Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pacific Crest Trail section hike (Warner to Morena Southbound)

For my first backpacking adventure of 2008, I joined my friend Paul (Potential 178) on a section hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For those not familiar with the PCT, it runs through the Western states, from Campo on the Mexican border to Manning Park in Canada. More information can be found on the Pacific Crest Trail Association web site.

Paul and I both were able to lower our base pack weights to well under 10 pounds, and were very excited about testing out our new found buoyancy. On April 17 I took a ferry to Vancouver, enjoyed dinner with a friend, then made my way to Paul's apartment. After a bit of last minute gear organizing and food packing, we had a short sleep before heading to the airport the next morning.

Not wanting to risk misdirected baggage (you wouldn't believe how often this happens to me) we opted to pay extra for a direct flight to San Diego. We arrived midday and proceeded to the tin-man statue to wait for two other hikers, and a ride from Pea "Girlscout" Hicks (more on trail names in a future post). After stopping for tacos, Girlscout took us back to his place where he generously has made space and amenities available to hikers. The plan was for Girlscout to drive some people to Campo in the morning, then come back and take Paul and I to Warner Springs in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we had a severe case of trail fever and couldn't wait, so we called up a cab. A very expensive cab. The driver and his co-pilot had no idea where they were going, and ended up going 20 miles out of the way. By this time it was nearly midnight, we were hungry and grumpy, and didn't argue the price. Much to Paul's dismay, I even gave them a small tip.

The next hiccup was on checking in to Warner Springs Ranch. The lady at the counter insisted that as it was after midnight on a Thursday, she had to charge us weekend rates. This obviously made no sense, but we didn't have much choice so she left a note to the manager to discuss it with us in the morning. Sure enough, as we're walking across the road to find breakfast, Maureen, the manager, comes running out to apologize for the error. Our spirits are lifted, and we enjoy a great breakfast at the golf course club house. Overall, I'm very impressed with Warner Springs, all of the staff went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed our stay, even the night-shift security guard was chatty and curious about our hike. Next time I definitely want to stay longer to enjoy all the serves the ranch has to offer.

Okay, so we're finally on the trail! Our destination for the day was a short 9 miles to Barrel Springs. Maureen had described a horse trail we could use to get to the PCT and avoid some road walking, which was a nice start to the day. Once on the PCT we followed CaƱada Verde Creek, gracefully lined with Oak trees, until emerging into chapparel covered hills and ranges. One of the famous landmarks on the PCT is Eagle Rock, an appropriately named mass of rocks that no hiker wielding a camera will ever bypass. Paul commented that it didn't look remarkably like an Eagle, but then we proceeded to the correct side and were properly impressed. We stopped here for a snack and plenty of photos. The land here is quite dry, but there are some seasonal creeks. We stop off at San Ysidro Creek to dip our feet, then hike the last few miles to Barrel Springs.

Setting up camp at Barrel Springs, we meet a few thru-hikers, including the infamous Warner Springs Monty. Monty is a character who helps maintain the water pipe at Barrel, among many other duties. He also is very involved in the annual kickoff party, ADZPCTKO (report to follow), and took the opportunity to drum up our interest in helping to prepare food at the kickoff. Our night at Barrel was otherwise uneventful, and we were serenaded to sleep by a chorus of frogs, crickets, and owls. And crazy drunk redneck women screaming at their cars at 3:00am. In the morning, I briefly chatted with a couple of turkey hunters heading up into the woods to catch something to put in their sandwiches.

From Barrel Springs we proceeded up into the hills, past Billy Goat's Cave, (Billy Goat is a well-known hiker who, rumour has it, was born in this cave. Or maybe he just took shelter here on a particularly hot day. Trail gossip is great.) The trail in this area wasn't overly spectacular, but still nice to be out and about. Small flowers attracted butterflies, and small prickly vegetation attracted my buttocks. Water promises to be scarce, so we tanked up with 3 litres of Barrel's finest. Midday we arrived at the Third Gate Water Cache, an oasis of bottled water for thirsty hikers. As the day wasn't too hot, and we still had a bit of water from Barrel, we just took a splash each. The cache is resupplied by trail angels (and hikers with spare time) via a 1 mile spur trail down to the road. We contemplated camping here and playing Gungadin, but it was still early in the day so instead opted for more miles. The databook promised a "sandy wash" ahead, so we saddled up and hit the trail again. The winds started to pick up, and by the time we got to the sandy wash, it was evident we'd need to find a sheltered spot to set up camp. The wash had a lot of flat ground to choose from, so we spent half an hour walking around, eventually settling on nice spots protected by shrubberies. The wind brought cooler evening temperatures, so it was early to bed to read, justifying the extra weight of the book I brought along (The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams).

