Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Quick Update

I owe this blog a little update.  Muskrat and I set out on a 7 day shakedown honeymoon backpacking trip at the end of August, and I have kind of been waiting for him to write a post about it, and I have been kind of using that as an excuse to avoid writing about it myself.

I started writing a play by play of the trip, and I have verbalized the story countless times to friends and family who were eager to hear about it, but putting all of our failures, along with all of the doubts and second guesses that it spawned, out there for the world to read was something I wasn't ready to do.  I seriously considered just quietly deleting this whole blog and disappearing to Colorado as if the trail was never on my radar to begin with.

Muskrat didn't have the same view of our shakedown.  He was totally jazzed for the trip, took all of the mistakes in a stride, and came out the other side feeling successful and eager to start the thru-hike.  He's seriously the most well adjusted human being I have ever met!

So, without going into all of the details of our shakedown honeymoon trip (though I still will do that!), I'll give you a quick update on what's been happening around here since we last posted.

1. We carried way too much food (and other stuff) on the shakedown.  It was insane.  Off the charts crazy.  We estimated that we each had at least 50 pounds in our packs, which is insane considering we share a tent and cooking gear!

2. We ditched the two professional camera bodies, three lenses and the flash we carried on the shakedown in favor of a small, waterproof, shock proof, freeze proof Nikon 1 AW1 mirrorless camera (I'll write a review of it soon!).  It still gives us creative control of our settings, but weighs nothing compared to all that other stuff, and now I'm not putting my pro gear at risk for damage.

3. We finished gear shopping with a stack of REI gift cards we received from friends and family at Christmas!  Bonus that it was in time for the purchases to count towards the dividend we will see in March!  I'll write an update on the new stuff with photos soon!  A few of the exciting items: New tent, new sleeping bag, and a backpacking shower (seriously, you'll understand when I finally get that shakedown post finished!)

4. I took a side job walking dogs around Capitol Hill for a local pet supply store.  It's been fun, while having the added benefit of walking 8-12 miles per day, and padding the savings account.

Except for the large chunk we spent on . . .

5. Our sweet dog, Dexter fell suddenly ill in mid November, and after several vet visits, tons of tests, lots of bribing him to eat and some hefty bills, he left us for the Rainbow Bridge on December 1.  It's made for a heartbreaking end to 2014, especially since his 12th birthday would have been on December 26.

6. The good/bad news from Muskrat's job is that he's being downsized. . . Just in time to start the trail!  Talk about good timing!

7. There is so much anxiety building about this huge crazy thing we are doing that we each get a little freaked out about it on a regular basis.  Hello 3am conversations about the uncertain future of everything!  It's hard to fight the urge to stay comfortable by just sending Muskrat off to grab another international relations job with the Federal Government and dive back into photography here, keeping our lease in our super hip neighborhood.

I have to remind myself that nothing awesome was ever achieved by staying comfortable.

8. We have notified our landlord of our exit date, 2/28, and we are ticking items off of our master to do list.  It's all getting real!!

I promise some more detailed posts coming soon!  We have so much to do in the next 2 months!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Day Hike/Gear Test: Old Rag Mountain

Day Hiking on Shenandoah National Park's Old Rag Mountain

With our first Appalachian Trail shakedown backpacking trip coming in the next couple of weeks, Muskrat and I decided that yesterday would be a great day for a solid day hike to test out some of our new clothing and gear purchases.  Despite many visits to Shenandoah National Park, neither of us had ever hiked the famous Ridge Trail to the summit of Old Rag Mountain.  It's described as a rugged and challenging 9.2 mile circuit from the parking lot, up along ridge line to the summit and a winding path leading into Weakley Hollow Fire Road back down.  It features a mighty fun rock scramble and some steep climbs that make for a great cardio workout!  It also has some of the most gorgeous views in Shenandoah National Park!


