The Beauty of Inherited Gear

The microwave beeped and the comforting bitter smell of tea wafted from the kitchen. I was sitting at the kitchen table holding a checklist that had “Pre-O Packing Check List” written in bold comic sans printing across the top. The page was still damp and flimsy from the printer, and the check mark boxes running down the margin of the page were empty.

On the warm tiled floor there were two plastic boxes, a Coleman two burner stove, four sleeping pads, two dented cook sets, and three sleeping bags. The boxes were big enough that they blocked the back door completely, and my dog was sitting outside watching me through the glass as I rummaged through musty gear. I grabbed a couple bandanas, my boots, my multi tool, and the other essentials and the check marks multiplied on my page as the plastic boxes emptied.  The paper that had been pressed flush against the front of the box by all the items inside fell flat on the bottom and it read “Willa’s Camping Gear” in my mom’s neat almost-got-an-art-degree handwriting.

The pile I’d made in front of me was of the gear that had lived with me through thunderstorms on islands, hail in august, waist-deep mud, and early morning tea that steamed like the lake in the rising sun. The soles of my boots had begun peeling off two summers before and my ankle bones had made indents in the sides like punched-out ice skates. My favorite trail shirt never realized that it had gotten washed, and the ball cap I’d received as a gift from a family friend was browner than it was white. I loved that gear, and of course it came with me on my pre-orientation backpacking trip, but I didn’t have everything that I’d need.

When you think of backpacking, the one most obvious piece of gear is a backpack. I’d never taken one on a canoe trip before, so I didn’t have one of my own and I wasn’t sure how to go about getting one. I had been packing up equipment with my mom when she looked around and asked if I wanted to take one of ours. I hadn’t even realized we owned backpacks, let alone 70 liter packs. She went down to our basement, and behind the old firewood and the bins of random art supplies like her tiling tools, she pulled out two packs. One was a forest green, and the other was a royal blue one. The packs were made from a durable nylon material, and obviously well before I was born. The straps were made of some heavy foam covered in the same nylon fabric, and sewn together so that they could last through anything. There were no fancy hip pockets, or light weight frame material. There was no breathable mesh backing like you can find on many packs now, and the zippers were at least a half inch wide. My mom had used the pack when she went backpacking and white water kayaking and canoe tripping in her free time. It was older than I was, made to last through hell and beyond, and it was royal. The plain dark blue pack had lived through so many adventures that I had never heard about, and it held so many stories that I’d never even thought to ask my mom if she’d been on. It was a relic from a part of her life that my sister and I had never been a part of.

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My mom, sitting in front of her backpack after a long trek. 

I’ve read more than a few articles about the best pack for extended trips, and how important it is to find the pack that works for you but I don’t think that’s true. Of course when it comes to gear you should find something that fits appropriately, but no matter what pack you get it’s going to hurt. Especially for backpacking–you’ll have bruises on your collar bones and your hips will chafe. Having a nice mesh webbing on your shoulders may feel good for the first couple of days, but you’ll end up in the same boat as every other backpacker by the end. Since the bells and whistles will wear out and break off, why not go simple to start? My mom’s pack is simple, durable, and rich with history. I would take that over any other option any day because I can add something tangible to it. The history of the royal blue pack keeps growing, and I hope it grows long after I stop going to the trails.


A photo of me (right) and Rachel Lorenc (left) on the Appalachian Trail during pre orientation. I hiked my first 50 miles with my mom’s pack during the pre-orientation trip.

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My mom with the same pack, which was slightly less faded back then.


North Carolina and the Spring Break Top Rope Adventure

I hope you all had a great spring break and past couple of years! This is the first blog of many on the revived JHOC blog page, and what better way to start but with a recount of one of the awesome training trips that happened over spring break!

           Me (Right), Peter (Middle), and Erin (Left) at the beginning of the week, all still clean!

Luke, also at the beginning of the week.

