gorgeous shelters in the rain. I loved the little purple flowers that were just starting to bloom. I realistically won't be back to Arkansas anytime soon; there a lot of places to hike in the world, and I've done quite a bit of Arkansas already. But I sure did enjoy my time there. Oh, and go eat a burger at the Bluebell Cafe!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Florida Trail - Quick Tips

Since Day One on this trail, I've been thinking about how to contextualize my experience, how to make it helpful for other hikers. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about the FT, and I want to clear those up. On one hand, it's easy to dismiss the FT out of ignorance as just one big nasty swamp and roadwalk nightmare. And while it has swamps and roadwalks, I think that picture is just flat-out wrong. On the other hand, it's easy for those who actually know the FT well to romanticize it and paint an overly-rosy picture of it.

In this post I'll try to talk honestly about the FT, its pros and cons, and what I thought of it. As usual for these kind of "quick tips" post, this is geared at the experienced hiker who's done a thru-hike or two. There are a million resources out there about the FT, but many of them are aimed at folks who may be newer to the long-distance hiking scene. This one's for veterans of long trails who aren't quite sure if they want to hike the FT or not.

A story, before we begin: About a week into my hike, I was walking along a road when a car rolled up and stopped in the middle of the street. The driver asked me what I was doing and all the usual questions that hikers get. While I was already racing darkness to get to a campsite, I took a few minutes to play trail ambassador. It was a great decision. She asked for a link to my blog, which I provided. She drove away, and that was that.

A few minutes later, she rolled back up. She'd read my blog, she said, and noticed that I went through the Big Cypress Seminole reservation. She confided that she was Seminole, and justifiably proud of her heritage. She presented me with a copy of the tribal newspaper and a patchwork quilted pouch filled with traditional remedies. I was floored - by a mile, one of the most thoughtful gifts I've ever recieved. Patchwork quilting has long been associated with the Seminoles, apparently, and it also makes a perfect analogy for what I loved about the Florida Trail: It's a patchwork quilt of America. More on that below.

Should I hike the Florida Trail?

Simply put, yes! The FT is a very different animal from many of the "greatest hits" hiking trails out there - the Triple Crown, the Colorado Trail, the Arizona Trail, the JMT, etc. The FT is a latecomer in a state that has very little public land. The FTA has worked incredibly hard to keep the trail in the woods as much as possible and have frankly succeeded to a degree I couldn't have imagined, given the challenges. The fact that there's "only" something like 300 road miles in an 1100-mile trail, in a state that's been parsed, bought and sold for centuries, is incredible.

That said, there are still at least 300 miles on pavement (probably a bit more, in my opinion). If you're not prepared for that, you're going to hate the Florida Trail. I've found that attitude makes all the difference here - if you're unaware of the challenges that FTA faces in creating a trail in these environs, it's easy to rage against the routing that an undefined "they" chose. On the other hand, if you adopt a grateful attitude that something like this exists at all, it makes the road walks a lot more tolerable.

And that brings me to the #1 reason (aside from the fact that it's a winter thru-hike) to hike the FT: It's a patchwork quilt of America. You pass gated communities and dumpy mobile homes. You go through Indian reservations, national forests, suburban sprawl, an Army Corps building project, swamps, cultivated farmland, and more. The diversity of people you meet along the way is unparalleled on any long trail I've ever hiked. Sure, the FT may be a bit discontinuous. It may feel unprotected. But if you want to see a lot of different sides of America, hike the Florida Trail.

Oh, and it's really beautiful too! The forests on the FT are by far the most interesting ones I've ever seen on any of my long hikes. Anytime you're following a river or body of water, it's roughly equivalent to those "awesome ridgeline" sections of other trails - a time to slow down and revel in the beauty.

Red Tape: Surprisingly little. You must become a Florida Trail Association member, as there are a couple sections on private land that are only open to FTA members. Just do it. And while you're on their website, download the thru-hiker information packet, which gives you an excellent (if somewhat overwhelming) overview of the couple of permits that you need to plan in advance for.

Animals: This is usually a throw-away section on most trail overview, but not on the FT. As someone who's petrified of gators, I can promise you that your gator fears are way overblown. Even the big ole mean gators don't really want anything to do with you, and just slide in the water and swim away when they see you.

You won't see very many snakes. Don't worry about them.

Dogs are actually a somewhat big problem on this trail, particularly in the northern half. By far my scariest animal encounters were all with unleashed dogs on the roadwalks in rural areas. I would not do this trail again without carrying pepper spray, if only for the peace of mind. I hitched a half mile or so past a couple of problem spots where the dogs were mean and numerous. Be prepared, carry pepper spray.

Roadwalks: Most of them were not at all scary. There were a few roadwalks with minimal shoulder and high speed traffic, but for the most part, those sections were short. I do acknowledge though, that those who come from a more purely triple crowny background often felt differently - perhaps it's just something you get more comfortable with over time. Many hikers do selectively hitch some roadwalks, so that's an option too if you're not concerned about connecting footsteps. It's never really necessary to hitch, but can save you some sub-par miles.

