Ultralight Shakedown & Wonderful Walk

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Open woods on the east loop trail

To friends, I’ve said, “The older I get, the lighter my pack.” Over the last 20 years, I’ve gone from a very heavy backpack to much lighter backpack. I say “very heavy” because I never actually weighed it or the items inside back then. I’d guess 45-50 pounds because I remember hoisting it to my knee before lifting it to my shoulders in a second move. I also remember the smothered feeling I felt while breathing under its weight.

Moving to lighter loads has been a process over time. By the time we did the John Muir Trail in 2016, my pack was at 32-36 pounds. That included a 2-pound bear canister and food for up to nine days.

This week I tried my ultralight sleep system and shelter. I considered it a “shake-down” hike to prepare for the last 63 miles of the Ouachita Trail coming up soon. My loaded pack weighed 18 pounds with food and water. Base weight (without food and water) was 14 pounds. There’s no heaving this pack, just a smooth swing from the ground to the shoulders.  I’d love to shave off more and approach a 12-pound base weight. It might be easier to lose a couple of pounds in bodyweight. 

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Shores Lake White Rock Mountain Loop is one of my favorite routes and close to home. After dinner, Hiker-dog and I drove to the trailhead as the sun dropped low in the sky.

This treasured Bliss Spring that crosses the trail required that I pause for a photo, so Hiker-dog waited patiently.

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I love the waterfall that roars softly below in White Rock Creek close to mile 2 but knew a side hike down was out of the question in the fading light. This waterfall was one of my earliest pleasing waterfall photos. I thought about the time I spent there as I hiked past the spur trail.

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Waterfall on White Rock Mt. Creek from several years ago.

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White Rock Mt. Creek in fading light

As we approached White Rock Falls, I knew we were close to home for the night. I used a rock as a tripod and took the photo below before continuing across the creek to a campsite close to mile 3. I thought we might stealth camp away from the trail, but the undergrowth in this area changed my mind.

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Photo in fading light from a rock tripod

I sat up the tarp by headlamp. It went nicely since I didn’t have to avoid rocks on the site. This tarp is 7 ounces and durable, a far cry from the 5-pound tent I used 20 years ago. After feeding Hiker-dog on a nearby flat rock, I crawled under the quilt. Soon I felt the familiar weight of Hiker-dog curled up next to my feet. She slept soundly all night. I was distracted a few minutes by moonlight through the translucent tarp but then fell asleep in the cool air.

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The next morning we packed and began walking by headlamp. It was fun to see the sunrise as we walked. After a breakfast stop, we continued the loop clockwise. Where I most benefited from a lighter load was on the climb up the first couple of miles toward White Rock Mountain. Speaking of “lighter,” I failed to pack one so coffee was cold. Forgetting a lighter was an embarrassing oversight and reminded me it’s important to check that list before I leave home.

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Nice signs at junctions at White Rock Mt.

The loop trail follows a portion of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) where you’ll see both blue and white blazes. When we reached the OHT mile marker 19, in earshot of Salt Fork Creek, we turned to the south and began the east side of the loop. A muted sun lit distant hillsides through the clouds, and we had several small rain showers as we walked along.

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Mayapples and Dwarf Crested Irises were prolific in many spots. We enjoyed pausing to enjoy the color and variety. With my light pack, I never felt the urge to take it off. Click on the wildflower images for plant names. Yes, I like Crested Irises a lot…

 

 

IMG_7425rrDogwoods were blooming in all their glory. Their gentle clouds of white popped against the light greens of spring.

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Hiker-dog walking past one of many Dogwood trees

 

Hiker enjoyed taking a dip to cool off as temperatures rose to the mid-sixties. I filled a water bottle and carried it for the drive home. The next morning I enjoyed a cup of coffee at home from that creek water while planning another hike with my lighter backpack. 

Little Gems Along the Trail

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Hiker-dog getting ahead of me

On Friday, April 13th, a tornado damaged several homes and buildings in Mountainburg, Arkansas, about eight miles from my adopted section of the Ozark Highlands Trail. I was anxious to see if winds had caused damage to the woods, so Saturday morning Hiker-dog and I headed out, wondering what we’d discover.

