Studying in Style

Even though I took a break from blogging, I didn’t take a break from the outdoors. I did much of my studying for Greek exams in South Park, sometimes more casually and sometimes a little more structured.

south park field octThese pavilions were the best to knock out several hours of work, listening to my new favorite radio station, WYEP.

south park table octI can’t wait until the weather improves so I can work outside again!


(Almost) Free Topo Maps

I may post in the future about how to read and use topographical maps, but for now how to acquire them for cheap in three steps:

(1) Visit the USGS Topo Map Downloading Site

The site can be slow and a bit difficult to use, but you can get electronic copies of any USGS map for free. Navigate either with the search bar or by zooming in with the “Navigate” cursor selected. Once you’ve found the desired spot, change the cursor selection from “Navigate” to “Mark Points,” with buttons located to the right of the map. Once you’ve marked your points, click on the red pins to see what maps are available for that spot and add the ones you want to your cart. It can be fussy, so don’t don’t add more than 10 maps to the cart at a time before downloading. Click “Download,” and there you have it, an electronic copy of the map(s) you want.

usgs site

(2) Re-Size the Image

Now that you have a pdf of the topo map, you’ll want to re-size and format the image, saving as another pdf suitable for printing on a single 11×17 sheet. That’s the perfect size for these maps and you can easily print front and back. For this process to work you will need a way to print-to-pdf: I use Adobe Acrobat. This is the most detail oriented part, so I’ll break down the steps with screen shots, using Acrobat as an example.

[2a] Choose Map Features: If you’re working with a recent digital map, choose which map features you would like on your printed copy. I find that land-sat imaging gets in the way and is not as helpful as the old-style topo coloration:

new style topo image

Without images:

new style topo no image

Old styles look like this, and do not include options:

old style topo

[2b] Set the Paper Size: Go into the print options to set the paper size to 11×17.

adobe paper size

[2c] Set the Scale Options: In Acrobat I set it to print as a poster. After that options show up for scaling. I’ve found that usually 77% scale with 0.5 in overlap works well to fit two 11×17 sheets, given the standard size of the topo maps. The 0.5 in overlap is important for ease of use when flipping back-and-forth along the long edge.
adobe print scale

[2d] Print or Save to PDF: And there you have it, a two-page electronic version of the map for 11×17 paper!


(3) Print it Out

I usually take a flash drive with my files on it to FedEx. I go straight to the counter because the self-service copiers usually can’t handle custom options. You can also order online, though I’ve never tried it myself. Here are my specifications:

  • 11 x 17 size paper
  • 32 lb paper for durability
  • Full color (unless I’m trying to save $$$)
  • Double-sided, flipped along the long edge

According to these specs you’ll pay around $3.75 per print out, which is pretty pricey and far from “almost free.” It’s nice to have color when in the field, but if you need several different maps the cost can add up. If you drop the color it brings the cost to around 60 cents per map — not too bad!

A Fresh Start, and Some Updates

I have been away for too long! Over the last several months I have bee very busy with professional obligations and have forgotten entirely about this blog. I had resolved not to let this happen, but alas. Things seem to have regularized at work for now, so I will return. Now for some updates:

(1) We have bought a treadmill so there is no excuse when the weather is bad. And we have had a rough winter so far here in Pittsburgh, so I’m glad we have that option. In the short term I would like to set weekly distance goals: weekly so that I have several days’ wiggle room and distance so that I don’t need to worry if I’m not in the mood to jog. For now I’m working on a half-marathon a week, but ideally I’d work up to a marathon each week, preferably outside but when necessary on this:

(2) As for a long term goal, I think I will try to hike the first stretch of the Appalachian Trail in GA over spring break next year, from Springer Mtn. to Unicoi Gap (at GA 17/75). Logistics will still be difficult with two children, but I want to try for it. Especially in March the first stretch of the AT will be very exciting, with several dozen thru-hikers starting each day. I would solo-hike with confidence since the trail will be very populated.

(3) I have recently updated my gear list. Except for the two most expensive and central items (pack and sleeping bag), I have a complete kit for most 3 season conditions in Eastern forests. My plan is to save up over the next year to buy the GoLite Jam 50, if nothing else.

OK, that’s enough for now. Let’s see what comes of this…I hope I can stick with it!

