Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Review: Wildflowers of the High Sierra and John Muir Trail

I've just got my paws on Wildflowers of the High Sierra and John Muir Trail by Elizabeth Wenk and let me tell you, it's good.

The quality of a wildflower book depends in part on a few things. First, your own level of botanical expertise, and second, where you are going to look for flowers compared to the range of area covered by the book. If you are a wildflower newbie, a book organized by flower color (as Wenk's new book is) will be easier to navigate than a book arranged by taxonomic families. If you are hiking just within Yosemite National Park, a book covering all of the Sierras or all of California will be overwhelming.

Therefore, my ringing endorsement of Wenk's new book is predicated on two things. First, it's a great book for someone who is new to flowers but holds value for readers with a bit more knowledge too. Second, and most importantly, it is mostly restricted to high elevation flowers between Yosemite and Mt. Whitney, and if you're hiking the John Muir Trail or scoping out flowers anywhere in that region, it's perfect. You won't have to flip through pages of flowers that only grow in lower elevations, because they aren't included in the book.

I really enjoy the written text in the book as it describes how the geology and other factors like sunlight exposure, soil depth, and rainfall affect which plants grow where. In addition to the photos and descriptions of each plant to help readers identify the flowers they see, these blurbs, which are scattered throughout the text, add to readers' ecological understanding of the area.

I also love that each entry includes the elevation and locations where the plant is found and notes how common each species is. It makes identifying plants so much easier if you distinguish between similar looking species because they grow at entirely separate altitudes or hundreds of miles apart.

Another small detail with a big impact is the handy table of conifers, telling how to distinguish one from another. It's a shame all plant identification books for the Sierras don't include this.

I've got only a few gripes about the book. First, she tells the family of each plant but gives only the Latin name and not the common name of the family. For amateur botanists who have not memorized all of their Latin family names, it would be much more convenient if "Onagraceae" was followed by "Evening Primrose Family." Also, in the text blurbs describing High Sierra ecology, the lists of species are always Latin names, and it would be helpful to include common names after them. It's true that common names are imprecise, but it would still be helpful to add the term "Yarrow" in parentheses after the Latin name "Achillea millefolium," and so on.

All in all, this book is a keeper, and I definitely plan to bring it with me on the John Muir Trail this summer. (For a backpacker, that is high praise, since every additional item added to your pack is that much additional weight you have to carry.) Compared to the three other Sierra wildflower books I've used to date, this one has the best combination of including the most flowers I expect I'll see while excluding those I don't and the most useful information to help identify each plant.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

John Muir Trail Planning: Gear

As noted previously, I'm planning to hike the John Muir Trail this summer. I'm blogging my planning and journey here as I go along. Now that I've got a permit and an itinerary and I'm well into training, it's time to talk about gear.

Previous JMT posts:
As with any backpacking, weight is key. Even dropping an ounce or two per item is worthwhile. But, as they say, you can drop your pack weight the most by reducing the weight of the heaviest items: your backpack, tent, and sleeping bag. In my case, I opted against an ultralight pack because when I tried one, my back hurt from the lack of support. So I'll be traveling with:
  • Backpack: Gregory Cairn 58, Size S: 3 lb, 13 oz.
  • Tent: TarpTent Rainbow: 2 lb.
  • Sleeping Bag: Nemo Rhapsody 15: 2 lb. 2 oz.
  • Total weight: 7 lb 15 oz.
How did I choose my pack size? First of all, it must be large enough for a bear canister, so smaller sizes are mostly too small. But if you get an overly large pack, then you tend to fill it up and end up carrying more weight. I think my pack is on the small side of what's needed for the JMT - but I can make it work.

My tent is a bit unconventional, as it's single walled and non-freestanding. But it pitches fast, it's spacious, it's light, it was a great price compared to similar weight tents, and I love it.

As for the sleeping bag, I can't say enough about how much I love the company, NEMO. While I was buying gear, I was also researching an article that was ultimately accepted by and then killed by Outside magazine (no biggie - that's something that happens when they have too much and need to drop something). For the article, I interviewed NEMO at length. Truly, they are wonderful. Also, I love that the bag is spoon-shaped. It tapers at the waist but flares out at the knees, which is great because I am not mummy shaped and I like having the room to move my legs around in my bag.

My gear list is a work in progress and I might switch out a few things for lighter ones (as noted below) before I head out on the trail. That said, here's most of what I've got now.
  • Bear Canister: UDAP No-fed-bear Bear Canister (2.4 lb)
  • MSR Miniworks Water Filter: 16 oz.
  • NeoAir Xtherm sleeping pad, 66": 14 oz.
  • Fuel canister (110 size): 10.4 oz
  • Snow Peak Titanium pot/pan: 7.1 oz.
  • Camelback 100 fl. oz water bladder: 6.5 oz
  • Sea to Summit silk sleeping bag liner: 4.6 oz.
  • Folding Metal Trowel: 4.1 oz.
  • Black Diamond Spot Headlamp: 3.4 oz.
  • Cheap Canister Stove from China: 3.3 oz. (Similar to MSR Pocket Rocket)
  • Total: 6.8 lbs
So the total weight so far with everything I've listed is nearly 15 lbs. I guess I don't qualify as ultralight.

