First Winter Trip- finishing the Pinchot Trail
So I had a few days off from work for Xmas. After holiday events, I planned on going to PA to see some members of my extended family and decided that I would try my hand at cold weather camping for the first time. For this trip, I wanted something that wouldn’t be too challenging, and wouldn’t require more than 1 night’s camp. I had originally planned on hiking the entire pinchot trail back in July, but after an error of judgement, decided to bail out after completing the north loop. I wasn’t that impressed with the northern loop- it was mostly just overgrown with ferns, difficult to see the trail at many spots, it lacked views. Painter’s creek at the northern end was tiny and just didn’t seem to capture me. The best part was the lookout tower, which was the only view on the trail, and there was a bunch of people hanging out there.
I drove past the trailhead I parked at to hike the northern loop, and down the road about 1/2-3/4 mile was another parking lot. There was a short road walk, then the trail veered off to the left into these thickets of rhododendron. It continued like this for some ways, before coming out into a clearing filled with what I think were blueberry bushes. I really don’t know anything about wild plants so don’t quote me on that.
Nice. This then re-entered the forest. The Pinchot trail is really a system of trails all linked together. There are signs posted up at all the intersections to show you which trails you are crossing.
After a short walk, I encounter the first climb of the hike. I wouldn’t really call it a “climb”, more just a hill only big enough to make me want to take off my sweater. I’ll give more details on that later, you can see it in the picture I’m wearing a triple aught design Praetorian hoodie. At the top of the hill, there are the remnants of a stone look out tower. There were some very limited views to bear lake through the trees, but you didn’t really have a good sight of it.
This took you back into the woods again. Came to a different trail, crossed a few random roads that probably see 3 cars a week. I heard Coyotes! I think anyway. There started sounding this loud howling and yipping. There must’ve been 20 of them, and as I followed the trail, they got louder and louder. I don’t know much about coyotes, I don’t think they’re anything to worry about, but a whole pack of them might be different. Lots of gunshots followed. It was at this moment I began to regret wearing a brown sweater that made me either blend into the environment, or look like an animal. I probably should’ve been wearing orange.
I came up to a nice stream flowing down the side of the trail. I decided to pull over and have lunch- PB and honey on organic whole wheat bread. I filled up my water, and started hiking on.
This eventually brought me to another short road walk, where I then turned onto the Kellerman’s swamp trail. It lead through a large pine grove.
The next landmark was Butler Run, a short stream crossing.
Following the Butler run trail, I eventually connected with the Choke Creek nature trail. This was where I would set up camp for the evening. I tell you- the thing that surprised me most about hiking at this time is the shortness of the day. I hadn’t really put in too many hours, and I got started at 10:30- yet it was almost sun down. Choke Creek was really nice, and this first spot I got to was pristine. Perfect for camping.
So onto camp chores. The water here was funky looking, and I was beginning to wish I had filled up back at Butler Run. It had white foamy stuff collecting everywhere, and had a very red tint to it. I found a small stream that was flowing into Choke Creek that appeared slightly clearer, so I filtered from there and just used that water for boiling tea and dinner. I set up my tent, fluffed my sleeping bag and pillow, hung my hiking shirt and pants to dry and got changed. For this trip, since I knew it was going to be cold, I had heavy weight fleece long john top and bottom with fleece pants. I put my sweater back on, and had my jacket liner from my normal winter coat. I usually wear around town some coat I got from Kohl’s-not really back country worthy, but it’s plenty warm. It’s also way to heavy and large to pack, but it has a removable liner that’s supposed to make it 3 jackets in one. I figured that, plus a fire and I’d be good. Well. Everything in the forest and the surrounding area was wet. I had a nightmare of a time trying to find anything that remotely resembled dry fire wood, and I didn’t want to start snapping branches off live trees, trying to follow LNT principles and only using downed wood. I came up with the best I thought I could. I ended up getting it started, but I couldn’t keep it going, and I really couldn’t build it up to an appreciable size that would’ve made me feel warm. Then it kept dying out, I’d have to caress it too much to get it going again, and 3 minutes later it would start dying again. After finishing eating, I gave up on it and decided to retire to the tent for the evening, despite it only being about 6:30. So I hung my bear bag, and headed for the warmth of my Sea to Summit Trek II sleeping bag.
