Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Overnight Hike #1: River Ridge Backpack Trail

Trail: River Ridge Backpack Trail (entire length)
Location(s): Forest Glen County Preserve, Vermilion County, Illinois
Total Distance: ~11 miles
Length of Time: 2 Days
Dates: May 24-25, 1999

For the dozens of day hikes I have completed, to this date I've only done one overnight hike. The hike was a culmination of endings. It took place just a couple days after I graduated from high school, the crowning achievement of a spring spent walking all the trails at Forest Glen.

I'm not sure why we started doing it, but after a few trails Beau, a friend and classmate, and I decided we'd walk every trail at the park. On days when we weren't busy with high school activities and the weather cooperated, we'd walk. From the surprisingly awful ascent up Hawk Hill, to the easy and short walks of the Pine Tree and Beech Grove trails, we did them all. As we reached the end of the list of trails, we decided to make the River Ridge Backpack trail a real experience, complete with a trail side camp.

Deciding upon that, we chose two days (the Monday and Tuesday after our graduation), began thinking about what to pack, and what food to take.

Looking back, our gear would make any ultralight hiker faint from the lack of sense. The tent was large enough that we both carried part of it. One of us took the poles, the other took the tent and fly. Our sleeping bags were big and bulky, as were the inflatable sleeping pads. Add in the pot, utensils, and water carrying solutions (I honestly don't remember what we used here), and we would have been way over weight even if we had good packs. Which of course we didn't. I had a backpack, but it was at best a day pack, and it took some ingenuity just to get the tent and sleeping bag attached without seriously impeding my walking.

The food was no better than the equipment. We made a run to the old IGA in Georgetown to get our supplies, which weren't exactly the most weight conscious or healthy. The menu for the trip would be pork n' beans, chicken noodle soup, Twinkies, and oatmeal pies. I don't recall taking any drinks besides water, although it is possible we took a few Diet Mountain Dews with us as well.

So, with our makeshift packs overstuffed with heavy equipment and junk food, we set out that Monday to Forest Glen...for a graduation party. Coincidentally, one of our other classmates and friends had his party out at the same place we'd be hiking, so we decided to head there before we began. The hike to the campsite would only be three miles, so we didn't have to leave until the afternoon. Thus we fed on hamburgers and cake before we headed out, after filing the registration for the trail, of course.

The trail from the trailhead (also the Old Barn trailhead and parking lot next to the park administration building) to the first campground is relatively easy. Large parts, including the beginning, are flat, and there are only really two major hills. The steepest one of the day was the last one, which was right before the campground. It was preview of things to come.

After we set the tent up and caught our breath from inflating the damn sleeping pads, it was time to cook dinner. It took us a while to get the fire going, and it took a while for the fire to sort of cook our dinner. Even after this, we still had a lot of time to kill before bedtime. In this day and age, we probably could have caught a 3G signal and watched an episode of Star Trek or something via one of our wireless devices, but this was the ancient era of cell phones. We sat around the fire, a bit tired but otherwise still good. Eventually we decided to head to bed.

This was the first time I actually had camped out in a (semi-)wild situation. Sure, I slept outside a few times at events put on by the Vermilion County Conservation District, and had slept on our deck at home a few times. However, I had never been out there like this. Even though we were but a few miles from towns like Westville, Georgetown, and Cayuga, it was far enough out in the country that we could see stars, bright enough it made us think it was dawn. This incorrect assumption roused us from the tent, which was at that time uncomfortably warm. After scrambling to find a way to tell the time, we finally discovered it was about midnight. Eventually sleep overtook us, and of course by morning the tent was borderline cold.

Breakfast was our sugary processed pastry of choice, eaten quickly after we broke camp. This would be our "long" day, as we had eight miles to make in the long daylight of May. Not being trail experts, we weren't certain when exactly that would be. As it turned out, even at our slow pace we would have plenty of time.

If the first three miles of the trail were fairly easy, the next seven is the opposite. This part of the trail includes almost all of the parts of the trail that are not parts of other trails, and most of these parts are PUDs*. Perhaps they weren't pointless, as we were moving towards, and then away from the Vermilion River. It was somewhat frustrating to realize how many up and downs could be crammed in between where the trail leaves from the Tall Tree trail to where it crosses the bottom of the Hawk Hill trail. Walking the flat connector between the two seems like a short distance, but taking the backpack trail is much longer.

By far the least enjoyable part for me was the part right before the east camp. Here is the most remote part of the trail, and also one of the PUDdiest. I distinctly remember feeling like we'd never reach East Camp, let alone the Big Woods Trailhead, the point where the trail hits the home stretch. In reality this part was probably like one and a half miles at most, and we probably did it in 45 minutes. But at the time it felt like forever.

Finally, we reached East Camp, a part of Forest Glen that most visitors never see. It is a camp in the sense that there are tent sites, a fire pit, and a privy. It feels like it you are actually in the back country, even if it is along a wide path that is accessible by mowers, and is probably just a couple miles or so (if that) from homes and roads. At this point we had walked all of five miles, though it felt like it could have been twenty five.

After East Camp, there were still some additional ups and downs, including the steepest decline of the trail. It was steep enough that we decided to take it by scooting down while sitting. Perhaps it was overcautious, but it did get the job done. Finally we made our last descent down to a small creek, crossed it on a small footbridge, at met up with the Big Woods Trail. We still had just over a mile to go, but here was the first time I truly felt we would make it. Just one more ascent...

Just a few more feet....come on, just two more steps...and we're up the hill!