What we found was an open trail with temperatures in the mid-40s. It stayed cool all day as the sun peeked from behind puffy clouds. Quite a contrast from the ominous storm clouds of the afternoon before!

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I was thankful for little gems that sparkled with color alongside the trail. In spite of the cold, several patches of Mayapples greeted us with a few hidden blooms below their leafy umbrellas.

 

 

IMG_7056rrDwarf Crested Irises were starting to open and share their pinks and purples.

Later in the day, we passed full blooms, their petals raised toward the sunshine.

Because of the influence of my Arkansas Master Naturalists friends, I now read about the plants I see and was interested to learn that Native Americans used the roots of this Iris for medicinal ointment and tea. IMG_7099rr

Just as I was sensing relief that the trail was intact, unnatural objects started to appear. By the end of our 8-mile out-and-back, my daypack was full of hard foam insulation that had blown over from Mountainburg. I tossed the debris and a little trash on the truck floorboard at the end of our hike.

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Several pages of text also appeared next to the trail. I found myself reading these little snippets with interest. I photographed each of the pages then slipped them into my pocket. Were they trash or did they add meaning to today’s walk? Probably a little of both. I did think the chapter title on one page was appropriate given what brought it here.

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Excerpt from The Hobbit

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The first line of this sliver of a page might apply to several backpacking trips from the past when challenges grew with the accumulating miles.

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Jack Creek next to a campsite

I was interested to see the campground at mile 5 of the OHT. It’s an easy hike from Lake Fort Smith State Park and gets trashy sometimes. The area was clean today and carefully inspected by Hiker-dog.

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Open views above Jack Creek

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Repeated crossings of tributary streams are a special treat on this section of trail. These pretty drainages all flow into Jack Creek as it makes its way toward Lake Fort Smith. One of my favorite stops crosses a flat rock stream. Its slippery surface is avoided by crossing large boulders downstream.

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It was a beautiful day to be in the Ozarks. Thankfully, no one was injured by the tornado the previous afternoon. As a bonus, the trail was undamaged other than a few gems (or trash) brought over by strong winds.

Always Something New to Explore

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This is a favorite loop trail in Northwest Arkansas and the beginning of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT). When Mike asked about doing this section, I immediately thought of the recent rains and coming colder temperatures and said, “Yes!” I didn’t realize that Mike hadn’t done this path, so I had fun watching him discover new trail.

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Mike viewing the waterfall

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Snow collected on Mayapples

It was 31 degrees at the trailhead and sleet mixed with light snow was falling. This was unusual for early April in Arkansas.

Mike commented that he thought I needed more clothing. Thinking I’d warm up in a few minutes, I’d left a down vest in my pack. The cold felt good, especially when I thought of how much I would wish for these temperatures in a couple of months.

The Shepherd Spring Loop was one of the first trails I wrote about for Five Star Trails: The Ozarks. I remember how Hiker-dog and I enjoyed walking this trail and how excited I was to share it with others.

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Mike discovering an old homesite

Mike asked about Shepherd Spring and if it was close to the trail. I said I’d let him know if he walked past it.

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IMG_6993rrMike got the joke when he reached the spring which was flowing nicely. Hiker-dog took a long drink from the spring.

The second chimney came into view and conjured up thoughts about the families that once lived here sharing the nearby spring. I could almost picture children running through the woods and climbing into the spring to cool off.

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Great example of craftsmanship and hard work

We decided to check water levels where the OHT crosses Frog Bayou. It could be easily crossed at this point, but conditions can change quickly.

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Frog Bayou crossing

As we returned to the loop trail, Mike noticed a side stream flowing nearby. I couldn’t resist stopping for a photo as I enjoyed the soft sounds of flowing water.

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I’m always amazed by big rocks. The upper bench part of this loop has no shortage of large boulders.

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From the top of this flat rock overlook, you can see the inlet of Jack Creek and view the valley that holds the OHT where it continues on toward the east for a couple of hundred miles.

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Dairy Dream in Mountainburg.

