THE PLACE TO GO WHEN YOU CAN'T GO BACKPACKING

Author

Andrew Grieve

Andrew Grieve has 7 articles published.

White Sauce – A Versatile Base for Backpacking Meals

in Food by
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Making sauces for Backpacking Meals might seem intimidating, but with a grasp of a few simple principles, you can make a basic white sauce and flavor it in a multitude of ways for gourmet cooking while on the trail. Cooking up a homemade mac and cheese on day five will make you a hero with any group!

The essence of a good sauce is a flavourful liquid and a thickener. To make my trail preparation easier, I typically combine as many ingredients together as I can at home, breaking up the recipe into manageable stages. I number the bags, hydrate in each bag during preparation and put the instructions in the outer bag.

White sauce can be combined with any pasta (or rice), flavor and protein, cheese or vegetarian ingredients you want. Essentially it is a creamy delivery system which, once mastered, can be used for surprisingly good meals with great ease. You can scale up the liquid portion if the oil/flour ratio is also scaled up.  Typically, one cup of liquid can be thickened to a medium white sauce with two tablespoons each of oil and flour.

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Farfalle Carbonara with Clams

3 – 4 oz. dried farfalle (bowties)

1 tbsp. Grapeseed oil (high burn temperature and perfect for camp stoves!)

1 tbsp. butter

2 tbsp. flour

Bag 1 – 1 tbsp. Dehydrated onion flakes / 1 tsp. Freeze dried garlic (Litehouse brand is good)

Bag 2 – 1/3 cup milk powder / 1-2 tsp dried chicken or vegetable stock / 1 tsp. dried parsley / ½ tsp dried tarragon / salt / pepper. Medium size bag.

Bag 3 – 8 oz. can clams (dehydrated) / 1 tbsp. bacon bits / 1 tbsp. dehydrated roasted red peppers thinly sliced

Grated parmesan cheese to taste

Add water to Bag 1 and Bag 3 to cover and wait till fully hydrated. Cook farfalle while waiting. When cooked drain and transfer to the large zip lock the whole meal was in. Pour excess water (now flavored!) out of Bag 1 and 3 into Bag 2 and bring it up to measure one cup.

Place oil and butter in a saucepan and briefly cook onion and garlic (Bag 1). This opens up the flavors that dehydrating often traps. Using a combination of oil and butter helps prevent the butter from burning. Lower the temperature a little and put in the flour.  This is your thickener and needs to be cooked a minute or so to eliminate the floury taste. Watch that it doesn’t brown. Take off the heat and gradually add milk/stock (Bag 2), stirring to prevent lumps. Return to heat and add clams, bacon, and peppers (Bag 3). Bring to a light boil until thickened. Be careful not to burn the milk. Add drained cooked farfalle and grated parmesan to the sauce. Stir and enjoy.

Makes one large serving

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What’s In Your Ditty Bag?

in Community/Gear/Skills by
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If you look at your list of backpacking equipment, it breaks down into relatively few items grouped by activity: There are shelter items which will range from a tent to a simple tarp or hammock. Sleeping items may include a sleeping bag or quilt, bag liner  and a pad of some sort, either inflatable or otherwise.  For cooking you will include a stove, fuel, cooking pot, a cup and a spoon and a food bag. Finally, clothing will be customized to suit the season.

The list of individual items, however, gets longer when you start to consider all of the small items you bring along.

Why do we have these things?  Typically it is because at some time in our experience, we have wished we had X-object, and it wasn’t there.

Good example: Try doing anything without duct tape!

This is where the ditty bag comes in. I use a nylon zip top bag (in my case a medium Outdoor Research product) with all items inside in clear zip locks. For tiny zip lock bags to hold small items (such as pills or AAA batteries), I go to the craft section of my local dollar store. The bag then goes with me into my tent at night.

The items I carry break out into three categories: Hygiene and health, repair and miscellaneous.

  1. Hygiene and Health
  • Small first aid kit containg antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen, alcohol pads, anti-diarrhea, antacid, sunscreen, sting relief, moleskin, band aids, surgical tape (I wrap some around a small dowel to avoid the whole roll), small wound dressing pad and steri-strips.
  • Toothbrush and paste. I have tried to make dried paste dots many times, but haven’t mastered it, so I use a small travel tube. Folklore says to saw the handle off your toothbrush if you are a weight weenie.
  • Toilet paper. Pull the tube out of a half-used roll, then flatten.
  • Wet wipes (separately zip-locked and in the same bag as the toilet paper along with the antibiotic ointment)
  • Water purifying tabs
  • Liquid soap (in a small drop bottle)
  • Ear plugs. For others – I snore.

Ditty bag 2

  1. Repair
  • Patch kit for pad & a few squares of nylon
  • Crazy glue
  • Tenacious tape
  • Cord locks
  • Pencil (a 4.5 cm stump with eraser)
  • Paper

I also roll 6 or so metres of duct tape onto one of my hiking poles.

