Saturday, November 29, 2014

On Becoming a Sierra Club Regional Outings Leader

Today I led my first mentored hike as a provisional leader of the Sierra Club Potomac Regional Outings group. A few weeks ago I attended a retreat at the Bear's Den Hostel, located along the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia, on a ridgeline overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, where after two days I was certified in basic first aid and had completed a multi-module wilderness leadership training course. Today's hike was half of the next phase in the process of becoming a sanctioned leader of the club, and despite a rocky start I would say it was a resounding success.

Sierra Club Virginia Chapter SCPRO 2014 Leadership Retreat at Bear's Den
Photo by Ellen Hill, SCPRO
The hostel where the retreat was held is maintained by another organization I'm a member of - the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Just last month I completed the training process to join the PATC Trail Patrol. As it turns out, several of the mentors and trainers at the SCPRO event were also PATC members, so it felt like family - a new family I've been adapting myself into since I moved back to the region in July of this year.

One of the best elements of the weekend retreat was an evening bonding session with my fellow classmates, instructors and mentors. This was when much of the sense of "family" began to take root for me. Also, as our new SCPRO Class of 2014 peer group was forming, we made a few jaunts out to a nearby rocky overlook along the Appalachian Trail - at night, in the morning and at noon - to stretch our legs. This was a time to shift the energy to a more intimate level, to get to know folks a little more deeply.

SCPRO Leadership Class of 2014 ( with organizer Liz Guertin on the right)
I came away from the whole retreat experience knowing more about my fellow humans as we were there, growing alongside each other; I left excited to begin the next step in the outings leader training program - my two mentored hikes. So today as I was signing in some 15 attendees, you can imagine how wonderful it made me feel to see one of the old class coming along on the first real-world test of my ability to apply our new leadership skills.

The hike was titled, Hike Through History: Rock Creek Park. Here's what I had to say about it in the MeetUp write-up:
One of the country’s first national parks, Rock Creek Park is home to a rich history that often remains hidden from residents and visitors alike. On this hike, we’ll discover some of this hidden history – as revealed in the recently published “History of Rock Creek Park”, by Scott Einberger. Entering the park from Connecticut Avenue via the Melvin Hazen Trail, we’ll first traverse the southern bluffs section of the park, exploring the fall zone via the Western Ridge and Valley Trails. Here we’ll learn about a skinny-dipping president and the naming of Boulder Bridge, pre-Colonial quartz mining, the mills of the valley and other bits of Rock Creek trivia. Eventually, we’ll make our way up to Fort DeRussy via the horse trails, where we’ll talk about the fort’s critical role in the Civil War Battle of Fort Stevens.

This is a moderate hike of about 7.5 miles. The route has several ups-and-downs, and there’s also a bit of an optional rock scramble.

I recommend that folks each carry 2 liters of water; Bring along trail snacks and lunch, which we’ll eat somewhere along the way. A bathroom break/pit stop will be made at the Nature Center.
In hindsight, I would have added a few more qualifying statements, such as "there will be several stream crossings, one made more difficult due my poor route choice, the result of my failure to scout the hike in both directions." But everyone made it from Cleveland Park Metro through the national park and back again without losing a limb and with a smile on their collective face, so I'd say I achieved my overall goal while experiencing some real learning-in-action.

With "The 2 Anns", along the AT Bear's Den Rocks during SCPRO retreat
Having led more than 60 group hikes in the mid-Atlantic over the past two years, I was confident I could achieve my goals. I'm glad I'll have the chance to apply what I learned today on my next hike, coming up in December.

By the way, I didn't take any photos of today's hike, because I asked at the beginning if anyone minded being in group photos snapped along the way that might be posted on my blogs or social media domains I manage, and one person raised their hand. My hikes are all about inclusion, so I certainly didn't want to be someone managing an exclusionary process when I needed to focus on - as a host - making sure everyone felt they were part of an experience worthwhile.

