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Mid-March is an unusual time for a "warm-up" hike

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But the weather was perfect, and I wanted to ensure that (1) my equipment was still present, operating, and organized; (2) my body was still operating; and (3) I hadn't lost my zest. Happy to report everything went well.

Safest way to test all equipment is to do an easy overnight -- park at a trail head reasonably close to a shelter, hike there, spend the night, and return. Nothing fancy or strenuous, but that's the POINT. If something fails to work, or you forgot to pack something, or you forgot a lesson you SHOULD have learned; then the worst thing to happen is that you spend an uncomfortable night.
For example, on one of the first of such hikes, I forgot the hose for my water filter, and thus had to get by with 32 ounces of water. Fun? No. Allowed me to make a BIG mistake with minor consequences? Yes.

As usual, I simply looked at the guide book with the question, "Where have not yet hiked, but would easily be able to do so over one night?" I noted that I have not done the section from Pennsylvania Highway 850 north to Duncannon, and that halfway between the two is Cove Mountain Shelter (formerly named for Thelma Marks). It looked pretty straightforward to simply hike the 4.9 miles from PA-850 to the shelter, settle down, hike (without the pack) to Hawk Rock Overlook, return to the shelter, and then return to PA-850. There would be some elevation gain, but not a lot, and certainly no scrambling up or down a rock slope.

Had no trouble getting from Philly to the parking area on PA 850, and the trail is easy to follow. NOTE THE VERB in this infinitive! I said, "follow;" not "walk on." As anyone experienced with Pennsylvania hiking can attest, just north of PA-850 is where the Keystone State's AT-nickname as "Rocksylvania" begins. These photos


give some idea of what your feet will be going against on this section.

When planning to stop at any shelter, you naturally keep looking for a blue-blazed trail. If, like me, you get REALLY excited at finally seeing blue blazes; be aware that NOBOs will see such a trail BEFORE the one that actually goes to Cove Mountain Shelter. This blue-blazed trail goes "west," steeply downhill, and has no signage. It is not mentioned in the Thru-Hikers Companion, but another book says it "leads steeply down to a Duncannon Water Co. service road." The trail to the shelter has very good signage, and goes "east."

The Cove Mountain Shelter -- actually, the entire Trail on this day -- was completely empty. For me this was a blessing, as even one other person ruins the isolation that I so enjoy on the Trail. So, for the first time in many stays, I slept within a shelter even though I had a tent. I had read about the porcupine that is literally eating the shelter to pieces, so took extra care to keep food outside.

Blogs from last year noted my discovery of a peculiarity of the first few days of back-packing -- your appetite actually goes way DOWN. Knowing this, I took very little food for my dinner, doing quite well with only a cup of "add hot water and stir" noodles. There being no wind this evening, I tried out the Super Cat stove
that I had made just a month ago. It worked FAR better than my pop-can stove, and I have thus decided to use the Cat from now on.
Fully aware that the Super Cat has problems in windy conditions, my brain, for the rest of the hike, went through ideas for building wind screens.

With no tent to set up, dinner done just before dusk, and no reading material (the trail log book had been ravished by the local critters); I decided to end the day with a call to "Shuttle;" and hit the hay (well, actually wood) about 8 pm. My sleep that night was probably the best I've ever gotten within a shelter, despite hearing the porcupine continuing its feasting on the shelter.

It wasn't the bird calls that woke me up, it was the construction site down below. But this combination allowed me to get an early start of breakfast, re-packing, leaving the backpack at the shelter, and taking a walk to Hawk Rock. I got some pretty good photos while there

(sorry about the double posting!!)

as well as one from the pipeline corridor at the Cove Mountain crest

No problem returning to the parking area and then driving home. After a winter of minimal walking, my body COULD have been in better shape. But, for someone celebrating his 58th birthday in less than three weeks, I feel good that I had no significant body aches or angina during the walk. As always, I only set records for SLOWEST hiker on the trail -- a real come-down for someone who used to take pride in the briskness of his walking pace -- but, at this point, I'll take whatever speed I can handle. 2012 will continue my slow assault on the miles.