Ditty bag 3

  1. Miscellaneous
  • Compass. Mine has a mirror so I can see how terrible I look after a week out.
  • Headlamp
  • Spare batteries (I try to use the same batteries for all lighting)
  • Small lighter (in addition to the one in my cook kit)
  • Windproof matches
  • Small knife (Leatherman Style). I look for scissors on a knife.
  • 10 metres of 2.5mm paracord
  • Sil nylon throw bag (for hanging food)
  • Pencil flare gun with flares
  • Money and I.D
  • Book / glasses

Ditty bag 4

Total weight:  869 gms

 

Your ditty bag will include some of the same items and, no doubt, items that you come up with yourself. For some great ideas, look at the many videos on YouTube by searching “ditty bag”.

 

Trip Report: New Hampshire’s Pemi Loop

in Community/Trails by

31.5 miles, 18,000 feet of elevation change, 12 – 4000+ footers, White Mountain Guide book time: 20 hours and 17 minutes. The Pemigewasset Wilderness in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is a granite spined labyrinth of dense forest, steep slopes and sweeping views from high above the tree line. The Pemi Loop circles the western half of the wilderness on a chain of mountains which has, at its center, the wooded summit of Owls Head.

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You won’t find the Pemi Loop in the most recent 29th edition of the White Mountain Guide as it represents a near mythical combination of six trails (clockwise – Lincoln Woods, Osseo, Franconia Ridge, Garfield Ridge, Twinway and Bondcliff, Lincoln Woods) which, if hiked together, produce a loop trail over some of the most beautiful sections of trail in the area.  Buy a copy of the guide with all four maps of the Whites or rely on the Franconia-Pemigawasset map which is available separately in a waterproof version (this proved useful during my trip).

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Access to the trail is through the Lincoln Woods Visitors Center on the Kancamagus Highway five miles east of Lincoln N.H. There are many USFS campgrounds immediately around the visitor’s center (Big Rock and Hancock campgrounds on the Kancamagus) which would permit you to camp out and get an early start.  I chose to stay overnight in Lincoln, 15 minutes from the trailhead, setting me up for an 8 AM start. Overnight parking is available at the rate of $3 per day, payable through a self-service station.  Backcountry camping is permitted in either of two ways: by self-selection following the USFS rules, or at the designated campsites.

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The USFS rules for the White Mountains: no camping (i) within 1/4 mile of any hut, shelter, campsite or trailhead; (ii) above tree line; (iii) within 200 feet of any trail; (iv) within 1/4 mile of the Pemigewasset River.

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These rules, along with the general shortage of water and the steep terrain, means you either carry water and camp or descend to find water to camp near. Given the already significant elevation gain, this supports the use of the designated campsites.

There are three such campsites on the loop: Liberty Spring, Garfield Ridge and Guyot.  Additionally, Galehead Hut with full bunkhouse and meals at the mid-point is available through pre-booking. Off trail, 1.1 miles down a steep descent, Greenleaf Hut is also available when pre-booked.  The campsites have available water, tent platforms and seasonal caretakers. They are not reservable and operate on a first come, first serve basis with overflow available during the busy season.  Campsite fees are $8 per night per person.

Plan to carry water as the ridges are dry and represent a large percentage of the trail.  Water is available at the campsites, Galehead Hut and at Garfield Pond after the descent off Mt. Lafayette. The 0.3 mile descent to Liberty Springs Campsite steep and time consuming even without a pack, but does permit you to carry water to that point and then replenish before the remainder of Franconia Ridge.

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I chose to complete the loop in three days in a clockwise circuit, the most typical direction. The plan for the first day can be difficult. You can choose a short or part day to Liberty Spring Campsite, a long day to Garfield or a pre-booking at Greenleaf Hut off trail.  After that, Guyot Campsite evenly splits the remaining miles.

Each end of the trail is on an abandoned railroad bed which means a fast easy grade for the first and last few miles. After walking the old rail line I turned up the Osseo Trail and began the ascent up Mt. Flume through the trees to the start of Franconia Ridge. On the ridge above the tree line, weather plays a large role as you’re exposed to the elements for over five miles; wind proofs are greatly appreciated. On my first day I was in and out of the clouds with full or partial views into the Wilderness and outward to the rest of the Presidential Range.

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I had originally planned to go to Garfield Ridge Campsite on day one, but even with an 8 AM start I found myself in the clouds and high winds on top of Mt. Lafayette (5700’) at 5 PM which was too late to descend two hours and then ascend Garfield Ridge to the campsite before dark. At 7 PM, after eleven hours of hiking, I arrived at Garfield Pond where, with a bit of bushwhacking, I was able to find enough level ground for my tent before dark. Seth and Ben, who I met earlier on Mt. Liberty (Seth had suggested Garfield Pond as an option) chose to hammock at the pond rather than face Mt. Garfield in the dark.

On day two, an early morning and clear, cool weather made the climb up Garfield and the descent to Galehead Hut very picturesque.

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Galehead Hut (est. 1932 and rebuilt after a fire in 2000) is located on the trail between Mt. Garfield and South Twin Mountain. It’s worth setting some time aside for.  Snacks and hot drinks can be purchased and water bottles filled up.

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I was lucky enough to run into some AT Thru-hikers enroute to Maine at Galehead. They were aiming for a finish in approximately three weeks or mid-October. They were already feeling the end of their trail which had started in late March or early April. Talking to them brought back memories of my 1986 north to south thru hike.

