Monday, February 13, 2017

New book tells story of the history of hiking in America

By the late 1960's more than 100,000 miles of walking trails guiding millions of hikers and backpackers annually through public lands in the U.S., had been created. Almost all of this mileage was the work of volunteers in hiking clubs, going back to the first days of organized recreational hiking in the 19th century.

 "On the Trail: A History of American Hiking," by Seth Chamberlin, tells the story of how American hiking clubs began to create a strong hiking culture, centered on trail building, nationwide beginning in the middle of the 19th century.  Ironically, the success of hiking clubs in expanding the nation's trail network, along with technological improvements in hiking and backpacking gear and a growth in hikers going solo or in small groups, beginning in the 1960s, the hiking club culture that built the trails in the first place began to diminish,  Chamberlin claims.
Today less than one percent of American hikers belong in an hiking club, Chamberlin says.  
Using club newsletters, minutes of club meetings and spirited written recollections of club activities dating back several generations as source material, Chamberlin focuses on the bonhomie shared by hikers beginning in the 19th century when upscale Victorian urbanites formed hiking clubs seeking a spiritual uplifting by escaping from the growing stench, noise, stress and crowding of cities in the throes of the Second Industrial Revolution.
Chamberlin considers hiking club members of the nation's earliest organizations, such as, the Appalachian Mountain Club, 1876, Boston; the Sierra Club, 1891, San Francisco; and the Mazamas, 1894, Portland (OR),  the "producers" of the nascent hiking culture.  They scouted the trails, built them and maintained them at a time when what few trails there were they were very short.  Club members organized outings to use the trails, and published maps and trail guides for members and non-members to gin up interest in hiking.  They advocated for environmental causes and for the establishment of national parks.  American hiking was invented by these producers, Chamberlin says.  
"Trampers" as Victorian era hikers called themselves, were a high spirited group, spending days enjoying  "a good, honest-to-goodness, upright, God-fearing, one hundred percent American, red-blooded  hike," and nights spent singing and dancing(!) around a roaring fire before retiring to sleep on the floor of a rustic hut.
Socially the clubs were advanced.  Women were welcome to almost all hiking clubs and many rose to prominent positions in the club at a time national women's suffrage was a generation in the future.
There were practical benefits to being in a club.  At the turn of the century, gear for an overnight was too heavy for humans to carry so pack animals had to be used.  Or, overnighters would spend the night in a rustic lodge on the trail built by club members for their use.  In the early days of hiking clubs, before automobiles became widely available, hikers traveled from the city to their destinations on trains, as trains went just about everywhere then.  (In 1914, 96 percent of interstate travel was by train.)  Somebody had to organize all of this.
Newsletters were important to promoting a club's activities and hiking in general.  Many newsletters reported scientific discoveries of the members who had an interest in the physical nature of the world they walked through. 
But shortly after World War II, hiking culture began to erode, "consumers" began replacing the "producers."  Freeze dried foods and nylon fabrics, both perfected during the war, substantially reduced pack weight permitting hikers overnight stays in the wilderness with just what they could carry on their backs.  In 1951 the packs themselves got an upgrade when Dick Kelty began selling the first nylon and aluminum-frame backpacks.  A padded waist belt greatly improved the comfort and load carrying capacity over the standard pack of the time--wooden U-shaped packs from army surplus stores.
Spirited discussion around the campfire on the merits of this piece of gear or that trails difficulty, has given way to the rise of an outdoors press that targeted magazines, newspaper articles (and later Internet content) to hikers in contemporary times, Chamberlin claims.  Backpacker Magazine published their first issue in 1973.
As longer trails were completed: The 2200-mile Appalachian Trail in 1937; the 273-mile Long Trail in Vermont in 1930 and a partially complete Pacific Crest Trail first explored in the 1930's, more hikers wanted to experience nature solo, not with groups.  "Through-hikers" hiking a trail that might take days or weeks to complete end to end became more numerous.  What passed for social interaction was the chance meeting of one small group of hikers with another in a trail side shelter, Chamberlin said.
The biggest hit organized hiking took was in the fall of 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Systems Act, claims Chamberlin.  The bill provided federal money for the construction of trails in some areas and placed the nation's longest trails under federal protection.  After that hikers began to see trails as an entitlement, built and maintained by government workers.  Hiking club membership and the commitment to trail work that came with it no longer looked appealing to hikers.
"The traditional hiking community had relied on clubs as net producers of hiking culture but evolved into a loose gathering of millions of Americans consuming equipment, information and physical trails produced by private business,  professional environmental groups and the  government...
"The evolution of the citizen hiker to the consuming hiker meant that most hikers would spend almost no time in investing in the clubs or trails they used," Chamberlin comments in the book.
"Most hikers today have no experience with the realities of trail work or the policies that make trails possible.  Hikers and backpackers today do not appreciate how much they owe to the hiking clubs that organized in the late 19th century to plan, build, maintain and promote those trails," Chamberlin.
"On the Trail :A History of American Hiking," by Seth Chamberlin, (2016) Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  The book looks like a verbatim transcription of a dissertation submitted by Chamberlin in pursuit of a Ph.D in American history from Lehigh University and available in its entirety for free on the Internet.  The book is also available to check-out from the Jefferson Parish Library.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Levee bike path in Jefferson Parish (LA) reopens

