Friday, January 31, 2014

Many of the hiking and backpacking community are people who go their own way.  There are some loners who travel alone, and others who like to have a lot of friends along to share the experience.  It is also made up of clubs where people explore the outdoors together.  Mostly it is also made up of people who care about the world and the other people in it.
So what does ultralight backpacking and providing clean drinking water to the world have in common?
Sawyer Filters.
Like many of you, I use them to filter my water in the backcountry.  And Waves 4 Water uses them to filter water for communities in need around the planet.
MVP Filter Kit - Find a bucket locally.
I know that some of you may be travelling abroad in 2014, and a way for you to actually help someone is to become a Clean Water Courier (CWC). 
You already know how to use these filters to get clean water, and you can easily show someone how to use them, how to make a hole in a bucket and how to easily backwash the filters with clean water to make them last for years.  You can carry filter kits in your luggage to many places around the world and help people yourself.  Directly. 
You can raise money online for these kits in advance, and you can blog about how you were able to be an aid to people, helping them get clean drinking water, maybe for the first time in their lives.  While on your trip you can still enjoy your trip, you don’t have to go to a specific place, or follow disasters on CNN to meet someone else’s requirements.  Go where you want to.  W4W wants you to do this your own way. 
If this seems like something you can do for the world, follow this link to learn more.
If you would like to help W4W with a donation, donate, click here or donate to one of their projects.
If you want to purchase a filter for your family or someone in need, click here to buy.
Then send me a link to your blog or an email or photos so I can share what good you did on Lite Packer.
You can be the change that is needed in the world.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Lake Monroe Conservation Area

The open field begins your walk
The trails are well marked
Several ponds are part of the water management program here
For a cool day's hike my friend Walt met me at the Lake Monroe Conservation Area parking lot for a short hike.   Windy and 50 degrees is cool weather in Florida.  Bundled against the wind in our Gore-Tex rain coats we ambled across the open field following a double-track which was our trail for the day.  We followed the 1.9 mile red blazed Red Trail through cattle and pies to turn south into the woods, where we were warmed by the trees blocking the wind.  This trail ends at the St. John River at a campsite.  Once we got to the trees, the highway sounds were heavily muted and it was peaceful.  To find other St. John River outdoor areas to visit here's a regional map.
The big open
And the trees
The sky was a clear blue.  There were lots of birds about and besides a few white herons, a blue heron, and the ever-present hovering and circling carrion birds, we didn't see any other wildlife.  We walked through another open area, then back into the trees again.  You can find the trail map here.  There is a yellow-blazed trail we will walk another time.
High water marks on trees
More water marks
Near the St. John River
We quickly noticed a dark mark on all the trees that was about waist-high.  It was the high water mark from when these lands are covered in high water.  That happens just about every year and I remember back in 2004 during the hurricanes, when the water here was up to the highway.  This is part of the reason the St. John River Water Management District purchased all these lands, to help protect the quality of the water in the river.  Keeping these lands open to hikers, horse riders and bicyclists is a good thing for us.
By the way, the Kratzert Tract of land is right next door.  I hiked there a couple of years ago and it was a short but interesting trail.  Here's my blog about it.
Along the way we met a bicyclist who was bringing a boy scout troop here the next day for a Philmont hike training session.  He was followed up by a wildlife officer in his rusting vehicle who was checking around and was making sure we were not lost.