Swamps: On one hand, the dismissal of the FT as one big swamp walk just isn't true. On the other hand, the claim that the FT only has two swamps - Big Cypress and Bradwell Bay - is just as preposterous. Sure, those might be the only swamps, but they're conveniently leaving out the numerous bogs, wetlands, and marshes!

I think my feet got wet on at least half the days I spent on trail. That's definitely more than on most other trails, but it wasn't every day. And often there was just one swampy section in the course of a day. As long as you're prepared for this reality and know how to take care of your feet, you'll be fine.

Happy Feet: This trail is tough on shoes and the contents therein. Stress fractures are a real possibility when you're striding the exact same way tens of thousands of times a day on flat, even, often paved surfaces. Replace your shoes before you think you need to, and realize that although your muscles and cardio can do 3 mph indefinitely, the rest of your body can't. Take it easy, take breaks, and do reasonably sized days until you get hardened up.

Community: There were supposedly several dozen hikers out there this year (NOBO starting after the New Year), but I saw very few of them. There are so many different town options that hikers just don't congregate in the same places, particularly if you're not spending a ton of time in town.

As previously mentioned, right now is the golden age of trail angeling along the FT. I hesitate to shout out any specific individuals here as I don't want them to get overrun with requests, but you'll find them if you keep your ear to the ground. More likely, they'll find you somehow!

Maps: The map situation on this trail is really quite rotten. FTA publishes a map set and guidebook, and markets them in a "thru-hiker bundle", which I duly bought. They are absolutely terrible. While the mapset is professionally produced, it's way too zoomed out to be of any practical value for on-the-ground navigation, the trail itself is drawn as an annoyingly thick line which obscures nearby details, it uses the terrible USGS "National Map" as a base, which makes it hard to distinguish roads from contour lines, and its numbering system that corresponds to the data book is weird and confusing. I had a resupply snafu result in losing all my maps for the second half of the trail, and I suffered not at all. If there were an actual good map set in existence, I would have loved to use it, but there just isn't.

Moreover, the FT is 100% flat, making it tough to navigate by map in a largely featureless landscape. If you get off the trail away from a river, road, or other obvious landform, your chances of finding the trail again via map are really quite small.

For these reasons, I'm going to recommend something I'd never advocate in any other circumstance or for any other trail: you're fine with just the Guthook app. It's mostly a follow-the-blazes affair, but especially when the trail interfaces with roads or more urban sections, you do want something detailed to zero in on your location, and Guthook does that for you. I'm not a huge fan of Guthook-reliance, but there really isn't a better practical choice on this particular trail.

Resupply: Resupply is actually a bit complicated on the FT, but because there are too many options, rather than too few. I made a big resupply chart beforehand and it proved mostly useless, as different re-routes and just looking at the map in detail brought me past a whole bunch of places where I could resupply, above and beyond what "the literature" had stated.

For those who prefer to buy as they go (most repeat-offender hikers, in my experience), I would send only one box - to River Ranch at mi ~230ish. Aside from that, you can do the entire rest of the trail either 1) without maildrops or 2) without getting in a car. River Ranch was my only box. I only got in a car once to resupply, a cheap Uber into Palatka. I'm also not picky and can resupply from a gas station, which I did several times.

There's a long "dry" stretch in northern Florida where you resupply almost exclusively out of Dollar General. If it's been a couple years since you've done a long hike, fear not: DG really stepped up its game and offers basically all the usual hiker staples.

There's an almost infinite number of gas stations and convenience stores on the route. For this reason, I'd suggest not making a resupply plan ahead of time and just planning ahead one or two stops. Several times, sections of the trail would be closed/re-routed, and those re-routes would go near a place I could stop and get a hot dog or even resupply.

Campsites: This trail has some truly awesome camping. Everything's flat and there's not a single rock in the entire state. The soil is almost always easy to get stakes into, and holds well. With the long nights of a winter thru-hike, it makes sense to pay a little more attention to campsite selection than it would in the middle of summer. I had many of the best campsites of my life in the FT.

There are designated campsites irregularly spaced along most of the route. You're generally not obligated to stay at them, but they're often quite lovely. These campsites often have designated fire rings and picnic tables. Though I didn't stay at a ton of these sites, the picnic tables make for a nice place to have lunch.

Camping on the roadwalks is quite rotten, illegal, or non-existent. With a little planning you can generally avoid camping on a roadwalk, but sometimes you're gonna have to hone your stealth game. Again, for the experienced thru-hiker, this probably won't be anything new.

Water: It's almost always abundant, but very frequently marginal. It's swamp water, after all It's always tannic and very rarely appealing. Filter or treat it, obviously. There are also plenty of "town" sources that you can tank up at, as well as the occasional water cache.

FT Part 3: Orlando to Pensacola

Since last we spoke, I walked through all three of Florida's National Forests. I hiked next to some incredibly beautiful rivers, through a National Wildlife Refuge, a US Air Force base, and a National Seashore. Oh yeah, and I finished the trail.