Leaving Galehead Hut puts you immediately on the Twinway Trail up South Twin Mountain. It’s a knee-busting 0.8 mile section of trail rising on classic White Mountain granite steps 1,200 feet to the summit. I topped out early afternoon and then descended to Guyot Campsite for a 4 PM finish to the day.

Guyot was busy, but I was able to get one of the last double tent platforms, sharing with three other tents.  Guyot has four single platforms, two doubles, an Adirondack-style shelter which sleeps 12 as well as overflow sites.  The platforms are preferable as the water source is central to the platforms, but they’re well down the slope from the overflow sites, making water carrying necessary.

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Rain began overnight and turned into drizzle for the final day as I ascended the Bonds on the Bondcliff Trail.  This portion has a significant part above the tree line which made for spectacular views, even with limit visibility.  The final portion of the trail is a steady descent to the Lincoln Woods Trail, approximately three miles of generally level rail trail. I was out of the woods at two in the afternoon.

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In terms of gear, in general I took my lightest gear because of the elevation change and the need to carry water.  For example, I treated water with tablets rather than a filter to save weight, and I had no issues. I took into account the elevation, weather, temperature (low 50s) and exposure and carried shell layers which are perhaps more important than insulating layers. I made sure that I waterproofed my pack and bedding. Lunch lounging was not an option because of the exposure, so I took snacks for the day and made sure that I ate regularly given the temperature and strenuous trail.  Having containers to carry water is a must, and my Platypus containers allowed me to carry up to 4 litres. This was useful in camp. Putting a warm layer in a waterproof bag on the outside of my pack for breaks was handy. I chose a synthetic fill jacket as it gradually got wet over several days but still remained warm.

The trail can be accessed from other points around its perimeter, so an entirely different hike could be planned based upon those optional trailheads. An example would be starting at the Liberty Spring trailhead, hiking up to the campsite and then on to the loop. The Garfield Ridge Trail is another example, as is the route up through Greenleaf Hut. As well, the trail has side routes to four other 4000 footers which can be added as side trips.

The next day I wrapped the trip up by taking the Mt. Washington Cog Railway to the summit and experienced the 75 mile per hour gusts without having to hike up and down – a decision I was very happy about!

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I stayed overnight in Lincoln pre-trip, the White Mountain Hostel in Conway post trip (which I highly recommend) and Gorham, a classic AT trail town, on the way home.

I’m hooked and will definitely be back to hike the loop again.

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Andrew Grieve is a commercial lawyer by trade and an avid backpacker and endurance athlete by choice. From the Boy Scouts in eastern Canada through an Appalachian Trail end to end hike and Mt. McKinley’s West Buttress he has been on most eastern trails and mountains in winter and summer. When not beer drinking with his photo group he can be found at home in Toronto with his awesome family dehydrating food, making lists and planning his next adventure.

The Case for Better Car Camping

in Community/Skills by
Photo by John Allen Flickr.com
Car Camping
Photo by Felix Neumann Flickr.com

After reading a lot of articles recently about the decline of car camping as a recreational activity, I began to wonder why. This article addresses that question and makes a modest proposal for a new way to look at car camping.

Unfortunately, when it comes to quality camping equipment, the niche of car camping has not been properly filled. Sure, if you’re an avid backpacker, as I am, you have lots of quality options. Quilt vs. sleeping bag, gravity feed filter versus pump, tent versus tarp or alcohol stove versus pressurized. It’s easy to experience 900 fill down envy while in your 850 fill bag.

When it comes to car camping, however, you have: big box stores versus, well, big box stores; pvc air mattress versus memory foam; and, skin-so-soft lotion versus mosquito coils.

Why is that? Do we yearn for those days in our teens and twenties when the campsite flooded and the tent collapsed? Is it fond memories of waking up on a deflated air mattress that you just bought? Did that partially cooked hamburger taste any better because it was cooked on a dirty grill over an open fire?

Car camping doesn’t have to be an ordeal experienced once a year, filed under the tag “What the hell were we thinking?” and then left to mildew in your garage until next season.

What can be done?

Here is what you need to consider if you want all of the great benefits of camping (closeness to nature’s heart, low nightly price, get up and go freedom) without the downside of typical car camping.

General

  1. Be prepared to spend $825 – $1200 dollars for a full kit. This will seem like a large amount right off the bat, but it will pay for itself with reuse, and the quality of the experience will guarantee reuse. Spending half that amount for equipment that will fail, make you miserable and then never be reused is a false economy. In that regard, I wonder why inexpensive equipment makers foster their own demise by making such equipment. This might explain the decline in camping. I will detail below the categories of equipment you will need immediately and things you can add later.
  2. Take care of your equipment. After each trip, make sure your equipment is dry and clean before you store it. Store it in a dry place in containers for easy access for a quick weekend getaway. Before each season, take it out and make sure everything is still there and hasn’t been dipped into in the off season. Decent, quality equipment well-looked-after will last for years. I have tents that are over ten-years-old and that are still working well.
  3. Break your equipment into logical containers for ease of grab-and-go. There are many sturdy plastic commercial containers in a number of sizes that stack for easy packing. Buy a set, and use one each for your kitchen box, general gear and non-perishable food not in your cooler.

