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Hiking the Columbia Trail

My buddies told me they wanted to get some more hiking in to get ready for the Appalachian Trail. They wanted to do a 15-mile trail with packs on to see how the body would respond. I told them I was in. I later found out the trail was the Columbia Trail, which runs through a portion of New Jersey I never really imagined I would ever be back in. Oh what a stroll down memory lane this would be.

The Columbia Trail is a trail that runs through Northwest New Jersey from Chester to High Bridge. It’s an old rail trail that has been converted to a trail for the public to use for biking, running, walking. It’s well paved and since it’s on an old rail line is extremely flat and straight. The difficulty of the trail is very easy. We wanted to walk the whole thing so we dropped a car off at our destination of High Bridge and then drove out to Chester to get the hike started.

Back at it again
Back at it again

The trail offers some of the standard New Jersey forest scenery. Nothing epic, but there are some nice things to look at. The trail goes through many towns. After getting our first few miles in we stopped at the Old Stone Union Church to have a look. The church, from 1774, was the site of pastorate Henry Muhlenberg. He’s credited as being the father of Lutheranism in America, a religion that has 4,000,000 followers in the States. It’s kind of cool that you can drive past or walk past areas of such influence and significance without really knowing it.

There are a lot of gravestones at this location. I love old cemeteries. There’s something beautiful about them. Maybe it’s the closeness to death. The peaceful time that you have there to contemplate what it’s all about. The immediate reminder of where you are headed usually puts me in a good perspective to go forward from there and do great things. We all are headed there someday soon. We may as well be great and have fun with it until then.

I love cemeteries
I love cemeteries

Soon after we grabbed a bench and took a break. We were five miles in. It was time for beef jerky and trail mix and some water. My body was holding up fine. A little shoulder tightening but nothing major. I should probably throw some yoga back into the rotation. The first five miles brought a lot of cheerful people. People out on the trails seem to be some of the nicest people. They’re usually in good spirits and very friendly. I’m not sure what it is, but they seem to see the world in a different way than the general population.

Continuing on in the hike we saw another cemetery. This one of a different nature. Something about the death of an automobile is kind of beautiful. You can still make out the lines or the body. You can make out the beauty. The potential. Think about what if things happened differently. But the car has been covered in rust and wear. Usually there are weeds eating at it. The earth is trying to reclaim what we took from it.

I love all of the cemeteries
I love all of the cemeteries

Heading further down the trail we stopped over a bridge to look at the sights below. It seems the bridges on the trail come every mile or two and provide a good quick moment to stretch the legs and have a closer look at the world that has slowly been moving by.

Blah blah blah
Blah blah blah

One bridge provided very clear water so we could see the fish swimming about.

Clear water
Clear water

Further and further we went. We walked through this shrub and tree farm. I loved the ways these trees, bushes, and grasses looked in real life so I was hoping the picture would come out great, but the lines aren’t as straight as I wanted them to be. The pine trees at the top also looked a lot more purple in real life, but this was probably just the result of dehydration of hiking all these miles with 40 pounds on my back in this heat.

Wish this was better
Wish this was better

The road continued onwards. There was a pretty cool old building on the trail. There was a sign that said what it was and it’s importance but I didn’t read it. I wasn’t really in the mood to read signs that day I guess. I just wanted to hike and explore a bit.

These natural tones
These natural tones

Eventually we crossed 10 miles and with it we needed another place to break. The balls of my feet were starting to hurt for some time. We eventually took a break in Califon. One of my buddies decided we should eat at this place that had wraps, sweets, salads, coffees and cold sodas called BEX. It’s a place I have been before about two years earlier. They have weird hours, usually 8-3 but it varies and they are closed on random days. I passed on the brownies and iced coffees and instead opted for a chicken wrap and a soda. It was a good spot to wash my face off with some cold water.

Not bad for a bite
Not bad for a bite

After a nice lengthy break we got back on the trail. There was a little bit of wild life on the trail.

Mr rabbit
Mr rabbit

And there was some more further down the road.