We got up at 7am for coffee, got started packing gear, ate breakfast, walked the dogs, showered (because it's always nice to start a hike feeling clean!), and hit the road just before 10.  It's just about a two hour drive down there, so we pulled into the parking area (which is not inside of Shenandoah National Park, but has its own fee station to allow you to easily comply with entrance fee requirements) at about 11:45.

We changed into our boots, extended our trekking poles to the length Eric from REI recommended for us, and began the .8 mile walk up the road to the trailhead.

We saw this guy on our way to the trailhead!

Muskrat at Old Rag trailhead
Ironjen at Old Rag trailhead
We took a couple of photos with my phone before we started, and were happy to hear some returning hikers tell us that we would be happy we brought trekking poles.  Now, we just needed to figure out how to best use them!

We decided to take the Ridge Trail up, and decide at the summit whether we wanted to come back the same way or add the extra miles and come down the fire road.

The trail started as a steady uphill with switchbacks and a mostly packed dirt surface with a few rocks thrown in.  It gave us both a good chance to figure out how to work the presence of the trekking poles into our cadence.  By the time we hit the more challenging rocks, we both felt pretty confident walking with the poles.

I had been nervous about trying them, because I thought that they would slide easily off of rocks, but it turns out that they really grip the rocks easily.  They even grip the rocks where it doesn't look like there is anywhere to grip!  I was really impressed with them, and I was even more impressed by how they helped me leverage my upper body strength to keep my legs from fatiguing.  It was also nice to have the extra balance and stability they provided when I tripped or misstepped.

We snacked on some Hammer Bars on the way up to the rock scramble, planning to eat our wraps up at the summit.  Sunny summits always make the best spots to eat!

The rock scramble turned out to be as challenging as the website said!  It was so much fun to  find foot and handholds on the rocks, and to use our entire bodies to maneuver ourselves through the rocky terrain.  We found that the trekking poles were easy to collapse and let hang from our wrists when they weren't useful to our progress, and that much of the time they didn't even need to be collapsed.  I was particularly happy with how easily they reseated themselves properly in my hands when I came out of a section where I had let them dangle.

Early on, I noticed a bit of a sore spot on the ball of my left foot.  It got pretty painful then went away.  I noted that my 10 year old boots may need some new insoles if I expect them to get me very far.  They may even need to be replaced. . .

We were rewarded all the way up with expansive and beautiful views of some of the best of Virginia's highlands!  We both remarked how we will miss this when we move to Colorado.  The Rockies are impressive for sure, but there is a special beauty to the old Appalachians.

Almost to the top




Muskrat checking out the view

We made it to the summit, ate our sandwiches, and enjoyed the breeze.  We both noted that though our shirts were both pretty sweaty, they felt cool and dry.  By the time we finished eating (maybe 10 or 15 minutes), they were dry, and ready to be sweat upon again!

At the summit
We looked around up top for a place to hang the hammock, but didn't find much for sturdy trees close enough together that wouldn't obstruct the trail.  I really wanted to hang out at the summit in the breeze for a bit!

Muskrat at the summit

Other hikers relaxing at the summit

Ironjen at the summit
Muskrat at the summit

View from Old Rag

View from Old Rag

View from Old Rag

Muskrat enjoying the breeze

Muskrat and Ironjen made the summit
We decided to take the longer but gentler way down the other side of Old Rag to the fire road, because the balls of my feet were both pretty sore now, and I wasn't sure how I would handle all of the rocks on the Ridge Trail.  I also wanted to check out the day shelters and see if there was a spot to hang the hammock for a break!

The way down was pretty easy compared to the long rock scramble we had just done, and we came to Byrd's Nest Day Shelter pretty quickly.  It has a spot to get out of the rain, a fire pit and picnic table, and overnight camping is prohibited here, and everywhere above 2,800' on Old Rag.  Sadly, there was a lot of trash in the picnic area.  C'mon people!  Leave no Trace!