Mammoth Cave National Park — The Hike (Part 3)

Finally part three! After our cave tour we decided that we should go for a hike to check out some of the more popular places near the visitor center.


We descended down the paved trail that led us to the historic entrance, and then continued down this gravel path. It was a very steep trail, so that having a stroller made me more than a little nervous. The topography of the area is quite interesting, since the Green River lies deep down in the valley and the underground rivers and streams which make the cave flow right into it, without any waterfalls or rapids. So we headed down to one of the biggest cave-tributaries, the River Styx.


It was drier than I expected; had it been a little deeper and a little less…disgusting, I might have brought Michael down there to dip him in head-first while holding onto his ankle. Then, learning from Thetis’ mistake, I would have sunk the ankle as well. You can never be too careful. It’s too bad (or “a really good thing,” depending on how sane/lame you are) that Cait responds to these epic (!) ideas of mine with a simple, “You’re ridiculous.”



My Little Achilles

After having descended as much as we did, we weren’t in the mood for a steep return ascent. So instead of going straight back, we took the long way around:

long way around

It doesn’t help that National Parks Service maps don’t typically include contour lines, so I had to guess based on other features that the map did include (like streams and creeks) to avoid steep hills as much as possible. After an initial ascent, we got some great views of the River Styx from about 100-150 feet above it:




After walking alongside the hill/mountain/cliff, we continued on into some forest with rolling hills. We came across an old cabin along with a deer. We have about a dozen deer that live near our house (read: in our backyard)…you’d think that seeing a deer in a National Park wouldn’t be a big deal. You’d be wrong.



We next hiked over to the mouth of the other significant cave-tributary, the Echo River, which emerges from underground as a kind of spring, rather than out of a cave like the Styx. Somewhat underwhelming:


Now we prepared ourselves for the ascent back. It was rocky, which was both interesting and challenging, on account of the stroller. This was a more manageable section; they’re obviously trying to prevent trail erosion.


We thought we were making it close to the top when we came upon an entrance to the cave which has been closed to us lay folk. I gather that with the proper training, documentation and permits you can gain access to more remote sections of the cave along with these more challenging entrances.



We thought we were done climbing, and then we began to descend again. It’s simple but important: on loop trails/hikes you begin and end at the same spot, and so at the same elevation. So any descent you have to “pay for” with an equal and opposite ascent. So we were not in the mood to be going downhill at this part of the hike! We were, however, able to get a shot of a significant sinkhole, the Mammoth Dome Sink. I promise there’s a cave under there.


Fifteen minutes later we were back to civilization. Given how many people were at the visitor center I was shocked at how few people there were on these trails that were right nearby. The park has 80+ miles of trail and we only covered about four, on trails in the visitor center detail portion of the park map. We were hardly in the backcountry, but only came across a dozen or so people on a summer weekend in an otherwise crowded park. I guess people don’t want to stray too far from the bathrooms and fried food. If you’re looking for a calmer park experience, walk for five minutes into the woods!


See that 1 inch pink square? Here’s the close up, and we hiked only about half of the trails included here. For the record: Visitor’s Center to Historic Entrance, down River Styx Spring Trail, down the Echo River Spring Trail, then up the Mammoth Dome Sink Trail, past White’s Cave and the sinkhole, then along the Heritage Sidewalk (ahem) back to the Visitor Center.

mammoth-cave-trail-map visitor center

Great hike and great park. As you can see from the big map, Mammoth Cave lies just a few miles west of I-65. If you’re ever driving by, you should stop in for a visit!

Strange Tid Bit

I hope to get to the longer posts soon…but just a quick thing I discovered. I’ve been investigating some of the wilderness areas in and around Las Vegas, since flights to Vegas are among the cheapest in the country. Might be a fun adventure sometime in the future.

In any case, in light of the recent news that documents about Area 51 have been declassified, I decided to do a little research. It looks like one of Nevada’s highest peaks, Bald Mountain, is located within the boundaries of the area, although off to the northeast edge.  See the Google map here.

So I did a little more research, and found this page among people who collect peaks, called peakbaggers, with the following description of this peak:

“This summit is located in the infamous “Area 51” section of Nellis Air Force base, a top secret military installation and former nuclear test site. Public access is strictly forbidden, and the perimeter is actively patrolled by guards. If you cross the military reservation boundary and try to “stealth” this peak, you will be caught, arrested, and fined, best case. The guards are authorized to use deadly force, and you can be sent to prison, too.