 

Car Camping
Photo by Eirik Solheim Flickr.com

Tents

  1. Tent pricing – A 4 or 6 person tent with the quality features below, at the time of this article, will sell for approximately the following:
  • 4 person – $350-$400
  • 6 person – $400-$550.

This will be your biggest single expenditure. If you want to look at this as a travel cost (without considering the advantages of camping itself), weigh that cost against a motel/hotel night, and you’ll see that it won’t take long to recoup your money. A rainy night where you get up and everybody else in the campground is soggy except for you also has its own rewards. Not that you’re gloating.

  1. Tent capacity – Tents are sold based on their apparent capacity i.e. 4 man, 6 man etc…. Manufacturers will over-claim so you think “Hey! We have 6 kids plus two adults so an 8 man is just the ticket and, look! It is only $250.” If you value your sanity do not – repeat – do not try to camp with 8 people in a tent. For comfort, divide the manufacturer’s claim roughly in half. Or use the formula 3=2, 5=3, 7=4. This will leave some portion of the floor unused for your inevitable gear and not just bodies lying down. I use an REI Kingdom 6 for my wife and myself.
  1. Tent features – A quality tent will have the following features:
  • aluminum poles not fiberglass
  • shock cording in the poles (stretchy cord that keeps the poles together)
  • taped seams that do not require additional waterproofing
  • good ventilation in the form of lots of screens
  • an available custom footprint (typically sold separately)
  • a fly that goes all the way to the ground instead of just the top
  • walls that are as near to vertical as possible to accommodate cots and make the interior feel larger
  • a storage bag that is big enough to be used easily rather than a tiny factory packed bag that makes it look small, but can never be used again
  • storage pockets inside for small items
  • an anchor point in the ceiling to hang a light or fan
  • good quality aluminum tent pegs
  • a back door and vestibule for bonus points
  1. Multiple tents – If you have a large family, consider more than one tent. The adults and small children can be in the main tent on cots, and the older children can be in good-quality two-person tents, on sleeping pads, on the same site. This means fun for everyone (what kid doesn’t love a tent!), you can keep tent quality up by spreading the numbers around and that smaller tents and mattresses can also double for backpacking trips.
  1. Knowledgeable retailer – Try to buy your tent from a retailer that understands tents. Big box stores will not be able to provide you with much advice and will likely not have detailed knowledge about what will be a seasonal product. The MEC in Canada and REI in the U.S. are examples of helpful stores. Reputable family tent brands include the MEC and REI brands, Eureka, Big Agnes, Marmot, North Face and Ticla, among others.

 

Car Camping
Photo by John Murphy Flickr.com

Sleeping

So, you’ve now committed and bought a quality tent that will protect you from the elements. A good night’s rest to go with that is next.

  1. One word – cots. Thinking back to your camping experiences, you will realize that the act of sleeping on the ground has been the basis for many of your less than fond memories. That tree root in your back after your queen mattress went flat, flopping your arm off the mattress when it didn’t go flat and splashing into a puddle on the floor, waking up to find you have migrated off your mattress in the night and, finally, trying to get up in the middle of the night from the floor without crawling over your tent mate.

The answer? Get a cot. This is where the big box retailers come in handy. Go to their camping section in-season, ignore the 28-person tent for $189 and the queen mattress with the self-inflating solar motor. Pick up a couple of folding camp cots, looking for the ones that are a little wider than the usual 29” (32” is good). They run about $50 each and will rock your car camping world.

You can sit on them to take your socks off! Getting up is like, well, getting up from a bed. They keep you off the uneven floor, away from potential water, and, because air flows under them, they are cooler in summer than an air mattress. They zip into their own bag, transport easily in a car and will get lots of use when the relatives come over on the holidays and on sunny days in the back yard. To make them extra comfy, put a thin sleeping pad on each as a bonus.

  1. Sleeping Bags – if you use a cot, you can bring a single sheet and a light sleeping bag that zips fully open and make-up a real bed. Summer camping doesn’t require much warmth, especially in a tent, which can warm up. To that end, synthetic fill bags are fine and much less expensive than down bags. Remember that, and don’t over do it by bringing a three season or winter bag. 10C rating for the summer is plenty. A sweaty night is an unhappy night. Cost: $50 – $100.
  1. Pillows – don’t forget them. This is car camping, after all.

 

Car Camping
Photo by m01229 Flickr.com

Kitchen

Campfires are very romantic. Trying to make coffee in the morning over one is not. Get over the romance and set up a proper kitchen with a few basic items. Save the campfire for s’mores and late night fire watching.

