Advertisements

Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh My: Know What Wildlife You Might Encounter

17 07 2012

When I took my cross country trip back in 2004, one thing I hadn’t thought about at all while making my plans was the wildlife that I would encounter along the way. I’m a city girl. For me, wildlife is the scary albino possum that slinks around my neighborhood in the middle of the night, or the dragonfly on steroids that attacked me on the Rose Kennedy Greenway a few weeks ago (I swear, it dive-bombed me and it was at least six inches long, with a head the size of a large cherry tomato).

At any rate, the first National Park I visited was Badlands in South Dakota. Sure enough there were buffalo on the road to the campsite, and buffalo hanging around the campsite as well. The sheer size of those animals made me realize that I should probably investigate what wildlife was around so that I would be prepared.

A few days later, I arrived at Yellowstone. I was hours behind schedule (which is a long story for another day), so by the time I arrived at the campsite, it was starting to get dark. I went up to the registration window to check in and get my assignment, and the woman in the little booth spent ten minutes giving me the lecture about how to avoid getting eaten by a Grizzly bear.

My only defense against the Grizzlies

I was supposed to avoid food-flavored toiletries and under no condition keep them in my tent. I was absolutely not to store toothpaste or a used toothbrush in my tent, and was to brush and rinse very thoroughly before going to bed to remove any traces of food from my body. I was to eat only at the picnic table, and not in my tent, and for the love of god not have food in my tent, or any beverage other than water, at night (well, I knew that last part). I was to dispose of all trash, including as many crumbs as I could gather, in the bear-safe trash receptacles only. If I had to leave my tent during the night, I was to take a flashlight and make a lot of noise on my way to the restrooms.

Gah! I nearly passed out with fear. But there were a ton of other people around, and so I pretended I was totally cool with all of it and meekly set off to put up my tiny little tent in my assigned area, have dinner, follow all of the instructions, and then lock myself in my tent and be afraid I was about to be Grizzly meal.

I know now — and figured out the next day, after a mostly sleepless night — that I was in the southern part of the park and therefore unlikely to run into Grizzlies, who inhabit areas in the north. Also, once I had had an opportunity to absorb the precautionary measures necessary and adjust to the reality of the chances I had encountering a Grizzly, I stopped panicking and realized it was just like anything else while traveling or hiking or camping: know the risks and minimize them where possible. Or, Rule number 12:

Know What Wildlife You Might Encounter and How to Handle It

A rattlesnake we found in Zion National Park

Before hiking or camping in an area, research its local wildlife. Are there large mammals that you should keep an eye out for? How do you avoid them or handle them if you do run across them? What about smaller mammals that could be dangerous if provoked or if made aggressive by prior encounters with humans? Poisonous snakes or bugs?

As with anything else, knowledge is power. If you know there are rattlesnakes, you can keep an eye out for them. If you know that black bears are n the area, you can stomp and sing while hiking (television theme songs are good in a pinch) in order to avoid surprising them. And if there are Grizzlies, you can have bear spray handy and be extra careful about food scents while camping.

You might even get a good night’s sleep.

Advertisements




It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

6 03 2012

Originally published July 12, 2010.

Imagine an amazing hiking day.  There’s a light breeze, but the temperature is nearly perfect.  You’re whistling a little tune as you’re hiking down the trail.  You have your backpack of supplies.  You’re reveling in the sights, sounds and smells of nature, dawdling here at a brook, spending time setting up the perfect shot there, laying out on the rock at the peak, closing your eyes to just be for a while.

Sounds like a great day, doesn’t it?

Suddenly, in the distance, you see some angry-looking dark gray clouds.  They seem to be moving toward you awfully quickly.  You start down the trail, hurrying now, but sure enough, it soon starts to rain.  Hard.  You find some semi-shelter and wait it out, but by the time it stops the sun is going down.  Suddenly, what started out as a great hike, one that was simple for you, turned harrowing, all because the weather and the time caught up with you before you realized it.

Something similar happened to my friends.  If you remember, they left for their hike on the late side, were not familiar with the trail, took a couple of wrong turns, were hiking slow, and then it started getting dark — and scary — fast.  Everything is different in bad weather and when the sun goes down, and all the slightly dangerous things about hiking get a lot more dangerous: animals moving under cover of the darkness, higher chance of injury because you can’t see where you’re going, the temperature drops, etc.

How to prevent against this situation?  Rule Number 11:

Pay attention to the time and the weather.

Please don’t leave for a 3 hour hike 3 hours before sunset.  Please check the weather forecast for where you are hiking (i.e. not your house) before you leave.  Please keep an eye on the time — yes, wear a watch or have something on you that keeps track of time — and an eye on the weather.  Watch for clouds, darkening skies, temperature dropping, the smell of moisture in the air.