The next landmark on the trail was Scissors Crossing, where the trail intersects a couple of highways. We must have been hungry when we got to the road crossing, as we took a wrong turn and headed a mile up the highway in the wrong direction. After a bit of frustration, we narrowly avoided fisticuffs by finding the correct trail 10 feet to the right of where we turned left. Shortly after the road crossing we found a small patch of shade we shared with a couple of thru-hikers and prepared some lunch. Spirits lifted, we walked another mile to the next water cache. The Scissors water cache is right by the road, so we felt a little better about filling up our supply as nobody had to hike the water in. A gaggle of section and thru hikers was gathered in the limited shade, and we enjoyed a few trail stories and a brief rest. A mile of flat, treeless land lead us to the looming hills ahead. We were told there wasn't too many flat spots after we crested the first batch of hills, so we agreed to look for a camp spot once we had made a few miles into the hills. We passed quite a few nice spots, but really weren't ready to make camp, so kept on hiking until just before the crest. A little worried that we had passed all the good spots, we agreed to stop at the next reasonable area. It turned out to be a very nice spot with a view of the valley below, and the trail from the previous day's hiking back into the hills.

Although we each had a bit of trail damage to our feet, we woke up in otherwise good spirits and health, eager for a solid day of hiking. Plenty of ups and downs today, punctuated by flowering cactus, panoramic views, and wind. Our first rest was at the Rodriguez Spur fire tank, the biggest bucket of water around. Just below the fire tank was a spigot where we could fill up with water and rest in the shade. We heard a voice from up at the tank, and upon investigation met Eric, one of the only two people to yo-yo (hike the trail both directions in one year) the PCT. A humble and friendly chap, Eric remembered Potential from the trail last year and was happy to answer our gear-related questions I'm sure he'd been asked countless times before. With a base pack weight of under 5 pounds, Eric's spartan gear list made our previously ultralight packs fall into the shameful category of just plain lightweight. From the fire tank, we almost took another wrong turn up the spur road, but quickly realized there were no footprints or other clues of the trail. A gate with a PCT sticker on it revealed the correct path, and we quickly moved on. Just around the corner we spotted a hiker perched in a field of yellow flowers who was excited to hear that he was just a few hundred feet from the fire tank. Shortly thereafter we started up a steep hill climb where we ran into Ridgewalker and Lynn, the other hikers who shared Girlscout's ride from the airport with us. Once reaching the summit, we hunkered down in a nice shady spot for a long lunch and rest. Rejuvenated, we decided to push on to the Sunrise Trailhead, which offered clean outhouses with a nice.. umm "backdraft." From Sunrise we kept on going, eventually hitting Kwaaymii Point, a fantastic stretch of abandoned road perched on the edge of a massive cliff face. Popular for hang gliding, the rock-strewn ledge had several memorials to fallen hang gliding enthusiasts. From Kwaaymii, we proceeded to the Pioneer Mail trailhead, a picnic area with outhouses and a water tank. The water tank was polluted with dead rats, but luckily a local Samaritan had provided jugs of fresh water for the hikers, which we shared with the 15 or so others camped in the picnic area. Dusk arrived quickly, so we tucked into bed shortly after Paul tried to warn some night-hikers about the dangerous water. They stormed past, upset that Paul's flashlight was ruining their night vision.

After a cold night at Pioneer Mail, we quickly packed up camp in eager anticipation of our first town stop at Mt. Laguna. The miles flew by, and before we knew it we could see the radar station that marked the outskirts of Mt. Laguna. A little bit of road walking, and the glowing beacon of the Mt. Laguna Lodge general store. The store is a hiker's paradise, offering such delicacies as microwave burritos, ice cream sandwiches, beer, and plenty of packaged food for a resupply. The brothers who run it are helpful and very hiker friendly, always happy to sit on the deck and hear some trail news. The deck at Laguna is a part of hiker lore, and almost every hiker has a story that starts with "so we were sitting on the deck at Laguna..." We booked a cabin for the night, loaded up on burritos, and plunked down for about 4 hours on the deck with some other hikers. Russ, a former gold miner, regaled us with tales of stripping the land bare. Pheeew, after a few hours of unsuccessful hitchhiking in the sun, demonstrated gravity's awesome power by falling off the deck and breaking her ankle in two places. (I'm told she's had it splinted and is resuming her thru-hike. Look forward to her book!). This prompted a visit from the local emergency services crew, who were very helpful and professional. Later on, a group of hikers showed up who will end up playing a major roll in my enjoyment of the kickoff, and hopefully will be hiking with me on the West Coast Trail this Fall. The evening was punctuated with some horrible television and good beer in our cabin.