(We didn’t have a photo of just the four of us, so he gets his own)

We went climbing at Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, so it was quite the drive (almost 6 hours) and the background country music was punctured frequently by people shouting “Cow!” or “Church!” or “Graveyard!” And more than a few stops at Sheetz. If you’ve never been to a Sheetz, you can think of it as a McDonald’s, crossed with a Holiday gas station, crossed with a high tech mini smoothie shop. There’s a machine that will blend your smoothies for you! (And no, it’s not a blender. It’s something way cooler than that). Make sure to go there if you’re ever road tripping on the east coast!

After the drive we got to camp, set up, and hiked up to the cliffs to learn about set ups. When we got to Three Bear’s Gulley (the area we were going to climb in) there was a helicopter flying above us.Some rangers were doing rescue and evac training that morning, so instead of setting up ropes we watched them repel from helicopters like secret service people. It was a great introduction to what we would be doing for the next week—repelling, climbing, and generally doing cool things.

Rebecca, one of our instructors for the trip and a Sophomore OP Climber,

on her way down from flashing a climb! (Can’t remember the grade, sorry)

Erin (Flying) and Aine (Basing) doing acroyoga at our campsite!

            After the first day we learned how to set up natural anchors (where you tie ropes to rees), artificial anchors (where you place little cool miracles of engineering that can hold a lot of force) and bolted anchors (for when the park service is nice enough to drill bolts into rocks). There were lots of serious moments, sitting on the edge of a cliff and setting up rigs with five different ropes, like Rose is doing here:

Rose, an OP Climber, setting up a bolted anchor system

But we had fun, too! At camp each night we played card games, told stories, and made s’mores. Each group had its own experimental brownie adventure (one group didn’t bring brownie mix, so their brownies were actually a hodge podge of pancake mix, hot chocolate mix, Nutella, and Fluff). We practiced knot tying when setting up tarps over our picnic tables, and practiced our relaxing when hanging out in hammocks.

Zooey was really into his oatmeal for the first couple of days

            The view was fantastic to match the people, and I think we can all say that the week away from school and homework was worth it.

Even Andrew (our boss), although he ate most of our chocolate for the trip.

Written by Willa


Racing Winter Weather

My relationship with winter evolved a lot this year, I’d say. That’s largely due to the fact that I’m training for a half-marathon with my wonderful friend Camilla (a fellow JHOC-er). It’s us and our tennis shoes against the wind, cold, and slush that characterizes late-winter Baltimore.


You could say we’re twin-ish.

I don’t dislike snow, and I’m not afraid of the cold–I am a hardcore Michigander originally. But there’s something just plain annoying about being penned inside on a treadmill by windchills of 7 degrees. Come on. Anything more than two miles on a treadmill=torture.


Seriously. Torture.

Needless to say I run outside as much as possible. This sometimes means shifting around my training schedule to aim for warmer days, running in the afternoons (yak:mornings are definitely superior!), and layering like crazy. It also means growing accustomed to an endless stream of snot running down your face. (Maybe I could contact Kleenex about sponsorship potentials…) Camilla and I aren’t wimps: we’ve hiked many miles, fell off mountain bikes, crawled around in caves. But running becomes sort of sad when your face is what hurts the most (thank you sleet).


We ran across a bird extravaganza in Robert E. Lee! You never know what surprises nature will have for you. (Like the snow that started falling 5 minutes after this picture happened.)

As much as I might complain about the cold, I think it’s provided me with a lot more grit. Not only am I pushing myself physically (this is my first half: Camilla’s a vet, and it’ll be her second), but I’m doing it at a time when I might otherwise resign to the monotony of an elliptical or the confined craziness of a spin class.  Exercise in any form is awesome: you feel happier, grow stronger, sleep deeper. Exercise outside is just plain fun: you get all the same benefits, plus the therapeutic elements of the outdoors. It’s relaxing and refreshing and far more interesting than the inside of a building. The other day I got confused as to why I looked different–then I realized it’s because my freckles were coming out again. GO SUNSHINE!


This snowbank (supposedly a sidewalk) is 3 feet deep! Along it runs the river on North Charles St.