This is not to say that, on some occasions, you can’t hike with an iffy weather forecast.  Just use your head.  If the forecast calls for light showers in the late afternoon and you plan to be back by noon, you just have to keep watch on the weather while you’re on the trail.  If, on the other hand, you’re planning to snowshoe and there’s rumors of a blizzard, today might be the day to catch up on that novel you’ve been wanting to read.





I Get By With a Little Help From…That Guy

2 03 2012

Originally published April 12, 2010.

One of the greatest things about solo camping and hiking is the feeling of accomplishment and independence that comes with realizing you can be self-sufficient.  Holy cow, I can build a fire!  I can pitch a tent — and get it all back into that little sleeve it came in!  I can climb a mountain and find my way back down!  (These are even greater triumphs if you grew up thinking you had no capacity to deal with the outdoors or anything remotely physical — and having that thinking reinforced.)

Self-sufficiency, and the independence and freedom that comes along with it, is truly valuable.  When embarking on your first solo camping and hiking endeavors, you should definitely push yourself towards that goal.  Even if you aren’t totally sure you can build a fire and cook that hot dog, give it a try.  A real try, not just a half-hearted one.  Plot your own course on a hike, figure out how to use your equipment, make your own decisions.  You’re way more capable than you give yourself credit for, I promise.

Sometimes, however, you need a little help.  Maybe you can’t change the tire on your car in the middle of a busy highway.  Maybe you can’t get a particularly tight knot undone.  Maybe you just. Can’t. Get. That. Fire. Going.  That’s when Rule Number 10 comes into play:

Ask For Help When You Need It

Sure, it’s great to be self-sufficient.  Sure, part of solo camping and hiking is to push yourself and test your limits, boost your confidence by realizing you’re better at a lot of things than you thought you were.  Sure, sometimes it’s embarrassing (and, as a woman, can rankle a little) to ask for help.

But here’s the thing: faced with the choice of spending a few hours frustrated and upset, or asking someone for help, avoiding the frustration, and perhaps learning a new way of accomplishing your intended task so that you don’t have to ask for help in the future, that second choice sounds pretty good.  It’s not giving up, it’s being realistic and making a choice about your own education and enjoyment.  You might also make someone else happy, because when you’re out on the trail, people generally like to be friendly and helpful.

This isn’t to say you should give something a feeble try, say “I can’t do this” and find someone to do it for you because it’s hard and/or annoying.  But when you’ve given something a good go and you just haven’t quite managed to figure out the best way to do it…or have learned your physical limitations, ask for a hand.  You might even make a friend in the process.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





The Road Less Traveled is Overrated

1 03 2012

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Originally published March 8, 2010.

Taking the “road less traveled” is the metaphor we use when we want to muster up the courage to do something out of our comfort zones, congratulate ourselves for choosing the more adventurous alternative, and justify not sticking to boring routines.  As a metaphor, it’s inspiring and comforting at the same time.

Taken literally, however, choosing the “road less traveled” might not always be the wisest decision.  For example, imagine that you’re driving into a blizzard in Vermont.  You could choose to take the interstate most of the way, along with all of the other cars persistently slushing through the precipitation, or you could go the shorter, windier route through the mountains that, during nice weather, is much more pleasant.  Here’s a hint: the road less traveled is a pain in the ass.  (Based on a recent, and very true, story.)

When solo hiking, you may think the road less traveled might be just what you’re looking for.  You want solitude and serenity out in nature, without hordes of other hikers spoiling your meditations, and what better way to achieve that than to find that trail no one else seems to want to hike?

As a casual solo hiker, however, someone who is just dunking a toe into the shallow end to see how it feels, the road less traveled can be scary.  Choosing the trail where you’ll be by yourself might seem ideal at first, but once you’re out there you may change your mind.  It might not be as well-maintained as the more-traveled routes, causing you to question whether you’re still on the trail.  If you’re truly out there on your own, and there is little likelihood anyone will come by, then there won’t be anyone to help you out if you need it.  Finally, you face higher chances of surprising wildlife — hint: surprising wildlife is usually a bad idea — lulled into complacency by the infrequent sightings of humans.

Does that mean that, as a beginning solo hiker, you should only choose the most populated hiking trails?  Not necessarily.  As always, kids, the key here is balance.  That brings us to Rule No. 9:

Choose the Right Trail.

As you get more comfortable solo hiking, and get a sense of your comfort level, this will get easier and easier.  That’s because your comfort level is precisely what should dictate what trail you choose — and not the dire warnings and scare tactics of naysayers.