We finally got to the St. John River edge and followed to the west where someone had boated in a huge campsite full of gear.  It was a nice campsite with fire rings.  A few boats buzzed by.  There was another campsite here by an old, dead tree and there was a shelter by the water further down the riverfront.  Three more boats were tied along the shore, one of which belonged to Jeff from my old boy scout troop.  He was camping on Lake Monroe with his wife, son and a friend, and they were out exploring.  We spent a few minutes catching up and it was good to see them camping and spending time outdoors as a family.
More wind
Rough to walk on, painful to bicycle on
I love cedar trees!
Walt and I walked back, looking for a road back the wildlife officer told us about, and we ran into very rough ground, chewed up by cattle going through it when wet.  The road we had been walking on would have been much easier to walk on than this stuff.  It was still nice to be outdoors.  We finally got back to the main road by the first trail turn, crossed the field and returned to the parking lot.  It was a short 4 mile hike, but nice!  And I've found a close campsite to test new gear with.
Return trail
Trees again
Walt & the parking lot in the distance
To find the Lake Monroe Conservation Area, north of Orlando, exit I-4 onto Lake Mary Boulevard and go east.  Cross 17/92 and continue to State Highway 46 passing the Sanford Airport Terminal entrance.  Cross SR 46 and follow County Road 415 through the widening construction project, across the St. John River, and take the first right turn into the parking lot.  Watch for the sign as it comes quickly.  Also watch for the construction-caused bumps when turning off the pavement.  Park in the lot and pick up a map at the trail kiosk.
To hike the 1.4 mile Kratzert loop, exit the parking lot and turn right onto CR 415, take the next paved left turn, Reed Ellis Road, follow less than a mile and turn left into the signed parking lot.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Low Cost Esbit Lightweight Pot & Stove

Esbit Cook Set
Here’s a deal for you.  An interesting and very light Esbit cook stove and pot is available online at in the sports & outdoors section, listed for only $21.88.  You can buy it here for the low price. 
This same unit sells for $29.00 at REI and other outfitters.  It is a hard anodized aluminum pot & stove, not Titanium, but it is very light at about 7 ounces.  The stove is designed by Esbit to use Esbit tabs, and it stows neatly inside the pot & lid, sitting on rubber feet.  The pot will boil up to 16 ounces of water (holds about 20 ounces), more than enough for most bag cooking dinners and hot drinks.  12 Esbit tabs (a season’s worth for me) are available online for $6.95.  You could buy the pot, stove and 12 tabs on Amazon for less cash than you can just purchase the pot and stove elsewhere.  The stove appears to be wind proof with a large enough door to light up or blow out the Esbit tab.  The pot handles fold against the body for packing and are coated, which may help reduce burned fingers.  I caution you to still use a small pot-holder cloth for protection.  
Stows nicely!
I have not cooked with this stove & pot, but I have checked it in out in the store at Dick’s Sporting Goods.  I like the quality construction, the small size, the pour spout details and how it all fits together.  If I were designing this stove I would make a smaller door and lower the pot to be closer to the flame, but that is just me.
I have been using Esbit for 3 years now and prefer it for cooking outdoors.   You can’t beat the simplicity and portability.  For boiling up 8 ounces of water for tea or coffee, it is perfect.  Just cut one Esbit tab in half.  Use a full tab for boiling 16 ounces of water and you should get a rolling boil like I do.  Have the water already poured into the pot before you light the tab, and it should work as promised.  Use your first finger to strike your lighter or lay a lit match beside the tab for easy lighting.  I always carry one or two extra tabs with me just in case of bad weather, or if I need help with starting a fire to warm up or dry out.  So far, cleaning the cooking smudge off the bottom of the pot has been fairly easy, but it is something you will have to always do when using Esbit.    
This model came out a couple years after my wife had bought me a titanium pot, so I’ll have to pass on it.  But I will recommend it for any interested lightweight hikers because it is so light and small (and about half of the price of a titanium pot), plus this price is excellent for ultralight cooking gear.  Packed in its own stuff sack, you could also stuff your lighter, extra matches, 12 or more Esbit tabs, and maybe even your tea and condiments inside the pot, saving precious pack space.  The reviews I have read have been mostly good, though in cold, windy weather you may need to increase the height of the Esbit tab a bit (on a small rock?) for more heat.  In a day pack, it would be perfect for that hot cup of Joe at the hike turn around and it would be a little lighter than what I now carry.  
Oh well.  When you get one, send me a picture showing how well it works.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A one hour hike