Byrd's Nest Day Shelter
A mile or so later we came to Old Rag Day Shelter.  We found more burned trash, and . . . a spot to hang the hammock!  Just in time too, because my feet were very very unhappy about walking on the rocks.

Old Rag Shelter

Enjoying the hammock

Hanging out at Old Rag Shelter

Hanging out at Old Rag Shelter

Ironjen hiding in the hammock

Muskrat settling in for a nap
We spent about 15 minutes enjoying a break in the hammock, then continued down to the fire road, which would loop us past several other trailheads, and back down to the road back to the parking lot.

Along the way, my feet started to hurt again.  The break had been awesome, but the rocks were really pounding them.  We started to hear the river that we had heard back near the trailhead, so we knew we were getting closer, and I knew I just needed to suck it up and keep walking.  We passed the Robertson Mountain Trail trailhead, and the sign said that we had 1.4 miles to go to get back to the Ridge Trail Trailhead.

The next trailhead we came to, led to the edge of the river, just steps off of the fire road.  We walked over, and I sat on a rock taking my boots and socks off and wading into the cold rushing water.  It felt AMAZING to sit and cool my poor beat up feet!

Cooling my sore feet!
Taking a break at the river
Since we had stopped, we got out the DSLR cameras and took some photos at the river.  I haven't downloaded those images off of the cards yet, so you'll have to make due with the iPhone photos!

My feet felt so much better after the break, and the rest of the walk felt much more bearable.  We made it back to the trailhead, walked back along the road the the parking lot, and changed back into sandals!

Post hike
We were both starving, so we agreed to stop at the first open restaurant we saw.  Thornton River Grille, in Sperryville, VA was open, so we parked and went in.  Not only was the place open, but we got on the deck outside, live bluegrass, and a really well crafted menu!  Muskrat had the Red Snapper special and I had the pork chop with balsamic reduction and mango puree!  We tried a new local brew, Old Bust Head English Ale, and had a salted caramel tart for dessert.

Blurry driving away photo of Thornton River Grille!

Sadly, the time had come to leave for the city.  We did stop to shoot some photos of the super moon though!  Again, the better photos are still in the big cameras, but you get the idea. . .

Super moon over Shenandoah Valley

Backpacking Gear and Clothing Test:

One of our major goals yesterday was to test our our new clothing and some of our gear before we take it out for a week long trek through Shenandoah National Park's southern district in a couple of weeks.  Better to find out that your new underwear chafes on a 9 mile day hike than on a 70 mile backpacking trip!

We were testing clothing for comfort, wicking, and durability.  We were testing footwear for comfort.  We were mostly testing ourselves with the trekking poles, because neither of us had ever hiked with them before!  We were testing our hammock for ease of setup and comfort.

So, what did we bring, and what did we think?

Muskrat's clothing & gear:

Muskrat wore his REI sahara convertible pants, REI wicking boxers, Royal Robbins Island Cool Mesh shirt, REI wool hiking socks, and his Asolo Reston waterproof boots.  He carried his Black Diamond Trail Back trekking poles, and his old Camelbak day pack with a 100oz bladder.

Muskrat's Asolo Reston boots

Ironjen's clothing & gear:

I wore my REI sahara convertible pants, Patagonia wicking briefs, Columbia Sportswear Omnishade shirt, Injinji running socks under REI wool hiking socks, and my 10 year old Asolo FSN 95 GTX boots.  I carried my old Camelbak Cloudwalker day pack with a 2L bladder and Black Diamond Trail Back trekking poles.

Black Diamond Trail Back trekking poles

Other stuff:

We packed a couple of wrap sandwiches and some Hammer Bars for lunch/snacks.  As hungry as we got on this hike, they were the best most delicious foods EVER!

We also brought along our Eno Doublenest 2-person hammock and Atlas Straps, because we haven't gotten to try it out since buying it in June!  Everywhere we have brought it so far, it has either rained or hasn't had anywhere to hang it!  We were determined to find a place to hang it this time!

