Saturday, May 17, 2014

Ironmaster's Mansion Hostel, Pine Grove Furnace State Park, May 2014

During my recent weekend in the Michaux State Forest I stayed at the Ironmaster's Mansion Hostel. Located on Route 233 and the Appalachian Trail in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the hostel is indeed a mansion, built in 1829 and standing above the site of the old blast furnace. Next door is the park general store, and nearby is the blast furnace stack, Appalachian Trail Museum, and park office. The park lakes and Pole Steeple are within a couple of miles. And Springer Mountain in Georgia and Katahdin in Maine are in walking distance if you are ambitious.

The hostel was run, and run down,  by American Youth Hostels for many years, and AYH was in charge when I first stayed there in 2009. The building closed in 2010 and was purchased by the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, who did extensive renovation to the property. Now with Roger and Kathy as hosts the hostel is open 11 months of the year with the exception of days the building is booked for a wedding or other event.

I've never stayed alone at the hostel, but I've never seen more than four guests at a time. I'm curious to see how a full house would look, with conversation and guests spilling from room to room. Instead I've been blessed to meet on a one to one basis the fascinating people who hike the world's most famous footpath. One of them was Shane, on a "flip-flop" hike, starting in Harpers Ferry, ending in Maine, and then resuming in Harpers Ferry heading south. He is a delightful conversationalist, and an even better pianist. He was in tune the morning before the Pole Steeple hike, the piano not so much.

For more on the Ironmaster's Mansion, visit

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Backpacking Project - When Loyalsock

Date for the three days on the Loyalsock - Link Loop trails is set for June 11 to 13. My hiking companion is loaning me a hammock which can support my weight and weighs all of two pounds. He will carry the water filter and cookstove; I'm responsible for my food, clothes, borrowed hammock, water, cookset, and whatever personal items I take.

I'll post my full gear list in the next day, but my preliminary estimates, including water and food, is at about ten pounds, not including the pack.

Speaking of the backpack, I still don't have one. While I've met with the store manager of Eastern Mountain Sports and accepted their apology, the pack I was shown and fitted with, the Gregory Baltoro 75, is far too much pack for my needs. It fits well, but I should try on other, lighter packs, and see what other manufactures and retailers offer.

A reader suggested I simply use my daypack if my loads are going to be so small and light. There are two problems with this idea - my daypack, which I purchased in 2010 when I only dreamed about doing something like this, is too small in capacity and too small in fit. I have a 21 inch torso and a 48 inch waist. As for why I purchased a bag too small, being a formerly sedentary man rediscovering the outdoors means you make mistakes. I simply didn't know backpacks came in sizes, and I purchased it from a discount retailer. Its an Outdoor Products Skyline, and a nice bag, but too small for backpacking.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Rocky Knob Trail, Michaux State Forest, May 2014

I spent three days in the Michaux State Forest area when I went out to lead the HIKE For Mental Health Pole Steeple hike. I was able to hike a few trails during my trip, including the remote Rocky Knob Trail, located off a forest road atop South Mountain.

The Rocky Knob Trail was surprising in many ways. First, its not especially rocky by Pennsylvania standards. Secondly, the views alleged to be on the trail were always obscured by trees. And thirdly, I found the sensation of evil present still, 26 years after one of the most notorious crimes in Pennsylvania history took place not far from where I walked.

I first read of the murder in Bill Bryson's book A Walk In The Woods, although Bryson errs in placing the crime on the Appalachian Trail. (The AT crosses the entrance to the Rocky Knob Trail, and the initial contact between killer and victim took place on it, but the crime did not take place on the AT.) I'm revisiting the events of May 12 and 13, 1998 here just as I did the crime scene. In brief, Rebecca Wight and Claudia Brenner, lovers and backpackers up for a few days in the woods after the end of the semester at Virginia Tech, decided to camp along the stream below the Rocky Knob Trail despite their twice that day having met a creepy man with a shotgun. Stephen Carr was living illegally in the forest, and decided to stalk the two women. Once they'd set up camp and the woman became intimate, Carr fired. Wight was hit twice and her injuries were fatal. Brenner, in one of the great stories of survival, hiked out of the forest at night with five bullets in her, and then reached the Old Shippensburg Road miles away, where she was picked up by young people driving by and taken to a hospital in time to save her life.

After a manhunt Carr was captured, and a plea bargain spared him the death penalty in exchange for no jury trial and a sentence of life without parole. The murder and subsequent trial are the subject of two books, H. L. Pohlman's The Whole Truth, and Claudia Brenner's memoir Eight Bullets.  Brenner recovered from her injuries, completed her architecture degree, and moved to New York state, where she runs her own firm and does public speaking on violence against gay people.