Sand Lake.
Sometimes I only have an hour or two for the entire week to rush out the door to spend time immersed in the outdoors.  I like being outside.  Actually, I love being outside.  A short time out there relaxes me and allows me to think while being “unplugged” from the world.  
Locally, Wekiwa Springs State Park gives me that short, timely hike.  I can be there from home in about 30 minutes and for the admission fee ($4 if I go alone, or $6 if my wife goes with me), I can then disappear into the woods for an hour-long walk.  The trail I follow is actually portions of 3 trails hiked in a loop and runs about 3 miles.  A clockwise hiking direction works as well as hiking counter-clockwise and I usually alternate the directions to keep the walk interesting.  Either way the trail both begins and ends at Sand Lake.  As always I carry my 10 essentials in an ultralight backpack, and at a minimum, one liter of water (2 liters in summertime).  A link to a blog about my backpack is HERE.
The name of the river there is WekiVa, and the park name is WekiWa.  Wekiwa Springs State Park trail maps are found HERE or you can download a trail map HERE.   
Looking back towards the parking lot, take Mill Creek Trail.
Once you enter, drive all the way into and park your car at the Sand Lake trailhead.  To go either direction, follow the sandy trail at the East end of the parking lot which will take you to Sand Lake, surrounded with its picnic tables and benches, inviting you to sit and enjoy the view. 
Hiking North along Mill Creek Trail.
For Counter-clockwise directions:  Turn left onto Mills Creek Loop Trail.  Follow this old tramway as it disappears into the woods.  You will notice quite a few holes dug to your left, most used to raise the tramway above the ground (and flooding) to keep the old train tracks clear.  These tramways crisscrossed this area, built in their day to carry lumber to the mill.   You will cross tannin-colored Mill Creek soon over a small bridge.
Crossing Mill Creek.

E-W Cross Trail, turn left here.
It is a nice day to be outside!
After 15 minutes or so, take the first left at the bench onto the East-West Cross Trail.  This blue blazed trail meanders across the park, following and crossing two creeks to join with the Orange-blazed Volksmarch Trail which will be your return route to Sand Lake.    The East-West Cross Trail crosses a sand road, and turns into an area by a pond near an old burn.

Old pond, old rust.
There is an off-cast of the lumber industry, an old rusting fuel-oil tank returning to the land here.   Follow this trail along the edge of the woods to the stream crossing.  I believe there are more than one spring up this creek from the bridge.
Looking back at the bridge I just crossed over Mill Creek.
Check out the old dead longleaf pine tree on the right side of the trail just across the water.  The bark is about 4 inches thick, to protect the adult tree from fire damage and it is peeling away from the tree’s core of dead wood.  You will cross a road again.  
There is a campsite for horse riders, Big Fork to the right up the road a few yards with a fire ring, a bench and a picnic table.  This is a popular place to take a break.  To get back to the trail, leave the campsite on the road to the left, then take a right turn onto the trail.  
You will cross a creek again, and just after this crossing, be sure to look up at all the bromeliads in the old oak tree on your left.  
Lots of life above
I call them sap balls.
Continuing along the trail you will notice many pine trees with “sap balls” on them.  I have been told these trees save up energy in the form of food, for less plentiful times.  You will join the road again and follow it to the left for a few yards.  Be sure not to miss the Blue Blaze return to the trail on the left side of the road.
Adding the E-W Cross Trail blue blaze to the horse & bicycle blaze on the road section.