We brought along our rain shells, just in case, but didn't get to use them.

We also brought our two professional Nikon bodies and three lenses to see how much of a pain they'd be to carry and use.  We didn't use them much, but their weight wasn't really noticeable. . . We will see what we say about that when we bring them along on the shakedown!  I do believe that they are necessary, because, while the iPhone takes fine snapshots when there is enough light, even with flash, it often falls short in lower light, and I want to make beautiful images on the trail!

Our assessment:

We loved our clothes!  The shirts were comfortable, cool and felt dry the whole time, even when they were not dry at all!  We did a lot of sliding down rocks on our butts and the pants held up very well under the abuse.  I did manage to scuff up the fabric on one pocket that had my phone in it while squeezing into a rock crevice.  That was slightly disappointing, because I'd have hoped that having something in the pocket wouldn't make it so easy to start wearing through under normal circumstances.  Muskrat is undecided about the wicking boxers.  They don't fit like his normal ones, so more testing is required before he makes a final decision.

My 10 year old boots are in INCREDIBLE shape.  They are still waterproof, have great tread, perfectly intact uppers, and even perfect original laces.  (Yes, I have hikes a lot in them.  I also take meticulous care of my expensive toys!)  Their insoles, however, are dead.  Once we were back at the car, I felt my insoles and Muskrat's insoles.  Mine have zero cushion left in them.  Not surprising for 10 year old rubber.  I'm going to try out some Superfeet insoles before I break down and buy new boots.  Either way, something has to change, because I can't walk in them the way they are.

The trekking poles are AWESOME!  They are sturdy, easy to maneuver, grip rocks incredibly well, and made me see why they have become such a popular piece of gear!  I don't ever want to hike without them again.

Our Eno Doublenest hammock with Atlas straps is officially my favorite luxury item!  It sets up really quickly and easily, and feels super sturdy.  It's comfortable for both one or two people, but I don't think I would want to spend a whole night in it without a bug screen!  For a quick break/nap along the trail, there is nothing better!

So far, I don't mind dragging the Nikon SLRs around on the trail.  We brought along two bodies and three lenses, (50mm f1.8, 105mm macro f 2.8, and a 16mm fisheye f2.8) and one speedlight.  So far, this seems to cover just about anything we might want to shoot.  Obviously, a longer lens would be better for birds/wildlife, but just too heavy to bother with.  We will see what our final kit looks like.  Right now, my main concern is finding a way to carry them that is accessible without subjecting them to certain destruction.  Stay tuned for carrying options!

Another Day Hike:

We both woke up feeling pretty good this morning, but I am still feeling a slight bruised feeling in the bottoms of my feet.  We have decided that it's a good idea to pick another trail to day hike next weekend too.  I'll be testing out those new insoles on that one!

©2014 Jennifer Magnuson, All Rights Reserved, Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ironjen's Appalachian Trials Lists Part 2: What do I want to get out of my thru-hike?

When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I will. . .

Now that we have a pile of gear waiting for us to take to the trail on our test hike in a few weeks, I am back to working on my Appalachian Trials lists.  Next up?  What will I gain from my thru-hike experience?  It's time to dig into the treasure chest of this awesome challenge!

These are the things I will get out of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike:
  • An incredible book of night photos
  • Images for my outdoor product commercial portfolio
  • Outdoor gear company contacts to shoot products
  • A deeper bond with Jeff aka Muskrat
  • Skills to succeed at this marriage thing
  • A fantastic shared adventure
  • A second book perhaps (hopefully the first one will be done by then!)
  • New perspective
  • Clarity
  • Direction
  • Finally see more of New England
  • Time away from technology (for the most part)
  • More confidence
  • Another great story
  • New skills
  • New strengths
  • Unknown gifts
  • New friends
That's what I have for now!  I'm sure that the list will develop and evolve over the next 8 months of planning and preparing!