My next hike will be December 20, time and place to be determined. Check out SCPRO on MeetUp and Hiking Megalopolis on Facebook for more info.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

From the PATC to the Sierra Club - for me it's about leadership

by Brian Schwarz

I'm looking forward to improving my outdoor skills this weekend, taking a class that leads to becoming a Sierra Club Outings Leader. Part mountain survival, part Leave No Trace, part leadership, the class is set at a hostel out on the eastern edge of the Appalachian's central valley in Northern Virginia, at a spot where some of the lowest mountains of the Appalachian Range rise to lift the AT off the floor of the Shenandoah Valley.

From the PATC to the Sierra Club - it's all about becoming a better leader
As a kid, I backpacked and camped somewhere in those eastern valley hills, though I believe it was a little further south of where I'll be hostel-crashing this weekend. It was sometime around my transition to Boy Scouts when I was here before. I was a pre-teen, or really I guess I was transitioning, becoming a teen. I just remember being confused about the experience of camping and couldn't really focus on whatever it was that I was supposed to be getting out of the whole thing.

The feeling? Awkward. I hadn't been in school long enough to make friends, so I just developed a crush on my patrol leader and did anything he asked me to do, with enthusiasm. I made it through. But I ended up with chaffing in very uncomfortable spots because I wasn't that great at managing personal hygiene in a simulated wilderness environment. We slept in wet tents down by the creek, at a clearing in the woods, with a field nearby for capture the flag, somewhere with no bathrooms, just a swell in the creek big enough for group bathing.

I had no idea over time it would prove to be one of the most significant of my personal experiences growing up in terms of providing a richness, texture and framework to my life that always brings me back to concepts I learned in scouting.

Hence, the blog Man of Merit where I am trying to go back and finish all the merit badges I'd not been able to complete when I was that confused transitioning teen; I'm working to fill in the gaps as I explore the art of living in the great outdoors. First the PATC Trail Patrol Training. Now this.

I feel like I finally get it. Now I'm ready to camp.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Challenge of Outfitting the Big Man for an Active Outdoor Lifestyle

by Brian Schwarz

Outfitting the big man for an active outdoor lifestyle is a challenge, to put it mildly. First, big and tall stores don't cater to the active outdoor lifestyle. Heck, they don't even acknowledge that some big guys are active and even fit. The assumption is perhaps, hey, you're big, so just go and put on these stretchy-waist jeans so you can look decent while standing in front of a barbecue grill, be comfortable tucking into the table when you're done, and not pop your buttons when you plop down on the couch for your after meal nap.

Rocking my Columbia Omni-Tech shell and Columbia fleece mid-layer
Sorry for sounding bitter, but as an active big man who feels he has been abandoned by retailers to make due with maybe one style and two colors for a pair of active shorts and a moisture wicking shirt - if I'm lucky enough to find even that - I think I've got the right to be a bit perturbed.

The thing is, I hike mountains. I backpack. I ride a mountain bike. I rollerblade. I'm even getting interested in kayaking and stand up paddleboard. And yes, I weigh between 280 and 310 lbs. And my is a XXL.

The thing is, though, most outdoor apparel companies don't manufacture their clothes up to a men's XXL. And if they do, their idea of an XXL is more like a slim-fit XL. And even then, lots of stores don't carry anything bigger than an XL, so I'm shit out of luck if I don't go online and take my chances that whatever I order might fit.

That being said, I have found a few brands that I can more or less count on. Columbia is by far my go-to brand for outerwear and mid-layer apparel, including waterproof and breathable shells and cozy fleece mid-layers. Champion has several options for moisture-wicking skin layers. And the REI store brand has a couple of options for me in shorts and long hiking pants. I rely on Woolrich and Eddie Bauer for button down shirts and other insulation layer items.

 Still, the selection in my size is frustrating. I'm often jealous of the broad array of styles and rainbow of color options available to those XL and under. Several years ago, before twisting my ankle while hiking a rocky trail at the Delaware Water Gap, I had lost enough weight to comfortably fit into an XL - and I'll tell you I was in clothes shopping heaven for about two years. But after that injury I put on 50 pounds. Afterward I have been struggling to take the weight back off. I feel if I had more options for affordable performance clothes in my size I would be even more active than I am now.

