Hiking Practice: A Deux

As the date of our Appalachian Trail day hike draws ever closer, Jeff and I decided to schedule another hiking practice. The original plan was to spend an evening eating and sleeping in our own little woods. Hurricane Matthew, however, disrupted our idea. With 85*+ temperatures, swarms of quarter-sized mosquitoes (I only wish I was exaggerating) and snakes on the move, we decided to pass on the sleeping-under-the-stars portion of the proposal.

Plan B wasn’t nearly as rustic, but we made do.

Our first order of business was to obtain water. Jeff and I walked through a small copse of trees to reach the tiny creek on the front corner of our property. Then we filled our bottles with the tea-colored water that bubbled along over the rocks and decaying limbs. The water we collected was certainly suspiciously-colored, but lacked any visible sediment. We could only hope that filtration would prove successful and there would be no violent cases of intestinal distress.

With all necessary supplies collected, it was time to start a fire. We have in our possession matches and fire sticks and cigarette lighters, but I wanted to create fire with a magnesium bar. Even if I never have to do so again for the rest of my life, I needed to know that I could.

We gathered sticks of all sizes, pine cones and straw, and dry leaves for a tinder ball. Jeff demonstrated the proper technique once, then let me have at it. I put down a paper towel with crushed dead leaves. After scraping a pile of tiny silver flecks from the magnesium bar, I struck the other side, hoping to create a flame. Nothing doing. I tried again. And again. Then one more time. After a couple more failures, I eventually figured out how to produce a weak flicker. Even that, however, is no guarantee that fire will ignite. This procedure is not nearly as easy as the survival guys on TV make it look. Remembering a tip from some such show, I ran inside (Oops! Cheated a little there!) and returned with a cotton ball. I used this to make a nest for the metallic flakes, and vigorously pulled the striker against the magnesium bar. The first real burst of sparks startled me and I dropped everything. Recognizing an opportunity for success, I reconfigured the cotton ball and struck again. Flames! Big yellow flames! Suddenly I was Tom Hanks dancing in front of the bonfire in “Castaway”. I had created FIRE!

It was a moment.

We stoked our fire with limbs, graciously provided by Hurricane Matthew, and had a substantial campfire rolling in no time. Once that was underway, we turned our attention to food prep.

Recently Jeff had returned from a gun show with a gift for me (let that sink in) and I have been eager to try it out. Today was the day. We took the bottles of our freshly-collected but undeniably brown water and attached my brand new Life Straw filter. Timidly I took a sip. It tasted like – nothing really – but when your water starts out that discolored, nothing is a good thing.

We measured out filtered water and put it on the miniature camp stove to boil, which took about 90 seconds…sweet! We measured out the water and added it to our pouches of freeze-dried beef stew. After waiting the allotted ten minutes, we enjoyed a tasty meal, accompanied by a pretty decent cup of coffee, in our blue ceramic lumberjack mugs. Jeff and I sat in front of the crackling fire, which kept the mosquitoes at bay. Had we not been “camping” on the back patio, it would have made a picture-perfect commercial for an outdoor-sy magazine.

I wish the conditions outside had been more conducive for this newbie camping diva to sleep under the stars (comfortably snuggled up in a sleeping bag inside a three-season tent). We will try that when the weather cools off a bit and the first hard freeze wipes out a significant portion of the mosquito population. The extended AT camping event is scheduled for early spring, so we’ve got time.

Jeff and I are about two weeks away from our day hike. I am ready. I think. There is an elevation factor to consider, but I am comfortable carrying a loaded pack and walking a reasonable distance, say, about ten miles. I now know how to make fire and filter water. I have my hiking shoes and several layers of clothing available, as the conditions may require. Best of all, I have my favorite person on the planet right here by my side to plan and prepare, then to enjoy the journey.

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When Your Pet Needs a Pet

It’s the sort of thing that happens often enough in the country. Small woodland creatures wander up to your door. It’s no real surprise to come home and see a herd of deer grazing in our yard or even eating the shrubs flanking the front porch. A myriad of birds, including cardinals, finches, bluebirds, and three kinds of woodpeckers can be seen flitting from tree to tree on any given day. Driving moles and armadillos out of our yard and into the adjacent woods is an ongoing battle. There have been various snake sightings, but fortunately these are rare. In the last month, however, the source of most of our wildlife interaction has been at the hands of the unassuming possum. (Just for the record, I am aware that the official name is opossum. However, no self-respecting Southerner ever uses the full name of North American’s only marsupial more than once, and that is to simply let you know that they know about the extra letter, but refuse to use it.)

