Quick Shakedown in the Ozarks

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Light rain with temps in the 50s… I must go now! So, Friday evening I arrived at Shores Lake as the sun went down, leaving a dim, soft light. The trailhead parking lot was empty.

I begin most walks with intense anticipation but felt a dull obligation this evening. I needed a shake-down outing in the rain in preparation for future trips, and my hiking buddy needed some time in the woods.

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Beginning the trail after sunset 

Thankfully, it only took a few steps on the trail for that sense of duty to drop away, replaced by feelings of magic while walking this familiar route in deepening darkness. The last couple of miles required a headlamp.

Seeing only the trail details right in front of me stimulated memories of previous walks on this path. Memories associated with each turn of the trail came back clearly like repeated hits of deja vu. As I walked past a couple of my favorite waterfalls in the darkness, I thought of past treks when I enjoyed these scenes in daylight.

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Little Roaring Falls on White Rock Creek

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Bedtime beverage

In the misty drizzle, it was easy to set up the tarp so that my down quilt stayed dry inside the trash compactor bag until I was ready for sleep. The small umbrella was helpful during the walk and while making the evening’s hot toddy.

The rainy night left me well rested. When I woke at 4 a.m., the sky was clear and the air was chilly. I felt great, so we packed up and started walking, thinking Salt Fork Creek would be an excellent location for breakfast. Walking the sun up was a treat! 

Shortly after passing the intersection at the short spur to White Rock Mountain, someone said “good morning” from inside his tent. I’m sure he was relieved that Hiker-dog wasn’t a bear.

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Important sign on the approach to the top of White Rock Mountain

The downhills east of White Rock Mountain were the most difficult footings I encountered in darkness. No falls, but two close calls and a little rock-skating here and there.

As we approached Salt Fork Creek, we saw headlamps from a campsite. A camper’s dog joined us and played with Hiker-dog. The two of them had a great time while I sat close to my stove to protect the boiling water from their prancing.

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Salt Fork Creek had clear water

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egg burrito

My dehydrated egg crystals turned out great, but I’ll pack some bacon bits next time. I dipped out some clear Salt Fork Creek water for coffee and treated another pouch full for the day. A couple of breakfast bars completed my meal as we backtracked a short distance to the East Loop Trail and continued south.

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The woods and rocks surrounding the trail were a welcome sight after so much night walking. We saw evidence of trail maintenance by the OHTA all along the trail. I think Hiker-dog appreciated this cut!

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Before arriving back at Shores Lake, the trail crossed this stream that flows down to Salt Fork Creek. This water level is pretty typical of fall in the Ozarks. You can usually find water pockets, but sometimes, creeks are bone-dry this time of year. I still had water from Salt Fork Creek, so we continued and arrived at the trailhead relaxed and ready for lunch (and an afternoon nap).

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Shakedown thoughts: The following are my thoughts about a few recent pieces of equipment or practices. I’m not that gear conscious so you won’t get technical info here. Often, I can’t remember the brand names of items while on the trail.

Headlamp – The little Nitecore NU25 headlamp worked well. It’s rechargeable so only repeated uses will tell how long the charge will last, but with the low setting I used most on this outing, it should last several hours. The higher settings were great for scanning the campsite before departing. I carried a Petzl with the retractable strap for backup. I’ve used the Petzl for several years with good results.

Coffee recipe: Details of my trail brew are available on another post, My Morning Brew: Great Coffee on the Trail. I’ve used Mount Hagen instant with good results, but my current coffee brewing method doesn’t leave any trash to carry out.

Hoosier Hill Farm Premium Whole Egg Crystals: Practice making these at home and you’ll have a protein-rich breakfast on the trail. I’m not finding this product now, but hopefully, it’s available or will be soon. I measure the crystals into a small ziplock, then add salt and pepper. When the water boils, I add a few drops of olive oil and then the egg mix. If it’s too thick, I add a few drops of my coffee since I’m mixing in the cook pot. If it’s too watery, I pour off the excess after the eggs scramble.

Shelter: I’ve used the Zpacks tarp in light rain, so this outing gave me a slightly stronger test though I’m looking forward to getting it out in a heavy rain for a final test before using it on the Ozark Trail this winter. My Big Agnes tent is a good option if I lack confidence with the tarp, but I like the lightness of the tarp. The Big Agnes was my John Muir Trail shelter and it worked well. If I hike the High Sierras again in summer, I’ll take my tarp.

Hot Toddy recipe (for medicinal purposes): Put a little bourbon in a cup (depending on taste). Boil a cup of water and add 4-6 whole cloves toward the end of the boil. Pour into cup and stir in a pinch of True Lemon crystals. Enjoy!

A packed pack and John Muir Trail gear talk

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Granite Gear Crown 60 backpack and Keen hiking shoes

There is something beautiful about a fully loaded backpack. I can almost hear it whisper, “Where are we going and what shall we see?”

This pack will soon travel the John Muir Trail (JMT) and may have some stories and photos to share when it returns. I’ve purposely avoided posting anything about our John Muir Trail plans. Maybe it’s my fear of failure, but successful or not, there will be new learning to share.

Many variables work for or against a successful trip. Present physical condition, preparation, weather, and elevation changes are the most significant variables to me. Here in the Ozarks we hike at anywhere from 600 to 2,700 feet. On the JMT we’ll be between 4,000 and 14,000 feet in elevation. Preparation can impact our conditioning but not those areas involving Mother Nature. I hope she’s kind to us.

As often happens, the beginning of our JMT planning can be traced to a book. Elizabeth Wenk’s John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail gave me the confidence to say “Yes!” when asked if I wanted to join some friends on this trip.