I'm willing to spend the money for better performing clothes that make my physical activity more comfortable. But the brands with superior performance that I really want to add to my wardrobe - The North Face, Patagonia, Millet and others - are just not available to me as I continue my lifelong fitness journey and try to shed these excess pounds to get me back to a size that is more healthy for me in the first place.

In short, outfitting the big man for an active outdoor lifestyle is a challenge. It can be done. But I feel it should be easier. The availability of performance clothing in bigger sizes from major active outdoor brands would make my life easier as well as the millions of others around the globe who are struggling to overcome obesity.

Brian Schwarz is a freelance writer, trail guide and outfitter based in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hiking Merit Badge Earned; Now Let's Go Backpacking!

by Brian Schwarz

I'm ready to move on from the Hiking Merit Badge requirements and begin with Backpacking. The fact is that even though I didn't do the 20-mile hike as prescribed in the Boy Scout Requirements for the Hiking Merit Badge, I have more than earned it. Besides the fact that I've planned and executed several hundred hikes, including more than 60 during which I led groups), I also have to consider the level of difficulty of the hikes I've done.
Boy Scouts of America Hiking Merit Badge
The average 20 miler executed by a Boy Scout is along fairly level terrain. According to the Sierra Club hike rating system, this means one of these typical hikes could be rated as low as 20 if there is no significant elevation change (1 point equals 1 mile). Every 400 feet of elevation gain and/or loss is also equal to one point.

Case in point, in June of 2012 I planned and executed a hike to the South Summit of Sandia Mountain in New Mexico. This hike was 10 miles out and back, but with 3,000 feet of elevation gain and 3,000 feet of elevation loss, the hike would be rated at 25 - higher than what would be required by the 20 mile hike done on relatively flat terrain. And this was not even my most strenuous hike. Later I hiked the South Summit from a different route - a 12 miler with 4,000 feet elevation gain and 4,000 feet loss - which would have been rated as a 32 on the Sierra Club hike rating scale.

So with that, I am ready to move on. I consider the Hiking Merit Badge requirements to be complete and am excitedly moving on to Backpacking. Stay tuned as I ramp up to tackle this beast of a badge!

PS - I'm not giving up on doing a 20 miler or even completing the three-day 30 mile challenge I set for myself in a previous post. I simply realized that those two things were not necessary for me to consider this Hiking Merit Badge challenge complete for myself based on all that I have accomplished in hiking over the course of recent years. I'm just ready for this new challenge to begin and am setting my sights firmly on completing it. Next weekend I complete training to become an official member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Trail Patrol and in November I train to become a Sierra Club outdoor leader. I've also taken a job where I'll be exposed to all the best outdoor gear, so it is time for me to give my full focus to this and other new challenges.

Brian Schwarz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Way to old to be an actual Boy Scout, Brian has set a goal to complete the requirements of Eagle Scout by his 50th birthday in August of 2021. While some slight modifications are made to the requirements along the way, the spirit of the Boy Scouts guide all efforts Brian has on his journey, living life as a Man of Merit.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Gearing up for a three-day, 30-mile hiking challenge

Yesterday, as I was sitting at the White Rocks Overlook in the Bull Run Mountains - an outlier ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Northern Virginia - I took some time to reflect on my goals. It is disappointing that I started this blog in 2011 with the intention of completing merit badges I'd not had the opportunity to complete as a kid, and to date I've made progress but haven't completed a single one! That's gotta change. That will change! I am more determined than ever.

Being a Boy Scouts dropout was not in my control when I was a teen - lots of factors made it impossible for me to pursue my goal of becoming an Eagle Scout, the most prominent being not having an older male mentor and feeling excluded due to being different from the other scouts in my troop. But as an adult, I know that it is my decisions, and not the conditions of my life, that determine my destiny. So if I fail to accomplish what I set out to do now, it is my own fault, and I can blame no one but myself.

