mumbling mountain

comfort from trees

barefoot girl

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update: today at work we had to hike quite a bit searching for the weed. After about an hour my left metatarsals started hurting. We were just emerging onto a golf course so I took off my big rubber boots and walked barefoot for a few holes. Pain disappeared instantly. Five fingers is on to something. But nothing beats barefeet. The grass was wet and it felt wonderful to be out of the boots.

Can’t walk hard surfaces with them, takes days to recover from a real pounding, but they don’t hurt nearly as much as wearing shoes/boots on a hike. What will I do when the cold weather comes?

big ash

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Tree Hugger and big ash

Blistering hot day at work today. We waded the Sconondoa Creek in Vernon downstream from Vernon Downs searching out and digging hogweed plants. We were fairly tired when we found the plants we deadheaded in July, closing the search between the big infestation and Rte 5. Too bad we forgot to pick the giant puffball we found. Darn.

Lunch was in the village rec park under a large ash tree. I could embrace half of it, maybe. It reminded me that I wanted to post a picture of an ash that Sandy and I found while doing base line data gathering for a new easement acquired by the Finger Lakes Land Trust. It has to be the largest ash tree I have seen. Not the biggest in NYS, by far. I hugged it and took a picture of the canopy while lying at the root flare. The emerald ash borer makes my heart heavy.

from the ground up

These beautiful trees have yellow to purple foliage in the fall. Stunning. And they are one of the easiest to identify– boldly opposite twigs and leaves. I am always searching for black ash trees. Bob and I felled one in a swamp near our old abode on the Canadian border. I pounded out splint for days and made some wonderful baskets. We had snowshoes made of ash and rawhide, the kind you had to shellac to preserve. We long ago replaced them with the new kind, cleats to steam up hill and, best of all, bindings that hold onto your boots instead of slipping off far from home and refusing to find a good adjustment.

I use a few of my ash baskets to enhance my mumbling mountain booth. Sturdy baskets. Bob backed over my big pack basket once. It almost ended our marriage, but the ash was strong, recovered well and is doing service 20 years later. Ash trees are a gift.

my handmade ash baskets decorate my booth

on top of the world

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hiking buddy

Fran makes it to the top

This summer has been hot, indeed. Working in the hazmat suit while wearing a backpack full of herbicide takes the fun out of summer. But I took control about a month ago just after I got my new orthotics. My trail friend, Sandy, sent an email she received about a hike up Iroquois and Algonquin mountains in the Adirondack High Peaks. It has been way too long since I hiked a high peak. My urban forestry job kept me busy when my friends were hiking. Then there was the metatarsalgia. That was worse, by far.

all these shoes and more

Last August 2009, after trying various new running shoes and SuperFeet insoles, I hung up my running shoes. Last October, after trying various combinations of hiking boots, walking shoes, etc. I decided I could no longer walk uphill, my favorite way to “blow out my pipes”. My regular exercise/exorcise was to cruise 2 miles downhill from my house in the southern hills of Onondaga County, then steam back up to home. My particular hill is on the “steepest” list that the Onondaga Cycle Club keeps to let cyclists know what they are in for on the strenuous rides. It was a good workout to walk those 4 miles. The day I gave up was after a succession of increasingly painful walks home. The undersides of my toes, especially the outer toes on my left foot, left me breathless with pain. I didn’t know if I would make it home.

Luckily, winter sports are easy on the feet. Snowshoeing and skiing are low impact. I could get out and catch an endorphin or two. The pending arrival of spring was distressing me. On the advise of my personal Physical Therapist (Hi, Dear!) I made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon who is a runner, too (Hi, Dr. Parker!) figuring he would be sympathetic. He suggested metatarsalgia was the most likely problem as I have very high arches (cavus foot) but set me up with someone to assess me for osteoporosis, probably because every old lady approaching 60 gets that treatment, suggested a physical therapist and thought a podiatrist might be in my future. His recommendation? go barefoot as much as possible. I choked. I cannot go barefoot; it hurts too much. So he suggested Vibram Five Fingers. So, I made the appointment with the PT and went off to find the Five Fingers.

