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My second backpacking trip with members from my team at work was last weekend in the beautiful Sproul State Forest near Renovo, PA. The crew this time around was five of us from my team in the US, as well as another employee from the Czech Republic who’s residing here for a while. We all signed up for a 23-mile, 2-day hike, but what we got was a lot more interesting.

We gathered early the morning of Saturday, June 4th, and set out on the nearly 3-hour drive to the trail. By 9:30AM we had found the parking lot for the Chuck Keiper Trail, had a celebretory drink, strapped on our gear, and hit the trail. We had both a topographic map (with elevation profile) and a first-hand description of the Chuck Keiper East Trail, and in the beginning it seemed to match what we were experiencing. However, about 7 miles in it was becoming apparent that the elevations we were hiking weren’t like what the map said. Two of us were tracking our progress via GPS-enabled devices and our courses weren’t tracing out in shapes similar to the map. Also, our GPS coordinates were slightly off the topo map we had. We continued marching on: we knew we were on the “Chuck Keiper Trail” since it was orange-blazed and signed occasionally. However, cabin locations and individual trail names weren’t matching up to the map; in fact, nothing we saw along the way indicated that this was the East loop. Until we got to the merge with the West-East Cross Connector trail!

At that point we completely stopped and tried to get our bearings. It turned out that between all the maps we brought, there were at least two versions. We scrambled to find one that showed this cross-connector trail. One of us had it, and it indicated that that trail met the East loop about 2 miles from where we thought we had started the day. We then realized that we hadn’t parked at the correct parking lot; and had never verified our starting position with GPS or another indicator. It was time to make a decision about how our day and weekend was going to play out. It was about 5PM, we had already hiked though about an hour of thunder showers (it was drying out now), and we faced the prospect of hiking back 12 miles to where our cars were parked; we had hiked about 15 miles in at this point. Instead of stopping to eat dinner, we decided to trudge up SR 144 to the parking lot we should have used (the parking lot we used was ~10 miles up the same road, on the same side of the road). This part was particularly grueling for me, walking on a mix of gravel and pavement, but the old man of the group made it OK.

Once at the closer parking lot we figured we could set up camp there and then hike back to our parking lot in the morning, or try to flag down a ride and shuttle back for our cars. Although SR 144 isn’t a very busy road, We managed to get a kind woman named Linda to stop for us. Once we explained our situation, she agreed to shuttle me back to my car. I was one of the two drivers on the trip. Linda is a nurse at the Renovo Hospital who was headed to work and I let her know how kind she was to offer us help. It wouldn’t be the last help we’d need this weekend. Keep reading!

I got to my car and drove back to the other parking lot. Linda had driven back up there and stopped to talk to some of the other guys before resuming her trip to work. At some point I had found out that one of our group’s family had a cabin about 45 minutes away from where we were, and we had decided to trek up there to camp for the night. Since I had brought marinated chicken for our dinner, I was given the decision as to whether we’d eat our camp food or go into town for dinner. Exhausted by this point, and the clock at close to 7PM, I opted to go to town.

We shuttled back for the other car and trekked about 20 minutes up to Renovo, which our “semi-local” was familiar with. He directed us to Yesterday’s Restaurant, and we settled down for cooked meals. The place was dead and we had the full attention of our friendly waitress, which was welcome!

After the meal we found our way out of Renovo and up Summerson Mountain Road — way up — to get to the cabin, which was about a 15-minute drive from the main roads. At this point it was close to 9PM and we started setting up camp by the cars’ headlights. The other car had some music mixes playing from its stereo for a while. Several of us, including me, settled down quickly. The others hung out for a bit before turning in.

I woke up first on Sunday morning and began preparing for breakfast. I had brought pancake mix for the group and started getting those cooking as the others were rising and starting to break camp. After we had all eaten and started the final pack-up around 8:15AM, the other driver tried to start his car. It wouldn’t turn over. Too much of the power had been drained from the headlights and radio the night before, and neither vehicle had jumper cables. My car started OK, so our “semi-local” and I went down to town to try to find a place to purchase jumper cables. Several places weren’t open yet, but we stopped at the local Weis Markets right around 9AM, when they were opening. The manager said they didn’t have jumper cables, but she immediately offered to loan us hers. The people in the town of Renovo were exceptionally helpful and friendly.