This morning I actually fell and banged my knee pretty hard. Hopefully I get a cool bruise as compensation. Last week was even crazier, though: we ran through the Great Melt on Sunday. My feet have never been that soaked. It was a lot of jumping into snowbanks to avoid being hit by cars (sidewalks were not cleared at all) and leaping over large pools of questionable slush. (Camilla’s very graceful, by the way. I think it’s her long legs–she’s got the gazelle leap down.)


Camilla looking happy mid-run–note the green grass behind. This was in the glory days (January).

Even though the weather makes me mad, trips me up, and sometimes forces Camilla and I into shorter runs or unintentional off-days, I still love the times I spend outside. This morning it was gorgeous–nine a.m., and people sleeping as snow fell lightly on the sidewalks. It felt so quiet though we are right in the city. Camilla’s eyebrows were encased in snowflakes, and when we got inside it looked as though we were crying because the snow on our eyelashes melted and ran down our faces.


Snow, not sweat.

 That’s one of the biggest reasons I love JHOC.  It offers us the opportunity to get outside when we might normally stay indoors due to laziness, or fear of snow, or just lack of ways to enjoy winter. We’ve already had caving and hiking trips–yes, they were chilly, but they were also AWESOME! Participants and leaders were completely gung-ho about getting outside even though the thermometer was a bit intimidating. So don’t let yourself be trapped by the cold: embrace it! Go for a run. Sign up for a trip. Have a snowball fight, or go sledding in kayaks.

All in all, winter is just another interesting facet in my quest to conquer the 13.1.  I’ll keep you updated; but hopefully I’ll be dumping winter for a final month of training with a very attractive spring.


Back to the Depths

“For instance, on the plane Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.” — Douglas Adams

There’s only one reason to be awake at 5:30 am on a Saturday morning in Baltimore: addiction. When I woke up that morning, I felt a brief pang of jealousy for the heroin addicts, after all, their habit seemed to be a whole lot cheaper. Well, the tickets had already been punched and the birds let out of the cage so I had no choice but to roll out of my warm bed and grab my bag of neoprene gear from the basement. A few hours later I was 50′ deep in water about as close to freezing as you can get.

It didn’t start with such excitement or frigid temperatures. Rather, it started, as many adventures seem to, sitting in a JHU SAC van stuck in traffic on 83 N. We were on our way to our first SCUBA certification class. Well, our first SSI Open Water Certification class. SCUBA, above any activity, presents a dazzling array of organizations, certifications, and other entities into which you can pour money. There’s PADI, which is the largest organization in the world, but whose reputation has been slipping in more recent years. Then there’s NAUI, which is limited to the US and whose Wikipedia page informs me that they have certified Kevin Costner, Cameron Diaz, and Tiger Woods. We went through SSI, Scuba Schools International, based on no criteria besides the convenient location and the inclination to not be associated with the same organization as Tiger Woods.

Once we made it through the traffic jam and the fender bender parked in the middle of 695, we arrived at Aqua Ventures, our SSI Certified Dive Shop (the SSI provided diving textbook is full of long-winded names like this. Your gear is not just your SCUBA gear, but rather your Total Diving System. Your logbook for recording your dives is not your dive log, but your SSI Total DiveLog). Once there, our four sessions each consisted of 2 hours of going over how to use SCUBA gear, and also going over what to do in emergency situations. We then went over to Goucher College pool and actually went SCUBA diving.

After looking at the pictures and videos in class of people diving with sharks and dolphins in some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, SCUBA diving in the Goucher pool was like a breakfast of plain oatmeal after a whiff of Cinnabon and bacon. And the plain oatmeal has dead spiders floating around it. And might have your fellow classmates peeing in it. But we made it through the hours of pretending to run out of air and swimming through hula hoops and got to the weekend of our SSI Open Water Recreational Certification Dive.

All the dives in the pool and the classroom session had lead up to this, a blustery fall morning in southern Pennsylvania. We walked into a cozy room which resembled a shrine to SCUBA, with the objects of worship replaced by “Dive Another Day” bumper stickers and kitschy garden statues. We paid our $40 entrance pass (an amazingly high amount considering the attractions were an old quarry with trash sunk to the bottom) and drove down to the waterfront.