A million deer
A million deer

This stretch of the trail has a lot of cool gnome homes and weird little decorations along the trail. I enjoyed all of the little things that people built or put out on the trail. Apparently in 2014 the Hunterdon County rangers had received enough complaints about all of the magical gnomes that they went out and collected almost everything up to throw out into the garbage. I understand that some of the stuff may have been unsightly but the magical fun feeling of this part of the trail was one of my favorite parts of the trail. I guess since the 2014 event there has been some sort of understanding amongst the people and the enforcement because there were once again things on the trail and everything I saw was pretty tasteful. If you’re visiting the Columbia Trail for it’s epic nature, you’re probably doing a lot of things wrong with your life. If you have a problem with Mr. T-rex and you want to ruin the lives of little children you probably are a horrible person.

Mr. T
Mr. T

Carrying on we got to yet another bridge. It’s a bit high up, but not outrageously high. I normally would hate the fence over this bridge as it’s so absurdly overprotective. We all know if you go over the edge of a bridge you probably will be hurt. You don’t need a fence to hold you back. In this case the lighting and the fence provided a nice shot. It almost looks like you are going into some unknown dark portal of the trail.

Portal
Portal

I remember seeing some flowers earlier in the trail and I was thinking how I wanted to photograph them as they were gorgeous. I only saw about three of them before I had the chance. I didn’t see them again for about ten miles until towards the end of the trail where we ran into another patch of them. I really should have used the macro lens here to get a nice shot but I was too lazy to switch lenses and didn’t want to keep the guys waiting while I messed around with the photography. So I like this wildflower but the picture really should be a lot better.

Wild flower
Wild flower

So overall we ended up hiking 16 miles. Including the two breaks we hiked for 7 hours. That put us around 26 minutes per mile or 2.3 mph with about 40 pounds packs on our back on a very easy trail without much elevation or difficult terrain. I burned over 4,000 calories and apparently lost 7 liters of water. It was definitely a good little workout.

Endomondo stats for the win
Endomondo stats for the win

The body held up reasonably well. A bit of soreness or pain and the beginning of some blisters but overall nothing to complain about. Sixteen miles has to be the longest I have ever moved in one day on foot. I can’t recall any other day in my life in which I walked for 7 hours.

Overall I’m happy to have gotten through these sixteen miles without too much pain. It was a good hike to get the body ready for the New Jersey portion of the Appalachian Trail later on in September.

Iconic Delaware Water Gap

Backpacking at Delaware Water Gap

Since my last backpacking trip I decided to pick up some gear of my own. One reason is because a couple of the guys from my last trip want to hike the portion of the Appalachian Trail all the way across New Jersey in September over the period of about eleven days. Another reason is because backpacking opens up some options with travel. Being able to have four or five days of food, clothing and shelter in a bag that you can carry anywhere allows you to see a lot for a little. Another reason would be that hiking and backpacking allow you to get into some beautiful parts of the world that simply aren’t accessible via any other way than to physically walk to them.

In order to try to attempt this trip in September I need to put some miles on my new gear and on my body so that I’ll be ready for such an extensive trip. So when my buddy reached out to me for an overnight kayaking trip I decided I would spend the day before it by myself testing out my gear.

The location for the kayaking trip would be the Delaware Water Gap. It’s an area I’ve wanted to check out for some time as it has some of the nicest views in our area.

I was looking to get about eight miles of hiking with my pack and to find an overnight place to camp out. It was taking a little time to figure it out online so I figured I would just ask at the visitors center. My first stop was the Pennsylvania Welcome Center. I asked where I could hike eight miles and where I could stay overnight. The lady I talked to said she had no idea where I would be able to do that. She suggested I go 5 minutes to Kittatinny Point Visitor Center or 35 minutes to Dingmans Falls Visitor Center. I went over to Kittatinny.

The rangers there were much more useful. They showed me where I could hike, where I could camp, and where I could park my car for the overnight trip. The hike would be from the Kittatinny Point Visitor Center to the Red Dot (Tammany) Trail. After climbing the Red Dot I would move on to descend the Blue-blaze Trail. From there I would ascend up a leg of the Appalachian Trail up to Sunfish Pond. Finally I would set up camp about a mile back down the Appalachian Trail on the Douglas Trail at an area that is designated for overnight campers.

The Red Dot is a nice hike. It’s rated “difficult” on the park’s website, but that rating is relative. It’s 1.2 miles and the elevation rise is 1250 feet along some pretty rocky terrain. It’s a bit strenuous but plenty of different people with all sorts of different levels of experience seemed to be hiking it. The terrain can be rather rocky at times. Hiking up this with my full backpack was certainly a good workout.

