Monday, April 16, 2018

Four Days + Three Nights: Two Gals on a Backpacking Trip

Beginning NSCT  (Tiff left, Jenna right)
Planning a backpacking trip on trails you've never even walked on is quite exciting- and a little bit terrifying.  The trails I chose were practically in the backyard of where I spent my reformative years (middle school through high school) in North Central Arkansas.  My parents still live there, so fortunately it was close enough for Dad to be our "shuttle."  I don't know if these trails existed when I lived there twenty-five years ago, because I didn't get into trail running, hiking, and backpacking until a year ago.  But I do know that two races were held on these trails in the month prior, so I felt confident they existed recently.
The North Sylamore Creek Trail (NSCT) has lots of great information online.  It passes through three campgrounds.  We found the Trail Head in Allison, AR without much trouble, and as we'd been warned online - we had to cross the fairly wide creek right off.  We waved bye to Dad, and trekked on, enthusiastically.
My friend Tiffany had agreed to come with me.  She usually jumps at my plans like this; she likes it as much as I do.  She is 36 and I am 41.  We look years younger, we know...
We both live in Tennessee.  She was born and raised in Alabama
and I was born in Arkansas, raised in Kansas City, KS and then back in AR.  We both love the natural places.
Tiffany crossing stream
We set out for Gunner Pool, a ten mile hike for day one.  It was not hard, but our bodies had to adjust.  We arrived early enough to set up camp in daylight, pay our fees in the envelop box, and find water.  Except the pumps were all dry.  There were lots of people camping... but no filtered water for campers like the website had indicated. Bummer.  I asked the guy walking his dog and he sadly said no, and he'd seen us hike in and felt bad, so come on over after we set up and he'd give us water from his RV to save us from filtering one night.  We had a great conversation with him, his wife, and dog, and enjoyed it quite well!  They were adventure travelers from Wisconsin and were currently keeping South of the cold, and moving around as they liked, in the luxury of their RV.  Their eyes glistened with envy and excitement for us, and respect too.  Making friends, even ones you'll never meet again, is cool.  They highly recommended The Boundary Waters Canoe Trails and some famous Florida trail (that I forget the name of) to us.  Sounded amazing!
Gunner Pool was peaceful, with the (stream) water literally pooling up and flowing over right under our campsite.  I was glad to get back on the trail the next morning though.  That trail changed so often that it never got boring!  We were headed to Barkshed, then on toward Cripple Turkey Trail Head, the end of the NSCT and our connector to the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT).  We decided to go about 10-12 miles.  Then, we revised the plan to state that at 5:30 we would begin to look for a good spot to camp off the trail.  We had to find camp by 6:30 to set up before it got dark at 7:30.  We thought this was all a good plan.  We had never camped along a trail before in a non-designated or non pre-determined location.  But we figured we could handle it.
Tiffany trekking
Well...I'm not going to say that it was easy.  We stopped at an okay location by the creek and filled up our water container to carry (with the plan to filter it at camp or boil what we needed to cook with), since it was nearly 6pm.  The creek was kind of buggy, so we went looking for a better spot.  Looking back, that may not have been the wisest decision.  We had a hard time finding level ground the further we ascended and went up around the mountain.  Finally, (and long story short) we hiked up and off the trail to the edge of a meadow and camped there.  It was a windy, but a warmer night.  We had to hang our food bag for the first time "for real."  That was hilarious.  We had to filter water and clear out a good spot for the tent that was somewhat level and would hopefully not get punctured by whatever had been harvested there.
We had both been a little frustrated, but a bowl of warm soup, filtered water, and the prospect of sleep put us in better moods.  The fun part about backpacking is when you get to your "camp stop" you don't really get to rest.  There is a LOT of work involved in just unpacking, changing, eating, and setting up camp.  Finally, rest comes.  Tiffany said she felt good about all we'd done and if we decided to leave the trail the next day, she felt satisfied that we'd accomplished what we'd set out to do.
Prairie Camp Night #2
The next morning I awoke as the sun was rising.  I lay there, thinking.  I stirred and Tiff woke too.  The first thing I said was, "I want to stay on the trail."  She was surprised, but said, "okay."
We got up and broke camp and took very literally the Leave No Trace philosophy.  We got back on the trail. I was motivated and felt strong.   About an hour down the trail we met an older guy who was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him!  He asked where we'd started and told us where he was headed.  We wished each other well, and he said we were nearly there now.  I think I took him too literally.
