The Solo Backpacking Experiment

Posted: July 31, 2014 in Hiking
Tags: , , , , , ,

September 2013

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The decision:

I’m going. My usual backpacking partner can’t make it, and determined to get one more camp in before the end of the season, I’ve decided to go in on my own. The decision to go out by myself is, for me, a big one. The time I’ve spent in the wilderness has mostly been with my buddy, who I consider a far more established hiker than I. Sure, we disagree about gear from time to time, but he’s always had my back, and this time ill be doing it without him.

The route:

As of this moment, I’m undecided. I have a couple ideas, and I have to carefully weigh the options. The epic ridge hike I had been considering seems like it might be a lot for my first solo overnight. I’m leaning towards the relatively easy hike into 13 Falls in Lincoln, NH. I’ve been around that area before, so it wouldn’t be a total unknown, and if for some reason I had to bail, it wouldn’t be too hard to get out. The other option is Sawyer Pond. The hike in is about the same, and the campsite overlooks the pond. The view would be nice, but it’s a small camp and could potentially be crowded.

The hike:

In a bout of indecision, I decided on the easier adventure. The plan was to hike into the Lincoln Woods on the Pemi East trail and camp at the Franconia Brook tentsite. It’s a short two and a half mile hike to a well put together set of tent sites right on the Pemigewasset River. I had been there once before on my first trip into the woods in decades. So leaving my house I thought it would be a good place to have my first solo camp. That was the plan.

What was it Moltke said? “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Seems legit.

In this case, “the enemy” was a tailgating woman in a Honda Pilot. Unsure of the location of the parking lot I was driving slower than normal up the Kangamangus Highway. In between watching intently for signs indicating the Lincoln Woods parking lot, I noticed the SUV riding my tail pretty tight. She was close enough that when I finally saw the lot, I couldn’t slow quick enough without causing an accident. So, I kept going. The trouble was that there are only a few spots to turn around, and being somewhat unfamiliar, I was going to have to slow quickly to get off. With my new found shadow closely in tow, that wasnt going to be easy.

As I got farther away from my intended objective, it occurred to me that the Sawyer Pond trail was somewhere in this direction. I initially wanted to hike in there, and since it was getting closer, and the Pemi farther away, I called an audible. Instead of taking the easier hike into known territory, I would take the longer hike into an unknown destination. Eventually, I pulled off to let the Honda pass, and kept my eyes peeled for any signs indicating Sawyer Pond.

It took about 30 minutes to find the trailhead. As I pulled in the lot, I noticed another car with a couple hikers milling about. It wasn’t clear if they were coming or going, day hiking, or camping, so I pulled into a spot and killed the engine. I sat for a moment contemplating my decision. I didn’t have a map, which is a pretty big failure on my part, but I do have GPS with terrain, so I was pretty certain I would be able to navigate to and from the pond. I got out to check the map at the trailhead. It seemed pretty straight forward, so I solidified my resolve and got my gear.

Keeping an eye on the other pair of hikers, I got the GPS up and running, and sent a check-in message to my wife. The message will give her my new coordinates, so she’ll know that I changed the plan. As I shouldered my pack, I heard, “Hey guy, where ya headed.” I told them I was hiking into Sawyer Pond and as it turned out, so were they. No sweat, there should be plenty of room. I turned and headed down the trail was immediately confronted with a river. Well, more of a stream, but it ran right down the middle of the trail. “Um, who the hell put that here?” Yeah, I get it, nature.. But still, I had to figure out how to get across.

Somewhat stymied by this unexpected turn of events, I made a right through some trees on the shore to see if I can find a way across. Nothing. Waist deep water at best was all I could see. I began to worry that this adventure was going to be over before it even started. About the time I got back to the trail. The other two hikers arrived and started looking for their own way to cross. They found a shallow spot, about knee deep down a seven foot ledge. It seemed to be the best solution so I watched them ease their way down the ledge into the water, took my boots off and followed suit. It was chilly, but not terrible. Using my poles for stability, I slowly made it across to the rocky shore.