Sarah getting prepped to dive

Sarah getting prepped to dive

Once we got down there we pulled out all of gear from the cars and laid them out onto the picnic tables. Thirty minutes later we were backing into the quarry water while our instructor “simulated” a wave by splashing us with water. Then we dove.

Your fearless writer prepared to dive

Your fearless writer prepared to dive

Humans left the water around 350 millions years ago, but some part of our brains is still down there. When you dive underwater, and the sunlight gets refracted and your only sense of up and down is the direction of your bubbles, it feels like home. Your breathing slows down, and the brain stops worrying about your Calculus problem set and your maxed out credit card. You focus on your next breath, and whether or not it’s considered poor form to pee in your wetsuit.

After what felt like both an eternity and a brief moment, our instructor gave us the signal to go back up. We ascended slowly and punctured through the top of the water back into the world. We all popped off our masks and rolled down our hoods but nobody said anything for a few seconds. Then our instructor popped back up. “How do y’all feel?” he asked through a huge smile, and everyone affirmed that they felt great.

The weekend continued with three more dives. We sat on toilets under the water, swam through a tunnel towards the light (in the literal sense thankfully), and fed fish from Zebra Mussels that we cracked open ourselves. Once the weekend was over, and we were removing our wetsuits and closing out our air tanks, there was only one thought on our minds: ‘when can we go again?” Well also we were wondering how soon could we eat, since cold water burns a lot of characters. But mostly we were wondering when we could go again. And I knew that my bank account would never be the same.

Caving on the other side of the world

I love caving. I first crawled into a cave my freshman year while learning how to lead trips. (JHOC leads trips to Jones Quarry Cave and Whiting’s Neck Cave, both in West Virginia.)

During spring break three years ago, four friends (Lainey, Jacob, Jillian, K-Bar) and I stayed at the famed “Bat Ranch” in Virginia, a hub for many different caves of varying degrees of difficulty and features. The trip cemented caving as one of my favorite outdoor activities.

Jillian, Dennis, K-Bar, Lainey, Jacob

Caves are awesome for many reasons:

  • They’re completely natural. Seeing the beauty of columns that formed over hundreds of thousands of years is breathtaking.

  • You never know what you’ll get. When you enter a cave, there is discovery around every bend. Is the cave going to open up into a vast room with high ceilings? Are we going to fit through that space?

Like a glove.

  • Turn out the lights…and your eyes never adjust. You won’t be able to see anything, because there is near-zero light entering the cave. It’s both meditative and terrifying.
  • You get dirty. Enough said.

A couple months ago this summer, I had the opportunity to go caving in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was at an orphanage (volunteering in exchange for food and board) for five weeks. At one point, I made friends with a trekking guide, Bikram. He brought me to Shanti Gupta (Peace Cave), a gated cave where Buddhist worshippers go to meditate. Immediately after the entrance sat a large Buddha statue and a collection of tiny stupas containing the ashes of dead loved ones.

Screenshot 2014-09-24 at 00.09.27

We proceeded only with the light of a candle each. While we brought a headlamp, we kept it off so as to not disturb bats and only turned it to take pictures. At tight crawl spaces, my breathing would blow my candle out and I’d have to relight it on Bikram’s. Although I’m used to caving with a helmet (which you should always wear), I was crawling about with nothing on my head and sandals on my feet.

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Bikram Karki – a true outdoorsman.

At the very end of the cave was an incredibly tight move, less than a foot high and a few feet wide. I got completely flat on my stomach and began shimmying through. It was so tight, my chest wouldn’t expand with my breathing, and while my waist made it through, my pants did not.

Screenshot 2014-09-24 at 00.12.56

This is a picture of a person with no pants on.

The move was well worth it, as a small space – just enough to sit cross-legged in – welcomed me. Beyond this room was a collapsed tunnel, and a headless Buddha statue. Legend has it that its head was made of gold; it was stolen and now resides somewhere in Tibet. In this space, worshippers would sit in the dark and meditate for hours.

