Monday, December 19, 2011

Sun sets on our time in the New England woods (as the sun's reborn at yuletide!)

As I write, warm rays pour through the study window as the sun begins its descent along a now familiar arc, here in the Weston woods. We’re fast approaching the sun’s rebirth, winter solstice. Until then, each day’s sun seems to race ever quicker toward the western treetops, where it lives on, filtered, for about an hour, until it finally gasps its way into night.

Sun sets, rays filtered by the Weston woods
This evening’s sunset will be more significant to me than most, because it will be the last I experience as a New England resident, here in the northern woods and forests. Until last week, this time of day would have seen me wandering about Cat Rock and 80 Acre, or perhaps somewhere in the Middlesex Fells. But today the cold air, and my need to focus on preparing for our move, keeps me indoors.

While I love it here in New England, and elsewhere in these northern climes, by Thanksgiving I’m usually too affected by the shortened days to remain so far north. This year we have been lucky, and sunny warm days had been the norm until about a week ago. No matter that things have turned cold now, though, as by the New Year, the sun will be closer to me, in both latitude and altitude. And once again I’ll be outside among nature each day at sunset – so long as my work schedule allows.

Living here has afforded such an opportunity for me, and I’m forever indebted to the kind people who opened their home for these few months as we transition to our new life on the subtropical steppe of New Mexico. Having places to hike so close to home has truly opened up a new world for me. I feel more connected to nature, understand the importance of conservation and community and feel more fit than I ever have in my life.

I look forward to living in an even more hiking-friendly place (if one exists!) and continuing to incorporate hiking into other interests I have, like camping, wilderness survival, Leave No Trace living and teamwork and leadership. I’m also excited to continue pursuing the goals of this blog and becoming each day more a man of merit.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Camping: Time to pitch the tent?

We opted for a two-man tent, on sale for $20
This begins the Camping thread of Man of Merit. I recently bought a two-man tent for twenty bucks at Bass Pro Shops. The plan was to have something basic, so on our road trip from Florida to Massachusetts last summer we could save money by staying at campgrounds instead of motels. We didn’t use the tent once, choosing to sofa surf instead because finding an appropriate campground was a daunting task since we were traveling with dogs (and because neither of us had been camping for years).

Nearly six months after we bought it, we’re heading out on another much-longer road trip, and we probably still will not be using it. Still, once we’re out in Albuquerque we will definitely try it out on an overnight trip one weekend in January. Of course, before that happens, I need to learn (or re-learn) a few things about camping equipment, backpacks, sleeping bags and the like.

I’ll start now by focusing on the first three of 10 progressively difficult requirements. According to the web site Boy Scout Trail, these are:

  1. Show that you know first aid for and how to prevent injuries or illnesses that could occur while camping, including hypothermia, frostbite, heat reactions, dehydration, altitude sickness, insect stings, tick bites, snakebites, blisters, and hyperventilation.
  2. Learn the Leave No Trace principles and the Outdoor Code and explain what they mean. Write a personal plan for implementing these principles on your next outing.
  3. Make a written plan for an overnight trek and show how to get to your camping spot using a topographical map and compass, or a topographical map and a GPS receiver.
Actually, tonight I’ll start by reading the tent’s assembly instructions. Then tomorrow I may take it to the back yard to lay out the parts and verify I’ve got all necessary equipment, perhaps even setting it up, sort of test my knowledge before I’ll need it in the field. Meanwhile, I’ll start considering the overnight trek plan as well, so I’ll be ready to camp the first chance I get once settled in The Land of Enchantment.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hiking: To miss lush New England is to love arid New Mexico!

We pack the car and move to the Great American Southwest next week, and I have to admit, I'm really going to miss living in the Northeastern Coastal Forests Ecoregion. Hiking these hills and mountains of New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, I've never felt more connected to the source of all that supports our fragile existence in Megalopolis. Trees that clean the air we breathe. Precious, clean water. Wildlife living in balance with us. Still, I'm fraught with anticipation of what life will bring us down in the subtropical steppe, somewhere between the Chihuahuan Desert and the Southern Rockies. Less water for sure. But the hiking should be phenomenal!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hiking: Third 10-mile report - Middlesex Fells (Skyline, Rock Circuit and Cross Fells trails)

Well, I did it! I finally completed my third 10-mile hike! I drove to the nearby Middlesex Fells Reservation today and hiked a 10-mile lopsided dumbbell loop (that’s two loops, one larger than the other, linked at the middle by an out-and-back connector trail).

I dropped off Khizer at work in Watertown at 9 a.m. and drove about 30 minutes to the Long Pond trail head on South Border Road in Winchester. I had set out on the trail in the western Fells by 9:35 a.m., starting off by heading north on the Skyline Trail. I was considering starting off on the more rugged south loop, but I got discombobulated at the Skyline crossroads and so I looped around the North Reservoir and passed through Sheepfold just after 11.