©2014 Jennifer Magnuson, All Rights Reserved, Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Gearing up for the Appalachian Trail

Yesterday's REI date resulted in much backpacking gear!

Between our REI shopping spree for wedding gifts and yesterday's REI date for thru-hike gear, we will be getting quite the hefty dividend this year!  I'm betting we will spend it along the course of the thru-hike too!

First, we had the good fortune of unintentionally planning our REI date on Virginia's Back to School Tax-Free Weekend!  We renamed it Back to Nature Tax Free Weekend and took full advantage of it!  What a perfect weekend to not have a wedding on my schedule!

Jeff's stack of boot possibilities
I am sure the gear heads who follow us are dying to know what we got, so I won't delay! 

Clothing & Footwear:

  • 2x REI Sahara Convertible pants
  • Columbia Omnishade shirt
  • Exofficio Gill shirt
  • 2x Injinji running socks (for liners)
  • 3x REI wool hiking crew socks (2 pair for alternating while hiking and one for camp)
  • 2x Patagonia hipster undies
  • ISIS Acqua rain shell
  • REI Windbreak Jacket
  • ISIS Down Jacket (Already owned and LOVE)
  • Asolo FSN 95 GTX Boot (Already own and LOVE)
Ironjen's clothes

  • 2x REI Sahara Convertible pants
  • REI Sahara Shirt
  • Royal Robbins Island Cool Mesh shirt
  • 3x REI wool hiking crew socks
  • Silk liners to be purchased, because Muskrat HATED the Inijis!
  • 2x REI silk boxers
  • Mountain Hardwear Plasmic rain shell
  • REI Windbreak Fleece (already owned)
  • Asolo Reston WP Boots

Muskrat's clothes


This was the tough stuff!  We had to make some calls about what existing gear we were going to upgrade and what new gear we needed to get.  Tents have gotten A LOT lighter in the last 10 years, but our Sierra Designs Gamma is in such perfect condition that we decided to at least take it on the test hike before making the call to replace it, though there are some very tempting options out there that are HALF the weight!

Our other big question was sleeping bags.  We went into this gear purchase wanting to either get a double bag or get two single bags that can zip together in spite of the fact that we own perfectly awesome sleeping bags that are just as light as most bags on the market.  After a long discussion of the pros (snuggling!) and cons (can't be split up if needed in a shelter or hostel) of the Big Agnes double bags (which look so so so awesome), we decided to go with two zipper compatible REI bags, which weren't in stock.  Good thing too, because once we got home, we discovered that the liners we bought to help keep our bags clean and to add warmth would pretty much negate any cuddling inside of a double or zipped together sleep system.  So, I will be sleeping in my Moonstone 3D Minima and Muskrat will be sleeping in his Sierra Designs Wild Bill with our new liners!

Here's everything else we got:
More gear

And even more gear
Cooking & Eating, & Drinking:
Packs & Packing:

Feeling Ready:

Muskrat and our haul from REI

We had the help of our friend, CW, on the pre planning for the big gear purchase, and we had the help of a great trail-hardened sales associate, Eric during our shopping experience!

Once we get the out of stock gear ordered tonight, we will be ready to rock and roll on our test hike in a few weeks!  I'm really excited to get out there and try everything out for 70 miles, especially in light of the very difficult 6 weeks we had with Muskrat getting sick and having surgery, and having to miss our honeymoon at RAGBRAI.  This trip will at least start to make up of that!

In other news, Zach "The Good Badger" Davis has invited me to blog for Appalachian Trials!  Check out my first post!

©2014 Jennifer Magnuson, All Rights Reserved, Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Ironjen's Appalachian Trials Lists Part 1: Why am I hiking the Appalachian Trail?