  1. Stove – a two burner stove that folds into its own case is critical. Fuel options include white gas or propane, with propane becoming the standard. The one pound, green propane canisters are available everywhere. When comparing, look for the BTU rating for the stove and the size of the top surface. Where possible, buy a better quality stove if the price difference is not great, given that stoves have a very long life span. I am still using a white gas Coleman I bought 25 years ago and hope to upgrade to propane – if it ever quits! If your stove has an optional folding stand, buy it if you can, as it will free up picnic table space. Reputable stove companies include Coleman, Camp Chef and Primus. Cost will range from $100 to $150
  1. Kitchen Box – set up a separate kitchen box with dollar store or yard sale cutlery and utensils, such as a cooking knife, a big cooking spoon, a spatula, a small whisk, plastic plates, bowls and cups, coffee cups, a cutting board, a two liter cook pot, a frying pan and a coffee maker (I use a French press when camping and pack a plastic version to avoid breakage) and a thermos to keep coffee hot for late risers. For clean up, include a square, plastic container for washing dishes, dish soap, a scrubber and a drying towel. Don’t be tempted to stock this box from your own kitchen before each trip, as you will inevitably forget items and end up buying them at increased cost in some local town. The whole kit with everything shouldn’t cost more than $75.
  1. Cooler – make sure that it’s a good size. Critical features include a hinged lid and drain plug. Wheeled models might be useful on rough terrain. Putting items in square, plastic containers in the cooler (other than the ever important beverages) keeps them out of the water at the bottom and makes it easier to find things. Rinse it out and air dry it after each use to avoid the funky cooler problem. Cost: $50 – $75.

 

Car Camping
Photo by John Allen Flickr.com

Other Essential Gear

  • Lantern – get a propane lantern that uses the same fuel as your stove. Add a battery version for inside the tent. Cost: $50
  • Clothes line with pegs – don’t place it in a walk through area or you will take your head off. Trust me.
  • Camp chairs – many types available from most basic to really-amazing-footrest-included versions. Indulge your fancy in that department. Cost: $15 – $75
  • Hammer – for tent pegs and whacking moles if you encounter that typical camping problem.
  • Table cloth (plastic) for the picnic table – this small bit of gracious living makes a huge difference in the feel of camping meals. Pick up some table cloth clips at the dollar store to avoid a blow away.
  • Flashlights – one for everyone. You can get packages with multiple flashlights in them. Always buy so that they all use the same size battery.
  • Small piece of carpet for inside the tent door to catch dirt/sand
  • Dust Sweeper – for the tent floor

 

Optional Gear (can be added later)

  • Dining Tent – should be at the top of your next purchase list. Look for the same quality as your tent. It will be cheaper than a tent, as it’s more basic (no floor, no fly etc…). Especially nice to avoid the bugs. Avoid the bargain dining tents, as they typically last only two seasons, and then clutter up your garage forever. Cost: $250
  • BBQ – a small portable propane BBQ that uses the same fuel as your stove is handy. Look for one that folds up into its own case for cleaner packing. Cost: $50
  • Bedside table – when using cots, you will be raised off the floor leaving your glasses, book, a bedside light or clock on the floor. A small folding table is handy to address this. Cost: $20
  • Folding table – Full height. A handy item to expand your kitchen space or if the picnic table is messy. Cost $100
  • Ceiling Fan / light – Battery operated. I got one with a remote so I can turn it off from bed! Look for the lights that you put on backyard umbrellas. Cost: $25
  • Other appliances – the world of gadgets is endless. Examples are: toaster ovens, coffee makers, hot water heaters etc… If you consider these, look at getting gadgets that are compatible with the fuel you use.

The Basics for Two

 

Item                                                                  #                                  Total

 

Tent                                                                 1                                  $350 – $550

Cots                                                                 2                                 $100

Sleeping Bags                                                 2                                  $100 – $200

Stove                                                               1                                  $100 – $150

Kitchen Box                                                     1                                  $75

Cooler                                                              1                                  $50 – $75

Lantern                                                            1                                  $50

 

Total                                                                                                    $825 – $1200

Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail on Vancouver Island

in Trails by
Beach Access

Vancouver Island British Columbia has many fine hiking trails including the world famous West Coast Trail on the southwest coast. Unfortunately, the quota system for the WCT makes it hard to access. The answer, I discovered, is to hike the lesser known Juan de Fuca Marine trail, established in 1995, which runs 30 miles along the same coast line from Sooke to Port Renfrew. The Juan de Fuca has not yet imposed a quota system and, at least when I hiked it over an Easter long weekend in April, it is a quiet trail with long stretches of stunning coastline.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
China Beach

The trail runs from China Beach in the east to Botanical Beach in the west and has developed campsites enroute, which vary from beach front to forest. It is designated as a wilderness hiking trail due to the rugged terrain and potentially unstable conditions of the trail. I flew into Victoria British Columbia by floatplane from Vancouver and rented a car for the winding coastal drive to Port Renfrew on the west end of the trail.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Floatplane Base, Coal Harbour, Vancouver

Mountain Equipment Co-op, located within walking distance of the harbour in Victoria, is a great spot for last minute supplies such as fuel. Port Renfrew is a small coastal town, and I stayed at the Soule Creek Lodge overnight and had a gourmet dinner prepared by the two brothers who run the Lodge. In the morning, I dropped my rental car at the Botanical Beach parking lot and then one of the staff from the lodge ferried me to the China Beach end of the trail. During the summer season, there is a shuttle service that runs the length of the trail and which drops off at the major trail heads.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Split Log Staircase

My plan was to do the trail in four days with three overnights, which worked out perfectly. My distances for the four days were:

