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I'm from the foothills of the North Georgia mountains. I was a woodworker for about 12 years. Well, up until I had the rug pulled out from under my feet, and I was laid off. I got back into photography in 2008 and decided to give that a try professionally, but haven't made any money so far because rednecks, white trash, and hicks are cheap. So, I'm working in a local grocery store where some days I hear and see the craziest stuff. I tend to complain a lot about things, but I'm too poor to afford a good therapist. So, I decided to make a blog and complain online to all of you instead. But I digress. I really just wanted to do the blog to share ideas and stories with the interwebz. =D
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Friday, December 3, 2010

The Boy Scouts...

I'm a backpacker. I have been since about 1992 or so. I love being on some high mountain ridge in the fall, looking down into a blaze colored valley. Or maybe spending a summer night up in a hollow under a rhododendron thicket by a rushing stream. Even walking on snow covered trails in sub freezing weather in the dead of winter, when you might go an entire weekend without seeing another soul is a great time for me. It's quiet then. Very peaceful. There's been times you could stop moving and your ears would start ringing from trying to hear anything in the silence.

When I was young I was a Boy Scout, and we used to go camping, but camping in the Boy Scouts was never like what I do now. Their idea of camping was pulling up in someone's cow pasture way back in the sticks, and pitching some tents that were the size of my bedroom growing up, making large campfires, and building towers and bridges out of fallen timber or logs that someone brought in on a truck, and binding it all together with some sisal ropes. Only at a couple of outings did we ever hike in with packs. Even then, the majority of our gear was hauled in on trucks or the Emmanuel College basketball team's bus.

The only time we went to the mountains was when we went to camp during the summer. It was Camp Rainey Mtn. located on US 76 between Clayton, GA and Long Creek, SC, and wasn't too far from where they filmed the movie Deliverance. At camp, we stayed in large canvas tents that had wooden decks. We slept on cots or wire beds. Some of the sites had three sided shelters that we called Adirondacks. They had bunk beds inside - No Therm-a-rest needed there! In fact, the only two times I slept on the ground in scouts was when I took a class for my Wilderness Survival merit badge, and when I went to OA.

Looking back, I always thought scouts was a joke. I was only in it because a couple of my friends were; that and my parents thought it was good for me. I got harassed a lot by some of the older kids. I was a nerdy looking runt with glasses and all I talked about was military stuff. My nickname was "Rambo" even though I had never seen the movie. It stuck and I didn't really care.

All of that was put behind me years ago, but I've noticed on many occasions that I still remember some of the stuff I was taught. Most of it comes up the way an answer to a Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit clue might. I don't consciously think about it. It's just floating in my head somewhere, waiting to pop out at the proper time.

Take this for example: A few years ago, my wife (We weren't actually married then, but whatever...) and I decided to go camping on her Thanksgiving break in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Earlier in the year, I had gone out to a place called Icewater Springs with my friend Bill, and I wanted to take my wife there as I found it to be an easy walk in, and a good place to spend the night. The campsite is actually not even a campsite. It's a three sided, rock walled shelter. To get there, it's about a 3 1/2 mile walk north of where US 441 tops the ridge at Newfound Gap. (You know where Newfound Gap is if you've ever driven from Cherokee, NC to Gatlinburg, TN. It's basically the parking lot at the top of the mountains where everyone stops and looks off then goes to the bathrooms before driving down the other side.) The Appalachian Trail crosses the highway here. The southbound entry is somewhat hidden as it's tucked away across the busy highway. Most folks don't even know the trail is there, let alone brave crossing the highway in the traffic. The northbound entry is like an exit ramp off the freeway in midtown Atlanta though. I've never once been on the first mile of that stretch of trail when I didn't cross paths with at least one tourist. The typical questions tourists will ask backpackers are, "How far is it to the top?" To which the usual answer is, "The top of what?" There's a top of the mountain, but the views are practically at the shelter spot. The second most asked question is, "Where does this go to?" Tourists are often shocked when they're told the trail actually goes all the way to Maine. Some have even asked if I've walked from there to get to the point where we were on the trail. This is usually where most backpackers will try and have a little fun. "Sure, we stayed there last night, had some pancakes and maple syrup this morning, and walked all the way here in half a day." All jokes aside, tourists are typically unprepared, and the farther I see them up the trail, the more concerned I get; especially in the colder months.