The shoes were quite a leap from the ordinary–Mary Janes for a chimpanzee. They were fun, I could feel the world under my feet. They didn’t do much to keep my feet dry in the wet places of our woods in my spring wanderings, but they were fun. Then I wore them to a dog show. Two hours on concrete left me close to tears and closer to lame. I hung them up and went to the podiatrist that the PT recommended. Both the PT and the podiatrist scoffed, SCOFFED, at the idea of Five Fingers. I ended up getting a pretty expensive pair of orthotic inner soles for my extremely high arches.

I was excited. The orthotics arrived just about the time I got the invitation to go high peaking. I went into training, Jones Hill and Morgan Hill, 2 or 3 times a week, 5 miles at a pop. That first outing I took along my trail shoes and my hiking boots. I hiked in the boots for a mile or so, decided that I needed to try the shoes, moved the orthotics into them and kept trying. Did the boots work for downhill? The shoes for uphill? I went out again, tried out different combos and decided if I kept rotating through shoes, maybe I could do the hike. The trip to Chateaugay Forest, fairly level, was a chance to try my old fashioned, heavy duty, mountain boots on the theory that my toes would not suffer from the flex at push off. Ha. They lasted about 1/20th of a mile. No combination or rotation worked, even on that soft, easy grade. (Dan Sawchuck, Region 7 forester, should hike that trail. It was quite a surprise for a trail marked for hiking and skiing. It could work in a Tug Hill winter, but hiking in a swamp….maybe not.)

Morgan Hill State forest has some steep spots and I pushed them. I was getting more and more depressed. I could never, given my experiences, hike into the backcountry and expect to make it out again with the luck I was having with my new hope, the orthotics.

Bob and Saul looking down to Labrador Pond from the hang glider launch

Finally, when my son was visiting, I thought “what the heck, I’ll try the Five Fingers”. Off to the state forest. I took along my hiking boots, of course, in my daypack. I wasn’t sure it would work to wear such a non-shoe. It was a rainy day and the trails were a little wet. I was more than a little apprehensive. But I walked FIVE MILES, up and down, WITHOUT toe pain!!! My soles felt a little bit like swiss steak, but no crippling toe pain! Why would I put on my boots again if they didn’t solve the problem, if my feet hurt?

I was elated. ELATED! Jubilant. JUBILANT!!! I could hike! But, how much? Doing local trails with 25# on my back was not a 3 day hike with 45# on my back. I scoured the internet looking for people hiking in Five Fingers. They were there, but no one was talking much about multi day trips carrying home and food. I bought a pair of KSO TrekSports, more cushion and some traction. I spent 2 more weekends testing myself on Morgan Hill, skipping the wonderful, new switchbacks and stairs recently installed by the Onondaga chapter of the Adirondack Club and the volunteers from the Finger Lakes Trail and the North Country trail, using the old, steep track up the sides of the ravine. I knew I would be free of metatarsalgia pain, but what about the foot pounding? What about the potential for cold, wet weather, not uncommon in the ADK mtns in late August? I bought a pair of Flows. Buy stock in Five Fingers.

My last test trip was only 2 miles up to the hang glider site, skipping the trip south to Shackham Road. The Flows did OK. The cushioning was a little better than the TrekSports. I decided I would use the TrekSports on our fully loaded (almost 50#) 5 mile hike in, assuming the trail would be muddy, more soil and boulders than bedrock and I would need traction to keep going. I would use the Flows on the trip up the mountain with my daypack, as that would be more rock than soil so cushioning would be more important than traction.