        Sections of the paved path on top of the east bank Mississippi River levee in Jefferson Parish, closed for months to allow subsiding levees to be raised, have reopened.  The 30-mile long trail, from the Fly at Audubon Park in New Orleans, upriver to the lower guide levee of the Bonnet Carre Spillway at Norco in St. Charles Parish, is again complete, unfettered by construction fences and "Keep Out" signs.
        Beginning in 2014, about 8.5 miles of the path in Jefferson Parish and two miles in Orleans parish were closed to allow the US Army Corps of Engineers to raise those sections of the levee two to three feet to correct for levee subsidence. Not all of the sections were closed at once.
       The only detour around the closed sections is River Road, a narrow, two lane road with heavy traffic and no shoulders running most of the length of the levee at its base.  Most regular trail users just avoided the Jefferson Parish stretch altogether.
       The levee in St. Charles Parish did not need to be raised so its 12.5 mile stretch of the paved path never closed.
         A third short section was also closed for work on pipes and pumps in the "Pump to the River" drainage project, just upriver from the Earl K. Long bridge over the Mississippi River.  Recently a short asphalt bypass has been built around the pipes, eliminating the short detour down to the toe of the levee and back up. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

"Two Coots in a Canoe" about two sixty-something men on a sometime contentious month-long paddle the length of the Connecticut River

       In 2003 two sixty-year-old retirees, David Morine and Ramsey Peard leave their wives and families for a month to paddle a tandem canoe on the winding Connecticut River from the U.S./Canadian border 400 miles to Long Island Sound.  They had been best friends when students at the University of Virginia's graduate school of business administration but, while keeping in touch, had seen very little of each other since graduation in 1969.  The pair thought the canoe trip would be a great way to refresh their friendship.
       Not really, if you accept the perspective of Morine, bowman for the trip and author of "Two Coots in a Canoe." about the experience,  published by Globe Pequot Publishing (2009).  Morine's rather matter of fact account of the trip leaves the reader wondering how in the world the two very different men became friends in the first place.
       As we learn of the life stories of the two men as told by Morine and revealed by interactions with the people they meet along the way, the two men were different in nearly every way from how to steer a canoe through a bend to what to wear when you are the stranger in a small New England town.
        The trip serves as a handy literary device for Morine, a published writer, to include the stories of a diverse collection of people the pair meets during their month-long river adventure.    In addition to the life stories of the two central characters, Morine and Peard, a Princeton University blue-blood who proposed the trip and who serves as the politically conservative foil to Morine, a Boston-area native who headed land acquisition for The Nature Conservancy for 18 years, space is given to discussions of the demise of farming in New England, the boom in higher education, gay rights, the decay of small towns after their manufacturing base dies and, of course, the river and the conservation efforts to protect it.  The old coot persona the two men embrace is on full display when they come in contact with younger people along the way.
        Where did all these colorful, accomplished strangers come from?  Both Morine and Peard state early in the book they had no interest in camping, sleeping or eating on the river bank, even for just one night.  Instead they would get bed and board from "strangers" along the river who would invite them in, exchanging food and a dry bed for the experience of meeting them and hearing the story of the trip.
         Ripping a page from Tennessee William's "A Streetcar Named Desire," the well-heeled seniors considered this their version of "depending on the kindness of strangers" or just plain "mooching."
      Not wanting to leave this crucial detail to chance, well in advance of the trip, a press release about the trip was sent via email to 1,500 members of the Connecticut River Watershed Council.  Those who wanted to host the pair replied and arrangements were made.  A story about the trip published in a local paper a few days before the two men launched issued the same invitation to a larger audience. 
        As it turned out many of the hosts were known to Morine, who had spend 30 years working in conservation in the area.  However, a stupid decision not to bring a cell phone, maybe in a effort to preserve a shred of wilderness feeling for the trip, meant they would have to meet others as they searched for a pay phone each evening to contact their hosts for the night to come and pick them up from where they landed.
          Readers of the book who do not live in New England and who are not avid conservationists may find the copious space given to describing the many conservation groups that have formed to protect land along the river from development, their funding sources and the motives of the people who lead them, tedious, detailed and boring reading.
         Another criticism I have is that someone looking for detailed information about paddling the Connecticut River will not find it in "Two Coots in a Canoe."  While the pair must have known more about canoeing than they let on in the book to even consider such a trip avid paddlers will want to consult guide books on paddling the river for info on what they will find, where to put-in and take out etc., etc.
         Treat "Coots" as the color commentary to the game that is really being played in the guidebooks and maps of the river.
         More interesting are the pair's take on the lives of the people they so briefly interact with.
        Real insightful observations are rare from either gentleman but there was this after an afternoon at Dartmouth College: "Living in a college town gives old geezers like Ramsey and me a chance to interact with coeds, and that made us feel young again, like we were still in the game."
          The book's prose does not rise to the level of great non-fiction adventure travel writing as practiced by Paul Thoreau and Bill Bryson but is straight forward and readable.  (Morine had five books to his credit before "Coots" was published but gives credit to Paul Flint "for making everything I write readable.")
        Near the end of the book tensions between the two men which had been simmering since the launch from Cannan, VT. reached the boiling point. The book has a decidedly downbeat ending.
 "Two Coots in a Canoe" by David Morine is available from Amazon.  My copy came from a local thrift store.    