While on my Road Trip, I started out picking only those trails that seemed to get a lot of visitors.  I was alone, in the sense that I didn’t have a travel companion, but I wasn’t yet comfortable being alone in the woods, or the desert, or wherever it was that I found myself on that day.  After a few hikes, I became more confident, and soon I wasn’t paying all that much attention to how popular the trail was.  Even so, and to this day, I am comforted when there are a couple of other cars at the trailhead, because I know that, somewhere out there, I’m likely to run into someone.  On the other hand, I dislike hiking on trails that are so populated I’m constantly staring at the heels of the person in front of me.  Happily, it’s easy to find balance once you know what to look for.  Here are a few indicators:

  • How many cars are at the trailhead?  If you’re having trouble finding a place to park — especially if the parking area is large — you’re going to be hiking amidst a sea of other hikers.  If there’s not another car in sight, you’re probably the only one there.  And if there’s a school bus, turn tail and run (or is that just me?).
  • Is the trail highlighted, discussed, or merely mentioned in guidebooks?  The most popular trails can be spotted from miles away because they are considered must-sees and mentioned everywhere you look, while others are less well-known and publicized.
  • Once you’re on the trail, can you see any other hikers?  Hear them?  If not, that doesn’t mean they aren’t around the next bend, and you can usually tell after hiking for a half hour or so the level of travel on the trail by how many people you meet.

So pick the trail that’s right for you.  If you’ve never solo hiked, you might want to try a couple of well-visited trails to build your confidence rather than seeking true solitude right away.  And it’s okay for even experienced solo hikers to generally prefer to run into at least a couple of people during an 8-hour hike.  Chances are, you’ll find plenty of spots on the trail where you’re on your own and can soul-search and reflect in solitude to your heart’s content.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





Can You Hear Me Now?

29 02 2012

Originally published February 1, 2010.

Ah, cell phones.  Twenty years ago they were only for the very wealthy — and the very strong…did you see the size of those things?  Now, however, they are tiny, multi-functional lifelines that most of us couldn’t imagine living without.  They are also the solo female traveler’s best friend.

Back when I took my road trip, I had a cell phone.  It was a cute little silver flip phone from Motorola, not the top of the line, but certainly sleek enough for the day.  That phone came in very handy while I was out on my own.  One day, when I was headed back east on Rte 40 in New Mexico, I blew out a rear tire.  I avoided the speeding 18-wheelers, pulled over to the side of the road, and pulled out my phone, praying I would have a bar or two.  I did!  I called AAA, they showed up and changed my tire, and I was on my way once again.  I was never so thankful to have the phone, because it was a nearly 10 mile walk to the next exit.

This brings us to Rule Number 8 (8!  Can you believe it?)

Don’t Forget Your Cell Phone.

When out on your own, having a (working, charged) phone with you decreases the risks you face.  It’s a lifeline to the rest of the world.  This is true even while hiking and camping.  Remember my friends A and B?  One of them let his phone lose the charge and the other didn’t bother bringing hers, and so they found themselves out in the woods in the dark, sort of lost, with no mode of communication available.  (Sorry to keep referring to that story, guys, but it’s such a great real life example!)

Now, this rule comes with one big caveat: Just because you bring your phone doesn’t mean you should neglect your other precautions.

Unfortunately, this is a common way of dealing with technology — we become so dependent on it that we lose the ability to function without it.  I rely heavily on my car’s GPS and so it takes me longer to learn how to get places without it.  I rely on my phone to find people now…we’ll pick a time to meet and a general place and then call each other to triangulate once there, which means that, if the phone dies or you leave it behind, you might be out of luck.  It’s always a good idea to have a back-up (often luddite) solution if your techno-tastic precautions fail.

The truth is, there isn’t always great cell reception in the wilderness.  You’re less likely to have reception the farther out you go, and this means the phone could end up being useless as a rescue device.  Does that mean you shouldn’t bother bringing it?  No, because that’s not always the case, and if you’re hiking closer to city limits on day hikes, you’re more likely to be able to get some service — and, if you do need help, you can more easily describe your problem than by just sending up a flare.

Besides, if you have a phone that’s the size of the one Zack is using in the photo above, you’ll get an extra workout as well.

Don’t forget to enter Her Side’s First Contest!  Deadline Friday!

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





I’ll Be Over the River and Through the Woods

28 02 2012

Originally published January 11, 2010.

You’re out on the trail.  You’re moving along at a good pace.  You’ve taken all your precautions.  Unfortunately, something goes wrong.  You trip, injure your ankle, and you can’t make it back out.  Bad luck, you also picked today to hike a trail where you haven’t seen any other hikers, your cell phone isn’t getting any signal, and you never got around to getting one of those “come get me” survival beacons.  Is all hope lost?

