Anyone else remember the Peanuts cartoon strip with Snoopy sitting on top of his doghouse with a typewriter working on his novel? He begins with the phrase “It was a Dark and Stormy Night” and never gets much further. It seemed like a good opener for this blog entry. You’ve pretty much guessed where this entry is going but we’ll get to the dark and stormy night part shortly, there’s more to tell. That’s foreshadowing for you literary types.
So I got a new backpack for Christmas last year, a ULA Catalyst to be specific.
One problem, until this weekend I haven’t had a chance to use it for its intended purpose. Instead, it’s been used for temporary storage for parts of my hammock camping gear and transport of said gear to ‘my ‘ trees at the edge of the woods behind our house. Life just hasn’t given up the time to go much further. I wanted to try to squeeze in a quick overnight trip somewhere close before it got to be too hot, both during the day and at night, to be comfortable.
I was looking over my calendar a few weekends ago and realized that I didn’t have anything going on this weekend and it would likely be my only free weekend into at least early July…and the wheels began to turn. I thought about taking a solo trip but most of the time it’s more fun to have someone along for the trip to have someone to talk to, someone to give you that extra bit of encouragement when you’re tired of walking or even someone to share the misery of walking through a stretch of woods that’s more infested with skeeters than the Everglades on a hot July evening (a little more foreshadowing there). I decided to ask Ashley’s boyfriend Jared if he’d like to go. Jared has spent the last year studying at Georgia Tech and is currently working an internship and hasn’t had a lot of time to get out and go play in the woods either so he was eager to go. Now it’s not exactly a secret that my ‘adventures’ often involve strange twists of fate, but I’m not too sure he knew exactly what he was getting himself into. Hey, things happen, right? We decided to head down to Chattahoochee Bend State Park and hike the River Trail up to the north platform campsites. Jenna and I hiked up there last year and camped for a night so I had a pretty good feel for what the hike would be like and where some good trees were to hang our hammocks from.
As is normal for me, the trip started with several stops. I needed to pick up a couple of last minute food items and a bottle of Heet for fuel for our alcohol stoves. Heet is a gas-line antifreeze for cars and is basically methyl alcohol. It’s a great fuel for small alcohol stoves because it burns clean and is widely available at many grocery stores, convenience stores and auto parts stores…except for the grocery store and three convenience stores that we stopped at. I finally picked up a bottle at an auto parts store and we were on our way.
Once at The Bend, we paid for the campsite and parking fees, drove to the trailhead, shouldered our packs and hit the dusty trail. Actually it was more of a muddy trail since it had rained the day before. The forests along the trail took on a very different appearance since our last trip to The Bend last fall. Since it’s early summer and we’ve had plenty of rain, the vegetation and foliage along the trail were lush and green rather than sporting fall colors.
The hike in was mostly uneventful for the first 4 or 5 miles. We saw deer, squirrels and couple of armadillos and were generally having a good time as we walked…but something changed. We’d seen and heard a few skeeters as we walked along and picked a few ticks off our socks and legs, But nothing major. However, as we got into the last mile or so of our hike, we were mobbed by skeeters. If you stopped walking 20 or more of the little buggers would land on any exposed skin and they were constantly whining in our ears. At one point Jared, who was walking behind me was swatting ‘em off my shoulders and killing 4 or 5 with every slap. By the time we got to the restroom shed at the end of the trail we were seriously considering turning around and walking out because a night with all those skeeters would be miserable at best, even with bugnets surrounding our hammocks. Fortunately, as we got close to the campsites along the river, the skeeter population dissipated significantly and we decided to stay.
We set up our hammocks, bugnets and tarps…
Then we dug through our packs for our food bags and cook kits. We decided to keep things simple and simply boil water and use freezer bag cooking methods to rehydrate a couple of dehydrated meals I’d made a while back. It was Jared’s first time using an alcohol stove so I walked him through the process and gave him some pointers. One thing I failed to mention was not to get the freezer bag that the dehydrated food was in too close to the stove as the water is poured into it. Yep, we had a small snafu.