This 6-mile hike was just what the doctor ordered for both of us. We stopped at the Dairy Dream to pick up a couple of Mountainburgers. This was my first Mountainburger, and it was delicious!

Mike commented that we’re lucky to have so much beauty and so much to do in our part of the state. There are always new trails to explore and new sandwiches to enjoy afterward!

Thru-Hiker-dog Completes 180 miles of the OHT

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Saturday, March 31, was our day to walk the few miles needed by Hiker-dog to complete the 180-mile Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT). Of course, the OHT keeps growing, but the first 165 miles qualify for thru-hiker bragging rights. Hiker-dog has walked or run every inch of the first 180 miles of the OHT from Lake Fort Smith State Park to Tyler Bend.

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Excellent maintenance work made these five miles a pleasure to walk. 

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We planned to walk from Fane Creek to the Rock House close to Hwy 23 as an out-and-back for a 10-mile hike. The sounds of water and gentle winds added background music to our day.

We met only one hiker. Ian was doing an out-and-back from the opposite direction, so we enjoyed two short visits in passing.

Wildflowers were a visual highlight today. Mayapples were leafing out, but no blooms yet. There were more varieties than I could photograph and still make timely progress on our 10 miles.

 

 

It was fun to see the Rock House again and remember how thankful I was for this shelter one cold and rainy winter evening after a long hike from Spirits Creek. Today the Rock House only provided shelter from sunny skies. Temperatures climbed from the 40s to the 60s as the day progressed.

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We enjoyed exploring the Rock House for a few minutes. A gentleman who lives on Fane Creek wrote to me a couple of months ago to share his, and relatives’, childhood memories of the Rock House.

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After getting back to Fane Creek, we took a break at the campsite and alongside the water. I’m looking forward to putting a thru-hike patch on Hiker-dog’s pack. She has no idea that she’s covered 180 miles, but she knows the simple joys of physical movement and exploring the Ozarks with total abandon.

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Hiker-dog having a cold beverage after completing the OHT

To learn more about Hiker-dog, check out her resume: Hiker-dog resume 0318

Rock House History

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Special thanks to Robert Jones for sharing information about the Rock House located on the Ozark Highlands Trail just west of Hwy 23. Robert was directed to my blog by one of his friends. I’m thankful that he shared the following:


I live at Cass on Fanes Creek and am proud of my family’s connection to the Cass area. I also want to state that the correct spelling is Fain as recorded on early deeds and government maps. All children of J. F. Owen are deceased and the grandchildren are getting on in age, so I want to record the following while my mind and memory is still good.

This is a family account of THE ROCK HOUSE According to some of the children of J. F. Owen, my mother, Laverve (Owen) Jones, my uncles .J. F. Owen, Jr. (Pug), Perry Owen, and Bobby Gene Owen, and my aunt Stella Owen. (Stella’s ashes were spread on top of the Rock House by Pug. I accompanied Pug on this occasion.

Granddaddy built the Rock House in the early 1900’s when he marked timber for his brother Hardy B. Owen, who apparently had some of the timber rights to this area. Hardy was very wealthy and his life is written in the history of Mississippi. The spring flowed in at the corner and into a rock and concrete basin which drained into a hole in the floor close to the basin. The rock shelf was used to store clothes and household items.

It’s hard to imagine that the mountains were home to many families at this time and before. Much of the land was farmed which accounts for the many rock fences and graveyards in the mountains.

Some stories told by the children are as follows:

The children would visit and stay with their father in the summer and pick the wild fruits in the mountains. They would visit the falls located down the hill on West Mountain Creek. The pool below the falls was described as “bottomless” and abundant with fish. I know the pool has a bottom as I have been there, but that is another funny story.

There was a rope swing above the house and the children would swing out over the front.

The road at the time was located up the mountain from the house but I have not tried to locate the old road. Uncle Hardy would drive his car there and walk down to the house. When the children would be with him, they said they pushed the car as much as they rode, probably why their uncle took them along.

Stella rode a horse from town in the night to inform her father of the birth of Bobby Gene.

Granddaddy sat down on a rock to rest one day and sat on a rattlesnake. He killed the snake, but said he regretted doing so since the snake didn’t bite him.