Don't miss the left Turn back to the trail.
Just past this area, look to the right side of the trail to see the view and the hill falling off through the clearing beneath the trees.  It makes the woods look clearer, and more like they appeared to early explorers.  Back then the Florida woods was basically an open park with a few shrubs and grasses underfoot, with the trees towering above.
Volksmarch Trail is also the N-S Cross Trail on the sign
When you come to a bench and a sign, a left turn begins the Volksmarch and N-S Cross Trail, flagged orange, running mostly South.  Turn left here and follow the trail as it begins its way downhill.
Orange Blazes.
The forest thickens and soon crosses a stream at a hard left turn, the second stream you already crossed.  The trail used to go straight through here but was relocated to have the bridge at a better stream crossing. Once across, you turn right and follow the stream back to a left turn onto the original orange blazed trail.
Not sure what the name of this creek is, but it connects to Mill Creek.
You ascend from the stream slowly into another pine-dominated forest.  If you look closely you can occasionally see scars of the old “cat faces” cut into the longleaf pine trunks used to gather turpentine.  At the beginning of the last century, turpentine was the second largest industry in Florida, with the central part of the state very busily playing its part.  In the Wekiwa area there were at least 4 sawmills and lumber companies gathering “gum” into clay cups from the trees (called “turps” locally).  The rosin made by distilling the tree’s gum was used heavily by the navy, marine and chemical industries in sealing seams and coating ropes for protection and creating varnish for use on wooden boats.  It also had lots of uses like cleaning, thinning paint and treating cuts.  Sometimes you can find shards of the clay catchment cups in the sand below the trees.  Check out this link for more turpentine information.   
You will cross a sand road and continue hiking over a hill.  You will follow alongside of the remains of a tramway on your right for a short way.  After some time you will reach the top of the hill and begin going downhill again.
Climbing the ridge
Congratulations!  You just summited a Florida ridge, the remains of a prehistoric sand dune.  Soon you will cross the paved park road, then turn left at another bench and follow the white blazes that also follow alongside the road.  
Many of the parks trail junctions have benches.
This is a recent burn area and when you get amongst the trees you will notice that some of the earth is burned out between the tree roots.  Florida’s earth burns pretty well.  If you have not heard about “muck Fires”, CLICK HERE.    Note this scene changes to be more green every day. 
The next trail junction turns right towards Sand Lake, or continues straight ahead to join the paved trail to the restrooms, then the parking area.  Turn right here to go to the lake and enjoy sitting by the peaceful water.
Back to Sand Lake.
To hike Clockwise:  From Sand Lake, turn right and follow the trail to a turn back to the restroom & parking lot, and go left along the road.  Follow along side of the road to the next trail junction.  Turn right onto the Volksmarch Trail and cross the road, then ascend the ridge.  On the way down the ridge you will cross a sand road.  Continue along the trail and watch for the right hand turn to zig-zag across the stream, zig left, and zag right to get back onto the trail.   Your next turn is the end of hiking the Volksmarch, a right at the trail signs and bench, where you join the East-West Cross Trail.  Follow this trail to the right which joins a sand road for a few minutes, then right again onto the hiking trail again (blue blaze).  Cross the creek again, and the sand road, where you drop back down to cross Mill Creek on an aluminum bridge.  Follow the trail, pass the pond, cross another sand road, and continue until you come to a “T” stop.  Turn right here onto the Mills Creek Loop trail and follow it in a southerly direction, crossing Mill Creek again, until you reach Sand Lake.
If you look close, you can see the alligator floating near the center of the photo.
A nice finish to a great day!
Things to watch out for in Wekiwa include Florida black bear, poisonous snakes, the 2 alligators resident at Sand Lake, lightning strikes and biting horseflies (in the Springtime, watch for signs about horseflies at the park entrance).
Either hike takes about an hour, although you can speed this up by just walking faster (like my wife) or slow it down by stopping to smell the roses and taking pictures (more like me).
There are many more fine trails at Wekiwa Springs State Park, and I welcome you to hike them.  Backpack the trails or canoe/kayak Rock Springs Run to camp at the Big Buck or Otter primitive campsites.
Check in your area for federal, state, county and city parks, forests or preserves.  You may locate a trail that is close enough to you that you can hike it in about an hour.  The important thing is to get out there and hike, and go as often as you possibly can.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Palm Bluff Conservation Area Hike