Jumper cables in hand, we drove back up to the mountain to get the other car fixed. Getting the vehicles in place and connected, we noted that we weren’t getting a spark from the cables even after confirming that they were correctly connected to my car’s terminals. Taking a closer look, it appeared that one of the two cables had been cut and re-crimped on each end without any of the wire actually making contact with the terminal connectors! Luckily, we had enough tools with us and on-site to fix this (hey, we know passive electronics, right?) and a few minutes later, had a spark. It took a while for the dead car’s battery to recharge, but we did finally get it going and were back on the road a bit after 10AM. We dropped off the cables at Weis and headed to our lunch destination, Selin’s Grove Brewing Co. in Selinsgrove, PA.

This was my first visit to the Brewery, and their selection of beers and organic foods was great. It’s definitely a great reward after a weekend of challenging one’s endurance. We’ll be stopping there again. After enjoying our lunch and confirming to share this tale, even with all its warts, we headed back to Harrisburg with a desire to come back and hike the trail we had originally targeted later this summer or in early autumn. Thanks to the guys for making it fun even with all the unexpected situations. After driving over 400+ miles that weekend, I’ll let someone else drive next time!

EFF Deeplinks: Stand Up Against TSA’s Invasive Security Procedures

The Transportation Security Administration has adopted “enhanced” security procedures — presenting people with the horrible choice of either submitting to body scanners that show passengers unclothed or submit to what are called “groping” pat-down techniques which include touching both breasts and genitalia. As some have noted these processes appear to have little likelihood of increasing the safety of fliers.

Individuals appalled by these procedures have a right to submit formal complaints to the TSA. It is important the passengers and crew submit complaints to showcase the widespread resistance to these procedures. TSA maintains that they have seen no increase in complaints about the new security procedures. EFF will be filing FOIA requests to test this claim, but in the meantime we wanted to make sure that people who wished to complain knew how to make their thoughts and feelings heard.

There are informative links to online forms, iPhone apps, and other ways to complain about the security theater at airports.  Flyers are being forced to give up their Fourth Amendment rights as well as their dignity in the name of “security”.  It’s a sham.  Fight back.

To quote Ben Franklin (thanks for the reminder, Scott):

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Don’t be forced to be part of “they”.  Resist having your rights and dignity taken away.

The weekend of September 24-26, six of us from work took a backpacking trip together from Harrisburg to the Dolly Sods Wilderness located in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.  It was my first backpacking experience, and it was challenging and exhilarating at the same time.  The wilderness certainly challenged my notions of what constitutes “trails”.  A great, sore, tired time was had by all, but we were glad to be offline and outside of cell phone service areas even if it was just for a few days.

The challenge started before we even got to our destination’s parking lot.  We loaded up all of our gear into a teammate’s van and got settled in for our 3.5-hour trip.  After getting off the interstates and making a quick dinner stop at a McDonald’s, we encountered the Dolly Sods signage, and it led us to a narrow, rough gravel road that climbed for miles.  At that point we knew were were going to be in the sticks for the weekend.

After getting our gear together and taking a group photo, we hit the Bear Rocks Trail on the northeast corner of the Wilderness and started on our counterclockwise journey.  Because we arrived late in the afternoon, we resolved to camp at the first decent site we found.  Luckily, the first site we encountered (about 1.5 miles in) was near a stream and surrounded by trees; we set up camp there as night was falling.  We never did get a decent fire going due to a lack of dry wood in the general area, but we did sit around and converse until about 10pm.  We also marveled at the cloudless night sky, the stars, and remarked how bright the moon seemed when it wasn’t fighting artificial light sources on the ground.  It wasn’t very cold this first night; temps were in the 50s.