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Headless Buddha

I was in Nepal for five weeks. Everything was different from my life in the US. One thing that felt the same? The magic of going into a cave for the first time. And on the other side of the planet, by going underground, I felt that much closer to home.

–Dennis Pang, c/o 2015

Photo credits Elaine Yu, Dennis Pang

Thanks Bikram for the gesture of friendship by taking me to the Peace Cave on your own time. Here’s a shout out for your trekking company, Apex Himalaya Treks.

Consider going to Nepal! And check out Bal Sewa Griha Children’s Center whether you want to donate, volunteer, or visit. Those are some bright kids there.

40 Miles to Go

“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.”

Starting in April, I was starting to feel that a Hunter S. Thompson-esque trip would be the only solution to my woes of relationships, tests gone wrong, and homework assignments turned 4 am Subway runs. But since I don’t own a car, Hollywood is a too far for a weekend trip, and nobody at college uses any heinous chemicals, it was time to search for some alternatives. The requirements were simple. It had to be extreme. When it comes to escapism, half measures simply won’t do. It had to be unique. When you embark on an epic journey, you can’t be thinking of the other people you know who have done it before you. Rather, you want to feel like Lewis and Clark striking a bold new path into the world (although hopefully eating slightly better). And finally, I had to find a sucker or two to come with me.

That sucker, as it often did over the past year, turned out to be my roommate Joe. It took little convincing, after all who has more to escape from than the BMEs in our midst. So, with a date that we were both free marked in my phone’s calendar, we went off to Nolan’s to find a few more people, if only so that they could help us borrow a car.

Over dinner we pleaded with friends and acquaintances. But thanks to the general atmosphere of busyness at Hopkins we only found one person, Conrad. The fourth would not come until spring break, when, delirious thanks to pain medication from my recent wisdom teeth surgery, I asked Sarah if she would like to come. She hesitated, but, with the promise of minimal country music, eventually relented. This would prove to be a false promise.

On the afternoon of April 4th, my dinner date canceled, I lay sleepless in my too small dorm bed. Joe was in his bed on the other side of the room. Too much light came in through the window. I checked the clock again and tied a t shirt over my eyes. After five hours of drifting in and out of sleep, we got up and grabbed our bags. We walked out of McCoy, just another pair of people off to enjoy Friday night.

We’d parked the cars outside earlier in the day, so we met up with Conrad and Sarah and hopped into the cars. With country music playing drowning out Sarah’s protests we headed down to Harper’s Ferry. Leaving a note in the parking lot of the AMC building pleading not to give us a parking ticket, we crammed us and all of our gear into a tiny Corolla and sped through the dark up to Pennsylvania. An hour later we were on the trail.

We walked in darkness and silence for a couple hours, until we crested a hill and the sun began to rise. We stopped for breakfast, a short meal of pop tarts and heavily rationed cheese. We then walked for a while. This would be a frequent occurrence throughout the day.

Breakfast and a sunrise

The next thing I remember is stopping at the Washington Monument, the 20 mile marker. The clock had just struck noon when we arrived there, meaning that by the time I would usually be awake on a Saturday we had walked through half of Maryland and a little bit of Pennsylvania. We had lunch here, and rested our legs a bit. Conrad and Joe made their way to the top of the Monument but I decided that adding any additional steps to the journey would be a mistake.

Top of the rock

More walking occurs. My chronology breaks down and instead of a story I have more of a series of images between mile 20 and mile 30. These include:
Sarah taking a Clif Gel shot (the unsung hero of the hike) and doing pushups on the trail.
Joe singing Luke Bryan lyrics.
More beautiful farm and country vistas than can be accounted for.
A group of boy scouts ogling Sarah as we walked by them.

Mile 30 is a large wood structure with lots of picnic tables underneath it. It is here that we meet a pair of people who are running the entire way. We feel inadequate for a little while.

After a short break we press onwards. The trail here is muddy and somewhat uninspiring. At around mile 35 my calves cramp up and I enter what can only be described as a minor mental breakdown. It is a testament to the other people in the group that they don’t put me down then and there and finish the hike on their own. After a few miles of all but dragging me down the trail, I finally recover and we climb down a hill to the banks of the Potomac. We can smell the hill people of West Virginia as we walk down a gravel path towards Harper’s Ferry for a two mile stretch.