I started with reading a book I got for Xmas. It would’ve been really nice to have a way to sit up in the tent to read, but it was too cold to get out of my sleeping bag. I ended up having to lie on my stomach, propped up on my elbows with the sleeping bag pulled all the way over my head and the book under me. Not very comfortable. I got as much as I could, then decided to switch to my Ipod and listen to an audio recording of “The Hobbit”. I must’ve fallen asleep at some point, because the next time I checked the time it was 3:30AM. At this point, I could not fall back asleep. I got out to relieve myself, and holy crap was it cold. Everything surrounding me, due to being damp, was now frozen. I’m sure being right next to the water added to the low temperatures. So first lesson learned- I really need to get a down jacket if it’s going to be cold, that cheesy jacket liner is useless, even with a fleece long john top and a wool sweater, a fleece hat, fleece long johns and fleece pants. Back to the sleeping bag to shiver.
It was at this point that I realized the second issue with the cold- Condensation. The inside of my tent was completely saturated. I probably should have raised the height of the foot of the tent, and kept the front door open, but I figured lowering it and closing the door would trap more heat in. Instead, it prevented ventilation and caused an insane amount of moisture to loop precariously over my down sleeping bag while I was shivering. I worried the bag would get wet and fail to insulate me, but I held out. Around 6:30 I got up to break camp. Ate some trail mix, packed up, and started heading out while it was still dark.
The cold had done 2 other things to me. First, it had killed the battery on my phone, preventing me from taking pictures the second day, or checking my position on the GPS. My drinking tube for my water bladder had also frozen. So, I learned that when temps will be hitting freezing, I should probably skip the bladder and just bring bottles. It’s a shame too, the 2nd day of hiking was really awesome. Choke Creek was pretty scenic, lots of good camping spots scattered along the creek. It eventually got to a beaver dam. Those little things are crazy! Full size trees chopped down all over. It looked like someone clear cut a section of forest. Then where the dam was, they created a fairly large lake there which flooded a large part of the forest. Cool. More rhododendron tunnels, hemlock groves, and nice trail. The southern loop is far superior to the northern loop. I passed the first hiker I’d seen the whole trip- he had a roaring fire going, and I was definitely jealous. Apparently his pants had frozen over night and he was trying to dry them. I heard lots of gunshots this day. There must’ve been tons of hunters, and I was a little worried over being mistaken for a target. All was well though.
I literally hiked from Choke Creek back to my car without stopping, except to relieve myself. I couldn’t drink out of my water bladder, and I was just about out of food, so I had no reason. My legs sure did hurt the next day though. All in all, an enjoyable trip, with many more memorable experiences that I must learn from.
No new gear really used on this trip, except my praetorian hoodie. 100% merino wool. I like this thing! It has a really oversized hood which just looks cool and keeps your head warm. It does an amazing job of trapping body heat- I felt cold when I first started hiking, and after stopping for a break, but once I was moving for a while, I could actually feel this thing holding in the heat of my body. It was also pretty wind resistant, unlike my columbia fleeces which are only warm under a shell or in zero wind.
So I’ve set a goal for myself. There is an award given out by the DCNR for completing all 718 miles of trails in the state forest system. I’ve giving myself 15 years to finish them all. If I finish sooner, great, but I’m starting at 15 years. So far, I have about 70. I’ll have to re-do the West Rim Trail, since I only did 24 miles of that instead of the full 30, I have to do the north loop of the old logger’s path, and I have to do the rest of the loyalsock from world’s end to the western terminus. Then a whole bunch of other trails. Many of them look pretty good, some are fairly intimidating. The Donut Hole trail seems very challenging. The Bucktail path looks like it’s blazed but has no trail, so will be difficult to follow, and the lost turkey trail has limited camping. Looks like I’ll have a lot of good learning experiences coming.