The trail ran along the mountainsides.  It went in and out.  Because it was still early spring, we could usually see the trail across on the other side of the next mountain. It was SO far away always!  The chasm between mountains was WIDE, the gap deep, and the hike into their creases and out back and over each mountain seemed so far- every time.  It seemed to take extra long to get to Cripple Turkey!
Completely Thru-Hiked the NSCT
But we finally arrived!  We had thru-hiked the NSCT!  23.7 miles!  Our first true through hike and two nights of camping!  We cheered for ourselves and had lunch!
We had no idea where the next water source would be, but we found it a half mile down the OHT.  So, we stopped to filter water, because we needed it to drink that day.  Rookie mistake.  We should've pressed on to eat lunch at our next water source and filtered there, even not knowing where it could be.
Filtering water at the creek was very enjoyable.  We splashed our faces with the cool, clear water.  A horse and his rider came out of nowhere to enjoy a drink as well!  That was interesting!
Me filtering water
The OHT was also a horse trail for part of the way and it was very muddy.  We had to navigate carefully for awhile.  It was a beautiful path, but strange too.  There were many times that roads also merged with with the trail.  We had a map (laminated and attached to my pack) but it was useless.  There is not much information about this section of the OHT on the internet.  But it was definitely obvious that we were on a completely different trail than the last one - mostly because we were going UP, UP, UP and OVER mountains instead of walking around them.  It was hard work!  We had no cell signal out there hardly ever.  When we climbed the tallest mountain yet, we stopped to check and signal!  Finally, we were able to let our families know that we were alive and FINE.  They had been wondering...
Most of the OHT had been intentionally burnt on both sides of the trail.  I knew that forest fires were important for the health of the forest because I'd been reading Johnny Molloy's books.  But it still didn't look lovely after miles and miles of it.  We were glad to spot any greenery!  The trail was a rocky strip, single track with a slight angle to the right always.  It was grueling at times. Those trekking poles were worth every cent!
Bluff side Camp #3
Again, we decided to start looking for camp about 5:30.  We didn't find any worthwhile water sources, which was discouraging.
We finally found the "best of a difficult situation" campsite on the side of a burnt bluff.  The ash was thick and lumpy, making the entire area wobbly to navigate- even a few steps.  With difficulty, we found large rocks to open our packs on, set up the tent, and got the cook stove started.  We would inevitably end up covered in black soot.   The wind was very strong and we knew it was going to be cooler that night.  But the sky was finally clear!  We were going to see the stars!  Our camp was a strange place, but we were making the best of it, and it was quite the adventure!
Cooking Station
We hung our food bag, even though there seemed to be no obvious threat on this burnt ashen mountainside.  As we slept, our tent apparently slid.  The tent stakes hadn't really had secure options in the ash.  We tried to shimmy it back up.  I  imagined us rolling off the bluff, in the tent, down the deep mountainside unable to stop.  It was hard to fall back asleep with that thought.  But eventually I did.  We got up and ate our regular oatmeal and broke camp much more quickly this time.  We'd improved a little!  We started out, with the plan to go about six miles until the OHT crossed the Highway.  If we found a water source, we could go on the next six miles then call Dad for a ride back.
If we didn't find water, we weren't sure we could risk the commitment to stay on for those six extra miles.  The views on this side of the trail were like none we'd seen so far.  We could see for miles and miles when we reached mountaintops!  The mountains were blue and stretched out forever.  We had lunch atop a mountain.  It took a mile or two to descend it.  We tried to go slow.  It seemed the road was closer than we wanted it to be.  Since we hadn't seen water, we knew our trip was coming to an end.  The trail was green again with beautiful rocks and switchbacks.  We could still see for miles as we descended.  Eventually, we reached the bottom of the mountain and the  road crossing.  Time to call Dad.

We walked up the road to meet him after we called him.  Even that was a first!  We'd never carried our packs while walking along a highway! I felt like the real deal.  We made a video while we waited. Dad arrived and we had a short ride back, where we spread out all of our gear to air out, ate the BEST TACOS AND FRIES OF OUR LIVES (thanks Mom!), packed back up and prepared to drive back to TN the next morning.
38.8 miles of backpacking Completed!
It was a big accomplishment for us two gals who had just read about these things in books, and had very little prior experience (a few previous easy one-nighters).  But we learned SO MUCH by just being out there.  Concepts that you can't understand when you Pin them.  Knowledge you may not find on blog posts, and videos that could never truly capture the reality of the terrain, or situations.  We learned what we probably already knew:  that we would never really know or understand the challenge or the reward until we GOT OUT THERE and DID IT!

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