Red dot gets a bit steep
Red dot gets a bit steep

The trail provides you with some iconic views of the Delaware Water Gap. I missed taking pictures of one of them because I had initially planned on descending back down the Red Dot and figured I would shoot it on my way back down. As always with pictures you should get the shot when you have a chance. The following shot is Mount Minsi of Pennsylvania along with the Delaware River as shot from the top of Mount Tammany of New Jersey. As a quick side note I never realized how big of a river this was. The 388-mile Delaware River forms borders between PA and NY, the entire border between NJ and PA, and most of the border between DE and NJ. Wilmington, Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton and Easton all touch the river at some point.

Iconic Delaware Water Gap
Iconic Delaware Water Gap

After enjoying the sights of the Red Dot Trail, it was time to descend back down the Blue-blaze Trail. The 1.7-mile descent has much more gradual than the Red Dot’s incline. The hike passed without any issues. The hike then switched onto the Appalachian Trail for another 1000 foot incline over 3.4 miles out to Sunfish Pond. The pond was alright. There is a sign out front of it declaring it as one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey. I never knew NJ had a list of natural wonders but apparently they are the Delaware Water Gap, Great Falls of the Passaic River, High Point State Park, New Jersey Shoreline, Palisades, Pine Barrens, and Sunfish Pond. That’s not the best looking list, but certainly Sunfish Pond doesn’t belong on any top seven list. I dunno. Here’s a picture of it. It’s nice, but it’s a rather mild looking for a wonder.

Sunfish Pond
Sunfish Pond

After checking out the pond I hiked about a mile down the AT to the Douglas Trail where I would be setting up camp for the night. It was my first time setting this tent up. It setup without much of an issue. I cooked up some Thai curry vegetables and rice. It was pretty tasty for one of those dehydrated food packs. I added a couple bars, some pepperoni, and trail mix and tossed the rest of my food in a bear box that was a reasonable distance away.

My first overnight by myself
My first overnight by myself

Parking, trail access, and overnight parking is all free here. So technically I guess you can have this view for $0 per night. Especially since I have gear enough for two people and if I’m driving anyways then it would cost nothing to bring someone along. So if anyone is interested in jamming something like this, even if I don’t know you, feel free to hit me up.

Backyard for the night
Backyard for the night

A ranger came to visit me to explain where the water was and to use the bear boxes. She said there haven’t really been bears in the area much. I told her it was my first time overnighting by myself and I was a bit unsure whether I would be able to survive the night but she told me I would be fine. I ventured off to grab some water from the stream that she recommended. It was nice to crack out my water filter for the first time. The water seemed a bit sketchy but it was running and it is what she recommended so I used it. It ended up being alright but it’s a bit weird grabbing water from a stream in the middle of the woods and filtering it yourself. It’s a far cry from the luxury of the civilized world where unlimited drinkable water can be flicked on at any time or purchased at any store for a few cents.

I spent the rest of the night slowly getting ready for bed, as I was a bit tired from the long hike. The night was pretty uneventful. I woke up a couple times here or there. But for the most part the sound of crickets and nature had me in a deep sleep. I think I may have heard an animal breathing in the middle of the night but I’m not sure I did.

Eventually morning came. I woke up at 530 because I had to break everything down and then hike 3.8 miles back down to my car to meet up with the group that I would be going kayaking and canoeing with. As I was packing up another camper came over and told me that there were bears last night. He said he saw one about 20 yards from my tent. He says he thinks one followed him from the outhouse to his tent in the middle of the night. I’m not certain I believe the story but maybe there was a bear or two. He was a nice kid regardless and we had a good talk.

I hit the trail a couple minutes later than I wanted to but still early enough that I would be able to meet up on time if I hustled. The hike was downhill and the footing became easier and easier with each step. I was definitely the first person on that stretch of the AT that morning as I kept running into singular strands of spider webs that lay across the track. I got about halfway through the hike and the spider silk was becoming a bit annoying. I finally saw a girl walking up the trail. We said good morning. I added “I knocked down all of the spider webs for you.” She seemed a bit puzzled at what I had said until she realized what I meant. She thanked me and then said “oh, and I knocked down all of the spider webs for you too.” I thought that was a cute moment. People who are into all this nature stuff generally have seemed to be ultra chill so far.