Then, I crossed over to the eastern Fells via the Cross Fells Trail at I-93 and reached the Rock Circuit Trail in under an hour. I started on the southern half of the Rock Circuit Trail and reached the other side (along East Border Road) by 12:30 p.m. It was then, somewhere near the halfway point of the day’s hike, in the eastern Fells, that I came across a geologist from a local university who was doing an experiment on felsitic rock in the area.

I asked for the geologist's card and told him I was interested in knowing more about basalt deposits in the Fells. He was then generous enough to take me on a short side hike to a spot on the Rock Circuit Trail that featured a basalt ridge formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. It was pretty cool to realize the rock I was standing on was from the Paleozoic Era.

I left the geologist around 1 p.m. and started my return to the western Fells, taking the Cross Fells Trail all the way back under the interstate. From here I completed the Skyline Trail loop doing the southern half.

I made it back to the Long Pond parking area just before sunset, just around 4:10 p.m. Overall, it was an amazing day - sunny, but cold, hovering somewhere above freezing, but not quite 40 degrees. By the end of the day I felt a bit chilled and chapped. Still, I ended up not needing the extra layers I'd packed. The long-sleeve cotton t-shirt and thermal moisture-wicking base I wore was plenty.

At the end of the trail I had such a sense of accomplishment. My first 10-mile hike in the Blue Hills a few weeks ago seemed like a fluke. Then, the second 10 miler was much less rugged than the first, mostly on roads, so it felt easier, though still an accomplishment. But after this third 10-miler, I realize that this is the kind of stuff I’m capable of on a regular basis. Ten miles is not as difficult as it seems when you first set off on the trail. And by the time you arrive at trail's end, you wish you still had more trail time before the sun fell to dusk.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hiking: Ready to do my third 10-miler

Seven days ago I reported that I'd begun to suffer from plantar fasciitis. I took the problem seriously, seeking advice from a nurse practitioner, and I began icing my foot regularly and doing more stretching before and after activity. Despite last weekend's near perfect weather, I took two days off to treat my foot. Then, I began hiking again, limiting myself to about three or four miles each day in nearby Cat Rock Park. The foot's feeling a lot better, though I'm not at 100 percent. Still, I feel I'm ready to set out tomorrow on my third 10-mile hike.

For the most part, I will follow the trip plan outlined in a November 21 post titled "Hiking: Third 10-mile trip plan - Middlesex Fells, Skyline Trail with sections of Cross Fells and Rock Circuit". I will, however, make a few changes. The original plan includes a .08-mile spur to Bear Hill Tower. I will cut this part out and limit my hike to a fairly exact 10 miles. I will start out at the same parking lot mentioned in the original post, but I may head south from the Skyline Trail head instead of north so I can do the more challenging parts of the trail early on in the hike rather than saving them for the end.

I'm really looking forward to accomplishing this third 10-miler. Tomorrow's weather will be cold with "feels-like" temperatures in the high 30s, but fairly sunny (mostly cloudy until around noon and partly cloudy in the afternoon). I will set out on the trail at 9:30 a.m., which gives me about 6.5 hours to accomplish my 10-mile goal. If for some reason I'm running later than expected, I have planned out alternate routes where I can exit the reservation and continue hiking on lit streets, but I don't expect time to be an issue.

I plan on doing one more of these long hikes  here in Massachusetts before we move to Albuquerque at the end of the year. Then, I'll just have one more 10-miler and a 20-miler to do in order to satisfy the active portions of the BSA hiking merit badge requirements. I am fulfilling the other parts of the requirements - which is where a scout would normally discuss aspects of the requirements with a scoutmaster - in a thread, called Hiking 101. This thread will cover hiking safety, first aid, Leave No Trace hiking and hiking etiquette.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hiking: My advanced weapon to overcome obesity

Hiking is the most amazing fat-burning I've found. At my current weight of 264, I burn more than 1,000 calories during an 80-minute cross-country hike (and I hike three times that amount at least twice a week). That's insane. Yes, I realize those who do cardio machines at the gym may already be aware of how intense this calorie-burning thing works, but I could just never get into machines. Hiking hills close to home is the only way I'm going to be able to overcome obesity once and for all. Thirty-seven pounds to go!

If you're interested in calculated the number of calories you can burn by hiking, according to your current weight, check out the hiking fitness calculator at Self Magazine.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Hiking: Stretch those calves to avoid heel pain!

I woke up this morning excitedly anticipating my third 10-mile hike, but as I stepped out of bed and made my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth I got a sharp jolt of pain at the rear of my right heel. I get this from time to time, but usually I just walk it out and it feels better after 30 minutes or so. But after I’d dressed, packed my bag with the day’s rations and headed out the door, the pain persisted, so much so that I limped my way to the car.

Khizer, who last night made a joke saying, “Should I call the police?” when I mentioned, “My heel is killing me,” turned from comedian to nursemaid when he saw me struggling to walk normally. He’s a runner and no stranger to foot issues, so when he suggested I ice it I knew it was a good idea. But I wanted to know why it was hurting in the first place, so when we stopped at Starbucks to use a couple of our free coffee coupons I got online and did a Google search to see if I could find information on the type of pain I was feeling.