A few notes on these items.
Water Filter: This is heavy. Normally I like it because it filters out sediment, whereas a chemical water purification option like AquaMira wouldn't. But AquaMira's smaller and lighter (just 3 oz). For the JMT hike, I might go the AquaMira route to save pack space and weight.

Sleeping Pad: I've just switched from the Thermarest Prolite Plus, which is heavy and uncomfortable, especially since I sleep on my side. I thought about going to the NeoAir Xlite instead of the Xtherm, and that would have been several ounces lighter - but not as warm. I've also heard stories about these pads crinkling while you sleep on them. I don't know if this will bother me or not. I can't imagine it will outweigh my pleasure at carrying 7 fewer ounces in my pack. (Actually, considering how much my base weight will be, maybe the Xlite was a better idea... The 66" version is 11 oz, 47" is 8 oz, although I'd be annoyed to have my feet hang off the end.)

Cook pot: I'm not thrilled with my pot and pan and might switch them out. They are Snow Peak brand and titanium with a non-stick coating. The pot lid functions as a frying pan and that's nice. Both are too large for my needs as a solo hiker, and I hate the non-stick coating. However, the low conductability of the titanium means that I can easily drink out of my dishes without burning my lips. (To date, I've been making coffee in the frying pan and drinking out of that. Silly, but functional.) If I switch to stainless steel, I'd burn my lips when I drink.

Water Bladder: Usually I try to avoid drinking or eating out of plastic. I typically hike and backpack with stainless steel Kleen Kanteens. To me, they are worth the weight. However, once the bear can goes in my pack, the big water bottles no longer fit. That's where the water bladder comes in. It actually fits in the pack. This bladder holds just 3 liters. It wouldn't work in the desert at all, but up in the Sierras where the most I'll ever go without a reliable water source is several miles the day I summit Whitney, it's no big deal.

Sleeping bag liner: Since my bag is down and some say you can't ever wash it without it losing its loft, I would rather not get it dirty. And on the trail, I will be dirty. So I'll get this liner dirty, and then I'll wash it. I went with silk because it doesn't absorb water like cotton does and I prefer to avoid synthetics when possible.

(Lack of) Pillow: I stuff all of my extra clothes into the stuff sack for my sleeping bag and use that as a pillow.

Other light items, 10 essentials, etc:
  • Space bag: 2.9 oz
  • 2 oz. Dr Bronner's soap: 2.7 oz.
  • Compass: 1.7 oz
  • Whistle with cord: 1.4 oz
  • Sparkstick: 1.3 oz
  • 3 AAA batteries: 1.2 oz
  • Mirror: 0.9 oz
  • Swiss Army Knife: 0.8 oz
  • Bandana: 0.8 oz
  • Camp towel: 0.75 oz.
  • Prescription drug container filled with cotton balls (dry tinder): 0.6 oz.
  • Titanium spork: 0.5 oz (I really hate sporks, btw)
  • Toilet paper
  • Lip balm
  • Tampons (good for first aid and tinder as well as their normal use)
  • Toothbrusth
  • Toothpaste
I will need to add:
  • Maps
  • A first aid kit
  • A tent repair kit (maybe)
  • Coffee cup (maybe)
For first aid, I'm thinking lots of band aids and 2nd Skin for blister care, Advil, Percocets, and Compazine (a nausea pill). I might take a wilderness first aid class prior to my trip to see what else is important, but I already know I get migraines (i.e. Percocets and Compazine) and blisters, so I'm already planning for those.

Also, you'll note two major categories of items not mentioned here: food and clothes. I'll address those in other posts.

Monday, March 9, 2015

John Muir Trail Planning: Training for Mountains in a Flat State

A few things have gone awry since I started to put my JMT plans in place, but for the most part all is well. I got my permit (see Getting My Permit) for July 5, with the intention of going on a 4th of July Sierra Club bus trip to Yosemite as a means of getting up there. Then the San Diego Sierra Club changed the dates of the trip, and that plan fell through. But I can take a train to Merced (or maybe even Fresno) and take YARTS (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) from there. Less convenient, but not that bad.

Now for the many months of training...

I'm in a flat state right now (Wisconsin). I looked at a topographic map of the ENTIRE state the other day. Flat. The best there is for elevation is at Devil's Lake, a few hours from Madison. There's a very steep climb up a bluff that gets you some elevation gain, but I imagine that real training will involve going up and down it several times. After the snow melts and the mud dries, I'll go back to check it out.

By the way, Wisconsin isn't entirely without its perks:
Bald Eagle
Yes, I took that.

Bald Eagle
And that.

It's just flat.