Sure, we had a mile to go. However, that walk up to the Big Woods Trailhead was the last hill** we'd have to face. Once we crossed the entrance road, we had a short walk through the forest, then a nice walk along a mowed path on the edge of the prairie section of the park.

Had bison been reintroduced during our hike, and they suddenly decided to stampede, I can't imagine us stopping even for that. We were on our last mile, and we could smell the finish line. After a while, we could even see the line, as the car in the parking lot beckoned us on. Finally we reached the end of the mowed grass, crossed the road, and entered the parking lot. We were done.

Interestingly, I've never hiked that trail since then. I've hiked almost every other trail in the park again, but never the backpack trail. It still remains tied with my walk through Cades Cove as the longest continuous hike I've ever done, and the only backpacking hike I've ever taken. I have plans to hike it the first weekend of April. Both the trail and I are thirteen years older, and I've grown fatter, but I will come at it with better equipment. I hope once again I'll be able to feel what I felt when I reached that car on that warm May afternoon.

*Pointless Up and Downs
**It's a hill to us flatlanders, damnit.

Trekking Poles: Don't Leave Home Without Them

There was a time when I would scoff at trekking poles. And who can blame me? After all, they look a bit odd, like someone skiing without the skis (or snow). Why not just go all out and get a form-fitting body suit.* Just add a fanny pack, and I come complete with no shame, less money, and little sense. Sure, I could see someone carrying a nice big walking stick, especially one that allows you to imagine yourself as Gandalf. But trekking poles? No way.

Then I remembered that I am a big guy who is a) tall, b) too fat for his own good, c) now in his 30s, d) has a history of some knee troubles and e) has the balance of a Fox News report. Looking at it that way, I decided maybe the benefit to my balance and knees would be worth a few odd looks out at Forest Glen.** So I bought a pair of Leki poles while on a short trip to the Smokies. After trying them out, I don't think I could hike without them.

So far I've only taken three hikes with the poles. All have been out at Forest Glen. All three included a large uphill climb, and two included a downhill climb as well. For all three going both down and up, I barely felt any pressure in my knees. Considering how much I feel when I walk up stairs or slight inclines without the poles, I knew they were certainly helping with my knees.

Beyond the benefits to my knees, they also have helped balance, as at least a couple times they've helped control myself as I slipped through some mud. In addition, they've helped me propel myself up hills faster, although unfortunately they can't do anything about my lungs or general shitty physical shape. At least not beyond encouraging me to get out and hike more.

I still have some issues going down hill with them. However, I didn't have a big problem using them on a trail that was clear of leaves and was gravel instead of mud. This might be more of an issue I have with worrying about slipping on mud while going down a hill, or finding a errant hole with my feet as I walk on a trail covered with fallen leaves. Needless to say I need to find a happy balance when it comes to a downhill pace.

Despite the small sample size, I am pleased with my new poles, and am excited to use them on the trails ahead. I imagine they will continue to be crucial as I get into better shape and tackle more challenging ascents and descents, as well as longer trails with more weight than just a water bottle or a coat.

So to those of you who have thought about trekking poles, but have yet to buy some, I say do it. Your knees will thank you, even if your overbearing sense of coolness may object. After all, you may look goofy with them in a parking lot, but they look pretty bitching up on Mt. Katahdin.

* It's like I'm wearing nothing at all! (Obligatory The Simpsons quote for this post)
** I only feel they are out of place at Forest Glen, which is the closest thing to hilly terrain in flat Vermilion County, IL. Out at Blood Mountain or the Smokies I'd just be the latest dumbass weekender with his new poles.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A New Year, a New Mission

So it is now February of 2012. I wish I could say that we here at Red Flaces, White Blazes were in the final stages of prep for our journey on the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately this is not the case. Circumstances outside the realm of hiking made it unfeasible for us to embark on our trip this year.

I am not here to commiserate on the past, but look towards the future. I'm here to announce that the "Walk with Nature 2012" is now "Walk with Nature 2013". Yep, the walk is still on, it just is going to happen next year.

As of right now, it may likely only be me making the trip, although I hope Erin will still be able to join me. Regardless of who will be hiking the AT in 2013, we will be doing a lot of hiking throughout this year, as well as getting in shape (mostly my problem) and building up our gear collection. Hopefully we won't be going another year without a post, but instead giving you several posts a week.

Now is the point of the post where I awkwardly point to the new widget on the side bar of the site. Between paying expenses for up to eight months without income, the cost of the trip, and acquiring the equipment to make the trip, I am looking at around a budget of $20,000. If Erin goes along, she will also have a significant expense as well. We are attempting to exhaust all options in figuring out how to finance this journey. I am hoping to finance my trip through my efforts as a PHP developer. However, Erin is a recent college graduate, and any help she can get will better ensure her ability to get out on that trail.

Hopefully, you will enjoy our tales of our experiences with equipment searches, huffing and puffing on the trails, and what will hopefully be a successful attempt at making pop can stoves. We don't begrudge anybody who ignores that button, and will never attempt to put our content behind some sort of pay wall. We do this because we enjoy hiking, and because we enjoy telling you about our walks in the woods. To presume that our writing is somehow worthy, let alone requires, compensation would be presumptuous.

Nevertheless, if you enjoy our blog, and feel like passing us a couple bucks for the trouble, please feel free to do so. Any body who donates more than $10 will get a revised compilation of every post from this year, complete with less typos and additional information. In addition, you will receive a paper edition of our trail journal from the AT upon our actual completion of the trail, signed by us.

Expect many new posts in the days to come, as we will be hitting this full-tilt. So add us to your RSS feed, follow us on twitter and please feel free to start up discussions in the comments section. We'll see you on the trail!