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.

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