Finally we see the water of the Shenandoah careening into the Potomac! Then we see the bridge! Great excitement ensues as we charge across the bridge, assuming we have all but achieved our goal. All we have to do is walk the last hundred yards or so to Virginia across the swirling Potomac and we will have covered nearly 10% of the US states in a single day. So we walk through historic Harper’s Ferry, past where our car is parked and the promise of a seat and never walking again lie. We cross a busy highway bridge that the Appalachian Trail runs along to get across the Potomac.

False hope

There is no “Welcome to Virginia” sign. This must be it we argue. Google Maps is pulled out to settle the argument and we see that the Potomac does not define the border of the two states, but the border is actually a couple miles farther down the trail. I vow vengeance on the Border Planning committee of the two states. But we bare our teeth and set off down the trail. We walk by a group of deer, but I am too busy cursing any one in anyway related to putting the Virginian border this far down the trail to admire their beautiful movements.

We cross another highway, and at this point our headlamps are on again. After this highway the land climbs dramatically. We stumble up the hill, Conrad looking like a man walking on a bed of nails.

We see a sign in the distance! This must be it. When we get there however, it is merely a trail sign, one side pointing to “Keys Gap,” another pointing to AMC Headquarters back down the trail. I clench my teeth, ready to uproot the sign out of sheer frustration.

Before I do, Joe points out that below the actual sign there is writing, indicating that this is the border of the Virginias. Thank goodness. We sit down and munch our last pop tarts. The celebration is a muted one, with all of our energy spread out along the last 42 miles of trail. After a long recovery, Joe and I hike back towards Harper’s Ferry, leaving Sarah and Conrad to meet us on the side of the highway. We walk back past the group of deer, under and then over the highway bridge, and finally get to the Subaru that we parked a mere 22 hours ago, although it feels like an eternity. We start it up and pick up our two companions, who are huddled on the side of the highway. A few hours later, we are back at Hopkins, looking like victims of some terrible natural disaster huddled in blankets and limping, unable to talk or express anything at all.

Champions pay the price

We all gather into my and Joe’s room, and crack open some celebratory PBRs. As we sip, barely able to stomach it, it occurs to me that we never verified that we actually made it to the border. I guess we’ll always just have to trust that the border scratched into the sign is true. And if it isn’t, well, it’s not our fault they put the border in the wrong spot.

A summer spent outside is the best kind of summer

As a member of the Johns Hopkins Outdoors Club, it’s obvious that I enjoy being outdoors.  Fortunately, I was able to spend almost every day this summer outdoors as I spent nine weeks as a counselor at W. Alton Jones Camp, an environmental education camp in western Rhode Island.  I attended this camp as a kid and it was wonderful to return eight years later as a staff member.

This particular camp offers two day camps and one overnight camp; all three camps run for week-long sessions.  I worked for the overnight camp and had the opportunity to spend each week doing something a little different.  One week, I was with kids age 9-13 ponding and hiking through streams.  Another week, I was with kids age 11-13 traveling to Mystic Aquarium and sleeping next to the sharks.  Another week, I was with teenagers in the Berkshires zip-lining, rafting, and rock climbing.  No matter where each week took me, I was just so ecstatic to be outside.  Even when I was hiking seven miles in the pouring rain with children that were entirely overpowered by their large backpacks.

One of my goals this year (which is my last at Hopkins!) is to spend more time outside.  When I’m in Baltimore, there is a 90% chance that I’ll be in the library at any given time.  I’d like to change that.  I’ll definitely be looking for the perfect outdoor study spot this fall in addition to spending lots of time with my fellow JHOCers.

To wrap this up, I’ll leave you with the quotation that was displayed on the back of all the staff t-shirts this summer:

“Now I know the secret of the makings of the best persons, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” -Walt Whitman

Mid-hike on that 7 mile rainy day

Mid-hike on that 7 mile rainy day

-Megan Morrow, Class of 2015