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May 2013: The Deer Tick Gauntlet (Pine Barrens)

To celebrate Memorial Day and my last free weekend until mid-July (thanks to a course I'd be taking) I wanted to make one more overnight getaway. This time I was supposed to go with a fellow Troll-riding buddy from Philly, but he was sick and had to bail. It's a shame - camping trips are always more fun with company - but I'm getting used to doing them solo, again.

The Pine Barrens are a curious place. Generally, after two days there, I've pretty much had my fill of the scenery (which is quite monotonous) and have no interest in seeing more of it, to say nothing of how tired I am of slogging across sandy stretches at 4mph. But once I've been away from these woods for a few months, I always start coming up with reasons to go back. Wharton State Forest is, after all, a respectably-sized expanse of wilderness within striking distance of Philadelphia, and there are always more destinations to shoot for that I haven't managed to see yet.

This time, I decided the goal would be to cover lots of ground and get further into the woods than I had on any previous trip. One landmark amid the pine-and-shrub homogeny was Apple Pie Hill, an unusual spot of elevation with an old fire tower on top. This was to be the trip's goal. Once I'd reached that, I would head south and try to make it to Batsto, that fabled place where camping permits were handed out (not that I would be getting one; reaching Batsto before the first nightfall was out of the question given my late start).

Back in the woods with a slightly augmented bike setup (see the end of this entry 
for details if you care)

Much of the forest is passable only by the pre-carved roads, paths and trails that have 
been hacked through the thick, presumably tick-infested underbrush, seen to 
the left and right here

This trip was also defined by a rather extreme paranoia regarding deer ticks. This is the height of their season, and the Pine Barrens are reputedly thick with them. My fears were stoked by someone on a forum who lived in the Jersey woods and refused to go in to the Pine Barrens between April and November for fear of the Lyme-bearing multitudes. I'd been out here in August, October, and December before and never had problems, but for some reason I fixated on the possibility of deer ticks latching onto me. This particular variety of tick, which is apparently responsible for most cases of Lyme disease, is also tiny - much harder to spot than the larger dog ticks you might casually flick off your pants - and I'd heard stories of hundreds or thousands of them being cleaned off a person after a brief bushwhacking session.

To counter this menace, I bought some permethrin spray and treated my clothes with it the night before the trip. This type of chemical warfare is supposed to stay deadly to insects and arachnids for weeks and through several machine washings, while becoming harmless to humans as soon as it dries. I've heard many people swear by it, so I thought this was a good time to try it out. It may have worked -I only found one dog tick on me, and didn't spot any of the littler guys, despite making several forays onto narrow trails amid thick bushes and grass. I'm still on the lookout for bullseye rashes though...

Hoofprints. Horses: Ruining trails ever since bikes were invented. At least this group hadn't seen fit 
to poop all over the path

Occasional oaks interrupt the pitch-pine tedium

The single biggest reason I get sick of riding here: Sand traps, seemingly every few meters, 
require frequent hike-and-bike sessions

Unidentified flora in a forest clearing

Tannin tea

The Barrens' many rivers and ponds are often stained rusty-red. Initially, I assumed this had to do with iron deposits - the area was a source of "bog iron;" for this reason the woods are filled with the ruins of towns abandoned in the last century, before which it was far more heavily populated and trafficked on account of the iron industry. However, this red color is thanks to the tannins exuded by many tree roots. Despite the aversive color, the water here is generally great - the Pine Barrens is divided between the Atlantic Ocean watershed and that of the Delaware River, so water flows only out, not in. That means these headwater streams, protected by miles of forest, contain wonderfully clean water.

I don't know my herbaceous species, but here's a nice flower

Dinner. Note the awkward, lopsided situation of the dry bag in my handlebar sling. Not only did the 
front-heavy weight distribution make handling problematic off-road, it also seemed insecure with
 the quilt listing off to one side like that. I need a better way of arranging this

For dinner, I'd gotten lazy again and brought freeze-dried food. After my last experience with discovering that a $6.50, "serves two" package from Mountain House was not even enough to feed me, this time I'd picked out the option with the best weight-to-price ratio. This was a rice and bean mix, $4.50 for about 6oz before rehydration. I planned to supplement it with onions and green squash. This turned out to be a much better choice, and is probably just as cheap as bringing all my own food and cooking from scratch.

I'd still like to find a good supplier for buying freeze-dried food in bulk, though; partly to save money and partly because the meal-size packs you buy in stores all come in a fancy insulated pouch for rehydrating the food, which has to have more of an ecological footprint than just a simple ziploc bag.