Reflecting on goals, watching hawk migration from Bull Run Mountains
That being said, I have been conditioning this summer to complete my final 20-mile hike as part of earning the Hiking merit badge. Unfortunately, problems with my left foot and ankle - the result of an injury while hiking Mt. Tammany at the Delaware Water Gap last fall - have precluded me from hiking long distances. I have only been able to hike up to 10 miles at a time before my body just gives out on me. So here's what I'm thinking. Instead of giving up on my goals, I am going to re-invision them. I will remain true to the spirit of the 20-mile hike goal, but I'm going to create a plan that works for me given what my body is physically capable of.

This is my plan. Instead of doing 20 miles in one day, I will plan to hike 30 miles over the course of three consecutive days. This is still going above and beyond what I've ever done before, challenging myself in an equal nature to the way hiking 20 miles in one day would challenge me, but giving my body rest intervals to recharge and not do more damage to my weakened frame.

I will plan to do a 12 mile hike on day one, followed by a 10 mile hike on day two and an eight mile hike on day three. The 12-mile hike and the 10-mile hike will be hikes with little elevation gain. But the third and final hike will be a hike with some significant elevation - Old Rag Mountain. It will push me beyond what I believe myself to be capable of, but because I am conditioning to prepare for this three day challenge, I know I will be able to handle it.

My goal is to complete this challenge the end of October 2014. Since I have already completed every other challenge set forth in the Hiking book in the Boy Scouts of America Merit Badge Series, once I complete this three-day, 30-mile challenge I will consider my hiking merit badge to be complete.

Meanwhile, I will also begin working on the Geology Merit Badge. This week I am reading through the manual and setting up an interview with a local geologist to interview and do a profile on him for my blogs.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Hiking: Setting goals for the summer

I am happy to report that I endured the harsh winter and am finally back to hitting the trails - hard! Last week for the first time in 2014, I achieved my 20-miles/week goal. For two years I was hiking 20 miles per week, but 2013 had seen a steady reduction in miles, and my fitness level has declined as a result. I just didn't have the same access to trails as before. For that reason, I've moved to a neighborhood that abuts a park with some mildly rugged trails, and from my front door step I can make a nice loop of between three and seven miles that includes a bit of city trekking mixed with good old dirt-and-rock single-track. I'm back in the zone. Location is everything.

During the dead of winter, I joined several organizations related to hiking, the sport that's got my passion. I joined the American Hiking Society, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, the Philadelphia Trail Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club. All of these organizations have incredible missions and tons of ways to get involved. But the one that reached out to me in a way I responded best to was the Appalachian Mountain Club - Delaware Valley Chapter. I had been looking for affordable outdoor leadership training, and they offered a two-day class for just $35. Cha-ching!

I attended the two-day training in the beginning of April, and throughout the month I have been training to be an outdoor leader with the AMC, which is the oldest conservation and recreation organization in the United States if you didn't know. After the two-day training at Nockamixon State Park, the club assigned a mentor under whose guidance I was to arrange to co-lead two hikes.

Serving as "sweep" on my first AMC-DV co-lead, April 2014
The first co-lead I did was with the DV chapter chair, Joan, on a brisk and sunny jaunt through the Tohickon Gorge. For that one I helped with registration at the trailhead and served as sweep on a hike of nearly 30 people. My second co-lead is one I actually planned and executed with the help of my mentor, Lennie, who is also the club's leadership chair. That one was just this past Saturday in the Upper Wissahickon Gorge, and I did it with Midori as the "leader", since Lennie was unable to hike that day. Midori's role was really to observe my leadership skills in the field and report back to Lennie.

While many people do this training to lead hikes with the AMC, I am still leading hikes independent from the AMC with the fitness-inspiration group I started, Hiking Megalopolis. I've held two hikes within the past 10 days - one was an Earth Day Hike in East Fairmount Park and another was a thru-hike of the Wissahickon Gorge. I am feeling that my fitness level is getting better than it was a month ago, but with this being said, I still need to train harder so I can finish that 20-mile hike I've been talking about since forever. I am still gung-ho as ever about it, but I fear my body is not up to it yet, so I have some preliminary weight loss goals that must be attained before I can set out on the hike with any degree of certainty for success.