Palm Bluff Conservation Area is a bird watcher's paradise.
Those Woodstorks in that tree just took flight from a pond because my friend Walt and I were walking near them in the Palm Bluff Conservation Area in Volusia County
Palm Bluff  Conservation AreaTrailhead
It was a warm 77 degrees and rainy that day: winter days in Florida can be this way sometimes.  Hot and humid with threatening weather.  We hiked a little over seven miles through a mostly wooded area and only met one group of horse riders all day.   In addition to bird watchers and hikers, horseback riders are attracted to Palm Bluff for the quiet rides through Florida scrub land.  This land is being conserved by the St. Johns River Wildlife Management District.  It is just over 3 miles north of Osteen on county road 415, near Deltona, close to Orlando.
We also spooked a flock of bluebirds, watched carrion birds circle overhead and listened to cat bird calls as we walked along a power line easement that cuts through the conservation area.  The paperwork had said this area is supposedly fine for watching birds and it was right.  Woods-wise, there was a lot of forestry work going on clearing trash trees and general logging near the entrance.   None of the forest work was being done today and a few areas would be closed to hikers when they are working.  Once we reached the first power line cut on the north side of the Red loop, there was no more of the forest work. 
Palm Bluff Trail Map
We followed the Red Loop Trail, the largest loop marked on the trail map above with "R's".  The trail followed dual-lane roads and then cut through the woods on single track, and was well marked with bright red diamonds on the trees.  As we neared the first crossing of Deep Creek we came to a log cabin that looked like someone’s hunting lodge.  It was well kept and offered shade to the horse riders resting on the porch.  I could just sit here and listen to the creek bubble and the wind blowing in the trees all day, it was that nice and peaceful.  
Palm Bluff Log Cabin
We continued on and crossed Deep Creek on a small board using our walking sticks (the water was low), keeping our feet dry. The creek had cut deep here and we climbed the bank on the other side, then turned South along the Red Trail single track, skipping the 2.1 mile Yellow Loop for this trip.  This part of the trail was more quiet with patches of scrub land to the east, and oak hammock and palms to the west. It got darker, and a little cooler as the clouds closed in. 
That's me on the Red Trail Loop, just after the stream crossing and before the rain.
We stopped for a break to eat our apples under a tree past the bridge of the second river crossing, and the sky opened up.  We donned our raincoats and continued along in the rain.  Palm Bluff is still partially farm land, with a few cows meandering about.  There are farms to the west and south that we could see through the trees.  We passed through a group of cattle along the power line cut, making jokes about calling them wildlife.  Right then the earth to our left exploded in white birds.   
We stopped and watched the Woodstorks alight into a tall cypress tree to our right.  It is interesting how they all landed in the tree facing the same direction.  The rain had stopped and the sun was back out, and it was warm again.  
We followed the trail further, then we heard the rain coming.  It quit raining right as we donned our jackets again.  I know, very funny.  
Red Trail Loop through long-leaf pines
By now my shorts and shoes had dried from the earlier rainfall.  This side of the park was mostly longleaf pine, a much more commercially usable wood product than the slash and white pines we first walked through.  Walt told me about how the first few years of the longleaf pine's life is spent driving a deep taproot, then it shoots up, above the forest fire flames.  I talked about the 5-inch thick bark I have seen on fallen longleaf pine trees, a sure defense against the fire this tree needs for survival.  Check the Link Here for more longleaf pine information.  After the second power line cut, we were back walking in the woods again.  It was now 71 degrees, somewhat cooler than it was when we started.  Birds sang, the breeze blew and the clouds passed overhead.  
Camping is allowed in the group campsite area near the entrance shown on the map.  I hope they add another campsite on the Yellow Loop trail for us lite packers, so we can have a long backpack walk in to it. After a nice walk, Walt and I made our way back to the trail head, satisfied with a fine hike.  We were even dry.