Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hiking the Mingo Lake Trail


These were the thoughts going through my mind as I reached the 2 mile marker on the Lake Mingo trail. I could have sworn that I was at least three or four miles through it. After all, I had gone down to and back up from several bridges, so I had to be about halfway, right? I mean, I had walked through a field as a storm brewed, so that HAD to count for something. Or, I guess not. Here, as I realized there were five more miles I started to wonder if I had made the right decision.

Oh sure, it wasn't like the trail was all that hard. After all, it was a trail smack in the middle of Vermilion County. The ups and downs were fairly short, and large sections of the trail were flat, including most of the last mile and a half. The temperature was not as rough as the previous week (only up to 90 instead of around 100), and being in the shade for most of the walk it would be even nicer. Were I in normal walking shape it wouldn't have been much of a thing.

However I was far from normal walking condition. This was my first major walk since I had fallen a few weeks earlier. Although the ups and downs were short, they were fairly steep. I wasn't certain how my knee would take the trail even on the flat parts, let alone the downhill. I had my trekking poles, however, and I vowed to take the ups and downs as slow as I needed to so I could finish the trail. Nevertheless, I was worried every time I took a step down, as the trail had no waterbars or stairs.

On top of that I was not feeling the best. In fact, that morning I had considered not hiking at all. However as I got closer to Kennekuk, I began to feel better. Maybe the greasy fast food breakfast had helped (saving its wrath for when I'd be on the trail), or maybe I just started to wake up. Of course, that couldn't be it, because I hadn't gone to sleep yet.

For whatever reason I thought it would be a hoot to go out and hike my first hike greater than five miles in over a year just three weeks after I had fallen and hurt my knee. While I was sick. And without having slept the previous night. Yep, this had success written all over it.

Still, as I packed my day pack, I felt encouraged. I had plenty of water, and several snacks. I had a map of the trail and I had my phone with exercise tracking app, so I was all set for the walk. At the start sign, I extended my trekking poles and got started.

At about 0.7 miles I checked my phone. Sure, my pace was going ok, and finding out I had only walked that far was a bit discouraging. However, what was of more importance was that my battery was going dead. Prudence told me to turn my phone off, in case I needed that battery power for an emergency. So there went my progress meter. But at least I had the map, eh?

Close to mile marker one was when I realized that I had left the map folded up in the front seat of my car. Sure, the map wasn't the most detailed, but it definitely would have given me an idea of my progress. Fortunately, save for a couple places, the trail was easy to follow. It wasn't like I would be without he ability to find my way around the trail, I just wouldn't know my progress outside of the mile markers on the trail.

Amazingly, it rained several times while I was walking on the trail.* It also thundered a few times, so I was a bit worried about lightning as I had to walk through the edge of a prairie before heading back into the woods. Once back into the woods I stopped for a break to let the rain pass. Eventually, though, I started out, muttering the old saw about "You can't get to Maine if you don't walk in the rain." Of course, I wasn't going to Maine, just back around to my car in the parking lot.

I have to admit that most of the first two miles were pretty nice. My energy was at its apex, I was enjoying the walking, and there were benches to stop and rest every so often. I had assumed that benches would be placed all around the trail. Miles 3-6 would disabuse me of this notion.

The middle miles (3-5) were by far the toughest for me. My energy was waning, even with the snacks I ate. The only actual seating I found was a picnic table at the edge of the lake. It was a nice break, but it was out in the sun. At a couple points I had to just sit down on the trail. This had been a nervous proposition for me, as I wasn't quite certain what my knee was going to do. Fortunately it made it through both sitting down and standing up. I didn't really want to take so many breaks, but the lack of sleep, lingering sickness, and just plain being out of shape kind of forced me into it.

Probably the most miserable part of the trail was around an area called Lookout Point. I took a short spur trail out to the point. I did so hoping there would be a bench, considering it was a place that was notable enough to have a spur trail. Of course there was no bench, so I had wasted that energy. Sure, it let you lookout on the lake, but mainly to show me how much I still had left to go around. It was a bit discouraging.

It was around here that I vowed to make it back around, no matter how much effort it would take. I counted steps, taking breaks at regular intervals. It was taking plenty of time (about an hour a mile), but I was getting there. Between miles five and six, I took a marked shortcut, rationalizing that it made up for Lookout Point. Shortly after that I went up an incline, and hit an intersection with another trail. As I made the turn left, I could see the trail was wider. I guessed (correctly) that I had reached the easy part of the trail.

Still, I had a mile and a half to go, including a part where I had to walk over the dam that makes Lake Mingo a lake. It was a flat walk on gravel, but it was in the sun. I was tentative because I had just come the closest to falling down right before that. Fortunately my trekking poles had done their job, and I was no worse for the wear. Despite the glaring sun I put one foot in front of the other and made it across. A short walk up from the dam, and I spotted it. It was a bench, so glorious in its existence.

It was here on this bench where it all became worth it. Right there on that bench overlooking the lake the breeze picked up, to the point where it was almost chilly. I occasionally dozed off, only for a few seconds at a time. Still, it was peaceful and it was enjoyable. I was all alone**, so I had nature to myself. Sure, it wasn't as wild and scenic as say Yellowstone or Yosemite. But for that moment, I had walked into nature, and I was enjoying it.

I still had about a mile or so left to go, but that last break by the lake was the real climax of the hike. The rest was just road walking and a walk along a grass pathway through Bunkertown, the little collection of historical buildings at Kennekuk. As I passed mile marker seven, I could almost see my car. No, not in a figurative sense, I could actually literally see it. The last segment of the trail walked on the edge of a large grassy area, the other side of which was the parking lot where my car was. I thought about cutting across to it, but instead I stuck it out, walking back to the start sign. I had made it.

Sure, it had taken me over seven hours to walk the 7.3 mile trail, about twice as long as a typical hiker should take it. But given the conditions and my circumstances, I'm just glad I persevered. That trail was the longest I had hiked since I had tackled the eleven mile Cade's Cove Loop Road in November 2010. It had shown me that I can still hike (relatively) long distances, and that I can accomplish things. All in all, it was miserable, it was sweaty, it was tiring, and it was absolutely a blast. I can't wait for the next trail.

*For those reading this far in the future, the summer of 2012 was an incredibly bad drought for central Illinois. Hopefully you are getting more rain in the future, and this has not become a new normal for the area. If so, I hope you are enjoying the Great Illinois Desert.

**Other than a family fishing by the lake near the dam and a few cars as I walked back along the road towards the final part of the trail, I didn't meet anybody on the trail.

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