I must therefore offer a half-hearted apology for my inevitable dearth of updates recently. I wrote my first post after 100 miles, the second after 400, and this final one after 1100. Unlike my slow-and-steady approach to actual hiking, my approach to blogging is far more sporadic. Sorry-not-sorry.

Anyway, let's get right to the point:

National Disappointments: I had high hopes for Florida's three National Forests, but was let down a bit. Ocala National Forest was alright, but became monotonous. It didn't have the variety of vegetation that I had come to expect from the FT. Part of this was my fault - I skipped the side trails to a couple of gigantic sinkhole-like "springs" that are supposedly amazing. It was pouring rain when I went through and it just didn't seem like I'd appreciate them, given the circumstances.

Osceola National Forest was nice enough, but so small as to be barely noticeable. I hiked all the way through it in a day.

Apalachicola National Forest was another slog in the pouring rain. The trail routing through this section was completely ridiculous, as the map said things like "leave forest road to descend into swamp". Uh, no thank you. That sounds fine when it's 75 and sunny, less fine when it's 40 and raining sideways.

The Revenge of North Florida: As I left the peninsula of Florida behind and turned west into the Panhandle, the weather really took a turn for the worse. The southeast US has been getting hammered by rain this winter, and while the worst of it has stayed a bit north, we've gotten more than our fair share. For most of the second half of the hike, it rained for two days, then cleared up and got cold for two days (lows near freezing), got nice for one day, and then the whole cycle repeated. I had frost on my tent on a few mornings, and the tent hasn't dried off once since I hit the halfway mark. Aside from one round of severe storms, it's not been truly nasty most of the time, but just a low-grade "yuck" that always forces you to keep an eye on the forecast.

Oh, of course I slept in a bathroom on one occasion to get out of the rain.

True Delights: Weather aside, the second half of the trail really did pass through some wonderful places. While the National Forests mostly disappointed, I absolutely loved most of the other parts. The walks along the Suwanee and Aucilla rivers stand out in particular. I walked high on bluffs overlooking the river, with oak and palmetto lining the shores. The rivers themselves cut through the limestone that undergirds the entire state, and in the case of the Aucilla, the whole river disappears underground into a sinkhole at one point. Where it ended, there was the usual patina of algae and driftwood circling the drain, along with a few old couch cushions and assorted garbage. Eerie, but neat!

Eglin Air Force Base was paradoxically one of the most wild and wonderful places on the entire trail. Here, the forests are full of mature trees with a beautiful thinned-out understory. The trail crosses a number of creeks on beautifully-constructed footbridges, many of them covered in roofing shingles to keep you from slipping on algae-covered boards. Aside from the occasional thunder of a bomb going off (yes, really!), you'd never know you were on a military reservation.

I also hiked through a couple of private natural preserves, which were magnificent.

Beyond the Headlines: Remember when Hurricane Michael turned into a Category 5 storm and pummeled the Gulf coast in 2018? Well, it turns out that while the news cycle lasts a week or two, the actual devastation takes months or years to clean up. I hiked through a formerly gorgeous creek gorge that was almost completely leveled by the storm. At least three quarters of the trees were snapped off about half way up their trunks. There was one section where Florida Trail Association volunteers had cut thousands of trees - literally thousands in order to re-open the trail.

But beyond just the trail, the communities in the area are still cleaning up. Many homes are completely destroyed, and many others are sporting blue tarps on the roof. Some businesses that formerly served hikers are permanently closed, destroyed beyond repair by the storm. It will be years before these communities are rebuilt, and even then, they'll be forever changed by the storm.

True Generosity: Unusually for me, I stayed with a few trail angels in the last couple hundred miles of my journey. This was certainly unexpected, but they were so genuine, and so eager to help, that I took them up on their offers. I'm glad I did!

I think the Florida Trail right now is in a sort of "golden age" of trail angeling. There's a good community associated with the trail, but it's not (yet) so busy that these folks get overrun with requests. It was a true honor to stay with these folks, who are working tirelessly to promote the Florida trail and showing great hospitality. What a blessing!

An Anti-climatic Finish: The trail finishes at Fort Pickens, a Civil War-era Army installation on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. I strode toward the classy Florida Trail monument, which for some reason is 0.2 miles south of the actual end of the trail. I kept an eye out for the monument, but somehow missed it as there were a group of people standing in front of it. I arrived at the northern terminus, stopped, looked around, and had to backtrack to find the monument! It's by far the least impressive and dramatic finish I've ever had to a long hike, but really drove home the point - I loved this trail because I love hiking.

No drama. No story line of Overcoming My Fears And Finding Myself On The Yadda-Yadda Trail. I just like to spend time in beautiful places. And that's why I loved the Florida Trail.

What's Next: Hopefully a "quick tips" post about the Florida Trail to address some of the gaps in the existing corpus of FT knowledge. Then it's off to Arkansas to start my Central "time zone" hike: the Ouachita Trail.