Soon after I saw a deer poke its head out of the brush and onto the trail. It was maybe a hundred yards down. It paused. I paused as well. The way the lighting was and the serenity of that deer poking its head out onto the trail was for some reason a beautiful moment. I went to open my camera bag to grab my zoom lens but as soon as the velcro peeled the deer hopped back in the direction that it came from. I guess deer out here have very sensitive hearing.

The trail continued with a few more people here and there as the day grew older and the trail got closer to the parking lot. Eventually I made it to my car. I swung out to meet up with the group I’d be hanging with. There was one kid I used to work with and five other characters who all seemed like a fun time. I could not believe the amount of gear these guys had for a single overnight trip. Several coolers with all sorts of cold drinks and food that needed refrigeration, several ways to cook food including a spare grills, I think three six-man tents, luxury foldable lawn chairs. Basically everything that goes against keeping weight and space to a minimum ha. Eventually we got all of the gear on the shuttle. The shuttle ride over to the launch ramp was full of nonsense as I got to know the guys.

Eventually we loaded the canoes and kayaks with our gear and hopped in to get the trip started. Here’s a cliche kayak shot going down some body of water. I hate kayak shots like this. You see them on people’s instagrams and whatnot all the time. I also kind of hate how most people shoot and display a lot of travel/backpacking stuff in general. It just always seems so cliche and braggy and overly happy and shallow and simplistic. It often has some stupid quote from some famous traveler, author, or anonymous in some disgusting font. And the pictures are always overcontrasted and oversaturated. I dunno. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Gross
Gross

Travel/backpacking/life is never like this. It’s full of a lot of challenging moments. It’s full of a lot of difficulties and annoyances. It’s a lot of work and there are a lot of trials. Sometimes you wonder why you’re doing it or wondering whether you’ll be able to get through it. I think a lot of the times you will end up alright. But pictures likes this are infuriating. Don’t make stuff like this. Don’t double tap stuff this. I mean you’re not a bad person if you like this picture. Actually you are. You are a terrible person. There’s no need to involve Krakauer, Thoreau (or Theroux), or Muir in this. I’d much rather prefer reading a paragraph you wrote or talking about your trip over a beer. The following is the same picture done much more in a style I agree with that I think most people will tragically like a lot less. It’s still photoshopped. It’s still a lie. It’s still just another cheesy kayak picture.

Do it for the gram
Do it for the gram

Remember that Emerson quote I posted before? It was just a cheesy adventure quote I grabbed from online, and wasn’t supposed to have a meaning to this write-up. But I have to go back to it for just a quick moment. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” My hatred of quotes like this is the lack of context, the overall worthlessness of practical application, and the immediate head nodding that happens when people hear it. Would you agree or disagree with this quote? I suppose I could divert into a long rambling here but I’ll leave this to only a couple pros and cons and a reference to the trip. I like that the quote says to be innovative. Try things that haven’t been done before. But I also hate that the quote says to not follow any roads or paths. Many of the great treasures of the world are accessible via large roads because they’re amazing. A lot of the world that doesn’t have paths is because it’s just not that spectacular or interesting.

I had two campsites on this trip. One was along the Appalachian Trail, pretty much one of the most famous hiking trails in the world. The other was our kayaking campsite that we had to row to because it had no path. It was on a tiny island that had no areas to explore. We literally had to use machetes to cut our own path and leave our own trail. The camping site on the Appalachian Trail was clearly a lot nicer. Gorgeous views, trails to explore, there was even running water and a primitive bathroom. The camping site along the Delaware River had only a small view of the river, no trails to explore, no water to drink or place to shit. I’m not saying either one was better or worse than the other. They were both great and the contrast was appreciated. But following Emerson’s quote too rigorously would lead you to missing out on many beautiful things that life has to offer. It’s ok to follow paths and it’s also ok to leave your own trail. Do both. But as always with this stuff there’s no proof Emerson ever said the quote in the first place. So good luck even trying to identify things like context, etc. that are critical to try to get anything useful out of it. Sigh.

Kayaking a little over eleven miles was great. We ran into a couple raindrops but ultimately avoided too many mishaps. None of the kayaks or canoes tipped over although we did have one man go overboard at one point. We tried to get this one campsite on the Pennsylvania side that the group had got the first year but it was occupied this year. So we drifted along to a nearby island to setup shop. Setting up camp went without much difficulty.