I can't help but think of the crime as I ride the Perkiomen Trail, which crosses land part of Graterford Prison, Carr's home. And it was on my mind as I hiked along the Rocky Knob Trail. At one point I looked down towards the stream and felt a chill. Was it because I was alone on a mountaintop and it was late afternoon? Or because I was in the midst of beauty and the thought of evil? Was THIS the place on the hillside where Carr stalked his victims? I quickened my steps, and I felt better once I was back at my car.

The Rocky Knob Trail is a pleasant four and a half miles of relatively easy hiking, and I doubt I will ever visit again.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Backpacking Project - When!

We've set a date for the backpacking overnight trip. It will be relatively short, somewhere in central PA, and tentatively on June 21. The friend I am going with has an ultralight tent he can lend me, which will reduce my pack weight.

I'm excited, but also nervous. And the side of my nature that wants to plan a day in the woods like Eisenhower planning the D Day invasion is going into overdrive. What about water? Bring it all in, or purify, and if I purify, how? Boots or trail runners? And, well, not to put too fine a point on it, what about elimination? I had to dig a hole when rustic camping in 2010 but I forget how I, ahem, managed the mechanics of filling it.

Anyway I have a lot to ponder, and hopefully not over ponder.

In addition there is another friend who wants to get me out for a three day trip on the Loyalsock Loop trail in Lycoming County. The scenery is amazing and much of the hiking isn't difficult, but 18 miles over three days will push me. I said yes, because this blog is about doing things. But we still have to set the dates.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Too fat to backpack?

My first visit to a store to shop for a backpack turned out differently from my expectations.

I stopped at Eastern Mountain Sports, a regional outdoor chain here in the Northeast United States, and one I've shopped at before. I spent a few minutes looking at backpacks. A salesman approached me, we started talking about my upcoming backpacking trip, and as soon as he discovered I have a 48 inch waist, he said "you shouldn't be backpacking."


"You can't get a hip belt in sizes that big. The pads will be in the wrong place and all the weight will be on your shoulders.You will hurt yourself."

"I don't want all the weight on my shoulders. What do you suggest?"

"I don't know. The only manufacturer I know that makes packs for bigger guys is Gregory, because the owner is a big guy himself, but he's built differently, with really big shoulders.They probably won't fit you."

The conversation continued on the same lines, with the salesman discouraging me from going on a backpacking overnight, at one point saying I could hurt "internal organs." He did offer me a rental, the EMS house brand Long Trail, which still didn't fit right but he thought looked better. He also didn't want to give me my torso size, which is what I'd need to correctly size a pack. He did, saying 20 inches was my size.

I left the store discouraged. Was my backpacking overnight not going to happen? Was I too fat to backpack?

However, a little bit of research resolved my doubts. To pick one example, Cabela's makes a backpack suitable for an overnight or weekend trip with a belt that will fit a 50 inch waist. Kelty makes a pack that will fit a 54 waist. I'm sure there are others.

Also, I learned that for some backpacks hip belts are changeable, meaning the belt could be swapped out for one larger. And I've been advised there's always do it yourself changes to the belt.

The point of this post isn't to trash Eastern Mountain Sports. However, there's a lot of bad information out there regarding bigger people and outdoor gear, and this is a chance to get good information in the public eye. Also, EMS lost a sale. I was in retail sales for several years, and you don't make money telling people no. This is something they can work on.

I am attempting to open a conversation with Eastern Mountain Sports on Twitter about what happened yesterday. I'm also asking for information on packs for larger folks from manufacturers. Follow me: @ATaste4TheWoods

Oh, and the backpacking project is still on.


Monday, May 12, 2014

"Reader, she married him."

Readers might remember a previous post or two a few months ago about Stephen at Who Ate My Blog? Stephen was having a hard time keeping focused on weight loss while he was facing the challenge of asking his girlfriend to marry him. She said yes, which made his life both easier and more complicated. And a couple of weeks ago, at a small ceremony in Ontario, Stephen and Rachel tied the knot.

I'm touching on this subject because super obese people are often super isolated, and becoming a social person is as much work as weight loss. Stephen is stressed about struggling with his weight and having put back on a hundred pounds, but the transformation from the man with no prospect of living a life on his own to a man planning on a future with his wife is as dramatic as his dropping two hundred pounds. The folks at Weight Watchers call such things a non-scale victory, and Stephen certainly has them.

So readers, I hope you will follow the link to Who Ate My Blog? and read about the wedding, and if you are so inclined, offer congratulations to the happy couple. And Stephen, if you read this.... dude, you married up. :-)


HIKE For Mental Health at Pole Steeple, May 3, 2014

Photo by Sean McCloskey. All rights reserved.
On Saturday May 3 at ten AM a group of eleven hikers, and one dog, from all over Pennsylvania gathered at
Laurel Lake in Pine Grove Furnace State Park for a hike up to Pole Steeple. The cliffs towering 700 feet over the lake are a popular hike for many visitors to the park, but this hike was relatively early in the season and the trails weren’t crowded.