Nope.  You’ll be fine.  Because you followed Rule No. 7:

Tell someone where you’re going to be.

This sounds obvious, but it isn’t always.  It’s also (unlike the first aid kit rule) negotiable.  There are many times that I break this rule because I just don’t think about it.  When I was on my road trip, I was hiking practically every day, and was alone for most of the trip, so there wasn’t anyone to tell (and this was pre-facebook and twitter, and in the early days of accessing the internet via cell phone…I was still hunting up internet cafes to check my email).  When I go to the places near me for “quick hikes” on trails I am very familiar with, it often doesn’t occur to me to mention my intended destination.  And sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to be until you go, because there are multiple trails and you want to check them out before deciding which to commit to.

This is all right.  Like most of what I talk about here, this Rule is a matter of balance.  Going for a walk around Walden Pond, or on a highly populated trail, simply doesn’t pose the same risks as going somewhere difficult and secluded.  It is a good idea to make your intended hike known, however, and to get into the habit of doing so.  That way, if you don’t come back, someone knows where to start looking.

Remember when I told the story of my friends A and B who got lost in the dark?  One thing they did absolutely right was telling us where they intended to be.  We knew what trail they were taking, and we knew when they were expected back, so when they didn’t show up, we knew exactly where to go and look for them.  (Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.)

Now, in 2010, it is very easy to tell people where you’re going.  Here’s how:

  1. Call someone.  “Hey, Mom, how are you?  How is Dad?  Listen, I can’t talk, because I’m on my way to the Canyon Loop Trail in the Betasso Preserve.  It should take me a couple of hours — I’ll call you on my way home.”  See?  Easy.  And you make Mom happy by calling.
  2. Text someone.  Don’t feel like talking?  “hkng Laurel Falls tday b bk by 3.”
  3. Email someone, or a couple someones.  “Hey girls, I’ll be hiking to Crow Creek Falls in the Helena National Forest tomorrow, starting around ten.  Let me know if you want to join!”
  4. Facebook/Twitter it.  This lets you reach lots of people, and also is sort of second nature to many of us now.  “Jane Smith is going to hike the North Pawtuckaway Mountain Trail today.  See y’all in 3-4 hours!  Should I post photos?”
  5. Leave a note in your car at the trailhead.  I wouldn’t put it on the dash and be obvious about it, but leaving it in the driver’s seat, where someone could find it easily if they were looking, is not a bad idea, particularly if you didn’t decide where you were going until the last second and don’t have any cell reception.

And that’s it.  So simple.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





Stuck on Band-Aid

27 02 2012

Originally published November 30, 2009.

Poor Kenny.  For those who have never seen South Park, or who have been living in a cave on Mars with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears for the last twelve years, Kenny McCormick is the unfortunate member of the South Park gang who, in nearly every episode in the first five seasons, dies a terrible death.  So, as I was saying, poor Kenny.

Kenny is a really unlucky little kid.  Kenny dies in just about every way imaginable.  He is electrocuted, crushed by a tree, torn apart by an angry mob, gored by a bull, eaten by fish…and so on and so on.  If there is a chance, however small, that someone could be injured while participating in any activity, Kenny will beat the odds and become the fatal statistic.

I’m glad I’m not as unlucky as Kenny, and I hope that you’re not either.   If you are, there’s not much that can be done about it.  But if you’re a little more average, it pays to take some precautions while engaged in activities that have a higher risk of injury than sitting around on your sofa watching South Park.

That brings us to Rule No. 6:

First Aid Kits Are Non-Negotiable.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again.  Bring a first aid kit when you hike and camp.  Bring it when you’re solo, bring it when you’re in a group, just bring it.  Bring it even when you think that the hike should be a piece of cake, especially if you’ve never done it before and don’t know from personal experience how easy it will be.  After all, we know what can happen when you set out on what you think is a “simple” hike in unknown territory.

I don’t want to hear any excuses out of you.  A while ago, I discussed what should go into a first-aid kit in some detail.  You don’t have to put much work into getting one together, however, because ready-made kits are available for your (inexpensive) purchase.  First aid kits come in all sizes (mine weighs half a pound) and so the minor extra weight is worth the vast benefits of carrying one.

You should also learn how to use your first aid kit.  Having one won’t help in an emergency if you’re sitting there trying to figure out what a lancet is or how to operate your snake-bite suction device.  Read the instructions in advance.  Buy a first aid manual and study it (they make compact ones that you can bring with you, and some ready-made kits actually come with them).  You can even take a first aid course.

At the end of the day, a first aid kit, and knowledge of how to use it, can help you avoid the fate that always, always, seemed to befall poor Kenny.  Those bastards.