Early the next morning we ate breakfast, pumped water, packed up and started out on our anticipated 15-mile journey around a majority of our planned route.  On the Raven Ridge Trail, we quickly encountered high winds on the elevated plateaus that held the sods in “Dolly Sods”.  At mid-morning on the Rocky Ridge Trail, we took a break and enjoyed the vista from the west ridge of the wilderness, overlooking a lake.  After that break the trails began to get much more rough, evolving from rock-laden to boulder-crossings.  It was about as much climbing as one can do with one’s legs.  The rock formations in this area were stunning — similar to what I’ve seen in Colorado.  One thing I started noticing was a little cramping in my legs.  Having dealt with that in cycling, I knew to keep drinking and lower my speed.  That helped, since I didn’t feel them again.  As we transitioned to the Big Stonecoal Trail, we found a campsite to rest and eat lunch.

I haven’t talked about the food yet.  Our resident backpacking enthusiast recommended using freeze-dried “mountain meals” to save pack space and weight, as well as Clif bars and beef jerky to provide calorie-dense meals when we weren’t set up to cook.  While the mountain meals weren’t exactly “gourmet”, they had plenty of flavor on their own, and were certainly worth their lightness.  Another teammate brought a box of Clif bars and shared with the group; in fact, we all shared food and supplies the entire weekend.

Getting back on the Big Stonecoal Trail, things got even more rocky as we transitioned to the Rocky Point Trail.  I think the trail name was earned by the number of rocky points one had to avoid to successfully navigate!  The trail was made up of 1- to 1.5-foot rocks and was very rough on my toes and ankles.  I kept my relatively slow pace, but the group stayed together pretty well.  When we split up, we had radios to keep in contact.  Halfway on the trail was a short circuit climb to a formation called “Lions Head”.  Four from our group decided to go see it; another teammate and I (admittedly, the slowest of the group) decided to continue on towards our intended campsites on the east side of the wilderness.  We started heading northeast on the roughening trail, but we kept going and had good conversation.  The others caught up with us a bit later at the intersection of the Rocky Point and Red Creek trails.  My borrowed pack had been riding on my shoulders pretty roughly,and Rodney noticed that I could adjust the straps higher.  After doing that, it felt a lot better, letting more of the pack’s weight rest on my hips.
From there we hiked north toward a cluster of four campsites, hoping that we found one that was roomy and near water.  The leaders found what we thought was the best of the bunch, right along Red Creek with plenty of flat ground and trees.  We stopped hiking a bit after 4:30pm, so we had time to set up camp and relax after about 7 hours of hiking.  We estimated that we covered 15 miles; on such rough terrain, I considered that an accomplishment.  I though my body was going to punish me for pushing it so hard that day, but aside from a little soreness, I was in pretty good shape.  The creek was refreshing and provided very clean pumped water.  There was a lot of dry wood onsite and we set up a nice fire, which we kept going until the 9pm hour, when we decided to turn in early to be able to start our 5-mile hike out the next morning as early as possible.

I slept pretty well both nights; for me, when camping, that means I get my 3-4 hours of REM sleep and then maybe one or two more 1-2 hour naps.  Saturday night was the coldest I’d ever camped.  It got down to about 40 degrees, and I was thankful I had brought plently to layers and a cap to compensate for my lack of an insulated sleeping bag (I used a fleece bag).  I was warm inside the tent, but once I got out, it was extremely brisk.  I waited until 6:30 to give my buddies wake-up calls and we all stirred around the site eating and then packing up.  We hit the Red Creek Trail a little after 7:30 and made our way up the Dobbin Grade and Beaver View trails, as well as a shortcut trail back to the Bear Rocks Trail to get back to the van.  Along the way we encountered an interesting roadblock – a beaver dam!

We each took our time crossing over the stream using the dam, and no one succumbed to the mud.  By about 10:45 we had made it back to the van, ready to head back to Harrisburg.  We stopped at an Outback Steakhouse in Martinsburg for our “first real meal” of the weekend, and then disbanded later Sunday afternoon.