Our family of three humans is rounded out by two canines, Lucy (Boston terrier/pug hybrid) and Maddux (golden retriever – big of head and small of brain). They love it when people come over. These two could easily have been the inspiration for the cheese wrapper meme. But let another animal enter their domain and you will see two dogs get highly upset. This pertains to most anything with four legs, including frogs and lizards.

At some point today a little possum wandered through my yard, probably looking for food: fruit, rodents, berries – possums will eat pretty much anything. Perhaps he was even heading to the screen porch, lured in by the aroma of fresh Alpo. It’s hard to say. What is clear, however, is that the two sentinels noticed the encroaching beast and sounded the alarm. And sounded. And sounded. And sounded some more.

Lucy finally grew weary of all that barking at an unresponsive opponent and fell asleep in the sunshine. The first time I saw the little guy, Maddux was sitting beside him on the ground. It was a pitiful sight. I thought surely the critter was dead. At their best, possums are prone to looking pitiful, and playing dead is one of their primary defense mechanisms.

Thirty minutes later, Maddux and his new pet were reclining on the back porch. From my window vantage point, I could see the little guy was breathing. A few minutes later, as Maddux began to drift off, small gray ears began to twitch and one eye peeked open as the hostage cautiously surveyed his surroundings. He prudently kept his head turned away from the dozing dog and yawned, revealing a long, thin jaw lined with sharp teeth that he was oddly reluctant to unleash on his canine captors.

In what can only be described as a comedy of errors, at that exact moment, a red wasp swooped down from the ceiling fan and stung Maddux on the nose. Both he and the possum leapt up. As the highly offended Maddux gave chase to the aggressive insect, the possum – less than 18 inches away from the steps leading to freedom – ran as quickly as he could in the wrong direction – further trapping himself in the corner underneath the porch swing. Lucy, noticing a change in Maddux’s attention, seized the opportunity afforded her. A crestfallen Maddux dropped his massive head as he slowly realized that he may have gained vindication by gobbling up the wasp, but he had lost possession of his furry gray pet. About that time, Lucy noticed my presence and went all Guardians of the Universe on the bewildered ball of nappy fur. Deafened and disoriented, he resumed his only course of action – total and complete inaction. As much as I hated to, I knew it was time for me to enter into the fray.

Knowing my dogs’ greatest weakness, I ran to the kitchen and found some leftover barbeque. Maddux was an easy sell. One whiff of the smoky meat and he trotted willingly onto the screen porch. Lucy paused momentarily from her  barking to look up. She was tempted but not willing to relinquish control. It would take something truly fantastic to lure her away from such a major prize. After several failed attempts, I finally got her attention away from the possum and onto the tasty treat. Moments later, both dogs voiced their discontent as they realized that the meat was all gone and now a screen door stood between them and their would-be captive. Curses! Foiled again!

Phase One of my clever plan was a complete success. But, now what? I had to get that possum off of my porch and back into the woods where he belonged. I could shoot it, but that was unnecessary. He was not being aggressive; he had done no harm. I just wanted him gone, not dead. I could put on some leather gloves, seize him by his tail, and….no. Just, NO! Then, remembering a successful tactic from a few weeks back, I grabbed the water hose.

I sprayed the possum, and I wish for all the world I had a picture of this moment. I could almost hear him as he looked up at me with a weary, “WHAT NOW???” expression. Using the spray, I motivated him to leave the corner. Try as I might, I could not guide him towards the steps. With one frustrated look back at me, he bailed off the edge of the porch onto the ground.  After allowing a moment for the tired animal to collect himself from the two-foot drop, I panned back and forth at his feet with the water, encouraging the possum to head for the trees. Finally, he seemed to understand what was happening and picked up the pace, snorting and waddling off towards the woods.

I can just imagine what it would be like for the little possum to finally make it home: wet, weary, and empty-handed. “Sorry, I’m late, dear. No Alpo today. You are NOT going to believe what just happened…!”