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Trail Guide to the Delta Country, bicycling, hiking and paddling trips in Southeast Louisiana, now on the internet.

        The southeastern Louisiana chapters of the Sierra Club have long been dedicated to spreading the news about the wonderful opportunities there are to bicycle, hike, backpack and paddle in the New Orleans area.
       Spreading the news about outdoor opportunities available to area self-propelled travelers began in the early 1970s with mimeographed single sheets, hand-drawn maps and typed directions to top attractions such as Clark Creek in Mississippi and the newly minted Tuxachanie Trail in the De Soto National Forest just north of Gulfport, MS. The effort climaxed with the "Trail Guide to the Delta Country" last updated in 1992 and including about 80 adventures for bikers, hikers and paddlers in Louisiana and Mississippi. most no more than one or two hours drive from New Orleans.  Many, such as Jean Lafitte National Park are within the metropolitan area
        Edited by John Seveniar and illustrated by the late Jeanne de la Houssaye,  the 150 page volume has been out of print for quite a while now. 
         Until an updated edition can be produced (don't hold your breath) the New Orleans Group of the Sierra Club has posted the 1992 edition at their website  At the site click on Publications then click on Trail Guide.  The entire volume is there, divided into two parts.  Part 1 contains maps and descriptions for canoeing the rivers, swamps and marshes and bicycling in the area.  Part 2 gives the same treatment to hiking and backpacking.
         It appears none of the entries have been up dated since that last major revision in 1992.  This is not a problem for every entry.  Many popular outings such as paddling the "whitewater" on the Okatoma Creek near Collins, MS or hiking the hills in Port Hudson, have not changed in the last nearly quarter century.
           But stuff happens and things do change.  The Pearl River Basin, almost ground zero for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was hit hard by the storm's winds which knocked down trees, changing the course of many familiar passages in the featureless Honey Island Swamp.  The Tangipahoa River entry is an example of how out-of-date some of the entries have become.  A wonderful paddle when the Guide was last published the river is still a wonderful paddle but there is almost no public access  now to get on or off it and outfitters come and go.
         A short stretch of the Tammany Trace, a paved trail for walkers, runners roller skaters and, cyclists with a parallel equestrian trail had been completed and opened to the public when Trail Guide was last published.  But now, in 2016, about 28 miles has been finished with plans to finally complete it to Slidell (by a different route).  The Longleaf Trace, a similar idea running 40 miles northwest from Hattiesburg, MS, to Prentiss, MS, was not even thought of when the Trail Guide was last published.
          Do your homework before trying any of the trails detailed in Trail Guide.  Visit the internet and make phone calls to verify the details of the 26-year-old resource before launching yourself on any of the trips in the book.  Join activity clubs such as hiking and paddling clubs with active members who have first hand and up to date information about the condition of trails featured in Trail Guide.
        While the passage of time has eroded the accuracy of some of the entries, Trail Guides is a valuable first stop when checking out what the area has to offer the self-propelled adventurer in southeast Louisiana.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"Canoeing Wild Rivers; The 30th anniversary guide to expedition canoeing in North America," by Cliff Jacobson