I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend with my teammates and hope to participated in some more of these expeditions next year.  We left a lot of Dolly Sods unexplored and we plan to return!

My Set of Dolly Sods pics on Flickr

  1. It’s pronounced “Shin-co-teeg”, as in “Shh, keep this place a secret!”
  2. The town is pony crazy.
  3. Definitely check our your different accommodation options.  We rented a 3-bedroom house for a week from Island Getaways that worked out to a little over $150 a day and it was a steal for the location (center of the island) and size.  Yes, you can’t just go downstairs and get a free hot breakfast every morning, but it’s a lot more quiet and private than a hotel or inn.
  4. Since the islands here are flat, there are ample & usable shoulders on many roads for biking, and there are dedicated trails in the NPS-run parks, cycling is a great way to get around the island.  There is plenty of bike and moped rental capacity, but if you own a bike already, bring it.  You’ll like it better than most of the goofy rental bikes I saw.
  5. The town has several key events that appear to occur mainly in the summer months.  The Annual Pony Swim and Auction in late July is the most famous, followed by the Fireman’s Carnival many weekends in the summer, the Annual Blueberry Festival in July, and the Annual Oyster Festival in October.  There may be more, but these were the ones I experienced or saw advertised.
  6. Mosquitos are controlled on Chincoteague Island, but not on Assateague.  Normal insect repellent worked on Chincoteague, but we needed something stronger for the swarms that greeted us on the trails of Assateague.  Deep Woods OFF! worked for us there, but you’ll want to apply it everywhere, not just exposed skin.
  7. Turn signals are apparently optional here.  My only guess is that it must add some spice to island life.
  8. Be prepared to travel off the island to find a full-service grocery store.  We used the Food Lion at the intersection of US 13 and VA 175, about a 12-minute drive away.  It was excellent.
  9. Cell/net connectivity on the island is good.  I saw at least one cell tower on the island and my AT&T coverage was strong,  Our place had included Verizon DSL with a wireless router.  There were many locations with free Wi-Fi (the Island Creamery is one).
  10. You may find restaurant service on the island lacking in hospitality, timeliness, and food quality.  We found the food prices kind of high, and that was compounded by Virginia’s 10% sales tax.  We had the best experiences during our visits to Ledo Pizza (twice), Woody’s BBQ (twice), and the Sea Shell Cafe.
Today we went to church as planned at St. Andrew the Apostle – the lone, small Catholic parish of Chincoteague Island.  It was apparent from the leaders’ comments that they rely on a lot of outside help due to the seasonal nature of the island’s population.  But it was a fine mass.
After mass, we biked back to Assateague Island and rode all the bike trails, including one we didn’t do earlier in the week.  We had a late hot-dog/mac-and-cheese lunch.  After lunch I biked over to Pony Tails Candy Shop to pick up some local salt water taffy.  After naps we headed back to Ledo PIzza for dinner and then over to Refuge Golf for some mini-golf (a challenge with Zachary the non-golfer) and Ryan climbed a rock wall.  Before heading back to the house, we visited the third of the “big three” ice cream shops on the island – Muller’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream.  It was a quaint place but it was apparent that the ice cream wasn’t homemade like at the Island Creamery.
We’ve had a great week here – we’re about 75% packed and will be heading out tomorrow morning.

This morning we went back to the beach! We came back to the house for lunch, but stopped by Woody’s BBQ on the way for a second lunch from there (same orders all around). We all stayed at the house during Zachary’s naptime, which became Melissa’s and mine as well. We fixed a spaghetti dinner at the house and then all went to go see Toy Story 3 at the Island Roxy theater. This was Zachary’s first full-length movie experience, and he did great. If you haven’t seen TS3 yet, what are you waiting for? Yes, it’s a must-see.

Tomorrow we are going to St. Andrew’s Church here on the island and then we’ll go biking one last time at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.