The field near where I ate dinner was inhabited by a flock of turkey vultures. Quite shy of humans, 
unfortunately for photography, but I still managed to get one half-decent shot

Late May means plenty of evening light

I camped next to Atsion Lake, as I have become accustomed to doing; this time it was a little ways 
west of my previous spot

I was within easy earshot of the cabins full of families out for the holiday weekend, just on the other 
side of the lake, but this spot still felt nature-y enough

If only I'd had my DSLR! This is the best the Powershot G12 could do at photographing this bird 
(another vulture) that alit on a treetop across the lake

In the morning, a photogenic passerby made a pit stop on my water bottle

Apple Pie Hill-bound, I forged northeast across the woods. My navigational materials were sorely lacking: A GPS basemap is quite useful in many ways, but for finding your way someplace, it requires either a carefully pre-plotted route, or good paper maps. I didn't have the latter - a stop by the Atsion ranger station had left me only with a vague, scale-less line drawing of some of the main dirt roads in the forest. It didn't show any of the smaller paths, and even its coverage of the large roads seemed spotty and questionable. 

My attempts to follow it were thwarted several times by washed-out sections of path. When a stream crosses one of the sandy roads, it creates a large pool, often a foot or more deep, and of the kind that I had no desire to cross without a change of footwear. When I came to one of these that was also surrounded by impenetrable bush on either side, I was left with no good option but to backtrack and try my luck somewhere else. This happened a couple of times before I gave up and decided to head for paved roads that I knew would at least bring me close to my destination.

One of the boggy pools that stopped me in my tracks. Some preliminary scouting confirmed that
 there was no way to drag a loaded bike around this one.

My attempts to reach a paved road led me into strange places, like this cleared bog-type area, from 
which I eventually had to turn back

And into a large cranberry farm, where I had to change a flat

If I'd had a good map, I'd have seen a way to cut straight through the cranberries to Chatsworth 
Road, my goal; but I ended up winding my way out through a back entrance through this eerie
 junk depository

...thwarted and reduced to backtracking once again...

After winding through roads with names like Butterworth Bogs, Bozarthtown, Goosepond, and the 
like,  all vacillating between dirt and paved, I finally reached this main route - and was shocked to see 
bike lanes! The riding here was easy and the wind seemed to be at my back in both directions - the 
perfect conditions for hammering out fast miles while belting out Old Crow Medicine Show songs 
at the top of my lungs. A great break from the slow, sandy push through the woods

Another good guess at which dirt road to follow off the paved route, and I was soon scaling
 the steep sides of Apple Pie Hill, to find the fire tower. It was more isolated and deserted
 than I'd expected (I pictured a tourist attraction) but that was just fine with me

One family was here, trying to convince their small daughter to climb higher than the first landing 
or so - without success. I defied my fear of heights and got as high as I could before hitting the 
locked top level

What can I's a view. It looks like a texture, carelessly applied to a flat surface, from a circa-1999 
computer game. Philadelphia was actually visible off in the distance, as was a single solitary mountain-looking 
ridge to the northeast, but otherwise, this was what I saw in every direction

I reached the fire tower only at about 2:30 pm, and had quite a few miles to cover to reach Lindenwold, so I scrapped my plans of getting to Batsto or any other destination. Instead, I retraced my steps along the roads I'd followed, then along some new ones, to come back to Atsion Lake. After that it was a surprisingly long and difficult ride through the woods to get out of the State Forest. I'd hoped to cut down on the time by following a straight road, only to find that it was a hopelessly sandy mess, so I returned to singletrack and smaller paths. I'd heard rumors that in warmer weather, the sand is less firm and thus harder to ride on, and it seemed to me that the riding on the way back out was much more grueling than it had been along the same paths on the way in. I'm sure my exhaustion contributed to this, as well. I've rarely been more relieved to reach pavement, though.

Once I reached Lindenwold, I was getting quite hungry - I hadn't felt like eating oatmeal in the morning (it was already pretty hot by the time I got going) and had depleted all my other food supplies. By the time I got back to Philly, I was in a fairly delirious state of famishment. I solved this with a feeding frenzy on a lamb shawarma from Saad's. One of the best things I've ever tasted.

Some gear notes: My setup this time was similar to the French Creek trip, but with less spare 
clothing and the addition of this little saddlebag. I grabbed it on sale from Jandd, who had it on 
clearance for 9 bucks including shipping. It's pretty handy - holds my rain jacket, windshirt, pillow, 
and towel quite nicely. Although given the lopsided nature of my handlebar sling, I may have been 
better off putting those items in the dry bag up front, instead

I'd also given up on getting the Two Fish bottle cages to stay firmly attached using their 
velcro system, which was a disappointment. I should have just done in the first place
 what I ended up doing - hose clamping the cages to the fork like this

Hose clamps are about a buck fifty at your hardware store, and easily fasten bottle cages to 
forks or any other bike tubing. Just protect the paint with a strip of inner tube and you're good 
to go. The Two Fish cages themselves seem quite sturdy; it's the attachment system that's 
lacking. Still, I could have saved myself fifteen or twenty bucks by just buying solid cages 
and hose clamps in the first place