Sipsey Solo Overnighter

March 20th, 2014

All my photos from this hike can be seen on Flickr. Pardon the poor quality, they’re from my poor old iPhone 4.

Between Christmas and New Year’s I was really wanting to go backpacking. James (my usual backpacking partner) and I had been talking about going somewhere, but still hadn’t decided on a date or location. I had a few days off and somehow talked Cassie into letting me go on a quick overnighter by myself, which I’ve never done before.

I had been to the Sipsey Wilderness before, but the last time was well over ten years ago. It’s in northwest Alabama, only about an hour and a half from our hometown. As I was driving out there, I was impressed with the remoteness. I hit a dirt road 30 minutes before arriving at the trailhead.

Thompson Creek

I arrived at the Thompson Creek trailhead about 11:30am on December 30th. It was very cloudy and never got above 40 degrees that day, but the chance of rain was very low.

Map of Sipsey trail network

I was hiking the 206-209-204-224-208 loop, one of the more popular loops in the Wilderness, because it hits a couple of the more picturesque trails. The numbers refer to official Forest Service designations of trails.

Auburn Falls

The first trail, 206, follows Thompson Creek as it heads down toward the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River. Not only are you walking next to a beautiful creek, but there are waterfalls coming off the cliffs and some interesting rock formations.

Rock formation

After a few miles on 206, I turned east onto 209, the trail that follows the Sipsey. Shortly thereafter I turned onto “204a,” an unofficial trail that parallels 204 and Bee Branch. Unofficial means it is not maintained by the Forest Service. Unfortunately, Sipsey was visited by a tornado a few years ago, and this area was particularly hard hit. In several places I had to climb over large trees that had fallen across the trail. (See photo below.) This made for slow going.

Trail 204a is popular because it is the quickest route to East Bee Falls and “the big tree.” East Bee Falls is a rather impressive waterfall pouring down into the valley from the cliff above. Less than 100 feet from its base is “the big tree,” or the largest yellow poplar in Alabama.

I reached the waterfall and tree as dusk was approaching. I took some pictures and started filtering some water (with my new Sawyer Mini water filter), because I intended to walk out of the valley up onto the ridge to camp for the night and there’s no water source up there. As I was filtering my water, it began to rain, which was not supposed to happen.

By the time I finished filtering water, it was dark enough that I needed to turn my headlamp on. I started trying to find the trail that would take me up out of the valley. At this point it was well past sunset and the last bit of light was starting to fade. My headlamp was illuminating my breath and the rain, making it even harder to see.

Eventually I gave up on trying to find the trail and decided I should find a campsite for the night. I was in a valley, so there wasn’t much level ground. I had passed a couple of small campsites on the way in, so I backtracked down 204a, climbing over many of the same trees I had just a few minutes ago, now in the dark.

Downed trees across the trail

It took about 20-30 minutes to get back to a small campsite. I setup my tarp to sleep under. This was my why first time to sleep under a tarp. In the past I’ve carried a tent or relied on shelters. By this time the rain had slowed to a sprinkle. Later, as the temperature dropped into the twenties, I saw the slightest bit of snow.

I cooked my supper of “Alpine Spaghetti” (with pepperoni) over my new alcohol stove (very similar to this one). I was almost too tired to eat, but I forced myself to eat and do a few campsite chores before getting into my sleeping bag for the night.


In the morning I consulted my map and determined I was camping at the confluence of East Bee Branch and West Bee Branch. It was a nice little campsite (photo below), surrounded by bald cypress trees. The temperature was in the low twenties, so I quickly made breakfast and packed up my gear so I could hit the trail and get my internal heater going.

East and West Bee become Bee Branch

I headed back toward the waterfall to try to find the trail that would take me up out of the valley. Even in the daylight it took me a few minutes to find the trail. It was unmarked, and went up the side of the valley at about a 45 degree angle. A few minutes later the trail went by the top of the waterfall (photo below).

Closeup of East Bee Falls

It didn’t take long to get to the top of the ridge. The rest of the day’s hike was mostly level or downhill and was not nearly as picturesque as the day before. I had heard that wild boar had become a problem at Sipsey, and I saw a couple of wallows and rubs along the trail (photos in Flickr set). I stopped for a quick lunch and made it back to my car by 1:30 in the afternoon. I made it back to Belmont in plenty of time for New Year’s festivities.

It was my first backpacking trip in almost a year, and help me evaluate my fitness (better, but still lacking) and some new gear and techniques. I’ve been backpacking again since this trip and have another trip planned for this weekend, so expect more reports soon.



Getting back into backpacking

February 3rd, 2014

Back in junior high and high school, I went backpacking on a semi-regular basis. I went on a couple of trips on the Appalachian Trail with my uncle and did two ten day treks at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. I also did some local trips to the Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama and Savage Gulf in Tennessee. In those days I didn’t have to worry about my conditioning because I was playing three sports. My last trip of that era was in 1998 or so.