I have set a goal to hike 20-miles per week as part of a fitness plan that includes core training with a medicine ball and strength training three days per week at the local YMCA. With this, and a healthy eating plan based on Michelle Obama's My Plate, I believe I will be able to achieve a large portion of my weight loss goals by August - around my birthday. This means that September is when I will plan my 20-miler.

September 7, there is a 5K on a historic trail near my house - The Boxer's Trail 5K. I plan to run this, and then two weeks later I will do my 20 mile hike. I am planning a route that leads from Love Park in Center City, Philadelphia, through East and West Fairmount Parks, and through the Wissahickon Gorge to Chestnut Hill.

Well, that's it for now. If you have any questions or comments for me about this post, please leave it below. And check out a list of my other blogs and social media contacts at About.Me/Brian.Schwarz.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Time flies when you turn your eyes from your goals

One year and nine months have passed since I completed my fifth 10-mile hike, leaving a one-day 20-miler as my only Boy Scouts Hiking Merit Badge requirement to complete. That's nearly two years! What has taken me so long? Good question. Time sure does fly when you turn your eyes from your goals.

I love to quote motivational speaker and coach Tony Robbins, saying, "It is your decisions and not the conditions of your life that determine your destiny." I recognize this to be true. So then I must take responsibility for my decisions for the past two years, which have simply taken me down a different path.

City life entered the equation last year, when I moved from the Western Mountains region to the East Coast, and out of convenience I turned my eyes from this 20-mile hike goal as I transitioned to life in Philadelphia. While living in New Mexico and Southern California, I could hike every day alone if I wanted to by just biking or taking the bus to various trails. I had hikes with 4,000-feet of elevation gain practically on my doorstep! But in Southeastern Pennsylvania, hikes with even 1,000-feet of elevation gain are two hours away by car. Even just one big hike a week can cost $60 to $80 round trip, with tolls. So to mitigate the cost I began hiking with others. And soon, their goals became my goals, and my 20-miler goal was put on the back burner so I could mitigate the costs of what, through the process of creating this goal in the first place, had become my hard-core hiking habit.

So anyway, I'm back and focused on the goal. I just need to see the hikes with others as training for the big hike, which I still expect to do alone. I have brainstormed some ideas, like having certain people meet me at different points along the 20 miles and hike smaller sections with me, or even doing the hike as some charity event. But whatever I can muster by June will have to do, because I have decided that June is the deadline for achieving this goal. I'm adding that the 20 mile hike should be completed within two years of the final of five 10 mile hikes.

So, there you have it. This is my goal, so today I'm off to the park to get some training in. I'll post pics later!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Hiking: Is 2014 the year to hike my first fourteener?

Wow, I can't believe it's already 2014! I haven't posted here in a while, as I've been getting adjusted to my new home here in Southeastern Pennsylvania for the past eight months, hiking up a storm in the nearby Appalachian Mountains. In fact, I figure I did between 60 and 75 hikes this year.

The Catoctin Mountains, part of the Appalachians in Maryland
The first four months were spent hiking Sandia Mountain and other geological formations of central New Mexico. I hiked Pinnacle Mountain in Arkansas on my road trip back east, and the rest of the year was all about the Appalachians, from Western North Carolina to Northern New Jersey. I still haven't completed my goal 20-mile hike in a single day, but plans for it are in the works. Meanwhile, I'm thinking beyond that goal to another hiking goal I have in mind: hiking my first fourteener!

Although I absolutely love hiking the Appalachians, I am often inspired to research hikes out West. Ever since returning from New Mexico and Southern California, I've been thinking I really missed out by not hiking the Rockies in Colorado. Well, this year is the year. How epic would it be to hike my first fourteener in 2014!

I'm not sure how the details will all pan out, but I'm hoping that in either August or October to make the trip to hike either Longs Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park or perhaps one of the Collegiate Peaks. I need to do more research, but meanwhile, my mind and my heart are soaring in the Rockies tonight. I hope my body will be able to joint them soon.

For inspiration, John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High"!

 Happy Trails! And check out my blog HikeyHikey for info on great hikes from East Coast to West! And for more info on me, check out my splash page.