China Beach to Bear Beach – 6 miles
Bear Beach to Sombrio Beach – 10 miles
Sombrio Beach to Payzant Creek – 9 miles
Payzant Creek to Botanical Beach – 5 miles

The trail is challenging in parts (especially the middle sections) as it follows the coast and drops down into ravines created by streams running into the ocean and then goes back up and over the next cut. Markings are good, and there has been a significant amount of trail construction completed with suspension bridges, stair cases and seven well laid out campsites.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Minute Creek Suspension Bridge

As with all coastal hiking, carrying a tide table is essential. While options are available for high tide routes in some instances, headlands cut off the beach in six places at high tide and make it impassable. The tide chart for this section is Canadian Tide Table Port Renfrew (#8525) using Pacific time. Orange balls are in place to mark the exits from the beach to the trail.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Beach Access Marker

Many portions of the trail are directly on the beach which varies from pure sand to fist sized rocks and upward to football sized rocks. The latter were slippery and difficult to hike, and my hiking poles were a great help. The size and severity of the winter storms along the coast can be seen by the giant shredded logs strewn about and the thicket of detritus at the high water mark.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Bear Beach Looking East at Low Tide

I camped at Bear Beach, Sombrio Beach and Payzant Creek. Camping fees are $10/person per night and can be paid at drop boxes at each campsite on an honor system. Along the trail, water is readily available from streams, and so I carried very little water during the day, choosing to treat day-time water and filter in camp at night.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Waterfall East of Sombrio Beach

All designated campsites have a central aluminum lockers for food storage, as Vancouver Island reportedly has the highest concentration of mountain lions and black bears in North America.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Food Cache Payzant Creek

In that regard, the density of the old growth forest makes it difficult to see more than ten feet into the forest and so, being alone, I carried bells on my pack to announce my presence. One day at lunch, I was sitting eating a pack of tuna looking at the ocean with the forest directly behind me. It suddenly occurred to me that I might end up being someone’s lunch myself, and so I shifted my view to also take in the forest just in case!

Sombrio Beach, my second night camp, was the former location of a 30 year squatter community of 20 or so families who raised their children on the beach (one family reportedly had 10 children!) until the encampment was dismantled in 1997 and the park/trail was developed. The documentary Sombrio tells their story. The location is still popular with the surfing community who camp and surf when conditions are good.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Sombrio Beach from the East

When planning for the trip, I looked at weather forecasts and temperatures and packed for what I expected to be a wet trip. However, I was blessed with four straight days of sunshine and very moderate temperatures, which I later found out is more typical of the southern coast of Vancouver Island because of the rain shadow caused by the mountains in the middle of the island. The rainy season in the area stretches from October to April in most years.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Payzant Creek – Camp 3

Botanical Beach at the end of my hike is renowned for its tidal pools and is easily accessible from Port Renfrew. I didn’t get a chance to look around as I was eager to get back to Victoria and my hotel on the harbour prior to my flight back to Vancouver and then on by car to a family wedding in Kelowna. I did, however stop in for lunch at the Coastal Kitchen Café in Port Renfrew for the best salmon burger I have ever eaten paired with a local craft beer. Delicious!

 

Overall, an excellent and accessible short trail with all of the best features of coastal hiking in a beautiful part of Vancouver Island.

By the Shining-Big-Sea Waters – A Week at Isle Royale National Park

in Trails by
Welcome to Windigo

“Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water” – The Song of Hiawatha

With credit to Longfellow, there is really no other way to describe the natural beauty found at Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale National Park

The park is located in Lake Superior 56 miles north of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula and only 20 miles south of the province of Ontario in Canada. At 45 miles long by 9 miles wide and 800’ above sea level, it is the largest natural island on Lake Superior, boasting over 170 miles of trails. The park, one of few closed during the winter (November 1 to April 16), has seasonal ferry and air service, which can have a shorter season— so checking operating times for those services is essential.

The primary trail on the island is the Greenstone, which runs down its spine from end to end, topping out at Mt. Desor (1394’). Other trails criss-cross the island or run along the coast on both the north and south side of the primarily east/west lying island.
Anchoring both ends of the Greenstone are the key Park entrances at Rock Harbor and Windigo. Both locations have small stores with food and fuel available as well as Ranger stations for permits and information. At Rock Harbor, the Park grants a concession to the Rock Harbor Lodge, which has accommodation, a restaurant and grill. Cabins are also available to rent at Windigo on a more limited basis.

Access to the island is by either: ferry service running out of Copper Harbor and Houghton, Michigan, as well as Grand Portage Minnesota (2-6 hours approximately); floatplane service out of Houghton (35 minutes); or, private craft. The ferry lands regularly at both ends of the Greenstone and, upon request, at various coastal campgrounds around the island. My friend Mark and I opted for the floatplane service to maximize our time on the island, get a great view of the terrain and because it’s fun. O.k., mostly because it’s fun.

Isle Royale National Park

Water plays a significant part in the Isle Royale experience. The coastal trails either follow the shoreline or command views across the lake from the ridges. Campsites on the coast bustle with kayaks, pleasure craft (both motor and sail), swimmers and every other person is discussing what lures are best for what appeared to be exceptional fishing.