“This makes Bald Mountain the most prominent peak in the United States that is completely inacessible to peakbaggers.”

If you want to check out some pictures from other bloggers as well as some interesting experiences travelling around that part of the world, check out these two that came up from a Google Image search:

(disclaimer: I link to these pages for the sake of the pictures; the commentary is their own)

Mammoth Cave National Park — The Tour (Part 2)

[Sorry for the delay folks!]

We got up bright and early on Friday morning, which was a bit easier because this part of KY follows Central time. We had to pack and check out of the hotel by 730 in order to get a good spot in line at the visitor center before it opened at 8:15 CDT (if we ever come back, the thing to do is to stay at a bed and breakfast much closer to the park; Cave City is a good 6 miles out on small, slow country roads). We got our tickets for the 915 Mammoth Passage tour almost immediately (thankfully). We decided that the Passage tour would be the best, since it covered 3/4 mile over 75 minutes, as opposed to covering only 1/4 mile over 75 minutes. The so-called “Fro Zenaygra” tour was the same length of time, covered less ground, and more expensive. Both were categorized as “easy,” which at National Parks means, “easy for people who sit on their couch all day eating junk food while watching health shows and medical dramas.”

We had some time to burn, first by getting our stuff together in the car:

mammoth cave car


Since they allow neither strollers nor backpack carriers on the cave tours, Caitlyn had to wrap Michael up. We were to gather at “shelter A” for our tour, just behind the visitor center. We got there a little early:


The visitor center is relatively new, and backs right up to the path down to the historic entrance to the cave. So they built this bridge over the descending trail to get from the restaurant, hotel etc. to the new center.


You can see the new center in the background of this cute “mama and baby” shot:


OK, so we started the tour promptly with Darlene, if that was her real name. She gave us some background and some safety tips as we walked down to the historic entrance. Along the way there were some cool rock formations like this one (the photo doesn’t do justice to how tall this thing was, around 40 feet).


Before we descended into the cave she started talking about how we’re going to have some fun and learn some things about liberty, about how an enormous hole in the ground (my words) are a “testament to the liberty we all have as Americans” (her words). Call me skeptical. So we started down the stairs into the historic entrance of the cave. Of course I forgot a jacket, but was actually pretty comfortable down in there.


Lighting was pretty terrible in the cave, as you might imagine, and so I had trouble working Cait’s new camera. So while neat, some of these pictures are bad quality. Early on there were some lights in the cave that made it possible to get some shots. Unlike other caves I’ve been to, this one was particularly open, with no low ceilings. Of course, we were on the “easy tour,” but I was not expecting 20 ft high ceilings! We could have totally brought our carrier backpack…



We hung near the back.


The Rotunda.  Terribly focused.

You can see the dome. I was surprised that it wasn’t lit well enough for the camera to focus; you can see the lighting.


Some artifacts they’ve found in the cave.




Some old wooden pipes to get water in for ancient mining.


And we’re done.

The tour ended with a 5-10 minute discussion of freedom. I wasn’t sure what the cave had to do with freedom. I think she was trying to say that the original owners of the cave were free in their ownership and use of it, and we’re free to use it now. But even that doesn’t make much sense, especially considering the fact that the cave was effectively taken from the original family to be made a national monument. Probably for the better, but I wouldn’t call that so much a “testament to freedom” as a “pursuit of the common good.” She was also sure to mention something about the sequester and its effect on the parks service, so that “You’re not as free as you were a few years ago.” So, not really sure what Darlene here wanted to say, but it sure made me feel good about being an American!

In any case, after leaving the cave I took a picture of Michael (now asleep) and the lens was fogged up. Made for and interesting picture:


And here he is, still asleep, in the visitor center museum:


All around a fun tour. We had some time to burn while he slept until our late morning hike!

(end of part two)

Hiking Sticks & Trekking Poles

Any recommendations for a good hiking stick?

This is a loaded question for me. I own the following hiking sticks, and am very attached to three (or four) of them:

sticks 1Standard-size garage door for scale

The first two (from the left) are DIY wooden sticks. I believe they are both Dogwood, but I can’t be sure about the small one. Both are cut down from live trees, which is not recommended anymore. The shorter one (#1) I cut down, carved, and treated with polyurethane back in 1993-4, and it was my hiking stick all through elementary school.

high knoll brand

Stick #2 with a brand from when I hiked the High Knoll Trail at Camp Daniel Boone.