I'm sitting here looking at a post from Appalachian Trials congratulating the hikers who have finished their thru-hikes this week!  I noticed two reactions as I scrolled through the photos.  First, I get really giddy and almost teary every time I see a photo of the sign atop Katahdin!  Second, I'm noticing that today is August 1, and I can't imagine wanting to be done this early in the hiking season!  I even had trouble finishing AWOL on the Appalachian Trail!  I put the book down for a couple of weeks when I had two chapters left, because I wasn't ready for the virtual hike to be over.  I wanted the experience to last.

Of course, that's no guarantee that I am going to feel the same way after walking over 2,000 miles!  Who knows, maybe by then I'll be tired of sleeping outside, walking through rain, communing with bugs and not being able to get away from the stench of myself, my gear and my husband! (Just the smell of you, hon!  I won't want to get away from you!)  It's that not knowing how I'll feel once I'm deep into the experience that makes me a little nervous, and I suppose that's at least part of what makes a thru-hike appealing.

I see the experience a little bit like my first Ironman.  When I decided that I wanted to do an Ironman, I was still sick with dermatomyositis.  I had just started running, as part of my "do everything they tell you you can't do" plan to get well.  I watched a friend do a sprint triathlon, because he insisted that I would love the sport.  I mostly went to make him shut up about it.

Back when I was sick

By the time he crossed the finish line, I was dead set on doing a triathlon.  I didn't want to do a sprint.  I had done the math in my head already, and I could have pushed my way through that distance that day if I had wanted to.  What was attractive about the idea of an Ironman, was that there was a big question mark on that.  The most I had ever run was 9 miles, I had no idea how to actually swim with a real swim stroke, and I owned a steel mountain bike from 1996.  Nothing about my situation in that moment spelled guaranteed success in my attempt to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles in under 17 consecutive hours.

Ironman Swim Lake Placid 2008
Ironman Bike Lake Placid 2008

Ironman Run Lake Placid 2008

In Zach Davis' book, Appalachian Trials, he writes about anticipating challenges, and being mentally prepared for them.  Part of the strategy is making lists prior to leaving on the trail.  I never wrote the lists on paper when I did Ironman, but I did catalogue the thoughts in my head, and I wrote a lot on my blog about why I was doing what I was doing, the benefit of crossing the finish line, and the drawbacks of quitting before.  When weather on race day turned into a downpour that lasted over 15 hours, when I faced the killer climbs of the Adirondacks on the bike and run courses, and when the midnight finish cutoff loomed less than 30 minutes ahead, I reminded myself what the finish meant.  It was a nail in the coffin of a disease I wasn't supposed to be able to defeat.  It was me claiming control over my life.  It was proving to myself that I am capable of anything. . . It worked.  I did all of that.  I went on to do it three more times.  I'll eventually do it again.  First, I need to do this other thing. . . this thru-hike thing, and I need to be prepared.  (Muskrat does too, but he's been busy with budget spreadsheets!  He likes that stuff!)

Ironman Finish Lake Placid 2008
Ironman Finish Coeur d'Alene 2009
Ironman Finish Arizona 2010

Ironman Finisher Medal Cozumel 2011
My reasons for this thru-hike are not as clear cut and easy to define as my reasons for doing Ironman.  Dermatomyositis is far behind me now that I have been well longer than I was sick, and my confidence in myself is miles beyond what it used to be.  My physical fitness is pretty stellar.  So, why DO I want to do this?

Here's the first draft of my first list:

I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail because:

  • It has intrigued me for the last 25 years.
  • I want a grand adventure.
  • I want to make a photo book of the trip.
  • I want to share an epic adventure with my husband.
  • I want to live in the woods.
  • I want to see if I can.
  • I want to try a new kind of endurance activity.
  • I want to take Magnuson Photographic in a commercial outdoor direction.
  • I want to see New England, and on foot sounds good!
  • I want to have something awesome to remember the east coast by.
I'm sure I will add to it, but so far that's what I have!

©2014 Jennifer Magnuson, All Rights Reserved, Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.