I’m pretty sure my hiking buddies were diplomatically dubious, but they were great. Not one of them asked me if I was crazy. Mac checked in regularly for the first few miles. “How are you doing?” Sandy and I kept a slow deliberate pace. She has struggled with toe burn for years and stops every hour or so to take of her shoes and let her nerves recover. Kevin, Meghan, Diane and Bob steamed ahead of us. When we caught up at various watering spots, they were well rested and ready to go. Finally they just went on ahead. The trail was strewn with rocks, boulders, seeps and boggy spots, roots 3 feet high, uphill, uphill…. Do they make Five Fingers with ankle support? After about 4 or 5 miles changed into my hiking boots as my ankles were begging for relief from the pounding of the added 50# load.

We were still about a mile out when Kevin and Bob came back and took our packs. Sure! Don’t mind at all! Thanks, so much! It turns out we were less than ¼ mile out. The revised stop was a great idea as the terrain would only get rougher and the hour later. Kevin had packed plenty of beer and margaritas, homemade desserts and enough candy for a village Halloween outing. Everyone was loaded and ready to stop. An extra mile with daypacks would be far preferable in the morning. Good Choice!

So, I made it. The first hurdle was done and other than a groaning back and protesting ankles I was in good shape. Sandy’s gourmet crab ala was very satisfying. Diane got us oriented to watch the space station move from northwest to northeast at 29 degrees above the horizon at about 9:10, or was that 8:40. The stars were amazing. Everything was enhanced by Kevin’s margaritas and Meghan’s delight with the trip. The night’s sleep on a gentle downhill slope could have been worse.

Sandy's pic of our start to Iroquois Mt

After my amazing breakfast we set out. I was wearing my neoprene Five Finger Flows, still, cautiously, carrying my hiking boots in my daypack. My feet got wet immediately as we crossed the Opalescent and stayed wet all day. It was the most amazing weather for the last day of August, warm and sunny. It was over 90 where we lived and we were glad to be in the mountains instead. My feet didn’t care about wet. Again, our mates steamed ahead as Sandy and I deliberated our way up the steepest ascent in the high peaks. We kept on “because we could”, celebrating the beauty and the struggle the whole way to the top.

The climb is described as the steepest ascent in the high peaks. To get to the trailhead we had to go a mile along the river to Lake Colden, then straight up for 1.7 miles to the intersection where we could go west to Boundary and Iroquois mountains or east to Algonquin.

Sandy at the top

Sandy convinced me to go to Iroquois. I had wanted to go to Algonquin as I may never come this way again. She opined that I could take the easy way up Algonquin another time, a mere day trip, 8 miles round trip, daypacks only, with car camping. If I didn’t do Iroquois now then I would have to go past Algonquin and on to Iroquois to catch that peak (like I’m gonna bag all 46 peaks). She set a date– Sept 27. So, we turned left and headed to Iroquois. Of course, Bob, Diane, Kevin and Meghan were waving at us from the top already. We had some work ahead of us to get there, but were greeted with hugs and Kevin had the Labatt Blue ready for a toast. The energizer bunnies headed off to conquer Algonquin while Sandy and I relaxed and enjoyed the view. We knew we would be arriving back at camp in the dark if we did Algonquin.

VFF on my feet on top of Iroquois Mt. You can see Colden Mt on the left and Flowed Lands far below

And here I am at the top. I could never have done it without that crazy suggestion from Dr. Parker or the trials and tribulations of figuring out the footwear.  WOW!!! I did it!!!!

hiking gear

The trip down, like all high peak returns, left our quads groaning. The trip back out to the Upper Works was tons easier without the food we carried in. The packed gravel road of the last mile, though, was agony on my soles. Five Fingers like a natural surface, I have learned. I switched to crocs. I finally succumbed and bought some of those ugly crocs as they are as light as clouds and I didn’t want to carry anything heavier than a cloud if I had to carry my hiking boots. Footwear next trip:  Vibram Five Fingers and Crocs.

Thanks so much, dear hiking buddies, for all your help, support and spirit. It was great fun.