I typed in “hiking heel pain” and followed a link to a site called SportzDoc with an article titled Diagnosing Heel Pain. Within seconds I was able to find what was causing my problem – over time I have been developing a condition called plantar fasciitis. According to SportzDoc, pain caused by plantar fasciitis “arises from an overstretching of a ligament under the arch of your foot, called the plantar fascia”.

This overstretching causes inflammation, and it is apparently a problem common for those with pronated or flat feet, which I definitely don’t have. But it is also a problem if you have very tight calves, which according to the site places the fascia under even greater tension.

The problem may require medical attention, according to SportzDoc, as heel spurs may also be a problem here. But I believe in my case it’s due to the tight calves from so much hiking and not enough stretching pre- and post-hike.  According to the site, “You will do well to change the mechanical factors that make this condition worse: stretch those tight calf muscles, use shoes with a slightly higher heel as well as slippers at home (this reduces the tension on the tense fascia), and use insoles that help to support those tired and flattening arches.”

Sounds like good advice to me! So this afternoon I’m going to do some research on calf stretches and report on my findings in a follow-up blog post later today – after doing the stretches myself, of course. I’m hoping I’ll be able to reduce the inflammation today so I can get out tomorrow or at the latest on Sunday to complete my third 10 miler. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hiking 101: Get started with this great aerobic activity

Hiking is a great way to get into shape and increase your fitness level over time. It is an excellent aerobic exercise, and according to the Mayo Clinic – the world-renown research hospital – it can help you increase your stamina, ward off viral illnesses, strengthen your heart, keep your arteries clear, boost your mood and even help you live longer.

But not only is hiking a great aerobic exercise, it also works a variety of muscles in your legs, core, and even your upper body, so hiking also helps you build fat-burning muscle – all while you have fun in the outdoors. (To find out how many calories you will burn while hiking, check out the Calories Burned Calculator at Self Magazine online.)

Many towns feature hikes - look for signs like this near you!
Before hitting the trails, though, it is important to evaluate your current fitness level and create a hiking fitness plan that works for you. Before starting any new exercise routine, it is best to consult a physician. Even then, it is best to start slow and increase your intensity over time.

If you are used to a sedentary lifestyle, the first step begins by walking out of your front door. Make your way down to the end of the block and back. Do this once a day for a few days, and then increase the distance incrementally until you are capable of walking a mile round trip with ease. It is best to stick to the sidewalk when you are first starting out. But if there is no sidewalk in your neighborhood, remember to walk on the left side of the street against traffic for safety.

You can figure out street distance by counting your steps – a mile is about 2,000 steps – or use a website like MapMyWalk or Mapquest. Once you can comfortably walk a mile along the street, it is time to look into suitable off-road walks. You can find these in local parks or conservation areas near your home. Do a Google search by typing in the name of your city or town and the words “local hikes”. Chances are there are other people in your community who have already done the work for you by posting the best places to hike, including distances, geographical features of the land and difficulty level.

Stay tuned for articles on hiking at Man of Merit.

Hiking: Exploring 80 Acre Woods, counting my steps

Hilly wilderness, so close to home, in 80 Acre Woods
This morning I decided to do an experiment to see if I could estimate the distance I walk based on the number of steps I take. I measured a quarter mile on the street in front of my house and walked it - it took 500 normal steps. Then, I headed out and counted my steps as I explored the nearby woods.

The area by the house is called Cat Rock and 80 Acre Woods. It's an amazing place that in the three or so months we've lived here I haven't fully explored. Today I walked as far as I could, to the northwest corner of Weston and into Lincoln. I discovered that the walk was 4.5 miles there and back, or about 9,000 steps.

I currently walk at least 20 miles per week, usually more. Based on an article I read recently, in order to maintain optimum fitness you should walk at least 10,000 steps, or five miles, per day. That would be 35 miles per week, which is the goal I'm currently working up to. My new year's resolution, in fact, will be to walk 1,800 miles in 2012.

Near trail's end on Lincoln Land, past 80 Acre Woods
The hike I did today has a fair amount of elevation gain, probably between 300 and 400 feet, so it really gets your heart pumping, especially during the first half. I plan on adding this hike to my regular rotation. Next time I do it I'll time it so I can get a good idea as to my average speed for a typical cross-country hike.

Tomorrow I plan on heading out to do my third 10-mile hike as part of my quest to fulfill the requirements for the BSA hiking merit badge. I hope one day this blog will inspire others to get out there and start hiking for fitness.

I am still in the planning stages for my fourth and fifth 10 milers. And I haven't even begun to seriously consider the 20-mile hike I will need to complete in order to satisfy all the merit badge requirements. I do know, however, that the final 10 miler as well as the 20 miler will probably be completed in New Mexico after our move there at the end of the year.