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Wilderness Skills 101: Backpacking

Posted by on Sunday, February 2, 2014 in College Life, Extracurriculars, Nature, Student Life, Student Organizations.

Trees in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

by Joyce Kilmer
Poetry Magazine, 1913

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Our group: Bradley, me, instructor Zephyr, Jamie, Madison, Amy, David, Patrick, and instructors Peter and Sam

This past weekend I joined nine other Vanderbilt students for a romp in the North Carolina woods. In short, we drove to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, hiked Saturday and Sunday morning, and then returned in time for the Super Bowl/homework.

It began with one of my ORC trips last semester. The trip instructor told me about Wilderness Skills, short-named WilSkills, and it sounded like it provided a great community in addition to nature expeditions.

This semester I debated whether or not I would ever have 48 extra hours to dedicate to the weekend trips, but after a stressful week of studying for tests, I had to get away. I took the plunge, paying for a pair of hiking boots and a one-time fee of $175 for two trips.

This weekend, spent backpacking in the forests of North Carolina, was completely worth it.

Me at the trailhead

One person doesn’t need much for a WilSkills backpacking trip: synthetic pants, synthetic underwear, sports bras for the ladies, base layers (thermal pants, thermal long-sleeve shirt, synthetic tank top), rain jacket and rain pants (rentable for less than $5 from the ORC), a winter coat, wool/synthetic mid-layer shirt/flannel, hat and gloves, two pairs of wool socks (one for sleeping and one for walking), hiking boots, a water bottle, Clif/KIND bars if you have them, and hygiene items like deodorant, toilet paper, toothbrush/toothpaste, and my personal favorite, baby powder. WilSkills provides everything else: Thermarest, internal frame backpack, headlamp, a sleeping bag rated 0º-15º for winter camping, tents, and all food/first aid supplies.

So on Friday afternoon, I gathered a reasonable amount of clothing and toiletries, found the WilSkills store room behind Branscomb, and joined the group in “packing out.” We filled two small drums and a dozen or so 32 oz. Nalgene bottles with fresh water, packed the food into crates, and loaded everything into a van.

It took awhile, but finally we left Vanderbilt. We drove a couple hours east until stopping for dinner at a travel station, where we set up camp stoves and set to chopping veggies and boiling pasta. This meal was my first introduction to the Leave No Trace practice of “graywatering.” When you finish eating, you add some water to your Tupperware container, swish it around, and then drink it. This moment was probably the worst part of the weekend for me. I was not expecting to drink cold, watery Sriracha-and-tomato-sauce soup, but I did. (And I never used Sriracha for any other meals!)

After dinner, we drove for a couple more hours, eventually setting up our tents in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. When we arrived, we couldn’t see anything except the sky full of stars and what looked like a field of snow downhill from us. We fell asleep (at 2am) to the sound of the rushing stream adjacent to our campsite. That night was so cold: I had a 15-degree Marmot bag, socks, and thermal layers, but when I woke up the next morning my feet were numb.

The next morning (two hours after we planned to get up!) our instructors made couscous with add-in options of whole almonds, sliced mangoes, honey, peanut butter, and Sriracha for the brave/stupid. As they were cooking, I decided to explore. I checked out the stream, and then I found the frozen lake.

I had never seen a frozen lake before. I threw some rocks on it to test the strength. Observing that the ice was at least five inches thick, I put one foot on the edge, and then the other. Eventually I was standing twenty feet out, witnessing a panorama of tree-covered ridges from the middle of the ice (now who’s brave/stupid?).

At noon, we set out for the trail. The trail was directly uphill. At first we were on a trail still covered with ice and snow, but we soon realized we were headed in the wrong direction. We went back to the start, where I found THIS walking stick:

It’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I was instantly, ridiculously attached, realizing how much easier it made the trek.

Now on the correct trail, we set off for a six-mile hike. With the weight of the pack resting on our hips, we were free to slide over fallen trees, cross rocky streams, and pick our way around mud. We chatted, we sang, we observed mountain laurel and hollow trees.

The hollow tree

Four hours later, after several stops for food and rest, we had only made it three and a half miles. Our instructors made the decision to find a campsite and settle in for the night, so we hiked another thirty minutes up the mountain before reaching an established site.

Tents, fire, dinner––guacamole and hashbrowns this time––that was the routine. As night fell, we chatted around the campfire and ate. After dinner my pack became a “bear bag” in which food, trash, and smelly items like deodorant and toothpaste were hoisted onto the bough of a tree, about ten feet up.

Zephyr makes fire

It was cold, and I was tired, so I crawled into my sleeping bag––traded for a 0-degree bag this time––a good hour before everyone else. I lay there, trying to be warm and comfortable, listening to the chatter by the campfire, and happy to be going to bed before midnight. Eventually, four more people joined me in the tent, and we were out for the night.

The next morning I got early, retrieved the bear bag (no bears apparent, fortunately), and waited for the others. We packed up, ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal, and headed back down the trail. At noon we reached the trailhead, ate lunch, and drove back to Vanderbilt.

This is the first trip of many for me, I’m sure. It’s amazing to get away from homework, screens, responsibilities, clocks, the Internet, and mirrors for just 48 hours. I feel at home in the woods, even when I’ve got a roll of toilet paper in one hand and a shovel in the other, if you know what I mean.

I made new friends.

If you’re interested in joining WilSkills or participating in a trip, lectures are held weekly in Garland 101 from 7-8pm. Even if you can’t commit to a trip, you will learn some useful skills at the lectures, like how to use a compass and how to avoid hypothermia!

Note: All photos are courtesy of Amy Nguyen, who documented our trip extensively. Thanks, Amy!

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