I normally will try to make eye contact and speak to each and every person I meet on the trail. The only exception is if they are in a group, and are talking amongst themselves as they pass. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, I want to make eye contact and make sure they aren't going to mess with me. I don't want to sound paranoid, but there have been some shady people hanging out in the mountains in the past. The second reason I do it is so that I can judge a person's mental state. No, I'm not looking for a full psycho analysis of the person, but a quick check to make sure that they are at least not in any state of distress. Why? Because malaise is the first sign of both heat exhaustion and hypothermia. It's also typical in people that are lost. I especially raise an eyebrow to anyone wearing shorts and carrying a jacket when it's below freezing. (... and I've seen it too.)

Anyway, my wife and I planned a three day trip on her Thanksgiving break. That year, a sudden early snow hit the high country along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. I looked at the weather forecast, and looked at recent temperatures, and we made the decision to go ahead and go anyway. "Snow camping! It'll be fun!" We packed accordingly and made our way up to the park, where we ran into 10-12 inches of snow covered trail that concealed an icy footpath underneath. The walk out to Icewater Springs was beautiful, but treacherous and exhausting. When we arrived at the shelter, we were quite surprised to find that there were more people there than permitted by reservation. Some people had even illegally set up tents on the north side of the ridge!

It was a good crowd of folks though. We met an elderly couple that had hiked into Icewater for their first night, then hiked  up to LeConte, and were stopping again for a final night at Icewater on their way out. Our plan was similar, but we were going to go from LeConte all the way back to the car on the last day. After hearing that the Boulevard Trail had some 3 ft deep drifts in places, and knowing what we had just walked through, we decided to cut our trip short and hike back out the next day. That would have been one heck of a march out. It's long enough during the warmer months, let alone over ice and snow.

While we were hanging out, drinking hot chocolate and talking to some of the other campers, I happened to notice a guy bundled up in his sleeping bag in the corner of the shelter's upper sleeping platform. I noticed he was complaining about being cold but at this time he didn't sound too worrying becasue he was talking a fair amount to some of his buddies who were still up and about.

After supper though, I noticed that the guy had shut up, and that he was shivering in his sleeping bag. I told one of his buddies that he might need to check in on him. When the he did, the guy in the bag replied that he was still freezing. His buddy told him to put on more clothes. The guy replied that he already had on everything that he had brought.

At this point, I stepped in. I asked the guy what 2+2 was. When he was slow to reply, I asked him what his buddy's name was. Again, he was slow to reply. At this point, I figured that the guy was in the early stages of hypothermia. I told him to get up and to get out of his sleeping bag. At first he thought I was the crazy one. I then asked several people that had their stoves still out in the shelter to start melting snow to boil water. I explained to the guy that we were going to get him warmed up. I then explained to him that a sleeping bag is kind of like a backwards beer coozy. A sleeping bag is similar. If you put a cold body in it, it'll stay cold. If you're warm when you get in it, you'll be warm inside. I had him get out of his bag and do jumping jacks until we got enough water to boil to fill up a few one liter Nalgene bottles. I stuck the hot bottles inside his sleeping bag, and told him to strip down to his base layer and get in with the bottles. We found an extra fleece cap for him, and we had him eat some food and drink some hot chocolate. After a little while, he was talking and laughing and was quite comfortable. Before we went to bed, I explained that his sleeping bag wasn't able to hold in any heat because his damp clothing was trying to hold it all in - and was doing a bad job too. A sleeping bag is a much larger space, and will hold warm air better, and is a much more efficient insulator than a couple of tight fleece shirts and jackets. Once his body warmed up, it was able to maintain the heat in the bag, and he was comfortable the rest of the night. We were comfortable too. In fact, we all had a hard time getting out of the  sleeping bags the next morning. After all, it was only 10 degrees out!

So spotting and treating hypothermia was one of those seemingly useless things I learned about in the Boy Scouts. I thought scouts was a good time or a joke, and that I'd never use any of that information in real life. I guess I was wrong, huh?



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