I feel the structure should be recognized as historic and preserved by our government as it has deteriorated a lot since my first visit. In the meantime, I hope all who visit will leave it as found.

 

Photo Challenge: Ending of the Day

WordPress Photo Challenge: Rise/Set

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This sunset brings back memories of a recent evening on the Ouachita Trail. Love those moments of reflection while waiting for water to boil.

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Lake Alma Trail

This is a favorite place to view the end of the day on my evening walk. I enjoy the always varied painting of the sky.

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Lake Alma Trail close to the edge 

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Reflections from sunset over Lake Alma

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Lake Alma Trail at sunset.

More about the Ouachita Trail  Ouachita Trail: Just Add Ice

To read more about the Lake Alma Trail (including driving directions) A Trail for All Reasons 

Photo Challenge: Favorite Place With a Favorite Friend

WordPress Photo Challenge: Favorite Place

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Quenching thirst on this morning’s walk.

Daily walks with my friend are important to both of us physically and mentally. If I skip a day, my four-legged friend lets me hear about it.

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This morning we strayed from the main trail to have a look at this historic well. It was probably built in the early 1900s by the same folks who laid rock walls to mark their property lines.

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View into the well

When water’s flowing, we take a short spur and enjoy the sound of McWater Falls, named for the man who initiated the work to build a trail around Lake Alma.

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McWater Falls

I’m thankful for this favorite place and my little favorite trail friend.

For the Lake Alma Trail backstory and driving directions, read Lake Alma Trail: A Trail for All Reasons 

For more about Hiker-dog, check out her resume.

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Never the Same Trail Twice

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Nick and Hiker-dog crossing Frog Bayou

Hiking buddy, Nick, said he needed some time on the trail and wondered what section we might try. Hiker-dog had never done the few miles from Dockery Gap to White Rock Mountain, so we decided to do Lake Fort Smith State Park to Fane Creek, just over 30 miles.

This route included new miles for Nick and Hiker-dog but repeats for me. As we walked this familiar path, I remembered once again that we never walk the same trail twice.

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Nick checking out the fire bricks inside the remnants of one homesite along the trail.

IMG_6532rr Water was plentiful. This was my first filterless backpacking trip using only water treatment drops, so I enjoyed “selecting” my water from any number of small streams we passed.

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Little Hurricane Creek

IMG_6569rrWe met a family camped at mile 10. While visiting with the father, Luke, I was impressed with his two young daughters’ ability to run without pain barefoot through the woods.

The next day we met two backpackers, Nick and Foster, from Kansas who’d camped in the area and were continuing on the OHT the next day. As we approached White Rock Mountain, a young man with a group called out, “Is that Hiker-dog?” She’s such a celebrity. Turns out, Chris had picked up a copy of Five Star Trails: The Ozarks, and met Hiker-dog at the Hare Mountain Hike-In. We expected a social hike due to the time of year and enjoyed meeting good folks on the trail.

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For the first evening meal I boiled red potato slices a few minutes then added a Knorr side dish that cooked quickly. Good stuff!

On the second night at Salt Fork Creek, I used instant potatoes combined with a slice of Spam. Quick, easy, and light.

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Hiker-dog enjoyed a nap early in our second evening as a soft rain began to fall. Stronger storms and a beautiful lightning show followed later during the night, although not enough to raise the level of Salt Fork or Spirits Creek by more than an inch. 

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Nick and Hiker-dog crossing Spirits Creek

As Nick crossed Spirits Creek, I thought back to my thru-hike with Bob a few years ago. A heavy rain raised the creek level enough to cause us to pay careful attention while crossing. Never the same trail twice…

Below is another example of how different the same trail can be depending on conditions. Early in our hike, the Shepherd Springs Waterfall was a trickle in bright sunshine. On a previous visit during a wet springtime day, I got one of my favorite photos of this same waterfall. Part of the pleasure of the OHT is repeated visits during varied conditions and seasons. In the Ozarks, just when you think you know a trail, you realize it has something new to reveal.