Although we enjoyed our 20 miler the previous day, we were in no rush to get to the end of our hike, so we broke up the trip to Morena by stopping at Cibbets Flat campground. Cibbets was a picturesque spot by a creek, with clean outhouses and private camp spots. As it is about half a mile off the trail, we didn't see any other hikers for the night. In the morning, we had our last on-trail breakfast and began the final leg of our journey.

On the way to Lake Morena and the kickoff, we stopped at Boulder Oaks campground where some trail angels were handing out Gatorade and sandwiches. We were fine for supplies, but couldn't pass up an ice cold drink. The last of our food was consumed under the shade of an oak tree, then the lure of the Lake Morena Malt Shop's famous fries beckoned us onwards. The miles went quickly, interrupted only by the occasional rattlesnake. When we arrived at Lake Morena, there must have already been 100 tents set up for the kickoff party, even though it didn't begin until the next day. We found our assigned spots and set up camp, then headed up to the store. To our bitter disappointment, the shopkeep informed us that he wasn't going to open up the deli for another month, thereby denying over 500 ADZ attendees and countless more hikers the chance of a cold milkshake or tasty french fries. The store had a pathetic selection of food, mostly just potato chips and beef jerky. Fortunately, it had beer and ice cream sandwiches, so all was not lost. Fortified with San Diego's Red Trolley Ale, we headed back to the campground to settle in for 4 days of fun at the ADZPCTKO, which I will review in a few days.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

In which the remainder of my overtime pay gets spent

Although I'd love to take an SLR with a range of lenses, flash, filters, and tripod, it wouldn't really work with my style of hiking. Aside from the weight and bulk, if I have to spend 10 minutes setting up a photo, I probably won't bother to stop. On the other hand, if I have a camera in my pocket ready to go, I'll probably end up with a decent amount of good quality photos.

With the decision made to bring a small and portable, rather than large professional quality camera, there's still a number of other options - but the largest one is probably film vs. digital.
Film cameras, although becoming obsolete for anyone other than a traditionalist or specialist, do offer some benefits over digital. Weight, price, and durability to name three. A moderate quality, feature sparse film camera can be had for under $50, weighs a couple of ounces, and can survive most punishment you throw at it. A lot of them don't need batteries unless you want to use the flash, offering further weight savings (not to mention 6 months on a thru-hike without having to recharge). On the downside, you have to buy film, carry plenty of it, and pay to have it developed.

Digital cameras are generally heavier than film cameras, there's no getting around that. Up until now, I usually carried a Kodak EasyShare DX4900, at nearly 10 oz. including battery, memory card, and wrist strap. Although I've had excellent results, often comparable to pictures taken with much higher end cameras, I had to keep it in a padded case, waterproof bag, and be extremely careful around sand and wet areas. It is also fairly bulky, and feels uncomfortable in a pocket. The advantages of a digital camera, including holding hundreds of photos, still made it worth it to me over a film camera.

Last week, I decided it was time to replace the aging Kodak with something more suited to the outdoors. I did quite a lot of research online, and narrowed it down to either the Olympus Stylus 850 SW or the Pentax Optio W30. Both cameras came in at roughly the same price, and had a pretty similar feature set. Both are water and dust proof, lightweight (around 5 oz inclusive), and small enough to fit in a pocket.

I went into my local camera store and asked the clerk to help me narrow down my selection to one camera. He suggested that the Olympus had one major advantage: it was shock proof as well as waterproof. Knowing how rough I can be on gear in the outdoors, this sounded like a great feature. I paid the man, came home, and crossed another 5 oz. off my gear list!
In two weeks I head off for a section hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, so I'll be sure to post some photos and a review of the camera when I return.