A significant task (and possible deal-breaker) is getting a JMT permit. Nick, Bob, and I faxed a different application itinerary each day for five days, receiving courteous “Thanks for trying” emails the next day. I remember where I was when I received an email forwarded from Nick that was different. I stared at the text for several seconds before realizing this message was granting us a permit! We’d “won” the lottery! Our planning was no longer theoretical but for real!

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One day’s applications received at the JMT permit office. Notice the two stacks on the right contrasting JMT confirmations and rejections. Thanks to Justin Gordon (actor/backpacker) for the photo.

For this post, I’ll share some of the equipment changes made in preparation for this trip. I hope to share some food preparation ideas and recipes in a later post.

The John Muir Trail (JMT) came along at a good time because some of my equipment was due for an update. I’ll mention brand names and sources, but have no financial arrangements with these businesses. Some links are to online sources, but when possible, I purchase from area outfitters because they invest in local trails and stand behind their products. They’re also good people to know when you need advice. I’ll list links at the end of this post.

Backpack: Replaced my Equinox Katahdin pack (that I loved) with the Granite Gear Crown 60 pictured at the beginning of this post. It is light, strong, and large enough to accommodate a bear canister. It was on sale, too! When you say 40% off, you have my attention (a good reason to frequent local vendors).

My Equinox ultralight pack was old, and I feared it might fail on a long trip. It will still make overnighter trips in the Ozarks with me. I can’t imagine throwing it away. We have traveled many miles together. I don’t usually form emotional bonds with things, but some items become icons that hold special memories.

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Equinox backpack loaded for OHT thru-hike.

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Enigma down quilt

Sleeping System: I replaced my down sleeping bag with an Enigma 20-degree down quilt by Enlightened Equipment. The workmanship is excellent, but allow 8-12 weeks for delivery because they produce the quilt after you place your order. I’ve been using sleeping bags like quilts for several years. Now I’m not sleeping on top of a zipper, and the quilt is much lighter.

I updated to the Sea to Summit Comfort Light sleeping pad and silk bag liner to use on top of the air pad. I’d just about destroyed my old silk liner with all my squirming around over the last ten years or so.

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Sea to Summit air mattress

Tent: I studied this purchase for several months and considered some very technical (and expensive) ultralight tents. I decided to go with something familiar (and freestanding) in the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2. I’ve enjoyed my earlier Big Agnes 2-person for several years and will still use it for overnighters. Using a 2-person tent is my nod to backpacking extravagance. I like the extra space for my pack, well worth the 9-ounce difference in weight.

Water bottles: Added a couple of Vapur 1-liter water bladders instead of bottles. They fold up when not in use and are light at 1.5 ounce compared to 6.3 oz. for a Nalgene bottle.

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Vapur water bottle full and folded

Shoes: Loved my Oboz, but was ready for a larger toe box and went with the Keen waterproof Koven (pictured at the beginning of this post). I’m not brand and model conscious because I had to look up these shoes to remember the name. I will not purchase shoes online or by brand. The shoes’ fit is the most important factor. I’d prefer trail running shoes, but for extended backpacking, I need something a little beefier without being a heavy boot. For camp shoes, I’m using Crocks. They’re good for creek crossings and comfortable camp shoes.

Electronics…. I have a love/hate relationship with electronics on the trail. My preference is to leave the stuff at home (or in the car). Since we’ll be out of cell range most of the trip, I’ll carry my inReach and a cell phone that allows me to text using satellite. The downside of electronics is weight! I have a solar panel for backpacking but opted to leave it at home due to weight. I’ll carry a small battery pack and a dual USB wall charger to speed things along with the limited outlets at JMT resupply points. Everything stays turned off until needed.

My camera must always travel with me. I don’t think of it as part of “electronics.” since it’s for capturing memories, not communicating with civilization. I’m not very brand-conscious, as long as the camera has manual settings if needed and is small and light. Right now I use a Canon G7x. It is fragile so I try to handle with care. The lens cover malfunctioned in my first one, but the fine folks at Bedford Camera exceeded expectations and replaced the camera. I carry three fully charged camera batteries in hopes they’ll last between resupply stops. A small flex tripod is a light-weight addition but more often a tree or rock serve the role of a tripod.

Maybe/maybe not items… 

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Yaktrax ICEtrekkers and gators on a snowy Lake Alma Trail

Yaktrax ICEtrekkers: These are great because they grip in snow and ice, but allow you to walk easily over patches of bare ground or rock. I’m taking them so I can decide whether to carry them or not once I’m on location.

Gators: I don’t like my gators, but they are nice to have when snow gets deeper than three inches. They’re heavy if not used, so I’m taking them and deciding once on location.

2015 John Muir Trail Survey Take/Leave Report:  A resource for gear decisions unique to the JMT. It can also inform decisions about backpacking in general. John Ladd and George Greely collect and compile this annual survey of JMT hikers asking two questions. “What type of item did you leave at home, that you would bring on the next similar trip? And why?” and “What type of item did you bring but would leave at home on the next similar trip? And why?” John Ladd provides a nice narrative at the beginning sharing general impressions from the survey results. The John Muir Trail Hiker Survey Facebook page provides updates on snow levels, etc. Good reading!

Outdoor outfitters that I frequent on a regular basis: All good people here!

Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas: This business began in a garage in the 1970s. They have a strong history of supporting trails of Arkansas! Owners Carolyn and Scott are charter members of the Ozark Highlands Trail Association and long-time trail volunteers. Employee owner and store manager, Rick Spicer, is a hardcore outdoorsman with great experience and knowledge.

Lewis and Clark Outfitters in Springdale, Arkansas

The Woodsman in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Ozark Outdoor in Little Rock

Bedford Camera and Video in Fort Smith and other towns in Arkansas: They’re not outfitters, but Bedford’s is my camera store due to the way they’ve stood behind their products.