Word of thanks to Ozark Highlands Trail Association volunteers: The photo below right shows the obvious work of trail maintenance volunteers who hike in with chainsaws and cut out obstacles. The photo on the left shows a full day’s work by several volunteers although it would be easy to walk by without notice. At one time, water flowed across the trail continually washing it out and making this a difficult spot. Volunteers trenched an alternative route for the water, directing it away from the trail and toward a culvert that channels water under the adjacent road. They’d be proud of how well this erosion fix is working.

Fugit Springs Water Stop

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After hiking the section of trail between Sprits Creek and Salt Fork Creek, we drove down County Road 77 stopping at Fugit Springs to fill water bottles and have a look around.

A U-shaped rock formation on the east side of the road marks the spring’s location. Next to that is a concrete box with a pipe coming out and clear, cold water. It is camouflaged by debris and easy to miss.

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Across the road is a root cellar with concrete walls finished in stone. A walkway leads toward the concrete foundation of an old homesite. The stone walkway was clear of mud due to a well-built retaining wall on either side.

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The wall that extended from the cellar structure parallel to the road included a walkway opening to the property. Whoever built this wall went to some detail to include what I imagine is the date of construction, 1936.

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Concrete foundation with rock wall and root cellar in the background

In one corner of the foundation were two pipes that appeared to go to a septic tank. A pile of stones more centrally located in the structure looked like the remnants of a fireplace. I wish stones could whisper from time to time.

I’d like to learn more about Fugit Springs. Web searches revealed little. Maybe I need to drive the Shores Lake area and find some elders with connections or memories of the place.

Approx. GPS: 35.692824 -93.918149 on County Road 77 northeast of Shores Lake and two miles south of the Ozark Highlands Trail crossing.

Between Two Creeks in the Ozarks

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Hiker-dog’s first overnighter close to Salt Fork Creek

Hiker-dog’s first overnight backpack trip after she joined our family was Shores Lake to White Rock Mountain, then east to Salt Fork Creek. On another occasion, she joined a group of us from Fane Creek west to Spirits Creek.

That left just over four miles of the Ozark Highlands Trail between two creeks uncovered by her paws, so we drove up a small road that intersects this four-mile stretch and hiked to both creeks out-and-back for a total of just over eight miles.

I’ve rarely hiked a section of trail with the feeling of checking it off a list, but that was the task for the day. What I found was beauty, sunshine, and the chance to clarify some troubled thoughts.

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Some of the pleasure of the Ozarks comes from the simple open hardwoods and winter views of surrounding mountains. Restful sights for the eyes!

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Salt Fork Creek was flowing nicely, a little milky from recent rains.

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As we backtracked up and away from Salt Fork, we stopped to collect GPS coordinates for a couple of large trees that had fallen across the trail. The OHTA (Ozark Highlands Trail Association) has expert sawyers who clear the trail when they learn the locations of obstacles. They’re amazing!

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A downed tree isn’t a problem for Hiker-dog.

As we approached the soft roar of Sprits Creek, memories of past trips came to mind. It was comforting to see the familiar campgrounds below and the varied surrounding landscapes carved out over time.

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IMG_6230rrA White Trout Lilly greeted us as we approached the edge of Spirits Creek. We sat beside the water and enjoyed the sound.

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After a snack, we headed back up out of the Spirits Creek drainage toward the trailhead for the drive home. We drank in the sunshine and enjoyed side-streams we passed as they came down from the hills, making their way toward Spirits Creek.

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IMG_6243rrA big thank you to trail maintainers! The trail passed through a couple of devil’s walking stick forests, but they were cut back away from the trail.

I’ve always thought of these as bothersome, but evidently, these prickly plants have redeeming qualities. Seeds provide food for birds, and the leaves are browsed by deer. Nectar-insects and butterflies are attracted by the large bundles of yellow flowers put out by these prickly tree trunks. The aromatic spicy roots were used for toothaches by early settlers.

As we climbed back toward the trailhead, I felt stronger, relaxed, and thankful. Hiker-dog looked back as if wondering why I was lagging behind. I think she wishes I had four legs so she wouldn’t have to hold back so much to stay with me.

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