Isle Royale National Park

On that note, I was offered a large northern pike caught at McCargoe Cove by two hikers who were leaving on the afternoon ferry. Fresh fish for dinner after dried food for a week was a real treat. Fishing on interior lakes can be done without permits provided barbless hooks are used. For Lake Superior, permits are required and are available on a daily basis at both Windigo and Rock Harbor.

Isle Royale National Park

We opted to be dropped off at Windigo and spent 5 days walking the island end to end (45 miles) back to Rock Harbor for our floatplane pick up. As campsites are limited and the terrain so rugged that off trail hiking or camping is difficult, if not impossible, a concern we had was finding a spot after a long day of hiking. This lead us to the less travelled but more rugged Minong Trail, which runs along the north shore. Overnight locations must be listed when you register upon arrival at the island but, unlike other National Parks, the permit can change provided that you notify them at the end so they can use your nightly locations for planning purposes. This allows enroute planning based on weather or other issues.

Isle Royale National Park

Reminiscent of hiking in Pennsylvania, the Minong Trail consists of a climb to the north ridge from Windigo, then a series of rolling climbs from low wetlands to open ridge tops. The trail provids beautiful scenery and relative quiet in comparison to the more popular Greenstone. The other benefit we realized from talking to hikers on the Greenstone (which we joined half way as the Minong ended) was that the best campgrounds are coastal, but, from the Greenstone, they require a descent at the end of each day and a climb each morning to reach. Keeping your pack weight down pays off at the end of a long day of ups and down on this trail.

Isle Royale National Park

Water is not readily available on the Minong Trail except at the campgrounds and lakes. We carried approximately 3 liters each per day which, given the heat in August, was worthwhile. Campgrounds have a mix of Adirondack style shelters (complete with screening) and tent sites, which varied in number depending upon the popularity of the location, its proximity to either Rock Harbor or Windigo and whether it was a coastal ferry stop.

Our timing on the island also had an added bonus as the raspberries, blueberries and thimbleberries (a member of the rose family and prolific on the island) were all ripe and slowed us down on occasion.

Isle Royale National Park

The Minong trail was reasonably easy to follow except on the open ridges where you have to rely on rock cairns and watch for points where the trail dips off one side of the ridge or the other back into the forest. The wetland areas are, as is typical in the east, frequented by beavers, so parts of the trail were across small dams and over or around the ponds they create. After we crossed over to the Greenstone on the approach to Rock Harbor, we crested Mt. Ojibway and climbed the fire tower on top for a full view of the island.

Isle Royale National Park 8

The island does not have either bears or deer, but does (apparently) have a large moose population and a small pack of wolves. We didn’t see any of either, but we did see a fox in camp and, based upon advice from the Rangers, we hung our food when tenting to keep it away from the foxes, which are notorious for stealing everything from food to hiking boots.

Overall, I would recommend Isle Royale as a destination hike. We planned our route without being aware of the coastal ferry and, after seeing many hikers use the ferry to hop from one campsite trailhead around the island to another, I think I would try to work that into a schedule to open up a more flexible route. As well, we asked for a tour of the Rock Harbor Lodge and, after looking at their rooms, which all have amazing waterfront views of Lake Superior, I would recommend booking a room for the end of a hike. Their outdoor grill patio is very pleasant and the Keweenaw Brewing Company beer (“KBC”) on tap (one of many local breweries in the Upper Peninsula) assists highly in that regard! Finally, I might mix both a flight and the ferry into the trip as the opportunity to relax on the ferry at the end looked attractive as we sat dockside in Rock Harbor waiting for the floatplane.

Isle Royale National Park

 

Hiking the Corridor in the Grand Canyon

in Community/Trails by
Along the Plateau Point Trail

I had the good fortune this Spring to be able to travel to Arizona and backpack for ten days in the Grand Canyon. My original plan was to do a one week North Rim trip with a guiding company, but I decided to add a 3 day solo trip to take in the South Rim as well. This is an account of my solo trip.

Grand Canyon
Sunset on the South Rim

Access to the canyon is typically available through Flagstaff Arizona on Route 66 where a regular shuttle service picks up from the Amtrak station downtown. The drive up to South Rim Village takes just under two hours, and the shuttle drops off at all of the hotels in the village. I chose the Bright Angel Lodge, which is one of the historic hotels on the Rim and, due to the elevation, enjoyed a beautiful cool night before my hike.

The park service runs free shuttle buses all along the South Rim to the various trailheads, the information center, trail store and the ranger station. Several early shuttles run express to the South Kaibab trailhead, which, along with the Bright Angel trail (starting immediately beside the hotels in the Village), is one of the two main access trails from the South Rim in what is called the corridor.

Grand Canyon
The Colorado River from the Redwall

I arrived at the trailhead at 9:00 am and filled up my water bottles and bladders at the pump and added them to my backpack for a total weight of 30 lbs. There is no water available on the South Kaibab, so carrying at least three liters for the 7.5 mile hike (descending 4700’) is essential.