Sitting on the shore getting dried off, I got to talking with the other guys. They seemed nice enough, and since we were all going the same way, were amenable to my joining their hike. With our gear squared away, we found the trail and started making our way towards Sawyer Pond.

The four and a half mile hike in was pleasant. Except for a small-ish gain in elevation near Birch Hill, the trail was mostly flat. My GPS wasn’t quite cooperating at first, and I immediately regretted that fact that I didn’t have a map with me. I mean, really, who goes into the wilderness without a map? Apparently I do. Not really cool, but fortunately, the guys I linked up with had one and we were able to find the trail as it branched off at a snowmobile trail.

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After just a couple hours of hiking, we arrived at Sawyer Pond. Following the trail around the wooded shore line lead to the shelter that sits facing the water. A fire ring and an improvised bench made it pretty clear that this was the place to be. We figured that since it was going to be chilly overnight, there wouldn’t be much threat of bugs and we’d sleep in the shelter rather than set up the tents at one of the the set back tent sites. It was looking to be a nice night and with the open side of the shelter facing east, we’d get a nice view of the sunrise over the hills in the morning.

I made a cup of tea as the sun set behind us and the night slowly crept in. The temperature was dropping and we got to work setting up the camp fire. The area was pretty well picked over for firewood so scrounging without cutting anything down was difficult. After scouring most of the empty tent sites we managed to find enough wood to last the night. The temperature got down into the high 40’s and rest of that night was spent beside the campfire bs’ing over a couple beers and freeze dried food. Not a terrible way to spend an evening.

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In the morning, as promised, the sun made it’s way over the hills and into the shelter. By sheer luck I had positioned my sleeping bag in the far corner, which gave me some protection from the fiery ball in the sky that was interrupting my otherwise enjoyable morning sleep. And then, cutting through the tranquil, still morning air:

“Guess what day it is? Guess. What. Day. It. Is? Mikemikemikemikemike.. Guess what day it is?”

“Fuck you, I’m sleeping.” Is the response.

“Matt… Matty.. Come on, I know you can hear me… What day is it?”

“Its Wednesday?”

“Hump day! Yeeeahh.”

“You’re an asshole.”

Good morning Sawyer Pond.

We pulled down the bear bags, and got the fire going again for breakfast. They were planning to hike the other side of the Sawyer Pond Trail and then cycle back to the five miles back to the parking lot. I thought about hiking the long way out, but it was going to be ten miles, and I decided to take the trail back the way we came. After spending an hour or so waking up and eating, I packed up my gear, bid the guys farewell, and headed back towards the truck.

Almost immediately I realized that leaving my pack on the ground during the night had opened the valve to my Camelbak and leaked out all of my water. Rookie mistake. (Those hooks are there for a reason bro.) As I made my way back, I came up to a small brook, kneeled down between the tracks of what I hoped was a passing moose, and filtered in a couple liters. The rest of the hike out went by fast enough and I soon arrived at the stream that ran across the trail leading to the parking lot. I did another quick recon on the shore line and came to the conclusion that the only way across was the way we came the day before. Only now I was going to have to climb up that ledge. I carefully waded across and got to the other side. I tossed my boots and poles up over the edge and, using a nearby tree root, hauled myself up and over the top. The effort lacked anything remotely like grace or style, but I made it. A few yards later I found my truck, in the same place I left it the morning before. I snapped a few pictures to bookend this adventure and headed home. While it didn’t turn out to be a solo trip into the Lincoln Woods, I was happy to have the company and discover a new part of the White Mountains. It seems that sometimes the adventure we set out on is not the one we end up having.

It’s taken me nearly a year to finish this post, and now, looking back on this overnight backpacking trip I’m reminded why I make the effort and take the time to embark on these adventures. On our way in, we talked about what draws us to the back country and I think Steve said it best: “How will you know what you’re made of unless you come out here and do this.” I think it’s an excellent point. I’m ever a student of the outdoors and I always try to take a little something from each trip that I can apply to the next one. This trip was no different.

So, what’s next? I guess all I have to do is pick a point on the map and grab my pack.

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