Fortunately, we had a couple more freezer bags handy so we transferred his chili-mac into a new bag, and boiled a little more water and in half an hour we were diggin’ into a fine evening meal. After supper we spent some time just chillin’ and talkin’…guy talk…and I lit up a pipe just to make sure the skeeters stayed away. We toyed with the idea of building a campfire but neither of us felt like hunting firewood or possibly inviting a hoard of skeeters in for supper.
We decided to turn in as the sun set to avoid the onslaught of evening mosquitoes. I didn’t think I would go to sleep that early, especially since it was still hot and uncomfortably humid, but apparently I did since I found out today that Jared had been texting Ashley and telling her that I was asleep and snoring. I’m gonna have to have a long talk with that boy.
We both dozed on and off until about 1:15 when we both found ourselves suddenly wide awake listening to what sounded like hurricane blowing through the trees over our heads. The weather forecast for the weekend and next few days was pretty typical of early summer. Each day was forecast to have about a 30 to 50 percent chance of isolated thunderstorms during the afternoons but nothing significant forecast overnight. Apparently someone didn’t get the memo about the overnight part. Jared checked in with his dad who checked the weather radar online and saw a strong storm that appeared to be heading our way and would likely be on top of us in 15 or 20 minutes. We made a quick decision to break camp quickly and shelter-up in the restroom shed. Needless to say, we didn’t spend too much time trying to neatly pack our gear. The general plan was to stuff it in our packs and sort it out later.
We made it to the restroom shed just as the rain started. A bit about the restroom shed. This isn’t your typical State Park bathhouse with sinks and flush toilets and showers and benches to sit on or put your clothes on. This is a small wood-frame building with a concrete floor and two 8 x 10 rooms with a composting ‘toilet’ in a corner, a toilet paper dispenser on the wall and a LED ceiling light connected to a 15-minute timer. No frills is a pretty good description…and it was home for the rest of the night.
Since we were a little low on water we decided to catch some of the rainwater draining off the roof to have a little to hold us over until we could filter some water at our first stream crossing. I could hear Jared rattling around in his room then things got quiet for a little while until I heard him moving about again. He had pulled out his sleeping bag, laid it out on the floor and slept a little bit. Once I found out what he had done I was inspired to try to dig my top quilt and camp pillow out of my pack (no easy task) and do the same. To my surprise I actually managed to sleep for about an hour and a half on a concrete floor. Of course, when I got up I found myself hurting in places that I didn’t know that I had. Guess that’s a small price to pay to make sure I brought Jared home safely to his parents and to his girlfriend.
By daylight we were packed up and ready to walk out. We set a blistering pace through the skeeter infested stretch of woods and were still walking along at a pretty fast clip when we spooked up the first deer of the morning. The doe ran off into the woods and as we approached the spot where she had been standing we noticed something lying at the edge of the trail. It was her baby that looked to be only a day or two old. We stopped long enough to take a picture and wish it well before continuing on our way.
At the first stream crossing we pulled out the gravity filter that I made last fall and replenished our water supply then slowed down a little for a fairly uneventful walk back to the truck.
I’ve got to give Jared some credit here. Lesser young men might have started complaining or even gotten a little whiny when things didn’t go quite as planned and some might have even panicked as that storm rolled over our heads but he took it all in stride and didn’t seem to miss a beat. He managed to earn his trail name this weekend. He shall now be known as Tick. Apparently the little buggers like him. By the time we made it back home he’d picked off fourteen and there’s a good chance there were a few more hidden that he hadn’t found yet.
On a side note, a few folks have asked me how I like the Catalyst. Short answer…I love it. It took a little fiddling around with the straps to get it situated but by the end of the weekend it was quite comfortable and neither my shoulders nor my hips seemed to be carrying the majority of the load. You know it’s there but it rides well enough that you don’t wish that it wasn’t. I like the simplicity of the pack. The roll top closure and compression straps on the sides allow one to adjust the pack’s capacity for smaller loads. The mesh front panel allows easy access to smaller items that might be need needed while on the trail like rain gear, a tarp or a pair of camp shoes and is also a good place to put damp items that need to dry. One small detail I especially like are the pockets on the hip belt – they’re much larger than those found on most other packs and have plenty of room for a camera, cell phone or snack bag. If there was anything I could change I would add some length to the hip belt straps to allow me to have more strap to tug on to make adjustments. Fortunately I should be able to get that taken care of with a phone call to the folks at ULA.