From the South Rim the night before, I had wondered how there could be a trail down what appeared to be near vertical rock walls. Although there was a trail, the near vertical part was still true!  The trail, which first descended down Pipe Creek Canyon through the Kaibab Limestone and Toroweap Formation to the aptly named Ooh-ahh Point, was steep and narrow with wooden logs set into the trail for footing. The trail then rounded Yaki Point, which is visible from the Village, and the views of the eastern canyon opened up. After hiking down through the Coconino Sandstone layer I took a break at Cedar Ridge where shade trees and restrooms are available.

Grand Canyon
Cedar Ridge

Canyon hiking is, at first, difficult to understand because, unlike typical mountain hiking, you effectively begin at the top of the mountain where it is cool and you hike to the bottom where it is warm.  As the signs say along the trail, “Down is optional but up is mandatory.”  What the temperature change meant to me was that I began the morning in the low fifties with a light layer on and, by early afternoon as I neared the bottom, the temperatures had gone up to the mid-nineties.  This is where sunblock, sunglasses, a broad brimmed hat and lots of water made sense. I spoke to a ranger at Cedar Ridge and he told me of a rescue made necessary when an exhausted hiker made it to the river after seven miles downhill only to realize that the hard part, the ascent, still had to be done.

Grand Canyon
South Kaibab Mule Train

The Hermit Shale, Supai Supergroup and the steep Redwall layers (as well as two ascending mule trains) remained before the Colorado river footbridge after about 4 hours of hiking.

Grand Canyon
Upper Footbridge – South Kaibab Trail

Two foot bridges cross the river, one at the end of the South Kaibab, and the other downriver at the start of the Bright Angel Trail.

The Bright Angel Campground (2400’) and the Phantom Ranch (2460’) are on the other side of the river, and the North Kaibab Trail continues past the ranch and onward up to the North Rim.  A popular hike is Rim to Rim via the South and North Kaibab Trails with a shuttle available for the five hour drive back to the South Rim. That hike is typically divided by either a stay at the Phantom Ranch in the bunkhouses or at the Bright Angel Campground where I had reserved a site.

Grand Canyon
Switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail

The Park Service controls camping in the canyon through a permit system for campsites.  All sites open up on the first day of the month, three months ahead of when you want to camp.  It’s a lottery system, and demand usually runs about 10:1 for requests against available sites.  I was able to get sites at Bright Angel and Indian Garden, which is on the 9.3 mile Bright Angel Trail at roughly the half-way point to the rim.

Bright Angel campground— on Bright Angel Creek, which flows into the Colorado— is a green oasis downstream from the Phantom Ranch.  The Ranch has a canteen, which serves cold drinks and snacks as well as meals, which must be booked well in advance. While relaxing in the canteen with a few cold Amber Ales from the Grand Canyon Brewing Company and writing postcards for mule delivery, I couldn’t think of a better ending for a long, hot day out.

Grand Canyon
Phantom Ranch

That evening, I went to a ranger talk on early canyon photographers and then went back to my tent as the wind picked up— as it does when the sun goes down in the canyon. The loose talcum powder red sandstone flew about and I experienced my first gritty teeth of the trip (the novelty wore off after a week or so!) and then later, a gritty dinner and a slightly gritty sleeping bag. The next morning I was talking to two hikers who had slept out and had woken up completely covered with sand. My decision to pack a small tent turned out to be a good one.

Early the next morning I set out down river to the Bright Angel Bridge.  The trail in the morning was, fortunately, in the shade, and so my 1400’ hike up to Indian Garden (3875’) was cool and comfortable. Indian Garden, like the Phantom Ranch, is located on a year round water supply, which produces lush greenery and giant cottonwood trees. The Garden is visible from the South Rim as a green teardrop shape down both sides of the creek that runs through the campground. Massive rock walls surround the campground on three sides with the fourth side looking down canyon towards the Colorado River. A worthwhile evening hike from the campground is out and back to Plateau Point (3 miles round trip) where a large boulder formation ends the point from which you can look down 1300’ to a double bend in the river. If you are hiking down from the rim and back, this is one of the first places where you can see the beautiful aquamarine Colorado River without going all the way to the bottom.

After fighting off the rock squirrels who hang around the campground, I zipped up my tent for a cooler night than I had spent at Bright Angel lower down.

Grand Canyon
Along the Plateau Point Trail

The trail out to the rim in the morning became steeper and steeper as I climbed higher, ending in a series of switchbacks to the Village, one of which was a short tunnel through an outcropping.

I arrived back on top just before lunch and had that satisfactory feeling among the tourists of having actually descended below the rim and slept overnight.  It turns out that despite the near 5 million visitors to the Grand Canyon, less than one percent get down to the Colorado River and of that, only 35,000 sleep out.

Overall I think I carried the right gear, packed enough camera batteries and prepared well by training hard before the trip.  My total hiking time was roughly 5+ hours the first day, 8 the second, including the hike out to Plateau Point, and 3 the last day. Overall, not long days; however, without the training, I think that my times and enjoyment levels would have been quite different.  The short solo trip certainly set me up well for the canyoneering week that followed off the North Rim.

With extra time, I would have spent an additional day at the bottom either at Bright Angel or part way up the North Kaibab at Cottonwood Camp before returning up the Bright Angel.  Booking dinner in advance at the Ranch or even accommodation would also have been something to plan for.  I will be going back in the future to try the Rim to Rim hike.

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