I guess I needed some filler in this story, and that was the purpose of that rambling, as I have no pictures from kayaking to breakfast the next morning. There was a lack of things to do on the secluded island. There was a lot of drug use and people got pretty chill. It’s not exactly my style but I’m not trying to fuck up rotation either. I at first didn’t mind sitting glued to my seat for several hours as I was a bit beat from the eight miles of hiking the day before, the four miles of hiking earlier this morning, and the eleven miles of kayaking in the day. But eventually it got a bit tiresome being a prisoner on an island and being incapable of moving on to something more exciting.

Eventually morning came, and with it some more delicious food. The day before brought chicken tacos and steaks. This morning it was time for pork roll, egg, and cheeses. Well we forgot the cheese, but the rest of it was there. It kind of blows my mind that these guys are eating this good on this trip. It makes sense with all the gear that they brought but I’m more used to a world of dehydrated eggs or just having some beef jerky and trail mix to start the day off. One luxury I do bring backpacking is coffee. It’s nice to have a cup and provides something to do when you’re done setting up camping or relaxing in the morning before you head out for a long day of hiking. Also I can’t believe this is such a bad picture of pork roll but so it goes sometimes when you’re sloppy behind the lens.

Different kind of camping
Different kind of camping

After we fueled up and broke down camp and loaded up the kayaks and canoes we hopped back in for another five-mile paddle back to the parking lot. The weather today was nicer. The clouds, which provided sun protection the day before, yielded to provide some gorgeous views. Here’s another shot with a kayak in it, since you know I am so fond of them. I really like how clear the water is at some points. Being able to look down at fish, grasses, and textures of the river floor is rather beautiful. We kept an eye to sky to try to see some bald eagles like we did the day before but we had to settle for watching some hawks hunt.

I hate shots like this
I hate shots like this

Kayaks and canoes are pretty cool because you can just paddle here or there and tie off and go exploring. It’s neat being on the Delaware River as you can bounce back and forth from NJ to PA quicker than a car would even be able to.

Getting around
Getting around

The guys wanted to do a jump off of a cliff that they have done in previous years. Apparently the first time they attempted the 35ish-foot jump they kind of looked down at the water and guessed it was deep enough. The casualty of risking serious injury is impressive. Depths in this area seem to vary between deep and shallow significantly and to dive without verifying the depth seems insane. You also need a good clean jump to be able to clear the base of the cliff here. We had three of the seven successfully complete the jump. Props to those guys for getting it done. I was happy to use the excuse that I was better suited to try to take some awesome pictures than performing the jump myself.

These boys are crazy
These boys are crazy

After the jump we hopped back in the canoes and caught a nice drift that swung us underneath the Delaware Water Gap Toll Bridge and back to the Kittatinny Visitor Center where our adventure would end. We unpacked our gear, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.

Here are the endomondo stats from the two days of kayaking. For whatever reason my phone wasn’t cooperating on all of the hikes so I won’t be posting the partial data from that. Unfortunately that’s the data I’m more interested in as I’d like to know how I’m doing so that I can get ready for this longer trip in September.

Kayaking 16 miles
Kayaking 16 miles

I don’t really know if there are many takeaways from this trip. I was happy with how carrying, setting up, and breaking down my gear went as it was my first time with a lot of that equipment. I used a lot of what I learned when I was out at Round Valley and everything went smoothly. I removed a couple pieces from my pack when I got back that I don’t think I’ll use in the future to save a little space and weight, but overall I was pretty happy with all of my gear and how everything worked out. You don’t really need all that much to survive and there are plenty of luxury items that I’m happy carrying in my pack to make life on the trail a bit more enjoyable.

I was a bit surprised by how chill I was with hiking and setting up camp and sleeping by myself. Pretty much at no point was I physically or mentally uncomfortable with the overnight backpacking trip by myself. It kind of just felt like life as usual.

I liked the group I hung with on the second day. It’s not a group I would seek out to hang out with but they taught me some important things. They’re all doing the best that they can and to hear some of their stories or to see some of their hidden skills was cool. Some of them definitely are living a great life compared to where they came from. You could see there are layers and layers of complexity in these people that just are completely invisible upon first glance. In many ways their progress as an individual has exceeded mine. I had a great time with you guys.

I guess finally coming home to my little place on the border of Asbury Park and Ocean Grove felt like home more than it ever has. I’m not sure why as I was really comfortable sleeping in the woods. But for some reason driving home and slowly being caressed by that ocean breeze and getting back into the beautiful mess that is summer at the shore were comforting.