While the outdoors is for everyone, no two people are the same, and we had hikers of different levels of experience on the trail. “Hike your own hike” was the rule, but while we broke into groups of different paces we met up again frequently. Our pace was relaxed, as there was so much to see on and off the trail. The four hours for the four mile hike seemed to speed by, even if we didn’t.

As for the trails themselves, the climb to Pole Steeple was the usual mix of rocks, roots, and dirt that make up a PA hiking experience. As part of the loop we used the Appalachian Trail to get back to the road and the parking lot, and its clear the winter was hard on the AT. There was a lot of erosion and in at least one spot a fast moving stream formed across the trail. The only hikers who finished with dry socks were the hikers who didn’t wear them. For me, this continued a theme of my hikes that weekend, as my shoes got soaked on every hike.

Hero of the hike was my friend Joshua. Readers are familiar with my weekday hikes with Josh, but regardless of any preparation we could do this was a very tough hike for him. His wife, although fitter than her husband, was pushed too. Both got up the hill, and since we weren't rushing they took their time.

As for myself, I felt stronger than ever before on the climb to the top. I wasn't fast, but I felt more sure footed and faster than on previous climbs. I was still very cautious moving around on the rock outcropping, however.

The hike raised $320 for HIKE For Mental Health and introduced some of the group to the beauty of a stretch of the AT and the great view from atop Pole Steeple. As a first time hike leader and HFMH volunteer I’m pleased with both results.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Backpacking Project - Gear

The goal? Transform the formerly sedentary man rediscovering the outdoors into a backpacker.

When? This year.

Where? An overnight short distance trip in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, or New York.

The subject? Male, age 48, 6 feet 2 inches tall, approximately 300 pounds and dropping. Medical concerns are bilateral knee replacements, occasional back trouble, and poor coordination/balance. Limited hiking experience.

Now that the conditions of the project are out there, its time to discuss equipment - what I have and what I need.

Clothing: I should be set here, but here's what I plan on wearing on the trail:
- Cabela's "Guidewear" pants
- synthetic underwear
- Columbia fisherman's shirt
- baseball cap
- Merino wool socks
- Asolo hiking boots
- Crocs as camp shoes

Hiking poles - I have a set of aluminum poles.

Backpack - I have an Outdoor Products internal framed backpack, but its clearly too small for me and too small for what I plan to do. I don't want to have to load my gear onto the backs of people I hike with - that defeats the purpose of this project.

Sleeping bag - its a six pound Columbia bag, far too heavy. Its fine for bike touring and car camping but I need something lighter.

Sleeping pad - I have a piece of foam.

Tent - I have a Columbia "Lost Lake" two man freestanding tent. It weighs seven pounds, again too heavy. If I am unable to secure a lighter weight tent I may need to restrict my backpacking to locations with shelters. A hammock is a poor idea in light of my weight.

Stove - MSR Pocket Rocket, which uses fuel in canisters.

Cookwear and utensils - Coleman, but lightweight.

Suggestions on improvements to any or all of the above are welcome.


Caledonia Falls, Caledonia State Park, May 2014

A waterfall is loosely defined as water traveling over a precipice, but man is a defining creature and no one is going to leave it at that. Scott Brown and Gary Letcher in their books on waterfalls and Raymond at all ignore Caledonia Falls for one reason or another. Yet it might be one of the most photographed waterfalls in Pennsylvania, simply because of its location on PA Route 233 and US Route 30 in Caledonia State Park. Whenever I am in the area, or passing west on 30, I stop for a few minutes, take the walk up the entrance to the Thaddeus Stevens Trail, and visit the waterfall.

Caledonia is a true cascade, as water spills from rock to rock as the old mill race flows downhill to Mountain Creek, meeting under the road. Its easy to photograph from the top, as I've done here, or from either side. Unfortunately shooting from the road requires standing on the shoulder on either side, which can be a little unnerving as cars and trucks go past. Still, I think its worth the effort, and unlike most waterfalls you need to invest little effort in hiking, as the falls are a few feet from the parking area. During the summer the flow is little more than a trickle, but after the spring runoff or a heavy rain the falls are impressive.

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Adams Falls, Ricketts Glen State Park, April 2014

The most visited cascade at Ricketts Glen is arguably Adams Falls, the final named falls on Kitchen Creek. Its the easiest to access, being only a short walk from the parking lot on Route 118. Adams Falls was where I met Raymond of before starting our hike in State Game Lands 13, and he spent a few minutes with me photographing the cascade. At 7:30 AM we had the falls to ourselves, and since solitude is a rarity at Ricketts Glen, we made the most of it.  This is once again an instance where my photos do not do justice to the subject. Now, if someone would only remove the logs in the upper cascade and lower plunge pool.....

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A Taste For The Woods: 2014-05-11

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A Taste For The Woods