Fast forward to 2010. I hadn’t been backpacking in a dozen years and was terribly out of shape. However, I found a backpacking partner and we went to Big Hill Pond State Park in West Tennessee. That trip is documented here. At the time, that trip kicked both of our butts. Now, I think either of us would consider it a leisurely walk in the park, even with full packs.

After that there was another year-long hiatus. In the past ten months, we’ve been to the Cheaha Wilderness twice and I’ve done a solo overnighter in the Sipsey Wilderness, all in Alabama. I am in much better shape now, and I’ve been working on reducing my pack weight. All of that makes for a much more enjoyable hike.

I’m determined to continue getting in better shape, reducing my pack weight, reducing my own weight, and going backpacking more often. James and I have tentative plans to hit the Appalachian Trail sometime this year.

Both the boys have been camping, but neither have been backpacking with me just yet. I hope to remedy that (at least with Luke) sometime this year as well.

Expect more backpacking posts in the near future.

I’m back (Update)

February 3rd, 2014

So it’s been almost two and half years since I last posted, and I’m back in the mood to post some more. I suppose an update is in order.

The boys (Luke and Liam) are six and five now. Luke is in first grade and Liam is in kindergarten. Both are doing well in class. They are both playing soccer with the Oxford Park Commission. I coached Luke’s team last year and I’m coaching Liam’s this year, which is interesting because I’ve never played soccer. I’m also Luke’s Tiger Cub Den Leader. Luke will be playing baseball for the first time this spring.

I’m still working at the Mississippi Center for Supercomputing Research (MCSR) at the University of Mississippi. I have completed my comprehensive exams for my PhD in Computer Science, and I recently got started back with my dissertation research after taking most of the Fall semester off. I’ve got another couple of years to go, at least.

On the hobby front, backpacking is currently my main focus. I’ll have some more posts on that soon. Electronics and amateur radio have taken a backseat, but I do have a couple of projects I’m working on when time allows.

I’m still tweeting as @benpharr. I haven’t been very talkative lately, but I plan on tweeting a bit more often in the future.

Starting a new job

October 17th, 2011

For the past six years I’ve been working for a small defense contractor here in Oxford, writing software for airborne radar. I enjoyed it, and I learned a lot along the way. Unfortunately, we were primarily funded by Congressional earmarks, which have fallen out of favor as of late. To make a long story short, I was laid off four weeks ago. I harbor no ill will, because I feel like they held on as long as they could, but it still sucked, a lot.

There aren’t many high-paying software jobs here in Oxford. We briefly considered moving elsewhere, but ultimately decided to stay in Oxford, at least for now. Most of you will recall that Cassie does not work outside the home, so it was a little scary until I got an actual job offer.

Luckily, there was a timely opening at the University, and I’ll start today as a High Performance Computing Specialist for the Mississippi Center for Supercomputing Research (MCSR). We have two SGI Altix supercomputers and a large Linux cluster. I’ll be working with researchers from all of Mississippi’s public universities to help them utilize the supercomputers, provide training, etc. I’m looking forward to it, and it’ll be nice to be back on campus where I have several friends from previous stints as a student and as a Network Administrator for the Computer Science department (my first “real” job).

There’s also a research component to my new job, which I’m hoping will accelerate my PhD research. I haven’t been very productive in that area lately.

Hopefully I’ll find a little more time to blog and tweet as well, but no promises.

Microcontroller course

June 6th, 2011

As I mentioned in my last post, nearly six months ago, I taught an “Embedded Development” course in the Computer Science department at the University of Mississippi. It was a highly practical course, and the Arduino was our hardware platform of choice. The “brain” of the Arduino is an Atmel AVR ATmega328P microcontroller with 2kB of RAM and running at 16MHz. Instead of using the Arduino language and development environment, we used C and Eclipse.

We started out learning to blink LEDs, to calculate the value of current limiting resistors, and the difference between sinking and sourcing current. We then learned how to use the hardware timers on the AVR to time events (interrupts) and output Pulse Width Modulation signals to vary the brightness of LEDs and create simple sounds.

Four digit, seven segment display setup

Four digit, seven segment display setup

Next, we learned to use a four digit, seven segment display from Sparkfun. This is a fairly common display, and there are lots of examples of how to use it on the Internet. However, I wasn’t happy with any of them. They either ran the display at low currents (resulting in low brightness) or used standard shift registers at higher currents than they were designed for. I came up with a design that used a TPIC6C595 power shift register to control the segments and four 2N3906 transistors that switched power to each digit. I was quite proud of my design, as I’m definitely a programmer, not a hardware guy. We also learned how to convert numbers into binary coded decimal (BCD) for display on the seven segment display.