My goal is to train gradually so I don't screw up my feet. Unfortunately, they are already screwed up so I'm starting from behind. Last summer I developed mild plantar fascitis and achilles tendinitis. The plantar fascitis resolved when I got new shoes (Ecco Biom hiking boots) and insoles (FootBalance). The tendinitis just lingered. Most recently, I've got a diagnosis of tendinosis, which is a chronic low grade inflammation of the achilles tendons. I'm trying to treat it with bodywork (myofascial release) and an anti-inflammatory gel (Voltaren gel). I was also doing a series of heel drop exercises called the Alfredson Protocol but then I saw online that apparently they don't work that well and the creator doesn't even favor doing them any more. I stopped doing the heel drops but I'll pick it up again now that it's warmer - you need a step or ledge to do them on so you can drop your feet down, and the only spot I've got is outdoors. It wasn't worth going out there when it was 9 degrees outside. Now that it's 50F, it's another story.

(Another perk of Wisconsin, by the way? I can try out ALL of my winter hiking gear in freezing temps and see if it works or not. Assessment: For 20F and below, my Marmot Quasar jacket works like a champ with an Icebreakers base layer and Smartwool sweater underneath - but my Icebreakers long underwear plus hiking pants aren't enough. My feet are fine in wool socks, but my tush froze. I recommend something like the Marmot down skirt to cover your rear end if you're spending a lot of time out in weather like that, like in a backpacking situation. It's fine to have a cold rear end if the issue is comfort; it's not OK if the issue is safety.)

Back to the story of my poor feet, I recently noticed that my right foot was pronating as I walked, and did some quick math. Oops, I've put probably 400 mi or so, if not more, on my hiking boots. I decided it was time for a new pair - and new insoles. That oughta help. When I first got them, the Ecco hiking boots solved my plantar fascitis problems almost immediately.

As for training, I hiked about 60 miles in the mountains and desert of San Diego over winter break. Since I got back to Wisconsin, I've been walking outdoors for exercise. I've read you should increase your exercise only by 10% per week to avoid injury. Ideally that's what I'd be doing. Unfortunately, the weather's been the boss of my workout schedule, not me.

Here's what I've done:
  • Week of Jan 18: 18 mi (w/ my pack weighing ~ 12 lbs)
  • Week of Jan 25: 14 mi
  • Week of Feb 1: 12.5 mi plus some snowshoeing
  • Week of Feb 8: 21.4 mi
  • Week of Feb 15: 18 mi
  • Week of Feb 23: 14 mi
  • Week of Mar 1: 24 mi w/ 18 lb pack
In that last week, for 2 miles, my pack weighed 28 lbs. That's because I walked with maybe 14 lbs in there to go get groceries, filled it up with food, and walked home like that. Also, in one of the low mileage weeks at the beginning, I walked in freshly falling snow and learned that walking in snow gives your quads an incredible workout. Man, was I sore!

This week, so far, I've done 7 mi with a 19.5 lb pack and it's just Monday. At this point, all logic and planning have gone out the window. I'm hooked on exercise and I crave it. It bums me out if I don't go for my walks, even if it's freezing out. I just add more layers and off I go. This week, the temps got up into the 40s and tomorrow it will be almost 60. You can bet I'll be out there, as much as possible.

A note on this exercise: It's boring. It's mostly flat, and all in the city. There's only 5 feet of elevation gain on one route I do, 20 feet in another, and maybe 120 feet max if I go up the biggest hill I can find in the area. I don't go anywhere special to walk, I just walk to where I need to go anyway: school, coffee shops, errands. A lot of places I go are ugly, especially when it's covered with dirty snow, and I pass smokers and cars and smell bus exhaust. Now the snow's melting and it's icy in the morning and muddy the rest of the day.

I decided to get an iPod to make it bearable, and that's done the trick. I never bring one on the trail with me, because the trail is never boring. But without the iPod, all this walking in the city would be unthinkable.

Now that it's nice out, I plan to up my game a bit. It's just over four mi to school, and it's easy to do five or six miles if I walk there and then walk between classes and walk to get the bus home. I'm going to start occasionally walking both ways, a total of 8.36 mi, to increase the mileage a bit each week.

Also, I've been gradually tossing more and more backpacking supplies in my pack, along with the school stuff I always carry. Now, if I ever get stranded in downtown Madison, I'll have all my 10 essentials, my tent, and even a trowel to dig cat holes if I have to go! Eventually, I'm putting my bear can in my pack. I'll probably keep the pack weight stable for the time being as I increase the mileage, however.

So far, I've been walking on sidewalks and streets. Once wildflowers start blooming, I'll hit the trails around here. And I'll soon spend 10 days back in San Diego hiking around the mountains there. I owe El Cajon mountain a visit :)

Once I get back from San Diego at the end of spring break, it's another month and four days until the end of the semester (but who's counting?). Then I am off to California for the summer, and I can train for real!

I've got all kinds of ideas for once I'm out there. I'm headed to Monterey first and then down to San Diego, so I can hit Big Sur on the way there. Then there's San Gorgonio, the Channel Islands, a trip back to Mt Baldy and San Jacinto for old time's sake, and much more. And July 5 will get here and I'll be on the JMT before I know it!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Reviews and Summaries

Herbs, Wildflowers, and Foraging

Cooking and Fermentation


Other Subjects