I forget precisely when, but sometime in middle school I decided I needed a bigger stick (#2). So I went out after a “big snow” (2-3 inches in NC is a “big snow”) and found a decent looking dogwood tree. If you’re going to do this, it’s best to go looking in the wintertime since there isn’t any green to distract your eye from your quarry: a straight trunk. I don’t recommend this method anymore, but if you must, make sure you are on your own property with your own trees. I removed the branches, let it dry some, carved the bark off, let it dry some more, and then sanded it down. The whole process took a month or so for the wood to be sufficiently dry and I didn’t use unnatural poly this time. So this larger stick has served me well on many treks and may be my favorite — it’s the perfect size, weight, durability, and is the product of my own handiwork.

Bottom line: if you find the right kind of wood, a DIY natural hiking stick can be perfect if you have the time, patience, and natural resources to make it happen.

The middle three are wooden but have been purchased. All three were gifts of sorts. The first (#3) was a gift from my parents who found it somewhere in Appalachia at a gift shop. The head is carved like a fish and two little beads are glued in for eyes. It is a nice size for more serious treks but has been treated with something so that it is very slick. More of a cool souvenir than a useful tool.

stick with tracks guide

Stick #5 with guide to tracks.

The other two are very similar: one was my late grandfather’s (#4) and one was a recent Christmas gift from my in laws (#5). They are both shorter, simple and durable, with rubber feet glued on. The one from my mother and father in law is nice because it has a thick leather wristband that features a concise guide to animal tracks, a cheat sheet for when I’m out with the scouts. While not ideal for really serious hikes, these shorter sticks are great for casual walks in the park where there will be some tricky portions or stream crossings, but nothing too difficult. And the rubber feet protect the wood on paved or gravel surfaces.

In general I think these commercial-but-natural wooden sticks have a more limited range of use than DIY, but they are perfect for family outings and less intense activity if that’s what you’re going for. And there’s no work for you! (except the cash up front…)

The last two (well, three) are metal trekking poles. Next to last (#6) is a trekking pole I bartered for in Boy Scouts. They typically sell these poles in pairs just like ski poles, and my buddy didn’t want his second one so I bought it off of him. It’s telescoping: I have it set to its longest length in the photo, 145 cm, and can collapse as short as about 45 cm. It has a built in shock absorber, a rubber grip, a foam hand grip at the top, and a wrist strap. I don’t know what materials it’s made of or any detailed technical specs since I bought it second-hand over 10 years ago. It’s pretty heavy, being an early model (~2001) and tricked out with unnecessary shocks, so I wouldn’t go on a backpacking trip with it now that I have alternatives. But it is nice to keep in the trunk for spur-of-the-moment day hikes, since it breaks down compactly.

exped grips

exped tips

The final set of poles (#7) are my most recent acquisition, purchased with this year’s REI dividend. They are Exped Alpine 125 trekking poles. They collapse telescopically rather than breaking apart like a Z — I prefer this method of collapse to reduce clutter. They are made of aluminum and with a length range from 95 cm (37 in) to 125 cm (49 in) they are perfect for me. Any longer and I’d be carrying dead weight. As for weight, they come in at 13 oz / pair, which is pretty good for a mid-range trekking pole at $125 (NB: I spent only $100 of my dividend by using my 20% off coupon — REI memberships are totally worth it). These poles come with two sets of baskets, which I don’t usually have much use for, along with carbide tips which provide great traction. They also have a very high quality foam at the top of the pole; simple grips around the pole and then a shaped grip up top with an adjustable wrist band. As I will show in a future post, these poles make up part of my tarp system, a very lightweight shelter kit.

Metal trekking poles are expensive but can be a good investment for those who are doing more advanced hiking and/or snowshoeing. They are also ideal for those who are working toward a tarp system as a lightweight alternative to traditional freestanding double-walled tents. Neither kind of natural stick above can serve this purpose as easily or consistently.

One thing I’ll mention in closing is that I do not recommend counting on finding a stick in the woods while you’re out there. While you can do this if necessary, I do not recommend relying on this. A comfortable, familiar and reliable stick is too important on longer treks for this kind of impromptu move.