Read the rest of this entry »

Embedded Development Course

December 19th, 2010

Below is the description of a course I’ll be teaching in the spring. It’s the first time I’ve been able to teach a special topics course (i.e., have complete control of the content of the course), and I’m really looking forward to it.

CSci490: Embedded Development
Instructor: Ben Pharr
M W 5:30 PM – 6:45pm
Weir 235

Embedded systems are all around us and are becoming more common by the day. Embedded systems typically perform a few dedicated functions as part of a larger system such as a vehicle, appliance, vending machine, etc. They are often resource constrained in some way, yet must respond in near real-time to events happening in the physical world. Obviously, developing for these systems can be quite different from developing in Java for a desktop application.

This class will use the Arduino hardware to explore embedded development. The Arduino is a development board powered by an Atmel AVR ATmega328 microcontroller. It runs at 16 MHz and has 2kB of SRAM and 32kB of flash.

Instead of the usual Arduino language, we will use ANSI C in order to build skills that are transferable to other embedded platforms.

Topics will include:

  • The C Programming Language
  • Data Representation
  • Computer architecture
  • General Purpose Input/Output
  • Basic electronic concepts
  • Timers
  • Pulse width modulation
  • Analog to Digital Conversion (ADC)
  • Interrupts
  • Serial communication
  • Embedded debugging and troubleshooting

Introduction to Embedded Systems: Using ANSI C and the Arduino Development Environment

Morgan and Claypool Publishers (July 12, 2010)
ISBN: 978-1608454983

Related links:

Understanding Basic Electronics

October 19th, 2010

Several months ago I started reading Understanding Basic Electronics, 2nd Edition, released this year by the ARRL. I was just nearly finished with it when I decided I should get serious about studying for comps. Last week I picked it back up and finished it.

During my Computer Science education I’ve only had one Electrical Engineering course, ELE335, Principles of Digital Systems. There was an accompanying lab where we played with logic gates, but there was no mention of resistors, capacitors, etc.

Over the past several years, both before and since getting my amateur radio license, I’ve picked up several beginners’ books on electronics. Understanding Basic Electronics is the best I’ve read so far. Most of the material was already familiar to me, but I learned and relearned several things.

It’s a relatively short and quick read. The chapters are broken into 2-3 page lessons. It covers all the basics: Ohm’s law, DC concepts, AC concepts, capacitance, inductance, power, frequency, transformers, impedance, resonant circuits, semiconductors, diodes, transistors, and integrated circuits. There are no experiments, as such, but it gives you a good base with which to move on to other books that do have experiments, like Make: Electronics.

It’s the first in a three book series. I already have the other two, Basic Radio and Basic Antennas, and I’ll be starting on them as soon as I catch up with the reading for my classes.

PhD Comps

October 12th, 2010

Last week I took the comprehensive exams (“comps”) for my PhD in Computer Science. There were four of them: Theory, Programming Languages, Software Engineering, and Systems. I won’t know for certain how I did for a few weeks or so, but I feel good about all of them. I’d be shocked if I failed any of them.

For the past month or so I’ve been spending every spare moment studying for comps. I started studying a long time before that, but really didn’t get started in earnest until about a month ago. Cassie and the kids gave me a few weekends to myself so I could get a lot of studying done.

I was most concerned about the Theory and Programming Languages tests (the latter due to the Automata section), so I spent most of my time studying for those. Of course, I ended up feeling really good about those, but trying to cram the night before for Software Engineering and Systems. While I managed to stress myself out over the last two, and missed a fair amount of sleep from the cramming, I ended up doing fine on them too.

Studying for comps was an interesting exercise on its own. I learned and relearned a lot. I also convinced myself that I’m definitely in the right field. I found virtually everything I read to be fascinating.

It’s quite liberating to have comps over with. They’ve been looming for a few months now. Now I can spend time on other things…like my really tough Machine Learning course. I hope to find a little time for some ham stuff and some backpacking soon too.

I’ll finish the coursework for my PhD in the spring. I also hope to propose a topic for my dissertation in the spring. If I can stay motivated, with a little luck, I’ll defend my dissertation in spring of 2012. It’s certainly an optimistic schedule, but that’s what I’m shooting for.

Free Socket 939 MB, Processor, and Memory

August 8th, 2010

I have an ASUS Socket 939 motherboard, AMD Athlon64 X2 dual-core processor, and two DIMMs of 1GB PC3200 RAM free for the taking. The catch is that one of them is bad. Based on past experience, I’d say the motherboard is toast and the processor and memory are just fine. That’s just a guess though.

I replaced the ensemble with a Core 2 Duo setup a few months ago when one of them went bad. Let me know via email if you want it.