       Ever wonder how paddlers who frequently venture into the really remote areas of North America deal with dangerous bears? (Don't hang food from a tree.)  Or how canoe tents or different?  Or where you should really be putting your ground cloth when pitching a tent?
        For expert answers to these pressing problems faced by the wilderness paddler, or even someone who just wants to get the most from a weekend of camping on a white Black Creek sandbar in Mississippi, get your hands on a copy of "Canoeing Wild Rivers," by Cliff Jacobson, (2015, FalconGuides), available at the Jefferson Parish Library.
          Many consider Jacobson to be the most expert of canoe/camping writers in the field of outdoor writing.  This is the fifth edition of Canoeing Wild Rivers, first published 30 years ago.
           The book can be enjoyed by paddlers from beginner to expert.  Jacobson peppers the book with incidents from a variety of experiences he has had making 42 trips on rivers in the Canadian wilderness.  He has also canoed many of the wilderness rivers in the US, often leading groups for weeks at a time miles and miles away from civilization.
            The book has long been considered the premier guide to canoeing and exploring North America's waterways.  But this should not be the only book in your library about canoeing.  To make room for the wealth of detailed information Jacobson includes on topics not often discussed in detail in other wilderness books, Jacobson omits descriptions of how to paddle and reading whitewater, essential skills for all paddlers.  These basics are commonly covered in "beginner canoeing" books.
            Instead Jacobson includes discussions on planning a wilderness canoe camping trip in Canada from who to pick as companions for the trip and which airplane to choose when flying to a remote put-in.  A wilderness guide, Jacobson includes detailed descriptions of how to rescue and repair a canoe damaged miles away from town and sound advice and fresh ideas for making camp more enjoyable and secure.
           Jacobson can get personal.  He writes openly about his love/hate for electronic devices such as GPS and satellite phones and how and why his opinions have changed regarding kayakers and rafters over the past 30 years.
            To help broaden the discussions and opinions, Jacobson includes advice from more than 25 of his fellow canoeing experts complete with their biographical info.  Of special interests to New Orleans area paddlers, Jacobson has included a new chapter devoted to paddling desert and swamp rivers.
          Canoeing Wild Rivers is definitely a book for the paddling enthusiast to have and to red and re-read often.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Cypress Creek Campground in De Soto Natl Forest is closed and how I know that

      Cypress Creek Landing Campground is open.   The campground reopened soon after the water from Black Creek flooded the remote campground as damage from the high water was not as extensive as first thought.

      The campground at Cypress Landing in the De Soto National Forest south of Hattiesburg, MS is closed.  The small, remote and scenic primitive campground was flooded this spring and facilities there damaged when heavy rains raised the water levels in Black Creek, flowing along the site, 10-15 feet above "normal" spring water levels.
         The concrete boat launch at Cypress Landing remains open.  Camping and overnight parking is permitted on land immediately adjacent to the ramp but entering the closed campground is strictly prohibited, said officials at De Soto National Forest headquarters in Wiggins, MS.
         The landing at Cypress Creek, in the 501,000 acre national forest, is a popular access point for paddlers seeking recreation on the gentle sweet tea colored waters of Black Creek.  When the weather is warm, many boaters visit the creek's many sandbars to swim, camp, picnic or just goof-off.  A 20-mile portion of Black Creek has been designated a National Wild and Scenic River, the only river or creek in Mississippi so designated.  The creek also bisects a 5,000 acre federally designated Wilderness Area. 
         Black Creek flows through a "wet" county but alcohol is strictly prohibited in the national forest campgrounds.  Fines are considerable and rangers visit the campgrounds looking for violators.
       Damage  to Cypress Landing appears to be extensive as no date has been set for it to reopen.
       Other boat ramps and their adjoining primitive campgrounds remain open.  They are Big Creek Landing, Moody's Landing, Janice Landing and Fairley Bridge Landing.  These sites are very primitive; only Moody's and Janice has drinking water  The boat ramps and campgrounds are free. Along the river only the campground at Cypress Landing had a camping fee.  (There is a warm water shower there.)
       An updated trails advisory (601) 528-6180, says Black Creek Trail, a 41-mile hiking trail running along Black Creek and the shorter Tuxachanie Trail north of Gulfport are open but bridges may be out and the ground soggy in places.
       For more information call De Soto National Forest headquarters in Wiggins, MS at (601) 528-6160 weekdays 7:30 am to 4:30 pm.  The forest service does not yet post updated trail condition information on social media; you must call.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Paddling Colyell Bay with the BHPC 02/28/2016

Members of the Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club (BHPC) pause for a moment while exploring Colyell Bay, a few miles to the east of Port Vincent, LA.  Under warm and partly cloudy skies the group paddled for a few miles upstream of Louisiana highway 42 before paddling back to a private boat launch (launch fee $7)   The trip leader was veteran BHPC member Martina Ellis.