The development and use of the first nuclear weapons

August 6th, 2010

A few weeks ago, I read virtually everything Wikipedia has on the development of the nuclear weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hadn’t planned on writing a blog post on this topic, but something interesting came up yesterday that I did want to post about and this seemed like a good introduction. It wasn’t until I after I had decided to write this post that I realized today was the 65th anniversary of the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.

Numerous books have been written about the Manhattan Project, so I won’t even attempt an outline here, but below are the main Wikipedia articles for your reference:

Read these and some of the links on these pages and you’ll know a lot about the bombs, their development, why they were used, etc. Below are a few of the facts that were new to me or that I find particularly interesting. I’m sure there were more, but I didn’t take notes.

One of the things that makes the Manhattan Project so interesting is that these scientists took a completely theoretical idea and made a working weapon in less than four years (12/1941 – 8/1945). Granted, they did have virtually limitless resources and some of the brightest minds of their time.

In my opinion, the single most interesting person involved in the project was Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director. He famously lost his security clearance in 1954 for having ties to Communism. History has cleared his name regarding any spying. It is now known that the KGB tried to recruit him numerous times, but they were always turned down.

The project actually produced two different types of nuclear weapons: one based on Uranium-235 and another on Plutonium-239. The element Plutonium had only been discovered in February, 1941.

The Uranium-235 was produced in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The site was picked, in part, due to the availability of cheap hydroelectric power from TVA. At one time, the site used over a sixth of the electrical power produced in the United States. Due to security concerns, the Governor of Tennessee did not know Oak Ridge existed for some time, even though it would soon become the fifth largest city in Tennessee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area of the Oak Ridge complex where the Uranium was enriched is now an EPA Superfund site.

Copper was in short supply during World War II, so Oak Ridge was loaned 14,700 tons  of coinage silver (currently worth $7.3 billion) from the US Treasury to create massive electromagnetic coils. Approximately 99.965% of it was returned to the Treasury after the war.

Due to the small amount of Uranium-235 available and the confidence of the scientists, a test was never carried out using the Uranium design. They didn’t know for certain it would work until it was dropped on Hiroshima. As an engineer, I’m astounded that they pulled this off in such a short time with no final test.

On July 16th, 1945, a Plutonium weapon was tested at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. The test was code-named Trinity. The explosion was heard 200 miles away. The Army put out a press release explaining that a remote ammunitions magazine had exploded. Near the explosion, the sand was turned to a light green, radioactive glass that came to be called Trinitite.

In the brainstorming stage of target selection, Kyoto was a favorite. Supposedly Kyoto was taken off the list by Secretary of War Henry Stimson who had honeymooned there.

On July 26th, 1945, the Potsdam Declaration was released, in which the Allies requested an unconditional surrender from Japan. It promised “prompt and utter destruction” if they did not surrender. The Japanese did not respond.

On August 6th, 1945, three B-29s left Tinian headed toward Hiroshima by way of Iwo Jima, a six hour flight. They were picked up by the Japanese on radar, and the alert was initially raised, but after determining there were only three planes, the air raid sirens were turned off. The Japanese had previously decided not to intercept small formations with fighters to conserve fuel and planes, which is what happened on August 6th. When the planes arrived at Hiroshima it was clear. Had it been cloudy, they would have diverted to Kokura.

“Little Boy” was dropped from the Enola Gay at 8:15 local time. It detonated 1900 feet above the city, as designed. Approximately 70,000 people (~30% of Hiroshima’s population) died immediately. It is estimated that up to a total of 200,000 people died by 1950 due to effects from the bomb.

On August 8th, the Soviet Union finally declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria.  Japan had been hoping to avoid war with the Soviets. They still did not surrender.

On August 9th, Bockscar and its supporting B-29s headed for Kokura. They had orders to drop the bomb only if they could see their target. Weather scouting planes flying an hour ahead reported clear skies. Bockscar was delayed due to a supporting plane missing its rendezvous. By the time it arrived in Kokura, it was cloudy. They diverted to the secondary target, Nagasaki.

At 11:01 local time, “Fat Man,” a Plutonium bomb similar in design to the one tested previously, was dropped on Nagasaki. Between 40,000 and 70,000 people died immediately.

At this point the officials in Japan were still split on the issue of surrender. Early on August 10th the Emperor himself came out in favor surrender, as long as he could retain his power. The Allies continued to demand an unconditional surrender. Finally, on August 14th, the Emperor and his government agreed. The was an unsuccessful coup d’état by elements of the military that did not want to surrender.

The US planned to have another nuclear weapon ready by August 17th, and it would have most likely been used had Japan not surrendered.

There is, of course, a debate about whether or not nuclear weapons should have been used on Japan. I have my opinion. I encourage you read up on the facts and develop your own.

If you know of any related, interesting facts that I missed, please post them in the comments.